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Church Growth And Discipleship

Alan Hirsch argues that hyperbolic church growth depends on an understanding of Christians being constant disciples, not simply worshippers, attenders, members or consumers.

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Sermon: Kingdom Dreams

A break from the Acts series this week, as I visit a church that generally uses the Lectionary for its sermons. If you want to hear something on Acts of the Apostles, go to Knaphill Methodist’s media page in the next couple of days and you’ll hear the recording of the all age service there in the sermon series.

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Even wildlife photographers need a break

Even Wildlife Photographers Need A Break by zoomyboy.com on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

On Wednesday, our daughter left junior school. My wife Debbie and I went to the Leavers’ Assembly at the school that afternoon, which was taken by the entire Year 6 cohort. They didn’t just look back at their favourite memories of junior school life, they also looked forward. Three of the children acted in a series of sketches, imagining themselves sixty years on at a reunion. Some children – including our Rebekah – stood up and told everyone what their ambition was. Becky’s, by the way, is to become a wildlife photographer.

Did you have a dream for your life? What happened to it? Did you realise it in full, or perhaps in a modified form? Or did it fall away?

And did you have a dream for what you would accomplish through your faith in Jesus Christ? I wonder what has happened to that over the years. Is it still intact? Or did it slip through your fingers?

Today, as we come to the end of Matthew 13, the great chapter in this Gospel of parables, we encounter a set of five final parables about God’s dream – his kingdom. Unlike our dreams, God’s dream of the kingdom, which is his ambition for creation, is one that will be fulfilled.

Let’s explore these parables in outline with the hope that we might recover our God-dreams for his kingdom. To do this, I’m not going to look at any one parable in detail, but rather pick out the big themes. Between them, the five parables give us three major themes.

Yeast

Yeast by Konstantin Lazorkin on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Firstly, Jesus calls us to dream small. We have the parables of the mustard seed that starts small but grows into a tree (verses 31-32), and the parable of the yeast, a small amount of which leavens three measures of flour (verse 33).

Yes, these things end up big, but they start small. And the trouble with many of our dreams is that we want to go big from the start. In fast food terms, it’s as if we want to supersize them. So you can go to some major Christian conferences and leave with a rallying call to ‘take this nation for Jesus’. Or you can hear other Christians talking up massive social justice campaigns.

But, says Jesus, the dream of God’s kingdom starts small before it grows. An American Christian called James Davison Hunter has thought deeply about this. He has noticed these big projects of both conservative and liberal Christians to change society. The conservative Christians tend to believe that if we could only launch some mass evangelism efforts and see many people converted, then our culture would change. The liberal Christians identify a social evil and attempt to rally people to that cause, thinking that a political change will improve things.

Hunter, though, says that neither strategy works. What we need, he says, is ‘faithful presence’. We need Christians who will be a faithful witness where they already are. This, he argues, will be salt and light in society, and ultimately have more of a chance to bring sustained change to our world.

In this light, think back to the video you watched after we heard verses 31 to 33.

 

Jeremy Cowart

Jeremy Cowart by Breezy Baldwin on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Jeremy Cowart grew up in a Baptist church in Nashville, Tennessee. He wanted to become a painter, and indeed that is how he started out in his working life. Through painting, he discovered an interest in graphic design, and through that got to learn the famous computer software Photoshop. And through Photoshop, he discovered what would become his true life’s passion – photography.

Still living in Nashville, one of the centres of the American music industry, he had several friends who were musicians. Some of them asked him to take the photos for their CD booklets. As some of those bands became more successful, so they recommended their friend Jeremy to their record companies, and this eventually meant he was asked to go to Los Angeles to shoot pictures of musicians. He became very well known among some of the world’s most famous musicians, and through that was also asked to take official photos for television programmes and some of the most famous celebrities on the planet.

As a Christian, Cowart wondered what he could do with his fame and influence. He has even been named ‘the most influential photographer on the web’. He realised that photography could bring a sense of dignity to many downtrodden and poor people in the world. Alongside all their known needs for food, shelter, money, housing and other essential things, he knew that many of these people would have their self-esteem vastly improved if they could be given a professional portrait photo.

So he started to contact people around the world in his industry: fellow photographers, but also hairstylists and make-up artists. A few years ago, on a December Saturday, they offered their skills to people in various communities. It is now an annual event, with over 20,000 professionals involved each year. They take their expensive cameras and lenses, lighting and backgrounds, make-up and so on to a local centre. They befriend people, take their photos, print them on the spot, and give them free of charge. The photographers pay all the costs, and are encouraged not just to take and give the photo, but to go the extra mile for these people.

There are wonderful stories coming out of this movement. Prostitutes have given up their trade after many years, because they finally felt loved and realised who they could be again from looking at their image. One group reported this story:

The lady with the lighter blonde hair was the first to get her photo taken. We asked her if she’d like us to do her hair and use some makeup. She was ecstatic and didn’t know what to say. She sat there with a smile on her face the whole time and was so thankful for someone to care for her.

One lady just looked at us, almost in tears, and said “why are you doing this for us?” We explained that it wasn’t because of anything in us, but because of what God has done in us that causes us to love one another and bear each other’s burdens.

We ended up giving out our contact information to everyone who attended that day and we’ve had several responses back for prayer, needing help finding a job when you have 2 felonies, and helping finding places to live and get established.

We also partnered with Crossway Publishers. They gave us 40 brand new ESV bibles to give away. We signed and gave away 38 bibles. Some people were even coming in and asking for a Bible, but didn’t necessarily want a portrait.

We got so many hugs that day!

Jeremy Cowart started out anonymous and became world-famous. His idea began small, but now touches thousands every year. This is mustard seed faith. This is the yeast at work.

Is there something small you could do for the love of God and the love of others with your talents? Who knows how it might spread and make parts of this world more like God’s kingdom.

Pearls

Pearls by Milica Sekulic on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Secondly, having begun by dreaming small we can now dream big. Here we come to the parables of the treasure hidden in a field (verse 44) and the pearl of great price (verses 45-46).

I once heard of a man who left a church in disgust when another worshipper told him that the only proper giving to the Lord’s work was a tithe, that is, ten per cent of his income. The man walked out, saying, “How dare he! It’s none of his business! It’s up to me to choose how much I decide to give!”

Was the disgruntled worshipper right? No. Was the advocate for tithing right? No – even though a case can be made from the Scriptures for Christians to tithe. (Although it’s a contentious issue, and I’m not going to enter into it now.)

No. The offering God wants from us is not ten per cent, but a hundred per cent. The one who discovers the treasure sells all he has to acquire it, and so does the merchant who discovers the supremely valuable pearl.

As I once heard it said – and the first part of this at least goes down well in Surrey: God is a capitalist. He only believes in takeover bids.

God and his kingdom, with its wonderful vision for how things can be and how things will be, is such a captivating, heart-stirring sight that the only proper response to it is to give our entire selves in the cause.

There was a slogan at the recent World Cup Finals which caught the mood of this well: ‘All in or nothing.’ That could summarise what commitment to Christ and his kingdom is about. When we think of what he has done for us – especially on the Cross – how can it be any less?

You start by dreaming small, simply aiming to take your gifts and talents and create a faithful presence in the world. But you  back it up with a big commitment. You put heart and soul, mind and body behind that small faithful presence. It’s one thing having a dream, but it’s no good sitting around, waiting for it to happen. It takes commitment of the blood, sweat and tears variety to make it come into being.

And all of this means it’s about time we stopped playing church. You know – coming on Sunday, thinking that means we’ve done our duty to God and ignoring him for the rest of the week. Or moaning and groaning about everything we don’t like, as if faith were some consumer item to be loved or loathed. Recently I heard the story of a person who said to the preacher after the service, “I didn’t like the hymns you picked this morning.”

“That’s OK,” replied the preacher, “we weren’t singing them for you.”

Church is not being run for your benefit or mine. Church is here to give glory to God in worship and in mission, and to train us all up as wholehearted disciples. God is completely devoted to that. The only fitting response on our part is to back our small dreams with big commitment.

07042011130

07042011130 by Mark Bellingham on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Thirdly and finally, we need to dream long. We come to the parable of the net, in which the good fish from the catch are kept but the bad ones are discarded, as a sign that the separation of the evil and the righteous will happen at the end of the age (verses 47-50). In today’s reading it stands alone, but just as there is a pairing of the mustard seed and the yeast parables, and of the hidden treasure and the pearl of great price parables, so the parable of the net pairs with the story of the wheat and the weeds (tares) that Matthew placed earlier in the chapter, at verses 24 to 30.

These two parables encapsulate the long-term dream of God’s kingdom as a place where righteousness is all-pervasive, and evil is conquered. War, chaos, suffering, famine, sickness, and other ugly members of their family are gone, not least because God has banished those who perpetuate wickedness.

Somewhere in the heart of our kingdom dreaming is often a desire to obliterate evil now. so when sin rears its head again, or violence wins another day (and we have too many examples of that in the news right now), then we can become discouraged. Why doesn’t God throw away the bad fish now?

