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Sermon: Acts – Who’s The Governor?

Acts 12:19b-25

Ted Robbins

Ted Robbins by Thwaites Empire Theatre on Flickr. Copyright Mike Johnson Mikeseye Photographic. Some rights reserved.

One of the things about having children is that whether you like it or not, you become acquainted with some of the television programming aimed at them. One of the shows to which I admit a sneaking fondness is called ‘The Slammer’. Ostensibly set in a prison – hence ‘The Slammer’ – inmates can earn early release by performing in a weekly variety show called ‘The Freedom Show’. In reality, these are of course stage acts, and they are participating in a talent show. The children in the audience choose the winner by the loudness of their applause. Those who do not win are condemned to stay and face mealtimes where they always eat the dreaded ‘sloppy poppy porridge’.

‘The Freedom Show’ is compèred by the prison governor, who is imaginatively known as ‘The Governor’, played by the comedy actor Ted Robbins. He is assisted a warder called Mr Burgess, who is like a watered-down version of Fulton Mackay’s character Mr Mackay in Ronnie Barker’s comedy series ‘Porridge’.

However, the Governor wants to be more than a compère. He hankers to be a performer himself, and makes a big entrance to ‘The Freedom Show’ every week, often dressed garishly in clothes such as a yellow dinner jacket and bow tie.

When he comes on, he has a catchphrase. He calls out to the children in the audience, “Who’s the Governor?” and the children shout back, “You’re the Governor!”

I don’t know why it makes me laugh, but it does. Anyway, “Who’s the Governor?” becomes a suitable catchphrase for this sermon. Who’s the Governor – Herod Agrippa or God? Let me place that in context.

Herod Agrippa has just suffered a damaging reverse. Having gained political capital by imprisoning and executing some of the early church leaders, he thought he was onto a winner when he had the apostle Peter put in his ‘slammer’, and scheduled for execution. No long years on Death Row in those days. But Peter had miraculously escaped, and Herod in his temper – having been publicly shown up by the power of God – had the guards executed in a moment of pique. This has come not long after Luke has also recounted in Acts the story of the prophet Agabus foretelling a famine, and the church at Antioch responding by organising a relief collection for the disciples in Judea.

So we’re about to see a contrast between the worst of human rulership and the best of God’s kingly rule. As we do this, we shall learn more how to pray and witness today, even in the face of adversity, and more about the true nature of the God we serve.

Here are three areas of contrast:

Firstly, compassion. What’s wrong with this picture?

Now Herod was angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon. So they came to him in a body; and after winning over Blastus, the king’s chamberlain, they asked for a reconciliation, because their country depended on the king’s country for food. (Verse 20)

What’s wrong is that in the Hebrew Scriptures, a king was to look after the people. To be in dispute over the need for food was not good. To withhold food even from those of another nation was not normal behaviour for a good king. But the people of Tyre and Sidon need to grovel to get what they need from Herod. This is not right.

We already know that this Herod was a violent man from his treatment of the church leaders, and perhaps this is no surprise for a man who was the grandson of the so-called Herod the Great, the man who ordered the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem, and who might better be called Herod the Terrible. The Herod of our story, Herod Agrippa, had also been educated in Rome, and was a friend of the Emperor Caligula, to whom he owed his power[1].

We don’t know what this unsavoury ruler was going to do about the request from Tyre and Sidon, because he doesn’t get the chance. All we do know is that he had consciously allowed an unjust situation to develop, and there was only any possibility of resolution because one of his officials, Blastus, had taken a chance. This meeting was not by Herod’s initiative. He had shown no interest in the welfare of these people.

We know enough about heartless tyrants in the history of the world and in current affairs. Starving a population is a tactic both ancient and modern. From ancient Assyria to modern Syria, this is a common practice.

Contrast this with what we have seen in the church not long ago in Acts. The prophet Agabus has appeared on the scene and prophesied a coming famine. But the response of the church is to organise support for those who will suffer the most. It is like a reflex action. Think of Joseph in Genesis storing Egypt’s food in the seven years of plenty before the seven years of famine, and you will see a similar approach.

Esther McVey MP

Esther McVey MP by the Department for Work and Pensions on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

What it comes down to is that while the tyrants of the world starve people into submission, the God of the Bible is compassionate, and his people are called to witness to that compassion by modelling it in their own behaviour. That is why it is good that we hosted the Runnymede Food Bank here for its first two years of existence. That is why it is also good that the growth of the food banks in our country, usually started by Christians, have become an embarrassing indictment against heartless government policies. When we see cases like that of David Clapson, the diabetic ex-soldier who was penalised by a Job Centre for missing an appointment, had his £71.70 benefits stopped, couldn’t then afford food or electricity, and died from a condition resulting from not being able to take his insulin because he couldn’t keep the fridge going, then it’s important that Christians witness to the compassion of God in the face of a serious lack in high places. Earlier this year, Esther McVey MP, the minister for employment, admitted

that the number of sanction referrals made by jobcentre advisers is part of a “variety of performance data” used to monitor their work.

Our witness to the God of compassion, who inspired Joseph to feed Egypt, Agabus to warn the early church, and Jesus to feed the multitudes, is needed more than ever today. How will you do it? Buying supplies for the food bank? Supporting a charity? Directly helping someone in need that you meet? It needs doing.

Who’s the Governor when it comes to compassion?

The second area of contrast is that of authority. There’s no doubt that Herod Agrippa enjoys power. We know what he does with it. It’s no surprise to see that he has an ego to match his sense of self-importance:

On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat on the platform, and delivered a public address to them. 22The people kept shouting, ‘The voice of a god, and not of a mortal!’ 23And immediately, because he had not given the glory to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died. (Verses 21-23)

Elsewhere in Acts, apostles like Paul are wrongly acclaimed as gods by adoring crowds, but they are always quick to deny it. Herod doesn’t. Was it all too appealing to him? He had turned up dressed in all his splendour, and had done everything to impress the need people of Tyre and Sidon with his status and power. It does him no good.

Corrie ten Boom

Corrie ten Boom on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

The Christian knows that the proper response in times like these is to do what Herod didn’t do, and to give the glory to God (verse 23), like the great Dutch Christian Corrie ten Boom. You may recall her story ‘The Hiding Place’, in which she and her family, including her sister Betsie, sheltered Jews from the Nazis and ended up in Ravensbruck concentration camp for their troubles, where Betsie died but Corrie survived. Corrie became a popular and famous Christian author and speaker, and as you can imagine, received much adulation. But she had a wise approach to the receipt of compliments: she described a compliment as like a bunch of flowers. She would say, “These smell nice, but they are for you, Lord.”

How might we approach a proper humility, then? There are some behaviours that look like humility, but aren’t. These include the so-called ‘humblebrag’, where we say something great about ourselves, but set it against a self-deprecating comment, yet really we are trying to tell people how wonderful we are. There is the wrong use of the word ‘humbled’ when we actually mean ‘proud’ – for example, “I am so humbled by the number of people who said they liked my sermon last week.” It’s OK to admit to excitement, but let’s not re-label pride as humility. There is the failure to take a compliment when God gave us the gifts – we need to remember Corrie ten Boom’s bouquet of flowers. Or there is the “All the glory goes to the Lord” school of hyper-spiritual sanctimoniousness. Again, Corrie ten Boom had the balance right.

There is a lovely quote from C S Lewis on the subject in his book ‘Mere Christianity’:

True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.

Who’s the Governor when it comes to authority?

The third and final area of contrast is that of judgement.

And immediately, because he had not given the glory to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.

24 But the word of God continued to advance and gain adherents. (Verses 23-24)

Does this sound unlikely to you – that Herod was struck down, eaten by worms, and died? What if I told you that the Jewish historian Josephus records this incident, too? His account is different from Luke’s, but it is complementary. Where Luke says that Herod didn’t give glory to God, Josephus says he failed to rebuke the impious remark. And where Luke says that an angel struck Herod and he was eaten by worms, Josephus tells us that he was struck by severe stomach pains for five days, and then he died.[2] The one who judged violently and unjustly was himself judged.

