A survey of single Christians in church does not surprise me at all. Single Christians often feel ‘isolated , alone and lonely’ in church. Single women feel they are seen as threats to married couples.
Why does this not surprise me? Because I was 41 before I married, and I experienced some of this. I was told that marriage was ‘the norm’, which made me feel abnormal. There were questions raised behind my back about my sexuality. To some extent, things changed when I began as a minister, because one of the positives about that was to find myself on the receiving end of many kind offers of hospitality. But I also heard married Christians say they did not think I would be able to help them – without a thought for all the single Christians who might feel that married ministers could not understand them.
I have reflected in the past that there is an assumption in the world that you are not fully human unless you are having regular sex. Since the church usually confines sex to marriage, that is adapted to a notion that you are not fully human unless you are married.
What are your experiences? Do you have some better examples, some stories of best practice?
After all, it’s ironic how often we don’t notice that our Lord and Saviour was single.
5 Signs of a Dying Church by Tim Spivey: some of these need cultural translation to my situation, but what do you think? What are the indications to you that a church needs the Last Rites?
Often on this blog I’m aware of negative and hostile contemporary attitudes to the Church. Yesterday, I came across a much more benevolent view about the benefits of church-going for a family from a site I wouldn’t normally come across – Live-In Nanny. Of course I would want to go much further on this subject than the author of this post does, but it was at least pleasing to read a positive evaluation.
Too many churches want nothing to do with Jesus.
Wait a minute! Isn’t that a bit judgemental? And what a thing to come and say as the visiting preacher at a Church Anniversary!
What I mean is this: many of the assumptions Christians make about the church bear only the most meagre resemblance to what Jesus teaches about the subject.
This morning, I want to contrast many of our popular suppositions about the church with what Jesus says here. There are great riches in our short reading, but I shall confine myself to verse 18 for a text:
And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.
We’re going to start in the middle of the verse and work our way outwards. Firstly, church. We may protest when the world assumes that ‘church’ means ‘building’ and say, “No, it’s the people,” but what is the reality? How much of our time do we spend talking about property and finance? How often do we say we want to get more people through the doors? Have we not got locked into this idea that church is a building and an institution?
But what did the word ‘church’ originally mean? It did indeed mean ‘the people’ and they didn’t have their own buildings, gathering instead in the larger homes owned by the more wealthy believers.
More specifically than that, ‘church’ comes from a word used in the early Greek democracies to indicate the calling out of a people to assemble together. Split down very literally, it is ‘the called-out people’ and that came to mean ‘the assembly’ of people.
We are a ‘called-out people’. We assemble together for worship because God in Christ has called us out to be distinct from the world. The church is the people who have heard the call to follow Christ, and that means gathering together (the assembly) as a holy people (we are called out from the world and set apart for a special purpose).
This, then, is church. Our prime concerns are all located in that single word. Does our worship reflect the Christ who calls us out? Are living as a distinct, called-out people? How are we co-operating with the Holy Spirit who is calling other people out of worldliness to join us as Christ’s new community?
And if all the discussions about property and finance were related to those issues, we’d be in a healthier position.
Secondly, my church. There is a healthy way in which people can say ‘my church’. They can mean, this is the congregation where I can love and be loved, and work out my discipleship.
The trouble is, too many churchgoers say ‘my church’ and mean something else. They act as if they own the church, or as if church solely exists for their benefit, and that it should conform to their tastes and prejudices. Such people throw wobblies when an act of worship does not sit nicely with their tastes in music.
But it’s Jesus here who says ‘my church’. The church belongs to him. It is his. In Paul’s terms, it is the Body of Christ and Jesus is the head.
Not so many years ago, it was popular in some Christian circles to hear preachers declare this claim: “Jesus wants his church back.” You know what? I think we could do with hearing that again. It’s his church, not ours. How many of our worship wars would be different if we were more concerned about what Jesus likes than what we like? How many of our petty arguments would fade in the brilliant light of knowing that the church belongs to Jesus? Aht do we need to hand back?
Thirdly, I will build my church. An evangelist I used to know said that whichever town he went in the UK, the local Christians always told him the same thing: “This is the hardest place in the country for the Gospel.” Now some of that might reflect the general difficulty we have in the present climate for sympathy to Christianity, and I can understand that. But what is the alternative? If you were to believe some Christians, it is to batten down the hatches and simply ensure that my local congregation will see me out. Once I’m dead, it can close.