And if we’re not careful, our deeply committed discipleship turns into an aggressive crusade against others. What’s more, if we dare to look in at ourselves, we too are a disturbing mixture of good and evil. If we need mercy ourselves, how much more should we seek it for others?

Patience

Patience by Amanda Richards on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

So we need patience. God is playing a long game. There will be setbacks along the way, but none of these need deter us. To put it another way, sometimes we treat the Christian life like a hundred metre sprint, but actually it’s a marathon. So we keep plugging away, even when – as marathon runners say – we ‘hit the wall’.

The parable of the net (and the parable of the wheat and the weeds) reminds us that it is worth the slog of keeping going in kingdom things. One day people will be receptive and we shall be encouraged, but on other days we won’t.

In one of the darkest periods of my life and ministry, there was one Bible verse that just about kept my head above water, even though I didn’t understand what God was doing in the situation. It was the final verse of 1 Corinthians 15, Paul’s great chapter on the Resurrection, where in the light of that great hope he tells his readers, ‘your labour in the Lord is not in vain.’ Nor is ours.

And as those who face far worse than we do – such as our persecuted brothers and sisters who have fled Mosul in Iraq in the face of the evil ISIS movement – one day there ‘will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’ for the wicked. I know we get edgy about longing for judgement and that’s reasonable when our desire for God to judge people is really some religious blood lust. But when people are suffering serious premeditated wickedness, as is happening in northern Iraq and other parts of the globe, then this is purely a heartfelt cry for justice, even if it comes within the framework of God’s long game, while he longs for even the most sinful of people to repent and find his mercy.

The long dream is one with an awesome climax, and it requires us to dream big in the level of our commitment. But it all starts with the small dream, the faithful presence in the world using our gifts to bless people outside the church now.

Will you leave this place this morning to begin – or to re-engage – small, and trust God for what he will do?

Sermon: Acts – Supporting Mission (The Church At Antioch)

Acts 11:19-30

Knowledge

Knowledge by Jean-Jacques Halans on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

We Know More Than Our Pastors’. That was the title of an article written ten years ago by a former pastor who argued that Christian participants in the emerging world of social media on the Internet (at that time, largely confined to blogging) had a greater reach and a greater access to knowledge than the typical church minister.

Actually, ‘we know more than our pastors’ isn’t a recent phenomenon. There have been many occasions in church history when new vision has come not from the centre but the margins of the Christian community.

And we have one such example in today’s reading. We have spent the last few weeks caught up in the apostle Peter’s agonies over taking the Gospel beyond the Jewish community to Cornelius the Gentile Roman centurion. But today we discover that some anonymous disciples had shared the Good News of Jesus with Gentiles before he had!

Now those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed travelled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the word only among Jews. 20 Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus.21 The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord. (Verses 19-21, italics mine)

Stephen is killed in chapter seven, and the persecution breaks out in chapter eight – all before Peter is challenged to visit Cornelius. So-called ‘ordinary Christians’ are miles ahead of the apostle here.

When that happens in our religious institutions today, the common instinct is to come up with a set of rules, many of which are about prohibitions to make sure such messy and disorderly behaviour doesn’t occur again. But thankfully, the reaction of the early church was positive. It recognised a work of God. And rather than trap people with regulations and tie them up with red tape, the dominant tone of our reading is encouragement.

And encouragement is a vital quality when it comes to Christian mission. Which makes this an appropriate reading for a service I am sharing with the church Mission Team. I think it’s fair to say that most of what our Mission Team doesn’t so much involve us in direct mission, but in encouraging others who are involved in mission. That isn’t to say we should use that as a cover for not engaging in mission ourselves, but it is to say we need to draw attention to the importance of encouragement in the sustaining of Christian mission.

So if we’re talking about encouragement, then step forward Barnabas, whose name means ‘Son of encouragement’, and who has lived up to his name earlier in Acts. How does encouragement work in relation to Christian mission in this passage? Here are three ways:

Teach/Learn

Teach/Learn by Duane Schoon on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Firstly, encouragement is needed in the teaching of new disciples:

News of this reached the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch.23 When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. 24 He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord. (Verses 22-24)

The missionary task of bringing people to faith by evangelism isn’t enough. Any church that is serious about mission will also be serious about teaching the faith to the congregation, old and new. It won’t usually be in some detached, theoretical, academic style. It will be teaching with a specific purpose. And that purpose is one of discipleship. It will be teaching how to live in the ways of Jesus. After all, that’s how Barnabas encouraged the people here: he ‘encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts’ (verse 23). Christian teaching that merely tickles an intellectual fancy is a waste of time. (Which is not to deny that we should think hard about our faith.)

After all, what are we about as a church if we are not about making new disciples of Jesus Christ and growing in our discipleship? It’s why the teaching ministry is so vital – whether from the pulpit, in the home group, or one on one as mature individual Christians teach newer Christians how to walk closely with Christ. This teaching ministry takes precedence over institutional requirements, administration, socialising, and all sorts of other areas. If our church is doing too many things to squeeze this in, then we need to look at our priorities.

Furthermore, it needs to be a priority among ordinary Christians. Each one of us ought to be able to answer questions such as these: what have I done in the last twelve months in order to be more like Jesus? How have I changed? (Granted, that one might better be answered by those who know us well.) What am I doing in my life right now that is an intentional step in learning the way of Christ? If this is so important and I am not doing it, what will I give up in order to focus on being more Christ-like? What trade-off will I accept? What sacrifice will I make? Have I filled my mind with too much trivia?

In terms of the wider mission of God’s church, this is why we release church leaders such as ministers to go to areas of the country and of the world where there are new disciples of Jesus. Help is needed to establish new converts in the faith. It’s something we can support when we give to World Mission or Mission In Britain, and when we pray for it.

Following the leader in sunset reflection

Following the leader in sunset reflection by John on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Secondly, encouragement is needed in the development of new leaders.

Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch. (Verses 25-26)

Saul still isn’t Paul. He may have begun preaching soon after his conversion, but he isn’t the hotshot apostle yet. He is someone of whom the early church leaders were understandably suspicious. But just as Barnabas vouched for him in the early days, now he encourages him again by giving him a chance to spread his wings and develop as a leader in God’s mission. Barnabas sees that potential in Saul, and recruits him. It looks like he is spot on, given both the year that the two men spend teaching in Antioch, and of course subsequent history when Saul became Paul.

The work develops – don’t just assume it’s a note of historical detail when Luke says, ‘The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch’ (verse 26). They take on a new name and a new identity. This is probably a group of Jesus followers who are a mixture of both Jews and Gentiles – remember that those who came to share the Gospel there spoke not ‘to Greeks’ but ‘to Greeks also’ (verse 20, italics mine). No longer is this merely a Jewish sect, but a group of Jews and Gentiles who, though previously enemies, have been reconciled to God and to one another through Jesus Christ. As such, they are a new entity, and they take on a new identity with a new name: ‘Christians’.

It is a rôle of Christian leaders to help disciples grow into their new identity as Christ’s followers. It is a calling, if you will, to help people ‘become who they are’ – that is, to become who they are in Christ. Jesus Christ gives us a new identity when we turn our lives over to him. We become children of God, and this is not only a new individual identity, it is also a new identity as a member of God’s pilgrim people.

It is not a rôle of Christian leaders to baptise every new and existing idea in the congregation. It is not part of the job description to turn up like Young Mister Grace in ‘Are You Being Served?’ saying, “You’ve all done very well” at any and every social function. It is not the rôle of church leaders to be managers of a building, but leaders of a movement. Nor is it the place of Christian leaders to be the ones who do all the witnessing and evangelising, as if that lets everyone else off the hook. It doesn’t.

What, then, are the practical implications for church members here? Allow (and encourage!) your leaders to concentrate on the essential tasks of leading God’s people. Let them have resources to develop themselves and so develop others – time for reading, time to go to training courses and conferences, time for sabbaticals and retreats. Support fund-raising for world mission so that leaders can be nurtured and supplied in developing churches around the globe. Support the Methodist Fund for Training in this country to provide good quality training for ministers, Local Preachers and others.

And most of all, pray for those in leadership. During my ministry, I have known of four people who have committed to pray for me every day. There may well be more than the four who have privately identified themselves to me over the years. However, two of them are now dead. Could you take it on board to pray regularly for people you know in Christian leadership? I can’t tell you what a morale-booster it is to hear that people are doing this for you.

Famine Memorial

Famine Memorial by Tobias Abel on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Thirdly and finally, we move from Barnabas to Agabus. The third and final encouragement is the provision for the suffering.

During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.) 29 The disciples, as each one was able, decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea. 30 This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul. (Verses 27-30)

Agabus will turn up in one more incident later in Acts. He will have another prophetic message, when he warns Paul that suffering and imprisonment is awaiting him if he takes a particular proposed decision. He is proved right, and he is shown to be right here. We have other New Testament references to a collection for those suffering the effects of a famine, especially those in Judea. Paul’s teaching on Christian giving in 2 Corinthians 9 has this particular tragedy as its backdrop.

