Today’s Supreme Court decision confirms that Methodist ministers are office holders, not employees, and as such have no redress to Employment Tribunals for claims to unfair or constructive dismissal. I have blogged about this particular case twice before. The court has pointed out three issues in support of this judgement:
1. Our relationship with the Church cannot be analysed in ‘contract of employment’ terms;
2. Our receipt of a stipend and a manse are by virtue of being ‘received into full connexion’ and ordination, they do not constitute payment for duties;
3. We ministers cannot unilaterally resign, even if we give notice, because we need the consent of Conference, the Stationing Committee or a disciplinary body.
The official Methodist statement from Revd Gareth Powell, Assistant Secretary of the Conference, says:
“The judgement of the Supreme Court has determined that an Employment Tribunal does not have jurisdiction over Methodist Ministers. It sets out very clearly the nature of the relationship that exists and that such a relationship is defined by the Standing Orders of the Conference. It is important that we read the judgement with great care as we continue to ensure that our practices reflect the calling of the Church.
“No court ruling could change the gratitude I have for the immense amount of work undertaken by our ministers, now and in the past. Those in ordained ministry, as well as those in lay ministry, continue to be vital to the Church as we share the Gospel and seek to live faithfully in response to the call of God. I ask you please to pray for those who have been part of this case and for all who are affected by its outcome.”
What are we to make of this? While I am partly relieved by the judgement, I do not think it solves the problems our denomination clearly has. I am happy not to be an employee in that church life is vulnerable to tinpot Hitlers throwing their weight around. It shouldn’t be like that, and I certainly don’t experience anything like that in my current appointment, but I am afraid it does happen. Had we become employees, then depending on who was deemed to employ us, that was a risk.
Where I am I less than happy? I admit this is more about the experiences of friends than my own story, but this leaves Methodist ministers entirely dependent upon the ‘covenant relationship’ with the church, and no protection if that goes wrong. I know of instances where ministers have been left exposed to abuse, and where there has been no redress. One commenter on the UK Methodists page of Facebook describes the covenant relationship as an ‘empty promise’ and calls for a system of independent arbitration. Essentially, the church – should it so choose – is free to sweep uncomfortable things under the carpet. There is certainly now a risk that things could be loaded against ministers. I do not know whether this is true, but there is one other comment (which I can’t immediately find again) suggesting that only ministers ‘in stationing’ (i.e., looking for a new appointment) who are unwilling to put any geographical restrictions on where they serve will be guaranteed a manse and stipend if no appointment can be found for them. We are supposed to be at the disposal of Conference for stationing, it is true, but that same Conference promises to bear all sorts of personal circumstances in mind. Geography is by no means the only limit some ministers request.
Tonight, there will be some ministers feeling a sense of relief at the judgement, and others feeling more vulnerable and afraid. I can certainly understand those of my colleagues who have joined the Faith Workers’ Branch of the Unite union. It certainly seems uncomfortable that our denomination has shown no willingness to let the ‘covenant relationship’ be scrutinised by outsiders, so that justice is not only done, but seen to be done.
For many years now, one of my favourite quotes has been the late John Wimber‘s statement that ‘faith’ is spelt R-I-S-K. So it was a pleasure this morning while watching the live stream of the HTB Leadership Conference was to hear Archbishop Justin Welby say that ‘The church should be a safe place to do risky things in the service of Christ.’ How appropriate after that, then, to find myself listening to Esther Alexander‘s song ‘The End of the Land’, where she sings,
Is this the end of the land here
Or the beginning of the sea?
(You can listen to the song and download it here.)
Perhaps that’s our dilemma. We are more scared by being at the end of the land than we are by being at the beginning of the sea. What will it take for us to change, and why would we change? Too many churches want to change in order to save their skins. ‘We must reach out in order to keep this church going.’
Heaven help us. Really.
Welby also said this morning, ‘We cannot live for our cause to win, we have to live for his cause to win.’ May it be so.
In my last appointment, an ecumenical church I served ran a ‘Week of Accompanied Prayer‘. I missed out somehow, and was jealous of the members who clearly had a wonderful spiritual experience. So when our Catholic friends here in Knaphill offered to put one on in the village, I was an enthusiastic supporter. It started today. It’s like a mini-retreat without going away, where you have the benefit of low-key spiritual direction in your prayer life from a ‘prayer guide’ each day.