If that attitude shocks you, let me assure you that it is widespread among churches.
Yet whatever the difficulties, it has to be clear that Jesus has a big vision for his church. It is to be built. Let’s not have any arguments about quality versus quantity, Jesus wants both. He wants to build both the quality of our spiritual lives – holiness – and he wants to build the quantity of those who follow him – evangelism.
It is therefore only right to ask whether questions of holiness and evangelism are central to our conversations and our meeting agenda. I fear we avoid them and major on minors. Where are the class meetings where we hold one another accountable for our growth in grace? Where are those who are making sure we focus on how we shall reach out into the local community?
Fourthly, I will build my church. Some people who have got to know me well know one of my pet peeves. It’s the idea that churches and Christians run after the latest techniques and fads in order to turn around their fortunes. If someone else has made something work, then this is what we must do. If this is what we have learned at this conference, then it must be right for us. If this is the latest big-selling Christian paperback, then we must put it into practice here as soon as possible and as much as possible.
Now I don’t have any problem learning from the best of what is happening. I happen to be an avid reader. I told our daughter’s teacher at a parents’ evening last week that you can’t be a Faulkner if you aren’t a reader.
But what does this attitude do? It assumes a kind of technological, push-the-button approach to the spiritual life. Follow these five steps and everything will be all right. Practise this technique and your troubles will be over.
For God is not a machine who responds to us programming him. God is sovereign, and if that means anything it means that he has more free will than we do. It is Jesus who promises to build his church. We want to see it grow, too, but Jesus will be the one who makes that growth take place.
What does that mean for us? We may or may not use popular programmes such as the Alpha Course, but our attitude is to ask Jesus what he wants to do and what he is doing. We then seek to join in. Rather than us try to control or even manipulate things with our religious techniques, we instead place ourselves in a position of vulnerability rather than of control. Instead of taking charge ourselves, we ask Jesus to take that position. If he is to build his church, then that requires us to be dependent upon him, and therefore to seek to hear his voice and respond.
Fifthly, you are Peter and on this rock I will build my church. Here’s another challenging thought, something that goes against many of our natural instincts – something ‘counter-intuitive’ to use a popular fancy word these days. If we want the church to grow more, then wouldn’t it be obvious that to be able to include more people in the church we should lower the bar for entry? Shouldn’t we make church membership easier? Besides, we don’t like to ask embarrassing or intimidating questions, nor do we want to appear judgemental. That should start to increase our numbers.
But, no, Jesus sees it differently. When he says, “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church,” he is surely responding to what Peter has just done. Peter has just confessed his faith in Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus grows his church by confession of faith in him. If you lower the bar, you stop being the church, because the church is the body of people who have faith in him. You might inflate your numbers in the short term, but in the long term you will no longer be the church. You might just about be a religious club, but you will no longer be the church of Jesus Christ.
So what about the people on the fringe whom we are nurturing? Are we discriminating against them? Are we excluding them? There is still room for them. John Wesley had a number of small group meetings, not just the famous class meeting. Some of them were reserved for those who had made a clear commitment of faith and obedience to Jesus Christ. Others were open to both those who believed and those who were enquiring about the faith – or, in Wesley’s words, ‘desired to flee from the wrath to come’.
Church holds an aspiration before people, namely to become radical disciples of Jesus Christ. Set the bar high. Make it worth the leap.
Sixthly and finally, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. Let’s call in the doom and gloom merchants again. The church is under attack. Christians in this country are now being persecuted. (Goodness knows how they would describe what happens to Christians in some other countries, then.) Everything and everyone is against us. It’s time to pull up the drawbridge and defend what we’ve got.
Well, let’s not deny that the climate is not so positive towards Christianity in our society anymore. That much is obvious. But is it really faithful to Jesus’ vision of the church to conceive of the battle as all being one way, the forces of darkness rampaging against the church? I don’t think that stands up to the words of our Lord here.
Did you notice I didn’t read the old translation, ‘the gates of Hell will not overcome it’? The association with Hell makes people think this is about evil forces assailing the church of Christ. But the translation I read is better: the gates of Hades. That is, the place of the dead. Death will not prevail against the church. Certainly, individual churches close and many decline, but Jesus is asserting the indestructible nature of his church. Can death ever conquer a community of faith founded in the Resurrection? Not a chance!
