Peter was known as a bit of a lad in the office where I used to work. But one day, his world was turned upside-down. His girlfriend became a Christian. She joined a local evangelical church, and invited him to the Sunday night youth group.
Knowing I was a Christian, he talked to me about the experience on the Monday morning.
“I just don’t get it,” he said. “I thought you Christians were not supposed to be worried about wealth and possessions. But we went to the home of the old boy who ran the group, and he kept going on and on about how much he loved his expensive new three-piece suite. How do you square that with Christianity?”
You can’t, can you?
Peter had a point. And maybe behind it for me is a thought that we as Christians have more of a problem with wealth and materialism than we like to admit.
And so in a week when our time in Ecclesiastes brings us to this trenchant passage about money, I think we need to consider the subject. Is it possible that we are not as distinctive from the world as we might be? Is it even possible that rather than hearing the biblical admonition not to love the world, we are more like spiritual chameleons, adopting the local colour with ease?
Make no mistake: we cannot dismiss this as just some stereotyping of Surrey residents. The statistics support it. Measured by property prices, we live in the wealthiest county in the UK. We have the second highest ratio of multimillionaires, beaten only by the concentration of Premier League footballers in Greater Manchester. I can assure you that my children have noticed it. They ask me why their school friends have multiple foreign holidays every year, while we always stay in the UK. I’m not complaining about being on a stipend, which technically is a living allowance and not a salary – I knew what I was letting myself in for. (Although I confess I’m touched when Mark observes that ministers do one of the most important jobs in the world, so they should be highly paid!) I just want you to know how obvious it is.
And if we do merge in with the local background, then consider this: I think I have told you before that in my first few weeks here, one of my colleagues raised this question: ‘Is the Gospel against Surrey?’ Does the Gospel stand against the values espoused by so many people in this wealthy county?
I would have thought it does. I am aware that there are a number of people in our congregation on very limited, fixed incomes, and if that is you, I promise you I do not have you in mind. I also know that there are people here on considerable incomes, who are also generous. I am privy to some wonderful stories of generosity in this congregation. But generally it is always a danger for Christians that we accommodate to the culture. Partly that may be out of a desire to be accepted, but it is also partly because we find that culture attractive anyway.
So do we need to hear the force of the Preacher’s words in this passage, that wealth is meaningless? Hear chapter 5, verse 10 again:
Whoever loves money never has enough;
whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income.
This too is meaningless.
One of the extremely rich members of a past generation – and I confess I can’t remember whether this was Rothschild or Rockefeller – was once asked, ‘How much money is enough?’ He replied, ‘Always just a little bit more than you already have.’
Furthermore, increased wealth is to some extent an inbuilt factor in Christian conversion. John Wesley noticed the phenomenon called ‘redemption and lift’. Finding Christ led to a reduced spending on bad habits, making for more disposable income. Not only that, imbibing Christian values of hard work led people to earn more money. Put these effects together and conversion helped people financially. Indeed, as Wesley’s own fame increased and he sold more books and pamphlets, he noticed that his own annual income rose from £30 (remember we’re talking about the eighteenth century!) to £120. However, he calculated that throughout those years he only needed £28 on which to live, and therefore he gave away any income he had over that amount.
I shall come a little later to some of the thoughts about how we might handle the financial blessings many of us have, but that was Wesley’s approach.
All around us we find the trappings and the temptations of wealth. I am fast thinking that there is a local catchphrase. I have heard it so often in this village: ‘You should go private.’ Whether we’re talking healthcare or education, there seems to be a local assumption for many: you should go private. More than one person who knows we have a very bright son has told us we should send him to the Royal Grammar School at Guildford. If we’re lucky, they have a second thought along the lines of ‘Oh, I suppose you can’t afford that.’ There can be occasions when there is no alternative but to take the private route, but around Knaphill I find many people who treat that option as an easy default.
All this happens in a world where at Addlestone we host one of the three hundred food banks in this country, where our denomination has contributed to the ecumenical report by the Joint Public Issues Team called ‘Truth and Lies about Poverty’, which forcefully exposes the demonisation of the poor in our society. In the USA, a film has just been released called ‘A Place at the Table’, which documents the fact that 49 million people in that nation including one in four children – don’t know where their next meal is coming from. How appropriate is it for us to drink in Surrey values, especially in the light of this, let alone what is happening elsewhere in the world?
Some people deal with this by downsizing and simplifying their lives. A dear friend of mine quit as a director of his company, and he and his wife moved to a hamlet in the West Country, where they got involved in the local community in various ways. However, that approach isn’t possible for everybody. For some Christians to do that would involve denying the position of responsibility they have been given at work, and their sense of calling to it.
How, then, might Christians respond and live distinctively within a culture that ignores God and worships Mammon instead? I would commend a passage such as 1 Timothy 6 as a great antidote to the perils of caving in to our culture. In the face of people who have wandered from the faith into deep distress due to their love of money (verse 10) he urges ‘godliness with contentment’ (verse 6). He then commands the rich to be generous, while at the same time remembering that God provides us with everything for our enjoyment (verse 17).
So what kind of Christian lifestyle might we pursue if we were content with the basics God gives us? It will look different for each of us – there is no uniform response – so if you are looking for a very simple ‘We should all just tithe’ sermon, I’m sorry. But let me offer the following thoughts.
I said earlier that I am paid a stipend, not a salary, and that the key difference is this: theoretically, a salary is ‘the rate for the job’ (or, perhaps, simply the result of a power struggle in bargaining between employer and employees). A stipend is a living allowance. It is meant to be enough so as not to be in want, and to free me to concentrate on my calling without the need to spend a lot of time elsewhere, supplementing my income. Now while that is a rather idealistic description and the reality can be somewhat harder, let me ask this: what if we as Christians prayerfully determined what would be a reasonable level of income for ourselves (including savings) and gave money away that would otherwise take us above that standard of living?
You could say I am suggesting something that is a variation on Wesley’s approach. You’ll remember I said that he continued to live on £28 a year, whether his income was £30 or £120. His motto was ‘Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can.’ Is that an approach that commends itself to us?
I said also this wouldn’t be a simple ‘We should all tithe’ response, but tithing needs a mention. The tithes of the Old Testament were rather more complicated than some people like to make out, and the simplified version that is often preached – ‘Give ten per cent of your income to the church’ – doesn’t do that justice and also puts a disproportionate burden on the poor and lets the rich off lightly. However, back in the late 1970s, the American Christian social activist Ronald Sider suggested a variation that tried to address this problem. He called for Christians to adopt the principle of what he called the ‘graduated tithe’. People started out at a base level of giving a certain percentage of their income – say, the ten per cent. However, as their income increased, not only would their giving increase pro rata, they would also increase the percentage of their income that they gave away to the church and to the poor. Alongside that, he proposed other lifestyle decisions, like only buying a new suit no more frequently than every three years. If you want to read more about his ideas, pick up his book ‘Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger.’