We began with a simple service and got to meet our prayer guides this afternoon. I was invited to choose a Bible passage to pray on this evening before I meet my prayer guide for the first formal session tomorrow morning. I chose Isaiah 43:1-5 from the selection offered. It made me think of an old song by Andy Piercy and Dave Clifton, from the same CD as contained their more famous ‘Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow’. I can’t find a video online of them singing this, so here is someone’s cover version of ‘Precious In Your Eyes’:
As for other reflections on the passage itself, I had thought I would just read it pietistically, but I can’t deny the ‘theological’ side of me. So I brought into my reflections the fact that this comes from the section of Isaiah that is directed to them in exile in Babylon, when the prophet tells them that God will bring them home. They are precious in God’s eyes despite their sin. God does not give up on his people. That is something for all God’s people – me included – to cherish.
I’ll see how tomorrow goes. One thing I’m looking forward to is this: I mentioned to my prayer guide today that I find it hard to enter for myself into the kinds of prayer where I am expected to imagine what my five senses tell me. I can lead those sessions for others, but they don’t work for me, and I think it’s because in Myers Briggs terms I’m an ‘N’ – an Intuitive. I am a ‘sixth sense’ person who sees the big picture, not an ‘S’ – a Sensory person who uses the ‘five senses’ and concentrates on fine detail. Yet I enjoy photography, which as Jerry Gilpin pointed out to me on my last sabbatical, is definitely an ‘S’ practice. On quiet days in the past I have been known to take my camera gear out and about, and use it to meditate on creation. My prayer guide mentioned something about knowing a retired Anglican priest who may have some material on using photography this way, so we’ll see.
Several of my friends were sharing this cartoon on Facebook in the last few days. I think it encapsulates how we might regard the Ascension in the Methodist Church – or not regard it, as the case may be. We have an ‘Ascension Deficit Disorder.’
There are all sorts of reasons for this. I think we find the Ascension to be one of the more embarrassing miracles. Not only is it strange, it seems to offend against what we know of modern cosmology, and we find it hard to see the point of it. The healing miracles may also seem to go against science as we know it, but at least they seem to have a point – and a loving, compassionate one at that.
But the Ascension? What on earth is the use of it? Maybe we see it as some kind of divine blast-off, and we can’t get our heads around it. To us, heaven isn’t ‘up there’ in a literal sense, and so we chide those ancient people for their simplistic beliefs. For us, the Ascension is not like a 1960s episode of Thunderbirds, and Jesus’ final meetings with the disciples aren’t like Thunderbird 2 on the launchpad, ready to fly to rescue some people in terrible distress somewhere. In the past, when I have preached on the Ascension, I have explained it as what I call a ‘miracle of accommodation’, namely that Jesus had to be taken up into heaven in the sight of the disciples as the only way they would understand he was returning to heaven, even though heaven wasn’t literally up in the sky.
But Tom Wright has pointed out that the ancient Jews didn’t see the distinction between earth and heaven that way. In a sermon he preached six years ago, he said:
The early Christians, like their Jewish contemporaries, saw heaven and earth as the overlapping and interlocking spheres of God’s good creation, with the point being that heaven is the control room from which earth is run. To say that Jesus is now in heaven is to say three things. First, that he is present with his people everywhere, no longer confined to one space-time location within earth, but certainly not absent. Second, that he is now the managing director of this strange show called ‘earth’, though like many incoming chief executives he has quite a lot to do to sort it out and turn it around. Third, that he will one day bring heaven and earth together as one, becoming therefore personally present to us once more within God’s new creation.
One way and another, then, after the Resurrection, where God vindicated his Son and began his new creation, now in the Ascension we have the confirmation that Jesus is the rightful Lord of the universe. He is the Messiah, the King. And therefore when he gathers his disciples for final instructions, he does so as the one about to take his seat on the throne of creation. We should read his words as a king’s orders to his subjects. Certainly what Jesus says here can be read as decrees and requirements.
