Again, blog posting has been light recently. One reason is alluded to in this week’s sermon. See the comments early on about my mother’s health, and you will know where most of my spare time has gone. What blogging time I have had has gone on my even more overtly new ‘work’ blog that I mentioned in my last post, Thinking About Mission. Please do follow that blog, too. Each day there is a short, punchy discussion starter post on an aspect of Christian mission.
But now, to this Sunday’s sermon, and an attempt to preach on one of the most difficult passages in the whole Bible.
Today’s sermon could be one of those in which a foolish minister rushes in where angelic preachers fear to tread. There has been a lively debate on the UK Methodists page of Facebook about the fact that Psalm 137 is set in this week’s Lectionary. What do we do with passages like this? I expected some shock at your hearing this psalm right the way through to the death wish expressed for Babylonian babies.
A number of us agreed that we have to think about and discuss these readings, because we know people are troubled by them. It was a matter of debate whether such thinking should be done out loud in a Sunday sermon or in a home group. Some people thought it would be better discussed informally in a fellowship group rather than raised in a sermon, and I’m sure there is merit in that thought. There would be more opportunity to thrash out issues that way.
But in the end, I decided that this kind of text can’t be ignored in Sunday worship, either. For one thing, this is a psalm – it is a piece of worship material. It appeared in Israel’s hymn book. And just because it’s worship doesn’t mean it can be prettied up with a bouncy tune, such as in the song ‘Rivers of Babylon’:
Further, I think there is a pastoral word to be said in relation to where Psalm 137 sits in relation to the rest of the Bible that is important for us all to hear.
Here is an illustration to help us see a way of understanding why such a psalm, with its frightening calls for vengeance, has a place in Holy Writ. My mother was discharged from hospital on Friday after nearly eight weeks. She had fallen and fractured her hip, and this was followed by a series of other unrelated mishaps that kept her in for longer. But come home she did, and Friday was an excellent day for that, because on that day she and Dad celebrated their fifty-fifth wedding anniversary.
However, Mum – at the age of eighty-three – is inevitably frail after these traumas, and Dad – who was eighty-six on Tuesday – is no longer strong enough to look after her without help. So it was agreed that she would come home with a care package. However, the care agency couldn’t start until tomorrow, so there had to be an emergency provision for the weekend. Originally that was going to be supplied by the hospital’s rapid response team, but in the end various of us in the family covered the necessary duties in the short term.
I want to say that Psalm 137 is a short term, rapid response, emergency reaction to the crisis that Israel finds herself in. Let’s remind ourselves what has happened. For years, prophets such as Jeremiah have warned the people of God that their sin will render them liable to God’s judgement. Always, they have thought themselves to be a special case, possessing a ‘Get out of jail free’ card that would prevent them suffering the consequences that the so-called doom merchants were predicting. But now it has come true. King Nebuchadnezzar’s armies have marched on Jerusalem and conquered God’s people. Many are murdered, a large number have been taken captive into Babylon itself, including Israel’s own Gifted and Talented stream (among whom we shall later find the likes of Daniel and his friends). Only a small number have been left at home, mostly those the triumphant army thought incapable of making a worthwhile contribution to Babylonian society.
This is a trauma of the highest magnitude for the chosen race. They had thought that Jerusalem was inviolable – but it wasn’t. They had assumed that God would not allow harm to come to his holy temple – but he did. Their faith, based so strongly on the idea of occupying the land promised to them, has been ripped to shreds.
And perhaps we have some similarities to them, at least on the metaphorical level. We Christians are no longer at the centre of our society. We live in some kind of exile, where our convictions are increasingly marginalised and ridiculed. For those who have grown up familiar with a culture in which the church and her leaders were respected, this is an alien land, our Babylon. We might just as easily cry out to God about this as we might about other things.
So what do you do when such a terrible event happens to you? Many of us scream out in pain, and perhaps even in anger, lashing out. That is certainly what the psalmist does here. As he and his people weep in Babylon and vow never to forget Jerusalem, they turn their frustrations upon their captors and call for violent revenge.
