Monthly Archives: October 2011
One of the most popular posts on this blog over the last year was A Brief Sermon For A Memorial Service. I preached it at our annual All Souls service at the end of October last year, and it has regularly been one of the posts found on Google searches. It seems to be something people need.
This weekend is the All Souls service for this year, and here I am posting tonight’s sermon. I hope people find this helpful, too.
‘Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.’ (Verse 4)
Tonight, we gather as people who have walked through the valley of the shadow of death. Indeed, we are still walking through the valley of the shadow of death. We have lost loved ones dear to us – some after a good, long life, some to cruel diseases and some far too young.
In walking through this darkest of valleys, we sometimes expect that at the time of bereavement we shall plunge into the darkness, but then we shall slowly climb out, bit by bit. The remarks of friends and acquaintances who naïvely expect us to have recovered after a length of time betray this unrealistic idea. I often remark that the experience of grief and bereavement is more like ‘three steps forward, two steps back’.
And it often starts before the death. Those of you who have been alongside a family member or a dear friend who received the news that the doctors could do no more know that your grief started early. Something similar is true for those of you who witnessed someone descend into Alzheimer’s Disease or other forms of dementia. You have a double bereavement: first, you lose the person, and later, you lose the body.
There is a number of emotions that we can go through in these seasons of our lives. One is denial. It can’t really be happening. I don’t want to believe this is happening. Or, it doesn’t feel real. Wake me up from this nightmare. This is just a TV show, right?
Or when we realise it is real, we turn to bargaining. Maybe we can strike a bargain with God. ‘Lord, if you’ll heal my loved one, then I’ll do things for you.’ It makes me remember the old Kate Bush song ‘Running Up That Hill’
in which she sings,
‘And if only I could
I’d make a deal with God
And I’d get him to swap our places’
And maybe when God doesn’t sign up to the bargain we offer him, we move into anger. Anger with God. Anger with doctors. Anger with our loved one, if they did something foolish. Reading recently how Steve Jobs refused potentially life-saving surgery for his pancreatic cancer at an early stage, I wonder how his wife and children have felt.
Finally, we get through to some form of acceptance. We know our loved one is going to die, or we accept that yes, they have died. We start to rebuild our lives, knowing they will never take the same shape again, because the one who has gone has left a hole no-one else can fill. It was uniquely their shape.
Given that these are typically the kinds of experiences we are having, how can I recognise Psalm 23’s affirmation that ‘Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me’?
I mean, how is God with us? We tend to assume he is remote, in heaven and far away from us. That leads us to think he doesn’t care. However, if he were with us, wouldn’t things be a bit different? The Psalmist didn’t know God physically with him, but he did have a sense of God’s presence in life, that he described as being like a Palestinian shepherd, with his rod and staff. The rod was a club that was used to fend off wild beasts and the staff was the shepherd’s crook, used to guide and control the sheep.
For Christians, admittedly centuries after the Psalmist wrote, the answers to these questions come into sharp focus in Jesus. In Jesus, God did not stay remote from us. It is not simply true, as the song says, that ‘God is watching us from a distance.’ In Jesus, he came up close. He lived in poverty and powerlessness. He died young. And it was an unjust death.
And Jesus, the ‘Good Shepherd’, as he called himself, has a rod and a staff. A rod to beat away our enemies, and a staff to guide us.
It may seem absurd to claim that Jesus beats away our enemies when we are in the presence of what the Bible calls ‘the last enemy’, that is, death itself. The Christian hope is in Jesus not only having swallowed the bitter pill of death as we do and on our behalf, it is also that he was raised from the dead. And while that seems an absurd claim to many today, it is one we back up with strong historical evidence. From it, we hold the hope that Jesus’ resurrection is the sign that we shall all be raised from the dead one day, at the end of history as we know it. Because of that hope, even this worst of all enemies cannot have the final word. Death may win a battle and cause us immense suffering and pain, but it cannot in the end win the war. Through our tears, we have this hope, and in that sense the rod of Jesus beats away the enemy of death in the final analysis.
We also get to experience his staff, his shepherd’s crook, guiding us. Jesus, from his involvement in creation to his bringing in of a new creation in his resurrection, is the one who guides us in hope through the tragedies of death and suffering. He becomes our example of how to live in the face of the certainty of death and the hope of resurrection. How? Let me go back to that Kate Bush lyric:
‘And if only I could
I’d make a deal with God
And I’d get him to swap our places’
We may not be able to make a deal with God, but ‘to swap our places’ – that actually is more realistic, strange as it may seem. The Christian hope is about the Son of God who chose not to stay in the glory of heaven but take on human flesh in poverty and suffering. It is about the One who on the Cross ‘swapped places’ with us so that death might be defeated and we might be forgiven our sins. Handing our lives over to the One who brings us forgiveness, defeats death and shows us how truly to live is to find him whose staff guides and comforts us throughout life.
So wherever we are in our grieving, I commend a life of trusting Jesus to you. Trusting him doesn’t exempt us from the trials of life and death, but in his birth he is with us, in his death and resurrection he beats away our enemies and his life, death and resurrection we find his pattern and guide for living.
I’m back tomorrow from a week off, and return with another sermon in our series on 1 John, which follows below. Then in the evening we have our annual All Souls service for bereaved people, and I’ll be posting my brief sermon for that service here on the blog tomorrow.
1 John 4:1-6
During the 1960s and 1970s, denominations such as the Methodist Church and the Church of England tried various experimental forms of worship. From that period comes the story of an Anglican bishop who visited a parish. He went to begin the service with the new form of words he had become used to. He said: “The Lord is here,” expecting the response, “His Spirit is with us.” But when he cried out, “The Lord is here,” nobody responded.
He said it a second time, slightly louder, in case people hadn’t quite heard him properly. “The Lord is here!” But again, there was no response.
A third time he said, “The Lord is here,” but again no-one said anything in reply. Finally, in desperation, he found himself saying, “The Lord is here, isn’t he?” To which the vicar replied, “Not in our service, he isn’t.”