Firstly, he calls his disciples witnesses. He interprets the Old Testament Scriptures to them all here in the manner he did to Cleopas and his companion on the Emmaus Road, by showing how they pointed to his suffering, death and resurrection. But these are not just events in recent history: they have a meaning, importance and implications for all who hear. Thus Jesus goes on to say:
and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.48 You are witnesses of these things. (Verses 47-48)
The point is this: you have seen all this, disciples. You saw me betrayed and killed. You have met me since I rose from the dead. You know what these events mean about me. I am the true King. The world has been shown to be wrong about me. There is a question now of people showing true allegiance to me, since the Father has vindicated me and is about to enthrone me. You have seen this. You are witnesses. You have a responsibility to share what you have witnessed with others.
What kind of witnesses are we to the King? This last week, Debbie has received a letter, summoning her to jury service next month at the coroner’s court. It is clear that the jury would be sitting not on a trial but on an inquest. She is therefore likely to hear two kinds of witnesses. One is the expert witness, such as a doctor who describes the cause of death from a medical point of view. Another is the ordinary witness, who may have seen something crucial that happened.
Christian witness includes both kinds of witnesses. Not all of us are expert witnesses, and we do not all have to be. However, we are all ordinary witnesses, because we are witnesses to what he has done for us through those saving events of his death and resurrection.
You could use a different metaphor from ‘witness’, especially if you want to connect this specifically to Jesus’ enthronement as King. You could use the image Paul deploys in 2 Corinthians 5 of ‘ambassadors for Christ.’ We have a privilege and responsibility to speak on behalf of the King.
And it is significant that Jesus mentions ‘repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ as part of the message. To be a witness to the king or an ambassador for him is to be entrusted with a message that calls all creation to align themselves with Jesus. That means turning away from the kingdom to which they are currently committed – the kingdom of darkness – and turning to Christ instead. Witnesses to his death and resurrection can do no less. There is a legitimate conversation to be had about how we do this, but that it is part of the task cannot be in doubt.
Secondly, Jesus the King calls his disciples to waiting. He has just given them a tremendous briefing. They must be on a knife edge. Perhaps they cannot wait to get going, out of excitement. But although he promises to equip them for the task, he tells them to wait:
I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high. (Verse 49)
Jesus is going to put his reign into action through the disciples at Pentecost. His personal presence will be replaced by his personal power in the Holy Spirit. They will start living as the kingdom community, doing kingdom things, just like Jesus himself had done in his ministry before his death. They must be champing at the bit.
But they have to wait for that transfer from the presence of Jesus to the power of Jesus, that change of personnel from Jesus to his Spirit. Therefore the king’s order to them is, ‘wait.’
Is that so unreasonable? Our Queen has ‘ladies in waiting’ – women who wait for whenever she issues a command. The timing of the command, as well as its content, is up to Her Majesty.
Now you may say that there is an important difference between the first disciples and us. While they might have had to have waited for the Holy Spirit, we do not, because the Spirit has now been given, and receipt of the Spirit is a sign of Christian conversion. If you say that, you would be right in that particular case. The Spirit has indeed been given, and we do not have to wait like that.
However, there are many instances where Jesus in his kingly authority calls us to wait. We are not to act without his command. We are not to presume upon him and go charging off. He calls us to wait until he gives the order.
And to wait effectively means learning to be attentive. Just as the ladies in waiting have to be attentive to the Queen, so we need to learn the spiritual disciplines of attentiveness as we wait for instructions from heaven, earth’s control room. That means listening. I am far too good in prayer in rattling through the things I want to talk about and then stopping as if that were the end of prayer. But it isn’t. Not if I am to wait upon my Lord. Silence, solitude and retreat are all disciplines we need to practise if we are to be those who wait upon the King of kings.
Thirdly and finally, disciples of earth’s true king are committed to worshipping. Worship is the natural reaction to knowing that God has enthroned Jesus. Thus the reading ends:
When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. 52 Then they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. 53 And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God. (Verses 50-53)
Kingship and worship go together. The Greek word most commonly translated ‘worship’ in the New Testament is proskuneo, which literally means, ‘to move towards and kiss.’ But what kind of kiss? It is the kiss of homage. The image is the ancient one of kissing a monarch as a sign of allegiance. It is still practised in a symbolic way today when new Prime Ministers and new Anglican bishops are appointed.
