Today I preach at one of the churches in our circuit that isn’t in my pastoral charge. It gives me an opportunity in the sermon to use one or two favourite pieces of material when it comes to today’s Lectionary Gospel reading, and to make the odd point that will be familiar to long-term friends or readers. Still, whether you recognise some of the content or not, I hope you enjoy this sermon.
A friend of mine had a book of cartoons about the different approaches Christians have to sharing The Peace at Holy Communion. In one of the cartoons, a worshipper approaches another man, only to be rebuffed from sharing The Peace with the words, “No thank you, I’m C of E.”
In our reading today, the risen Jesus says, “Peace be with you” three times to his disciples. They don’t reject the offer of peace like the “No thank you, I’m C of E” man, in fact I’m sure they need it – one of the things that has struck me repeatedly this Easter season is just how scared the disciples were. Not just at the thought of arrest by the authorities, but the genuine fear they experience when they encounter the angel, the empty tomb and finally the risen Lord himself. They need peace!
But I am also struck in this reading – and it’s one of my favourite passages in the Bible – how the repeated gift of peace is accompanied each time by another gift.
The first gift is joy. The first time Jesus appears behind locked doors, says “Peace be with you”, shows them his hands and side, and ‘then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord’ (verses 19-20).
Not only is this a favourite passage, I also have a favourite story that I love to tell. It concerns the first Christian missionaries to the Inuit people of the Arctic. They were translating the Bible into the local language, but hit a problem when they came to these verses, and in particular, ‘Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.’ Their difficulty? There was no Inuit word for ‘joy’ and its related words. What could they do?
One day, a missionary went out with the Inuit hunters and their dogs. Upon return, the hunters fed the dogs with meat, and the missionary observed the evident happiness of the dogs as they tucked into their feast. He thought, “There’s a picture of joy. I’ll ask them what their word is for that.” As a result, the first Inuit translation of John’s Gospel reads at this point, ‘Then the disciples wagged their tails when they saw the Lord’!
Jesus is alive. He brings peace. That fills us with joy. Normally you cannot miss the sense of joy at Easter, can you? We have been through the self-sacrifice of Lent and the ever darkening shadows of Holy Week, only for light to burst forth on Easter morning and fill our hearts with joy.
Why are we joyful? Biblically, it isn’t that this is the ‘happy ending’ to the story – in fact, this is more like the beginning than the end. Nor is it only the promise that there is life after death and that we shall be with him forever after death. And as someone who lost his own mother just two months ago, believe me I don’t belittle that hope.
We are joyful because the resurrection shows God’s new world. As the Father has made his Son’s body new by the Spirit, so he is making all things new. It is the first event in the work of new creation. It is the foretaste of the new heavens and the new earth. You could say it is heaven on earth. Rejoice! God is not leaving things as they are. The resurrection says otherwise.
Look at it from the disciples’ point of view, before you get to any subsequent New Testament scriptures that make this point, such as Revelation 21. Think about how those good Jewish disciples expected the resurrection of the dead to happen at the end of history as we know it, when everyone would be raised back to life, either to blessedness for the righteous or judgement for the wicked, as Daniel 12 taught them. Well, suddenly this end time event has happened in their midst – a resurrection! Therefore God is bringing heaven to earth, and this is reason for great joy.
Let us also rejoice this Easter, because the life of heaven is coming to earth. We do not have to wait until death to experience at least a foretaste of God’s kingdom.
The second gift is mission. The second ‘Peace be with you’ is a preface to Jesus saying, “As the Father sent me, so I send you” (verse 21), and is followed by his [prophetic? Proleptic?] gift of the Holy Spirit (verse 22).
Mission makes sense after joy. We cannot keep quiet about the joy of knowing that God is bringing heaven to earth. God isn’t simply doing this for us, he is doing it for the whole world. It must not only be the subject of Joy, it must also be shared. Resurrection people are good news people.
And furthermore, it makes sense to talk about mission only after having received the peace of Christ. For how many of us get nervous about mission? It is a challenge, but Jesus offers us peace so that we may exercise the gift of mission.
But – what is this mission? Is it the much-feared door-knocking and button-holing? Before we make assumptions, let’s remember how Jesus described it. ‘As the Father sent me, so I send you,’ he said. Which begs the question: how did the Father send Jesus? And for that we have to go back from John 20 to John 1, to a verse we often read at Advent or Christmas, but which we need to hear all year round: ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1:14).
In other words, Jesus’ mission was not hit and run, however much he sometimes moved from place to place. It involved being with and living in the midst of the people to whom he was called. His life was visible to them, as well as his words and mighty deeds.
Likewise, we are not called to hit and run mission. We are called to costly involvement with the people among whom we live. We are meant to be present for the long haul. We are meant to be known for the kind of people we are as a result of our faith, sharing God’s love unconditionally, so much so that people want to know what it is that makes us tick. And that gives us the opportunities to talk about Christ. Most mission, Jesus style, is among our neighbours. If we know the peace of the risen Christ, then it is a natural act of gratitude to pay it forward by pouring our lives into the communities where we are situated, demonstrating God’s love and looking for the chance to speak about the One who leads us this way.
Not only that, our peace-based mission is exercised in the same power as Jesus. Here he tells his disciples to receive the Holy Spirit. We’ll put aside this morning the question of how we relate this command to receive the Spirit with the delay until Pentecost in Luke’s writings, for which there are various explanations. But let us note that this is another case of doing mission just like Jesus himself. His public ministry did not start until he received the power of the Holy Spirit at his baptism. Similarly, we are to seek the Spirit’s power in order to engage in his mission. There will be no signs of heaven coming to earth through our ministry in our own strength. We too must rely on the Holy Spirit. Too often we look for the latest techniques in order to revitalise our churches. These are dead ends. The only revitalisation will come from the life of God himself, and that means looking to the Spirit.