Now, at that point, you might think, “That’s all very well, it goes some way to explaining why the tribes of Judah were feeling this way, but it doesn’t explain why a text like this in the Scriptures. After all, are we not called to forgive and to love our enemies?”
Well, indeed we are, and that is one of the biggest problems with this psalm. It doesn’t seem to fit with the teaching of Jesus, does it? And if it stands alone, it would be very dangerous.
Let me suggest to you, though, that you have to feel anger before you can forgive. We can be so keen in the church to ensure that people forgive and do not become bitter that we actually abuse people who have already been hurt. If we aren’t careful and jump in immediately to ask someone who has been wronged, “Did you forgive the person who did this to you?” they will not in fact forgive, they will merely suppress their anger. And suppressed anger tends to come out again at a later date, like a Jack in the Box, in harmful forms. Sometimes it comes as rage, sometimes it mutates into depression.
For that reason, I was once horrified to hear the story of a church member who had been raped. People jumped in and asked the woman, “Have you forgiven your attacker?” without giving her permission to feel her pain and anger about the evil that had been done to her.
We rush into all sorts of things in our instant society, and in the church we seem to have included forgiveness among the things that we have powdered down and can quickly reconstitute with boiling water. But we need to allow time. I recently witnessed an unfortunate misunderstanding which I won’t spell out here, where someone was accidentally let down by another church member, and the results were distressing. A week later, the person who had been hurt was still mad at the person who had failed her, and was overheard to say, “I don’t feel very forgiving.” A well intentioned member of the congregation asked me if I would intervene, and I said I wouldn’t immediately. It needed another week to see whether this was a case of someone still feeling the pain or whether it truly was a case of nursing a grudge. Should it prove to be the latter, I said, then I would certainly speak with the person in question. But we have to give these things time.
Psalm 137, then, reminds us by even the expression of anger in an ancient hymn, that we need to feel the hurt. Not only that, it gives us permission to express that pain to God himself. If we are not careful, we make worship purely into a celebration (which in many respects it is – of course!) and nothing else. But Scriptures such as this show us that a fuller understanding of worship includes such things as bringing our laments as well as our songs of praise to God.
My observation is that some of us in the church think that we have to be prim and proper with God, being careful to say the right things before him as if he cannot cope with the heat of our tears and the fire of our fury. We think that unless we come to him full of faith and in the right spirit, he will get one of his specially prepared thunderbolts out of the cupboard and hurl it at us.
But scriptures like this tell us otherwise, just as our Gospel reading in which Jesus quotes another psalm on the Cross – Psalm 22 – does, is that God is big enough to cope with us coming to him in anguish. Somebody once said that they felt like they were beating their fists against God, and this felt so wrong, but they came to understand that they were – so to speak – beating their fists against God’s chest, but that he was holding them in his arms as they did so. Could God be better than we think he is? Could it be that the One of whom we say this most basic statement – ‘God is love’ – truly is like a Father to his children, holding them in their suffering and wiping their tears from their eyes?
And because it is a God of love in whom we believe, we can eventually come through the lashing out to the point of forgiveness. Just as we listened to Jesus crying out, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” so we remember that the same Jesus also said, “Father forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.” We need to feel the anger, but if we choose to make anger our permanent abode, then we shall degenerate into bitterness, with all the results that brings, both in the shrinking of the spiritual life because it gives us antipathy towards Jesus, and also in the physical harm that bitterness can cause to our mortal bodies.
It is worth us remembering that in the New Testament, the word translated into English as ‘to forgive’ means ‘to set free’. When we forgive somebody, we set them free. It is no accident that Jesus told parables about forgiveness in which he talked about the forgiveness of financial debts. People are set free from spiritual debt by forgiveness. Until we forgive, do we not feel like the evildoer owes us something?
But there is another side to the setting free that comes in forgiveness. It is not only the offender who is set free: the injured party is also liberated. When we choose not merely to feel our anger but to stay with it permanently, the bitterness that takes over our lives becomes like chains wrapped around us. When we forgive, not only do we set the wrongdoer free of any debt to us, we also find that the chains of resentment and animosity fall away from us.