Worship, then, is emphatically not in the first instance about ‘singing what I like’. I am not saying that worship should not be enjoyable, but I am saying that the focus of worship is not about whether it scratches my back, it is not about whether I am ‘fed’ (because Christians should learn to feed themselves, anyway), it is not about whether it was ‘my favourite preacher’, and so on. All those criteria and more are me-centred. Worship is meant to be God-centred. We are paying homage to God. It is about a sense of awe, wonder and devotion to him, not about spiritual entertainment. We are disciples, not dilettantes.
On Bank Holiday Monday, we decided to visit Windsor. After sitting outside in the sun eating our packed lunch, we joined the queue for the castle. Having got in after an hour’s wait, we went around and eventually decided to visit the State Apartments. While following the prescribed route around them, Becky and I suddenly heard Debbie let out a gasp, and she called us urgently to where she and Mark were. They had just seen a car arrive, and the Queen get out of it with one of the corgis. They then saw the Queen walk the corgi to her official door into her living quarters. Unfortunately, Becky and I didn’t get over to them in time, and we missed out. Becky was upset. However much I tried to say to her that the Queen is just a normal human being like the rest of us, she knew she had missed out on something special. Her mum and brother had a sense of awe that they had seen the Sovereign.
And that is what we need to long for in worship: an awe at having encountered the Sovereign of all creation. Awe that does not concentrate on the amazing experience that we had, but awe that expresses our wonder at this Second Person of the Trinity, who now reigns until every enemy will have been put under his feet. To this King who now reigns we owe our loyalty.
It is something we have a chance to affirm formally at the climax of our service this morning. For we come to the sacrament of Holy Communion. Whatever else communion is, when we respond and take the bread and wine, that action is symbolic of our oath of allegiance to him who has ascended to reign over all. In the Roman Empire, the ‘sacramentum’ was the oath of allegiance taken by a soldier to the emperor. This morning, let us take our sacramentum, too.
If I’m honest, I wish I could have spent more time preparing this. I think I could have distilled my thoughts better. However, this is the best I could do in the time available. I hope it helps you and others.
So, it’s Church Anniversary today – a time when it’s natural to look back with thankfulness to God for his faithfulness in the past. As the hymn says,
We’ll praise him for all that is past
And trust him for all that’s to come.
But sometimes looking back degenerates from gratitude to complaint. In one of my previous churches, one woman had a regular refrain in her conversation. It was about the time when the Sunday School had a hundred children, and it was run by a particular man who must have been a strong personality. It felt like it was my fault when the only children present at Junior Church were my own two children.
So there is a healthy looking back and an unhealthy looking back. What we often forget to do on occasions like this is look forward. It may be that in times of declining and aging church congregations we find it easier to opt for the warm duvet of nostalgia, because we think that if we look forward we might not see a church.
But the hymn doesn’t just say, ‘We’ll praise him for all that is past’, it also says, ‘And trust him for all that’s to come.’ How can we look forward with hope for the church? I believe we can do that by feasting our eyes on God’s vision for the future of the church, and letting that future destination affect the way we are church today.
Our reading from Revelation does just that. In the picture language of that book, its vision of the Holy City gives us images of God’s perfected new society in his new creation. This is where we are going! So let us use this future vision to check where we are now and look at the direction we are taking.
Just to give you extra value I am going to pick out six elements of the Holy City, the new Jerusalem. This doesn’t mean a double-length sermon, but I hope it does mean we get a rounded picture of the community of which we are a part, and of which we shall be a part.
Firstly, let us look at the gates.
It has a great, high wall with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates are inscribed the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites (21:12).
Angels and the twelve tribes. Let’s take the angels first. When do we first hear of angels at the gates? Is it not when the first humans are expelled from Eden, and an angelic guard is set at the gate of the garden to prevent further access? But what about here? The great story of God and humankind that begins in a garden ends in this city, and angels are at the gates again. However, this time it cannot be to keep all comers out. They might be there to keep certain people out, but they are definitely not on guard duty to keep all and sundry out of the new Jerusalem. For the power of sin which led to that initial expulsion of the first humans from Eden has now been reversed. The curse has been neutralised. Now there is only blessing for those who will walk with the Son of God. Where sin broke relationships between humans and God, between humans and each other, between humans and creation and even within humans themselves, all that is now healed and restored. Eden is back, but with such a large community it can no longer be a mere garden. Now it is a city.