How do we tell when the Holy Spirit is present? It’s an issue we have to deal with in the church. How do we assess people’s claims when they say that the Holy Spirit led them to say or do certain things?
Here is one occasion when perhaps I should have thought a little more discerningly about that question. We were sitting in the living room of an Anglican rector friend’s rectory. Several of us from an ecumenical group in our area were present, along with two other pastors from elsewhere in the county. One was a prominent vicar of a huge church ten miles away that attracted a huge congregation from all over London and the South East. The other was the pastor of a large independent church from down on the coast.
We were gathered along with the representative of an Argentinean evangelist to consider inviting him to lead a conference for the whole county. In the middle of the prayer time, the independent pastor started making huge claims about how he could feel the Holy Spirit very close to him, telling him what we should call the conference.
As it happens, the conference wasn’t bad – a few exaggerated spiritual claims from one or two people, but nothing sinister. Except the time when the aforesaid independent pastor made the appeal for the offering. He dished out twenty minutes of emotional manipulation about giving, some of it connected to the idea that the more you gave, the more likely it was that God would make you rich, and all to a background of stirring music. If I hadn’t been on the team organising the conference and if I hadn’t had a rôle to play that night organising the team that prayed with and counselled people afterwards, I would have walked out. In retrospect, I think I should have seen the warning signs when he started making his grand claims a few months earlier about how close he claimed the Holy Spirit was to him.
You may not find yourself in that situation, but we all hear claims from time to time that the Holy Spirit has led someone to say something contentious or do something controversial. We have to weigh these claims carefully. Just because something is out of the ordinary doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong – but nor does it automatically mean it’s right.
John faced a similar situation in the community to which he was writing. People were making bids for leadership in the community, and claimed the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, but clearly John himself was dubious about some of these people. He had to give counsel to the church about how to discern the godly from the fake. There are two tests he offers in this passage, and we’ll explore them for how they help us to separate the work of the Holy Spirit from that which is merely of the human spirit, or even of another kind of spirit.
The two tests are a test of belief and a test of behaviour. Let us consider, firstly, John’s test of belief.
This is how you can recognise the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world. (Verses 1-2)
John’s opponents are teaching that Jesus only appeared to be human – a denial of the doctrine of the Incarnation. A word from the Holy Spirit will glorify Jesus, the true Jesus. It will not undermine Jesus as fully divine and fully human. It will not deny the Cross and the Resurrection, the Ascension and his Return. In fact, a word from the Holy Spirit will bring praise to the name of Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord.
So take, for example, the question of how you might respond to someone who tells you they have had a particular spiritual experience that seems strange or unsettling to you. Depending on your own Christian life and what you have become used to, that could be any one of a number of things. If, for example, you’re not used to the idea of people speaking in tongues and someone says to you they have received the gift of tongues, the question to ask is not, do I find this spooky and unsettling? Instead, the question to ask is, does this person praise Jesus more as a result of their experience?
Similarly, suppose someone tells you that they received prayer at a meeting and they claim that the Holy Spirit came powerfully upon them – so powerfully, indeed, that they couldn’t remain on their feet and they fell to the floor. The question to ask is not so much about the falling down as about the standing up afterwards. Did they acknowledge Jesus, the Jesus of the New Testament, as a result of their dramatic experience?
If the answer is yes, then you have a decent sign that the Holy Spirit was at work, because Jesus told his disciples (as recorded in John’s Gospel) that the work of the Spirit was to point to him. On the other hand, if someone’s conversation afterwards is all ‘me, me, me’ then you have reasonable grounds to doubt whether they had an authentic experience of the Holy Spirit.
Equally, if the spiritual experience is allied to a viewpoint that denies essential truths about Jesus, you can also be properly sceptical about its authenticity. So if someone claims something remarkable but it is in the name of, say, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, then you have every right to doubt not the reality but the validity of that experience. After all, Jehovah’s Witnesses dilute the full biblical revelation about Jesus into making him just a demi-god, rather than fully divine. The Holy Spirit bears no witness to claims like that.
It’s with things like that in mind that John talks about ‘the spirit of the antichrist’ – you have to delete from your memories the ideas you have had about some end times spiritual terrorist that you might have gained from horror films or tawdry Christian paperbacks. Instead, you have to see ‘the antichrist’ as all that opposes Jesus Christ in all his truth and majesty. Such opponents will not be drawing you into a legitimate experience of the Holy Spirit.
Secondly, let us consider John’s other test, the test of behaviour. Listen again to how this section ends:
We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognise the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood. (Verse 6)
The point John is making as a founding apostle of the Church is this: look for how people react to the teaching of the Church. John and his fellow apostles were witnesses to the Resurrection and many had spent time directly with Jesus, as John himself had. They were best qualified, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to say what was authentic faith in Jesus. Therefore it was reasonable to expect that anyone claiming true spiritual experience would listen to them and respond positively to their teaching. (It still is.)
If we want to know whether someone is being led by the Holy Spirit, we have a right to ask whether they are walking in ‘the faith once delivered to the saints’, as received, interpreted and transmitted by the Church over the centuries. We shall always be open to new insights into the Scriptures, and it is also true that following ‘what the Bible says’ is by no means always a simple and clear matter. However, we can still discern whether there is a desire to be faithful to the apostolic testimony.
It is therefore often a sign of someone living under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that she or he finds the Scriptures coming alive, and that this experience is accompanied by a desire to live out the teaching found there. If a person who is living like that speaks about experiences of the Holy Spirit, it is worth taking them seriously. That doesn’t mean being uncritical, but it does mean being warmly disposed towards them.
I can look back on the experience I had in my first circuit when we had an ecumenical project that put youth worship in the local night club. Some people thought that the loud and exuberant worship of the teenagers was spiritual froth. But I recall how some of those youngsters took part-time jobs in local care homes, where they washed and cleaned incontinent elderly people out of their love for Christ, and I say they passed John’s test of behaviour.