The third and final gift of peace is faith. When Thomas is present a week later, again Jesus turns up suddenly in their midst out of nowhere. Again, the disciples need to hear his greeting, “Peace be with you” (verse 26). This time, what follows is the invitation to Thomas to check him out and to believe.
It is of course from this story that we get the nickname ‘Doubting Thomas’. He has said that he will not believe unless he examines for himself the wounds of the crucifixion in Jesus’ body.
But why do we regard Thomas as worse than the other male disciples? Is he really so different from the other apostles who doubted the women’s initial report of the resurrection according to the other Gospels? They too wanted strong evidence. I think my father was the first person to say to me that Thomas had had a rough deal from the church over the centuries, and I am inclined to agree with that assessment. The other men had no reason for a superiority complex: they had held the same attitude.
I don’t therefore see Jesus being any more censorious with Thomas than he was with any of the other apostles. He has just offered peace, after all. Yes, he points to the greater blessedness of those who believe without seeing him, but he still gives Thomas the gift of faith. And if early church tradition is to be believed, then although we don’t read of Thomas in the Acts of the Apostles, he most likely founded Christianity in India, where to this day there is a denomination named after him – the Mar Thoma Church.
I suspect that if we compared notes among us as a congregation, we would find a wide range in our experiences of faith. Some of us may find faith quite easy and serene, and others only find deeper faith after much wrestling with deep questions. And some of us individually oscillate between serene faith and questioning faith in different phases of our lives. The good news of peace from the risen Christ is that he invites us all on the journey of faith and trust in him, whether that comes easily to us or only with much struggle. The resurrected Lord comes to all his disciples, those who find it easy and those who don’t, with the gift of his presence and the bestowal of his peace. Just because you or I may be wrestling with some deep questions about God does not preclude us from the gift of his peace.
And because Christ still offers his peace to those who think they are bumping along the bottom of belief, that very gift can make the difference which allows faith to flourish and to be exercised with boldness. If the traditions about Thomas going to India are true, then maybe that is what happened to him. Did the peace of the risen Christ invigorate his faith, not only in the Upper Room but for the rest of his life? It is certainly possible for him, and it is for us, too.
As we conclude, then, let’s come full circle back to our ‘No thank you, I’m C of E’ man. There are people in our churches who don’t like The Peace. Maybe some present today are uncomfortable. But regardless of what we think about it as a formal practice, we cannot receive and keep the peace of Christ as solitary Christians. Since his peace brings joy, that most naturally overflows to others. Since his peace leads us into mission, that leads us to share Christ’s peace in word and deed with others. And as his peace leads us to deeper faith, we observe that is something that cannot solely be exercised in isolation.
This Easter season, then, let us say ‘Yes please’ to the risen Christ’s gift of peace. And may it enable our lives as disciples to grow and flourish to the praise of his name in the church and in the world.
For many years now, one of my favourite quotes has been the late John Wimber‘s statement that ‘faith’ is spelt R-I-S-K. So it was a pleasure this morning while watching the live stream of the HTB Leadership Conference was to hear Archbishop Justin Welby say that ‘The church should be a safe place to do risky things in the service of Christ.’ How appropriate after that, then, to find myself listening to Esther Alexander‘s song ‘The End of the Land’, where she sings,
Is this the end of the land here
Or the beginning of the sea?
(You can listen to the song and download it here.)
Perhaps that’s our dilemma. We are more scared by being at the end of the land than we are by being at the beginning of the sea. What will it take for us to change, and why would we change? Too many churches want to change in order to save their skins. ‘We must reach out in order to keep this church going.’
Heaven help us. Really.
Welby also said this morning, ‘We cannot live for our cause to win, we have to live for his cause to win.’ May it be so.
The first time I conducted a baptism service, the passage for the day was about John the Baptist. In my sermon, I made a crack about John the Baptist and Jesus the Methodist – only to discover that some of the happy couple’s family worshipped at Millmead Baptist Church in Guildford.
But today, I can proudly announce to you that I have discovered a Methodist in the Bible from before the birth of Christ. Habakkuk.
Why do I make this facetious comment? Because Habakkuk sang his theology. I have often said that if you spotted three Christians going to worship on a Sunday morning, each carrying a book with them, the Anglican is carrying a prayer book, the Baptist is holding a Bible, and the Methodist is holding a hymn book. It says something about our spirituality.
And as Habakkuk responds to God’s second answer in chapter 2 with a prayer, he sings it. That strange beginning in verse 1, complete with a Hebrew word to trip up the reader, highlights it:
A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet. On shigionoth.
Shigi-what? ‘Shigionoth’ is a rare term for a dirge, only used at times of complete reliance upon God’s faithfulness. There are also references (not translated in the NIV) to another Hebrew musical term, selah, in verses 3, 9 and 13. Finally, the book ends with these words:
For the director of music. On my stringed instruments. (Verse 19b)
Habakkuk’s prayer, then, is not a private prayer that happens to have been preserved, but one that has been turned into a public act of worship. Just as we often look in our Bibles and see much of the words of the prophets written in poetry, so here Habakkuk has used a creative gift to share his prayer of response to God’s word. By sharing it that way, he makes his prayer memorable and the content usable by others. Could it be that when we have an insight into faith, we might consider using our creative gifts in order to share it with others?
But that’s a little off on a tangent, something that might spark one or two of you into action. For the bulk of this morning, we need to consider the message that Habakkuk preserved for us in his sung prayer, even if we no longer know the tune.