And specifically, there is no need to be negative here for this reason. ‘The gates of Hades’: when was the last time you were assaulted by a set of gates? It’s ridiculous! Gates are defensive tools. They are used to protect against invasion. But Jesus is saying that his church invades and conquers the forces of death. Where death attempts to reign, we proclaim resurrection. Where the forces of sin lead to death, we proclaim forgiveness. Where death is at work in the world, we proclaim the kingdom of God. The gates of death tremble as the gospel community, the church, preaches the good news of her Saviour and Lord!
In conclusion, then, yes, the church faces all sorts of challenges and difficulties today. But part of our problem is that we have allowed ourselves to believe distorted accounts of what the church is. When we return to the teaching of Jesus about the church, we have every reason to believe that God has given us a hope and a future. Let us put our house in order. Let us be humbly dependent upon Jesus Christ. And then let us face the world with confidence in him and his Gospel.
Remembering the old quote attributed to Emil Brunner that ‘the church exists by mission as fire exists by burning’, it is sobering to read ‘10 Warning Signs Of An Inwardly Obsessed Church‘ by Thom Rainer. Some of Dr Rainer’s ten signs sound not only familiar but widespread to me.
What do you think of his list? Would you add any? Would you challenge any?
Whatever you think, the tenor of the article underlines even more for me the importance of churches being mission-focussed. (By which, I don’t simply mean, ‘raising funds for others to do mission’.) Stuff about the priority of worship often deteriorates into narcissistic arguments about personal taste and aesthetics. I agree that ‘mission exists because worship doesn’t', but that is all the more reason to have mission-minded churches.
I’m reminded of the words of Ian Brown, former lead vocalist of the Stone Roses, who talked about his own spiritual quest in an interview in Q Magazine in November 2007:
My spiritual quest is for me to understand God. I’ve gotta educate myself, cos the church isn’t going to show me God. They put themselves next to God so that you’ve got to go through them to get to God. I don’t believe that.
It’s time we stopped getting in the way and being part of the solution for people like Brown.
So says Rick Warren. OK, you’d expect Warren to use the word ‘purpose’, but the thrust of the article is the benefits of structuring a church around people’s gifts, rather than in trying to fit them into a predetermined structure. Makes sense to me. But it means there are some powerful institutional forces we need to resist in our denominations.
Tomorrow (Saturday) I begin a week’s leave to spend half term with Debbie and the children. I have just finished writing my sermon for Sunday week, when I return to duty. Here it is.
All around me I find people struggling for hope. For some, it is the economic uncertainties of the recession. Will they have a job? Can they pay their mortgage? For others, it is the onset of serious or potentially terminal illness. I think of two families I know where a child has cancer. Or people wonder what legacy we are leaving to our children and grandchildren from the environmental devastation our greed has caused.
And of course, I find it in the church. I think of one church facing an imminent decision about possible closure, and another where the signs are not promising for ten years’ time.
I’ve come to the conclusion that our problem is that we conceive of hope wrongly. This is all hope based on circumstances, or on what people do. It’s an uncertain hope: “I hope that such-and-such will happen.” Such-and-such may or may not happen.
Christian hope is different. Let me introduce it this way. A couple of weeks ago, Debbie and I went to a concert by the worship leader and hymn writer Stuart Townend. We sang his hymn ‘In Christ Alone’, and it’s easy to slip past the profundity of that first line: ‘In Christ alone my hope is found.’ The Christian hope is in God. Our hope is in God in Christ.
So to our passage from Revelation. We’re familiar with it at funerals, where its words bring comfort, and that’s good. But there is so much more it can offer us. Why? Well, if you want a bunch of people who needed Christ-shaped hope, the first readers of Revelation would be good candidates. Facing persecution in the AD 90s under the Roman emperor Domitian, they saw loved ones arrested, tortured and killed. Our troubles look small fry in comparison. The vivid pictures that John gave them form a Christ-shaped hope. I believe we need a Christ-shaped hope to fit a Christ-shaped hole in our lives. Come with me as we explore this. Let it strengthen us for whatever we are facing.
Firstly, there is hope for creation. Whenever we go on holiday, an important item on my check list for packing is books. This year, I packed three but only got through one. Last year, I took a couple and only managed one. You’d have thought I’d have learned my lesson this year, wouldn’t you? But you’ll perhaps remember I never want to be caught short of reading material!