And that’s why I said that Psalm 137 and passages like it take their place in the Scriptures as the rapid response to the sorrows and wrongs that are inflicted upon us. We need that stage, but we cannot stay there. The long term care package is forgiveness.
In addition to my regular blog here, Big Circumstance, I have today set up a blog for my Methodist circuit. It aims to provide short, punchy articles about Christian mission that are for regular churchgoers, not just the theologically qualified. You can find it at Thinking About Mission. You can follow it in the same way that you do this one, including having every post emailed to you.
I consider it a bittersweet honour to conduct funerals. I have the opportunity to model hope and love in the darkest of times. Today, upon visiting one of my church members who had lost her husband, I discovered that some decades ago she had been secretary to one of my theological heroes – Lesslie Newbigin. I was glad only to discover that at the end of the visit, otherwise I fear the time might have been derailed.
But also today, a friend who is an Anglican priest shared on Facebook this obituary of a Catholic woman from Wisconsin. Rarely have I come across an obit quite like this one. Whether or not you express your faith in the same way as this lady, I invite you to read it, enjoy it and be challenged by it.
Back in July, I wrote about the controversy attending the discovery of substantial fictional elements in Tony Anthony’s book ‘Taming the Tiger’. I noted the evangelical obsession with celebrity, and the lust for dramatic conversion stories as drivers in promoting such books, with an attendant risk of pastoral damage for Christians who do not have a spectacular story to tell. I began the piece with reproducing a cartoon from Ship Of Fools when it was a print magazine, not a website. ‘Born Again Testimonies’ asked, ‘You may be, but has your TESTIMONY been born again?’
Now I’ve found an antidote in Ashley Cleveland‘s memoir, ‘Little Black Sheep‘. i have loved her music for a good twenty years. Many say she sounds like Melissa Etheridge: I say she makes Janis Joplin sound like Janet Jackson. A blues-rock singer with notes of soul, she sings with passion and honesty about faith and life. In the book, she writes with the same passion and honesty about faith and life.
Superficially, her story has elements that Christian publishers and readers love. Blaming herself as a young child for the divorce of her gay father and vain mother, she slides into multiple addictions – food, alcohol and drugs. She seeks love in all the wrong places and believes that God only wants to punish her. She has no concept of a personal, loving God – although eventually she is – if I may borrow Brennan Manning‘s word – ‘ambushed’ by God.
But hers is no quick fix fairytale of the ‘When I met Jesus, everything was happy ever after’ variety. She slides back, still fighting alcoholism while winning Grammy awards for her music. She struggles to establish a healthy marriage. The Christian community is locally welcoming, in the non-judgemental members of her church, but the wider Christian constituency is offended when she dares to sing about sex – even as a married woman. But hers is the tale of the God who lifts her up by love every time she falls.
There is much more that I could say about the book, but what I essentially want to say in this post is that all sorts of people would profit from reading this book:
* Music fans should read it;
* Pastors should read it;
* Most of all, broken people should read it.
I’d better end this with some music:
The song which provides the title for the book:
Queen Of Soul – her take on being a woman of God:
An exhortation to others, based on her own experience:
Covering the Rolling Stones:
‘I am the vine,’ says Jesus (verse 1). The moment you allude to vines and therefore grapes – and hence to their product, wine – you get into difficulty in Christian relationships. In one Anglican-Methodist church I knew, the bishop was so intent on the communion wine being alcoholic and the Methodists equally determined to use non-alcoholic wine that a way forward had to be found. The bishop wouldn’t tolerate the Methodist suggestion that both forms of wine were made available at the sacrament. He therefore insisted that the wine be made by local worshippers trampling the grapes before the service, so that the Methodists could believe they were drinking grape juice and the Anglicans could believe that the fermenting process had begun. The one time I attended a communion service there under this regime, the lighting was poor and I felt like I was drinking something mushy – it was more like a thick New Covent Garden soup than wine.
But we need not worry ourselves with such farces this morning. When Jesus says ‘I am the vine’, he is making an important statement to people who can hear the Jewish background. In the Old Testament, Israel – God’s people – was described as a vineyard. Isaiah 5 is a notable example. So for Jesus to call himself the vine is for him to claim that he is all that God intended the People of God to be. If we are to be joined to him as branches of the vine, then he is teaching us how to be and to grow as part of the People of God. Jesus is telling us here, then, about how we grow as God’s people. And hence why we read this passage at a Covenant Service.