Let me commend another practice to you. I believe this won’t be entirely new to some of you. I call it the ‘Bob and Kay Fund.’ Bob and Kay were a couple – both now sadly deceased – who were great friends with my parents. Bob had been an executive in the advertising industry but quit that to be the publicity and appeals director of the Shaftesbury Society. I know of at least one occasion when Bob and Kay were generous to my parents in difficult times. When pressed about it, they said they kept a special fund into which they put money, in additional to their regular giving to their church. They then used that sporadically to meet specific needs they came across. Is that something you could do, perhaps administering it out of a separate bank account?
What about our homes? I have heard it said that many people in this area are ‘asset rich but cash poor.’ Hospitality is one of the sadly unsung spiritual gifts in Scripture. Are there ways in which you could be more hospitable, and not just to your close friends?
Whatever giving you do, I recommend this question: am I doing this as a sign of my desire to build for the kingdom of God, and to play an active part in the kingdom community, that is, the church? Or am I just putting something in that I regard in a similar way to the subs I pay to the golf club, the tennis club or the fitness centre?
A final story: Martin Smith was the lead vocalist of the Christian rock band Delirious? Even if you don’t follow Christian rock, you may well know some of their songs, such as ‘I Could Sing of Your Love Forever.’ They sold huge numbers of CDs – at least, by the standards of the religious scene. Also gaining royalties as the main songwriter, Smith earned a very comfortable living. The band toured the world and occasionally made the pop charts.
It was on a visit to India, though, that Smith had his heart broken by meeting a young girl through an outreach to prostitutes and their children. He realised that these girls witnessed things they should never see, and would almost certainly soon end up in prostitution themselves. As a father himself, this distressed him hugely. He and the band set out to support Christian outreaches to them and their mothers.
But at a later date, he realised that he needed to build his own recording studio. He then had an attack of conscience. Could he really do this when the need in India was so great? The money he planned to spend on the studio would fund ten workers with the Indian poor. What should he do?
He built the recording studio. It was central to his calling to make music to promote Jesus Christ, and therefore he concluded it wasn’t greedy to do so. Hence that’s my last point: in the use of your wealth, consider God’s calling on your life.
How, then, will you and I determine to use our resources in a way that makes our wealth meaningful rather than meaningless?
 Martin Smith, Delirious: My Journey with the Band, a Growing Family, and an Army of Historymakers, p 189.
My treasurer at Knaphill is passionate about the importance of house groups. He’s just written a document in support of them in the church, and with his permission I share it with you:
What is a house group?
Probably the easiest way to define it is to regard it as a church that meets in someone’s home. That’s an interesting thought really! “A house group is a church that meets in a home!!”
By ‘church’ we mean, of course, a bunch of people who are committed to following Jesus, committed to each other, and committed to the wider church. The house group should have the same priorities that one expects in a church. These would include mission, evangelism, pastoral care and teaching so that its members can grow in their faith together.
Following Jesus involves
- commitment to building the Kingdom of God; and
- making disciples, bringing people to a more mature faith.
These can only be achieved if the members of house groups are prepared to share their unique God-given personalities and gifts for the benefit of the group in which they find themselves, as their mutual trust grows.
Although the main purpose of the house group is often regarded to be pastoral care, there is also a second purpose, which is discipleship.
All the members of the group need to be growing. They all need to be using their gifts, serving one another, discovering practical ways to express God’s love. Everyone has a real contribution to make. People grow as they make these contributions and as they see God answering prayer.
Everyone also needs to be growing in their understanding, and the house group provides a unique and safe environment in which people can ask questions and explore issues which affect their everyday lives.
Why join a House Group?
People often ask “Why join a House Group?” Is going to church not enough? This is what John Wesley said:
“Look east or west, north or south … is Christian fellowship there? Rather, are not the bulk of parishioners a mere rope of sand? What Christian connection is there between them? What intercourse in spiritual things? What watching over each other’s souls? What bearing of one another’s burdens?”.
If we are honest, we believe many people today echo Wesley’s comment. Interesting expression, isn’t it? Are we not a “rope of sand”? Many different little grains but none joined together?
So what is the answer? What did John Wesley do to rectify the situation? He sought to “introduce fellowship where none existed” by the formation of class meetings. These class meetings, cell groups, house groups – call them what you like – were not to be seen as an alternate for church attendance but rather they were to
“complement the church and its ministry by offering a more intense and personal encounter of faith and grace within a context of mutual support, love and care”.
It is for this reason that we too need to go back to the roots of the early church and establish house groups, where we can re-discover wise principles laid down for true biblical fellowship.
What’s the real purpose?
There are various references in the Bible to how the early church started with small groups and we read how –
- The early church were “one in heart and mind,”
- They shared everything they had,
- They honoured one another above themselves,
- They practised hospitality,
- They always kept on praying for all the saints.
- They held that each member “belongs to all the others.”
- Through every member ministry they encouraged one another and “built each other up.”
- They spurred one another on “toward love and good deeds. They were committed to “go and make disciples”.
These things can’t all happen easily just by attending church services.
In Ephesians 4:12-13, we read “Christ gave those gifts [to be apostles, evangelists, prophets, pastors and teachers] to prepare God’s holy people for the work of serving and to make the body of Christ stronger. This is what we should do in our house groups – desire and endeavour to
“prepare God’s holy people for works of service …… until we are all joined together in the same faith and in the same knowledge of the Son of God and become mature persons , attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ”.
In the small group environment it is much easier to work towards these lofty goals than it is in the larger body of the local church. People grow to trust each other and become more willing to share and it is through this process of trust and sharing that we all grow in our faith.
What happens at the House Group?
Fear of the unknown can be a hindrance, so it is as well to mention what the house group meetings should be like. It’s rather simple really. There should be -
- A time of welcome, friendship, laughter and a cup of tea or coffee together
- a time of worship, listening to music, for example
- a time of Bible study
- a time of prayer, including intercessory prayer.
The format is often referred to as “the 4 W’s”
There need not be a particular set agenda but this is generally what would happen. There may be times when the group will watch a Christian video or listen to a teaching tape. Nobody should be expected to say anything, unless they wish to. Nobody will be expected to pray aloud – it’s a matter of personal choice. Nobody will be “put on the spot” during the Bible Studies. What is said, and the extent of participation, is entirely up to the individual. The evening should be times of true fellowship in a relaxed atmosphere of mutual trust and care.
The wider church has for many years been putting great emphasis on the use of small groups for discipleship, outreach and other purposes. How can we love one another as Jesus loved his disciples unless we create the environments in which close relationships can develop? This is what small groups can achieve.
Jesus spent a lot of time with his disciples, because he loved them. He trained and prepared them in a small group context. The kind of relationships Jesus wanted for his followers can’t be built simply on the basis of casual contact, like about once a week over a cup of tea or coffee after church. The early church certainly followed this example, and so produced mature and committed disciples who became effective both in evangelism as well as the other tasks they got from the Lord.