And the book I read on holiday last year was one that has helped a lot of people rethink their understanding of Christian hope. It is called ‘Surprised By Hope’ and was written by Tom Wright, the Bishop of Durham. One of the most important slogans in the book is this: ‘Heaven is not the end of the world.’
Got that? Heaven is not the end of the world. We frequently speak about the Christian hope after death as being the hope of going to heaven to be with the Lord. That is true as far as it goes. But the Bible talks about so much more. The biblical story doesn’t end with heaven: it ends here with ‘a new heaven and a new earth’. In some way that Revelation doesn’t explain, heaven and earth will be renewed. 2 Peter speaks about the destruction of the earth, but again followed by a new earth where righteousness will reign.
Our hope is not to be disembodied spirits floating somewhere in space, it is physical. God is interested in the physical and the material. He made it and he will redeem it. Just as God will not simply leave the dead in Christ in heaven but will raise them to life with new bodies, as he did with his Son, so he will also bring in a new creation.
What does that mean for us? It gives us hope for creation. Since God cares about his physical creation, so do we. Christians should be at the forefront of concern for the environment. We shouldn’t be like some Christians who say that the human race was put in charge of the earth and we can do whatever we like with it. That’s wrong. It’s God’s world, and we look after it as his stewards. One day he will renew it.
Debbie and I are no experts on green issues, but we see it as our duty to encourage Rebekah and Mark in a responsible attitude to the creation – not in a negative, hectoring way, but by filling them with a sense of wonder. Every now and again, we visit a country park near Basildon and Pitsea called the Wat Tyler Country Park. There are plenty of the usual attractions for children there, but there is one place we always visit when we go there. The RSPB has a place there, and we take the children to that so they may gain more of a sense of wonder about wildlife. It does help that Rebekah fancies herself as a young Doctor Doolittle anyway, but Mark enjoys the activities, too – I recall him coming out once, very proud of the wormery he had made!
As adults, we know this is serious stuff. You may well be aware of the forthcoming Copenhagen Climate Summit. At the time I prepared this sermon, European Union leaders were in deadlock about how to take further steps in reducing climate damage. So I’ve done my little bit of lobbying. Various organisations make it easy to do this, especially if you are online. I use something called Superbadger from TEAR Fund on Facebook. Recently, I have sent a couple of emails to Gordon Brown, asking him to continue his efforts in this area. So have thousands of others.
But let’s remember, this is about hope. The fact that God will replace the current heavens and earth with a new one means that whether we succeed or fail in our efforts, the purposes of God will not be thwarted. We put ourselves in harmony with his purposes when we care for creation. Done with the right spirit, creation care is for Christians an act of worship, and a sign of God’s hope.
Secondly, there is hope for humanity. The holy city, the new (there’s that word again) Jerusalem, comes down out of heaven, like a bride adorned for her husband (verse 2). Mention of the bride makes me think about the Church, the Bride of Christ, rather than a literal city. This speaks of the redeemed community.
The hope for humanity is a simple one: God dwelling in the midst of the redeemed community, for the voice from the throne says,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them …’ (verse 3)
You may think me odd, but this puts me in mind of Magnus Magnusson on old editions of Mastermind. This is one of those “I’ve started, so I’ll finish” moments. Why? Let me render part of verse 3 more literally: ‘See, the tabernacle of God is among mortals. He will tabernacle with them …’
Perhaps you remember the tabernacle, the ‘portable sign of God’s presence’ in the Old Testament. Holding that in your mind, go back with me to John chapter 1, where we read of Jesus, ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among them’ – or, more literally, ‘The Word became flesh and tabernacled among them.’
So here in Revelation 21, God’s purposes in John 1 are fulfilled. What God started in Jesus, he will finish. The mission of Jesus will be fulfilled. God will dwell with ‘his peoples’ – and note it’s ‘peoples’ not ‘people’. The Bride of Christ will be composed from every tribe, tongue and nation under heaven, a vision that must be anathema to Nick Griffin and the British National Party. How distorted is their attempted takeover of Christian language. In Christ, people are reconciled to God and to one another. It’s a sign of hope for a divided and troubled world. Be clear about one thing: the extinction of the Church is not on God’s agenda. Rather, it has a vivid, glorious, multi-coloured future in God’s new creation.