I look back too at what has happened to several of those teenagers and young adults in the intervening years. I see some who entered church leadership. I see a scientist who works on pioneer treatments for people with HIV/AIDS. And so I say yes, the test of behaviour was met by many of them.
On the other hand, we should seriously question those who make great claims to spiritual experience but who are not prepared to match it with a desire for holy living. The person who claims remarkable insights into the ways of God yet is also rather too acquainted with the emptying of alcohol bottles is not to be trusted, as is the person who shows dangerous signs of greed and acquisitiveness, or the Christian who treats the opposite sex with less than complete respect.
Likewise, too, we should be suspicious of those who take the apostles’ teaching and twist it to their own ends, in order to justify their own behaviour. Be wary, for example, of the Mormons, who claim all sorts of spiritual experiences, but who also teach the highly dubious notion of ‘celestial marriage’, despite Jesus’ clear teaching that ‘there will be neither marrying nor giving in marriage in heaven’. And in promoting ‘celestial marriage’ they end up privileging married people and demeaning the single, the divorced and the widowed. They don’t seem to notice Jesus’ own marital status. In fact, they fail both the behaviour and the belief tests.
But although I’ve used examples of sub-Christian groups such as the Mormons and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, let’s remember that John was specifically addressing a problem of people who infiltrated the church herself with their dilution of who Jesus was and is, and their rejection of apostolic teaching. They tried to claim a following, but the whole problem with them was that their whole approach to life and faith was captive to the world’s way of thinking and living, not Christ’s:
They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. (Verse 5)
Being sucked into the vain values of a world opposed to Christ is a danger we all live with. It is something each of us needs to guard against. To give into the world’s ways and seek approval there is one of the surest recipes for cutting ourselves off from true, Christlike spirituality. So as well as exercising discernment over the claims of others by examining their belief in Christ and their behaviour in response to apostolic teaching, we do just as well to guard our own hearts and minds. Let us devote ourselves to the full, biblical Jesus and to the teaching of the apostles, that in doing so we may be more open to the work of the Holy Spirit.
A major controversy in recent weeks in British Methodism has involved the case of the Revd Dr Stephen Plant, who was appointed Dean of Chapel at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. Unfortunately, ancient rules mean that appointment is only open to ordained Anglicans, therefore Dr Plant was ordained into the Church of England. Subsequently and inevitably, he had to resign from the Methodist ministry.
This has produced a lot of agony in Methodist circles, with criticisms of both the Anglican and Methodist establishments. I have followed it on the UK Methodists page of Facebook. What, not the Methodist Recorder? Funny you should mention that, because in today’s Recorder, Dr Plant’s friend, the Revd the Lord Griffiths, Superintendent Minister of Wesley’s Chapel in London, has had a potentially explosive letter published in the Recorder, in which he says he is so fed up with much of Methodism that he will effectively resign from it when he retires.
Now, how do you debate that? Look at the Recorder’s own website, to which I linked above. It is primitive. It has been the same for years. It might just have been acceptable in the 1990s, but that website is now an embarrassment. It gives you little more than an outline of this week’s headlines. It is stuck in an age before broadband, where debates would happen on the letters page. And I can tell you from personal experience, even that was slow. The gap between writing a letter and having it published could be four weeks. Press releases suffered a similar time lag. (And the one where I noticed that? It was about a New Media conference!) Four or five years ago, in frustration at this, I gave up subscribing. It coincided with a time when our household finances were tight, and so when they phoned me to ask why I wasn’t renewing my sub, I’m afraid I chickened out of giving them the kind of customer feedback I should have done.
Of course the Recorder is entitled to limit what it publishes online. It seems in this to be allied to Rupert Murdoch’s way of thinking, that if you publish content online you will lose the customer sales on which you depend. However, rather than either setting up online subscriptions as News Corporation have, or publishing interesting material when the print edition had expired a week earlier, it does nothing. Either you shell out for a weekly paper that hasn’t had a significant redesign or even change of font in thirty or forty years, or – well, nothing. It isn’t realistic in an always-on, Internet-everywhere age. You have to offer something.
Take a computing magazine like PC Pro. It reports news items on its website in a timely manner – after all, they will be discussed all over the Internet. However, it only publishes major articles online after the monthly magazine has gone out of date. That seems to be a sensible balance to me. And if using a tech mag as an example seems unrealistic for this debate, just look at how the premier Anglican publication, the Church Times, combines the PC Pro and News Corporation approaches, with some articles available to all surfers and others limited to subscribers.
So I can understand the frustration that controversial Methodist blogger David Hallam must have felt today, knowing this debate was going on, leading to his decision this evening to publish Leslie Griffiths’ letter on his blog. David has been taken to task on Facebook for breaching copyright, and the breach has been reported to the Recorder. Legally, I’m sure that’s quite correct. But it still begs the question about how people expect controversies will be debated today. We have people on Methodism’s Connexional Team who are well versed in contemporary communications methods. But our one and only newspaper is doing a fine impression of the music industry around the time downloading and file sharing became widespread. It’s hoping all this new-fangled stuff will go away. But that isn’t what will disappear. Luddite approaches to technology are what will die.
One thing is for sure in my mind. I’m not about to resubscribe to the Recorder in the foreseeable future. As things stand, the paper is part of Methodism’s past, not her future, and I’ll stick with Facebook, blogs and official emails to get my Methodist news.
Unless, of course, it can change …
In between accepting the invitation to serve in this appointment and actually moving here, we made a few preliminary visits to the area. One of those occasions was an opportunity to have another tour of the school that our children were going to attend.
On the day, we arrived in good time and waited near the school office for the Deputy Head to meet us and conduct us around the premises. While we were waiting for her, we looked at a display on one of the walls. The school supports a charity that enables people in a Ugandan village to support themselves by growing and selling chillis. They also have a connection with the nearest school, in order to understand how different life is for rural Ugandan children, in comparison to Surrey children.
This fascinated our two, and provoked some questions. We explained to them that in other parts of the world, people don’t have anything like as much money as us, and that also they often don’t have much to eat.