This is what we need to aim for today – to create the right kind of environment in which trust can develop and grow, in which we can love one another, encourage one another, respect one another, watch over and care for one another – just as the Bible instructs us. This can’t happen if we limit our contact to Sunday church services and a brief chat afterwards – even if we do occasionally go out for a meal with others from the church and talk about things. House groups are vital if we sincerely wish to strengthen our church. Just as the early church often met in homes, so too should we. It is interesting that the vast majority of growing churches today have some kind of home cell network in place, through which new people are added, encouraged, strengthened and nurtured. This is what God wants.
Healthy house groups should have as part of their vision the desire to increase in number. This requires two things. The first is the addition of new people to the group. The second is the training and equipping of existing members to lead house groups themselves.
My church at Knaphill is redesigning its website. I’ve been asked to write a ‘Statement of Faith’ for it. While Methodism doesn’t generally produce doctrinal statements in the way many Christian organisations have since around Victorian times, I have drafted something based on core Methodist beliefs. This is what I have come up with – although I’m sure it will need tweaking:
In particular, historic Methodist belief can be summed up as ‘Four Alls’:
All need to be saved
All can be saved
All can know they are saved
All can be saved to the uttermost
What do these mean? Here is a brief outline:
All need to be saved
We believe that human selfishness (‘sin’, if you want the religious word) separates us from God and makes us deserving of divine judgement.
We are unable to change this of ourselves, but God can. Jesus’ death on the Cross absorbs the power of evil and the cost of forgiveness, putting us right with God. His resurrection gives us new life.
Our response is to trust this good news and turn away from our selfish ways of living in gratitude for what God has done in Jesus.
All can be saved
We believe no-one is beyond the possibilities of God’s transforming love. This good news is for everyone. God does not exclude anyone from the offer of his love. That means you and me!
All can know they are saved
What’s more, God wants us to be sure that he loves us. We believe God wants us to have that assurance. It comes through both the promises God makes us in the Bible and in an inner personal experience of God’s love through the Holy Spirit.
All can be saved to the uttermost
The Christian life isn’t just about being forgiven now and waiting for heaven. It’s about our lives being changed for the better here and now. We believe God wants to do that through the power of the Holy Spirit. We want to live differently as a sign of gratitude for God’s love. We want to make a difference in the world as a result.
Here is my text, and it is taken from a friend’s Facebook profile. She said she
does not feel the need to either beatify or demonize Steve Jobs. I acknowledge that his presence on earth had a significant effect on human history.
I only own one Apple product: an iPod. Why don’t I own an iMac, a MacBook, an iPhone or an iPad? Firstly, because I can’t afford them. Secondly, because there are certain diplomacies in our family, when a close relative works for Microsoft. Yes, Windows frustrates me at times, and perhaps it would be nice to have a product that allegedly ‘just works’, but that also means re-educating the entire family to a new operating system. Besides, like a car mechanic who doesn’t mind owning a lesser car because he can fix the problems, I can often work out (at least with the help of Google) what to do when we have a problem, and I learn as a result.
Ultimately, finance and functionality are the reasons I don’t buy Apple. It would be nice to have the aesthetically pleasing designs, but on a limited budget the bang to buck equation is about getting the specifications I need. Apple aesthetics are a luxury I can’t afford. But certainly I have to acknowledge that was one innovation Steve Jobs brought into computing. Not for him the world of beige boxes, the man who studied calligraphy wanted products to beautiful as well as simple and workable. Might it be that especially in the free churches, we so concentrate on function at the expense of beauty that we are utilitarian Christians?
I bear Steve Jobs’ family and friends no ill. But in the days since his death, a lot of twaddle has been written, and a lot of Diana-style hysteria has been expressed. Cult Of Mac seems exactly the right title. The secular website Gawker got it right, I think: Steve Jobs was not God. We have heard that Jobs ‘gave’ us various things. No, he didn’t: he sold us things. (And dreams, too.) Or that he ‘invented’ things. No, the inventors were Steve Wozniak and his successors. Jobs was a salesman and a showman. That isn’t necessarily wrong, either: it just depends how you exercise it.
The genius of Jobs (if genius is not an overused word) was not as an originator, but as one who took products that were failing to reach the mass market and transforming them into propositions that did. The Apple II was not the first personal computer, the Altair 8800 had beaten it, but arguably the Apple created the market. There were MP3 players before the iPod, but he popularised it. Likewise, there were tablet computers before the iPad, but he bossed the market and made it attractive. Would it be unreasonable to suggest that Jobs was the technological John Wesley? Wesley mostly took existing theological ideas and made them explode with power (the one exception, perhaps being his doctrine of Christian perfection).
If Jobs had an area of originality, I would suggest it was iTunes: he took all the sanctimonious moaning of the recording industry about pirating, and forced them into a fairly reasonable pricing model. Other download sites have since, in my opinion, rushed through the open gate created to provide a better and often cheaper service.
Then, although selling is a dirty concept in Christianity, I have to admire the man’s enthusiasm in his product unveilings. Having famously taken such detailed interest in the precise design of products, I take the excitement he projected when unveiling a new toy as utterly genuine. For those of us in the church who have got tired, jaded and cynical, a dose of Jobs’ passion for what he introduced – even though we do not sell the Gospel – could be good for us.
Jobs has been compared to various people in the last few days, from Thomas Edison to Walt Disney. Whatever the merits, I suggest two British comparisons: Richard Branson and Felix Dennis. Like Jobs, they were ex-hippies who made vast fortunes in business. Dennis, perhaps, is the most striking, as the editor of Oz magazine who was imprisoned, but who now heads up the Dennis Publishing empire. Compare that to Jobs, who dropped out, travelled to India, took LSD and took up Buddhism – although where his Buddhism influenced his business is far from certain. At least his arch-rival Bill Gates set up the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Perhaps nowhere is Jobs’ post-hippie business philosophy better seen than in his famous Stanford University Commencement Address of 2005. While it also contains powerful statements such as those on how the certainty of death should focus everyone’s life (he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer the year before), some of it is a shallow, individualist, follow your own road creed. If you don’t have time to watch the entire fifteen minutes below, the text with annotated commentary can be found here.
And he finesses the story in places. Is it true that ‘Windows just copied the Mac’? More likely it’s true that both copied the GUI (Graphical User Interface) they saw at the Xerox PARC Research Center.
I have no desire to be cruel about Jobs. I leave that to the nasty words of people like Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation, whose comments at the time of Jobs’ death were so foul I shall not even link to them here. But I do wish there was a sense of realism. Jobs was the visionary and extremely clever CEO of a consumer products company. Yes, a massively influential one. But just as Princess Diana’s funeral overshadowed the death of Mother Teresa the day before, so on the same day as Steve Jobs died, a hero of the American Civil Rights Movement also passed away, the Revd Fred Shuttlesworth (as the Gawker article I linked to above notes). Which one contributed more to the kingdom of God? That has to be a Christian question. Because for God, it is less about the feted celebrities and more about those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
Rest in peace, Mr Jobs. May your loved ones find comfort in your passing. But may the rest of us stop getting carried away.