We know the frustration and horror of looking on while the depraved thrive in power. We can name any number of wicked despots from the present day or the recent past. So too could the biblical authors. They wondered aloud why the wicked prospered, often at the expense of the righteous. They asked why God wasn’t doing anything. And of course we know that Jesus told stories like the parable of the wheat and the tares and the parable of the net which indicated that the separation of the good and the evil would not happen until the last judgement.

Yet here we see an example of judgement being executed in this life. So perhaps this is a time to remember that when we are dealing with the kingdom of God, we speak about it as being both ‘now and not yet’. There is a ‘not yet’ about the kingdom of God in that all will come finally and fully under God’s rule at the end of all things, after the last judgement. But we should not lose sight of there also being a ‘now’ element to God’s kingdom, in that we do see some examples of God reigning in kingly power and overthrowing wickedness, sin, and suffering in our own day and time. That seems to be what the early church witnessed when God sent his angel to strike down Herod Agrippa.

And there are examples from even the darkest times in recent history. Rees Howells, a Welshman deeply affected by the Welsh Revival of 1904-1905, and the founder of the Bible College of Wales, was deeply affected by spiritual awakenings he witnessed as a missionary in southern Africa. During World War Two he was led by Christ into a deep ministry of intercession, which you can read about in the classic book ‘Rees Howells Intercessor’ by Norman Grubb. While some of the story is a little strange, Howells and his colleagues prayed with passion and vigour throughout the war, sensing particular direction from the Holy Spirit at certain times to pray in particular ways for certain specific outcomes. The book is an astonishing account of how God led and answered their prayers, leading eventually to the downfall of the Axis powers. We can talk about the genius of military leaders, the inspiration of politicians, tragic tactical mistakes, and so on. But there is an obscure yet vital story to be made known about the spiritual dimensions of Hitler’s downfall through intense, committed prayer.

Given that, let us not lose hope when we pray for the needs of the world today and every day. We may have to wait, because God’s actions are ‘not yet’, but we never know when he might execute justice ‘now’. So if that is possible, why should we not in prayer ask him to be at work in our time, tipping the thrones of the unjust until they fall from their perches?

Remember this question: who’s the Governor when it comes to judgement?

And more generally, that should be a question to guide our lives: who’s the Governor?

[1] Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, p 383f.

[2] Op. cit.., p 390.

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A Brief Sermon For A Memorial Service 2012

It’s time for our annual All Souls service, and this is what I plan to preach tomorrow night:

Revelation 21:1-7

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

If you’ve ever seen Four Weddings and a Funeral, I’m sure you remember the powerful funeral scene where John Hannah’s character Matthew recites this W H Auden poem Funeral Blues, desolate at the loss of his lover Gareth, played by Simon Callow. It picks up that bleakness we feel in bereavement, and I’m sure that’s why the film made the poem so popular again in recent years.

You might expect that at a Christian service, especially one where we have announced that the theme is one of hope, I would jump straight from that to a happy picture of heaven, all lit up with LEDs and shown on retina screens.

But no. I shall talk about hope in a few moments. However, Christians are not immune from the bleakness of bereavement. However much we believe in a future full of hope, we feel that loss now. When C S Lewis wrote his book A Grief Observed about the death of his wife Joy Davidman after only four years of marriage, he said,

The death of a beloved is an amputation.

I wonder how many of you have felt like that since your bereavements? You haven’t just lost someone you love; you’ve lost part of yourself. Elsewhere, in similar vein, Lewis says,

At present I am learning to get about on crutches. Perhaps I shall presently be given a wooden leg. But I shall never be a biped again.

With those feelings in mind I chose the reading from the Book of Revelation. It’s a book some people think is weird and troubling, but at heart it’s something written to suffering Christians, and couched in code-like terms so that those causing the pain of the Christian recipients didn’t understand it. Their suffering was perhaps different from ours in that it was religious persecution. However, that persecution led to the deaths of loved ones, and in that respect we can find common feeling with them, and thus draw comfort and hope along similar lines to them.

Revelation sees a world torn apart by sin and evil, and a God who wants to put it right. He will judge the wicked and make a new world free from injustice and sorrow for those who love him. You could describe God’s project as like the renovation of a house. Our reading promises ‘a new heaven and a new earth’ (verse 1), a ‘new Jerusalem’ (verse 2), the end of ‘the old order of things’ (verse 4) and indeed ‘everything [made] new’ (verse 5).

I invite you to think of it something like this. Friends of mine have been describing recently on Facebook the renovation of an old house they own in Northumberland. Footings and block work needed to be done. The gas supply needed to be disconnected, moved and reconnected. However, if I read their accounts rightly, that didn’t happen as quickly as they would have hoped, and they had a cold night wearing extra layers of clothing. They got chilly again when the porch and utility room were demolished, and they were left without heating from 9:30 one day. They finally got gas and hot water back after three days.

God, I believe, is promising a cosmic renovation project, including the heavens and the earth, a new order of community in which to live (the ‘new Jerusalem’) and new order of life, free of sin and pain. He has already done it for his Son Jesus, in raising him from the dead on that first Easter Day. He promises renovation for our bodies after our deaths at a great resurrection of the dead.

Outside one of the chapels at Oxford Crematorium, you will find a plaque that C S Lewis had made for his late wife. He wrote an epitaph for her that is displayed on the plaque. It reads:

Here the whole world (stars, water, air,
And field, and forest, as they were
Reflected in a single mind)
Like cast off clothes was left behind
In ashes, yet with hope that she,
Re-born from holy poverty,
In Lenten lands, hereafter may
Resume them on her Easter Day.

The hope we share by faith in Jesus Christ is that an Easter Day is coming for us. As Jesus was raised from the dead, his body renovated by God, so too shall we.

Renovation projects sometimes take longer than we would like. Anyone who has had a new kitchen fitted may understand that. They can also be pretty uncomfortable, as my friends who lost their gas for three days discovered.

But they do reach completion. And in the great cosmic renovation, we can be sure that God is not a cowboy builder. We have seen his work already in the resurrection of Jesus, and he promises the same craftsmanship to us.

Meanwhile, though – what? It’s a long time to wait with that void in our lives, that amputation of a limb that C S Lewis spoke about. Is there nothing to do but wait around in our loneliness for God’s great renovation?

I think the answer is that we can actively anticipate what is to come. If we have a sense that God is going to make all things new and wipe away every tear, then we can prepare for that world. When grief comes stealthily sneaking up behind us and mugs us unawares, we can remember that life will not always be this way.

We can also live by the values of God’s new world in small ways. We can seek to bring hope to others, comforting other grieving people with the comfort we have received. We can play our little part in building for a new world where hatred and suffering do not always win.

May the peace and hope which come from trusting in Jesus Christ risen from the dead be your light in your darkness and a light for your path.

Turning Down An Honour From The Queen

(No, not me: not much chance of that.)
After much resistance, the Cabinet Office has published a list of those who declined awards in either the Birthday Honours or the New Year’s Honours Lists between 1951 and 1999, and who are now dead. It’s not necessarily the usual suspects. Alongside John Lennon‘s famous returning of his MBE and the author J G Ballard who called the honours system a ‘preposterous charade’ are people like Eleanor Farjeon, author of ‘Morning has broken’ and C S Lewis.

What are the pros and cons of an honours system? Politically, presumably any nation wants to celebrate those who have made a significant contribution to that society, but certain questions arise about its current practice. Who is worthy of an honour? Do entertainers and sporting stars rank more highly than someone who has given quiet and dedicated service in a village for decades? (You should meet our children’s lollipop lady.) And is it really fitting still to have honours that take their name from the British Empire? Then there is the royalty question, but while we still have a constitutional monarch as the head of state, that’s not surprising.

From a Christian perspective, there are also questions. Is it right to accept an honour and be associated with (tainted by?) the powers that be? On the other hand, is it an opportunity for witness, and if so, how do we ensure the glory goes to God, not the recipient of the honour? How does it fit eschatologically, when Jesus refers to those who will be rewarded in the age to come and those who have had their reward already?

