Author Archives: Dave Faulkner

Sermon For The Second Sunday In Advent: Telling The Prophetic Time

Wristwatch

Wristwatch by Dan Iggers on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Mark 1:1-8 with Isaiah 40:1-11

You may have noticed that I do not wear a watch. Contrary to popular opinion, this is not so that I can preach for an interminable length of time, it is because I developed an allergy to nickel a few years ago. I could not wear a watch without getting a rash, and I found the plastic digital watches awful as an alternative.

Somebody told me there was a way to prevent the nickel back of a watch from irritating me in this way. I should coat it in clear nail varnish. This would save my skin from contact with the offending metal.

Debbie came with me to a branch of Boot’s. She took great delight in announcing loudly as she gave the nail varnish to the cashier, “IT’S FOR MY HUSBAND!”

Oh, and after that, it didn’t work anyway. Three coats of nail varnish on the watch. No success. If you ask me the time nowadays, I consult my phone, because it is connected to an Internet clock. Or maybe I’ll look at my iPad for the same reason. (Although the iPad is a little large to go on my wrist!)

Our readings this week in the Second Sunday of Advent are about telling the time. Not ordinary calendar and clock time, for which we use conventional timepieces, but God’s time. In this second week of Advent, we traditionally celebrate the rôle of the prophets, and their job is to proclaim God’s time.

The particular prophet in focus here is John the Baptist and his use of Isaiah, and if you know your Four Sundays of Advent, you’ll be aware that John is usually under the spotlight in Week Three, not Week Two. So we’ll leave the more specific features of his ministry for next week – you can think then, if you like, about his dress code and his diet – but this week simply see him as a model of prophecy.

Exiled

Exilado / Exiled by Edlago Quinco on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

There is a specific chiming of the clock in God’s time that John the Baptist comes to announce, according to Mark’s Gospel. According to John, the time in God’s schedule has come for the end of the Exile.

What do I mean by ‘the end of the Exile’? You will remember how God’s people were taken from the Promised Land into Exile as a result of their persistent defiance of their God. Ten of the tribes were taken captive by Assyria in 722 BC, and never heard of again. The remaining two were defeated by Babylon in a series of waves, culminating in 586 BC, when Jerusalem was captured, the Temple destroyed, and most of the survivors were taken to the land of their conquerors. This was the Exile.

But some decades later, when Babylon itself had been conquered, the Jews began returning to Jerusalem and Judah. This return is prophesied in Isaiah 40, which we heard. Nehemiah leads the rebuilding of Jerusalem, and prophets such as Haggai urge a commitment to rebuilding the Temple.

Yet it wasn’t a ‘happy ever after’ ending. In the centuries since, God’s people had been oppressed by the Greeks, and now they were under occupation in their own territory by Rome. Many of them said it was like still being in exile. They might be within their national borders, but they had no power to rule themselves and the land.

You have heard how rebel leaders arose from time to time, bidding to overthrow the Romans, and how they generally met grisly ends. But now comes a different kind of prophet – not a soldier, but a preacher. And Mark says that John arrives on the scene in fulfilment of Isaiah 40. Just as that chapter in Isaiah had begun the prophecies of hope that heralded the return from exile of God’s people in the sixth century BC, so now this prophet proclaims the return from another exile.

Of course, many people in that day would have hoped that this return from exile would deliver what the failed freedom fighters (or terrorists, as Rome probably regarded them) had aspired to: deliverance from military occupation. But as we know, John doesn’t come with that message, and nor does the Messiah he is introducing, namely Jesus. This return from exile is of a different kind. It is a return from exile where God gives his people not so much what they want as what they need. It is not freedom from occupation by Rome, but freedom from occupation by sin. It moves the question of blame and responsibility away from outside enemies, and makes God’s people look at themselves.

Yet even if that sounds challenging, it is still good news. We can be set free! Whatever the external circumstances, there is a freedom to be had here and now in God’s time. ‘Now is the time for God’s salvation,’ says the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians. This truly is God’s time, says the prophet. There may be things you want, and there will be times when God will give you those things, but major on the things you need, and especially this one. ‘Come home,’ says God, ‘It’s time.’

So what is solved by God saying through the prophets that the time for the end of the exile has come? I think we can take an image from the experience of the Jewish people in Babylon. Exile was the most terrible trauma for them. It was the end of their faith as they knew it, just as the destruction of the Second Jerusalem Temple in AD 70 that Jesus prophesied would be devastating to the Jews of his generation and the next. In exile, they struggled to have faith. They felt far from God, because they could no longer go to the Temple where God had said his Name would reside, and even if they could get there, the Temple wasn’t standing. No wonder in the red-raw language of Psalm 137, they sang of weeping by the rivers of Babylon and asking in the echo of their captors’ taunts, ‘How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’ To be in exile was to be far from God, perhaps even cut off from God.

Therefore to come home from exile was to come back to God, and draw near to him. We might criticise their locating of God’s presence in a particular special place, and indeed the Old Testament itself does, even and especially when King Solomon dedicates the original Temple. They know that God cannot be confined to places built by human hands. His Temple is the whole created order.

We too fall into a similar trap at times. We delude ourselves that God is more to be found in a religious building than in his world. As a result, we miss a lot of what God is doing in our generation.

But we can hear the ‘end of exile’ invitation to come back to God and draw close to him again. We can hear the ‘end of exile’ message that we need not stay away. However much we may know that our sins put us outside of fellowship with God, when the prophets declare the end of exile with the coming of Jesus the Messiah, they say to us, you can draw near to God because he has drawn near to you! This Messiah is not simply a human champion (although he is, if in a different way from common understanding): he is God in the flesh. He is Emmanuel, God with us. When we feared we would have to stay at a distance, or we didn’t know our way back to him, God made the move towards us.

And this is the nature of God’s love towards us in Christ. He says, “You don’t have to stay in exile anymore. You don’t have to keep your distance. I am coming close to you in my Son. Do not be afraid. I am bridging the gap. I am dealing with the sin that has driven us apart. Hear my invitation to walk with me in freedom.”

Now if God has come on a journey from heaven to earth in his Son to draw close to us, how do we walk towards him? The passage tells us, and it has a typical prophetic theme: repentance. Like the Old Testament prophets, there is powerful enacted symbolism – in this case baptism. John proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and when people are baptised, they confess their sins (verses 4-5).

What’s more, this too is backed up by the reference to the end of exile in Isaiah 40. There, the prophet imagines the need for a royal highway on which God can lead his people back to their homeland. Hence ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’ (Mark 1:3b). Smooth everything out, get rid of the potholes, put down new tarmac. It’s like the way a locality is decorated or improved before the Queen visits. God’s highway must be smooth and straight.

However, Mark applies that prophecy in a different way. If it’s end of the exile time now, then it is the people who need to straighten out their own paths. The way to walk towards God is by straightening out our lives in repentance, the repentance for which John gave, as I said, the powerful prophetic symbol of baptism.

Watling Street

Watling Street by David Jones on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

And this would have made sense, not only at the time of John’s coming, but also to Mark’s first readers, who were almost certainly Christians in Rome. I’m sure you remember the Roman reputation for building long, straight roads. We even lived in a turning off the famous Watling Street when I served in my circuit before last. The Romans made straight roads, and they made roads straight.

Repentance is not simply saying sorry. It is being sorry enough to desire change, to straighten out our lives. The word means ‘change of mind’, and repentance involves a whole change of mind about right and wrong, about who comes first in my life, and what gets priority.

We associate repentance with coming to faith in Christ at the beginning of the Christian life. Rightly, we recognise the need for a complete change of mind, a U-turn, if you like, in order to become a disciple of Jesus, because his ways are so different from those of the world.