Of course, giving to disaster relief is one expression of Christian mission with which we are sadly too familiar. We have just had plates out in recent weeks for Christian Aid’s Iraq appeal. We are used to televised appeals from the Disasters Emergency Committee. But millions of others do the same, who do not claim the name of Christ, so what could be explicitly Christian about our acts of giving for the relief of suffering?

I guess there has to be a Christian dimension to the giving and a Christian dimension to the people using the gift. The Christian dimension to the giving is perhaps something we shall only know in our hearts. It is the concern to bring things in this world in alignment with heaven – ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven’.

The Christian dimension expressed by the people using the gift means, I think, that we are talking about giving to organisations that act in the name of Christ. It may be those that simply are Christians who engage in disaster relief (and, perhaps, some political campaigning), such as Christian Aid. To do so may bring a visible sign of encouragement to the downtrodden.

Or it may be an organisation that sees all Christian mission as a whole, and integrates disaster relief with uniting the churches in a particular area of the world and proclaiming a gospel message that calls people there to find hope in Jesus Christ and follow him. Here I am thinking of outfits such as TEAR Fund. And what better word of encouragement is there to someone than Christ? We just need to remember the words of William Booth: ‘If you want to give a tract to a hungry man, make sure it is the wrapping on a sandwich.’

So – in conclusion, let’s go back to the beginning. I began with that slogan, ‘We know better than our pastors.’ I rather feel that what I have presented to you this morning constitutes only some very basic ideas about the place of encouragement in the development of Christian mission. Giving, supporting, encouraging, praying – there is nothing new or unusual in the applications I have suggested.

Now if that’s the case, I think you can prove the virtue of ‘We know better than our pastors.’ Because you can do all of these things. And with baptised imaginations, you can dream, think, and do so much more. We haven’t even mentioned prayer, nor even the possibility of answering a call to mission ourselves.

So why not get dreaming? After all, you know more than me.

Sermon: The Beatitudes – Blessèd Are The Disciples

Disciples

Disciples by Bryan Sherwood on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Matthew 5:1-12

The Sermon on the Mount is something of a theological football. It gets kicked around by different parties, all claiming it supports their views. And the Beatitudes, which open the Sermon, are dragged into that fight. Is this all about politics in the here and now? Is it about what heaven will be like? Do we sit around and wait for glory? Does the teaching of the Sermon apply to all people, or only to Christians? And so on.

I think we must first of all say that this is material that is primarily aimed at disciples of Jesus. When Jesus sees the crowds, he goes up the mountain, but it isn’t the crowd that comes to him (was he trying to escape from them?), it is only his disciples (verse 1). He is teaching his disciples.

What is a disciple, then? It is someone who is a learner, an apprentice, or a student. In Jesus’ day, bright young men asked rabbis if they could follow them. They would not only learn the rabbi’s teaching, they would also seek to copy the rabbi’s lifestyle, right down to some of the minutest and most private areas of life.

If, then, we are disciples of Jesus, we are those who are being called to learn his teaching not simply by memorising it, but by putting it into practice as he did. It is a lifelong task. No disciple of Jesus can ever in this life behave as if she has arrived. It doesn’t work like that. There is always more to know and more of Jesus’ life to imitate. There is no place for complacency. We should always be thirsty for more of Jesus’ teaching, and we always need to retain a passion to follow the example of Jesus. If we ever can’t be bothered to learn of Jesus or seek to model more of our lives upon his pattern, then something is seriously wrong with our lives, and we are not behaving like true disciples.

The story is told of a young girl who watched with fascination and incredulity as she regularly saw her grandma reading her Bible. “Why do you keep on reading the Bible, Grandma,” asked the girl, “Surely you’ve read it all by now and know it?”

The elderly lady smiled sweetly and replied, “Because I’m studying for my finals.”

I wonder if that is our attitude. We may have been Christians for many years, but still as his disciples we are called to study for our finals. It doesn’t require the physical strength of youth that may have departed years ago, it merely necessitates a serious commitment to Jesus.

For Jesus is no ordinary rabbi. He is not a run of the mill spiritual teacher. Note how he goes up the mountain in this story. That would have been very suggestive to Jewish people. Moses went up the mountain and came down with the laws of God. Any time someone goes up a mountain in Matthew’s Gospel, something big happens.

In fact, just as there were five so-called ‘Books of Moses’ in the Old Testament – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy – so there are also five blocks of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew. He is the new Moses.

More to the point, he fulfils the ancient prophecy that one greater than Moses would come, for there is one key difference. When Moses comes down the mountain, he returns with laws given to him by God. Jesus does not go up the mountain to receive from God something that did not originate with him – he gives teaching that is his, and with authority (as we hear at the end of the Sermon on the Mount). We are called to be disciples not merely of a human teacher, but the Lord himself. This is all the more reason to take our apprenticeship seriously. He is giving us the New Law of the Messiah. He brings ethical teaching that is from heaven, based on future judgement and rewards, and earthed in true wisdom, all for our reception and action.

So yes, Jesus gives this teaching to disciples, but the crowd is at a distance, watching them. When we get to the end of the Sermon, we shall find they are still there. You might say that the teaching is given to disciples, but it is to be lived in the full gaze of the crowds, of the world. For this is teaching about a distinctive way of life, and right from the start here with the Beatitudes, we have Jesus painting a picture of good living that is vastly different from worldly expectations.

And that means we are onto our second observation about the text: it’s about what kind of disciples Jesus has in mind. Just pause for a moment and consider the list of disciples he gives us in the Beatitudes: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. While some of those qualities are sporadically attractive to the world, they are not generally the kind of people who ‘get on’ in life. Society likes the full, the happy, the proud, those who aggressively trumpet their rights, the go-getters, those who lust and are lusted after, and those who will stop at nothing to achieve what they want. These are the people we celebrate. These are the kind we reward. Not Jesus’ list. We know how the world mocks the teaching of Jesus: ‘The meek will inherit the earth – provided the rest of you don’t mind, of course.’

If anything, Jesus gives us a list of losers. And you only have to hang around children and young people today to know that ‘loser’ is not a term of sympathy, but an expression of derision. But the disciples of the kingdom don’t look much like a photo-opportunity of celebrities that are getting themselves into our fairly news-free newspapers at the slightest chance. The disciples of the kingdom are usually a long way from the business success stories of our day, the millionaire sports stars, and even the celebrities of the religious world who gain millions of followers and sell thousands of books. Not that God doesn’t love these people too, but those who are alert to the values and ethics of the kingdom Jesus ushered in almost inevitably live different lives.

Why? Because when you look at the kingdom of God as described by Jesus, it is good news for the materially poor and the spiritually destitute. It is good news of healing for those who bear great grief. It is grace and mercy, not judgmentalism. It is about reconciliation, not putting one over your opponent. These are the things you know, appreciate and build on when you apprentice yourself to Jesus. These are the lifestyles you adopt when you sign up to be a student of Jesus.

Yes, they will put you at odds with the world. You may be teased, mocked or worse at times. But this is where following the Lord of life takes you, and in every case he pronounces the word ‘Blessèd’ over you. ‘Blessèd’ doesn’t simply mean ‘happy’, although that can be involved in it. Nor does it always mean that you are having a wonderful spiritual experience – although again, that can certainly be included. But ‘Blessèd’ means that the favour of God rests upon you, and what more could you want? How does a shiny new car compare with the favour of God? What comparison is there between a successful career and knowing God’s favour? Which is better – society putting your name up in lights or God lighting up your life with his blessing? Yes, those who walk in the ways of the kingdom, following Jesus may suffer rejection in this life, but they do so knowing there is One who does not reject them but does the opposite – he approves, he favours, he blesses.

And that leads us to the third and final observation this morning – it’s about the kind of blessing the disciples receive. Here is the list of blessings: theirs is the kingdom of heaven, they will be comforted, they will inherit the earth, they will be filled, they will receive mercy, they will see God, they will be called children of God, theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

What do we observe about this list of blessings? Most of them are promised blessings for the future – they will be comforted, inherit the earth, be filled, receive mercy, see God, be called children of God. The first and last, though, don’t speak of the future, they speak in the present tense. Both the first and last blessings say, ‘theirs is the kingdom of heaven’. Of course, the kingdom in all its fullness also belongs to the future. But it also starts now. God is already reigning in kingly power, but in this life his rule over all things is still disputed by rebel forces.

