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Sermon: Life On The Frontline 5: The Frontline Cry (Kingdom Dreamers)

Whoops. I seem to have forgotten to upload two or three sermons lately. Sorry.

Anyway, here is tomorrow morning’s sermon as I preach again in the Life On The Frontline series at Knaphill Methodist Church.

Matthew 6:9-13 with Isaiah 29:13-24

Heaven

Heaven by Ozan on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

While walking down the street one day a corrupt Senator was tragically hit by a car and died. His soul arrives in heaven and is met by St. Peter at the entrance.

“Welcome to heaven,” says St. Peter. “Before you settle in, it seems there is a problem. We seldom see a high official around these parts, you see, so we’re not sure what to do with you.”

“No problem, just let me in,” says the Senator.

“Well, I’d like to, but I have orders from the higher ups. What we’ll do is have you spend one day in hell and one in heaven. Then you can choose where to spend eternity.”

“Really? I’ve made up my mind. I want to be in heaven,” says the Senator.

“I’m sorry, but we have our rules.”

And with that St. Peter escorts him to the elevator and he goes down, down, down to hell.

The doors open and he finds himself in the middle of a beautiful golf course. In the distance is a clubhouse and standing in front of it are all his friends and other politicians who had worked with him. Everyone is very happy and in evening dress. They run to greet him, shake his hand, and reminisce about the good times they had while getting rich at the expense of the people. They played a friendly game of golf and then dine on lobster, caviar and the finest champagne.

Also present is the devil, who really is a very friendly guy who is having a good time dancing and telling jokes. They are all having such a good time that before the Senator realizes it, it is time to go. Everyone gives him a hearty farewell and waves while the elevator rises.

The elevator goes up, up, up and the door reopens in heaven where St. Peter is waiting for him, “Now it’s time to visit heaven…”

So, twenty-four hours passed with the Senator joining a group of contented souls moving from cloud to cloud, playing the harp and singing. They have a good time and, before he realises it, the twenty-four hours have gone by and St. Peter returns.

“Well, then, you’ve spent a day in hell and another in heaven. Now choose your eternity.”

The Senator reflects for a minute, then he answers: “Well, I would never have said it before, I mean heaven has been delightful, but I think I would be better off in hell.”

So St. Peter escorts him to the elevator and he goes down, down, down to hell…

Now the doors of the elevator open and he’s in the middle of a barren land covered with waste and garbage. He sees all his friends, dressed in rags, picking up the trash and putting it in black bags as more trash falls from above. The devil comes over to him and puts his arm around his shoulders.

“I don’t understand,” stammers the Senator. “Yesterday I was here and there was a golf course and clubhouse, and we ate lobster and caviar, drank champagne, and danced and had a great time. Now there’s just a wasteland full of garbage and my friends look miserable. What happened?”

The devil smiles at him and says, “Yesterday we were campaigning. Today, you voted…”[1]

Now, I find that joke rather delicious as we approach a General Election in six months’ time. But I didn’t tell it for political reasons this morning. I told it, because it assumes the traditional teaching that our destiny for eternity is either heaven or hell.

And that’s a mistake. The New Testament doesn’t teach that.

Really? Did you hear that right? The minister is saying that heaven or hell is not our eternal destiny?

Well, you did hear me correctly, but I still believe in ‘heaven and hell’. It’s just that I believe – as Tom Wright has put it – that ‘heaven is important, but it’s not the end of the world’.

N T Wright

The Rt Revd Tom Wright with new book by Gareth Saunders on Flickr. Some rights reserved

What the New Testament teaches is this: when we die, we rest in either Paradise or Hades. Jesus tells the repentant thief on the cross, ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise.’ In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, he envisions the evil wealthy man as suffering in Hades, the place of the dead. These are resting places, or waiting rooms, until our final destiny.

And our final destiny is not to float on clouds, plucking harps. The end of all things in the New Testament is God making all things new – the heavens, the earth, and our bodies. God’s kingdom in all its fullness constitutes a whole new creation. That’s why at the Last Day, we shall be raised from the dead physically. The idea that the physical and material doesn’t matter, and all that matters is our ‘soul’ is not originally a Christian idea: it comes from Greek philosophy, and from heresies that the early Church rejected. It’s why C S Lewis said that ‘Christianity is the most material of all religions’.