We had our tour of the school and drove home, as it was then, to Chelmsford. That evening, at the meal table, Mark said he had something to share.
“I’ve changed my mind about what I’m going to be when I grow up,” he announced. “I’m not going to be an author after all. I’m going to save Africa.”
He wasn’t even six at the time.
We quizzed him about how he was going to save Africa. “I’m going to build supermarkets everywhere so that everyone can get the food they need,” he explained.
“But,” I said, “many of these people won’t have the money they need to be able to afford the food in your supermarkets.”
“That’s OK,” he replied, “I’m going to build money shops as well.”
It’s all so easy when you’re five years old, isn’t it? But eighteen months later, he still talks about this. He is still going to save Africa. Will it last? Time will tell.
However, what I do know is that from his tender age, Mark has this clear dream for his life. It’s not something I ever had. When people asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up, I never knew. I thought it would be to do with Maths, since that was my best subject at school, but exactly how I would use that I never knew. Apart from the fact that I definitely didn’t want to be an accountant.
Today we have two infants who have been welcomed into the family of the church, and it’s natural to wonder what they will want to do with their lives.
And our theme today is not simply ‘children’, it’s ‘children of God’. John doesn’t call every human being a child of God, he reserves that description for those who have committed their lives to Jesus Christ, and who have, in Paul’s language, been adopted into the family of God.
So when we talk about children of God, we mean the family of God. I want to share two things from this passage about what it means to be a child of God. And the first is what I have hinted at with my story of Mark wanting to save Africa: children of God have a dream for their lives. Hear again chapter 3 verse 2:
Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.
We don’t know what we will be like one day, but we shall end up being like Jesus. What better dream for our lives than being like Jesus, and doing Jesus-like things?
Let us dream with God about what we might do with our lives! We do not know what we might do, but the controlling factor for our dreams is ‘that when he appears, we shall be like him’. The goal of our dream is Christlikeness in character and behaviour.
So that means one thing, which the secular management book ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ by Stephen Covey puts well: begin with the end in mind. The end for us as Christians is seeing Jesus and being like him in the kingdom of God when he appears. That is where we are heading. Let’s take that end and then imagine what we can do with our gifts, our talents, the things we feel passionately about, and all combined with the power of the Holy Spirit.
Can you imagine what the kingdom of God will feel like, full of peace, justice, love and healing, inhabited by unselfish, gracious people who use their every ability to bring praise to God and love to one another? Can you imagine your existing skills perfected and used in the service of Christ?
Why, then, do we settle for the mundane? Why do we just plod along? Why do we merely react to life, rather than taking life by the horns and saying, “I am a child of God. I have a destiny in the kingdom of God where everything will be Christlike, and I intend to start making more of life like that right now”?
This isn’t some plea for us to indulge our gifts and our interests. Because this is about working for the kingdom of God, this is about putting those talents and passions to work with a particular attitude, the heart of a servant.
Contrast, if you will, the child with the ambition to be a firefighter, a policeman or some similar profession with the disturbing modern trend, where children are asked what they want to be and they simply say, “I want to be famous”, or “I want to be rich.” That latter attitude, with its empty, self-centred approach, is the very opposite of what I am advocating. I am saying, let us be people who deploy all that we have and are in the power of the Spirit, not to make ourselves famous but to spread the fame of Jesus Christ. That’s the kind of ambition worthy of God’s children.
The second sign of being a child of God in this passage is that of developing the family likeness.
The headline statement is chapter 3 verse 3,
Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure
and is followed by all the comments regarding not sinning. This leads to verses 9 and 10 at the end, which link this life of doing right and not sinning specifically with our status as children of God:
No-one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God. This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother.
I expect that when Max and Ben were born, your families and friends started to offer observations about who they looked like. “He’s got his father’s nose.” “He’s got his mother’s eyes.” You know the drill. I shall never forget when our Mark was born, a man in our church at the time said to me, “Never take a paternity case to court, because the judge will take one look at Mark, one look at you and laugh you out of court.” There is no mistaking that he is my son, just as Rebekah is clearly Debbie’s daughter – beautiful, blonde … and feisty.
It is similar with children of God. We show the family likeness, and as we grow, while we shall clearly be individuals and not clones, we also increasingly display a family likeness. In this case, it’s not physical appearance, it’s characteristics.
We get this in John’s expectation that those filled with the hope of God will purify themselves, ‘just as he is pure’ (3:3), and that ‘No-one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him’ (3:9). The language is very black and white, but John cannot mean that the only true children of God are instantly perfect, because he has made provision earlier in the letter for confession and forgiveness. It may be that the changes take place over a period of time. I think that’s what Paul envisages when he talks about ‘the fruit of the Spirit’: no gardener plants a seed and expects the fruit to sprout up the next day. Similarly, the Holy Spirit’s transforming work in us is a matter of time and growth.
Nevertheless, John clearly expects a fundamental change in those who become children of God. The family likeness should be visible. The church should be different, and we should make no excuses when we are not.
In particular, John gives one specific example of how the family likeness should be seen: he says a difference should be seen within the family of God. ‘Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother’ (3:10). In other words, within God’s family we are to love our brothers and sisters.
So what we can specifically do without in the Christian church is bitching, gossiping, a critical spirit and similar attitudes. When these go on in a church, the blessing of God lifts and goes away.
We might say, “But I wish I could choose the members of my church family, because the other members of the family here are not the kind of people I naturally like.” Yet that is no excuse. We don’t get to choose the members of our physical families, either, with the exception of the person we choose to marry.
Some of you have heard how in my first appointment I was involved in a youth worship event that took place in the local night club. Our band of young adults and teenagers became quite proficient and were asked to offer their experience to some other churches. When I moved on from there, I invited them down to run a day conference on worship. I hoped that the seminars they led would help other singers and musicians involved in leading worship to become more proficient.