Firstly, Habakkuk sings about God the Deliverer in the past. Verses 3 to 7 use language that is reminiscent of the Exodus and the Conquest of the Promised Land. In other words, Habakkuk looks back to see and to celebrate what God has done in the past. He goes back to the greatest act of deliverance that the Yahweh, the God of Israel, has accomplished in history, and reminds himself – and others who will hear or sing this song – of that event. If times are bad now, this is the God he believes in and trusts. When God’s people were oppressed by an unjust nation before, this is what the Lord did. He delivered them from Egypt and brought them into their own land.
I believe Habakkuk takes strength and comfort from this. He knows that God has not changed. God is still able to do this. So he fortifies himself with a theological history lesson that underlines for him the character and the actions of his Lord.
It is something we Christians can do, too. We can remember God’s great acts of deliverance in Jesus Christ. We can celebrate his Incarnation, assuming human flesh in order to redeem it. We can celebrate his death for our sins and his resurrection for our justification. We can rejoice in how his Ascension tells us that he reigns.
Indeed, Jesus has provided a particular way of doing this regularly. “Do this in remembrance of me,” he said. Every time we share in Holy Communion we remember. And although the bread and the wine particularly point us to the giving up of his body to death, in that act of the Lord’s Supper we celebrate everything from creation onwards. Notice how the great prayers of thanksgiving move through the history of God’s saving acts, climaxing in Jesus Christ. Every time we eat bread and drink wine in obedient faith to Jesus Christ, he provides a way of remembering who he is and what he has done for us. It’s not just an act of memory, it’s not merely a feat of the intellect, Christ engages our sight as we see the bread broken, our hearing as we listen to the thanksgiving, and our senses of touch, taste and smell as we receive the elements. It is a full, sensory experience of remembering the God who has delivered us in Jesus Christ.
Furthermore, this Christian remembering of God’s deliverance in Christ is not one that leaves a two-thousand-year gap between those events and the present day. On the one hand, our sacramental remembering puts us back at the Cross, as if we were truly there. On the other hand, it brings the past into the present, making those past events effective today.
When we face our questions, doubts and troubles about the state of the world and about the state of the church or even our own lives, let us invite the Holy Spirit to sing the great song of remembrance in us, that encourages us to believe in our faithful, redeeming God at the worst of times as well as the best of times.
Secondly, Habakkuk sings about God the Warrior in the future. Now I have to say this is not so obvious in English translations, and here I rely on the scholars. As we move into 9 to 15, there is still a description, it seems to us, of God acting in deliverance in the past. However, not all the language here quite so easily fits the Exodus and the Conquest.
What it seems to be is this: Hebrews had a way of speaking as part of their language that is strange to us. Whereas in English we are used to a series of tenses in our verbs that are variations on the present, the past and the future, Hebrew was more complex when it came to a sense of time in their verbs. One example of this is what is called the ‘predictive past’. In other words, something is predicted to happen in the future, and the speaker is so certain of it that he or she speaks of it as already having happened in the past. When Jonah prays to God from the belly of the fish, he hasn’t been delivered, but he prays as if he has. Scholars think this part of Habakkuk 3 is also a ‘predictive past’. The prophet has been fortified by the act of remembering God’s acts of deliverance in the past. As a result, he now has faith that God will also act mightily in salvation in the future. He is so trusting of this that he sings as if it has already happened.
What does that mean for us? Something like this: if we have remembered God’s deeds of salvation in the past, we have reason to hope and trust for the future. Think of how we sing the old hymn, ‘This, this is the God we adore’ and recall those lines,
We’ll praise him for all that is past
And trust him for all that’s to come.
That, effectively, is what Habakkuk is singing. He has praise for the past, and that leads to trust for the future. Praise for the past and trust for the future are not separate. They are connected. Because we know what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, we can trust him in the future.
Think of it in terms of human relationships. What is our reaction if someone comes to us and makes false accusations against a loved one? We tend to say, “But that is not consistent with what I know about the one I love.” In other words, we fall back on what we know of their character and their deeds from the past. I know it isn’t a perfect illustration, because it’s possible that someone might hide things from us, but I hope you see the basic point. In our faith, we do something like that. A whisper comes in our ear that God cannot be so good, because all this evil is going on around us. We respond by saying, “But I know what God is like. He sent his Son. And because he did that in the past, I will trust him for what is to come.”
To summarise so far: Habakkuk’s song is first of all a great song of remembering, in which we engage with what God has done in the past. It then secondly is a great song of trust in the future, because of God’s past deeds. But that leads to the third and final part of the song: what about the present? After all, now is the time when things are bad. In Habakkuk’s case, it was the wrongdoing of God’s people and their looming punishment through the evil Babylon. For us, we may be exercised by other dark scenarios. It may be war, famine, injustice or economic turbulence in the world. It may be closer to home in the form of personal sickness or troubles. Either way, there isn’t much light at present in between what God has done in the past and what we trust him to do in the future. How shall we live now?
Habakkuk offers a glorious climax to his song:
I heard and my heart pounded, my lips quivered at the sound; decay crept into my bones, and my legs trembled. Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity to come on the nation invading us.
Though the fig-tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Saviour.
The Sovereign LORD is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to go on the heights. (Verses 16-19a)
He is content to wait, and we’ve talked about that last week. But while the harvest fails and there are no animals on the farms for food, he rejoices in the Lord his Saviour and finds strength in him. This is an astonishing confession of faith in which the prophet basically says, “I’m not in my relationship with the living God just for what I can get out of it. I will not limit my faithfulness to the good times. God has made a covenant with his people, and I am committed in return to that covenant.” In that faith commitment Habakkuk finds joy and strength in the Lord, despite dire circumstances.
As I pondered this, I thought about which of my Christian friends leave the most impression on me. Yes, some of my dearest friends in the faith have a lot of money but have used it with a near-secret generosity to support missionaries in obscure former Soviet states, and they have also used their financial nous to advise those with far less than them. But even those people have faced devastating personal losses.