Now plug all that into the Lord’s Prayer, and especially into the lines

your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven. (Verse 10)

The first line – ‘your kingdom come’ – is explained by what follows – ‘your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’ When we pray for God’s kingdom to come, we pray for his will to be done here on this earth, just like it is in heaven, his dwelling-place. We are longing for that kingdom where heaven and earth have been made new, and human bodies made new in resurrection, and where God’s will is done as fully and wholeheartedly as it is in his immediate presence.

So if we want to pray for the coming of God’s kingdom, we do something like this. Knowing what we do of God’s will, we imagine what our world as we know it would look like if people were doing the things that give God pleasure.

That’s effectively what Isaiah does in chapter 29 that we heard read before the Lord’s Prayer. Isaiah imagines the dry land of Lebanon becoming fertile, even like a forest. He imagines deaf people hearing God’s message, and the blind seeing again. He envisions the humble and the needy having cause for great joy, instead of being trampled down by the unjust. In fact, he sees a time when such ruthless people will vanish, when mockers will be no more, and when there will be no more evil people manipulating the justice system to their own twisted ends. He sees shamed people standing in awe of God, and wayward spirits and habitual moaners accepting instruction (verses 17-24). All this imagining becomes a vision for the future, and therefore a captivating image to stimulate prayer, and ask God to bring these things about.

Now let’s plug all this into our lives today, because we can do something similar. And we need to, because one aspect of the poor reputation Christians often have today is that we are a bunch of moaners. We are the people who are only known for the things we are against, the things we complain about. One reason Christian MPs can have a hard time in Parliament is because they and their colleagues are subject to hectoring letters and flame-filled emails.

So – rather than just bewailing all that is wrong with our world (and I wouldn’t deny there is a lot that is at odds with our faith) – why don’t we instead start exercising a prayerful, holy imagination to conceive how we would long the world to be. Rather than railing against the way people use the Internet in negative ways, such as verbally attacking others, or accessing pornography, ask in the presence of God what the Internet would look like if it were used in a pure and kind way. Rather than sitting around as barstool Prime Ministers declaiming against a society that is obsessed with money, possessions, and buying the latest thing, prayerfully consider what our culture would look like if spirituality and relationships were dominating values, and the poor were not all derided as scroungers.

In short, for Christians to pray ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ is to serve notice on the ‘moaning minnies’ version of religion that we often serve up, and commit instead to imagining a better world, praying for it, and working for it in the power of the Holy Spirit. I believe that’s what Jesus wanted of his followers when he taught them the Lord’s Prayer.

And there is a specific application to make in this particular sermon and teaching series that we are following. We’ve been thinking about what we’ve called our ‘frontlines’, those places where we are no longer cossetted among our fellow Christians, but interact with those who don’t share our faith. It may be our workplace, our families, our next-door neighbours, or where we spend our leisure time, from the health club to the U3A.

Crawley U3A poetry group

Crawley U3A poetry group by George Redgrave on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

These locations, too, are often far from what we would ideally like them to be. Much as we enjoy the friendship of others there, these places may be centres of gossip, sharp practice, back-biting, and unjust behaviours. Even if it’s not that bad, they can become mundane and meaningless, and hence the parody of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs that we sometimes use to describe our paid working life: ‘I owe, I owe, it’s off to work I go.’

So here we choose not simply to carp about the things that annoy us, or stay permanently on a downer about the people who get our backs up. Instead, we employ a holy imagination, and ask ourselves this question: ‘From what I know about Jesus’ teaching, what would this environment look like under the reign of God?’ And then we dream what it would look like.

And having established our ‘kingdom dream’, we then pray it: ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’ Little by little, we shall see signs of transformation as we do so.

Now maybe asking us all to be dreamers – even kingdom of God dreamers – will not go down well in some quarters. Dreamers have a bad reputation. They are detached from reality; they are not practical people. And we have seen worldly dreamers who garner a bad reputation. You only have to think of John Lennon singing, ‘You may think I’m a dreamer’ in his execrable song ‘Imagine’ – a song where he exhorts us to ‘imagine no possessions’, all the while being filmed singing the song in his Ascot mansion. Any dream won’t do.