Basilea Schlink, Repentance: The Joy-Filled Life

Basilea Schlink, Repentance: The Joy-Filled Life

However, it would be wrong to limit the call to repentance to the commencement of Christian faith. God regularly calls us to repentance as a means of drawing us closer to him. Perhaps that is why one saint, Mother Basilea Schlink, wrote a book entitled ‘Repentance: The Joy-Filled Life’. It’s not what we expect, is it, for repentance and joy to be linked? But they are, because repentance brings us nearer to God and therefore to all the joy that knowing him bestows upon our lives.

It is why we need to be converted over and over again. Like certain motorways and ‘A’ roads I could name, our lives have semi-permanent roadworks on them. God is calling us to that straightening out of our highways.

And perhaps it is those who least feel the regular call to repentance about whom we should be most concerned. For the disciples who make it their business to draw near to God find as they edge closer that the  nearer they get to him, the more they realise what sinners they are. If they are not careful, they feel hopeless, because they think, “Will this ever end?” but the more proximate we get to the holy love of God, the more we shall realise how far short we fall, and how we yet again need to turn from our selfish ways if we are to prepare the way of the Lord.

What we all need to hear is the prophetic call that the time for the end of exile and coming close to God is not only the time for an ending but the time for a beginning: the beginning of the Holy Spirit’s availability to all flesh. The coming Messiah ‘will baptise you with the Holy Spirit’ (verse 8) says the prophet John. And in that promised gift of God’s nearness comes the experience of divine holiness, which is both awesome and terrifying, but also the promised power to turn our lives into straight streets.

Sermon For Advent Sunday: It’s The End Of The World As We Know It

Mark 13:24-37

Do you check the weather forecast first thing in the morning? I may be doing so in order to urge one of the children to wear an appropriate coat for school. So I may check the weather app on my phone, or I may look on the BBC website. I may just catch the forecast in the regional news on BBC Breakfast, or I may see a video of that same regional forecast in my Facebook updates.

But whatever method I use, I have yet to hear a forecast include the words,

“the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
25 the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.” (Verses 24b-25)

Even Ian McCaskill at his most dramatic never came up with those lines, and nor do these words come from a missing script of The Sky At Night.

Instead, we’re in the territory of dramatic prophetic language. Prophecies of future events in the Bible seldom use prosaic newspaper-reporting-type language: they tend to use coded, strange, disturbing picture language instead. And for his purposes here, Jesus draws on words originally used by Isaiah to foretell the downfall of Babylon and Edom.

And we commonly assume here that Jesus is deploying this apocalyptic language to talk about the end of the world. But at that point, we have to be careful.

Because Jesus speaks in the passage we heard read about two different ends of the world, if I may put it that way. His prophetic weather forecast is not talking about the end of all things – we’ll come to that later as the second ‘end of the world’ – but the end of the Jerusalem Temple.

For that is where the whole of Mark 13 begins. Jesus’ disciples are admiring the beauty of the Temple, only for Jesus to warn them that it will be destroyed, and that Rome will invade it and set up a pagan idol there, a devastating blasphemy for the Jewish people.

We need to begin, then, this morning, with this first end of the world, the end of the Jerusalem Temple. And you may say that shouldn’t be classed as an end of the world. But it was the end of the world at the time for the chosen people. Their whole system of sacrifice and worship was undone by its destruction (even if later they would develop the synagogue approach to faith that was already in existence).

Think of it as a parallel to the old song ‘Don’t they know it’s the end of the world’, where Skeeter Davis sang,

Don’t they know it’s the end of the world,
It ended when I lost your love.

As a romantic break-up can be a personal catastrophe, so much more Jesus knows when prophesying the failure of the Jewish revolt that the carnage and slaughter of life, combined with the annihilation of the central symbol of their faith will be as good as ‘the end of the world’ for his people.

But he also tells his followers that this awful obliteration of the Jewish hope that will come forty years after he speaks will constitute a vindication of him and his ministry. It prompts him to speak about his coming.

Yet – again, we have to be careful! Just as there are two ‘ends of the world’ in this passage, so there are also two comings of Jesus in these verses. And the coming of Jesus associated with the end of the Jerusalem Temple is not what we commonly call his ‘Second Coming’, his appearing again on Earth.

Listen to how he describes it:

At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. (Verse 26)

We have assumed that means his visible return to Earth, but the moment you recognise what Jesus is quoting here from the Old Testament, you will begin to see it differently. Jesus is quoting from Daniel 7 where the Son of Man comes on the clouds of heaven. But he doesn’t come on the clouds of heaven to Earth, he comes on the clouds of heaven to the presence of the Ancient of Days, Almighty God. I believe this is the triumph and vindication Jesus receives after his resurrection when he ascends to the Father’s right hand. His life and ministry receive the big ‘thumbs up’ from his Father.

And in that context, we have a job to do – although again, it’s easy for us, with our wrong assumptions that this is about the Second Coming, to miss that fact. For Jesus says next,

And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens. (Verse 27)

We have commonly thought that to mean that God will bring his own people home. But that doesn’t stand up if this is what follows the ascension, Jesus’ coming to his Father, rather than his coming back to Earth.

Why? Remember that ‘angels’ is a word that can also mean ‘messengers’. This is about the proclamation of the Gospel. It is about Jesus’ disciples joining in God’s mission of gathering in his people from everywhere. Christian mission is always the mission of God, in which we are called to participate.

The end of the Jerusalem Temple world and the coming of Jesus to his Father point to the call of the church to engage in the mission of God. Ours is the call to herald the world the One who has been vindicated by Almighty God through his resurrection and ascension. It is our noble call to share in this task, following in the steps of the Early Church. They are the ones Jesus has in mind when he says,

Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. (Verse 30)

It is not that Jesus expected his Second Coming to be early and that he was wrong in his prediction, because these words do not anticipate his return. They are about the mission of God taking place after his ascension.

Perhaps this has particular application for churches today. As churches decline and age, there are fewer ministers to go around, and – as we know here – it becomes harder to maintain the building. But these things are our parallel to the Jerusalem Temple – we thought they were essential to the practice of our faith, but they are not. They are props, albeit sometimes helpful props. But God is taking the props away, and we have to focus on the essential call for this age in history. That call is to engage in the mission of God.

So – to sum up this first point – Jesus prophesies the ultimate failure of Jewish revolts against Rome, and knows that many of his fellow Jews will see the destruction of the Temple as the end of their world. God the Father vindicates his unpalatable message and his suffering on the Cross through the resurrection and ascension, in which he is the Son of Man, coming on the clouds of heaven to God. We, knowing that Jesus has been vindicated by the Father, are to hear and respond to the Father’s call to share in his mission of calling people to place their allegiance with the Vindicated One, Jesus Christ.

I said there were two ‘ends of the world’ in this passage. The second I might call any end of the world. That probably sounds absurd to you, but I mean this to be all-encompassing: it can be any personal or corporate disaster where all that we assumed and everything we cherished has collapsed, like the fall of the Jerusalem Temple for the Jews or the collapse of inherited forms of Christianity that we are experiencing. But it could also be the end of all things. I take this view from these words of Jesus in the second half of the reading:

‘But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be on guard! Be alert[c]! You do not know when that time will come. 34 It’s like a man going away: he leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.

35 ‘Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back – whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the cock crows, or at dawn. 36 If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. 37 What I say to you, I say to everyone: “Watch!”’ (Verses 32-37)

On the one hand, Jesus points back to what he has just talked about, when he begins by saying, ‘But about that day’[1]. But on the other hand, his story about waiting for an owner to come back to a house is different. The servants are not waiting for a catastrophe; rather, they are going to be held to account for their stewardship of what the master has left when he returns.

And that is where we find ourselves. One day, all our opportunities to witness to the kingdom of God and his love in Jesus will be over. Ultimately, that will be when Christ appears to judge the living and the dead. If we die before that day, then that will be closure for us. But it could be earlier. What if I suffer a stroke and my speech and physical mobility are severely impaired? What if I am diagnosed with a grave illness? What if a tragedy befalls a loved one, and I have to give all my time as a carer, no longer having the chance to be much of a witness in the world? Or maybe my world will close in, due to unemployment. What then?