What is our part in this now? If God’s mission to dwell in the midst of reconciled peoples was expressed in Christ dwelling in the midst of the human race, then we are called to something similar. For Jesus said, ‘As the Father sent me, so I send you’. Therefore, just as Jesus dwelt in the midst of those he came to reconcile to the Father and each other, so must we. No religious ghettos. No spiritual escapism, where we run inside our castle, pull up the drawbridge and be relieved that we can worship without the distractions of the world. No more the increasingly futile approaches to mission that wait for ‘them’ to come and meet ‘us’ in our comfort zone. Instead, as the Father sent Jesus, so he sends us. Our sharing in God’s hope for humanity means we choose not to engross ourselves in church-filled lives but live out God’s love in the midst of the world, where we are needed. For now, I’ll limit myself to these words from Henri Nouwen:
More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them. It is a privilege to have the time to practice this simple ministry of presence. Still, it is not as simple as it seems. My own desire to be useful, to do something significant, or to be part of some impressive project is so strong that soon my time is taken up by meetings, conferences, study groups, and workshops that prevent me from walking the streets. It is difficult not to have plans, not to organize people around an urgent cause, and not to feel that you are working directly for social progress. But I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn’t be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own, and to let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them, but truly love them.
Thirdly and finally, our passage has hope for the individual. I want to consider those famous words from verse 4 that make this reading so apposite at a funeral:
‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’
To those who first read Revelation or had it read to them, these words had immense impact. Remember ,they were facing hideous persecution. Tears, death, mourning, crying and pain frequently soundtracked their lives. How they longed for it to pass. How they, the suffering ones, longed for justice – which is surely why Revelation takes delight in the downfall of the wicked.
So this constitutes the good news of God’s hope for individuals. Whatever we struggle with in this life will be abolished in the new creation. Be it sickness or injustice, its days are numbered. One day, God will call time on all that corrupts the beauty of his creation and will restore all things. Indeed, this is so important that when the voice from the throne says in verse 5, ‘See, I am making all things new’, this is at most only the third or fourth time God himself is reported as speaking directly in Revelation. Not only that, God has given an advance sign of his promise to do all this in the Resurrection of Jesus. The Resurrection constituted amongst other things – the healing and transformation of a body traumatised to the point of death, and God’s vindication of his Son in the face of those who condemned and executed him. The Resurrection is healing and justice. We look forward to both of those in full measure when God’s new creation comes. The Resurrection guarantees our hope in God’s healing and justice.
But meanwhile – what do we do? Shall we lie down and allow pain and wickedness to walk all over us and others? By no means! We pray for healing, we campaign for the oppressed and we accompany the suffering – for that is what we must do if, like Jesus, we are to dwell in the midst of the world, with all its pain. Sometimes, we shall see victories and rejoice. At other times, it will seem like evil has won the day. But when it does, with Christian hope we can laugh at the darkness, for whatever battles it wins, God’s hope means the war is lost. Whatever discouragements we have, our certain hope in God means we need never completely lose heart. We have a vision of hope to fortify us, and the Resurrection to guarantee it.
In conclusion, let me take you back to that Stuart Townend concert I mentioned near the beginning. He introduced another of his famous hymns, his version of the Twenty-Third Psalm, ‘The Lord’s My Shepherd’. He talked about how loved that psalm is by millions, both inside and outside the Church for its sense of comfort.
However, he said we needed to do something with that comfort, and that was why he wrote the chorus with its words,
And I will trust in You alone.
And I will trust in You alone,
For Your endless mercy follows me,
Your goodness will lead me home.
If we are comforted, then we need to trust, he said. And I think it’s the same with the Christian hope, which we find ‘In Christ alone’. We may be encouraged by the prospect of God’s hope for creation with its new heaven and new earth. We may find succour in the hope for humanity found in the God who dwells in the midst of peoples reconciled to him and to one another. We may be comforted by the thought that one day, sickness and injustice will finally be completely conquered when all – like Christ – are raised from the dead.
But we need to trust. And that means action. Action in creation that is consistent with God’s purposes of renewal. Action in the church, as we dwell in the midst of the world to offer reconciliation in Christ. And action for the sick and oppressed, as we anticipate the fulfilment of their hope in Christ.
Let us be strengthened in God’s hope. And let that hope propel us to trusting action.
 Robert H Mounce, The Book of Revelation, p373.