From a testimony reproduced at the Church And Culture Blog:
CS Lewis writes, “The church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply, a waste of time. God became Man for no other purpose. It is even doubtful, you know, whether the whole universe was created for any other purpose.”
What do you think? How does this compare with John Wesley‘s statement,
You have one business on earth – to save souls
and what are the implications of ‘drawing men to Christ’, ‘making them little Christs’ and ‘saving souls’?
I’m back after holiday to preach tomorrow morning for the first time in three weeks. Here goes:
When I was in my early years at secondary school, the girls used to debate who was the dreamiest pop star. Was it Donny Osmond, Michael Jackson, Les McKeown from the Bay City Rollers, or was it David Cassidy?
In David Cassidy’s case, they would sing along with a glazed look in their eyes:
How can I be sure
In a world that’s constantly changing?
While I’m not trying to suggest that we boys were too superior, given that the music wars for us at that age were between Slade and Gary Glitter, I do want to concentrate on that question: ‘How can I be sure?’
It’s a question that has been asked in many ways by many people over the ages. In particular, Christians have asked it this way: how can I be sure that God loves me? Catholics would point to the sacraments as a sign. Calvinists would talk about the promises of God in Scripture – except then someone would say, but how do I know they apply to me as one of the elect, not one of the damned? So some moved on to other supposed signs of divine favour, such as wealth and prosperity.
Into this debate came John Wesley, with his particular doctrine of assurance. One thing Wesley stressed (along with such things as the promises of Scripture) was the work of the Spirit in assuring us we are children of God. And the classic passage about the Spirit revealing to us that we are children of a heavenly Father is this one in Romans 8.
So, then: in what ways does the Spirit affirm and strengthen our knowledge that we are sons and daughters of God?
Firstly, it’s a matter of being led by the Spirit:
those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God (verse 14)
Let’s be careful here: language of being ‘led by the Spirit’ has been horribly debased in the church. ‘I feel led’ gets reduced to the most trivial of forms: ‘I feel led to eat a Mars bar’; ‘I feel led to wear blue jeans’, and so on. No: Paul’s point about being led by the Spirit is altogether more serious, and far removed from the frivolous use of the language sometimes found in Christian circles. For what precedes is this:
For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live (verse 13)
We are led by the Spirit in order to be Christlike. The Spirit enables us to resemble the family likeness.
Most of you have noticed how much Mark looks like a redheaded version of me. When he was born, a church member jokingly told me never to take a paternity case to court, because the judge would take one look at me, one look at Mark, and throw the case out with laughter. On the other hand, when I was born, someone next to my mother in the maternity hospital looked at me and said to her, “He doesn’t look like you, he doesn’t look like your husband – what does your milkman look like?”
We expect children in some way or another to display a family likeness. One of the ways we know we are children of God is that over a period of time, we start to behave more like Jesus than we did before.
This is not to say it is easy. Nor is it to expect instant miracles. For ourselves, we may find it hard to detect the changes. I find that the key more often is that others notice the changes in us.
The story is told of a pupil at a school whose behaviour was so bad and so disruptive that the staff no longer knew what to do with him. One sanction after another had been tried. Every punishment and every incentive failed to bring about any change in him. He was as dreadful as ever.
Eventually, the Head Teacher called the boy into his office one day. He said to the young man, “We are at the end of our tether with you. There is only one thing I can think of to try, if you and your parents will agree. I want to adopt you as my own son. You will come and live with me. You will take my surname. Every time you are in trouble, it will be my name that is dragged through the mud.”
The boy agreed. His desperate parents agreed. This was the turning point in the boy’s life. Not that he became perfect, but he knew he was loved and wanted as an adopted son. For it isn’t just the fact that we take on the family likeness as evidence that we are adopted children of God, it’s also that spiritual adoption changes us. It works both ways. Being led by the Spirit is the evidence of adoption, and adoption entices us to be led by the Spirit.
All of which leads to the second strand I want to share with you this morning. If the Spirit reveals to us that we are adopted children of God, then that means we are loved by the Father. Hence Paul says in verse 15,
For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, Abba, Father.
The Holy Spirit not only changes us in holiness more into the family image of Christ, nor only does the impartation of grace motivate us to live differently, the Spirit also enables us to call God, Abba, Father. Not merely reverence, but closeness: you will have heard many preachers tell you that ‘Abba’ is the word a Jewish child used to address their father in tenderness and trust. No wonder Paul goes onto say in verse 16,
The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.
Not only in the pages of Scripture but also written on our hearts is the knowledge that we are children of God, dearly beloved children who can address him as Abba.
I have a favourite story I love to tell about this. Several years before I met Debbie, I once went out a few times with a girl whom I used to meet in London. We would have a meal and see a film together. On one occasion, she told me over the meal before the film that she had something serious to tell me. I went into pastoral mode and she said, “I’m an adopted child.”
Endeavouring to be sensitive, I adopted an expression of concern.
“No,” she said, noticing my response, “you don’t need to worry. I’m glad I was adopted. It means I know I was wanted.”
Those words have stayed with me. ‘I know I was wanted.’ I believe we can see our status as adopted children of God the same way. Being adopted into the family of God means we know we are wanted. When the Holy Spirit whispers into our hearts that we are God’s sons and daughters and that we can tenderly call him Abba, we know we are wanted. After all, God set out on a mission of love to draw us into his family. In Christ he even took on human flesh and later died for us. How much does God want us? Jesus opens his arms wide on the Cross and says, “This much.”
What does that do for us? Does it not give us the most amazing sense of security in the love of God? We do not have to be like the girl in a field pulling petals off a flower, saying, “He loves me, he loves me not, he loves me, he loves me not.” The Spirit’s testimony to our adoption through Christ as God’s beloved children gives us a rock solid hope in the love God has for us. Let us never allow ourselves to think that God only begrudgingly has us in his kingdom because Jesus won him around through the Cross. Yes, Jesus died for our sins, but all that he did for us came from the Father’s heart of love for his created beings.
This wonderful love of God, then, is not only meant to be a ‘safe space’ for us, it’s more. The safety that God’s love gives us is then the jumping-off point from which we can leap into great risks of faith for him.
And that takes me neatly into the third and final point I want to make about the Spirit’s witness to our adoption into the family of God. It’s about our inheritance as God’s children. Verse 17:
Now if we are children, then we are heirs— heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.
Parents who care for their children will make provision for their future, as much as they reasonably can. Our wills lay that out for Rebekah and Mark, not only financially, but also we considered their care, should we die before they reach the age of majority. All being well, they will have an inheritance.
The curious thing for the children of God, though, is that we have an inheritance, even though there is no remote possibility of our heavenly Father dying! We shall inherit the glory of a resurrection body (verse 23) along with our great elder brother, Jesus. It will be our inheritance to reign with him in God’s new creation.