And note that word ‘community’. It is no accident that ‘the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites’ are on the twelve gates. For what God has done in his project of salvation is to take fractured relationships and build a new, healed community by his grace. Salvation has never been just something that individuals receive. It has always been about reconciliation, not only with God but also with each other. We express this by working on our relationships, to make sure we are at one with each other. We speak the truth in love. We build each other up. We forgive one another. We share The Peace as a sign of this.
Secondly, we have the foundations.
And the wall of the city has twelve foundations, and on them are the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. (21:14)
The twelve apostles then locate this redeemed community specifically around Jesus. They are ‘the twelve apostles of the Lamb’ – the Lamb of God, Jesus. It is not just any group: it is a body of people united as disciples of Jesus. He it is who brought God’s work with Israel to a climax. The twelve apostles witness to this, since a requirement of apostleship at the beginning of the church was to be a witness to the Resurrection.
So here is what our community life is centred on: the birth, life, death and Resurrection of Jesus. The church is the gathering that sits forgiven and forgiving at the Cross. We rejoice in new hope at the empty tomb. By the power of the Holy Spirit we seek to imitate Jesus together.
Now if that’s true, what does it do to our priorities? Much as we need to discuss property and finance, the heart of our conversation and action together should surely be centred on Jesus himself. We find it easier to talk about the weather or our aches and pains. Some of us don’t read our Bibles from one Sunday to another, and along with other signs of lukewarm behaviour it’s no wonder our churches are not magnetic to those interested in spiritual questions.
There can be all sorts of reasons why this is so. But perhaps it therefore becomes us to have a conversation about why we struggle to make Jesus explicitly central to our church life – let alone the rest of life. There is no foundation other than the New Testament Gospel of Jesus Christ for the church. From her beginning through eternity it is the basis of her existence. We need to be renewed in that Gospel.
Thirdly, we look at the walls. We have a vivid description of the holy city’s walls being made out of previous stones and metals (21:18-21). No expense has been spared in making the new Jerusalem a place of dazzling beauty.
God is intent on making his new community beautiful. He expects the church to become stunningly attractive, if at the same time also perhaps terrifyingly so. At the cost of the Cross, he has not only seen to it that people are forgiven through his Son’s offering, but also the transforming power is there to make people new. The Easter events lead not only to forgiveness, but also to holiness. There is a perfection in the measurements of the holy city, too, and I think this is all imagery that points us to the holiness of the church.
It is worth remembering how people responded to the early church. There was something wonderfully attractive about those first disciples, but there was also something quite unnerving about the white heat of holiness they displayed. Do you think today’s world sees anything like that in us? The Christian life is not simply one of gaining a ticket to heaven through the forgiveness of sins and then waiting until we die for our arrival at heaven’s station. It is about being the new community, as a sign of God’s future to the world, and therefore calling others to hear the challenge to follow Jesus. As such, our lifestyle is as important as our message.
Fourthly, there is a temple – or is there?
I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. (21:22)
The temple is the place of worship. Specifically to Jewish religion, it was the location for the major festivals and the authorised place for sacrifices. The devout became attached to the temple. They admired its architecture, as did Jesus’ own disciples.
But we can become too attached to a building, even one that has been set aside for holy purposes. Jesus knew that. His new community does not finally gather in a bricks and mortar location, it gathers around ‘the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb’. In the holy city we foreswear our idolatry of buildings and concentrate our worship precisely where it belongs: on the God who made and redeemed us. In the new Jerusalem there will be no rivals for our affections: there will only be the Lord our God and his Son. The Holy Spirit will direct our eyes to them.
So what else goes from our worship, along with our buildings? All the other idols of our age and any age. Money, status, possessions, fame, celebrity and power: we cannot chase any of these in the new creation, because only God will be the object of our devotion. It therefore seems sensible to start getting our focus right now. What do we set our hearts on more than God? Is it time to reorder our priorities as we prepare for eternity?
Fifthly, a city needs light. And just as there is no temple but the Lord God and the Lamb, so the Almighty is the light and the Lamb is the lamp (21:23). There will be no darkness (21:25), not even moral darkness (21:27). Rather, the nations will walk by God’s light (21:24) and the glory of the nations will be brought into the city (21:24, 26).