The blessing of Jesus’ disciples, then, is much like the kingdom of God itself. It has started, but is not fully here. There is great blessing to come in the future – there is a bliss to come, the description of which can only paint the shadows. But it is not simply ‘pie in the sky when you die’: the blessing starts now. We can see glimpses of glory even in the darkness of a sinful world. Even now, God begins to make what the American preacher Barbara Brown Taylor calls ‘an altar in the world’. Jacob looked back on his dream of the ladder and said, “Surely God was in this place and I did not know it,” and similarly with us. We may not expect to encounter the blessing of God in a world of sin, suffering, injustice, and death, but he breaks through in the ordinary areas of life as well as in the places we might more conventionally expect him, such as church services. And as he breaks in (not that he was ever absent), he smiles at us. In fact, I like to think that sometimes he even winks at us. He gives us the knowing look of the secret conspirator that all will not remain the way it is, and even now his pleasure is directed to us, with a view to that day when that joy will no longer be restricted by the powers of sin.

Indeed, about five years or so ago there was a Christian song doing the rounds called ‘God is smiling’, and the chorus said this:

God is smiling over us tonight
God is smiling over us tonight
Where hearts are broken, love unites
God is smiling, God is smiling over us tonight.

Yes – as the song says, even (and perhaps especially) ‘where hearts are broken’, God smiles. Not at the pain, but his subversive love breaks in and turns upside-down the pain of this world. And all that is a foretaste of the great reversal that began in the coming of Jesus and will be completed when God has finally made all things new. Then, the new creation will be populated by the meek, the pure, by the righteous, by those who have made peace, and so on.

It seems a long way off now, and it is still discouraging when being an apprentice of Jesus means walking in the difficult ways of the Beatitudes while the world watches, but what a promise is held out before us, a promise that even begins its fulfilment now.

So let us commit again to being the apprentices of Jesus, seeking the power of the Holy Spirit to imitate him. And as the world looks on, sometimes puzzled, sometimes scornful, and at other times curious, let us rejoice that we are ‘blessèd’, the recipients of God’s favour, beginning now and becoming a torrent in the life of the world to come.

Covenant Service Sermon: The People Of God

John 15:1-10

'Vine on the Dunes' by Tom Gill on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

‘Vine on the Dunes’ by Tom Gill on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

‘I am the vine,’ says Jesus (verse 1). The moment you allude to vines and therefore grapes – and hence to their product, wine – you get into difficulty in Christian relationships. In one Anglican-Methodist church I knew, the bishop was so intent on the communion wine being alcoholic and the Methodists equally determined to use non-alcoholic wine that a way forward had to be found. The bishop wouldn’t tolerate the Methodist suggestion that both forms of wine were made available at the sacrament. He therefore insisted that the wine be made by local worshippers trampling the grapes before the service, so that the Methodists could believe they were drinking grape juice and the Anglicans could believe that the fermenting process had begun. The one time I attended a communion service there under this regime, the lighting was poor and I felt like I was drinking something mushy – it was more like a thick New Covent Garden soup than wine.

But we need not worry ourselves with such farces this morning. When Jesus says ‘I am the vine’, he is making an important statement to people who can hear the Jewish background. In the Old Testament, Israel – God’s people – was described as a vineyard. Isaiah 5 is a notable example. So for Jesus to call himself the vine is for him to claim that he is all that God intended the People of God to be. If we are to be joined to him as branches of the vine, then he is teaching us how to be and to grow as part of the People of God. Jesus is telling us here, then, about how we grow as God’s people. And hence why we read this passage at a Covenant Service.

First of all, Jesus makes it clear that all we do in the process comes under the rubric of responding – that is, responding to God. The passage is filled with assumptions that God acts first, and we respond. Jesus is already the vine, the Father is already the gardener, the Father already loves Jesus, and Jesus already loves us. God’s saving actions come first. Everything we do is because God has already reached out to us in love through his Son.

This is the very nature of a covenant. Ancient Israel’s covenant with God at Mount Horeb was similar to the covenants of their time. A powerful king rescued a weaker party. In gratitude, the weaker parties then responded to the wishes of the powerful one who had saved them. That is what we see with Israel when God has delivered her from Egypt. The covenant is set in place at the mountain of God, and the Ten Commandments are given. Thus Israel was never to keep the Ten Commandments and the other laws of God as a way to earn salvation, because their salvation had already been freely and graciously given in love: God had saved them from the evil power of Egypt. All that Israel did was a response.

That is what we are coming to do today, as well. We are not coming in order to make impossible promises to God, fingers crossed behind our backs, hoping that we might manage to twist his arm into pleasing us. No: we are responding to God’s love for us in delivering us. We come to this Covenant Service, because God has already come to us in Immanuel, God with us, his Son Jesus Christ. We come to make our vows today, because God has already set us free in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and he is continuing to set us free from the penalty, the power and the presence of sin. Today we come, then, not to a severe God who wants to torture us with unreasonable demands, but to the God of outrageous grace.

Let us come and make our promises today, because we are already loved by God. We do not have to win him over. It is rather God who wants to win us over to him. Do not let past or recent failure put you off. His arms are open wide from the Cross. He has stopped at nothing to love us. Our promises today are where we recognise that with joy, and say that we will stop at nothing to love God and love our neighbours in response.

The second theme to pick out here is of remaining – as the branches of Jesus the Vine we are to remain in him in order to be fruitful. We need to be attached to receive the sap that enables us to make a difference in the world as Christians.

‘Remaining’ suggests something continuous, not a one-off event or action. Other translations speak of ‘abiding’, which implies permanent residence. Why is it important to emphasise ‘remaining’ in this way?

Because there is a strand of Christianity which tends to reduce faith down to the moment of decision for Christ, and little else. Do not mistake me, deciding to trust Christ is important, but my point is this: the Christian life is not simply about a decision in the past, it is about on-going discipleship. Jesus called for disciples, not decisions. And disciples are those who are committed to the long haul. By definition, a disciple is a learner, or an apprentice. We do not learn our trade as Christians overnight. The training and the study take a lifetime – maybe more!

So Jesus therefore calls us to ‘remain’ in him. That way, he can nurture us. Remaining in him involves staying closely connected to him, through all the classic ways: prayer, Bible reading, worship, the sacraments, fellowship, solitude, silence, simplicity, fasting and so on. One renewed commitment we might make today is to our spiritual disciplines, or ‘means of grace’, as John Wesley called them.

As well as that, there are a couple of general applications of this notion of ‘remaining’ that come to mind. One is that we simply say to God, ‘I am not going to be a fair-weather Christian. I am going to stick with you, through good times and bad, through times when I feel blessed beyond words and times when for I can barely feel your presence. I will not just be your follower because I receive good things from you, I will be your follower simply because it is the right and good thing to do.’

And in a slightly similar vein, I think not so much of those who are only up for expressing their faith when everything is sunny, I think of those who are struggling to hang on. For those who are finding the going altogether too difficult for whatever reason – painful life circumstances, things getting on top of us, dreadful things happening – I invite you to see the Covenant promises today as just a simple commitment to staying with Christ. I see some of us effectively saying words rather like this: ‘Right now, Lord, I really don’t feel much like this Christian stuff. I can barely keep my head above water. But even if it’s only by one finger, I’m going to hang onto you.’

I believe that when we say things like that, there is good news for us: God’s grip on us is stronger than ours on his.

The third and final element I want to talk about this morning as we seek to grow as God’s people is obeying. ‘You want to know how to remain in my love?’ asks Jesus. ‘You do it by keeping my commands, just as I obey the Father.’

Let me illustrate the point like this. I was once asked to complete a questionnaire to discover what kind of a learner I am. There were four different learning styles that you could be. Most people were not exclusively one type, but a varying mixture of the four. In my case, I was predominantly someone who learned knowledge by studying the theories behind it. I was also someone who learned by reflecting on things that had happened. I learned a little bit by putting things into action, and I learned little or nothing at all from a pragmatic approach. If you know me well, none of that will surprise you – academic, theoretical and impractical.

But for someone like me, Jesus says the way to learn discipleship in the People of God is not by theory. Or at least doing the theory is not enough on its own. It has to be put into practice. I have commended the spiritual disciplines yet again this morning, but just doing them is not enough on its own. What we learn from our devotions has to be put into practice in the form of obedience to Christ.

Two weeks ago I mentioned in passing when I talked then about practising spiritual disciplines that one of the church members I had known in the past who had been most faithful in daily Bible study had also been one of the cruellest Christians I had come across. She was someone who did the theory but didn’t translate it into action. Indeed, unless we act on what we learn we will earn that common charge made against Christians, namely that we are hypocrites.

Ultimately, the need to obey is about love. Jesus links keeping his commands with remaining in his love. Does that sound tough or unfair? Well, granted we often think of love in terms of equal relationships, and so obedience is not the first category that comes into our minds, and we would have to acknowledge that our relationship with Christ is not one of equals. Nevertheless, love is possible, just as we call a child to do what a parent asks in the context of a loving family. If we love someone, we have more than warm feelings for them: we want to do what pleases them. When we do so, that strengthens the relationship we have with them.

And that, I think, ties together everything this is about today. For, as I said first of all, we are responding to a God who in Christ has reached out to us in love in the first place. All that we do is in loving response to his love. And in the light of that love, we secondly want to remain in the relationship: we are in this for the long haul in a disciplined way, even if there are also times when we are able to do no more than cling on. And so thirdly we want to demonstrate that remaining in Christ’s love by obeying.