Jesus calls his servants to ‘watch’ for such times, and that doesn’t mean some passive kind of waiting, it means an active waiting. Servants are stewards of what the master has left in their charge. And we are stewards of the gifts God has entrusted to us. This means our talents, our possessions, our relationships, our work – just about anything we are involved in from day to day. If our lives were interrupted today by Christ’s return, or if our lives were shattered by a turn of events, could we say that we have faithfully been using all that God has put in our hands in a way that gives him glory?

I realised that when I was recently granted the extension to my appointment here, it is most probable that after I leave here in several years’ time, I shall likely only have one more appointment as an active Methodist minister. The question of whether I am ‘watching’ over my gifts and calling to make a difference weighs on my mind.

Those of you who are older, and who have made it to retirement may also need the challenge. Will you be able to say that you have made a difference for the kingdom of God when the master of the house comes back, or will you have been sleeping on your talents? It isn’t too late to do something – our Bible contains enough stories of older people responding to a divine call, from Abraham to Moses, from Zechariah and Elizabeth to Simeon and Anna. But do not wait in a leisurely fashion.

Around the time I was finishing this sermon, a friend posted a video on Facebook. He has been posting two songs a day: one to depress you, and one to be uplifting. Last night’s depressing song seemed apposite to what I am saying here: the late Sandy Denny’s ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes?’

As we contemplate the ends of our own worlds, or even the end of the world as we know it, may we not look back at a frittered life and wonder where the time went.

[1] Italics mine.

Sermon: Life On The Frontline 5: The Frontline Cry (Kingdom Dreamers)

Whoops. I seem to have forgotten to upload two or three sermons lately. Sorry.

Anyway, here is tomorrow morning’s sermon as I preach again in the Life On The Frontline series at Knaphill Methodist Church.

Matthew 6:9-13 with Isaiah 29:13-24

Heaven

Heaven by Ozan on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

While walking down the street one day a corrupt Senator was tragically hit by a car and died. His soul arrives in heaven and is met by St. Peter at the entrance.

“Welcome to heaven,” says St. Peter. “Before you settle in, it seems there is a problem. We seldom see a high official around these parts, you see, so we’re not sure what to do with you.”

“No problem, just let me in,” says the Senator.

“Well, I’d like to, but I have orders from the higher ups. What we’ll do is have you spend one day in hell and one in heaven. Then you can choose where to spend eternity.”

“Really? I’ve made up my mind. I want to be in heaven,” says the Senator.

“I’m sorry, but we have our rules.”

And with that St. Peter escorts him to the elevator and he goes down, down, down to hell.

The doors open and he finds himself in the middle of a beautiful golf course. In the distance is a clubhouse and standing in front of it are all his friends and other politicians who had worked with him. Everyone is very happy and in evening dress. They run to greet him, shake his hand, and reminisce about the good times they had while getting rich at the expense of the people. They played a friendly game of golf and then dine on lobster, caviar and the finest champagne.

Also present is the devil, who really is a very friendly guy who is having a good time dancing and telling jokes. They are all having such a good time that before the Senator realizes it, it is time to go. Everyone gives him a hearty farewell and waves while the elevator rises.

The elevator goes up, up, up and the door reopens in heaven where St. Peter is waiting for him, “Now it’s time to visit heaven…”

So, twenty-four hours passed with the Senator joining a group of contented souls moving from cloud to cloud, playing the harp and singing. They have a good time and, before he realises it, the twenty-four hours have gone by and St. Peter returns.

“Well, then, you’ve spent a day in hell and another in heaven. Now choose your eternity.”

The Senator reflects for a minute, then he answers: “Well, I would never have said it before, I mean heaven has been delightful, but I think I would be better off in hell.”

So St. Peter escorts him to the elevator and he goes down, down, down to hell…

Now the doors of the elevator open and he’s in the middle of a barren land covered with waste and garbage. He sees all his friends, dressed in rags, picking up the trash and putting it in black bags as more trash falls from above. The devil comes over to him and puts his arm around his shoulders.

“I don’t understand,” stammers the Senator. “Yesterday I was here and there was a golf course and clubhouse, and we ate lobster and caviar, drank champagne, and danced and had a great time. Now there’s just a wasteland full of garbage and my friends look miserable. What happened?”

The devil smiles at him and says, “Yesterday we were campaigning. Today, you voted…”[1]

Now, I find that joke rather delicious as we approach a General Election in six months’ time. But I didn’t tell it for political reasons this morning. I told it, because it assumes the traditional teaching that our destiny for eternity is either heaven or hell.

And that’s a mistake. The New Testament doesn’t teach that.

Really? Did you hear that right? The minister is saying that heaven or hell is not our eternal destiny?

Well, you did hear me correctly, but I still believe in ‘heaven and hell’. It’s just that I believe – as Tom Wright has put it – that ‘heaven is important, but it’s not the end of the world’.

N T Wright

The Rt Revd Tom Wright with new book by Gareth Saunders on Flickr. Some rights reserved

What the New Testament teaches is this: when we die, we rest in either Paradise or Hades. Jesus tells the repentant thief on the cross, ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise.’ In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, he envisions the evil wealthy man as suffering in Hades, the place of the dead. These are resting places, or waiting rooms, until our final destiny.

And our final destiny is not to float on clouds, plucking harps. The end of all things in the New Testament is God making all things new – the heavens, the earth, and our bodies. God’s kingdom in all its fullness constitutes a whole new creation. That’s why at the Last Day, we shall be raised from the dead physically. The idea that the physical and material doesn’t matter, and all that matters is our ‘soul’ is not originally a Christian idea: it comes from Greek philosophy, and from heresies that the early Church rejected. It’s why C S Lewis said that ‘Christianity is the most material of all religions’.

Now plug all that into the Lord’s Prayer, and especially into the lines

your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven. (Verse 10)

The first line – ‘your kingdom come’ – is explained by what follows – ‘your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’ When we pray for God’s kingdom to come, we pray for his will to be done here on this earth, just like it is in heaven, his dwelling-place. We are longing for that kingdom where heaven and earth have been made new, and human bodies made new in resurrection, and where God’s will is done as fully and wholeheartedly as it is in his immediate presence.

So if we want to pray for the coming of God’s kingdom, we do something like this. Knowing what we do of God’s will, we imagine what our world as we know it would look like if people were doing the things that give God pleasure.

That’s effectively what Isaiah does in chapter 29 that we heard read before the Lord’s Prayer. Isaiah imagines the dry land of Lebanon becoming fertile, even like a forest. He imagines deaf people hearing God’s message, and the blind seeing again. He envisions the humble and the needy having cause for great joy, instead of being trampled down by the unjust. In fact, he sees a time when such ruthless people will vanish, when mockers will be no more, and when there will be no more evil people manipulating the justice system to their own twisted ends. He sees shamed people standing in awe of God, and wayward spirits and habitual moaners accepting instruction (verses 17-24). All this imagining becomes a vision for the future, and therefore a captivating image to stimulate prayer, and ask God to bring these things about.

Now let’s plug all this into our lives today, because we can do something similar. And we need to, because one aspect of the poor reputation Christians often have today is that we are a bunch of moaners. We are the people who are only known for the things we are against, the things we complain about. One reason Christian MPs can have a hard time in Parliament is because they and their colleagues are subject to hectoring letters and flame-filled emails.

So – rather than just bewailing all that is wrong with our world (and I wouldn’t deny there is a lot that is at odds with our faith) – why don’t we instead start exercising a prayerful, holy imagination to conceive how we would long the world to be. Rather than railing against the way people use the Internet in negative ways, such as verbally attacking others, or accessing pornography, ask in the presence of God what the Internet would look like if it were used in a pure and kind way. Rather than sitting around as barstool Prime Ministers declaiming against a society that is obsessed with money, possessions, and buying the latest thing, prayerfully consider what our culture would look like if spirituality and relationships were dominating values, and the poor were not all derided as scroungers.