Here is my sermon on tomorrow’s Lectionary Gospel reading.
In the University Library in Cambridge there is an old, leather-bound book containing illustrations copied from medieval manuscripts. There are no captions to the pictures, making them like early cartoon strips, but it isn’t hard to work out what’s going on. At the beginning of one story a woman is standing holding a club, with her skirt for some reason sewn together between her legs. Next to her, a man is standing in a barrel, with one hand behind his back. Battle then commences. The woman clouts the man, while the man tries to grab the woman. In the end she ends up head down in the barrel, her legs (still chastely covered by her skirt) waving in the air. It all becomes clear: this was the way in which they settled marital disputes in the Middle Ages. If the husband got the wife in the barrel, he’d won the argument. If she clouted him into submission – or unconsciousness – she’d proved her point. [Source]
This is not a sermon about marriage! But it is a sermon about conflict. Some people run from conflict. Some try to pacify the situation. Others – like Jesus, in this reading – seem to say, ‘Bring it on.’
The tension between Jesus and the religious leaders is escalating quickly. In particular, his overturning of the moneychangers’ tables in the Temple has proved particularly – and unsurprisingly – provocative. They have questioned his authority. He has confounded their questions, and then begun to tell parables that are pointedly critical of them.
Today’s reading is the second of three consecutive parables in Matthew where Jesus isn’t exactly subtle in exposing the shortcomings of Israel’s shepherds. What’s more, he says, this has been a pattern down the centuries.
And of course, he sees where this is going for him. The son of the vineyard owner will be killed by the tenants.
So how does Jesus chart the tragic story of conflict between God and the People of God in this parable? And where might there be both challenge and grace for us today?
The first theme of the parable is just how extraordinarily patient God is with his people. The landowner sends slave after slave after slave to the miscreant tenants. Eventually he even sends his own son. He gives them chance after chance.
And of course Jesus is telling Israel’s story here – how he formed them through the patriarchs, and sent Moses to lead them out of slavery in Egypt. Then, once they were in the Promised Land, God sent judges and prophets to them over many centuries. Even when they went into Babylonian exile, God sent more prophets to woo them back to him. But now the Father has sent his only Son. We’re talking about a feat of patience that endured around two thousand years. Some of us have trouble being patient for two weeks!
But this is the incredible patience of God our Father. How often have God’s people given him reason for despair or grief? From the golden calf in the wilderness to the golden cow of Christian materialism, he could have ripped it all up and started again with others. Yet by his grace he persists with his people.
We know, I hope, that as the Christian Church we can’t look down on the sins of Israel from superior vantage point. Whatever they did in stoning the prophets or even rejecting the Messiah, we have conducted Inquisitions and Crusades, and devised ways of flatly contradicting the Gospel while claiming still to believe. Time after time, the Church has trashed the Gospel, and yet God keeps using her.
And what about us as individual Christians? How many of us are aware of being failures in faith? Was it the going along with the crowd at work? Being as consumerist or materialistic as anyone else? Looking after number one, instead of caring for others first? Staying silent when God needed us to speak up? Gave into temptation instead of remaining self-controlled?
I imagine we’ve all been there. Some of us have assumed that at our time of failure, God would have given up on us. Surely he has rejected us? Or, if we are still in the family of God, we can never be of any use to God’s kingdom.
Meet the God of patience. He is the patient God, because he is the God of grace. He is slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love.
You may well have heard the saying that the only true failure is not the error, but when we don’t pick ourselves up off the floor and start again after a mistake. That is true in Christian terms. The Cross of Christ facilitates the possibility that in the mercy of God, we may get up from the ground, be dusted down by him and start anew.
Do not stay crawling in the dirt because you feel so bad about yourself. God knows the worst about you and still loves you. Let the crucified and risen Christ lift you to your feet and set you back on the road of discipleship again.
You may have been surprised about that first point when I said that the parable had arisen from a context of conflict. And the parable’s tone is shocking to some. Am I guilty of misrepresenting the holy God as an indulgent grandfather who looks down upon misdeeds and says, ‘Ah, they’re just little rascals’?
There is a time when patience passes to judgment. Israel already knew that with her history of exile in Babylon. There comes a time when individuals, groups, institutions or nations have so set their faces against the purposes of God that he says, that’s enough. In the parable, it’s the outright rejection of the landowner’s son. It symbolises, of course, the rejection of Jesus himself.