First of all, Jesus makes it clear that all we do in the process comes under the rubric of responding – that is, responding to God. The passage is filled with assumptions that God acts first, and we respond. Jesus is already the vine, the Father is already the gardener, the Father already loves Jesus, and Jesus already loves us. God’s saving actions come first. Everything we do is because God has already reached out to us in love through his Son.
This is the very nature of a covenant. Ancient Israel’s covenant with God at Mount Horeb was similar to the covenants of their time. A powerful king rescued a weaker party. In gratitude, the weaker parties then responded to the wishes of the powerful one who had saved them. That is what we see with Israel when God has delivered her from Egypt. The covenant is set in place at the mountain of God, and the Ten Commandments are given. Thus Israel was never to keep the Ten Commandments and the other laws of God as a way to earn salvation, because their salvation had already been freely and graciously given in love: God had saved them from the evil power of Egypt. All that Israel did was a response.
That is what we are coming to do today, as well. We are not coming in order to make impossible promises to God, fingers crossed behind our backs, hoping that we might manage to twist his arm into pleasing us. No: we are responding to God’s love for us in delivering us. We come to this Covenant Service, because God has already come to us in Immanuel, God with us, his Son Jesus Christ. We come to make our vows today, because God has already set us free in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and he is continuing to set us free from the penalty, the power and the presence of sin. Today we come, then, not to a severe God who wants to torture us with unreasonable demands, but to the God of outrageous grace.
Let us come and make our promises today, because we are already loved by God. We do not have to win him over. It is rather God who wants to win us over to him. Do not let past or recent failure put you off. His arms are open wide from the Cross. He has stopped at nothing to love us. Our promises today are where we recognise that with joy, and say that we will stop at nothing to love God and love our neighbours in response.
The second theme to pick out here is of remaining – as the branches of Jesus the Vine we are to remain in him in order to be fruitful. We need to be attached to receive the sap that enables us to make a difference in the world as Christians.
‘Remaining’ suggests something continuous, not a one-off event or action. Other translations speak of ‘abiding’, which implies permanent residence. Why is it important to emphasise ‘remaining’ in this way?
Because there is a strand of Christianity which tends to reduce faith down to the moment of decision for Christ, and little else. Do not mistake me, deciding to trust Christ is important, but my point is this: the Christian life is not simply about a decision in the past, it is about on-going discipleship. Jesus called for disciples, not decisions. And disciples are those who are committed to the long haul. By definition, a disciple is a learner, or an apprentice. We do not learn our trade as Christians overnight. The training and the study take a lifetime – maybe more!
So Jesus therefore calls us to ‘remain’ in him. That way, he can nurture us. Remaining in him involves staying closely connected to him, through all the classic ways: prayer, Bible reading, worship, the sacraments, fellowship, solitude, silence, simplicity, fasting and so on. One renewed commitment we might make today is to our spiritual disciplines, or ‘means of grace’, as John Wesley called them.
As well as that, there are a couple of general applications of this notion of ‘remaining’ that come to mind. One is that we simply say to God, ‘I am not going to be a fair-weather Christian. I am going to stick with you, through good times and bad, through times when I feel blessed beyond words and times when for I can barely feel your presence. I will not just be your follower because I receive good things from you, I will be your follower simply because it is the right and good thing to do.’
And in a slightly similar vein, I think not so much of those who are only up for expressing their faith when everything is sunny, I think of those who are struggling to hang on. For those who are finding the going altogether too difficult for whatever reason – painful life circumstances, things getting on top of us, dreadful things happening – I invite you to see the Covenant promises today as just a simple commitment to staying with Christ. I see some of us effectively saying words rather like this: ‘Right now, Lord, I really don’t feel much like this Christian stuff. I can barely keep my head above water. But even if it’s only by one finger, I’m going to hang onto you.’
I believe that when we say things like that, there is good news for us: God’s grip on us is stronger than ours on his.