And I think of a couple I know, where both husband and wife were in professions ancillary to medicine. Yet both of them have been struck down by differing disabilities. In the fifteen years I have known them, neither has been in paid work. They depend to a large extent on the benefits system, and the forthcoming changes might well not be very kind to them. Yet they have raised three fine daughters and they both have such a vibrant faith, even though neither of them has yet received the healing from God that to my eyes would make an immense difference to them. They have suffered at the hands of a church leader, too, yet I would be proud to have them in any congregation I served. Their fig tree has not budded, so to speak, and they have no grapes on their vines, yet they rejoice in the Lord and find strength in him, because they know that God is faithful and they have committed themselves in faithfulness to him.
Are we in some form of darkness right now? Is it to do with world events or personal circumstances, be they ours or those of someone we love? Can we dare to sing with Habakkuk? Can we sing of God’s acts of salvation in the past in Christ? Can we sing of our belief that he will act again in salvation in the future? And while we wait, can we sing in defiance of the darkness, of our joy in the Lord and the strength we find in him?
Here’s my sermon for tomorrow. I’m preaching at another church in the circuit, and I get to kick off a sermon series they are following on the seven signs of a healthy church. ‘Energised By Faith’ is the first of the seven signs. What I’ve prepared is heavily influenced by my recent reading of Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost‘s book ‘The Faith of Leap‘, but I hope I’ve put my own stamp on it.
Recently, my wife and children and a friend left me for Beaver Camp one weekend, while I stayed home to take church services. On the Saturday morning that they set out, I expected our daredevil eight-year-old daughter to be excited. But our cautious seven-year-old son was excited, too.
“What’s in the programme?” I asked. Out came the list: tug of war, slippery bungee, rifle shooting (with blanks, I hoped), archery, hammock making, inflatable slides, rope bridge building, cooking full English breakfast around a camp fire, barbecue, curry. I was exhausted just listening to them reel it off!
“Why are you asking?” they interrogated me.
“Because I want to talk about it soon in a sermon,” I replied.
“Because I want to talk about how following Jesus is meant to be an exciting adventure,” I told them.
My daughter yawned. She has teenage attitude five years early. “But church is boring,” she complained. “Sitting in the adult service for ten minutes before going into Sunday School is boring. I prefer all age worship!”
Put that attitude down to, well … attitude, but don’t miss the fact that many perceive church and faith as boring. It was never meant to be. I went on to talk with my children about how in the Bible faith in Jesus was an exciting and dangerous adventure. But that isn’t what we often notice in our churches.
And in a week when I kick off your sermon series about the seven characteristics of healthy churches with the first of those characteristics, ‘Energised by faith’, would we not think that associating the word ‘faith’ with ‘energised’ might mean that faith is rather more dynamic than it often is?
Honestly, what do we make of it when we listen time after time to hearing that someone in our church had a ‘quiet faith’? If that means peaceful and serene, then fine, but if it means their faith never got in the way of someone else and led to energy or even conflict, then something is desperately wrong.
Think back to our Bible readings this morning: when Paul commends the faith of the Thessalonians, it involves imitating him, even in facing persecution, and becoming an example to other churches in the region. It involves their faith being known here, there and everywhere, not least for their rejection of idols in order to serve Christ. Is that ‘quiet faith’?
And when the disciples ask Jesus, “Lord, increase our faith”, and Jesus replies, talking about mustard seed faith that can tell a mulberry tree to be uprooted and planted in the sea, is that quiet faith? No! Whatever the text means, we can be sure Jesus doesn’t lead his disciples into growing quiet faith.
These two passages aren’t untypical of the New Testament. Jesus calls men to leave their occupations and follow him at the drop of a hat, just as God told Abram to leave everything and go somewhere unspecific in the Old Testament. When you get to the Book of Acts and you see the apostolic church putting into practice the Great Commission of Jesus, you see daring and courageous faith exhibited by Paul, Peter, Stephen, Philip and others.
By that reckoning, we should stop a lot of the silly talk in our churches that says someone is ‘faithful’ when all we mean is that they are ‘regular’.
Anyone who knows me for any length of time will hear me quote time and again something the late John Wimber said. Let me ask you this: how do you spell ‘faith’? Whenever anyone replied by saying, F-A-I-T-H, Wimber would say, “No”. The answer, he said, is that ‘faith’ is spelt R-I-S-K.
Faith as an adventure, a living on the edge, is normal. But you wouldn’t guess it from some of our churches, and I wonder whether the lack of it has contributed to our decline. Could it be that churches are declining, at least in part, because we have lost the daring, risky side of discipleship that is fundamental to faith in Jesus?
David Murrow is a television producer in the United States. He got bored with his Christian faith, and started exploring other religions, including Islam. He noticed that Christianity was the only major religion to have a major deficit of males in comparison to females. He wondered whether this might have anything to do with his boredom.
At the risk of grossly over-simplifying things, he discovered the work of an historian who showed that while there had been a seven-hundred-year history of reduced adventure in the Church, a major effect on this was the Industrial Revolution. By and large, as the men had to find work in mines, mills and factories, often far from home, the women who stayed behind rightly kept the notions of gentleness and nurturing. This showed itself in the rise of church nurseries, craft groups, Sunday Schools, soup kitchens and the like – all worthy and honourable things. However, with the men less able to contribute, the sense of adventure declined. In time, it became a vicious circle.
Now before anyone complains, I am not saying that all men are of the same style and all women are alike. The irony of me preaching this is that I am someone who was born with scoliosis, curvature of the spine, and this has affected what physical efforts I can make all my life. I of all people would not argue for a ‘macho’ culture in the church. It does exist in places, and it can be ugly. But you and I know that many men outside the church view it as like a lifeboat – ‘women and children first’. If we have downplayed adventure and risk, which are at the heart of the faith to which Jesus calls us, is it any surprise?