But kingdom dreams are wonderful things. It isn’t for nothing that the Bible often links dreams with visions. They can give direction. Used prayerfully, they can lead to transformation.

So – er – imagine that you are in Washington DC, and a great crowd has assembled to hear you speak. And as you speak your prepared words, you hear the Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson call to you, “Tell them about the dream!”

And you change your speech on the hoof to tell them about the dream. It won’t fire you for much longer, because soon you will be dead. For Mahalia Jackson actually called out, “Tell them about the dream, Martin,” and you are Martin Luther King, and your speech becomes “I have a dream.” It’s a kingdom of God dream, and it will inspire many to take the torch relay on from you.

This week, then, when you leave the service, I am sending you out to be dreamers. Dream what your frontlines would look like if they were under the kingdom of God, and then pray that God’s will may be done there.

Yes – dream sweet dreams. And change the world.

 

[1] From the Grove Books weekly email, 10th November 2014.

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Sermon: Jesus Will Disappoint You (Palm Sunday)

Matthew 21:1-11

Disappointment

Disappointment by Dee Ashley on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

The great Christian writer Philip Yancey wrote a book a few years ago called ‘Disappointment With God’. He recognised that people ask at times, is God unfair? Is God silent? Is God hidden?

And when we face those experiences, the last thing we need is to hear Christian clichés and pious platitudes. In a web article called ‘God Has Let Me Down. There. I Said It’, a woman called Joy talks about having one daughter with heart defects, brain injury and cerebral palsy who died young, other children who are bullied, and one child who says to her, “I have tried praying, but I get no answer. People say they hear God, but I don’t.” In the face of all this, Joy has little patience for those who tell her, “People will let you down, but your Father God will never let you down,” or “God’s ways are not our ways,” and so on.

So my theme for Palm Sunday this year is, Jesus Will Disappoint You.

Now you may think that’s outrageous. We’ve just read the story of the so-called ‘Triumphal Entry’. He has been welcomed with palm branches, crowds have laid their cloaks on the ground like first-century Walter Raleighs, they have sung his praises and acclaimed him king … what could possibly go wrong?

I may not agree with Samuel Crossman, the author of the hymn ‘My Song Is Love Unknown’, who posits that the very crowd who praised Jesus on his entry to Jerusalem is the same mob that called for his crucifixion in place of Barabbas – I think that’s a different group of people – but the Palm Sunday supporters of Jesus will be disappointed by him. He comes in peace, not war. He takes on the religious establishment, but not the occupying Roman forces. He ends up on a cross.

I think we can safely say that isn’t what they were expecting when they sang Jesus’ praises.

When I went to Spring Harvest in its earliest years, there was always a seminar on the final full day before going home that tackled the issue of what to do when you got home. The organisers in those early days knew that while it was uplifting to worship for a week in a big tent with four thousand other Christians, led by a team of crack musicians and inspiring preachers and teachers, it would be very different back home. There would be rickety Mrs Smith on the harmonium, a boring preacher in the pulpit, and a few dozen scattered around a stone edifice from which the brown and green paint is peeling.

Or we have wider disappointments. Perhaps we have great hopes for the church. They might be simply for our own congregation, when we think we are entering a new phase where great strides will be made for the kingdom of God, or we may anticipate a new Spring for the church generally, such as in the 1990s, when on the back of certain dramatic events attributed to the Holy Spirit, many church leaders confidently predicted a spiritual revival in .

Our disappointments, then, may be personal or communal, but there is no doubt we shall have them, and there is no doubt that many of them will not be fixed by Jesus in the way we want.

Well, that’s all pretty bleak, isn’t it? You’ve come to church looking to taste something of the Good News of Jesus Christ, only to be told by some Eeyore in the pulpit that there is none.

Not exactly. But we Christians are too quick to jump to the happy ending, like people who give up reading a novel and skip to the last page. We don’t stay with the tension of the story as we wait for problems to be resolved. We came for good news, and if we can skip all the intervening messy stuff and just go to the good bits. We need the reminder the little girl received when she asked her mother, “Mummy, do all fairy tales end with the words, ‘And they all lived happily ever after’?”