What does this mean? For one thing, it means that we shall live by God’s light – Jesus is, after all, the light of the world. Nothing else will compete to steer our lives. Fear will not speak to us, nor will hatred or greed. Only the pure light of God in Christ will guide our steps. And so again, that is something where we can get used to that at least in part now. How committed are we to wanting God to show us our path in life? We do not stand still if we want that. Just as it is easier to steer a moving vehicle than a stationary one, so we get moving by following Jesus in whatever ways we know how, while at the same time asking him to shed his light upon our ways.
The light of God in Christ also means something else. If the glory of the nations are brought into a city that basks in that light, then this says something positive about all that is good and worthy in human culture. The new Jerusalem is a place to celebrate the fact that we are made in God’s image and likeness, and so we can produce things of great beauty, value and wonder. I think it is no accident that over the centuries, the Christian church has sponsored and promoted the best of the arts, for example. And while much of that has historically been used in the explicit service of worship, I am sure this does not mean that heaven will be littered with the worst in kitsch religious trinkets. What it does mean is that the best of human achievement will be laid at the feet of Christ in adoration. Do we bring our best to him now? Do we deploy our gifts and talents to praise his name?
Sixthly and finally, there is a river in the city. I don’t know about you, but I like that. When we were living in Chelmsford, Debbie and I sometimes liked to go to a sandwich bar in town, buy lunch and sit outside on tables by the River Chelmer. Even if the river seemed dirty, somehow it was still refreshing. We did something similar in Guildford a couple of months ago.
Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, to discover in the new Jerusalem a river whose functions are life and healing. It flows from – guess where? – ‘the throne of God and the Lamb’ (those two again), through the centre of the city (22:1-2). The ‘tree of life’ (echoes of Eden again) grows on both banks ‘and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations’ (22:2). All accursed things will be gone (22:3).
There were rivers in Eden and there is a river in Ezekiel 47 that runs from the temple out to the land, and healing springs up on both banks. This is similar. Christians have sometimes imagined Ezekiel’s river to be a picture of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God brings healing to the world. But surely the people of God are sent out from the temple with the Spirit of God. We are sent by God with a healing message to the world, the healing that only Jesus Christ can bring. If we have been at the throne or the temple, the natural thing to do afterwards is to go into the world with the good news of healing in Jesus Christ. It is good news for individuals, and it is good news for whole societies. One day, that mission will be complete. But until that time, we anticipate that glorious fulfilment of all God’s purposes by going out from our worship gatherings proclaiming with our words and demonstrating with our deeds and our lives that God in Christ has the cure for a broken and wounded world.
Perhaps the best act of devotion we could offer in gratitude for God’s faithfulness to his church here would be a renewed commitment to showing his healing love outside our fellowship in the wider world.
It’s not often I would identify myself with Iain Duncan Smith MP. I certainly can’t square the recent benefit changes with his alleged support for social justice and his country house home. He went to the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, but the only places I have visited at Sandhurst have been Marks and Spencer and Tesco.
But I do share the odd trait with him. The politically aware among you may remember how there was a huge contrast in personality between himself as Leader of the Opposition and Tony Blair, as the charismatic Prime Minister. At the 2002 Conservative Party conference, Duncan Smith tried to make a virtue of the difference. “Do not underestimate the determination of a quiet man,” he said. Unfortunately for him, when he got to the House of Commons again, Labour MPs would put their fingers across their lips and say, “Shush” every time he got up to speak.
His quietness was derided, and that has sometimes been my experience in the church as well: a quiet leader can be derided. Either people want a larger than life minister or you find you have consistently made the same point in meetings, only for people at future meetings of the same committee to say that something has not been addressed.
Why tell you this? Do I want your sympathy? No. Well, not on this occasion. Our passage has a lot to do with the contrasts between wisdom and folly. The first image of wisdom we have here is that wisdom is quiet, but folly is loud:
The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded
than the shouts of a ruler of fools.
18 Wisdom is better than weapons of war,
but one sinner destroys much good. (9:17-18)
There is no shouting, or aggression, let alone violence, that goes with true wisdom. It is quiet and gentle. It does not arrest you, it does not grab you warmly by the throat and shake you. It is the still, small voice of God.
I have told before the famous story about the former Liverpool football manager Bob Paisley, who spoke very quietly at press conferences. One day, a journalist asked him why he spoke so quietly. “I speak quietly, so that you will listen,” he replied.