What do you think?

Sermon: Energised By Faith

Here’s my sermon for tomorrow. I’m preaching at another church in the circuit, and I get to kick off a sermon series they are following on the seven signs of a healthy church. ‘Energised By Faith’ is the first of the seven signs. What I’ve prepared is heavily influenced by my recent reading of Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost‘s book ‘The Faith of Leap‘, but I hope I’ve put my own stamp on it.

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Luke 17:1-10

Recently, my wife and children and a friend left me for Beaver Camp one weekend, while I stayed home to take church services. On the Saturday morning that they set out, I expected our daredevil eight-year-old daughter to be excited. But our cautious seven-year-old son was excited, too.

“What’s in the programme?” I asked. Out came the list: tug of war, slippery bungee, rifle shooting (with blanks, I hoped), archery, hammock making, inflatable slides, rope bridge building, cooking full English breakfast around a camp fire, barbecue, curry. I was exhausted just listening to them reel it off!

“Why are you asking?” they interrogated me.

“Because I want to talk about it soon in a sermon,” I replied.

“Why?”

“Because I want to talk about how following Jesus is meant to be an exciting adventure,” I told them.

My daughter yawned. She has teenage attitude five years early. “But church is boring,” she complained. “Sitting in the adult service for ten minutes before going into Sunday School is boring. I prefer all age worship!”

Put that attitude down to, well … attitude, but don’t miss the fact that many perceive church and faith as boring. It was never meant to be. I went on to talk with my children about how in the Bible faith in Jesus was an exciting and dangerous adventure. But that isn’t what we often notice in our churches.

And in a week when I kick off your sermon series about the seven characteristics of healthy churches with the first of those characteristics, ‘Energised by faith’, would we not think that associating the word ‘faith’ with ‘energised’ might mean that faith is rather more dynamic than it often is?

Honestly, what do we make of it when we listen time after time to hearing that someone in our church had a ‘quiet faith’? If that means peaceful and serene, then fine, but if it means their faith never got in the way of someone else and led to energy or even conflict, then something is desperately wrong.

Think back to our Bible readings this morning: when Paul commends the faith of the Thessalonians, it involves imitating him, even in facing persecution, and becoming an example to other churches in the region. It involves their faith being known here, there and everywhere, not least for their rejection of idols in order to serve Christ. Is that ‘quiet faith’?

And when the disciples ask Jesus, “Lord, increase our faith”, and Jesus replies, talking about mustard seed faith that can tell a mulberry tree to be uprooted and planted in the sea, is that quiet faith? No! Whatever the text means, we can be sure Jesus doesn’t lead his disciples into growing quiet faith.

These two passages aren’t untypical of the New Testament. Jesus calls men to leave their occupations and follow him at the drop of a hat, just as God told Abram to leave everything and go somewhere unspecific in the Old Testament. When you get to the Book of Acts and you see the apostolic church putting into practice the Great Commission of Jesus, you see daring and courageous faith exhibited by Paul, Peter, Stephen, Philip and others.

By that reckoning, we should stop a lot of the silly talk in our churches that says someone is ‘faithful’ when all we mean is that they are ‘regular’.
Anyone who knows me for any length of time will hear me quote time and again something the late John Wimber said. Let me ask you this: how do you spell ‘faith’? Whenever anyone replied by saying, F-A-I-T-H, Wimber would say, “No”. The answer, he said, is that ‘faith’ is spelt R-I-S-K.

Faith as an adventure, a living on the edge, is normal. But you wouldn’t guess it from some of our churches, and I wonder whether the lack of it has contributed to our decline. Could it be that churches are declining, at least in part, because we have lost the daring, risky side of discipleship that is fundamental to faith in Jesus?


David Murrow
is a television producer in the United States. He got bored with his Christian faith, and started exploring other religions, including Islam. He noticed that Christianity was the only major religion to have a major deficit of males in comparison to females. He wondered whether this might have anything to do with his boredom.

At the risk of grossly over-simplifying things, he discovered the work of an historian who showed that while there had been a seven-hundred-year history of reduced adventure in the Church, a major effect on this was the Industrial Revolution. By and large, as the men had to find work in mines, mills and factories, often far from home, the women who stayed behind rightly kept the notions of gentleness and nurturing. This showed itself in the rise of church nurseries, craft groups, Sunday Schools, soup kitchens and the like – all worthy and honourable things. However, with the men less able to contribute, the sense of adventure declined. In time, it became a vicious circle.

Now before anyone complains, I am not saying that all men are of the same style and all women are alike. The irony of me preaching this is that I am someone who was born with scoliosis, curvature of the spine, and this has affected what physical efforts I can make all my life. I of all people would not argue for a ‘macho’ culture in the church. It does exist in places, and it can be ugly. But you and I know that many men outside the church view it as like a lifeboat – ‘women and children first’. If we have downplayed adventure and risk, which are at the heart of the faith to which Jesus calls us, is it any surprise?

Might it be, then, that in order for the church to be ‘energised by faith’, one thing we urgently need to rediscover is this sense of living on the edge? Could it be that faith for us needs to be something where what we aspire to do can only be delivered by God, and if God doesn’t come through, we’re sunk? Could it be that too often what we call faith is really ordinary human action that is explicable in other ways, and we don’t like to admit it?

Now you will say to me that the church needs to be a safe place, never mind all this talk of danger and risk, and I will agree with you – up to a point. We do need to be a safe place for the broken and the wounded. In that sense, we are a little like the spiritual equivalent of a hospital. But just as hospitals aim to treat people so they can return to ordinary life and not spend their whole lives on a ward, so our aim is the healing of people in order that they might return to the action.
It may be worth remembering the exchange in ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ that the children have with Mr and Mrs Beaver when they first hear about Aslan, the lion, who serves as the Christ figure.

“If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than me or else just silly.”

“Then he isn’t safe?” asked Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

And of course the Narnia novels, along with that other great twentieth century Christian fantasy series, The Lord of the Rings, depict faith as an epic adventure. Can Narnia be rescued from permanent winter under the White Witch? Can Frodo and his friends dispatch the ring with its terrible curse and defeat Sauron and all the armies of wickedness? How will they cope with Gollum, who cannot be trusted as he vacillates between good and evil?

What C S Lewis and J R R Tolkien describe in those stories is an experience of fellowship being deepened as people go out on a limb in daring faith. It is something that has been observed through other disciplines, not just literature or theology. Those who study human society in anthropology and sociology have noticed this, too. Now I can give you the long words if you really want them – they are ‘liminality’ and ‘communitas’ – but what it all comes down to is this: when a small group of Christians gets together to work on a mission project that puts them out beyond their comfort zones, they are pulled together into a much deeper sense of fellowship than they experience in any other form. The home group doesn’t compare. Certainly coffee after morning service doesn’t amount to much fellowship, compared with what these people experience as they forge new frontiers in the name of Christ.

Here is just one example of what I mean. It’s an experience I had in my first circuit as a minister. An elder at the local United Reformed Church had a vision to bring the teenagers of the churches in the town together for worship. This wasn’t too difficult. Representatives of most of the churches came together to form a planning group, and we started holding youth services every six weeks, going around various local churches, taking over their evening services.

However, youth services like that were altogether too safe and predictable. The teenagers needed something more credible, and relevant to their culture. We found an empty shop in town, and borrowed it for a very low rent from the landlord while he looked for new tenants. It was the days of the MTV Unplugged programmes and CDs, and we did ‘worship unplugged’, only having room for a simple acoustic set-up in the cramped shop.

But more young people were coming, and we reluctantly went back into church premises. We took over the URC church hall and decorated it appropriately. However, the teenage Christians wanted to be able to invite their non-Christian friends, and we were crowded for space. As we leaders talked, we realised there was only one viable option: we would need to move into the local night club.