“No,” replied Mum, “some say, ‘When I became a Christian all my troubles were over.’”

We live out our faith in Jesus in a broken, sin-cracked world. And yes, we do know the ‘happy ever after’ ending, and yes, that is the basis for our hope. But we do people a disservice when we minimise their present troubles by rushing to the end of the story.

Imagine Gethsemane, but envision it differently from the way you know the story. See Jesus praying in agony, needing the support of his friends. But instead of them falling asleep and letting him down, can you conceive of Jesus coming to them, asking them to watch and pray even though ‘the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak’, and Simon Peter leaping to his feet, saying, “I don’t know what you’re worried about, Master. I know you predicted that you would be betrayed, suffer and die, but you also prophesied that you would be raised from the dead! Everything’s going to be fine!”

Do you suppose that was the kind of support Jesus was looking for in the Garden? Somehow I don’t think so. Yet it’s the kind of encouragement we sometimes offer to people in the church. And when we do this, we let people down. We trivialise their present suffering. We dissolve their current questions. It doesn’t exactly affirm them, does it? Of course the future brings light into darkness, but the road to the empty tomb is riddled with stones and potholes. As the Anglican bishop Nick Baines wrote five years ago at this season,

On Easter Day it is traditional for the service to begin with the vicar proclaiming: ‘Alleluia, Christ is risen!’ The congregation responds: ‘He is risen indeed. Alleluia!’ I think this might be a bit wrong. If we are faithful to the Gospels, the congregation should really respond to the proclamation of resurrection: ‘What?! Don’t be so ridiculous!’ Why? Because the disciples of Jesus did not respond to his resurrection with unbridled joy, but rather with bewilderment and suspicion and doubt.

Even on Palm Sunday, Matthew whispers to us, disappointment can be detected in the atmosphere. As the crowd spread cloaks for him, reminiscent of what people did when Elisha anointed the warrior Jehu king over Israel, and as they acclaim him ‘Son of David’, a messianic title, they fail to notice his mode of transport. He is coming in peace to establish the kingdom of God. Therefore to engage in conflict the powers and authorities as he soon will is more or less to guarantee a grisly fate. Institutions don’t easily release their grip on power, and will often do all sorts of things – scrupulous and unscrupulous – to keep their talons clinging on. That is what they will do with Jesus, and he knows it when he selects a donkey and a colt.

This, though, tells us that although Jesus will disappoint the hopes of his most ardent supporters, he will let them down in order to do something deeper and more wonderful than they could ever have imagined. It cannot be revealed by jumping past the unpleasant parts. It can only come as Jesus journeys all the way into the darkness. And we need to take that same trip with those who today are suffering or disappointed.

But at the same time, the hope is there for those who will not look for a short-cut but who will embrace the disappointment of Jesus in order to find his purposes. It is indeed true that ‘his ways are not our ways’, but we do not learn that by repeating it as a platitude, we learn that by going into the depths with him.

And we need to be ready for the fact that the way he will deliver us in the end will be something we could not possibly have imagined, let alone requested. Just as none of Jesus’ followers expected the Cross as central to salvation, so they also did not expect the Resurrection. If they were good Jews (and provided they were not Sadducees, which none of his disciples seems to have been) then they believed that God would raise the dead at the end of time, following the prophecy of Daniel 12. But not one of them was looking for an empty tomb, despite Jesus’ own predictions of it. Those times when Jesus foretold of his suffering and resurrection simply didn’t register in their minds at the time, because it didn’t fit with their sincere but limited understandings of God’s ways.

The disappointment of Jesus, then, opens us to new ways of God’s working in the world. I don’t mean that in order to give licence to the kind of people who jump onto the latest cultural bandwagon and say it’s what God is doing in the world, but I do mean that our vision of God is limited, and our understanding of his ways – however faithfully we study the Scriptures – will always be finite. Sometimes we get so caught up in our own assumptions and our spiritual short-sightedness that we miss what God is doing.

Remember, for example, George Whitefield challenging John Wesley to preach in the open air to the miners at Kingswood in 1739. Wesley was convinced it was a sin to preach anywhere except in a church building! But God used Whitefield to lead Wesley into what would be central to his life’s work.