These things bind us more closely to Jesus the Vine, the True Israel. We become more truly what we have been called to be by grace: the People of God.

Brief Sermon: Resurrection Discipleship

Luke 24:1-12

On the way back in the dark from my welcome service in this circuit at Walton in September 2010, we got to a mini-roundabout in Chobham where I was convinced from one or two sorties already that you turned right. Unfortunately, we should have turned left – and then right at the following roundabout.

The result was – that with one or two other mistakes I made – we ended up stuck up a narrow cul-de-sac, surrounded by flooding, needing a difficult reversing manoeuvre to get out. Let’s just say that Debbie is far better at reversing than me, and with children crying that they would never get home again, she took the wheel and offered me some – er – ‘words of encouragement’.

‘Why do you look for the living among the dead?’ ask the men dressed in lightning. ‘He is not here; he has risen!’ (Verses 5b-6a)

It isn’t because the women have gone to the wrong tomb; they knew which tomb Jesus was buried in. And if they had gone to the wrong tomb, then seven weeks later when the apostles preached the Resurrection at Pentecost, the enemies of the Jesus movement would have gone to the right tomb and produced a decomposing body.

No: the women’s problem is stated in the next words of the men:

‘Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: “The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words. (Verses 6b-8)

The first quality we need, then, as disciples of the Risen Jesus, is that of remembering. My failure to remember a route got our family in a pickle that dark night two and a half years ago. The women didn’t remember the promises of Jesus.

Now in one respect it’s unreasonable to be hard on them. When Jesus predicted his resurrection, he was prophesying something their existing beliefs didn’t expect. Many Jews expected the righteous to be resurrected at the end of time, according to Daniel 12, but not in the middle of history. And the Sadducees didn’t believe in resurrection at all. So the beliefs the women already had made it difficult for them to take in what Jesus had said.

Yet that is what disciples of Jesus are meant to do – remember his words above the beliefs and values of our culture. His words often clash with the beliefs we have inherited. We need to strain to hear them, but they are important, and he doesn’t always shout them.

And most of all, we need to remember that he is risen. Because it changes everything in life and death, and in how we live as a result.

The second quality that disciples of the risen Jesus need is listening. Sometimes when we’re in a supermarket, Debbie will slip into the shopping a celebrity magazine, or at very least one of those similar magazines where readers tell their gory real-life stories for money. I smile politely, but inside I’m thinking that these publications are the spawn of Satan. I have no problem with light reading; I have every difficulty with trashy, celebrity gossip.

When the women get back from the tomb and speak to the Eleven and all the others, the men dismiss their evidence, ‘because their words seemed to them like nonsense’ (verse 11). ‘Idle tales’, some translations say. Rather what I think of the celebrity mags.

I wonder why the men reacted this way. Was it because their beliefs, too, prevented them from believing in the resurrection? Or was it because the testimony came from women? This was a society where women were not allowed to give evidence in a court of law. And so, at a tangent, if you wanted to make up the Easter story then, you wouldn’t have chosen women as your central witnesses.

But the Resurrection means we have to listen to unlikely sources, not least because Jesus himself chose unlikely followers. Would you have picked the same disciples as he did? Probably not. Yet these people – some of whom were on the margins of society (the women most likely were) – are those who have the testimony we need to hear.

This Easter, don’t just listen to the words of a preacher like me. Listen to the testimony of a quiet Christian who would not stand at the front like I do. Maybe you are that quiet Christian. You, as much as anyone else, have a story to tell of your encounter with the risen Lord. Do not deny others the joy of hearing your account.

Here’s the third element of being a disciple of the risen Lord. Many years ago, my home circuit ran a day when different people in the circuit could have a stall to advertise Christian resources they found helpful. My Dad took a stall to promote some material for house groups.

A man from another church in the circuit took one look at what Dad had to offer, and sneered at him: ‘We don’t need any of that rubbish.’ The man made it plain that he was beyond the idea of learning more about his faith.

Contrast Peter. His reaction to the women’s story is that he runs to the tomb and investigates for himself (verse 12). He isn’t complacent. He doesn’t belittle the women. He checks it out for himself. The third quality, then, is one of learning.

I’m fond of the story about the elderly grandmother who regularly read her Bible, to the bemusement of her grand-daughter. ‘Granny, why do you still read your Bible?’ asked the little girl.

‘Because I’m studying for my finals,’ said the old lady.

If we believe in something as mind-blowing as the Resurrection, then surely we get the message that there is always more to know and learn. God always has more that is beyond the current horizons of our minds. We do not have to be academic, but we do need a commitment to continual learning about Jesus and our faith as Christians. In fact, we can’t be a true disciple without it. The word ‘disciple’ means ‘learner’. It’s a matter of definition! No learning, no discipleship.

So I want to challenge KMC this Easter Day. To read in our worship questionnaire a few months that a high percentage of us only engage with the Bible during Sunday morning worship tells me that we as a church have a low level of discipleship.

Learning is not all about Bible study, of course, and one of my nastiest critics in a previous church was someone who was diligent in daily Bible reading. Learning about Jesus involves not only studying but also doing – putting into practice what we discern.

The Church Council has decided we need to promote house groups, so come and talk to Chris Lowe or me about that. We can also help you find other modes of Christian learning.

But whatever we do this Easter, let us commit ourselves to learning more about the Jesus who has stretched our horizons, and who continues to do so.

Sermon: Money And Possessions

Sorry it’s been a while since I posted. Three major things have been going on. Firstly, there has been a major pastoral situation. Although it eventually became public, it would not be good for me to allude in any way to its nature here. Furthermore, some of the decisions I had to take in relation to this matter led to me leading worship but not preaching, in order to be free to take particular essential courses of action. Hence there were no new sermons anyway for a couple of weeks.

Secondly, around the same time we had a major gas leak at the church, at one time with gas levels high enough for us to be at the risk of an explosion. That entailed several days of having to drop everything at short notice to sort things out with the engineers.

Thirdly, as you will gather below, I also suddenly lost the use of my car. I was driving at 70 mph on the M25 when the cam belt malfunctioned. Repair of the consequent damage would have cost more than the value of the old car. So I was then thrust into an urgent search for a new car.

However, I can now belatedly bring you the sermon I preached this morning. I hope you find it helpful.

Matthew 6:19-34

Peter used to sort the post and bring it to everyone’s desks in the office where I used to work. A bit of a lad, you wouldn’t have marked him down as the most likely to become interested in God and religion.

Not until his girlfriend became a Christian. She enthusiastically joined a local evangelical church, and Peter started going with her to the church young adults’ group. They went to the Greenbelt Festival together, and he began attending the Sunday evening youth fellowship with her.

It was one Monday morning at the office after he had been to the youth group the previous night that he started a conversation about how uneasy he had been about the youth group leader. This man had invited everyone to his home for the meeting. Peter said that the man couldn’t stop going on about all his lovely furniture and other household comforts.

“That’s not what you Christians are supposed to be like, is it?” he asked me.

Peter was right. Jesus says far more about topics such as money and possessions than he does about some of the issues that frequently obsess the church. Which is not to say I don’t believe matters such as sexual ethics are – they touch on who we are at the deepest level, and I hold fairly traditional views on them. But Jesus also knew that the way we handle material things would be critical if we aim to be the whole-hearted disciples he wants us to be.

So we come to this week’s section in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus puts this question up front and centre, even when teaching a group of people in a culture full of peasants living at subsistence level. How much more relevant is it to us, in a society that depends upon us buying plenty of ‘stuff’? Indeed, much of our culture is defined by an addiction to consumer goods.

Let’s dive in, then, and see whether by following Jesus’ teaching here we can offer a distinctive witness to him in our world.

Firstly, let’s recognise that our attitude to money and possessions is a matter of the heart: ‘where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’ (verse 21). But what does this mean?

On Monday, people’s lives will be flooded with hearts – on cards, on balloons, chocolate-shaped ones, and so on. The heart will be the visual logo for Valentine’s Day. In our culture, we take the heart to be symbolic of the emotions and the affections.

But it would be dangerous to transfer our use of the word ‘heart’ to the world of the Bible. For Jewish people, if you wanted to talk about the emotions, the body part you symbolically used was … the bowels. When Jewish people referred to the heart, they meant something far deeper than we do: the heart represented the very core of a person’s being. So when Jesus says your treasure is where your heart is, he isn’t merely referring to the emotional pull of certain things, he’s talking about giving complete allegiance to them.

And to take that further, if Jesus is telling us that our treasure needs to be ‘treasures in heaven’, he is calling us to an undiluted commitment to him. Those who treasure money and possessions are those who devote their lives to them. Our devotion is to Jesus and his kingdom.