One of our number, a businessman, approached the owner of the night club. He was willing to hire out to us, one Sunday night a month, and agreed that no alcohol would be served on those nights. However, the cost of renting the club was well beyond any level of finance we had ever raised for the project. What should we do? We were out of our depth.

As we talked, we concluded that God had always been stretching us that bit beyond what we had got used to each time. This was surely one more example of the same. We agreed to the night club owner’s terms, not knowing where the money would come from. But when we did, some wealthy local Christians backed us financially, and we never lacked the money to hire the club.

Is it any surprise that as a group of Christians, we experienced deep fellowship, deeper than the average Bible Study group? We did read the Bible and pray together – fervently! We also hung out together, eating pizza, watching videos and drinking non-Methodist liquids. We helped one couple move house. We babysat. We picked each other up when we were down – in my case, they rallied round when I had a broken engagement. Most of those things would happen to some extent in ordinary church fellowship, I know, but I can only testify that they were deeper in that group. To this day, I have never known better friends than the members of that group, and I miss them terribly.

Friends, could God be calling you to go beyond the boundaries of what you have done for him in faith before? Believe me, if you are willing to live on a knife edge for Christ by faith because he has called you, then every aspect of church life – worship, community, discipleship and mission – will be infused with an energy you have not known before.

Trinity Methodist Church: is God calling you to dive in at the deep end?

The Purpose Of The Church

From a testimony reproduced at the Church And Culture Blog:

CS Lewis writes, “The church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs.  If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply, a waste of time. God became Man for no other purpose. It is even doubtful, you know, whether the whole universe was created for any other purpose.”

What do you think? How does this compare with John Wesley‘s statement,

You have one business on earth – to save souls

and what are the implications of ‘drawing men to Christ’, ‘making them little Christs’ and ‘saving souls’?

Sermon: Doubting Thomas, Growing Faith

John 20:19-31
Doubting Thomas: if ever anyone got a bad press from a pithy nickname, it’s Thomas. Today I want to join his rehabilitation campaign, and suggest to you that we might see some positive approaches to faith in the story of him coming to believe in the Risen Christ.

Firstly, we need to remember his context. There are a couple of previous references to him in John’s Gospel. In chapter 11, he shows himself to be a disciple who is doggedly committed to following Jesus. He encourages all of them to go along with Jesus to Jerusalem, if necessary to die with him. This is not a coward or an unbeliever: this is a courageous disciple. Let’s remember that when he is cheaply vilified.

Not only that, he was a disciple with honest question, as we see in chapter 14. Jesus says he is going to prepare a place for his friends, and Thomas honestly says, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” Lord, if you don’t give me the destination, how can I sort out a route? I need the address, Lord! I think you have to applaud a man like Thomas who has the honesty and integrity to ask Jesus the question that perhaps was in other disciples’ minds, but which they didn’t have the courage to voice.

And we should be glad he did, because it leads to Jesus’ famous reply, “I am the way, and the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me.” Would we have heard those words, but for the honest, questioning faith of Thomas?

As well as these two previous references to Thomas in John’s Gospel, one other piece of context is to compare him with the other disciples. It’s all very well that the others tell him, “We have seen the Lord!” (verse 25), but it isn’t that long since they too doubted. When the women returned from the tomb, the male disciples didn’t initially cover themselves in glory. Why believe a woman? But they had had a personal encounter with the Risen Christ, just as Mary had in the garden, and just as Thomas is about to have.

So setting everyone else’s faith against Thomas’ doubts is unfair. He simply hasn’t had the experience of meeting his risen Lord yet that they have had. Perhaps today we can appreciate a dogged, honest disciple. It isn’t enough to say to some people, ‘Be quiet and just believe’. God is big enough to cope with our questions. We have a Bible filled with books like Job, and with plenty of Psalms where ancient Israel sang her painful questions in worship. If Thomas is an example to us, it is about church being a safe place for people with their questions, not one where they are shouted down.
In suggesting this, I’m not advocating unbelief, because unbelief is very different from doubt. Unbelief is a refusal to believe at all, but Jesus says Thomas was ‘doubting’ (verse 27). Os Guinness has a helpful definition of doubt: he calls it ‘faith in two minds’. Doubt isn’t the absence of faith that unbelief is, it’s faith in two minds.

There’s one other context to Thomas that I haven’t mentioned, and it’s not in the Bible. There is a strong early tradition that Thomas is the apostle who took the Gospel as far as India. There is even a Christian denomination in India called the Mar Thoma Church, which claims to trace its founding to him. If that is the case, then is it not a good thing to give someone the space to wrestle with their questions? If like Thomas they come through to a deeper faith, who knows what they might achieve in the name of the Risen Christ?

Secondly, then, I invite us to remember his questions.

“Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” (Verse 25)

What is Thomas’ problem, apart from the fact that – unlike the others – he hasn’t yet met the Risen Christ? As I said, he isn’t an unbeliever. He is far from being a sceptic. In fact, you could say that he was deeply biblical. Like most pious working class Jews (but unlike the wealthy Sadducees) he believed the ancient prophecies that one day, at the Last Judgement, God would raise all people from the dead – some to the reward of eternal life, and some to judgement. He would likely quote Daniel chapter 12 in support of this view.

What they didn’t expect was that God would interrupt the middle of history with a resurrection. You get a flavour of that in John 11, where Jesus turns up at the tomb of Lazarus, four days after the death, and speaks with Mary and Martha. They say they are waiting for the great resurrection at the end of time.

However, Thomas’ willingness to state his question baldly sets the stage for another appearance by Jesus, this time for his benefit. John sees this next appearance, a week later, as a follow-up by Jesus. Again it is in the midst of locked doors because the disciples who are so full of enthusiasm about the Resurrection are still nevertheless afraid, so this isn’t just for Thomas. This is to bless them all.
But in Thomas’ case, his devout biblical faith is now stretched and expanded by meeting the risen Christ. And often, that is what God wants to do through an experience of doubt. It’s not there to destroy our faith, but to expand it. In a profound talk he gave last year on the place of doubt in Christian faith, an American Old Testament scholar called Peter Enns said this:

When you go out into the world and say “it’s not working,” maybe that is a signal. It’s not God who no longer works, it’s your idea of God that needs work. Maybe you are for the first time being called, as C. S. Lewis put it so well in the Narnia books, to go “further up and further in.” That’s where doubt plays a powerful role.

But where does Thomas have his doubts expanded into greater faith? It’s in a context of fellowship. He is with the other disciples this time, and I think that makes a difference. Classically, one of the ways Christians have defended the truth of the resurrection against charges that the disciples experienced hallucinations is to point out that hallucinations are rarely group experiences. They are more commonly solitary in their nature. So by Thomas having his experience of the Risen Christ in the presence of the other disciples there is an assurance here that this is real and true, not a fantasy.

And in doing so, I believe it points up the importance of fellowship when we have our doubts. What do we do when we face a crisis? Some of us, like me, restore our energy from within ourselves. Others gain energy from being with others. However, much as I renew my energy from within and generally alone, if I spend too much time just on my own at a time of doubt, it can all become morbid and increasingly negative. It becomes a downward spiral.  I have seen people facing a crisis of faith take a major step away from church and fellowship for a period of time, and all that really happens is that the negative thoughts are reinforced.

Now, granted, the other disciples may not be the most helpful to Thomas in his doubt, but the fact that they had met the risen Jesus and that he appears to them in that context, is a sign, I believe, that it is worth persevering with Christian fellowship when we have our doubts. Our faith is not solitary. It involves being part of God’s people. Even if at times all our brother and sister Christians give us is a set of trite answers to our questions, nevertheless that is a major arena where we experience Christ.

So I would counsel people facing doubts to stay within the fellowship of the church, to find it a safe place to ask the hard questions, and to be encouraged that in that very place God may well expand and deepen your faith as a result.

Thirdly, I invite you to remember his confession. The other disciples had to see Jesus alive before believing in the resurrection. Thomas wanted that, and more: to touch the wounds. And Jesus offers Thomas what he says he wants. I think he just wants to know for sure, and he expresses it in this black and white manner.