And that knowledge holds us in good stead now. For while the certainty of God’s love for us enables us to dare great things for him, we also know that daredevil faith leads to suffering, just as it did for Christ. Just as Christ suffered, so shall we. But just as Christ had an inheritance to anticipate and it kept him going, the same is true for us. As children of God, we have an inheritance with Christ. We have an eternal destiny in the purposes of God, and so when difficulty or opposition comes our way now, we need not keep our eyes fixed purely on the trials of the present: we can look into God’s great future and remember what our heavenly Father has willed for us – a will we inherit not when he dies (which he won’t) but when we die.
In this, we have something that not everybody has. The story is told that during Jim Callaghan’s tenure of 10 Downing Street in the 1970s, he had one particularly tortuous meeting about the Troubles in Northern Ireland with Ian Paisley. Callaghan and Paisley could not agree about anything in their conversation. Eventually, exasperated, Callaghan said, “Surely we can agree that we are all children of God?”
“No,” thundered Paisley, “we are all children of wrath.”
To our ears, that may seem a typically severe Ian Paisley statement, and in one sense it is. But Paisley was right that not everyone is a child of God. While we are all God’s offspring in the sense that we owe our existence to him, not all are adopted into his family. That happens by his grace to those who entrust their lives to him in Christ.
And when we do that, we receive the love God has been longing to pour out on all (which may be obscured by a term like ‘children of wrath’). We are adopted, because he so wants us in his family and not outside, and we can take risks because we have that great security. And we are guaranteed an inheritance that means we can cope with the setbacks and the resistance to our faithful living, because we know what the Father in his love has for us.
This is what the Spirit of adoption does, in revealing the Father’s boundless love to our hearts.
On 24th May 1988, two hundred and fifty years after John Wesley’s conversion, I was exploring my call by being a Methodist independent student at an Anglican theological college in Bristol. Some months prior to that big anniversary, I had nabbed the Vice-Principal, who was also the lecturer in Church History, and asked if we could mark the anniversary at college. He readily agreed. We had a display in a corridor, and I led an evening in chapel.
One memory I have of the celebrations is the debates that raged in Methodism over the conversion. Was Wesley’s experience of his ‘heart strangely warmed’ a conversion, or just the assurance of faith? Well, you can make your own mind up on that one. I’m not going to touch on that this morning.
But another debate was whether we should only celebrate 24th May 1738, or whether we should also remember 1st April 1739. Why? Because that was the day John Wesley was finally persuaded by George Whitefield to preach the gospel in the open air to the miners at Kingswood. Up until then, Wesley said he would have regarded preaching outside a church building as a sin, but from that date he noted that he ‘submitted to be more vile’ by taking the Gospel outside the doors of the church.
And I think it must be in that light that Luke 10 is the Lectionary Gospel reading for Aldersgate Sunday. Today, I propose that we learn from Wesley and from Jesus how we might ‘submit to be more vile’. After all, if we have warmed hearts but just stay within the safe walls of the church building, what good is the experience, apart from it being a private religious bless-up?
Firstly, we have here a mixture of prayer and action. Jesus kicks off with prayer: ‘ask the Lord of the harvest’, but the people who are to pray are also the people who are sent out with the message. How wrong we are to divorce prayer from action, support from mission.
Wesley’s own life was marked by an extensive commitment to prayer, but also to mission. If there is one area where we do not reflect our founder in contemporary Methodism, it may be this. When the subject of mission comes up in the local church, often all that means is us raising money for other people to engage in mission. I’m not about to decry the fact that when we raise money, various organisations can achieve certain things on a large scale that are beyond us, but I do question the assumption that all we do locally is act as support services.
But for those of us in the Wesleyan tradition, and who follow Jesus, we cannot stop there. Whatever the benefits of contributing to large scale projects, we have no justification under the Lordship of Jesus for stopping there. We are called to pray and to support – but Jesus also calls us to be part of the answers to our prayers. Those of us who walk in the ways of Jesus are junior partners in his kingdom. Jesus calls us not only to enjoy the benefits of his kingdom, but to let it overflow to others. It isn’t just the leaders, the Twelve – Jesus does that one chapter earlier. He calls ‘seventy others’ – people from his wider circle both to pray and to engage. I think that implies all of us.
Now I am aware that in saying this, I can easily load a burden of guilt on people. If preachers tell congregations they need to share their faith, so let me put it like this. This is not about obligation. It is not a series of ‘oughts’. It is about overflow.
Put it this way. Our son enjoys drinking milk. He particularly likes it gently warmed in the microwave. Forty seconds – or fifty seconds during winter. The other day, he went to collect a full mug of milk from the microwave. But as he came out of the utility room and into the kitchen, he tripped up on a step between the rooms. So what happened? Spilt milk.
Similarly, our faith will spill out into the world when we are full, and someone or something trips us up. If we want to have a missionary effect upon the world, then it starts by becoming filled up with God – which will probably happen in prayer – and then overflowing when we get tripped up. So – prayer and action contribute to an overflow of God’s love to the world.
A second strand of Wesleyan mission in the spirit of Jesus would be simplicity. “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road,” says Jesus (verse 4).
Whenever I read that verse, I always think of a friend of mine who works for an Anglican evangelistic organisation. When they hold missions in an area, they have a rule of simplicity for those on the mission team. It involves taking no accoutrements with them like mobile phones, and only an allowance of £2 per day. They rely on the hospitality of the local church. Usually this works out quite well – despite the restrictions and all the physical effort of the mission, many participants return home, having put on weight!
However, what would it be if there is a general pattern that Jesus sets here of simplicity in our lifestyles? Not that every Christian does without everything pleasant in life, but that we resist the pattern of our culture to acquire more and more ‘things’, to think that buying the latest fashionable object will somehow make our lives complete. As well as making income available for others in need – ‘Live simply that others might simply live’ is the old slogan – there is also the fact that living in a way that says we do not have to lust after all the latest consumer items is itself a testimony to the fulfilment that can only come through Jesus Christ.
Is it surprising, then, that in some quarters of the church, not least among some young adults, there is a movement that has been called ‘new monasticism’? People are seeking to live by a rule of life that involves self-denial, not cloistered away behind abbey walls but in the midst of communities. Others put a big stress on hospitality – not simply in terms of inviting your friends for a meal, but in sharing food and care with strangers.
Now I say all this as someone who tomorrow morning is having the so-called ‘superfast’ fibre broadband installed at the manse! I am far from opposed to us enjoying good things in life. As Paul puts it:
For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving (1 Timothy 4:4).
But we have a society that is drunk on consumer goods. And Christian testimony needs to stand in contrast to the false values embraced by many. It isn’t enough to preach the Gospel with our words, it must be lived with our actions and our attitudes, too.
A third element of this ‘submitting to be more vile’, this Wesleyan mission in the spirit of Jesus, would be what Wesley called ‘prevenient grace’, or what regular people call God going ahead of us to work before we get there. We see this in the part of the passage where Jesus tells his followers to go into a home saying, “Peace to this house!”, and waiting to see whether ‘anyone who shares in peace’ is there (verses 5-6).