How do we work this out in the life of faith? One thing I recommend is that we ensure we do not simply make assumptions about our spending habits and our lifestyle decisions. We can do that by submitting every major decision about finances or possessions to God in prayer. And when I say ‘submitting’ I do so deliberately, because we must be willing for God to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the plans we propose.

So it came as an encouragement last week when my old car suddenly gave up the ghost that Debbie and I had separately come to the same conclusion about the budget we should set for a replacement. We kept within that budget – the car I chose was £25 under the budget, and fits well what I need for ministry.

This, then, is Jesus’ first command about money and possessions. Ensure you are wholeheartedly committed to his cause, and judge everything in the light of that.

Secondly, Jesus sees our attitude to riches as a test of our spiritual health. Why on earth does he suddenly start going on about healthy and unhealthy eyes (verses 22-23)? I mean, obviously a healthy eye means good sight and a diseased eye causes poor sight, but why on earth does that suddenly appear in the middle of teaching about wealth rather than health?

There is a simple explanation, and the footnotes in some Bibles point you towards it. When Jesus refers to healthy eyes, the word translated ‘healthy’ can also be translated ‘generous’. Does it begin to make sense now? A healthy attitude is a generous attitude. Generosity is a hallmark of a disciple.

And how important that is today. The other day I found myself in a conversation with a young man just in from work who glibly talked about the way he spent £30 to £40 a day on himself, and how he was partly funding that from an additional job that paid ‘cash in hand’. His approach may be crude, but it is more typical than we might like to think.

But Jesus says that the symptoms of true health are not acquisition, but generosity, not getting but giving. It is more blessèd to give than to receive. If you want to see like Jesus sees, then let him open your eyes to the needs you can meet by generous giving on your part. And yes, as well as your finances and your material possessions, consider too generosity in the giving of your time, skills and most of all your love.

Of course you will need discernment, because while the need constitutes the call, the need may not constitute your call. But those with generous eyes are open to what God directs them to see.

So far, then, we’ve seen that our attitude to wealth and property is about our allegiance to Christ and our willingness to be generous is a measure of our spiritual health. The third thing Jesus says is very similar. In fact, you could say Jesus repeats himself from a different angle. The way we treat material possessions says something about what we worship. We cannot serve two masters, he tells us. We either worship God or we worship Mammon (which is more than just money: it seems to be the spiritual force behind the love of money).

The point Jesus is making is this: God believes in monogamy. Not just in marriage, but in the life of the spirit, too. Only one can hold our adoration. Whatever commands our worship requires so much of us that we cannot possibly have anything left over for anything or anyone else in the same way. However much we attempt a spiritual version of bigamy by trying to retain an allegiance to money alongside devotion to God (rather like the youth group leader I mentioned in the introduction), in the end it just won’t work. We’ll have to choose.

Yet at the same time, we need money and material things for life. How do we decide what to do? What is an acceptable standard of living? Is it the same for everyone? Didn’t God make the material world good? How do we know when we’ve crossed the line from using something good as a servant into adoring it as an idol?

Here is where I return to the point I made in the first section about prayer. If prayer helps tease out issues of undiluted commitment, it will help here in distinguishing whether we are using something responsibly while retaining our devotion to God or trespassing in the land of idolatry.

As you know, I enjoy gadgets, and this can be a particular temptation for me. Some years ago, I was wondering whether to replace the computer I had. The one I had was getting old, and there was a good case for a new one. However, I was wary, because I knew I could deceive myself and come up with all sorts of reasons to buy a new PC, when really I might just have been lusting after the latest technological advances. So I prayed, and I left it with God.

What I didn’t know was the way one of my church members was praying for me at the time. One Saturday, she went down to the church building and prayed everywhere around it. while praying for me there, she distinctly heard the Holy Spirit speak to her and say, “Tell Dave he can have what he wants.” She relayed this message to me a day or two later. She had no idea I was thinking of buying a new computer: I had told nobody.

So I underline the point again: make it a habit to commit your financial and lifestyle decisions to God in prayer. Be willing to hear him say, ‘Yes’, ‘No’ or ‘Wait’. If your worship is for Christ, you will want to do this.

The fourth and final aspect that Jesus addresses here is a practical one. He realises that some of his listeners will be thinking, “It’s all very well calling me to undiluted commitment, to generosity and to ensuring that I only worship God, but that all sounds expensive. How will I ever have enough to live on?” Jesus knows he needs to address the question of worry.

Sure enough, he reassures us about God’s special love and care for us. As human beings made in the image of God (unlike the rest of creation), we are worth more than ‘the birds of the air’ or ‘the flowers of the field’.

After that, you would expect the punch line to be about chilling out and trusting God. Jesus wants us to have faith, doesn’t he?

But it isn’t what he says. Or at least the kind of faith and trust Jesus calls us to is not of the quiet, serene, ‘let go and let God’ variety. His application is different: ‘seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well’ (verse 33). Sure, don’t worry and obsess about your basic needs, because your heavenly Father will look after you. But neither should you just sit back: God is looking for those who are radically committed to his kingdom. The kingdom comes first, says Jesus. Concentrate on the great purposes of God. Yes, he will take care of us, but he isn’t our sugar daddy, he’s our Lord. We owe him our prime allegiance.

To return to the subject of my car: when my old car dramatically gave up the ghost last weekend – at 70 mph on the M25, near the Heathrow exit – it came at a bad time for us. We are still adjusting to the shock of the cost of living in Surrey. So many things are more expensive here, from DVD lending fees in the library to swimming lessons for the children. We are having to trim our spending, regardless of the recession. For the car to give up at this juncture was not the kind of timing we would have preferred.

Part of our praying, then, was not only about how much to spend. Even before that, it was about our desire to fulfil the will of the God who had led us here. Did I need a car to fulfil that will? Yes. What kind of car? A small one would be fine. Even within those parameters, we were still looking at spending more than we were keen to do. Yet God worked through various people who heard of our need and gave us gifts that considerably mitigated the negative effect upon our finances. He honoured our desire to be about his kingdom business.

I could tell you plenty of other stories. CAMEO heard on Wednesday an account of how God provided my funds to go to theological college. But I don’t have time to repeat that this morning, or to give other testimonies.

I do have time to say to you that it makes Jesus sense to put God at the centre of our lives. It makes Jesus sense to be generous givers, rather than mean takers. It makes Jesus sense to worship God rather than consumerism. And it makes Jesus sense to follow the kingdom passionately while we entrust the provision of our needs to our heavenly Father.

So why not live like this? We know it makes sense. Jesus sense.

Sermon: Unwrapping Discipleship

This Sunday, I get to preach at one of my colleagues’ churches. So I’m reverting to the Lectionary for one week only. There are a few things in this sermon that have appeared before, notably in the first point. Please excuse that if the odd bit is something you’ve read from me before.

Matthew 4:12-23

Both Debbie and I had our main Christmas presents after the big day. I had asked people for money or vouchers that I could put together so I could buy an Amazon Kindle e-reader. Debbie followed a similar route, and when she had finally weighed up the options and dismissed the idea of a new phone, she ordered a new camera. Like me, she ordered her present online from Amazon.

Being cheapskates – or as we like to think of it, good stewards – we ordered both products on Amazon’s free Super Saver Delivery. Effectively, that means second class post. Amazon gives you an estimated date by which your order should be with you.

I had ordered my e-reader first. I memorised the due date. I counted down, like a child. The due date came. And went. I phoned the local sorting office to see whether it was there and got a jobsworth who really couldn’t be bothered. Eventually, it turned up two days late, left outside the front door by the postie, even though we weren’t in. Debbie’s camera was a similar story. Apparently it was all down to a backlog they were still trying to clear since the snow of November and December.

We waited for the time of fulfilment and were disappointed. In that respect, we were like the people to whom Jesus came. Matthew tells us that his house move from Nazareth to Capernaum was fulfilment of the prophetic hope (verses 12-16). Just as Debbie and I (OK, particularly I) were wondering when our packages would come from Amazon, so God’s people were wondering when the Messiah would come and inaugurate God’s kingdom. Now, at last, the package arrives, and he’s called Jesus.

So – if the package has arrived, if Jesus the Messiah has come, bringing the kingdom of heaven – what do we do when we unwrap him?

The first action is repentance. The opening tone of Jesus’ message is,

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. (Verse 17)

What is repentance? We know it has to do with being sorry for our wrongdoings, but there is more to it than that. If it were only feeling sorry but without any change of heart or change of lifestyle, it would only be remorse. And remorse doesn’t change anything – apart from maybe persuading a judge to give a more lenient sentence in response to mitigation.

Repentance is bigger than that. In the Greek of the New Testament and even in English it means ‘a change of mind’. It means to ‘rethink’. Those of you who know French will recognise where the English word ‘repentance’ comes from. Remember penser, to think, so repenser is to rethink, to change your mind. The Greek metanoia is similar. When we repent, we change our minds about the way we live.

It’s like doing a u-turn in a car. We know we are going the wrong way, so we change our minds and our direction. Repentance, then, means a change of mind, so much so that we are sorry enough to change our actions.