But when the risen Lord stands in front of him, I’m not sure Thomas takes him up on the invitation to touch his hands and his side. Just meeting Jesus is enough, and he says to him, “My Lord and my God!” (verse 28)

‘My Lord and my God.’ That’s the point to which Jesus wants to get Thomas, and us. And yes, this is one of those Bible verses the Jehovah’s Witnesses can’t explain, because Thomas clearly attributes full divine status to Jesus.
But it probably also had huge implications for the first readers of John’s Gospel. If, as most scholars think, John’s Gospel was written towards the end of the first century AD, then it is quite possible that the emperor ruling the Roman Empire was Domitian. He wasn’t the nicest of chaps. He may well have been responsible for the persecution of Christians that is reflected in the Book of Revelation. And what did he require of his subjects? That they worship him as ‘Lord and God’[1].

The confession of the risen Lord at which Thomas arrives through his doubts is not just intellectual. It is one that has practical consequences for daily living and, indeed, dying. Later followers of Jesus who read these words will be those who have sufficiently come through their doubts that they are prepared to make a confession that puts them in opposition to the prevailing values of the society in which they live.

And perhaps this is a major reason why Jesus wants to meet us with our doubts and expand our faith – to make us strong in faith to stand against some of the major forces at work in our world today.
Last week we sang Stuart Townend’s Resurrection Hymn, ‘See what a morning’. It contains the lines,

One with the Father, Ancient of Days
Through the Spirit
Who clothes faith with certainty

Do we have certainty – a certainty with which to face the world? We have a certainty that Christ is risen. We have an assurance of God’s love. To quote U2 for a second consecutive week,

It’s not if I believe in love
But if love believes in me
(from Moment Of Surrender)

Whatever our doubts may be, the Resurrection means that love believes in us. And in the light of that, our confession of faith in our risen Lord and God can be a rock to stand firm in the face of a world that is devoted to values vastly different from his.
Perhaps one of the most notable Christians for steadfastly not bowing down to the values of the world in the last century was Mother Teresa. Her care for the poor and those generally thought not worth bothering with and her freedom from wealth and acquisition made her admired by many, as we well know. After her death in 1997, reports emerged about the severe doubts she expressed in her personal journal. In the lecture on doubt by Peter Enns that I mentioned earlier, he quotes this story about her:

There is a wonderful story of Jesuit philosopher, John Kavanaugh. In 1975 he went to work for three months at the “house of the dying” in Calcutta with Mother Teresa. He was searching for an answer about how best to spend the remaining years of his life. On his very first morning there, he met Mother Teresa. She asked him, “And what can I do for you?” Kavanaugh asked her to pray for him. “What do you want me to pray for?” she asked. And he answered with the request that was the very reason he traveled thousands of miles to India: “Pray that I have clarity.” Mother Teresa said firmly, “No. I will not do that.” When he asked her why, she said, “Clarity is the last thing you are clinging to and must let go of.” When Kavanaugh said, “You always seem to have clarity,” she laughed and said, “I have never had clarity. What I have always had is trust. So I will pray that you trust God.”

Jesus brings us to a confession that may or may not have clarity. But at its heart is trust. That, it seems, took Thomas to India, and the effects of his faith are still felt today.

What if we had trust – deep trust – in our risen Lord? Would he take us ‘further up and further in’? Where might the effects of our faith be felt?

Thieving Christians

So where is our Christian witness compromised by double standards? James Emery White on Loving God in the Pub and the Christians who steal mementoes of C S Lewis and J R R Tolkien.

Sermon: People At The Cross – Judas Iscariot

This weekend, we start a new sermon series for Lent and Easter, in which we meditate on the characters who inhabit the Passion and Easter stories. I get to begin with Judas Iscariot.

John 13:1-5, 18-32

Miss Duffell was my English teacher. Despite my goody-goody image at school, she was the only teacher I ever wanted to wind up. It wasn’t the way she tipped her cigarette ash into her coffee cup when having a discussion with pupils at break time, it was the fact that she taught English Literature. To my teenage male way of thinking, that was the most useless, irrelevant subject in the curriculum. Especially if you favoured the sciences, as I did.

It was only when I reached adulthood that I saw the worth of all those essays where we had to write character studies of people in the plays we were studying – Bluntschli in ‘Arms and the Man’, Falstaff in ‘Henry IV Part 1’, and so on. When I began to understand the power of the narrative in the Bible, then I started to appreciate the value in appreciating the characters. I learned that we might identify with a person or see ourselves in opposition to them, and through either reaction be caught up more in what the message the author of the story had for us. I might also end up going further than the original author intended, of course!

It’s with that experience in mind that I begin this new sermon series about the people we encounter in the gospel stories of Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection. If reflecting on a character in a novel or play can have a powerful effect, how much more so when we dwell on those we find in the Holy Spirit-supervised words of Scripture? Especially when we also believe that the same Holy Spirit is here to help us hear, understand, believe and respond.

So this morning I have not given myself an easy task by starting with Judas Iscariot. As with several people in this series, there were several Bible passages I could have picked. But these verses from John 13 get us to the core of what I want to share about him.

The first reference to Judas in this account comes in verse 2:

The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus.

Our first reflection, then, is on Judas and the devil. Nothing like starting with a difficult and contentious theme, then!

Whenever I reflect on anything to do with the devil, I go back to the famous words of C S Lewis in his Preface to The Screwtape Letters, where he wrote:

There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors, and hail a materialist or magician with the same delight.

Although I know it is difficult for some people to believe in ‘the devil’, I cannot disbelieve in ‘his’ existence, given Jesus’ belief in him. I cannot reduce Jesus merely to a child of his time, however much he constrained himself in the Incarnation. He is still Lord, and what he says, goes. So rejection of the reference to the devil prompting Judas Iscariot is out for me.

But on the other hand, I know too many Christians who make too much of the devil. One Anglican rector friend of mine used to put every mishap and setback down to ‘the devil’, as if by a reflex reaction.

So when we read John’s careful words that ‘the devil had already prompted Judas’ (my emphasis), let us take particular note of that word ‘prompted’. It is not that the devil made Judas do what he did, but that he had sown thoughts in his head. Judas could then choose what he did about those promptings. Although John clearly portrays demonic activity at work here, human responsibility is still in play. We cannot absolve ourselves of our actions by saying, “The devil made me do it.” Neither could Judas.

We may find ourselves under pressure to sin through persistent temptation. In one respect, we can do nothing about that. It is the lot of all people. Being tempted is not a sin: Jesus was, especially in the wilderness. But in another respect, we sometimes lay ourselves open to those promptings, those temptations. We put ourselves in situations where we know we could be vulnerable to our weaknesses. The devil will exploit that. We deliberately sail close to the wind. The devil will exploit that. Later in this sermon, we’ll see how Judas did precisely that. But for now, let’s simply note that while yes, the devil prompts us with temptation, we still have a responsibility for our actions and we need to do what we can to put ourselves at a distance from circumstances where we know we are weak.

The second reference to Judas comes in the second half of the reading, in the conversation Jesus has with his disciples which begins with him saying,

I am not referring to all of you; I know those I have chosen. But this is to fulfil this passage of Scripture: ‘He who shared my bread has turned against me.’ (Verse 18)

It continues with Jesus’ troubled admission that one of the Twelve will betray him, and when pressed about who that will be says,

It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish. (Verse 26)

So this second reflection is about the astonishing fact that Jesus shared table fellowship with his betrayer.

I have often heard people observe, then, that Jesus even gave the bread to Judas at the meal where he instituted the Lord’s Supper. They then take it that we should not be judgmental (fair enough, in one sense) and that there should be no boundaries at the Lord’s table. However, that last statement is patently incorrect from a biblical point of view. Paul was at pains in 1 Corinthians 11 to remind his readers that self-examination was important before taking the bread and wine. Lax discipline at Holy Communion is not good practice.