In short, for Christians to pray ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ is to serve notice on the ‘moaning minnies’ version of religion that we often serve up, and commit instead to imagining a better world, praying for it, and working for it in the power of the Holy Spirit. I believe that’s what Jesus wanted of his followers when he taught them the Lord’s Prayer.

And there is a specific application to make in this particular sermon and teaching series that we are following. We’ve been thinking about what we’ve called our ‘frontlines’, those places where we are no longer cossetted among our fellow Christians, but interact with those who don’t share our faith. It may be our workplace, our families, our next-door neighbours, or where we spend our leisure time, from the health club to the U3A.

Crawley U3A poetry group

Crawley U3A poetry group by George Redgrave on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

These locations, too, are often far from what we would ideally like them to be. Much as we enjoy the friendship of others there, these places may be centres of gossip, sharp practice, back-biting, and unjust behaviours. Even if it’s not that bad, they can become mundane and meaningless, and hence the parody of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs that we sometimes use to describe our paid working life: ‘I owe, I owe, it’s off to work I go.’

So here we choose not simply to carp about the things that annoy us, or stay permanently on a downer about the people who get our backs up. Instead, we employ a holy imagination, and ask ourselves this question: ‘From what I know about Jesus’ teaching, what would this environment look like under the reign of God?’ And then we dream what it would look like.

And having established our ‘kingdom dream’, we then pray it: ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’ Little by little, we shall see signs of transformation as we do so.

Now maybe asking us all to be dreamers – even kingdom of God dreamers – will not go down well in some quarters. Dreamers have a bad reputation. They are detached from reality; they are not practical people. And we have seen worldly dreamers who garner a bad reputation. You only have to think of John Lennon singing, ‘You may think I’m a dreamer’ in his execrable song ‘Imagine’ – a song where he exhorts us to ‘imagine no possessions’, all the while being filmed singing the song in his Ascot mansion. Any dream won’t do.

But kingdom dreams are wonderful things. It isn’t for nothing that the Bible often links dreams with visions. They can give direction. Used prayerfully, they can lead to transformation.

So – er – imagine that you are in Washington DC, and a great crowd has assembled to hear you speak. And as you speak your prepared words, you hear the Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson call to you, “Tell them about the dream!”

And you change your speech on the hoof to tell them about the dream. It won’t fire you for much longer, because soon you will be dead. For Mahalia Jackson actually called out, “Tell them about the dream, Martin,” and you are Martin Luther King, and your speech becomes “I have a dream.” It’s a kingdom of God dream, and it will inspire many to take the torch relay on from you.

This week, then, when you leave the service, I am sending you out to be dreamers. Dream what your frontlines would look like if they were under the kingdom of God, and then pray that God’s will may be done there.

Yes – dream sweet dreams. And change the world.

 

[1] From the Grove Books weekly email, 10th November 2014.

Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes

Canadian pastor Carey Nieuwhof on thirteen aspects of change that many leaders miss.

 

Update

No new sermons here for the last two weeks, I know – yesterday week was an all age service, and yesterday I had a Harvest Festival where I repurposed an old sermon. Yesterday at Knaphill, one of our Local Preachers, Rob Gill, preached on the second instalment of the Life On The Frontline course. Hopefully the audio should be up here before too long.

And next Sunday, I won’t be preaching at all. We have a guest preacher at Knaphill, my old friend John Hibberd. He will be following up a day conference we are having on Saturday by tackling the question of suffering.

But why not come to the day conference itself? Details are below. You can email me on the address given, and pay on the day.

Mission Day

Sermon: Life On The Frontline – 1. The Frontline Call

Matthew 28:16-20

LICC Life On The Frontline DVD cover

LICC Life On The Frontline DVD cover

This morning we start the series of sermons that accompanies our midweek course ‘Life On The Frontline’ that began on Wednesday. And I guess that to use such an image as a ‘frontline’ might need some justifying. If we use the word ‘frontline’ in ordinary speech, we might think of a war zone. And while it is true that Christian mission participates in a spiritual war, that conflict is not with human beings but with spiritual forces. We have no desire to be aggressive towards those who do not share our faith, and those models of evangelism that contain elements of that are styles that we place at a distance from our convictions.

But we do come to a frontline in the sense of a boundary or an interface. Our spiritual frontlines are the places where we connect with those who do not follow Jesus Christ. And that’s what we are exploring in the course and the sermon series.

So this morning’s first sermon has the title of ‘The Frontline Call’. And we get down to some basics about that call using this famous passage that is often called ‘The Great Commission’. Four questions, in fact, about the frontline call: who, where, what and how?

The first question, then, is who? That is, who receives the frontline call? Verse 16 tells us it is ‘the eleven disciples’.

Note those words very carefully: ‘the eleven disciples’. Eleven being one less than twelve, because Judas Iscariot has taken his own life. These were ‘the twelve’. This is the group that Jesus had designated as his apostles. There were twelve of them in order to designate the connection with the twelve tribes of Israel, but now they are reduced to eleven.

And they’re not even called ‘apostles’ here. They are simply ‘disciples’. They don’t come here with special status, but as representatives of all Jesus’ followers. Disciples, not merely apostles, receive the frontline call.

Therefore the call echoes down the centuries to you and me as Jesus’ disciples today. Disciples are the ones who learn from the master, and that’s us. We have so much more to absorb about the way of Jesus. The Greek word for disciple – as I said on Wednesday night – may be paraphrased as ‘apprentice’. We are learning the trade. We are not master craftsmen.

In short, the frontline call, in coming to disciples, comes to a group of people who don’t have it all together. We do not have the spiritual life sussed, we just know that Jesus is the way to go, and we are imperfect followers of his Way.

You might think that Jesus would only call fully trained people to the frontline of his kingdom mission, somewhat in the way that the church doesn’t let a minister loose on a congregation until he or she has had two or three years’ training, or the way a doctor or solicitor has to study for several years before qualifying and practising.

But Jesus has not called a professional élite. He has called ordinary people. While there is a place for certain Christians to be specially trained in understanding other views of life and responding with Christian answers, this is not what Jesus requires of most followers. He simply calls his everyday followers to witness to him in word and deed. We bear witness through our deeds, and we bear witness through our words when we describe what it is like to follow Jesus.

So let no-one here rule themselves out of this high calling. It is for every Christian. It is the privilege of every disciple to let the world see their allegiance to Jesus through their lifestyle and their speaking.

The second question is where? What is the location of our frontline? I know we’ve already answered this in general terms at the beginning of this sermon, but let’s look closely at this passage. Verse 16 again:

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee … (italics mine).

The resurrection appearances of Jesus (of which this is one) happen in both Galilee and Jerusalem. When in Jerusalem, they are at the centre of religious and political power. But here, the meeting is in Galilee, far from those corridors of power, far from the sort of place that features in the title sequences of news bulletins.

Inside The Hobbit Hole Of Bilbo Baggins

Inside The Hobbit Hole Of Bilbo Baggins by Trey Ratcliff on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

They are back home, in familiar surroundings, even if – as in The Lord Of The Ringsthe Shire can never be the same. They are back where they began, the place of family and work.

And it is in our ‘Galilee’, our familiar surroundings, that we find our frontlines. Sure, the Gospel will go to ‘all nations’ (verse 19), but it starts in our daily territories. For some of us who share households with those who do not share our allegiance to Christ, it begins in our homes. For many of us, it is our place of work. It may well also be the school gate or the place where we spend our leisure time – the fitness club, the Women’s Institute, the U3A, the ground where our favourite sports team plays, and so on. Our Galilee may be in our relationships with our neighbours, next door, down the street, and in our community. It may be in our involvement with local affairs, as we get involved with residents’ associations or in lobbying local councillors. It may be the library, the hospital, or even the dentist’s waiting room. I think you get the idea.