The third and final element I want to talk about this morning as we seek to grow as God’s people is obeying. ‘You want to know how to remain in my love?’ asks Jesus. ‘You do it by keeping my commands, just as I obey the Father.’
Let me illustrate the point like this. I was once asked to complete a questionnaire to discover what kind of a learner I am. There were four different learning styles that you could be. Most people were not exclusively one type, but a varying mixture of the four. In my case, I was predominantly someone who learned knowledge by studying the theories behind it. I was also someone who learned by reflecting on things that had happened. I learned a little bit by putting things into action, and I learned little or nothing at all from a pragmatic approach. If you know me well, none of that will surprise you – academic, theoretical and impractical.
But for someone like me, Jesus says the way to learn discipleship in the People of God is not by theory. Or at least doing the theory is not enough on its own. It has to be put into practice. I have commended the spiritual disciplines yet again this morning, but just doing them is not enough on its own. What we learn from our devotions has to be put into practice in the form of obedience to Christ.
Two weeks ago I mentioned in passing when I talked then about practising spiritual disciplines that one of the church members I had known in the past who had been most faithful in daily Bible study had also been one of the cruellest Christians I had come across. She was someone who did the theory but didn’t translate it into action. Indeed, unless we act on what we learn we will earn that common charge made against Christians, namely that we are hypocrites.
Ultimately, the need to obey is about love. Jesus links keeping his commands with remaining in his love. Does that sound tough or unfair? Well, granted we often think of love in terms of equal relationships, and so obedience is not the first category that comes into our minds, and we would have to acknowledge that our relationship with Christ is not one of equals. Nevertheless, love is possible, just as we call a child to do what a parent asks in the context of a loving family. If we love someone, we have more than warm feelings for them: we want to do what pleases them. When we do so, that strengthens the relationship we have with them.
And that, I think, ties together everything this is about today. For, as I said first of all, we are responding to a God who in Christ has reached out to us in love in the first place. All that we do is in loving response to his love. And in the light of that love, we secondly want to remain in the relationship: we are in this for the long haul in a disciplined way, even if there are also times when we are able to do no more than cling on. And so thirdly we want to demonstrate that remaining in Christ’s love by obeying.
These things bind us more closely to Jesus the Vine, the True Israel. We become more truly what we have been called to be by grace: the People of God.
It was a shock to arrive home from worship at lunch time today and read the news of David Frost’s sudden death. Not that I knew him, of course, but for eight years of my ministry I lived in what was known locally among Medway Methodists as ‘the Frost manse’. He had grown up there when his father, the Reverend Paradine Frost, had been the local Methodist minister. (Hence David’s middle name of Paradine and his production company being named Paradine Productions.) If Sir David was at the forefront of the British satire explosion in the early 1960s, their roots were not in his Cambridge University days, as some might claim, but in his young character. I can think of a church member who was in Sunday School and Youth Club with him who said how mischievous he was then, and an organist at the crematorium who confirmed similar stories from his school days.
While I was living there, BBC2 filmed a tribute night to Sir David. It included a scene where he stood outside ‘my’ manse. Unfortunately, I wasn’t in at the time of filming, and I only learned about it later from a friend, Jen Doragh, who sometimes comments here.
One thing he deserves to be remembered for, I believe, is the deeply moral streak he brought both to satire and to political interviewing. Without That Was The Week That Was, there would be none of the moral critique you find in the satire of people like Ian Hislop. Although people will remember his interviews with Richard Nixon and with Margaret Thatcher after the sinking of the Belgrano, his 1967 grilling of the fraudster Emil Savundra was surely a landmark in broadcasting. He paved the way for the searing scrutiny of public figures we see today. It is a shame that not all of today’s political broadcasters have the subtlety that Frost showed at times.
Rest in peace, Sir David.
In many a sermon, I have urged congregations to engage with the Bible devotionally, even if it doesn’t seem exciting all of the time. I have used metaphors relating to food: in one, I point out that not every one of your three meals a day has to be memorable, but you need to take in nutrition for health. In another, I compare it to the actions of Joseph in Genesis urging Pharaoh to store up food in the seven years of plenty, ready for the seven years of famine.