I would rather see Jesus’ sharing of table fellowship with Judas this way. My current reading is the memoirs of a man who has written more profound books in recent years on what it means to be a pastor than anyone else I have come across. His name is Eugene Peterson, and he is better known for the popular paraphrase of the Bible called The Message. In his latest book, The Pastor: A Memoir, he talks about how when he began the Presbyterian church in Maryland that he went on to lead for thirty years, his early vision was to gather together a group of visionary Christians who were all passionate for what it really meant to be disciples and to be church in a New Testament sense. Instead, he found himself with a rabble, rather as David did at Ziklag when he was on the run from King Saul.

And I observe that I have seen some friends fall away from faith over the years. Each time, they have been those whom I might consider the least likely. In at least two cases, it was weakness to sexual temptation that began their decline. It reminds me that Paul warned his readers in 1 Corinthians 10 that any of us who believe we are ‘standing’ in faith should beware lest we fall. It could be you. It could be me.

Therefore, when we too come to eat bread with Jesus this morning, let us pray that we will, in the words of Charles Wesley’s hymn ‘Soldiers of Christ, arise’ ‘leave no unguarded place’. Let us not simply be aware of our weaknesses so that we do not put ourselves in places where the devil might prompt us with temptation. Let us also positively ‘put on the full armour of God’, those godly qualities that are the very opposite of sin.

So what was Judas’ particular weakness? We get a hint later in the story, and this is my third reflection on him. After Jesus tells him, “What you are about to do, do quickly,” (verse 27), we read how the disciples misunderstood (verse 28) that statement:

Since Judas had charge of the money, some thought Jesus was telling him to buy what was needed for the festival, or to give something to the poor. (Verse 29)

Anyone who has read John’s Gospel cover to cover rather than in short segments will go back to chapter 12, when Mary anoints Jesus with a pint of expensive nard. There, Judas objected that the perfume would have been better used if it had been sold and the money given to the poor, but John reports that Judas didn’t care about the poor: he looked after the disciples’ common purse and wanted to dip his hands into the cash (John 12:4-6).

Judas’ weakness, then, was money. Here is where he failed to guard himself against the devil’s promptings to temptation. Here is where he thought he could stand in faith, but fell. No wonder his reward from the enemies of Jesus was thirty pieces of silver. That would have attracted him.

When the great contemporary spiritual writer Richard Foster wanted to publish a book about the major sins, is it any accident that he wrote about the ‘big three’? He called his book, Money, Sex and Power. These, he said, were the areas of human life with the greatest power to bless or to curse. Perhaps it is no surprise that monastic orders have taken vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience – in direct contrast to these three great temptations.

And perhaps for some of us the way to avoid our weakness will be by a strategy of avoidance. A friend of mine knows that he is incapable of drinking alcohol in moderation. If he has one drink, he will end up having a lot, and getting drunk. So his strategy is to be teetotal. In doing so, those who choose to avoid weaknesses can also be witnesses to a world that believes you can’t be happy unless you’re smashed out of your mind, sleeping around, buying all the latest consumer goods or climbing the greasy pole at work.

However, avoiding our besetting sins is not always possible. And we can also be good witnesses by facing temptation and avoiding it. That, though, requires not a spiritual gung-ho attitude but prayer, dependence upon the Holy Spirit and fellowship. And by ‘fellowship’ here, I mean deep Christian relationships where we regularly hold ourselves accountable to one another. It’s exactly what some of John Wesley’s small groups did. They talked each week about which sins they had been struggling with.

There are similar approaches today. We can form ‘accountability groups’. We can do it in other ways, too. One way that people facing the temptation of internet pornography cope with it is to install a program on their computer called Covenant Eyes which reports to a friend the details of every website the person looks at.

Fellowship is more than camaraderie at the Christmas Bazaar. It’s a vital tool in avoiding the trap that snared Judas.

But, of course, all of this is to some extent rather gloomy. Temptation, sin, avoidance. All necessary to consider for Christians, but is there any good news here? I believe there is, and it comes in the fourth and final reflection. Allow me to introduce it with an illustration.

When I was young and suffering bullying at school, my Dad tried to teach me some Judo. He had learned it in the RAF, and had kept his instruction manual. He argued that the virtue of Judo was that it was not itself violent, but you used your opponent’s strength against them in order to win.

In the light of  that, consider Jesus’ words at the end of our reading:

Now the Son of Man is glorified and God is glorified in him. (Verse 31)

Isn’t this what is going on here? Even the evil power at work as Judas gives in to his weakness and responds to the devil’s prompting is something God uses against his enemy for good, to win the victory over sin and death. Judas does not have the last word. Jesus does – in the forgiveness of sins through the Cross, and in the new life of the Resurrection.

Yes, here, in the murky, shabby story of Judas God the Father works his Gospel. He does not inflict violence, but he uses the violence and betrayal rendered against his only begotten Son to bring the salvation of the world. It is the truth of which Paul was to write,

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28)

In ‘all things’, even the treachery of Judas, God works for good. In ‘all things’, even the darkness of Calvary, God works for good.

And in all things today, God still works for good. The friends or acquaintances who betray us – God can turn it for good. The evil that affects us – God can even use that for good, as he uses the enemy’s force against him.

Allow me to conclude with a story. Members of the Church Council have already heard this, so I hope they will excuse hearing it again. Tomorrow, I return to a previous circuit to conduct a funeral. Sid was a proud Welshman – and his pride was not always his most attractive feature. He was married to Rita, an East German Lutheran Christian, whose response to Sid’s fierce Methodism was to vow never to become a Methodist, otherwise Sid would have won, in her words.

When I arrived in the circuit, he had just retired from a career in the Army and then some years in Civvy Street. That army background made him stiff and – yes – regimented. On one occasion when I had prepared an act of all age worship only to find the Junior Church not ready for it and going out after the second hymn, I received a stern lecture!

One thing Sid had never done, despite a lifetime in Methodism, was make a personal commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. I told him that one day he would have to get off the fence.

Well, one Saturday night he did. Sid and Rita attended a concert by a Christian band and choir. He heard one of the musicians give a testimony, and he suddenly thought, “If it can be true for him, it can be true for me.”

The next morning at church, he took Holy Communion for the first time. The look of joy on his face as he knelt at the rail and looked at me is an image that will remain with me for ever.

In the wake of that commitment, he started to soften. He lightened up. He began to forgive, and to become more humble.

In January, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and his health declined fast. Yet during his hospitalisation and treatment, he renewed his commitment to Christ, thanks to the witness of another Christian patient at the hospital.

Tragically, he had become alienated from one of his two daughters a few years ago, due to a terrible misunderstanding in a phone conversation. While he was in hospital, his other daughter said to him, “Dad, if you’re a Christian you’ve got to put things right with my sister.” The daughter in question lived in Germany, and Sid picked up a hospital phone and rang Germany. On his knees he sought reconciliation.

Sid’s suffering and death also led to another reconciliation – between his wife and the next door neighbours. When I visited, one of them was in the house, offering comfort.

The last sentence Sid uttered to his family was this. “You’re not going to like what I’m about to say, but I’m glad I’ve got cancer.”

I don’t know if I could ever say that, but I will say this. That is the testimony of a man who knows that the Judas in his life – in his case, a terminal disease – was something that God was using to overcome evil with good.

For the Judases of this world and the devils do not get the last word. God does.

Sermon: Jesus And Evil

Luke 8:26-39

There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors, and hail a materialist or magician with the same delight.

The famous words from C S Lewis’ introduction to The Screwtape Letters, and words well worth bearing in mind as we read today’s Lectionary Gospel reading about Jesus and the man infested with a legion of demons. For those who get obsessed with demons, Lewis reminds us not to put them in the limelight; for those who say you can’t believe in them, the story reminds us that if we call Jesus ‘Lord’, then we cannot say he was wrong about this.

Either way, the important factor in considering this story is to see Jesus as the central character. This whole account revolves around Jesus. So I want us to reflect on this famous Gospel story by relating everyone and everything to Jesus.