But the main outcome of the day wasn’t increased proficiency. It came during the evening celebration service, and wasn’t demonstrated by people who had learned new chords or new harmonies. It was a different kind of harmony. Many people sought out others in order to find reconciliation. The dominant tone that night was not of singing, but of speaking. People were saying to one another, “I’m so sorry for the way I’ve treated you. Will you forgive me?” We heard not guitars, keyboards and drums, but weeping and sobbing.
Actually, we did hear some music that night. I swear it was the angels singing in heaven.
‘See how these Christians love one another,’ said critics of the early church. It made sense. That’s what children of God look like. Little colonies of the kingdom where love reigns, because God is love and we are his family. Children who have a dream of that kingdom, too, and put all their energies and abilities at the disposal of the Holy Spirit to see that kingdom come in greater fullness.
Knaphill Methodist Church – do we look like children of God?
“We talk in our day about ‘mission-shaped Church’. But mission has to be shaped by what in the trade we call eschatology. In other words, what you believe about what God has promised to do eventually, must shape the way you do mission.”
Similar thoughts to follow in this weekend’s sermon.
Here is my text, and it is taken from a friend’s Facebook profile. She said she
does not feel the need to either beatify or demonize Steve Jobs. I acknowledge that his presence on earth had a significant effect on human history.
I only own one Apple product: an iPod. Why don’t I own an iMac, a MacBook, an iPhone or an iPad? Firstly, because I can’t afford them. Secondly, because there are certain diplomacies in our family, when a close relative works for Microsoft. Yes, Windows frustrates me at times, and perhaps it would be nice to have a product that allegedly ‘just works’, but that also means re-educating the entire family to a new operating system. Besides, like a car mechanic who doesn’t mind owning a lesser car because he can fix the problems, I can often work out (at least with the help of Google) what to do when we have a problem, and I learn as a result.
Ultimately, finance and functionality are the reasons I don’t buy Apple. It would be nice to have the aesthetically pleasing designs, but on a limited budget the bang to buck equation is about getting the specifications I need. Apple aesthetics are a luxury I can’t afford. But certainly I have to acknowledge that was one innovation Steve Jobs brought into computing. Not for him the world of beige boxes, the man who studied calligraphy wanted products to beautiful as well as simple and workable. Might it be that especially in the free churches, we so concentrate on function at the expense of beauty that we are utilitarian Christians?
I bear Steve Jobs’ family and friends no ill. But in the days since his death, a lot of twaddle has been written, and a lot of Diana-style hysteria has been expressed. Cult Of Mac seems exactly the right title. The secular website Gawker got it right, I think: Steve Jobs was not God. We have heard that Jobs ‘gave’ us various things. No, he didn’t: he sold us things. (And dreams, too.) Or that he ‘invented’ things. No, the inventors were Steve Wozniak and his successors. Jobs was a salesman and a showman. That isn’t necessarily wrong, either: it just depends how you exercise it.
The genius of Jobs (if genius is not an overused word) was not as an originator, but as one who took products that were failing to reach the mass market and transforming them into propositions that did. The Apple II was not the first personal computer, the Altair 8800 had beaten it, but arguably the Apple created the market. There were MP3 players before the iPod, but he popularised it. Likewise, there were tablet computers before the iPad, but he bossed the market and made it attractive. Would it be unreasonable to suggest that Jobs was the technological John Wesley? Wesley mostly took existing theological ideas and made them explode with power (the one exception, perhaps being his doctrine of Christian perfection).
If Jobs had an area of originality, I would suggest it was iTunes: he took all the sanctimonious moaning of the recording industry about pirating, and forced them into a fairly reasonable pricing model. Other download sites have since, in my opinion, rushed through the open gate created to provide a better and often cheaper service.
Then, although selling is a dirty concept in Christianity, I have to admire the man’s enthusiasm in his product unveilings. Having famously taken such detailed interest in the precise design of products, I take the excitement he projected when unveiling a new toy as utterly genuine. For those of us in the church who have got tired, jaded and cynical, a dose of Jobs’ passion for what he introduced – even though we do not sell the Gospel – could be good for us.
Jobs has been compared to various people in the last few days, from Thomas Edison to Walt Disney. Whatever the merits, I suggest two British comparisons: Richard Branson and Felix Dennis. Like Jobs, they were ex-hippies who made vast fortunes in business. Dennis, perhaps, is the most striking, as the editor of Oz magazine who was imprisoned, but who now heads up the Dennis Publishing empire. Compare that to Jobs, who dropped out, travelled to India, took LSD and took up Buddhism – although where his Buddhism influenced his business is far from certain. At least his arch-rival Bill Gates set up the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Perhaps nowhere is Jobs’ post-hippie business philosophy better seen than in his famous Stanford University Commencement Address of 2005. While it also contains powerful statements such as those on how the certainty of death should focus everyone’s life (he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer the year before), some of it is a shallow, individualist, follow your own road creed. If you don’t have time to watch the entire fifteen minutes below, the text with annotated commentary can be found here.
And he finesses the story in places. Is it true that ‘Windows just copied the Mac’? More likely it’s true that both copied the GUI (Graphical User Interface) they saw at the Xerox PARC Research Center.
I have no desire to be cruel about Jobs. I leave that to the nasty words of people like Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation, whose comments at the time of Jobs’ death were so foul I shall not even link to them here. But I do wish there was a sense of realism. Jobs was the visionary and extremely clever CEO of a consumer products company. Yes, a massively influential one. But just as Princess Diana’s funeral overshadowed the death of Mother Teresa the day before, so on the same day as Steve Jobs died, a hero of the American Civil Rights Movement also passed away, the Revd Fred Shuttlesworth (as the Gawker article I linked to above notes). Which one contributed more to the kingdom of God? That has to be a Christian question. Because for God, it is less about the feted celebrities and more about those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
Rest in peace, Mr Jobs. May your loved ones find comfort in your passing. But may the rest of us stop getting carried away.
I’m not preaching in my own churches or even circuit tomorrow. We have a visiting minister at Knaphill, taking a missions Sunday, and I am filling one of his pulpits. Hence you may recognise the odd little bit of content here that you’ve seen previously from me.