Or consider those who object to musical instruments other than the organ in church worship. Guitars and drums are apparently unholy. But such people forget that at one stage in church history that was exactly how people thought of organs in church! It used to be a requirement in Methodist churches that hymn-singing be unaccompanied, and until recent times even the singing at the annual Methodist Conference was without musical instrumentation, facilitated rather by a precentor.

Or think about those who have witnessed the decline and death of a church, or even suffered such hostility in an existing church, that they have gone outside the existing patterns, grieved for their loss, and then started something new with a small group of friend in their living room, or maybe in a pub. Oh, wait – that last example would be Knaphill Methodist Church in 1866, wouldn’t it?

Yes, the God who disappoints is also the God who re-creates, the God of new creation. I think of one of Paul’s prayers in Ephesians where he praises ‘him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine’ (Ephesians 3:20). Or I think back to last week’s Lectionary and my sermon at Addlestone on John 11, the raising of Lazarus, where Jesus causes immense disappointment by refraining from visiting Bethany where Lazarus and his sisters lived until after he had died. But then, having allowed Mary and Martha to begin a journey into grief, he does something extraordinarily beyond their expectations in raising their brother back to life.

I don’t know whether you see Palm Sunday as frothy or as joyful. But either way, I urge you not to let the emotional ecstasy of the crowd mislead you. Start this year’s Holy Week journey as a trajectory downwards into darkness and disappointment. Our God does answer prayer, but he doesn’t have a white beard and he doesn’t wear a red costume. At some point either his answers will disappoint you, or his lack of an answer will disappoint you. it’s even how he treated his Son.

But then, when all hopes have been dashed to pieces on the rocks, witness what God does instead. It may well not be what you originally desired. But it will be new, transforming, and far better than you dared imagine.

This is the faith we embrace as we enter Holy Week. Let us open our arms to greet it.

Sermon: Intercession

This Sunday, I get to preach in a sermon series on prayer.

1 Timothy 2:1-7

The Christian playwright Murray Watts tells a story of how in his early days in the profession he was waiting at a bus stop with his fellow playwright and actor Paul Burbridge. Fed up with waiting for a bus to come, they decided to pray for one. While they closed their eyes and prayed, a bus came … and went past. Watts says that has always been a reminder to him of Jesus’ words to ‘Watch and pray.’

So how do we pray when it comes to intercession – that is, praying for human need? Our passage gives us some answers, but some of what it says doesn’t always correspond with the way we typically pray, either on our own or in Sunday services. It may be that these verses provide a corrective to the ways we often pray.

There are three questions I think this text will help us with. They sound obvious questions with obvious answers, but I’d like us to pause and hear the answers that are actually given, rather than the ones we would give us a reflex response.

Firstly, how do we pray?

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone (verse 1)

What do you make of these different words Paul uses for prayer here? ‘Supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings’ give us a range of prayer.

Supplications are usually prayers for ourselves. Some of us are reluctant to ask God for things for ourselves. Perhaps we think it’s selfish or greedy. Maybe you’re like me and when you were a child your parents didn’t have much money, so you got used to the idea that with your earthly parents you asked for little or nothing, and then you transferred that over to your relationship with your heavenly Father. In my case, it took some special experiences of answered prayer in my early to mid-twenties before I could begin to feel confident that I could ask God for big things for myself in prayer. I’m still careful and wary of my motives, especially when I want to ask for something I think I will like. Habitually I make major purchases a subject of prayer, and if it something that appeals to me – such as a new computer – part of my praying is to ask God to show me whether this is something I really need or whether I am just lusting after the latest technology. I certainly prayed before buying the iPad you have seen me using lately.

Prayers [and] intercessions probably go together. These are our requests for others. When we intercede, we are the go-between person, connecting those in need with God. It is a priestly role, representing human beings to God. However much some of our other Christian friends may call some of their ordained people ‘priests’, the New Testament sense is that all Christians are priests. We have the privilege of representing people to God, and representing God to people.

If that’s the case, then intercession is a privilege. We are invited into the throne room of God with our prayers for others. Yet if you’re anything like me on this one, sometimes the regularity and even the monotony of intercession make it dull. The sense of privilege gets worn away over time. So let’s pause for a moment and remember what a remarkable privilege it is. As the old hymn writer put it:

Large petitions with thee bring
Thou art coming to a king.