Might it be, then, that in order for the church to be ‘energised by faith’, one thing we urgently need to rediscover is this sense of living on the edge? Could it be that faith for us needs to be something where what we aspire to do can only be delivered by God, and if God doesn’t come through, we’re sunk? Could it be that too often what we call faith is really ordinary human action that is explicable in other ways, and we don’t like to admit it?
Now you will say to me that the church needs to be a safe place, never mind all this talk of danger and risk, and I will agree with you – up to a point. We do need to be a safe place for the broken and the wounded. In that sense, we are a little like the spiritual equivalent of a hospital. But just as hospitals aim to treat people so they can return to ordinary life and not spend their whole lives on a ward, so our aim is the healing of people in order that they might return to the action.
It may be worth remembering the exchange in ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ that the children have with Mr and Mrs Beaver when they first hear about Aslan, the lion, who serves as the Christ figure.
“If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than me or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” asked Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
And of course the Narnia novels, along with that other great twentieth century Christian fantasy series, The Lord of the Rings, depict faith as an epic adventure. Can Narnia be rescued from permanent winter under the White Witch? Can Frodo and his friends dispatch the ring with its terrible curse and defeat Sauron and all the armies of wickedness? How will they cope with Gollum, who cannot be trusted as he vacillates between good and evil?
What C S Lewis and J R R Tolkien describe in those stories is an experience of fellowship being deepened as people go out on a limb in daring faith. It is something that has been observed through other disciplines, not just literature or theology. Those who study human society in anthropology and sociology have noticed this, too. Now I can give you the long words if you really want them – they are ‘liminality’ and ‘communitas’ – but what it all comes down to is this: when a small group of Christians gets together to work on a mission project that puts them out beyond their comfort zones, they are pulled together into a much deeper sense of fellowship than they experience in any other form. The home group doesn’t compare. Certainly coffee after morning service doesn’t amount to much fellowship, compared with what these people experience as they forge new frontiers in the name of Christ.
Here is just one example of what I mean. It’s an experience I had in my first circuit as a minister. An elder at the local United Reformed Church had a vision to bring the teenagers of the churches in the town together for worship. This wasn’t too difficult. Representatives of most of the churches came together to form a planning group, and we started holding youth services every six weeks, going around various local churches, taking over their evening services.
However, youth services like that were altogether too safe and predictable. The teenagers needed something more credible, and relevant to their culture. We found an empty shop in town, and borrowed it for a very low rent from the landlord while he looked for new tenants. It was the days of the MTV Unplugged programmes and CDs, and we did ‘worship unplugged’, only having room for a simple acoustic set-up in the cramped shop.
But more young people were coming, and we reluctantly went back into church premises. We took over the URC church hall and decorated it appropriately. However, the teenage Christians wanted to be able to invite their non-Christian friends, and we were crowded for space. As we leaders talked, we realised there was only one viable option: we would need to move into the local night club.
One of our number, a businessman, approached the owner of the night club. He was willing to hire out to us, one Sunday night a month, and agreed that no alcohol would be served on those nights. However, the cost of renting the club was well beyond any level of finance we had ever raised for the project. What should we do? We were out of our depth.
As we talked, we concluded that God had always been stretching us that bit beyond what we had got used to each time. This was surely one more example of the same. We agreed to the night club owner’s terms, not knowing where the money would come from. But when we did, some wealthy local Christians backed us financially, and we never lacked the money to hire the club.
Is it any surprise that as a group of Christians, we experienced deep fellowship, deeper than the average Bible Study group? We did read the Bible and pray together – fervently! We also hung out together, eating pizza, watching videos and drinking non-Methodist liquids. We helped one couple move house. We babysat. We picked each other up when we were down – in my case, they rallied round when I had a broken engagement. Most of those things would happen to some extent in ordinary church fellowship, I know, but I can only testify that they were deeper in that group. To this day, I have never known better friends than the members of that group, and I miss them terribly.
Friends, could God be calling you to go beyond the boundaries of what you have done for him in faith before? Believe me, if you are willing to live on a knife edge for Christ by faith because he has called you, then every aspect of church life – worship, community, discipleship and mission – will be infused with an energy you have not known before.
Trinity Methodist Church: is God calling you to dive in at the deep end?
But ‘the Prologue’ deserves a much more distinguished meaning for Christians. From the first eighteen verses of John’s Gospel, those famous words that begin, ‘In the beginning was the Word. The Word was with God and the Word was God’, to the reading we have heard this morning, which constitutes the Prologue to the First Letter of John.
We reflect this morning on the Prologue to the First Letter of John as we begin a sermon series on that Epistle. Why 1 John? Because – at the risk of sounding like John Major – it helps us get ‘back to basics’. 1 John gets back to basics in two main areas – what we believe about Jesus and how we behave as Christians. Both were under threat in the community to which John wrote. It appears that some people had come along saying that Jesus hadn’t really taken on human flesh, it only looked like it. They also seemed to be saying that you could lower your ethical standards as a Christian. These people felt superior to the ordinary Christians, and had broken away. Who knows, perhaps they were trying to persuade others to go with them?
Are there not some similarities today? Are we tempted to water down what we believe about Jesus in order to keep the peace with people? And are there not serious issues about how some of us choose to behave in the church today? In a sermon at Knaphill last week, I alluded to problems of heavy drinking in some church circles. But whether it’s drinking or some other issue, isn’t it the case that we often amend our behaviour to fit in with society? If so, then 1 John is for us.
But enough by way of general introduction. What about the Prologue itself this week? How does that set the agenda for what is to come?
You may have heard the story about the preacher who gives a children’s address and asks the children, “What is either grey or red, is furry, has a tail and climbs trees?”