With that in mind, read this testimony by Gordon MacDonald. Here is a clear illustration of the ‘Joseph’ approach. What MacDonald learned as a teenager has resourced him spiritually in old age. Read and heed.
One of my daughter’s hobbies is gymnastics. Sometimes I think she would prefer to cartwheel somewhere rather than walk.
The other evening, she asked me to time how long she could hold a handstand with her feet against a bedroom wall. I had to ask her to stop, because I could see her face going beetroot red with the blood. She was disgusted, as it turned out she had not achieved the time she wanted to make.
Our Gospel reading today is about Jesus turning things upside down. Just as the early Christian preachers were accused, according to the Book of Acts, of ‘turning the world upside down’, so had Jesus done precisely that before them. They were only following in their Master’s footsteps.
There are two major areas of life that Jesus turns upside down in these verses. The first is religion itself.
Think about the story of Jesus meeting the man suffering from dropsy on the Sabbath (verses 1-6). The Pharisees are watching him. Healing is banned on the Sabbath, but Jesus asks an awkward question:
“Is it lawful to cure people on the Sabbath, or not?” (Verse 3)
In the face of their embarrassed silence, Jesus heals the man, sends him away, and then asks another embarrassing question that exposes the hypocrisy of the religious rules they were operating:
“If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on the Sabbath day?” (Verse 5)
Again, embarrassed silence (verse 6).
Now, it’s easy for us to be smug and talk about those wicked Pharisees. But … there are a couple of elements here that should make us nervous.
One is that what Jesus shows up with his light here is the darkness of hypocrisy. You know as well as I do that one of the charges non-Christians level at Christians is that we are hypocrites. I know we can retort with comments such as, “Yes, the church is full of hypocrites – but there is always room for one more,” but perhaps sometimes we need to look at our hypocrisies, or at very least our inconsistencies. What are the areas where our lives contradict what we claim to be the truth of God? For a lot of us, there are rather too many.
Sometimes, this is blatant in the way that we do not lives up to the stringent standards that Jesus laid down for the life of discipleship. We do not love the poor. We are glad to have a Food Bank at our church, but we do nothing to support it, not even an occasional tin in the basket.
But our inconsistencies can show up in the most surprising forms. We proclaim that God is love, but we don’t actually believe he loves us.
The late Brennan Manning, one of whose books we have been studying in the Discovery Group, once said that he was convinced that on Judgement Day, God would only ask us one question, and it was this: “Did you believe that I loved you?”
“Do you believe that the God of Jesus loves you beyond worthiness and unworthiness, beyond fidelity and infidelity—that he loves you in the morning sun and in the evening rain—that he loves you when your intellect denies it, your emotions refuse it, your whole being rejects it. Do you believe that God loves without condition or reservation and loves you this moment as you are and not as you should be?”
Some of us actually don’t believe that God loves us. And because deep down some of us don’t truly believe God loves us – and loves us like this – we manufacture a substitute religion. It comes out in the other thing that Jesus is criticising here: we construct a religion of rules. If we can’t believe God loves and live in response to that, then we will come up with something else that makes it look like we truly believe: outward conformity to rules. It’s as if we are saying that keeping the rules makes us acceptable to God, or keeping the rules shows that we are on the inside of the boundary between those who are God’s people and those who aren’t.
That is what the Pharisees were doing – and they ended up with labyrinthine rules that led to the prohibition on healing on a Sabbath day.
But it’s also what we do. We do it when a sincere churchgoer says to the preacher after the service, “If we only returned to the Ten Commandments, all would be well.” (Not that I am knocking the Ten Commandments!) We see it when we turn those in the religious hierarchy into people who police the laws of our institution, rather than preachers of the Gospel. Anglicans can turn Archdeacons into their police officers, and Methodists can do it with their Superintendents. When we are more concerned with maintaining the institution, we have fallen out of love with God.