Fruitful mission, in other words, is not where we take the initiative, where we force the pace, but where God has already gone ahead of us and is at work in people’s lives through the Holy Spirit to prepare them for the good news of his love.
It’s exactly how Jesus himself shared in the mission of the Father. In John 5:19 he said, “I only do what I see my Father doing.” Even Jesus didn’t take the first step: the Father did.
It’s a principle that – once you know it, you will notice it here, there and everywhere. Sometimes it comes in a dramatic form: I have heard stories of people taking the Gospel to a community somewhere in the world that has never heard of Jesus Christ. However, when the Christians begin to tell the stories of Jesus, people say something like this: “Oh, so that’s the person who has been popping up in my dreams!”
Or it is as simple as having an ordinary conversation with a friend whom you think has no interest in spiritual matters, only for them suddenly to ask a major spiritual question. You think, “Now where did that come from?” Well, maybe it came from God going ahead of you, working to woo that person with love before you ever arrived on the scene.
When I talk about this, I usually tell people this is good news! You see, it takes the pressure off us! We don’t have to force or manipulate situations – and of course we shouldn’t! But we can pray and see how God leads. A common catchphrase is to say that mission is ‘seeing what God is doing and joining in’. Just as Jesus told the seventy to offer peace and see whether anyone else [already] shared in it, so we go blessing people in his name, looking for where he has already started prompting people and we then share in his mission as junior partners.
And that mention of ‘blessing’ leads to the fourth and final aspect I want to share this morning about mission: blessing people is our priority. It’s not only the offer of peace, it’s not merely the preaching of God’s kingdom, the mission includes ‘curing the sick’ (verse 9) and I take that to include not only physical healing but also a mandate to meet all sorts of needs in Christ’s name.
I believe that provides a corrective to the way we often view the relationship between Christians and the world. Too often what we are known for is the way we declaim against the wickedness of the world. I’m not denying a proper place for prophetically speaking against sin in all its forms. But there is something about the way we do that, which has earned us a reputation as self-righteous people who consider themselves above everybody else. Ask many MPs what their image of Christians is, and they will tell you that these are the constituents who write the nastiest letters. Ask a Christian MP about their witness in Parliament, and they may well tell you this is one of the greatest hurdles to their being received sympathetically.
What if we were known as the people who are a blessing to anyone in distress? How would that portray the love of God? What if we were the people always available to the hurting in the neighbourhood? What if each of us took seriously the different networks we move in, and sought to be blessings there? The workplace; the street where we live; the people we mix with socially when we relax. All these are places where we can be a blessing.
Yes, there will be times when we run into conflict with the world, and when what we do or say is not appreciated. There will be seasons where we experience rejection. Then – and only then – do we wipe the dust off our feet in protest and move on elsewhere (verse 11). But I have to tell you, that if I wracked my brain for examples of this, the main one I would come up with wouldn’t be about a parting of the ways with non-Christians, but with church people!
In conclusion, there is so much more I could say about this passage. It is one that has meant a lot to me over the years – so much so that I had to limit what points I wanted to make today. But if it does one thing for us this Aldersgate Sunday, I pray it gets us out of our churches and into the world with the love of God, rather than forever vainly waiting for people to come to us.
John Wesley ‘submitted to be more vile’. What about us?
Here is the third and final thought I want to share with you from Julian Reindorp’s talks at the Ministry Today conference.
He said this to us during worship in the chapel at Pleshey Retreat House:
“John Wesley said the world was his parish. Forgive us for reversing this, and making the parish our world.”
Have we just become consumed with church matters rather than the kingdom?
Fabric conditioner and orange juice: what’s the connection? Apart from being regulars on the Faulkner family shopping list, they have one thing in common: concentrate. It’s hard now to find any fabric conditioner that isn’t of the concentrated variety. And if you are watching your budget carefully, as more of us are in these straitened times, then you may well buy fruit juice concentrate, where the water has been removed before transportation and later added again, rather than the original juice, that is so much more expensive.
What does all this have to do with the second half of John 20, and this account of early post-Easter Resurrection appearances? It’s that word ‘concentrate’. John has so much to say, that he concentrates it into a brief summary. Remember, he will not go on to report Pentecost and the explosion of the early church. So before he concludes his Gospel, he has to communicate briefly some strong hints of the big themes to come as the People of God take on a new shape in response to Jesus. How does he do it? Concentrate. He concentrates down the major themes that will shape the mission of God’s Church.
And because we have a concentrated account here of big themes in the mission of God’s Church, it seems to me that this passage – which is the Lectionary Gospel for today – is also a fitting one for this church anniversary.
What concentrated major themes are there here that shape the Church and her mission? I’ve picked out three. They come from the first half of this story, that is, before Thomas turns up.
The first concentrated theme is Easter. Surprise, surprise! Easter shapes the mission of the Church. It’s there when Jesus says, ‘Peace be with you’ (verses 19 and 21).
Where is Easter in ‘Peace be with you’? Remember the context. The disciples are behind locked doors out of fear that the Jewish authorities will be coming after them next (verse 19). And of course when their mission gets underway a few weeks later, they will soon encounter opposition from the religious establishment. They will be hauled before the Sanhedrin (the Jewish ruling Council), they will be imprisoned, some will be executed and a man named Saul will volunteer for a murderous campaign against the new movement. So to a group of people who are feeling the threat of death now, and who will again in the future, Jesus says, ‘Peace be with you.’
How can he say that? Because of Easter. He shows them his hands and his side (verse 20). Here is the one who was betrayed, who suffered and died, yet whom God raised from the dead. He had faced head-on what this group of his followers now feared, and would indeed encounter soon. But God had raised him from the dead, and so all the forces of evil arrayed against him could not prevail. Neither will they be able to prevail against the Church.
So ‘Peace be with you’ indeed – no wonder Jesus says it twice. Whatever evil, injustice and suffering is thrown the way of Christian disciples, the Resurrection means ‘peace’. The forces of sin and destruction do not get the last word, God does. For he promises to vindicate his people in raising them from the dead to a resurrection body and eternal life in his new creation, just as he did his Son.
‘Peace be with you’ – the Easter message of hope in the face of opposition – therefore becomes something to strengthen God’s People in their mission. To engage in God’s mission risks conflict with the world. Some will ridicule our beliefs. Others will want to silence us, accusing us of indoctrination. Some Christians will pay a price in their work environment. In parts of the world, there will be organised persecution, and even the BBC recently covered that when it reported the mass arrests of Christians from unregistered churches in China on Easter Day. In the face of all that, whether we think we will merely face mockery, or whether we risk physical and material consequences, Jesus says, ‘Peace be with you. Whatever happens to you now, resurrection awaits you, and eternity with God in a new creation where sorrow and pain will be banished.