Legend tells of Ian Paisley preaching ferociously about the ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’ that we hear about in this and a couple of other parables in Matthew’s Gospel. As he described the torments awaiting the ungodly in Hell, one elderly woman spoke up:
“What about me? I’ve only got dentures!”
“Teeth,” replied Dr Paisley, “will be provided!”
For those of us who have a cosy image of Jesus and his parables, the ending to this one is a shock. We shall come to think about that shock in the final part of the sermon, but for now let me just say that we have become so used to the parables that we miss their shocking nature. The Good Samaritan is a shocking story. A Samaritan helps a Jew? Whatever next? A terrorist helping a wounded person in New York?
And the Prodigal Son? There’s nothing fluffy in that story. Jesus’ listeners would have been appalled when they heard that the father looked out for his errant son and then ran to meet him. Culturally, the father should have been waiting inside the house for the younger son to return crawling on his hands and knees, grovelling for all he was worth – which wasn’t much.
I would say it is a key to understanding many of the parables: look for the shock. With today’s parable, I venture to suggest that the ending is not the only scandalous part. And I think that in this parable of mission, Jesus needs to shock us into recognising key aspects of God’s mission, in which we share.
Consider, firstly, the initial invitation. This should be routine, shouldn’t it? The servants go out ‘to those who had been invited’ (verse 3). These people are expected to come. We might think with some justification that these are the people who would fall into the natural orbits of the two families about to be joined together. While social conventions are different today, we know that there are certain groups of people from whom we naturally draw the bulk of the numbers when we are issuing wedding invitations. Family – starting with the closest; friends – from school or university, from church or work or social circles related to our hobbies and pastimes. And so on. Most wedding couples don’t spring massive surprises with their guest lists, other than the usual difficulty of deciding where the cut-off point is.
And similarly, perhaps, with our strategies for mission. There are certain people whom it seems right to connect with first, if we hope to touch people with the love of God in Christ with our words and deeds. There are particular groups of people who we shall naturally invite to join us at church. There are those who once used to come, but then dropped out. They may be relatives of existing church members. There will be people associated with groups that hire our premises. Perhaps this list might include uniformed organisations. We might think of people who show a certain affinity with us, even if they do not yet share our commitment to Christ. If you have come across Back To Church Sunday in recent years, that is a strategy directly aimed at those who used to go to church, but who retain more of a sympathy for the church than we might commonly imagine.
Indeed, for a long time now, our mission strategy has been based on an appeal to ‘come’, and in generations when churchgoing was much more natural than it is today, that approach had certain degrees of success.
But there are a couple of dangers.
One is that the religiously sympathetic are not always the most likely to commit themselves to the radical step of following Jesus. Just as the natural invitees to the wedding banquet in the parable ignored, mistreated or killed the second wave of servants that was sent to summon them, so religious people can be those most inoculated against the Gospel. And could it be, given the way the king in the parable sends his army against those people who reject his invitation (verse 7), that God is less impressed with the religious and the respectable than we are?
The other danger is that the natural constituency for this approach is shrinking fast. If we do step out in mission, we want to be as comfortable as possible about it, so we only reach out to people we feel safe with, and furthermore we only do it in locations where we feel at ease – such as our own church buildings.
Secondly, let’s consider the second group that the king invites. The king sends his servants to invite ‘anyone [they can] find’ (verse 9), and this leads them ‘into the streets’ where they [gather] all the people they could find, both good and bad’ (verse 10).
What might this mean for us in terms of the call to Christian mission? Clearly in Jesus’ own day he is indicating a message that will ultimately go beyond the Jewish community to the unconscionable Gentiles. When those we might humanly expect to respond to God’s redeeming love do not do so, God has a way of pushing us out to the least and the last, to those least likely – at least in our eyes.
Before I studied Theology and candidated for the Methodist ministry, my prior work was as a civil servant, working in Social Security. As some people said, that was certainly one way of seeing life. During my first year in the civil service, I had my final family holiday with my parents. We went on a Methodist Guild Holiday. One devout Methodist we met on the holiday asked me what my work was. I explained that I worked in Social Security. Back came a response I have never forgotten: “At least you are on the right side of the counter.”
Obviously, I have never forgotten those words for all the wrong reasons. Apart from the fact that in my work I knew full well that the great majority of those claiming benefits were honest people who didn’t want to be in the situations they had found themselves in, there is also the fact that this parable shows us how the Gospel is for those who are ‘on the wrong side’.
Could we not do with a challenge in the church sometimes to this effect? Who are the people whom we would not naturally consider, but who are loved with an everlasting love by God through Jesus Christ? Are there those he is calling us to reach in word and deed with his love?
Might it be that we just have a problem in the church with being that little bit too comfortable that we need reminding God sends to ‘anyone [we can] find’? Might this be to do with the same fear we hinted at in the first point that leads us just to operate our mission in places where we feel at home? We base our concepts of mission on attracting people to where we are already. However, while we want to bring people into the Christian community, could it be that in a day when – as I said – the number of people for whom it is natural to come onto church premises is shrinking so fast – that we might need to change our primary verb from ‘come’ to ‘go’?
Indeed, might Jesus be saying to us, look at how I embraced the Father’s mission? I am the Word who was made flesh and dwelt among you. I did not wait for you to come to me, I took the initiative and brought the Father’s love to you. And since at my Resurrection I said I sent you as the Father sent me, then do you not hear? Your call in mission is not to say, “Come to us”, but to go to the world, to anyone you can find.
Thirdly and finally, let us consider the intruder at the wedding.
Our own royal family knows all about intruders. Whether it’s Michael Fagan getting into the Queen’s bedroom, a comedian dressing up as Osama bin Laden or protestors from Fathers For Justice landing inside Buckingham Palace, they tend to suffer spectacular intrusions every few years.
I’m not sure whether the word ‘intruder’ is the right one here, but it will have to do. What I’m concerned with is the shocking end to the parable where the king finds a man who has managed to get into the wedding banquet without wearing wedding clothes. He suffers a cruel fate as the king orders him to be bound and thrown out. What could explain such an apparently harsh reaction?