Firstly, Jesus and the demons. Let’s tackle the most difficult part of the story first, but it is one that tells us a lot about how we may regard evil in the light of Christian faith. What the demons do to the man is characteristic of evil in general. In what ways?

The man is ‘of the city’ yet he lives ‘not … in a house but in the tombs’ (verse 27). At very least, this illustrates the social breakdown caused by evil. Sin and evil break up societies and families. Given that it was highly unusual for adults not to marry (Jesus was quite an exception), there may well be a fractured family as a result of the demonic activity. Think of the similar way in which drug abuse shatters families, and you have a comparison with what has happened here.

He wears ‘no clothes’ (verse 27) – again, he is an outcast from society. Such is the force of evil that his behaviour means he cannot fit in anymore. Moreover,

To stay overnight among tombs is a mark of madness in Jewish tradition.[1]

Furthermore, this evil brought by the demons results in the man having unusual strength, such that normal human constraints cannot contain it:

For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds. (Verse 29)

Family and social breakdown; madness; and human inability to contain the strength of evil. No wonder this man was isolated. Imagine the fear in the city. The only way to protect people from him was to ensure he kept at a safe distance. It’s rather like the way we cry for dangerous criminals to be locked up for life, or we protest when proposals are made to house mentally ill people in the community. A naked man meets naked fear.

But Jesus is not afraid. Not one bit. Why is he not afraid of the damaging evil caused by the demons? Simple. He knows he carries divine authority. He has the right as Son of God to command the expulsion of evil spirits. Good and evil are not equal and opposite powers. God reigns, evil must ultimately submit.

He also knows that in his hands lie the ultimate defeat of evil in every form. Not that he will do so in the conventional form of aggressive, violent warfare, but rather by suffering and passivity. He will conquer the principalities and powers of evil by his death on the Cross, and by being raised from the dead.

What does this mean for us? It gives us confidence and faith in the presence of wickedness in any form. Even if it does not submit to Christ now, one day it will. We may even be part of conquering it, as we act in the name of Jesus – that is, with his authority. However, he may call us to conquer evil through our own suffering.

Secondly, let us consider Jesus and the man. As I’ve already said, such was the state of this man that ordinary society had ostracised him. So much is he at an arm’s distance that you wonder how he even obtains the basic necessities of life, such as food and drink. Perhaps he scavenges like an animal. Maybe he uses society’s fear of him to terrify people into giving him what he wants, rather like a bank robber with a gun. Either way, his contact with the rest of humanity is minimal. No-one can change him for the better, so people take what steps they can to protect themselves from him. They warn their children not to go near him. The local equivalent of the Daily Mail runs a campaign against him. Every action can be summed up in one word: fear.

But fear and impotence are not in Jesus’ repertoire. Love means he approaches the man and commands the demons to leave, whereas fear has made others retreat and put up barriers. He knows he has what the man needs in order to be healed and restored. He does not need to put the man in permanent quarantine. Rather, when he has exercised his divine authority, the local people come and find the man

sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. (Verse 35)

In the face of powerful evil, Jesus brings healing. The madness is gone. The man is sitting at Jesus’ feet – the posture of a disciple. And we see the discipleship in the man’s desire to ‘be with [Jesus]’ (verse 38), which Jesus redirects into another expression of discipleship:

“Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him. (Verse 39)

What do we learn from Jesus here? Surely that we have nothing to fear from evil and everything to gain for the kingdom of God if we face evil with the love of God and the authority of Jesus Christ. If we refuse to run away from evil in the way the world does, but instead remember that evil, even demonised people are still people who need the love of God in Christ, then situations and people can be transformed.

I am not suggesting that we all rush to become exorcists – most churches rightly put policies and restrictions around that, because there are too many loose cannons around who fancy themselves as spiritual superheroes and who cause great damage. However, every one of us at some time or another still comes face to face with manifestations of evil in one form or another. Those are the times to believe that Jesus has given us authority to act in his Name, and if we do so from a heart of Christian love, empowered by the Holy Spirit, then healing will come, and even new disciples for Christ.

More than that, when society is troubled by fear and reduced to reactions and policies based on fear, it’s time for Christians to be confident about the power of the Gospel. And by that I don’t just mean the message of forgiveness, I also mean what follows on from that, with changed lives. Jesus Christ is the world’s hope in the face of evil. Let’s not be shy or embarrassed about that.

Thirdly and finally, Jesus and the local people. What Jesus does here should be good news, shouldn’t it? But fearful people are confirmed in their fear, even when faced with the evidence of Jesus’ saving power. When the herdsmen see the man ‘sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind’, we read, ‘they were afraid’ (verse 35). When they give an eyewitness account of what they saw happen (verse 36), the local population comes to a consensus:

Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. (Verse 37)

All they can see is that Jesus is the culprit in the destruction of their pig herd. His salvation of the man has had a detrimental economic effect upon them. And admittedly we find his willingness to let the demons enter the pigs difficult to understand. All we might guess is that Jesus acknowledges that the time for the final judgement against evil is not yet. But we are not the people suffering economic loss here. So no wonder they don’t want him around.

Yet maybe that is the choice with which Jesus faces them. To accept his ways will sometimes mean we are less well-off financially. Being his disciple involves sacrifice, especially for the well-being of others. You know I won’t have anything to do with the ‘Jesus wants you rich’ brigade, but there is a subtle variation that seduces many Christians. It’s more along the lines of ‘Jesus wants you comfortable’. We have similar lifestyle aspirations to people who have little interest in God and faith. Christianity becomes the ‘redemption and lift’ phenomenon that Wesley and others observed, where converts give up certain habits and practices, and the money saved leads to a higher standard of living – at least, in economic terms.

We know our nation is in for a bout of protracted hardship as we begin to reduce our massive national debt. We shall get a flavour of that this coming week with the Emergency Budget. I wish hardship on nobody, especially on the poorest and most vulnerable. But times of financial deprivation are occasions when Jesus may well ask us how serious we are about following him. Will we do that, even if we feel the pinch? Even if our Christian ethics prohibit some personal economic short-cuts that would alleviate the difficulties for us? Even if strictures for us meant benefits for others?

The thing is, we have incredibly good news in Jesus Christ to celebrate and to share. It gives us confidence of victory over evil. It makes new the most broken in society. But it comes with a challenge and a cost. Because as Jesus makes all things new, he will conflict with vested interests. It is then a gospel matter whether we send him away in fear or embrace him and pay the price.

Which will we do?


[1] John Nolland, Luke 1-9:20, p407.

Sermon: Begone, Unbelief

Mark 6:1-13

Many years ago, I was listening to the radio late at night, when a song came on that I’d never heard before and I’ve never heard since. Not only that, I can’t find any trace of it on the Internet, despite all sorts of searching. It was by an American soul singer (now deceased) called Lou Rawls, and it was called, ‘You can never go back home’. I’ve found one or two other songs of the same title, but not the one he recorded. [UPDATE: the song is called ‘You can’t go home’, it’s a duet with George Benson, and is on the At Last album. Thanks to my sister!]

‘You can never go back home’ could have been a song for Jesus in this reading. It was all looking so good. Having returned from the eastern side of Galilee where the people had begged him to depart after he ruined the pig farming industry (how we could have done with that at a multinational’s pig farm in Mexico not so long ago), he has arrived back on the west to be greeted by crowds, and he has healed the woman with the haemorrhage and Jairus’ daughter. The woman and Jairus were great examples of faith (as we saw last week).

So – a homecoming to Nazareth should top everything, shouldn’t it? This should be the climax, the triumphant homecoming.

Except – as we know with hindsight – it isn’t.