Whatever our regular images of the missionary being the one who goes to ‘darkest Africa’ – as if forever defined by “Doctor Livingstone, I presume” – the fact is that Jesus commissions missionaries for Galilee and Knaphill, St John’s and West End, Pirbright and Bisley. We need not be door-to-door types who thump the Bible like a percussion instrument. But we are called to people who live out publicly our apprenticing in the Jesus way, and who give a reason for the hope we have in him.

The third question is what? That is, what are we meant to be doing on our frontlines? Jesus says,

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. (Verses 18b-20a)

We have something to do, due to Jesus’ authority. But what? The normal order in which our English translations put these words lead us to think that the key idea is ‘go’. But in fact ‘go’ is ‘going’ in the Greek, and it parallels ‘baptising’ and ‘teaching’. These verbs ending in ‘ing’ (or ‘gerunds’ for grammar fans) serve the main verb, which is actually ‘make disciples’.

We are placed on our frontlines in order to make disciples. We who are already disciples are meant to reproduce! But, like ordinary human reproduction, it doesn’t happen overnight. Even on the rare occasions when we seem to witness an instant response, like the way the first disciples ‘immediately’ follow Jesus in the Gospels, we usually find that God has been on the case for a long time. And we are in this disciple-making enterprise for the long haul. We know it will take time for our witness to have an effect. People may not be interested. They may tease or even despise. We won’t always know at first when some people have been set thinking by our lifestyle or our words. Only after a while may tentative questions surface. But we stay at our post.

What does this boil down to? Simply this: that disciples make disciples. There are those who have a special gift in this area, and sometimes we call them evangelists. But even though we are not all evangelists – someone has suggested that perhaps about ten per cent of church members have an evangelistic gift – all disciples are witnesses. Wherever you are this time tomorrow, it is a place where God has put you to live before others as a disciple of Jesus, not only for the sake of your own holiness but also for the sake of those you meet.

Many years ago, my home church once conducted a survey where they asked members what the main calling of the church was. Back came the resounding and apparently uncontroversial answer: worship. But Jesus’ words here show that it isn’t as simple as that. Worship is our purpose when we gather, and yes our lives are meant to be acts of worship, too. But if we worship when we are together, we disciple when we are dispersed.

The fourth and final question is how? Exactly how do we set out making disciples? This is where we come back to that question of the verbs. If ‘make disciples’ is the main verb, then ‘going’, ‘baptising’, and ‘teaching’ are the verbs that explain the ‘how’.

Just as we are learners and apprentices of Christ, so we invite others to learn his ways. Of course we have to ‘go’ to those frontlines in order to do that – it’s a delusion to think people will come to us. And when we do, we ‘[teach] them to obey everything [Jesus] has commanded [us]’. We don’t just do that after they commit to following Jesus, we can do that as part of the outworking of our missionary call. We can say, “I believe Jesus taught us to approach life this way. Why don’t you try it and see what happens?”

So why not think of all the life issues that we might discuss with our friends – how we cope with family matters, finances, major decisions, moral crises, conflicts at work, relationship breakdowns, and so on. Did Jesus have any wisdom to offer on any of these? Of course he did. Without turning into a Bible-basher, is it not possible to say, “What helps me in these difficult circumstances is the teaching of Jesus, when he said …” Just make it conversational rather than preachy. Say it in such a way that someone can respond. See it in the way that  you can go into Marks and Spencer and try on the clothes you’re thinking buying in the fitting rooms. We can invite people into discipleship by suggesting they try on the teaching of Jesus for size.

The lonely office conversationalist

The Lonely Office Conversationalist by Eric Domond on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

The baptising? If we do that on the frontline, I guess that would be a real ‘water cooler moment’! But seriously, that’s dangling before us the goal. However many people regard it today, baptism began – and still continues in many places – as the sign of irrevocably breaking with the past and following Jesus. It’s the mark of discipleship. It’s why we seek to show and share God’s love on our frontlines, living out our faith before the world.

I think I’ve told before the story of my friend who lost his son to cancer. The young man was diagnosed at around the age of seventeen, and died when he was about twenty. Some months after the death, my friend took a phone call. It was his son’s consultant.

“I’m ringing to invite you to my confirmation service.”

My friend had no idea she was religious.

“I wasn’t,” she said, “but I watched how your son lived out his faith in the face of his cancer, and now I am a Christian.”

You know, I would love not to be repeating that story. Not because it isn’t wonderful – it is. I would prefer not to repeat it, because there were so many similar stories to tell of what happens when we live intentionally as disciples on our frontlines. I’m telling some at the Wednesday meetings for this course. This last week I told one about the witness of a grandmother to her daughter and grand-daughter. I have another one stored up about a Christian woman in the banking industry who changed her company’s attitude to those in deep debt.

But wouldn’t it be great if there were some Knaphill stories to add to the collection? Let’s get to our frontlines – because that, after all, is where Jesus promises to be ‘with [us] always, to the very end of the age.’ (Verse 20b)

Yesterday’s Sermon: Shaped By The Covenant Meal (Covenant Service Sermon)

Mark 14:22-25

What am I reading@

What Am I Reading? by John on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Henri Nouwen was a much-lauded Dutch Roman Catholic priest. A brilliant man, he held doctorates in both psychology and theology, and rose through various academic posts to become Professor of Pastoral Theology at the prestigious Yale University. He later taught at Harvard, so effectively he taught at the American equivalents to our Oxford and Cambridge. He also had the common touch, and wrote popular books about the spiritual life that sold in quantities that delighted his publishers. We studied one of them, The Return Of The Prodigal Son, in an ecumenical Lent course here in Knaphill.

But for all his acclaim, Nouwen was uncomfortable. It wasn’t until he joined the staff at L’Arche, an international community for people with developmental disabilities, that he felt he was living a truly authentic Christian life.

In looking for a model of how to live the spiritual life in a secular world, he settled upon the Last Supper, and wrote about it in a wonderful book called Life Of The Beloved. What he said there so struck me when I read it that I want to use his framework as we consider our covenant with God again this year. The covenant meal – Holy Communion – provides a structure for the covenant life.

Essentially, what Nouwen is saying is this: what Jesus does with the bread, he does with us. Hear again verse 22:

While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘Take it; this is my body.’

Note the four actions Jesus does with the bread: took, gave thanks, broke, and gave. Jesus does the same with us, says Nouwen: he takes us, gives thanks for us, breaks us, and gives us.

If that seems a bit far-fetched, then bear with me for the sermon, but also listen to these reflections on the passage before us from Tom Wright:

This Passover-meal-with-a-difference is going to explain, more deeply than words could ever do, what his action , and passion, the next day really meant; and, more than explaining it, it will enable Jesus’ followers, from that day to this, to make it their own, to draw life and strength from it. If we want to understand, and be nourished by, what happened on Calvary, this meal is the place to start.[1]

So, on the day when we once again ‘make this covenant our own’, let us do so by making the covenant meal our own.

Pastoral Baguettes

Pastoral Baguettes by Kurmann Communications on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

First of all, Jesus takes the bread and he also takes us. In our communion service, we represent this simply by unveiling the elements, removing the white cloth. Other traditions process the bread and wine to the table. I don’t do that, and I won’t bore you with the reasons now, but note that we simply take the bread.

And Jesus takes us, too. He takes the initiative to choose and call us. Yes, we made a choice to follow him, but it only came because before we ever thought of him he thought of us, and in his love reached out to us.

We start, then, from a perspective not only of having been chosen by Jesus but in that choosing being taken and held in his hands. Whatever happens from here, we are not alone but in his hands. The covenant life starts in a safe place. As we come to renew our covenant today, we are coming to the One who promises never to leave or forsake us.

So we start from that point of security. Like the child held by the parent, we are safe. Like the friend giving us a hug, we are reassured. Like the beloved held by the lover, we know we are loved. This is the beginning of the covenant. On Covenant Sunday, I am always thinking about those who are nervous about making promises to God which amount to an abandonment to his will and wonder what that would mean. But I come back to the fact that we begin in this place: Jesus takes us. Covenant starts in a good place, not a scary one.