A child puts up her hand and says, “I know the answer should be Jesus, but it sounds like a squirrel to me.”
Well, the Prologue to 1 John is one place where the answer is Jesus. John puts Jesus up front and central for our faith from the word ‘go’. In fact, not merely up front and central: Jesus is essential, says John in the Prologue, in three areas.
Firstly, Jesus is central to life. Hear again all those references to life in the first two verses: Jesus and his message are ‘the word of life’ (verse 1). ‘This life was revealed’ (verse 2) – that is, Jesus, the eternal Word of God, according to the Prologue of John’s Gospel, took on human flesh. John and co ‘declare to [their readers] the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to [them]’ (verse 2). That is to say, Jesus, who always has been and always will be, and who also gives eternal life, is the content of John’s preaching.
So Jesus is the life, and he is the life-giver. And when John says ‘life’, he does not merely mean ordinary life into which we are born. John means spiritual life, eternal life, the life of faith in God through Jesus Christ.
If Jesus is central to life, then, what we have here is the claim that you cannot contemplate any true discussion of what it means to have faith in God and find spiritual life unless it is centred on Jesus. God does not base entry into his kingdom on being good, being nice or being sincere, but on faith in Jesus Christ crucified and risen, whom he gave up for us.
And so we cannot water down our commitments when it comes to faith being centred on Jesus. This doesn’t prevent us from talking courteously and lovingly with people who disagree with us, whether they be people of other faiths or of no faith. It certainly doesn’t mean we have to put on our spiritual hobnail boots. In fact, it means the opposite, because the centre of our faith is Jesus Christ crucified. It is a faith that is based not on inflicting violence upon others, like a crusade or a jihad. It is a faith grounded in suffering love.
But because it is about Jesus and the Cross, it is difficult to speak as if all roads lead to God. If we say that all roads lead to God, then we are telling Jesus that his death on the Cross was unnecessary. Why go through that if there were paths to God that didn’t involve the suffering?
It will be tempting to compromise on the uniqueness of Jesus in our witness to faith today. To many, it seems that the different religions are just trying to claim that they are right, everybody else is wrong and using coercion or fear to persuade. However, as I said, the Cross is not about force. It is about the opposite. And what we know as Christians is that there is nothing else to compare with the transforming power of Christ and his Cross. It means the forgiveness of sins. It means the defeat of evil. It means there is a God who loves us so much he will stop at nothing to bring us back from the disastrous mess we have made of life and creation. How many of us know that it is Christ crucified who has changed our lives beyond recognition?
However tempting it may seem, let us not shrink back from humbly but clearly holding onto Jesus and his Cross as the centre of life and faith.
Secondly, Jesus is central to fellowship. Listen to verse 3 again:
we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.
All true Christian fellowship is based on Jesus and his Father. It starts with them, it extends to us and all that we truly share as Christians is in Christ. I want us to get away from that notion that fellowship is just a warm, fuzzy feeling of friends being together, perhaps induced by a caffeine buzz we get from the coffee we drink. I heard one minister say he was in favour of church bazaars, because they promoted fellowship. I suppose he was getting at the camaraderie that comes from working together, but it seems to me that he – and many of us – have sold the New Testament notion of fellowship short.
The word translated ‘fellowship’ has to do with what we share, with what we have in common. At the heart of the life of the Father and Son is that they share the divine nature and love. What Jesus shares with us is that love of God. What we share together is the love of God in Christ.
Is it not strange, then, that for many Christians we can’t get our conversation past the weather and our aching limbs to talking together about our faith in Jesus? How sad! Of course it happens in home groups and the Discovery Group, but might we not also strengthen each other more on a Sunday if we were able to encourage one another in the faith, and not merely listen to the preacher? (Not that I’m against you listening to the sermon!)
And does not our sharing in Christ go further than that? Remember, 1 John is about both belief and behaviour. You could say our belief leads to our behaviour. When it is Christ that we share in fellowship, then not only do we have that knowledge and experience in common, we also share together the call to walk in his ways. You’ll remember that the early church shared money, possessions and even land together. Why? Because they understood fellowship in Christ. Following Jesus doesn’t just commit each one of us to him: it commits all who follow him to each other.
You’ll often hear me say that the church is a sign of God’s kingdom, a witness to his kingdom. Surely when we share fellowship in these ways we are witnessing to the world that God is building a new community. It isn’t based on greed, it isn’t based on grabbing power and it certainly isn’t based on celebrity. True fellowship – sharing all that we are and all that we have in Christ – is a powerful witness.
Thirdly and finally, Jesus is central to our joy. Verse 4:
We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.
Why would writing a long tract about belief in Jesus and the behaviour that follows make John’s joy complete? The great New Testament scholar Howard Marshall puts it as simply as this:
He has the heart of a pastor which cannot be completely happy so long as some of those for whom he feels responsible are not experiencing the full blessings of the gospel.
Who or what makes us happy in the church? A good sing? Enough money in the accounts? Increased numbers? None of these is a bad thing, but they are secondary. When we focus on them, we are looking in the wrong places. If they flow from concentrating on the main thing – Jesus himself – then they are good and healthy consequences of that.
As the saying goes, we need ‘to keep the main thing the main thing’. And Jesus is ‘the main thing’. He is our joy. He is the one who brings the blessings of the gospel. When we concentrate on the gifts rather than the giver, the blessings rather than the blesser (to coin a word), we get it all wrong. We worship idols instead of Christ.
And what if we accept the poor substitutes the world offers us for joy. Money? Possessions? A good job? Food? Drugs or drunkenness? Sporting success? All can be idols, and all are pathetic substitutes for the joy that comes from Jesus Christ.