So that unpacks one problem we have in understanding repentance. It is not simply being sorry, it is a change of mind that leads to a change in our actions. That is why it is also not the same as condemnation, which simply tells us how terrible we are but leaves us desperate and desolate about ourselves. Repentance brings positive change and hope.

Another problem we have with repentance is that we associate it with conversion and the beginnings of Christian faith, but not always with the ongoing life of Christian discipleship. Yet we do not make all the changes we need to make in our lives all at once, when we first encounter Jesus Christ. We don’t even make all the essential changes before we die.

My point is this: repentance is not a one-off change of direction, it is an ongoing process in our lives. One of my favourite stories to tell about this involves the Local Preacher who was always the most popular preacher among my youth group in the church where I grew up. John Evill was born in Wales in 1902, two years before the Welsh Revival. He preached like the revival was still going on. In one sermon, he asked the congregation: “Have you been converted?” Then he added, “I’ve been converted – many times.” His point wasn’t that he’d regularly slipped back and denied Christ, it was that time and time again Christ had to call him to change.

So it is with repentance. It is a change of mind that leads not simply to one change of action, but to repeated changes of action in our lives, until our dying day. Paul tells the Philippians that God who began a good work in them will complete it on the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6). Or, as the t-shirt slogan puts it:

Please be patient with me. God hasn’t finished with me yet.

When we unwrap the kingdom Jesus brings, then, the first thing it involves is a lifestyle of ongoing change, reorientating ourselves to the ways of God from our selfish ways.

The second thing we do when we unwrap the Jesus package is we follow. Having turned around, we now start positively and actively going in our new direction, the direction in which Jesus is travelling. To Simon Peter and Andrew, he says,

Follow me, and I will make you fish for people. (Verse 19)

Then he calls James and John and we read,

Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. (Verse 22)

I find the nature of Jesus calling these fishermen to follow him utterly amazing. For one thing, I am staggered by their immediate decision to leave their family businesses and go with him. Some people have said that they may already have known Jesus in the area, but it’s still quite a decision to go off like that. Why would they do it?

Here’s one theory. As I’m sure you know, it was common practice for Jewish rabbis to call certain young men to follow them, learn their teaching and emulate their lifestyles. However, they tended to pick the cream of the crop, those who showed promise from a young age. If you got as far as getting into regular work – as Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John had – then you certainly weren’t among the elite. You were among the rejected. You were among those who were not considered up to the task of following a religious master.

But Jesus sees it differently. He calls these men. To him, they are not rejects, they are people who are every bit as capable of following him as anybody else. Why? Because – as the old catchphrase puts it – it’s not your ability that matters, it’s your availability. You don’t need great gifts and talents in order to follow Jesus, you just need to be willing to say ‘yes’ to him. And that’s what these four guys do.

So imagine you are one of them. Imagine you have been passed over by other rabbis as not good enough. Now this one comes along when you are at an age when you no longer think such an opportunity exists and he says to you, “Follow me.” What does that do for your self-esteem? I like to imagine the four young men striding off from their boats with their heads held high and their chests puffed out.

Translate that into our church context. One of the things that saddens me as a minister is the time many church members speak of how inferior they feel to ministers. “You can do {X, Y, Z] because you’re more learned than me,” some say. However, in Jesus’ eyes, it’s not the alphabet soup I have after my name because I spent six years studying Theology that matters. It’s whether I say ‘yes’ to Jesus. I hope I can bring benefits to people by sharing my learning. But what matters in the end is one simple matter that puts everybody on an equal following, regardless of gifts, talents, opportunities, wealth or privilege. It’s this: will we say ‘yes’ to Jesus? All we need to be concerned about today is whether we are saying ‘yes’ to him in the places where he is calling us to follow him.

The third way we unwrap Jesus is by imitation. Hear again the final verse in the reading:

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. (Verse 23)

The playwright Murray Watts tells a yarn that might explain how some of us feel about this verse:

An evangelist was so successful, he converted his own horse. He decided to develop his ministry with animals and took his horse to market, to exchange it for another. A farmer came riding along, on a very old horse, and the evangelist begged him to swap animals. The farmer looked at the fine fettle of the evangelist’s horse and agreed, delighted with his bargain. As he mounted his new steed, the evangelist explained to him about the horse’s religious zeal. The farmer looked at him incredulously.

‘It’s no good shouting “giddyup!” or “whoa, there, boy!”’ the evangelist went on. ‘To start, you have to shout, “Praise the Lord! Hallelujah!” and to stop you have to shout, “Amen!”’

The farmer now realised that he was dealing with a nutcase, but he decided to humour him. The horse was in excellent condition and he accepted. As the evangelist trotted away on the famer’s ageing horse, the farmer shouted ‘Giddyup thar!’ to his steed. There was no reaction. He whipped the horse, but there was still no reaction.

‘Go on tharr! Get going!’ he screamed, digging in his heels. The horse refused to budge. The farmer scratched his head.

‘Perhaps that old preacher wasn’t so crazy after all,’ he thought, ‘oh well, no harm in trying.’ He took a deep breath and shouted: ‘Praise the Lord, hallelujah!’ Immediately the horse galloped off. The astonished farmer clung on for dear life as it sped along the road.

‘Whatever its religious quirks,’ he mused, ‘this is some horse!’ On and on the pious creature went, crossing fields, jumping gates. At last, hearing the sound of the sea in the distance, the farmer knew they were approaching the cliffs of Dover.

‘Whoaa there, boy!’ he called. ‘Whoaa there!’ He yanked the reins. The horse sped on regardless. ‘Silly me,’ thought the farmer, ‘I’ve got to say that special word.’

‘Blessing!’ he shouted. ‘No, that’s wrong. Faith!!’ he called, urgently. ‘No, that’s not right either.’

The sound of the sea came nearer, and try as he might, the farmer could not remember the right religious word. Suddenly, within yards of the cliff edge, he remembered.

‘AMEN!!’ he screamed. The horse stopped, inches to spare. The farmer mopped his brow and, lifting his eyes to heaven in gratitude, murmured, ‘Praise the Lord! Hallelujah!’[1]

Maybe when we hear that Jesus went around preaching, teaching and healing, and when we realise that the call of the disciple is to imitate the teacher, we might feel like we are riding an out-of-control horse. Are we about to go over a cliff?

Disciples of a Jewish rabbi knew their call was to imitate the way their master lived. Some took that to considerable extremes, and if I mentioned specifics some of you might cry out that modern cliché, ‘Too much information!’[2]

So those first disciples of Jesus, watching him teach, preach and heal would have been making mental notes. This was their vocation, too.

But it contains scary aspects for us. Some of us are nervous about ‘proclaiming’ our faith. We would not feel able to ‘teach’ the faith. And as for healing people, well where do we begin?

I think there are two keys to embracing this. The first is to recognise that when we become disciples of Jesus, then we receive the Holy Spirit into our lives. And the Holy Spirit brings all sorts of gifts to us that we did not previously have. If we are open to the empowering of the Holy Spirit, then we shall find ourselves equipped for Jesus-like tasks that we would otherwise be unable to do.

The other key is this. Only together are we the Body of Christ. You will contribute some gifts towards copying the ministry of Jesus. Your friend will offer other gifts. I will bring different gifts of the Spirit.

So yes, imitating the ministry of Christ is daunting – but only if we view it purely humanly. If we put ourselves at the disposal of the Holy Spirit, all sorts of things become possible that previously were never even on the radar of our imagination.

Let’s pray.


[1] Murray Watts, Rolling In The Aisles, p 90f, story 153.

[2] See Michael Griffiths, The Example of Jesus.

On Not Assuming Too Much Knowledge

Last Saturday, I had the pleasure of listening to Chris Blake, the current Principal of Cliff College, give some seminars on preaching and mission. In one session, he highlighted the need for preachers not to assume too much biblical knowledge among congregations. The very next day I witnessed a preacher carefully elucidating from a congregation how many of them knew the story of wrestling Jacob. About ten per cent put up their hands.

Then on Monday came an email version of the latest Church and Culture blog by James Emery White, Communion and Coleslaw. He raises the same issue, but particularly among those newer to the faith. He includes a touching reaction from a new worshipper who was clearly unfamiliar with what the ‘Lord’s Supper’ is.

Thanks for the informative email.  I have been going to Meck for about a month now and I love it!  I have even talked my two friends into joining.  We are all thankful to be part of an awesome church with great values.  I do have one question.  I remember hearing about the first Wednesday of every month being a service with in-depth Bible teachings and a celebration  of the Lords Supper.  What does that mean? I understand the part about the Bible teachings but what is a celebration of the Lords Supper? Does that mean we all bring some  kind of food to share? I am planning on going tonight but I wanted to make sure I bring something if need be.  Any information you can provide with would be greatly appreciated!

What a refreshing reminder that is.