So when we are nervous to do something that is part of God’s mission – whether it is to speak up for Christ in witness to his love, to show that love to those our culture despises, or something else – let us remember the Easter message. ‘Peace be with you.’ Nothing the world does in response to that mission can outrank the resurrection hope in which we live.
The second concentrated theme is Christmas. At the end of the Knaphill Easter Day service last week, I introduced the final hymn by saying it was the one that you could never omit on Easter Day – ‘O come, all ye faithful’. Then I announced it was actually ‘Thine be the glory’.
But Christmas – at this time of year? Yes! Jesus saw it that way. Not only does Christmas link forward to Easter – he who was born was born to die and be raised – Easter links back to Christmas. And that’s what we have here. Jesus describes the mission of the Church like this in verse 21:
As the Father has sent me, so I send you.
That links Easter back to Christmas. How? Like this: if the way Jesus sends us into the world is modelled on the way the Father sent Jesus, then you’re back to Christmas, when Jesus was sent. So Christmas becomes the model for our mission. We go back from John 20 to John 1, to that description of how Jesus was sent:
The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us. (John 1:5)
As you get to know me, you’ll realise this is one of my favourite Bible verses. The mission of Jesus was not in terms of “I’m here, come to me” but in terms of “I come to you.” And this is one of our greatest mistakes in Christian mission: we set up so much in the church on the basis of getting ‘them’ to come to ‘us’. We want it all to happen in our comfort zone of the church: how can we get more people in? Well, ultimately that’s a reasonable question if it means, how can we bring more people into the fellowship of Christ’s followers? But when it means that we want to stay on our safe territory and just put on events here or tweak what we do on a Sunday in the hope that people who have not previously been attracted to us will suddenly come through the doors, then it is badly wrong. It is dangerous.
The Risen Christ calls us to go to the world with his love. We go to where others feel secure, not vice versa. We mingle in the community, rather than seeing church life as the centre and circumference of our social life. That’s why in our last circuit Debbie and I got stuck into the networks of people around our children’s school. That’s why here we’re starting to develop strong links with uniformed organisations. Christians need to be active in these places, as bearers of God’s love in Christ. For some it will be a group in their neighbourhood. For others it will be a sports or a social club. If we are in paid employment, then that will certainly be part of it. Where might it be for you?
What is clear is that the Risen Christ wants his disciples to break out of holy buildings and contagiously spread his love in the world. All that is implied in the concentrated sentence, ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’
The third concentrated theme is Pentecost. Jesus breathes on the disciples – breath being to do with the Holy Spirit – and says, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’ (verse 22). Then he gives them the message of the Gospel about the forgiveness of sins (verse 23).
And you might say, wait, hold on! We’ve got Pentecost coming in six weeks’ time! Can’t we just hang on until then? But remember, John is concentrating all this into a brief account. And furthermore, isn’t there something wrong with us if we only want to think about the Holy Spirit on one Sunday out of fifty-two in the year?
But no: receiving the Holy Spirit is essential to the church’s mission. We have no mission from God unless we reach out in the power of the Holy Spirit, who emboldens us with the message of sins forgiven. Thinking about the Holy Spirit on one Sunday out of fifty-two is approximately fifty-one Sundays too few. The Risen Jesus will return to his Father, and he will send the Holy Spirit in his place. Jesus himself only entered upon his public mission after the Spirit descended upon him at his baptism; how much more do we need to reach out in the power of the Spirit?
And right now part of me doesn’t care what experiences we’ve had of the Spirit in the past, what matters is whether we are living in vital relationship with the Spirit now. Why, even only two chapters after Pentecost the early Church was filled with the Holy Spirit again. What about us?
I am sure of this: that we cannot afford to be complacent about our living in vital dependence upon the Holy Spirit. It is not enough to say, I received the Holy Spirit in the past. It is not enough to have our doctrine of the Spirit in neat order. Some Christians argue about terminology: receiving the Spirit, being filled with the Spirit, being baptised in the Spirit. Who cares? As one preacher I heard many years ago said: “I don’t care what you call it, just get it!”
There can be no doubt about the connection between the empowering of the Holy Spirit and the proclamation of the Gospel of reconciliation. When the Spirit fell at Pentecost, the outcome was preaching. Whenever the Spirit comes in power in the Book of Acts, the result always seems to be some kind of bold speech. John Wesley is reputed to have said that if you are on fire for God, people will come for miles around to watch you burn.
So what might we do? Would it not be good for us to seek God seriously and persistently for the empowering of the Spirit so that we might speak courageously for Christ? That is, the same Spirit by whom God raised Jesus from the dead, so that we might have peace in the face of whatever the world throws at us when we proclaim or show the Good News? And is it not the same Spirit through whom Mary conceived the infant Christ who showed us the model for mission, not in waiting for people to come to him but in going to where they were?
Yes, the Spirit of God is a critical presence through all these episodes that define the Church’s participation in the Mission of God. If God the Father and God the Son relied so much on the Holy Spirit in order to accomplish the central acts of salvation and mission, then is it not doubly important to us that we call upon God so that we, the Church, are filled with that same Holy Spirit and consequently take part effectively in the Mission of God?
What could be more important on a Church Anniversary than that?
Location, Location, Location. The Channel 4 programme about people trying to buy their dream home. It was one of a glut of home buying and home improvement TV shows that hit our screens a few years ago.
And ‘location, location, location’ might be a good theme for understanding the challenge of the Palm Sunday story that we’ve heard so often. Matthew starts with a detailed location report:
When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives (verse 1)
Why? The prophecy of Zechariah (14:4) looks to the day when the Lord will stand on the Mount of Olives. It has notions of God fulfilling all his purposes for all time, and it is messianic.
But Bethphage? It’s a place whose name is literally translated, ‘house of unripe figs’. When you remember that a few verses later Jesus curses an unripe fig tree as a prophetic sign, you might say that the challenge of Palm Sunday is that the Messiah has appeared: are we bearing fruit?
So what does a fruitful life look like? To see what the Palm Sunday story tells us about that, we’re going to look at Jesus, his disciples and the crowd.
Firstly, Jesus. It’s not often that my wife Debbie and I get out to the see a film together, but last month we finally managed to see The King’s Speech before it left the cinemas. You will know the story, I’m sure – however relaxed the relationship between the screenplay and actual history was. Prince Bertie – later King George VI – has terrible trouble with public speaking, due to a stammer. In an early scene where he addresses a massive crowd on behalf of his father, King George V, he goes to pieces and you sense the difficulty his audience has, as well as his own agony. His authority is undermined.
There is no record of Jesus stammering, but he does undermine conventional approaches to authority. He comes into Jerusalem ‘humble, and mounted on a donkey’ (verse 5). His authority is expressed in humility. And that’s something some people find hard to understand or accept.
In the 2004 film King Arthur the Knights of the Round Table are portrayed as pagans, and Arthur as a Christian – albeit the only decent Christian, since all the other Christian figures in the film are shown to be corrupt. One day, pagan Lancelot overhears Arthur praying for the safety of his men before they go on one final, dangerous mission. Lancelot says, “I don’t like anything that puts a man on his knees.” Arthur replies, “No man fears to kneel before the God he trusts. Without faith, without belief in something, what are we?”