Might it be that the words of wisdom are spoken quietly by God and by God’s people in order that we might listen? It would be nice and easy if wisdom were served up on a plate for us, brought to us by waiter service. But it isn’t. We have to go in search of it, tuning our ears in to its quiet sounds that frequently are drowned by the noise of sin in our world.
That means God isn’t just going to splash his wisdom everywhere. Yes, it is available to all, but it will only be found by those who have a heart to search for it. We must want his wisdom badly – badly enough to set out on a quest for it, determined not only to find it but to put it into practice when we finally discover it.
Now clearly some of this means we need to develop a dogged determination in our devotional lives to hear the voice of God. Yes, it does mean a regular commitment to a style of Bible reflection that is suitable to us. It does mean spending time in prayer. It does mean commitment to a small group as well as to Sunday worship, and so on. All these things I’ve mentioned before, and will continue to emphasise. It’s why I remain concerned at the findings of our worship questionnaire, where a number of people identified Sunday services as the only times they seriously engaged with the Bible. We just can’t do that and get away with it if wisdom is quiet. It’s no good giving up quickly on spiritual disciplines when we don’t immediately have a stunning experience of God. Like a lover, he woos us, but he also plays hard to get, because he wants us to be serious about him.
And that leads into the second image of wisdom the Preacher gives us: wisdom is rare, but folly is common. To take some representative verses:
As dead flies give perfume a bad smell,
so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honour.
2 The heart of the wise inclines to the right,
but the heart of the fool to the left.
3 Even as fools walk along the road,
they lack sense
and show everyone how stupid they are. (10:1-3)
A small bit of foolishness creates a big stink in society, says the Preacher, and fools parade their foolishness for all to see. It’s not hard to see that, is it? Some people seek the spotlight, but have very little of substance to offer society. Plenty of people who gain the dubious status of celebrity could fall into this category.
Or we have people who become famous and are thrust into the limelight, simply because of their abilities in one particular field, and who are then labelled ‘rôle models’ by tastemakers and cultural commentators for some questionable reason. Footballers who end up biting members of the opposition might be included here. It’s hard to know who is the more foolish: those who deem footballers to be rôle models, or fame-hungry sporting stars who lack the wherewithal to set an example.
When we live in a society like this, feeling outnumbered by a catwalk parade of idiocy, what are we to do? We bemoan the triumph of style over substance. We despair of how a little trivia becomes a major thing. Having spied the front page of a certain red-top tabloid this last week leading on the story of a boy band splitting up, because presumably they have a strong idea that is important to their readers, I share that same sense of exasperation.
But it’s never acceptable for the Christian to give up in the face of a folly-ridden society. It remains our missionary call to keep speaking the wisdom of God, whatever the odds. After all, according to the New Testament, Christ is the wisdom of God, and how can we not speak about him? How can we not see all the more clearly our society’s need of Christ when we witness the epidemic of foolishness around us, and are struggling not to become infected ourselves?
Yet it feels difficult to hang on and to remain consistently faithful when so much of what surrounds us makes it feel like we are paradoxically drowning in an ocean of shallowness. To that end, I find something that Graham Kendrick said over thirty years ago. He said,
“When the odds get too big, I just remember that Jesus plus me equals an invincible minority.”
Yes, we may be up against the odds, and things may not always be going our way, but as the First Letter of John puts it,
‘Greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world.’
Ultimate victory belongs to Jesus. God raised him from the dead and made him king of the universe. Whatever direction things are going at present, that direction is only the short term. We know the long term outcome for all creation. We are on the victory side when we witness faithfully to Jesus Christ, the wisdom of God.
The third and final picture of wisdom I want to share with you is this: wisdom is gracious, folly is wicked.
That sounds harsh on foolishness, doesn’t it? When someone is a fool, we either laugh at their idiocy or sympathise with their ignorance. But wisdom and folly are moral qualities in Scripture. Wisdom is not merely about intellect, and so in a week when the atheist scientist Richard Dawkins has topped a magazine poll as the world’s top thinker of the last twelve months, the Christian may accept the man’s intellectual abilities, but would never call him wise. After all, as one American theologian I know put it on Facebook this week,
his views on religion … are simplistic, ill-informed, and simply wrong.
Here is the part of the reading that makes this point:
Words from the mouth of the wise are gracious,
but fools are consumed by their own lips.