But how sad it is that we still have to give out page numbers to longstanding Christians to find Bible passages, because they still don’t know their way around the Scriptures. Not that biblical knowledge alone is a test of spirituality, but I find it moving to deal with young Christians where I can’t expect them to know stuff and sad to deal with many experienced Christians who know little more.

What are the causes? Is it bad teaching by those of us who lead? Is it a lack of passion for discipleship? Is it cultural pressures?

What do you think?

Sermon: Martha And Mary

Luke 10:38-42

When I began at secondary school, I was given a homework diary. It was designed as a record of all the homework I was assigned and had completed, and my parents had to sign it each week. Within it were the expectations of the school about the amount of work that would be involved. When you started at the school, you would have two pieces of homework a night, each lasting thirty minutes. But by the time you revised for public examinations, that would increase to what the headmaster gleefully called “endless toil”.

I suspect many churchgoers see the Christian faith as a matter of ‘endless toil’. Not simply the relentless list of jobs to be done in church (as some people here know only too well), but the sense that you will never have done enough in order to please God. The Methodist ordination service says that the ministry will make great demands on ministers and their families, and while it goes onto promise the help of the Holy Spirit, it nevertheless leaves an impression that genuine ministry is about ‘busyness’. That’s certainly the way congregations often measure their ministers – are they busy? More worryingly, it’s often the way ministers measure their own value. Am I busy? A full diary becomes a sign of spirituality.

So we come to Martha and Mary. We may be tempted to think that the contrast is between Martha, who is on her feet, and Mary, who sits at Jesus’ feet. If we value the idea of being busy, we will have a problem with Jesus’ commendation of Mary. A church member I once knew said she felt sure Luke didn’t record the whole story, and that Jesus would have asked Mary to go and help Martha.

But the story is not a contrast between Martha ‘doing’ and Mary ‘being’. It cannot be. It occurs immediately after the Parable of the Good Samaritan (which was last week’s Lectionary Gospel reading, and you may have had a sermon on it). Jesus can hardly commend the radical action of the Samaritan one day, and condemn Martha for being busy the next day. Maybe instead this story balances the Good Samaritan story.

Martha’s problem is not that she has a lot to do. It is that she is ‘distracted by her many tasks’ (verse 40), as Luke puts it. Jesus tells her she is ‘worried and distracted by many things’ (verse 41). The worry and the distraction are the core issues. Martha is frantic and fretful. And that’s where Jesus picks her up.

In some respects, worry and distraction are only human. How often have you said to someone – perhaps a loved one – “You drive me to distraction”? Maybe a son or daughter gives you cause for concern. Perhaps you don’t have enough money for all you think you need. It wouldn’t be surprising if worry took over.

Or it might be that you believe that your acceptance by God depends on whether you are a good enough person. You devote all your energies to doing what you are believe are the right things. However, it’s a tyranny, because you never know whether you have reached an acceptable standard. Probably you haven’t, and so with even more worry you redouble your efforts. All the time you do this, you might say you believe in the love of God, but really your whole existence is being lived in complete doubt as to whether God loves you or not. Your image of God is actually of a tyrant.

Think of some attitudes we encounter in the church. We are told that we should not be slapdash in our preparing to meet God – quite rightly: excellence is a noble thing. But someone then says to us, “You wouldn’t be so careless if the Queen were coming to your house; why are you about meeting the King of Kings?” We then feel that nothing we can ever do is good enough for God. Either we strive even more, or we give up in despair.

If it’s not a matter of fear, it might be a question of pride. If I can earn my own place of favour with God, how good am I? it’s tantamount to saying, “I don’t need the Cross of Christ. I can make my own way to God on my own.” It’s as if we dare to stand before Jesus on the Day of Judgement and say, “Lord, it was awfully decent of you to die on the Cross for the sins of the world, but you really didn’t need to, old chap.”

Another way of looking at the motives behind being distracted by the tasks we have to do is to see it in terms of urgency. There is so much that needs doing, and so little time. So I have to crack on. I can’t let up. Something will be missed if I don’t keep at it relentlessly.

But of course, while this may sound like an efficient use of time, it is both foolish and dangerous. It is like saying, “I have a long car journey to make today. I cannot afford to stop for a rest, and neither do I have the time to call in at a petrol station and refuel.” This is the plague of being distracted with busyness: our commitment to keep on do-do-doing all the time may be for honourable intentions, but it sucks us dry. It leaves us with nothing to feed on, and nothing to offer. Is it any wonder many churches seem as arid as the desert when the distractions of busyness dominate such places?

All of which brings us to Mary’s honoured place in this story. We pause a moment to note how revolutionary it was that Jesus was teaching her in the first place. Women did not normally have the privilege of being taught by a rabbi. But Jesus was different. He was ushering in a kingdom that was open to female and male, child and adult, Gentile and Jew. Martha in her fretting and worrying had missed the fact that Jesus was teaching a woman – like her! She could have had this privilege, but her over-busy lifestyle means she misses this radical implication of the Gospel. It makes you wonder how much of the Good News we also miss, because we are too obsessed with doing this, that and everything.

So what makes Mary’s grabbing of her Gospel privilege as a daughter of God so important? For one thing, she understands something about grace. She knows that before anything else, a disciple needs to receive from Jesus. Discipleship doesn’t start or depend on all the effort we make for God: it begins with God graciously and lovingly approaching us in Christ, especially in the Cross. For there we learn that we are not people who are capable of pleasing God by our own efforts. We need God’s forgiveness in Christ through his death in our place. Everything starts there for the Christian. And it sets a pattern for the whole of life. It all begins with Jesus, not us. In a simple way, I believe Mary knew that.

Therefore, alongside the joy Mary has being a woman whom Jesus has chosen to teach, there is a basic humility. If Martha stands over Jesus, Mary sits at his feet. Everything worthwhile will come from Jesus taking the initiative and listening to him. Jesus himself said he only did what he saw the Father doing; it becomes the rôle of the disciple to listen to Jesus first and then respond.

All of which tells us that Mary’s action is not a case of ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’. It is ‘being’ before ‘doing’. She takes the old maxim of ‘Don’t just sit there, do something’ and reverses it into ‘Don’t just do something, sit there’.

Why? She knows that you can’t set off on all those good and noble tasks that Martha has plunged herself into unless you have first received direction from Jesus. What does he want me to do? There are plenty of good things to do in the world, but I cannot do them all. Which ones does he want me to take on? When you know that, you are freed from the frazzling effect of a Martha-like frantic lifestyle. There is no danger that Mary will simply stay at the feet of Jesus and not turn it into action – she won’t be a hypocrite like that. But she knows what needs to come first.

Put it this way: the English word ‘obedience’ has its roots in the Latin word ‘audire’ – which means ‘to hear’. Mary has to hear from Jesus first, before plunging into work.

Not only that, Mary knows that you need a balance in your Christian life that features both being and doing. We need both action and reflection. It is something the early church came to understand very quickly. Think of the story in Acts chapter 6 where there is a crisis over the distribution of food to Greek-speaking widows. The apostles resist the idea that they must do everything. They ensure that the food distribution project continues by having the community appoint a team of Spirit-filled people to undertake it. For themselves, though, they cannot compromise their call to ‘the ministry of the Word and prayer’. Between the apostles and the team appointed to serve the widows, the balance is held: the community together embraces both listening to God and practical action for the kingdom of God.

What it amounts to is this: you can’t just be a ‘being’ person and you can’t just be a ‘doing’ person. Nor can the church just be one or the other. If all we do is listen, pray and contemplate, we will be too heavenly minded to be of any earthly use. If all we do is plunge ourselves into action, we shall burn out. The Marys of this world know that you have to fill up the car before you can set out on the journey.

I hope the implications for all of us are clear, especially because I believe this is often important for Methodists. Surveys in recent years have shown that generally we are a people who are good at social action but less comfortable with prayer. Jesus wants Marys, but Methodists are often Marthas. Too many of us therefore become discouraged, exhausted and burnt out.

We need to find our ways of sitting at the feet of Jesus before we do anything else. Exactly how we do it will vary from person to person, because we have different personalities and temperaments, and our life circumstances are not the same. But we need our own ‘ministry of the Word and prayer’ in some form: we need to reflect on the Scriptures and how they are pointing us to Jesus, and we need to pray. These things need to be more than just something that is done for us on a Sunday, and they need to be more than at crisis times. In my experience, we need to aim for a daily pattern of devotion.

So you may find that first thing in the morning works best. You may like to reflect prayerfully on the day at its end. You may be one of those people who likes to read the Scriptures and pray during a lunch break, reviewing how things have gone so far and looking forward to the rest of the day.

You may use Bible reading notes, a daily Lectionary, a website or some other pattern. You may find one approach to prayer works better than another for you. Just so long as it’s Christ-centred, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the time of Bible reading and prayer doesn’t just feed your head with interesting titbits of information, it draws you close to Jesus.

For if it does, you will soon find that by sitting at the feet of Jesus like Mary, he will then raise you to your feet for action.

And – unlike Martha – you will be ready and equipped.

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