Give Thanks!

Give Thanks! by Kevin Dooley on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

The second action of Jesus is that he gives thanks for the bread – and he gives thanks to the Father for us, too. Again, we might feel uncomfortable, but stay with me to think about this.

One of my nephews used to get so impatient about when a meal was due to arrive that by the time the plate was put in front of him, he was famished. Not wanting to wait a second longer than necessary to eat, he would sometimes abbreviate grace to three words: ‘Father God, Amen.”

Our custom of saying ‘Grace’ derives from the Jewish custom of giving thanks to God for food, and for all sorts of aspects of the material creation. Here, for example, is a traditional prayer said after a meal:

Blessed are You, L-rd our G-d, King of the universe, who, in His goodness, provides sustenance for the entire world with grace, with kindness, and with mercy. He gives food to all flesh, for His kindness is everlasting. Through His great goodness to us continuously we do not lack [food], and may we never lack food, for the sake of His great Name. For He, benevolent G-d, provides nourishment and sustenance for all, does good to all, and prepares food for all His creatures whom He has created, as it is said: You open Your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing. Blessed are You, L-rd, who provides food for all.

The thanksgiving for the unleavened bread at Passover (and I am assuming Jesus was celebrating a form of Passover with his disciples at the ‘Last Supper’) begins in similar vein. The sense is maintained that created things are good, they are a gift from God, and have a divinely ordained purpose in the world. Therefore God is praised for his good gifts.

And in Covenant, God is praised for his good gift of you. God has made each of us in the church as a gift to one another and a gift to the world. For this reason, Jesus praises the Father for us. It is not that he praises us, but he praises God for us.

Even so, some people find this hard to accept. They feel worthless and insignificant, small and wracked by sin. How can Jesus praise God for me, they ask?

He can, because of God’s work in you. And God has some special purpose for you. He has given you gifts and talents, he has placed you in certain families, neighbourhoods, workplaces, and leisure, and for that Jesus is thankful. However much the holiness of God cannot abide sin, there is no picture here of an angry God, only of the Son of God who is pleased that you are God’s good gift. So rejoice that you are seen this way.

Break Free

Break Free by Nick Wheeler on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Jesus’ third action is to break the bread, and also break us. Here we may feel we are getting closer to the challenging, if not severe, side of the Covenant that intimidates some church members into not attending this service each year.

At one level, though, this isn’t a fearful picture. For the one bread to be distributed, it has to be broken. And for the one church to be sent on the mission of God, she has to be dispersed to different places. Some of this is just a natural expression of what happens at the end of worship when we are dismissed to serve Christ in the world. It’s like the church building which had a slogan over the exit door: ‘Servants’ Entrance’. We go from here to our separate localities as Christ’s witnesses. We are the church gathered and we are also the church dispersed.

But in another way, being broken by Jesus is part of that submission to whatever he needs to do in our lives. I am not talking about something so extreme as military training, where the civilian is destroyed in order for the soldier to emerge, although we should take seriously the call to a disciplined life as Christians.

And in this respect, Jesus uses the circumstances of life that he allows us to face, or even perhaps brings into our lives, to shape us into better people. However, those life situations are not always pleasant. They may be little different from what people who do not share our faith also encounter, but in our case, Christ allows brokenness to be a tool that leads us to pursue a life that is more like his.

So even in the joy of a marriage, we come face to face with just how self-centred we are. In the loss of something important, we confront the call to decide exactly where our faith and trust lie.

Christiane Caine

Christine Caine by Willow Creek D/CH on Flicr. Some rights reserved.

This week I read an extraordinary testimony by the Australian preacher Christine Caine. An energetic pastor, evangelist, and campaigner against human trafficking, she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and other conditions in her body. I would love to read you the whole testimony, but it’s long, and I can only focus on a couple of brief parts. Firstly, here are just a few of the words she said to her surgeon after her diagnosis:

Leslie, it’s okay. Cancer is not terminal. Life is terminal. I will live every second of every day that God has ordained for me to live on this earth, and then I will go home. … We are on a battlefield, not a playground; it’s time to go to war. You tell me what to do medically, and I will fight this spiritually, and whatever happens, Jesus will have the final victory.

And then I note how she said,

I wanted to be delivered FROM this situation, but ten weeks later, I discovered God wanted me to walk THROUGH this.

Why walk through this? Because it brought her into contact with other cancer patients. Lonely, fearful people. Those who had lost their hair, were marked with radiation lines, bruised by needles, or unable to walk without assistance. A father wheeling his son in for treatment. In her broken condition, she could minister. As she says,

I wondered why so many people wanted a platform ministry when there was ministry waiting in hospital waiting rooms all over the world.

How many are waiting for us to go to them while we wait for them to come to us?

Waiting rooms are waiting for us.

What are you waiting for?

And this leads me into the fourth and final action of Jesus: he gives the bread, and he gives us, too. That’s where we’ve been heading from the beginning. Just as the bread is destined to be given, so are we. Chosen and cherished by God in his taking of us and Christ’s thanksgiving for us, the breaking that then ensues in the knowledge that we are so loved is in order for us to be distributed into the world.

Just as ancient Israel had to learn that her special covenant with God was not a matter of élite status but in order to bless the world, so the same is true of our ‘new covenant’. It does grant remarkable status to us as children of God, but the purpose is not to luxuriate in that, but to become God’s gift to the world, calling others to meet this astonishing God who calls them too into the covenant community.

LICC

LICC by Brett Jordan on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

And so this theme comes at a good time, with our Life On The Frontline series beginning this Wednesday with a midweek meeting at 8:00 pm and continuing next Sunday with the first sermon in the series. Here is the chance to identify the people and places to which God has given us so that we might be his ambassadors.

If we are serious about renewing our covenant with God this year, we shall be serious about the fact that Jesus gives us to others in his name.

So if you are aware that Christ has taken hold of you and you are safe with him; if you realise that Jesus thanks his Father for the gifts and opportunities he has given you; if you realise that the brokenness in your life has been allowed for a kingdom reason; and if you acknowledge that Jesus is giving you to the world …

… then why not take part in Life On The Frontline. And be ready as part of working out your covenant vows to seek openings to be Christ’s witness in word and deed.

[1] Wright, N. T. (2004-03-01). Mark for Everyone (p. 194). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Last Week’s Sermon: Reconciliation, Restoration, And Church Discipline

I’m behind on posting sermons – sorry. Here is last week’s sermon. I’ll post today’s sermon tomorrow.

Matthew 18:15-20

You don’t have to look far on any day to see conflict and relationship breakdown in our world. I was putting together these thoughts on Thursday, and looking at the BBC news, I found these stories:

Conclift

Conflict (Chess II) by Cristian V on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

And if it isn’t the national and international news, then we know of troubles among our friends and families. We witness the pain of marriage break-ups, family members falling out with each other, people leaving a place of employment because they don’t get on with the boss, and many other things.

Sadly, the church is not exempt from this. Mrs X won’t speak with Mr Y. A group of people will complain about someone else in the church; that person will consider the complaints unreasonable; and the minister gets lobbied by both sides! Or perhaps the minister goes around upsetting people, and either a campaign starts to get him or her removed, or people lie low until the minister leaves.

What a tragedy it is when the church shows the same characteristics as much of the world. At the heart of our faith is the notion of reconciliation. Through the death of Jesus on the Cross, God reconciles us to himself. And we are meant to be a community of reconciliation. Ephesians talks about Jews and Gentiles being brought together in the Gospel. Jesus talks about forgiving one another. In fact, the story that comes straight after today’s reading is the one where Jesus tells Peter to forgive someone ‘seventy times seven’ and tells the parable of the unforgiving servant.

Doesn’t all this show us that the Christian community is meant to be a model of reconciliation to the world? The way we deal with sins and frictions is surely to be a signpost to the kingdom of God for people.