When you attend a wedding today you normally dress up. I remember conducting a wedding in my first appointment and wearing my customary suit and clerical shirt only for a guest to complain that the minister ‘had no sense of occasion’. He was expecting a robed Anglican and got me!
They dressed up for weddings in the ancient world, too. Although a wedding feast could begin at almost any time, there was the tacit understanding that you had time in between receiving your invitation and the wedding beginning for you to find appropriate attire and put it on. There was also a tradition where a king would provide guests with festal clothing. Either way there was no excuse: if you come to the wedding, you will be dressed appropriately. To do otherwise was to bestow a grave insult upon your host.
Now we can understand what was so wrong about the man who was not in wedding clothes. He has insulted the king. Either he had the chance to dress properly and he didn’t bother or the king offered him clothes and he had the temerity to turn him down. The man has enjoyed the invitation but he has not accepted the responsibility that came with it.
Hence this is a powerful picture to challenge the way we respond to God. We may not be like the religious people who refuse the need for grace – indeed we may know only too well that we are entirely dependent upon grace in order to enter God’s presence.
But some of us stop there. We know that Jesus accepts us as we are, but we then coast along complacently. We do not accept the obligation to change – to be clothed differently.
The old saying is that Jesus loves us just as we are, but he loves us too much to leave us as we are. In other words, he provides new spiritual clothes. He expects us to be different. The dirt must go and a clean, holy lifestyle replace it. What else is appropriate as a thankful response to the King for inviting us to his Son’s wedding banquet?
Tragically, some of us are just not serious about living a holy life. God offers us the new clothes – that is, he himself makes it possible for us to be transformed. He does this by the power of his Holy Spirit whose work is to make us more like Jesus. Think of the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control – is that not a description of Jesus’ character? This is what God offers us.
But some of us are happy just to wear the same old dirty clothes. I have to admit that too often my wife has to remind me when my suits need to be dry cleaned. I don’t notice the marks on them. Part of my function as a minister is to hold before us all the need for a spiritual dry-clean. We need the reminder that we have got dirty again and we need to be cleaned up.
What does this have to do with mission? Quite a lot, to be honest. The Gospel is the Gospel of the kingdom. God’s kingdom is one of free grace that accepts us as we are. However, God is calling us to be community that is a sign of the kingdom, a sign of what is to come, and that means transformed lives. This too is part of our witness. Our call to mission is not only to go into the streets and gather anyone we can find, it is also to be dressed in our wedding clothes.
Are we playing our part in getting ready for the great wedding?
I’m thinking of writing some guidelines for those who lead prayers of intercession in church. I have a few ideas of my own – range of themes to cover, overall length, how to signpost the prayers since most people will have their eyes closed, seeing them as representative of the congregation’s prayer life rather than exhaustive, etc. But before I get to this task I thought I would ask you, O noble blog reader, what you would include in any such document.
Suggestions are welcome below.
Depending on the appropriateness of the final content, I may post the document here on the blog.
1 John 2:12-17
The highest grossing film in British cinema history is ‘Mamma Mia!’. You may well know that it began life as a West End musical, in which the story is woven around songs by ABBA. It tells of a bride-to-be named Sophie, who is trying to find her real father. She discovers from reading her mother’s diary that her father could be any one of three different men, and so invites them all to the wedding.
In a conversation with her fiancé, a character called Sky, she says, “I want to know who I am.”
He replies, “That doesn’t come from finding your father; that comes from finding yourself.”
Knowing who you are is vital to healthy living. And knowing who we are seems to be John’s point here in the battle against sin. When he tells us not to ‘love the world’ (verse 15) – that is, the parts of creation organised in rebellion against God – it would be easy to issue a list of what to do and what not to do. A set of rules. He could tell us what is wrong in terms of the greed and lust he describes ‘the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride of riches’ (verse 16), naming and shaming all the wrong behaviour. It would all be so easy.
And so wrong.
It would fail. A list of rules on its own doesn’t work. Telling us what is right and wrong isn’t enough to induce good behaviour. It doesn’t transform us. If anything, it makes wrongdoing more appealing.
John has a different tactic here. He encourages us to know our identity first. He wants us to know who we are in the sight of God. Because that will make a difference.
So to get to how we resist the allure of a world in opposition to God, we examine the words before that, the words addressed to ‘children’, ‘young people’ and ‘fathers’ – because in spiritual terms,
All Christians should have the innocence of childhood, the strength of youth, and the mature knowledge of age.
To be innocent, strong and mature in the face of temptation to sin requires knowing our spiritual identity. We need to know who we are in God’s eyes.
Firstly, we are forgiven:
I am writing to you, little children,
because your sins are forgiven on account of his name. (Verse 12)
You will recall, no doubt, that my predecessor was a big fan of Doctor Who. I do not share his passion. However, Rebekah and Mark avidly watch repeats of the children’s spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures and Debbie loves the adult spin-off, Torchwood. This last summer, there was a Torchwood story called Miracle Day, where suddenly humanity becomes immortal. A convicted child killer thus survives execution and lives to make this statement:
I have been forgiven, a substantial number of people have forgiven me. I can feel that in my heart, my guts. And forgiveness is like a tide or storm – it clears the air. I’m very lucky to have been forgiven and I feel very blessed. And I think of forgiveness as a cure.
The character is right. Forgiveness clears the air. It is a cure. Amongst other things, it is not only a cure for past wrongs, it is a cure as we face present temptation.
How so? Like this: if we face temptation and simply invoke the ‘right and wrong’ approach, we shall get worked up about failure, because we shall feel both guilt and hopelessness on the occasions when we fail. There is no good news for someone who breaks the rules, if that is all there is.
But what if we know we are forgiven? People who are forgiven still have a deep sense of right and wrong. They too do not want to depart from God’s ways. However, their motive is different. They know they are loved, even when they transgress God’s laws. They still want to do what is right, but it is not out of fear. It is because they long to please the God who loves them enough to forgive them in Jesus Christ and him crucified.