I would hate to dwell on that point in the way parts of the Church have over the years, and turned it into persecution of the Jewish people. And not least because I once worked with a Jewish woman who told me vividly how she was called a ‘Christ-killer’ when she was a little girl.
But the religious leaders of Jesus’ day have had no monopoly on rejecting him as the Christ. Do I mean atheist creeds and nations, as per communism? Yes. Do I mean other totalitarian systems? Yes, I do. Do I mean our society? In a certain way, yes. After all, as John White says in his book The Golden Cow, the difference between communism and capitalism is this: communism says only the material exists, and capitalism says only the material matters.
But this is more: judgment is not merely about ‘them’. It is about us, the church. In his first Epistle, Peter said that judgment begins with the house of God. And when he says that, you could be forgiven for thinking, ‘Wait a minute! I thought we in the church were the forgiven ones. How are we judged? How are we the first to be judged?’
I think it’s something like this: God’s purposes revolve around his people – which, today, is what the Church is meant to be. However, just because that is his overall plan doesn’t mean that certain churches deserve to stay open forever, and that it’s automatically a crime if they close. The Church may be Jesus’ prime agent in the world, but no individual church has a divine right to existence. The gates of Hell may not be able to withstand the Church, but some churches will fail.
Now they will fail for many reasons, but one of them will be that they stopped taking Jesus seriously, and were judged. Oh, they mentioned Jesus. He was still in their hymns and liturgies. But he wasn’t central to the affections of their hearts any more. The church was being maintained for its own members, rather than to give glory to Jesus. Because glorifying Jesus means more than singing hymns about him. It means mission. It means holiness. And within that, the worship is an expression of the spiritual life that is going on the rest of the time.
Wesley said that Methodism was raised up to spread scriptural holiness. If we were to abrogate such a fundamental Christ-centred duty as that, then would the Methodist Church have any right to exist? No.
God has mostly fulfilled his purposes through people. So what happens if the people are put aside in judgment? In the case of Israel’s leaders, Jesus prophesied that God would raise up new leadership. That new leadership proved, I think, to be a bunch of mostly uneducated, unqualified, ignorant types. The apostles.
And if God can judge his Church an her leaders just as much as he can judge the leaders of Israel, then what will he do to fulfil his purposes? He will raise up new leaders and new churches.
A non-Christian recently asked me the old question about why there are so many Christian denominations. I’m afraid I slipped into the ‘nice’ answer, namely that we agree on all the basics of the faith, but there are some things on which it’s OK to disagree: church leadership, sacraments, blah blah blah.
I think there are other, uglier reasons. They are to do with human pride, and also to do with God judging those who are refusing to take their Christ-centred mission sufficiently seriously. The Reformers were the sign of judgment on corrupt Catholicism. But the Baptists and Congregationalists were a similar sign on those Reformers who liked to stay close to state power. Wesley was God’s judgment on a moribund Church of England. The Salvation Army was on nineteenth century Methodism. Pentecostal and charismatic Christians were judgment on powerless, lifeless twentieth century mainline Christianity. Today, emerging churches, fresh expressions, missional groups and new monastic communities are judgment on a wider church that won’t make a missionary engagement with today’s generations.
God will not simply judge, he will always find new ways of continuing his purposes.
What does that mean for us? I believe we need to lay hold of God’s patient mercy before judgment falls, and be serious about our Christ-focussed mission. All that we do and share needs to breathe the Spirit of Jesus.
That doesn’t mean that everything we do has to be overtly religious, because to the Christian everything is spiritual. It does mean, though, that we do everything to the glory of God, from eating toast at Sunday breakfast to bread at communion. Whether our gatherings have a religious topic or not, we are seeking to form community based on our life in Christ, rather than simply run a social club where the common interest is religion.
And most fundamentally of all, it is a missionary calling to make Christ known in word and deed. Our agenda is the mission of God. Not just mission as a task to be accomplished – those Jesus criticised in this parable had great missionary fervour, and would travel to all sorts of places in the cause. It is Christ-centred mission that shares his message of love in a spirit of love. We are those who are sent in the love of God to the world.
Now when we are consumed with things like that – rather than maintaining the club, or rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic – and when our business and property priorities are directed towards the mission of God’s love in Christ, too – then we know we are in the ongoing purposes of God.