“On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offence at him.” (Verses 2-3)

‘The carpenter, the son of Mary’ is a derogatory expression. Jesus is just a common worker with his hands, like everyone else. He’s not special. He has no particular status[1]. In fact, he’s of low status: that’s indicated by ‘son of Mary’:

“It was contrary to Jewish usage to describe a man as the son of his mother, even when she was a widow, except in insulting terms. Rumo[u]rs to the effect that Jesus was illegitimate appear to have been circulated in his own lifetime and may lie behind this reference as well.”[2]

Familarity breeds contempt, we say. The congregation at the Nazareth synagogue thought they knew Jesus. They knew his family. Yet in a critical way they didn’t know him. Jesus labels himself as a prophet without honour at home (verse 4). He can only heal a few people (verse 5) and is ‘amazed at their unbelief’ (verse 6). Jesus was no less powerful, but his power has to be received. And instead of finding the open hands of faith to receive what he has to give, he encounters only clenched fists.

It would be different if Jesus visited us, wouldn’t it? We believe in him. We trust in him. We affirm our faith every Sunday and say words like those in the creeds. He wouldn’t find unbelief here, would he? A few doubts maybe, but surely not unbelief?

Or would he? Do we slip into unbelief at times? I think we do. I’m sure I do. For like the Nazareth congregation, it’s all too easy to think we know Jesus when in some important way we don’t. We tame him as ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’, when he vigorously confronted evil. Rarely do we express the contempt his fellow Nazarenes had for him (although I have come across occasional cynicism), but I do suspect that for us familiarity may breed complacency. We think we know him, yet he can’t do many miracles among us, either. Have we got so used to Jesus that we have forgotten his raw power? Is this why C S Lewis wrote that wonderful line in ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ where he said, ‘Aslan is not a tame lion’? And is it why the American spiritual writer A W Tozer said, ‘Most Christians live like practical atheists’?

Of course, Jesus does visit us. He is present by his Spirit. Yet where is the daring faith in many churches? Our problem with faith may not be the cynicism of Nazareth but the unwillingness to take risks. Many years ago, I heard the Anglican vicar and evangelist Eric Delve say how typical it was of British people to say goodbye to someone with the words, ‘Take care’. What kind of words are they, he asked? Watch out, everything around you is dangerous, keep safe and hide away!

And does that reflect in our churches? Sadly, it often does. Like the one-talent man who buried what he was given in the ground, we opt for playing safe rather than the adventure of faith. In the words of one writer (was it Neil Cole?), we need to be in places where we are done for unless Jesus intervenes. Only then are we living by faith in Christ.

That’s why when I gave my sabbatical presentation last Sunday afternoon, I referred to that challenging document ‘The Life Cycle of a Congregation’ by George Bullard. Those of you who were present heard me describe an eight-step process from birth to death (not that death is inevitable) for churches. There were four cycles in the ascent, and four in the descent to death. I’ll just re-read two sentences from my notes:

“The movement happens as soon as the repeat of good practice is desired. Comfort zone instead of risk-taking.”

The moment we say, ‘We know what we’re doing’, we are in danger of leaving the life of faith. It means we don’t need to trust Jesus any more. We can get by on our own, thank you very much. I now see danger flags waving every time I hear Christians say they know what they’re doing. It’s why I know that one thing I need to do is leave behind my old cautious attitude of ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, and instead make my maxim, ‘If it ain’t broke, break it’.

What does Jesus do when he doesn’t find faith? Faithlessness makes him unwelcome. He does the same as he did at Nazareth: he leaves. Remember how in the Book of Revelation he addressed seven churches. Often he warned them that if they did not live faithfully, he would ‘remove [his] lampstand’ from them – that is, he would remove his presence. Jesus is quite willing to leave churches that don’t have faith in him. It breaks his heart, but he is prepared to move on. Let us ensure we give him no reason to do that, by being people of daring faith.

So where does he go? The simple and startling answer is, he goes here, there and everywhere, all at the same time. How can that be? Because he authorises the Twelve to go out in pairs in his name (verse 7). They are an extension of his mission. In Jewish law, “the sent one is as the man who commissioned him.”[3]

And if the members of the Nazareth congregation fail to exercise daring faith in Jesus, one thing you can’t miss in the instructions to the Twelve is that Jesus expects them to have utter dependence upon God in their mission. They go in the clothes they are wearing, along with a staff and sandals. They get to take no food, no money and not even a second tunic to keep them warm at night (verses 8-9).

Is this a model we all should follow? I know one evangelistic organisation which takes the equivalent passage to this in Luke 10 as a principle for all the participants in its ‘Walk of a Thousand Men’ missions. To quote from their website:

“Team members come without cars, mobile phones or credit cards, only bringing £2 per day to engage in pub evangelism.

- They trust in God for provision of food and other necessities

- Teams of Walkers take this simplicity a stage further, carrying their own packs and sleeping on hall floors.”

In embracing simplicity, they encourage team members to exercise faith at the same time as they call people to faith. Having hosted a couple of their teams in the ‘Walk Kent’ mission ten years ago, I can tell you the faith is rewarded: most team members put on weight, thanks to generous hospitality!

It’s not that the precise instructions Jesus gave the Twelve for their mission should always be followed to the letter, but it is that the underlying principle of faith needs to be embraced. We can’t call people to faith unless we display faith ourselves. It’s what Jesus himself did. Making the community of faith something safe and predictable, both internally and in how we face the world, is far from the example of Jesus.

Full of faith, the Twelve are like Jesus. But also like Jesus, they may face rejection. In which case, they “shake off the dust that is on [their] feet” (verse 11), just as Jews did when they returned from alien lands. It was a sign that the place where they had been was pagan and polluted. And sometimes you just have to distance yourself from unbelief – it has a polluting effect on your own faith. Maybe those ancient Jews knew something. Jesus walked away from unbelief in his home synagogue. The Twelve were to do the same. If our faith is being sucked dry by people who won’t respond positively to Jesus, we might consider the same.

Yet at the same time, for all the warnings this passage contains about unbelief, it isn’t an unremittingly bleak reading. In the middle of Jesus’ call to the Twelve, he gives them a vision for the success of faith-filled mission. “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place” (verse 10). You will be welcomed. Don’t believe the old lie that your locality is too tough and hardened to receive the Gospel, because there will be some places where you and your message are welcomed.

Why? Because God will have gone ahead of you, preparing the way. It isn’t up to us to prepare the soil: God does that. The Holy Spirit is at work preparing people for the Good News before Christians show up. If we go into the community with the love of God then yes, in some places people will mock or ridicule us. But don’t let the possibility of a negative reception paralyse you. There will be many instances where your message will enter and stay.

Jesus said he only did what he saw his Father doing (John 5:19). That’s why many Christians today say that mission is ‘finding out what God is doing and joining in’. God is always making the first move. It’s what John Wesley called ‘prevenient grace’ And if you know your French, the word ‘prevenient’ will make sense: ‘pre’ meaning ‘before’ and ‘venient’ from ‘venir’, meaning ‘to come’. Prevenient grace is God’s grace coming before any human action.

And that means we go in confident faith, praying that we will know where God has sent the Holy Spirit as the advance party. We don’t always need dramatic experiences to know that God has been at work ahead of us, we simply look for where we encounter a welcome for our message, and we ‘stay’ with such people, giving them our time. The rejections will come, and yes they will be painful, but like Jesus himself we walk away and concentrate on where we might see fruit.

So this has been a story about faith and unbelief. We have seen that unbelief can strike in the unlikeliest of places, maybe even close to our own hearts, if we are not so much ‘not careful’ but too careful, too cautious, too play-safe. ‘Safety first’ is as dangerous to the soul as cynicism. We must guard against both, for we risk losing Jesus.

Instead, Jesus calls us to the wild adventure of faith. Yes, we may be rejected too, but those sailing on the high seas of faith set their sails for the wind of the Spirit that will take them away from the pagan lands of unbelief and follow where God is preparing the way for the Gospel. Those who set out on the voyage of faith will, like the Twelve, see demons cast out and the sick healed (verse 13). Those who would rather stay in their home harbour and those who denounce the sailors of faith will see no such miracles.

So let’s pull up the anchor and take to the seas with Jesus.


[1] William L Lane, The Gospel According to Mark, p 202.

[2] Op cit, p 203.

[3] Op cit, p 206f.

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