Next time you face temptation, remember that God has already forgiven you in Jesus Christ. Remember what that tells you about the God of love, grace and mercy. When fear paralyses you, remember what kind of God we believe in: the God of the manger, the Cross and the empty tomb. He offers forgiveness before we receive it. Let that set you free in the face of temptation.
Secondly, we know Jesus:
I am writing to you, fathers,
because you know him who is from the beginning. (Verse 13)
‘Him who is from the beginning’ could be God the Father, but he gets a name check in the next verse, so we’ll assume this is Jesus. In any case, knowledge of one is similar to knowledge of the other. However, for the purposes of this point we’ll stick with knowing Jesus, and see that as covering what John says about knowing the Father, too. But what is the significance to overcoming sin of knowing Jesus?
Let me approach it this way. I expect you remember the quiz show Mr and Mrs. Husbands and wives took it in turns to answer questions about each other while their spouse could not hear their replies. Then the spouse came back and we saw whether the answers were correct. You would see how well they knew each other. Sometimes it was surprisingly accurate, sometimes the surprise came in what they didn’t know about each other, however many years they’d been married.
Let me venture to suggest that our relationship with Jesus is a little bit like that. We come to know him through the forgiveness we have just talked about, and that relationship grows over the years. Our knowledge of him is far from perfect, but as we get to know him better we discover someone who is an amazing support in our struggle against sin.
It isn’t that Jesus is like an indulgent grandfather who trivialises the misdeeds of his grandchildren, who explains away their actions and makes easy excuses for their wrongdoing. Such an answer would not go down well on a spiritual ‘Mr and Mrs’.
Nor is it true to envisage Jesus as a severe monster, ready to rip to shreds any being that puts the slightest foot wrong. Again, that would be a wrong answer about our relationship with him.
The Bible presents an image of Jesus as full of both acceptance and holiness. His holiness means he cannot abide sin, but he also accepts us through the Cross, in which he has conquered sin. And furthermore, he is the Lord of the broken and the weak. If he has a particular group that he targets for criticism, it is religious leaders who harshly apply the rules and end up excluding people for no good reason.
When you know you are loved, warts and all, you can stand strong. If you doubt whether you are loved or accepted, you will wobble in the face of sin. If you are unsure of Jesus and his love, you will struggle. But if you know a relationship with Jesus in which you are accepted then yes, you will still stumble and fall from time to time, but you will be able to pick yourself up because Jesus does that for you and sets you on your way again. To know he loves you is to be in a different place when facing temptation.
Remember – Jesus is ‘him who is from the beginning’ – and since the beginning of all things, the Father and Jesus have had grand designs on your life. They have planned good things for you. Jesus is called ‘the Lamb who was slain from the foundation of the world’ (Revelation 13:8). Jesus is on our side in the war against sin. He is not standing back, waiting to condemn us at the earliest opportunity. He is for us, he has always been planning for our welfare, he is our cheerleader and he gives us all we need to fight against the lusts and desires of the world.
Thirdly and finally, we are winners. Compare the two statements John makes to those he calls ‘young people’:
I am writing to you, young people,
because you have conquered the evil one. (Verse 13)
I write to you, young people,
because you are strong
and the word of God abides in you,
and you have overcome the evil one. (Verse 14)
When our children are having one of their altogether too frequent wars with each other, they insult one another by calling out, ‘Loser!’ And sadly that’s what a lot of us think we are. We don’t see ourselves as winners, but as losers. We know our failures. The idea that we are in any sense winners makes little sense to us. We are conscious of our many failures, and some of us go further, tipping into low self-esteem, practising what someone once called ‘worm theology’ – as if we say, ‘I am only a worm.’ We might see ourselves the way Elvis Costello once described in a song:
I was a fine idea at the time
But now I’m a brilliant mistake.
So talk of being winners in the spiritual life may sound like a foreign language to us. But John says we have conquered the evil one, we are strong, the word of God abides in us and we have overcome the evil one. In other words, whatever mess we have made of our lives, whatever mistakes and failures we can count, whatever disappointments we have caused, the Holy Spirit gives us the tools that can enable us to be winners – to ‘conquer’ or ‘overcome’ the evil one.
What are those tools? They come in our being ‘strong’ and in ‘the word of God [abiding] in [us]’. We have a new strength in that the Gospel is about more than the forgiveness of our sins. The kingdom message is not only that we are forgiven through the Cross of Christ. It is also that we are given power to live differently, because the Holy Spirit lives in us. Therefore, in the face of temptation, we have new resources to call on. When we struggle on our own, we frequently fail. But we are a new creation in Christ, the Spirit of God resides within us, and sometimes what we need to do is call out to the Holy Spirit for help.
We also have the ‘tool’ of ‘the word of God [which] abides in [us]’. The message of the Gospel, encapsulated in the Scriptures, is available to us, just as Jesus used it time and again in the wilderness when he was tempted. One of the things we can do to build up our defences ready to withstand seasons of temptation is to soak ourselves in the Scriptures. Not so much the quickly dashed off reading of the Bible for daily devotions, but taking the time to meditate on the Scriptures and give time for them to soak into us.
All in all, then, we don’t have to face the temptations of worldly lusts and desires with just our own willpower. We face temptation, knowing that it is not about struggling to achieve a certain performance level of holiness, because we are already forgiven. We face it too, in the knowledge that we are known and loved by Jesus and his Father. We cannot earn their love by attaining perfection; rather, we know already they are on our side, full of grace, mercy and love for the broken and the failures. And to our astonishment, we are no longer weak but strong, because the Holy Spirit gives us not only his own power but also unlocks the power of the Scriptures, as we take deliberate steps to store them up in our hearts and minds during our ‘seven years of plenty’ before the spiritual famine comes.
Let us be encouraged, then, that by the grace of God, the love of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit, we have the resources to resist worldly appetites. May we live more closely according to this Good News.