Turning religion into a set of rules can actually happen for the best of reasons. We are so used to seeing the Pharisees as the villains of the New Testament piece that we forget they started out as good guys. Before the birth of Christ, they had begun as a group that wanted to return the people of God to the purity of the faith, and away from spiritual compromise. It was a noble goal. But somewhere along the way, they took a wrong turn or two and ended up with a caricature of pure faith. Could it also be possible of us that we are people who began with worthy goals as Christians, but took our eyes off Jesus Christ and the grace of God and ended up with a distortion of the real thing, one that – unlike Jesus – rarely brought any kind of healing to people? If that is a description of our faith, then do we not need to start dwelling again on the radical nature of God’s love for us and for the world?
The second are of life that Jesus turns upside down is power. He notices how the guests at the meal lust for the places of honour. But he tells them instead to seek the place of least privilege, and when putting on dinner parties themselves not to invite the movers and shakers of this world but the least and the last, for that is the way of eternal blessing (verses 7-14).
This is the same Jesus who would refuse the request of James and John to sit at his right and his left in glory. He knew the human tendency to seek power, or – if we are unable to gain it for ourselves – to associate with those who are powerful, and so at least be influential.
Unaccountably, despite Jesus’ clear example, this is a lesson the church has struggled to learn over two thousand years. For some bizarre reason, we think the testimony of a celebrity who has become a Christian is more valuable than that of nobodies like us. We think that the church should have clear links with power, whether that is Anglicans clinging on to the idea of being the Established Church, or Methodists not wanting to move our central offices out of London, where we suppose we can talk with national politicians.
And if you think it doesn’t infect ordinary local Methodism, think again. When I arrived in one previous circuit, I inherited a building refurbishment programme. Six months in, we had a grand reopening and managed to get the President of the Conference to preach and dedicate the bright and shiny new premises, with the local mayor performing the official ‘opening’. My biggest headache in the organisation of the day was in satisfying a circuit steward that we had the right dignitaries on the platform. When all that was juggled and agreed, there was no space on the dais for the local MP. He had to sit in the congregation. Thankfully, he wasn’t bothered – unlike the circuit steward!
We need to see, along with Jesus, that the world’s ideas of who should be preferred by virtue of status and power are wrong. They need to be reversed. Let’s think about the examples I’ve just given. The evangelistic initiative that features the testimony of a famous person is actually less effective as a method than ordinary, everyday Christians telling the stories of their faith to friends. The linking of the church with powerful political forces is more likely to end up with spiritual compromise as we try to stay on the right side of these people in order to gain a hearing, whereas the work of the church at street level in standing up for the poor and the forgotten is more credible. And if we have a big event locally, then if we choose to invite the great and the good in order to garner headlines and attract people who otherwise might not come, we will probably largely attract people who come for the wrong reasons – reasons that are inimical to the Gospel, reasons that harden their hearts to Jesus’ message of God’s upside down kingdom, as one author put it.
So the question is, how upside down are we when it comes to power and status? Do we have our own little hierarchies, where we elevate people in a worldly way? Is there any sense here in which we see certain people as more important than others? I certainly hope you don’t see me as your minister as more important. Maybe we even say that some people matter more than us, because we think so little of ourselves, despite the fact that we are loved so much by God.
Or do we set an example here of reversing the world’s values? Do we raise up the lowly and bring down the mighty? Do we bless the poor and not worry too much about what the rich think? Do we favour servanthood over power-grabbing? Are we impressed with humility and disdainful of attempts by people to elevate themselves to positions of prominence?
And do we translate these words and attitudes into action? We know the early church did what it could, even though politically it was a powerless organisation. Slaves became bishops. One early bishop was called Onesimus – the same name as the converted slave Paul sent back to his master, Philemon. It could be the same person. Are we as willing to go against social convention when the Gospel demands it as those first Christians were?
The fourth verse of five pertains to this second point about Jesus upending power and status:
The world wants the wealth to live in state,
but You show a new way to be great:
like a servant You came,
and if we do the same,
we’ll be turning the world upside down.
However, the first verse – which is repeated as the fifth and final verse, too – sums up all we have been talking about:
O Lord, all the world belongs to You
and You are always making all things new.
What is wrong, You forgive,
and the new life You give
is what’s turning the world upside down.
May we be turned upside down by the love of God in Jesus. And may we go out, cartwheeling and hand-standing, to do the same in the world.