If we want to be fruitful in the kingdom of God, then Jesus shows us that humility is a prime quality. We may or may not be given special authority (beyond the general authority every child of the King has), but we are all called to demonstrate humility.
Yet isn’t that one problem the world often has with the church? Humility is not the first quality they associate with us. Arrogant, judgmental and with an air of moral superiority are more likely the characteristics of Christians, in their estimation. I’m not suggesting we should water down our profound moral convictions – far from it – but the way we present ourselves can suggest we know little of the grace that brought us to Christ in the first place. It is remembering that grace, that undeserved merciful love of God, that leads us to live in humility.
Sometimes we even inflict that arrogance on others in the church. Again, the problem is the same: someone who does not demonstrate humility is a person who has not let the gospel of God’s grace to sinners permeate deeply into their soul. Jesus didn’t need grace – he wasn’t a sinner. Yet he showed humility as he entered Jerusalem. If he, the sinless Son of God, behaved like that, then how much more should we?
Would it not be a good idea, then, for us to reflect all the more on the fact that we are sinners saved by grace, and let that stimulate the growth of humility in us? What could be more appropriate as we journey with Jesus towards Good Friday?
Secondly, the disciples. Elsewhere the disciples come in for a bad press in the Gospels. They don’t understand Jesus, they don’t do what he wants, they let him down. And coming up in Holy Week is perhaps the biggest failure story of a disciple: Simon Peter’s denial of Jesus.
But what do we have here? We have a positive story about two of Jesus’ disciples. He sends them to the village ahead with cryptic instructions to untie a donkey and her colt, and bring them to him. We don’t know whether Jesus had prearranged a signal with the owner of the animals, or whether this is some prophetic word. Either way, though, it puts the two disciples in a strange position. They could have looked (and felt) like fools, acting on Jesus’ instruction. But the good news is, they obeyed. And that is the second sign of spiritual fruitfulness here: obedience to Christ.
However, obedience stands in contrast to certain cultural values today, especially the popular understanding of freedom. A shallow understanding of freedom is quite common, thinking that freedom is only about me being free to do what I want. I am my own master. I take no orders from anybody else – well, apart from my manager at work, and I only do that in order to draw a salary.
This, however, is a terrible misunderstanding of freedom. True freedom is not about self-indulgence, it is about being free in order to do what is right. Mostly we do not have that kind of freedom, because we are enslaved to sin. But if freedom is the possibility to do the right thing, then freedom and obedience are connected. They are not opposites.
A journalist called Tobias Jones wrote a book in 2007 called Utopian Dreams. He wanted to find out why we affluent westerners were so unhappy. He went to explore various experiments in communal living that were proposed as solutions. Eventually, he embraced Christianity, saying it ‘works because it is true’. He realised that if freedom were only about pleasing myself, then community would not be possible: we would all be doing our own thing, regardless of each other. He concluded that freedom and obedience were not opposites, but two qualities that belonged together.
Now I suggest to you that the two disciples who obeyed Jesus’ strange command to bring the donkey and her colt knew that: the health of their community of disciples depended on obedience. Obedience to Jesus gave them freedom for all that was good.
And does it not make sense for this to be the second sign of fruitfulness? If we know we are sinners saved by grace and that engenders humility, then something that also leads to is obedience to Christ in gratitude for all he has done for us. With that obedience comes true freedom – not just freedom from sin, but freedom for goodness.
Thirdly and finally, the crowd. You may have noticed that I have not included one major potential hymn for Palm Sunday today – ‘My song is love unknown’. Not that it doesn’t have a lot of worthy content, but there is one aspect of the words that I find seriously misleading. It’s the way the hymn portrays the rôle of the crowd in Holy Week. It presents an idea that the same crowd that acclaimed Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is the one that also cried out for his execution. You’ll remember the words go from ‘Sometimes they strew his way’ to ‘Then “Crucify!” is all their breath’.
It’s a seriously misleading and highly unlikely scenario. Why should the same crowd be around several days later, when thousands of pilgrims descended upon Jerusalem for the Passover? And isn’t it more natural to read that the mob who bray for Jesus’ death are associated with the chief priests and teachers of the law who handed Jesus over to Pilate? Indeed, the word ‘crowds’ used there may simply mean ‘those alongside’.
If that is so, then all we are left with here is not a crowd that will later turn against Jesus, but simply a crowd that is trying to come to terms with him, and which isn’t quite there yet. Jerusalem is in turmoil at Jesus’ entry (verse 10), just as it was when news of his birth reached King Herod, and to the question, “Who is this?” the crowds reply, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee” (verse 11).
Of course, that doesn’t really do Jesus justice, does it? He is a prophet, but he is more than a prophet. Not until he is crucified later in the week will he be recognised for who he truly is.
How, then, do we react to people who have an incomplete picture of Jesus? It would be very easy to go into ‘telling-off mode’. We’re quite good at that, as I said when considering the humility of Jesus. Thinking back more years than I care to admit, I recall that when Jesus Christ Superstar became a popular West End musical, some Christians reacted by saying, ‘Jesus Christ is not merely a superstar. He is the Son of God. Accept no substitute!’
Now I agree with the content of what they said, but not the tone. And we have a gospel opportunity to be alongside people who have only caught a half-glimpse of Jesus. We can be the quiet voice of gentle encouragement, not the strident voice of condemnation.
What I think we’re witnessing here are the early signs of God’s work in these people, preparing them for the message of his Son. I can recall being asked to visit non-churchgoers at times, not expecting much out of the visit, and probably stereotyping them before I went and at the beginning of the meeting. But then I find they start asking deep spiritual questions, and I realise that while they don’t yet have a handle on all that Jesus is, nevertheless something is going on in their lives. Actually, I don’t so much think it’s something happening in their lives, more like someone. The Holy Spirit is preparing them for the Good News of Jesus.
In other words, it’s what John Wesley called ‘prevenient grace’: God is at work in people’s lives before we ever show up on the scene, and our task is to join in with what he is doing. And that’s exactly how Jesus saw his own ministry on earth. He said he only did what he saw his Father doing (John 5:19).
A third sign of spiritual fruitfulness, then, is to ask the Holy Spirit to show us where he is already at work, so that we can have the privilege of being God’s junior partners in the work of his mission. Let there be no doubt that the Father wants people to find his forgiving love in Jesus Christ and discover true purpose as they become disciples of him. Whatever we think about the state of the church in the Western world at present, it doesn’t change the fact that God is hard at work in the world, wooing people with his love. But he needs us to be the midwives who usher his new life into the world. Humble and obedient disciples will want to pray, “Lord, show me where you are at work so that I may be your assistant in making more disciples of your Son.”
Now that doesn’t sound like a ‘house of unripe figs’ to me. It sounds like true fruitfulness.