It isn’t surprising, then, if Jesus here wants us to find a way of reconciliation if at all possible when sin damages relationships in the church. I’m going to split his teaching in this passage into two sections. There are practices for us to implement, and promises from Jesus.

Reconciliation in the sno

Reconciliation In The Snow by Tim Green on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Firstly, then, the practices Jesus calls us to implement when someone sins against us. He tells us initially to ‘go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone’ (verse 15b). This isn’t what many of us like to hear. Some of us are nervous, and dislike the thought of confrontation. Others of us rather enjoy gossip, and would prefer to talk about the misdemeanour behind the culprit’s back. We like to engage in a form of revenge by sullying the other person’s reputation on the quiet.

If we fall into one of those two reactions to the idea of speaking alone to the person who has hurt us, we need to hear what Jesus says next about the process. He talks about the aim of going to the person: ‘If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.’ (Verse 15c) The point of going to see someone who has caused offence, says Jesus, is reconciliation and restoration: reconciliation between the two estranged parties, and restoration to full fellowship.

Think about that goal if you have a negative feeling about approaching someone who has done you wrong. If the prospect fills you with nerves, then this reassures you that you do not have to go in with a confrontational attitude. This is about putting things right, and healing the relationship.

And if you would rather gossip about the person, then you need to be challenged by Jesus’ goal of reconciliation and restoration. Despite what is practised in some churches by some Christians, being sinned against is no reason for character assassination. That is the opposite of Jesus’ purposes for his people. We are called to show a different way of life to the world. A lot of Christian witness could be improved by the elimination of gossip in favour of building one another up.

shun'd by dalloPhoto

shun’d by dalloPhoto on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

But what if it doesn’t work? There is no guarantee, not even from Jesus. The next stage is this:

But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. (Verse 16)

The Old Testament Law required more than one witness, and Jesus brings that in here. If there is disagreement between the original parties, others are now involved. This isn’t about going mob-handed to the person who has mistreated us. In fact, as Tom Wright says in his popular commentary on Matthew, one point in taking two or three others along with us for the next stage is for the sake of checks and balances. What if I have misconstrued what happened? What if this is a misunderstanding? Others can bear witness and help us through it, if that is the case. Remember, our objective according to Jesus is to ‘regain’ the one who has injured us.

Only if none of this works do we escalate to the level of the church congregation:

If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (Verse 17)

Still the hope is that the other member will listen. This is not a court of law; this is the church of Jesus Christ seeking to effect reconciliation. Yes, it may involve difficult and humbling things: if wrong has been done, then an admission of the fact and repentance will be involved. We do not banish someone until these attempts have been exhausted.

But if the person will not respond positively to all these overtures, then the regrettable final stage comes. It is a last resort. We do not leap into excluding someone, but nor do we rule it out if nothing works. For just as Adam and Eve were exiled from the Garden of Eden due to their sin, and just as the people of Israel were exiled from the Holy Land due to their sin too, so in the final analysis may someone be exiled from the Church for persistent and unrepentant sin. Yes, we know we are all sinners, but those who are not prepared to address their condition before God and his people ultimately place themselves outside the fellowship, and the church must confirm this serious state of affairs. Sometimes only this will bring home the severity of the situation.

These, then, are the practices that Jesus briefly outlines here. Sometimes the process will be more complex than this, but this is only a short account of Jesus’ teaching, and the important point is that we keep to his goal of seeking restoration and reconciliation if at all possible. We only confirm exile from the church when the person has hardened their heart against the Gospel call of grace and holiness.

We need now to think about the second half of the reading, the promises of God that Jesus enunciates for these stressful circumstances. The first promise may not sound much like a promise at first:

Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. (Verse 18)

There are some Christians who think this has something to do with casting out demons, but the context is the one we have of restoring relationships and church discipline. It’s a reminder of who we are as the church: we are the community of God’s kingdom. What we do here is a foretaste of glory. We are rehearsing for God’s great and beautiful reality, his new creation, when he makes all things new. This is our part in making all things new. So be encouraged when you are part of something like this. You are taking part in God’s kingdom work of renewing his world. You are building for God’s great future.

The next promise follows on from this, and it’s one we have misunderstood for so long, because we have regularly quoted it out of context:

Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. (Verse 19)

When we take those words out of context, we read them simply as a promise from Jesus about answered prayer. If two of us agree – and some Christians actually refer to what they call a ‘prayer of agreement’ – then our heavenly Father will do it for us.

This leads to disappointment. How many prayer requests over the years have been ones where you were in agreement with other Christians, but you didn’t receive the answer you desired? Many more than most of us care to admit, I’d venture to suggest.

But the context isn’t prayer requests. The context is this desire to bring restoration after sin, only resorting to exclusion in extreme circumstances. It’s a context where God’s people engage in such things as a preparation for the new heavens and new earth to come, where we model God’s kingdom to the world. And so when we agree on restoration to the Christian community, it truly happens. The Father makes it so. Such is his desire for reconciliation that when we forgive and repent, he makes a way through.

And sadly he also honours the exile from the Christian community where someone has so hardened their hearts to sin that they refuse grace. So our preference for restoration and our last resort use of exile are signs of God’s coming kingdom, and the Father puts his seal on what we do, honouring the state of our hearts. What we do is not idle or independent: it is backed up by Heaven.

Then there is a final promise, and yet again – like all these promises – it is a verse we have taken out of context, misused, and misunderstood:

For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them. (Verse 20)

When we are few in number at a service or church meeting, we invoke this verse. God is still with us – and we comfort ourselves with that thought, even if in the ensuing meeting we don’t have much sense of God’s presence at all.

There is some truth in this, and on one level these words of Jesus are radical. Compare it to the Jewish regulation that required at least ten (and they had to be men) in order to form a synagogue, and you see some of the power of these words.

But again, I come back to the question of context. God is with us in the desire to bring restoration. When Jesus speaks or ‘two or three gathered in [his] name’, it’s only four verses since he told the complainant to take one or two witnesses with him, so that the matter might be established by two or three witnesses (verse 16). Context requires us to refer back to that.

And that is why I made the point earlier that those of us who get nervous about this process should hang on for the promises Jesus brings. Not only does he promise us that what we do is a sign of the kingdom; not only does he promise that the Father backs up our work in this area; he also promises to be present with us in the sensitive work of reconciliation, restoration, and repentance.

Why? Because God is committed to this work. Perhaps nothing else shows more clearly the Gospel having an effect upon people’s lives than when they go to extraordinary lengths to overcome estrangement and renew broken relationships.

So we serve a God who does not let sin have the last word: that belongs to grace. And he calls us to be like that: the church is to be a place where the final word goes to grace.

Is that true of us? Here?

Sermon: How To Deal With The Problem Of Popularity

Sorry I haven’t (so far) been able to post last Sunday’s sermon, the first after my summer holiday. I have some computer problems. If I can post it when those issues are resolved, I will. In the meantime, here is the latest sermon in the series on Acts for this coming Sunday.

Acts 14:8-20

The desire for popularity starts young. Will you be picked first for a sports team at school, or will you be the one left at the end, who is unwanted by either captain? You fall in and fall out with the trendy girl.

In adulthood, you may want to be popular with the boss, or you may participate in cultural expressions of popularity, such as so-called TV talent shows. Either you vote for your favourite singer on The X Factor or you even enter for it.

And more widely, we have the irony that among the people most admired in society are often those who have loosened themselves from addiction to the approval of others. They say and do what they think and care about, regardless of whether people agree or support them, and strangely that is applauded. Perhaps when we laud those who are not addicted to approval, we realise deep down inside that our own desire to be endorsed by others is an unhealthy trait.