Why? Because in Jesus God gives us the way to himself. In Jesus we have fellowship with the Creator, and so we enjoy his creation, but not for its own sake: we enjoy it with thankfulness to him. In Jesus we see the Father. In Jesus we see and experience the sacrificial love of God. In Jesus we have the forgiveness of sins. In Jesus we have the call to join the cause of God’s transforming kingdom. In Jesus, all we do for him will prove to be worthwhile. Why would we look anywhere else on earth or in heaven for the foundation of joy, happiness and fulfilment?
I said just before I launched into the first of these three points that ‘John puts Jesus up front and central’. At the beginning of this sermon series, and indeed at the beginning of a new Methodist year, may we too put Jesus up front and central in our lives. May we renew our devotion to him in our commitment to worship, reading his Word and prayer. May we allow all that we learn of him to shape our lives so that we don’t just believe things about him, he affects our behaviour too.
May we hold onto him as the centre of our lives and the centre the universe, humbly but without compromise. May he so shape our fellowship that the life of the church is a powerful witness in the world to God’s redeeming love. And as we devote ourselves to him, may we be filled with ‘joy unspeakable’, joy that the world cannot match, joy that the world will envy.
In the words of one modern worship song, ‘Jesus, be the centre.’
This coming Sunday in our sermon series on ‘People around the Cross and the tomb’, we shall look at Thomas, or ‘Doubting Thomas’ as he is often known. The subject of doubt and faith is a vital one, and today I have begun typing up various random ideas that I hope will make their way into the sermon.
Among them is the text of a speech I found online nearly six months ago. I have kept it open in a browser tab ever since – probably I should have just saved it in Delicious. However, it is coming into its own as I prepare for Sunday, so I thought I would draw your attention to it now. The Benefit of Doubt: Coming to Terms with Faith in a Postmodern Era is a wonderful lecture to read by the American Old Testament scholar Peter Enns. I shall certainly be including some material at the weekend which takes its inspiration from this wonderful piece. If you have half an hour or so to spare, I commend it to you enthusiastically.
(And another old post.)
“So how’s Debbie?”
I knew the reason for the question. Debbie was seven months pregnant with our first child. The woman who asked barely knew her, so it was a kind question.
“She’s doing well, thank you,” I replied, “there have been odd little things, but really we couldn’t have wished for a better pregnancy. She’s having the best pregnancy of all the mums-to-be in our ante-natal class.”
“Ah well, you know why that is, don’t you?”
I recognised the implication: Debbie’s model pregnancy was because we were Christians. I countered:
“But of the eight couples in the ante-natal class, we aren’t the only Christians. We are one of three Christian couples, and they haven’t been let off as lightly as we have.”
Not only that, but around that time, two other Christian women we knew gave birth to babies with major health problems. One baby had just a one in three chance of survival; the other had a hole in the heart and a bowel disorder. A colostomy bag from birth until she was strong enough for corrective surgery.
So God isn’t just some celestial insurance policy. Believe in God and life will be ‘lovely jubbly’, as Del Boy would say. It’s not like that.
A young child is reputed to have asked its mother, “Mummy, do all fairy-tales end with the words ‘And they all lived happily ever after’?”
“No,” said Mum, “some say, ‘When I became a Christian all my problems disappeared’.”
Christians live between the glory and the flame, the joy and the suffering. God’s reign has begun in Jesus, but there is still plenty of cosmic and human resistance.
I still believe in an ‘optimism of grace’, that God loves to hear and answer our prayers. I don’t know why I don’t always get what I think I need. I simply don’t have all the answers.
But I’ve seen enough of God in Jesus to believe he is trustworthy. And in the meantime I’ll pray and act in the cause of the flame giving way to glory.
For weeks now, the shops have had a soundtrack of Christmas carols and Christmas songs. (Or is it months? It feels like it.) Slade with ‘Merry Christmas Everybody’, Wizzard singing ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday’, Elton John inviting us to ‘Step Into Christmas’, Wham recalling ‘Last Christmas’, and Band Aid’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ now soundtracking mass consumption rather than relief for the poor.
Oh – and Johnny Mathis crooning ‘When A Child Is Born’. Musically it’s not my taste, but he sings of the hope that a child’s birth will bring. And as Christians we think of the particular hope brought by the infant Jesus.
Not that the announcement of a pregnancy or a birth is joy for everyone. Debbie and I know how carefully we had to release the news of her pregnancies for the sake of dear friends who had been unable to have children, and it was only right we tried to be sensitive about that.
However, when Mary and Elizabeth get together for their first-century NCT ante-natal meeting, the vibes are all positive. Not because both pregnant women are merely excited about the prospects of motherhood, but because both prophetically know something about the significance of their forthcoming arrivals. It is those responses I want us to think about this morning.
The first response is joy. Being six years older than my sister, I have a few memories of when my mother was expecting her. One is of how Mum invited me to put my ear to her tummy to hear the baby. Unfortunately, all my ear got was a kick from the womb!
Elizabeth feels John not kick but leap in her womb when Mary arrived and greeted her (verse 44). Elizabeth herself is filled with joy in her own response to Mary. She is filled with the Holy Spirit (verse 41) and says, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb’ (verse 42). None of this is to give Mary some unique status, for Mary only sees herself as a humble servant of the Lord. But it is to illustrate the great joy that surrounds the forthcoming arrival of God’s Son in the world.
Joy, however, is not always our instant reaction to Christmas. Either we witness alcohol-powered celebrations, or our to-do list becomes so crowded with writing cards, buying and wrapping presents, getting decorations down from the loft and a hundred other things that the simple joy of Christ’s coming is squeezed out of us. For me, if it’s a Christmas with a lot of church services, I can just get to Christmas afternoon and collapse. Not that two young children, and one big kid of a wife want me to!