13 At the beginning their words are folly;
at the end they are wicked madness –
14 and fools multiply words. (10:12-14)
We are equally not exercising wisdom in the church when we use our knowledge or cleverness to put someone else down. We are using wisdom – the wisdom which ultimately is Jesus Christ himself – when grace is our theme and our motive. We show wisdom when we speak with grace about grace.
It is surprising how often grace is excluded from Christian conversation. After the recent convictions of Mick and Mairead Philpott for the killing of six of their children, I saw within a short time on the Internet Christians putting messages that they longed for them to burn in Hell. Where is the grace there? It is as if what we really think goes something like this: we are good, other people are bad, and we will get to Heaven because we are good. Nothing could be further from the Gospel, yet this lie goes round in church circles.
None of us would be here but for grace. The people we look down on in the church family are recipients of the same grace. The people in our society who commit terrible, yes, wicked acts, are in need of that grace. That grace is centred on the Cross of Christ. And the Cross is a divine foolishness that outranks human wisdom, according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 1. It is indeed the wisdom of God.
We have said already that wisdom is a quiet voice and a minority voice. Well, nowhere more than here, where wisdom is characterised by grace is it a quiet, minority voice, even sometimes in the church. It is time to come back to the Cross, if we have strayed away. It is time to remember our experience of being humbled by love at the Cross. And when we recall our own humbling at the feet of divine love, then would it not be normal for us to begin extending that same grace to others within the church and beyond?
In a few minutes, we shall come to the climax of this service in the central act of gathered Christian worship, when we take Holy Communion together. Let our eating of the bread and our drinking of the wine this evening remind us of the grace and love God poured out for us in his Son.
Along with that, can we also recall that every Sunday is an Easter Day? Every week, the fact that the Christian church moved the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday reminds us of the history-changing events we mark on Easter Sunday. God calls us back to that empty tomb constantly. For there we see the grace of God every bit as much as we do at the Cross itself. At the empty tomb, God by his grace and power transforms hope-drained people into hope-filled people.
This is the source of our life, our life in Christ. I pray that it will feed us, and – through us – feed others, too.
The Daily Telegraph published a sensitive piece about the battle with depression fought by Katherine Welby, 26-year-old daughter of the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. Quoting largely from her blog, her faith shines through, but it is also apparent she has not always been treated well by the Christian church. God’s people don’t always stand by her, depressives fear what others might say, and churchpeople have to pretend everything is fine, despite a Bible filled with screwed-up people.
I am afraid I am not surprised by this account. Of course, I have known many compassionate Christians in the church, who may or may not understand illnesses some members of the church family have had, such as schizoaffective disorder, borderline personality disorder, or other conditions. But I have seen intolerance for the effects of medication upon sufferers. I have witnessed the damaging ‘Snap out of it!’ comments. I have come across a naïve reading of the Gospel which seems to think that simple belief in Christ will have an instant cognitive effect, and then we can resume the usual ‘happy ever after’ narrative.
It is awful that there is still a widespread failure to accept that depressive conditions are illnesses. I am not claiming the specialist knowledge that professionals in the field have, because I don’t have it, but I do know this. If someone contracts a commonly accepted physiological illness, there is usually compassion and concern. The failure to recognise mental health issues in a similar way is disastrous, for the way it not only involves a lack of understanding, it also causes a rise in judgmental attitudes. We are meant to be a community of grace.
I read a story that isn’t obviously related to this on Don Miller’s blog. Sarah Thebarge tells how, while suffering the ravages of radical treatment for breast cancer, she was travelling across her native USA by train when she came across a desperate Somali immigrant family. The father had left the mother to care for five young children in a strange land. Despite her own weakness, Sarah becomes involved in the care of this family:
God had loved me when my bald head and mastectomy scars made me feel unlovable. So I began to spend more time with the Somali girls, loving them when their stained clothes and broken English made them feel unlovable.
God had shown me that He was Immanuel, the God who dwelled with me — not instantly changed or fixed me, but dwelled. So I began spending most evenings at the girls’ apartments, sitting with them in their dark, cold apartment because their mom was worried they’d run out of money for food if she spent too much money on utilities.
‘The God who dwelled with me – not instantly changed or fixed me, but dwelled.’ Would it not be a beautiful thing if our churches could demonstrate that more with those who face depression and similar disorders?