In our reading, Paul and Barnabas – who have just escaped possible death in Iconium – find themselves subject to an opposite manifestation of mass hysteria: huge acclaim. Not that they went looking for it, but if a lame man is healed through your words (verses 8-10), then maybe it isn’t surprising if you find yourself on the receiving end of adulation. Today, the TV crews would be there, experts would be pronouncing on the matter, and all this a few hours after it had been extensively dissected on Facebook and Twitter.

What goes right and what goes wrong in this story when it comes to the question of popularity?

Firstly, the crowd goes wrong, because they instantly lapse into idolatry. Granted, it is a spectacular deed, both unusual and miraculous, and you can’t blame them for thinking that God is at work somehow. The trouble is, they identify the human messengers with God. But it’s quite a leap to assume that Barnabas and Paul must be the Greek deities Zeus and Hermes (verse 12), and the priest of Zeus, who wants to offer a sacrifice of bulls and the honour of wreaths to the apostles (verse 13), doesn’t exactly show much discernment.

Now we may well find it hard to identify with the specific details in this part of the society. Probably very few of us have seen a verified miraculous healing, and it’s unlikely that any of us have been venerated as divine beings.

But perhaps we have known something like this on a more modest scale. God may have helped us to do something important. Perhaps we helped someone in need, and it all seemed rather ordinary to us, but then people began to praise us. How do we handle that?

I touched on this a few weeks ago when we considered the death of Herod Agrippa, who failed to give glory to God when he was wrongly praised for being divine. You may recall that he didn’t pass the praise onto God. There are healthy and unhealthy ways to respond to praise. Perhaps you remember me telling you the story of Corrie ten Boom, who said that when she received a compliment, she thought of it as being like a bunch of flowers that are not meant for her. So she enjoyed the smell of the praise, rather like she would a bouquet. But then she would pass the accolade on to Heaven, saying, “This is all for you, Lord.”

We can see here how very quickly the apostles reject the status accorded to them. They are deeply distressed, as the tearing of their clothes (verse 14) shows. But let’s be very careful, because although Barnabas and Paul are careful to direct all the praise to God, what they do is not an example of what some people call ‘worm theology’. That is, just because they want God to be praised rather than themselves, they do not say things such as, “I am only a worm.” All the elevating of God that they do is not done to project themselves as worthless wretches. This is not the Uriah Heep definition of ‘very ‘umble’.

The apostles know that God was the author of the lame man’s healing, and so they speak passionately about his goodness. They speak about his provision to all (verses 15 to 17), just as Jesus had said that God made the sun shine on both the just and the unjust (contrary to the misquote that ‘the sun shines on the righteous’). They spoke of God’s goodness to all in creation and provision, something that John Calvin was later to label as ‘common grace’. Even before anyone discovers the saving grace of God in Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection for them, God has already shown ‘common grace’ in the way he has laid on good and necessary things for the sustaining of love, and has done so without favouring one group over another. It is not true that God only blesses the Christians: he starts by blessing all people.

And it is this kind of God who, the apostles say, calls people to repentance. We hear no description of a God whose severity is such you think he suffers from permanent indigestion. No: we hear the call to turn to him because everything else is so worthless in comparison to his goodness (verse 15).

Their concern is not to make fans for themselves, but disciples for Jesus Christ. I wonder whether that is our prime desire when someone praises us. If we too, believe in such a good God, a God of love, then should we not be more concerned for his popularity than ours?

And how might we respond if we do witness something out of the ordinary? Is it with adulation? Is it with some kind of ‘fan club’ mentality for the human beings at the centre of it? Isn’t it about time Christians stopped participating in the celebrity culture that obsesses our society? And isn’t it time that we stopped playing the same game in the church?

Some Christians today talk about ‘making Jesus famous’. To me that’s rather clumsy language, but it does make the point about the priorities we are to have when it comes to popularity. Whose fame are we concerned about? Do we want to burnish our own reputation, or do we want Jesus Christ to be promoted?

Secondly, the Jews from Antioch and Iconium also go wrong. Their problem is not idolatry – they knew their Ten Commandments – their problem is jealousy.

Now it’s all too easy today to take a misguided steer when it comes to the New Testament tales of Jewish people opposing Jesus and the early church. We know from the appalling legacy of history that the last thing we want to do is recreate what a Jewish friend of mine at work experienced as a child, when she was regularly called a ‘Christ killer’ in the street.

But neither can we simply take these stories in terms of the way Martin Luther and some of his successors interpreted them, namely that here was a group of people who had treated religion as a list of rules rather than as an experience of grace. The real situation was probably rather different. They were deeply devout, committed people, who wanted to know how God drew the boundary markers to denote who was ‘in’ when it came to faith and who was ‘out’. They understood that in their faith God had saved them by grace, but they saw good deeds not so much as saving them as proving they were members of the chosen people.

In other words, they weren’t that dissimilar to a lot of modern religious people. We may know that God has forgiven us in Jesus Christ and his death upon the Cross, but we then have certain standards to determine who we think are real Christians. Those standards may have some connection with the Bible, or they may have a little more to do with our wider cultural. Sometimes they will be explicitly stated, and at other times they will implicit assumptions.

Why go through all this about the Jewish opponents of the Gospel, including those who stone Paul and leave him for dead here (verse 19)? Because I want us to understand that it’s quite dangerous when we look down on them. We can be uncomfortably like them. We too, in our desire to protect and honour the name of our God, can also fall into the same poisonous, lethal trap. In our zeal for God, we can, if we are not careful, unleash deadly energies as a result of our jealousy that can damage others.

I have seen it happen in churches when a new, young, enthusiastic Christian grasps something about the Gospel and runs with great energy and excitement with it. Many people are thrilled, but some others who are more experienced in the faith think that they should be the people receiving recognition. So they plot – usually quietly, behind the scenes. The young Christian is subject to whispers, questions, and ‘concerns’. Only if these don’t work does the game become more aggressive and public.

I have also seen it happen in churches when some people think that a certain area of church life belongs to them. They have a monopoly on it. Nobody else is allowed to enter their domain, or to make creative suggestions, because no-one can possibly do it better than the existing incumbent. So when someone else does come up with a good idea and people love it, they throw a tantrum and wreck relationships.

Oh, we may not try to stone someone physically, but if we have not guarded our hearts against having a jealous reaction when someone else achieves popularity, then we are capable of causing other forms of destruction.

What can we do about this? How can we avoid jealousy when someone else is in the limelight and not us? I believe the simple answer is to remember that everything in the Christian life is about grace – the undeserved favour of God. It is not simply that grace comes into play so that we initially receive forgiveness and a place in the family of God. Everything from there on in as well is about God’s grace. All the good things we receive are not because we have kept certain rules or standards that maintain a place within the ‘boundary markers’. No! It is always about grace. However much we change (and even that is by the grace of God), we are still not rewarded according to our perfection. God continues to bless and to use sinful, broken, frail people in the Church. And yes, that most certainly includes me.

In other words, let us pause to reflect upon the fact that we shall always be dependent upon God’s grace in Jesus Christ. We are never so good that we can dispense with it. And if that is the case, then we must live like Jacob, with a limp, a limp that says we are sinners in permanent need of God’s mercy. And when we see ourselves like that, it is hard to keep up a sense that somehow I deserve something better than that upstart who has taken the spotlight off me.

Friends, we owe it to God, to the Church, to the world and to ourselves to guard our hearts with our perpetual need of grace.

And it is that same deep awareness of grace that will also make us see how ridiculous it is to promote ourselves instead of Christ. Once we recall how much we owe to him, we just look petty and silly when we think we should be elevating our own cause rather than his.

So – come, Holy Spirit, fill our hearts with a profound appreciation of grace. Convict us of sin where we have inflated our own self-importance in place of all that Jesus did for us on the Cross and in leaving the tomb empty. Enable us to be unconcerned about our own place in the church or society. Instead, fill us with a passionate desire to see Jesus Christ gain the glory for all that is good.

Speaking Well

Sound consultant Julian Treasure shares insights into what constitutes good speaking, in both a technical and an ethical sense. Well worth ten minutes of your time.

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