However, in this story, Elizabeth and her unborn son bring us back to the source of true joy:
The attitude of Elizabeth is representative of what Luke desires in any believer. What a joy to share in the events associated with Jesus. What a joy to share life with him.
We too ‘share in the events associated with Jesus’ and ‘share life with him’. For although we do not feature on the pages of Holy Writ with him, we are part of his ongoing story. The invitation to faith is an invitation to share in the story of God through Jesus Christ. We have the privilege of sharing life with him, because he came, because he called us and because he sent the Spirit.
So perhaps the Christmas story is a time to recover the joy at the heart of faith in Jesus. it’s a fair criticism that many churches seem devoid of joy, even when you account for the fact that not everybody expresses joy in a loud, exuberant way.
Now I can’t somehow command people to be joyful – although in various places Scripture certainly exhorts us to have joy. But what I can suggest is that we take time this Christmas simply to meditate on the great story of Christ’s coming again. As we dwell on it, unwrapped from the paper and the tinsel, we shall find our sense of wonder being renewed, and with it the joy that the coming Christ has made us part of God’s story of salvation. How astonishing is it that God took on human flesh?
Martin Freeman, the actor best known for his portrayal of Tim in ‘The Office’, has recently appeared in a film called ‘Nativity!’ It’s a comedy based on a nativity play at a primary school. In an interview to promote the movie, Freeman said he couldn’t help but be impressed by the fact that in the Christmas story greatness is expressed in humility. He couldn’t think of a better story. To my knowledge Martin Freeman is not a Christian, but if he can get excited by the nativity, surely we can recover a spirit of joy, too?
The second response is faith. In her final words attributed to her in the story, Elizabeth praises Mary’s faith:
‘And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’ (Verse 45)
Mary is blessed in this sense: she is
‘happy because God has touched [her] life. Such divine benefit rains down on those who trust him and his promises. Blessing emerges from God’s ability to bring his promises to completion, but to share the benefits, we must be confident that God does what he says. The first sign of such faith in Mary was her willingness to let God use her (v 38). The second was her immediate (hurried) visit to Elizabeth, who herself served as a sign that God keeps his word and can give life (vv 36, 39).’
Elizabeth and Mary are both examples of faith because they trust God’s word. He will fulfil his promises. They act accordingly, and such is Christmas faith. Our faith is not merely to ‘ooh and aah’ at a newborn baby. It is to stake our lives on God’s promises.
If that is the case, then how crazy it is to celebrate Christmas with schmaltz and sentimentality. If a true Christmas response is about faith in the promises of God, then our celebration should surely be marked with acts of daring belief in our God, because he has spoken and he will deliver on what he has said. Here, there and everywhere in the Christian Church we seem to have contracted a disease which makes us play safe all the time. We are like the man with the one talent who buried, rather than those with more who risked all in the name of serving their master.
For if with joy we have been incorporated into the story of God by the gift of Christ, then one consequence is surely to start going out on the edge for him. Not just for the sake of it, I mean, but because that is what God did for us in the Incarnation: he went out on the edge.
Many of our churches are dying of good taste, where everything has to be ‘nice’ and inoffensive. We’re doomed by a combination of Einstein’s definition of insanity – ‘Insanity is to keep doing the same thing while expecting a different result’ – and ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ – except it is broke. Isn’t it time for daring faith in Christ who took the risk of human flesh?
So perhaps we could give Jesus a Christmas present. We could be willing to go out on a limb for him. Not just for the sake of it – otherwise it’s like the temptation he faced in the wilderness to thrown himself from the Temple – but actually to get on with listening to the promises of God and then get on with risky faith.
The third and final response is one of praise. Mary’s great response is praise, and it comes to us in the form of the song we call ‘The Magnificat’. But what kind of praise does she offer?
Put simply, Mary praises God for his works of salvation, and she does so comprehensively. She covers his salvation in the past, present and future – in the past with God’s people, in the present as he is at work in her, in the future as people recall what he has done in her and with all who revere him. She celebrates God’s grace and mercy to those who humbly trust him, and his justice against the rich and proud.
There is so much we could draw from Mary’s song of praise, and I, like many other preachers, have preached whole sermons just on the Magnificat in the past. But for this morning, let me just be content to say that a key aspect of Mary’s praise is that she praises God for his mighty deeds.
Maybe you think that’s unremarkable. So what? Let me suggest that sometimes we base our praise of God on other criteria. How often is our praised based on our feelings? We praise, depending on whether we feel up or down about God, faith or life in general. If our circumstances are good, we feel inclined to worship. If we are down in the dumps, we may not think about praising God.
But what Mary shows us is that God is worthy of praise purely on the basis of his deeds – what he has done, what he is doing and what he will do. Worship may be emotional, or it may not. But regardless of our feelings, God is worthy of praise. ‘I will call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised,’ said the Psalmist. It’s why we rehearse the story of salvation from creation to the Cross and on to the return of Christ when we say the Thanksgiving Prayer in Holy Communion.
God has done great things. He is still doing great things. He will continue to do great things. Sometimes the thought of this will stir our hearts and we will be lifted to raptures. Other times we won’t, but our praise will be no less genuine, because we are giving God the praise due to his name as an act of obedient faith. It may well be a ‘sacrifice of praise’ on those occasions, but it is true praise when we choose to acknowledge the truth of God’s mighty deeds in Christ.
So if this Christmas you are feeling disheartened about your faith, it may be an act of faith to choose to praise God. Meditate on his creation, his persistent wooing of a wayward humanity, leading to him sending his Son, who one day will rule the created order unchallenged. You may or may not feel any different for doing so. But you will find your perspective on life more truly aligned with God’s.
And that is good. It’s what the Christmas message and the entire Gospel does.
 Darrell Bock, Luke (IVP New Testament Commentary), p44.