And linked with that sense of privilege, let’s note that the last word used in the ‘how’ of prayer is thanksgivings. Is this something we overlook, too? Intercession is linked with gratitude, because God answers prayer. Oh, I know we sometimes struggle to see the answer, and we often have to wait for him to do something, but answer he does and when he does it is only right to bring our thanksgivings as well as our requests.

This is something that Knaphill has tried to build into its practice of prayer. The church has a prayer chain. If someone has an urgent need of prayer, it is circulated around the people on the prayer chain and they will pray. But we also ask the person requesting prayer to let us know what God does in response to those prayers, so that we can report what happened and give thanks to God for all he has done.

Probably the only area of weekly public intercessions that includes thanksgiving is when we thank God for the departed in Christ. That’s good, but there is so much more to thank him for, when we consider all he has done for us in response to our prayers.

Secondly, who do we pray for?

for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions (verses 1b-2a)

How many of these people are Christians? Few indeed. We are to pray ‘for everyone’ – and Christians are a minority. We are to pray ‘for kings and all who are in high positions’ – well, in the days of this letter very few Christians held high office. But we seek the same amount of blessing for those who do not know Christ, or who are yet to know Christ, as for any Christians in need. It is the job of the Christian as part of mission to bless the world. We are not simply to rail against the aspects of life that we do not like, even if there is a place for a prophetic word against sin. We are also to bless those we believe to be outside the kingdom of God. It is like the days of Jeremiah. When some of the population of Judah was carried off to pagan Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar’s army, Jeremiah wrote them a letter, in which he told them to bless the place to which they had been taken (Jeremiah 29).

So can we ask ourselves, how can we bless the world where we live? Much of that will of course be by practical action, but it needs to be done on a foundation of prayer. Are there neighbours or colleagues we are praying for? Do our friends know that if they are in trouble, we would be willing to pray for them? Think: what might happen if your friend suddenly realised that Jesus had shown up in her life?

But as well as the general everyone, let us also think about the specific kings and all who are in high positions. Now we often pray for such people in our public intercessions. We pray for the needs of the world, we pray that rulers and governments will act with justice and for the sake of peace. All of that is good and I would not wish to stop it. However, Paul has other things in mind.

Note how this is linked with the reference in the next verse to ‘God our Saviour’. Not only is it true that God is our Saviour, Paul is reminding Timothy that these kings and rulers are not saviours[1]. Some of them expected to be acknowledged as saviours: think of the claims to divinity by Roman emperors, for example. This, then, is prayer that puts things in perspective – God’s perspective. Today we have other people and forces in society who want to claim that they can ‘save’: think of the inflated promises made for consumer goods, to take one example. Intercessory prayer that remembers God is our true Saviour dethrones these idols from their pedestals.

We need to dethrone these pretenders to the throne of God in our own lives, of course, and it is also a vital task for Christians to pray that idols will come crashing down in society. In that respect, is it too irresponsible to wonder whether the financial woes of the last five years have at least in part been a bringing down of false economic gods that have wrongly laid claim to our worship? Does prayer not begin to clear the ground, spiritually speaking, for what God wants to do in truth and love in a society?

And that leads to the third and final question: why do we intercede?

Again, it probably seems like there is an obvious answer. We want things to get better. We want people to be healed. We want to see justice and peace.

Well, yes indeed to all those things! They can all be signs of God’s kingdom, and therefore such prayers are consistent with the Lord’s Prayer, where we pray for God’s kingdom to come, for his will to be done on earth as in heaven. But Paul goes further:

so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (Verses 2b-4)

The part about leading ‘a quiet and peaceable life’ is probably there because the early Christians were a small and insignificant group of people, often not from influential strands of society. They could not hope to make a big political difference in their culture – and remember, it wasn’t a democracy as we know it, anyway. The best they could hope for was the chance to live undisturbed by persecution. Millions are the Christians today for whom that is also true. They need our prayers.

Beyond that, the ‘why; of prayer goes to another kingdom of God theme: the spread of the Gospel. ‘God our Saviour … desires everyone to be saved,’ says Paul, and he goes on in the remaining verses to talk about the key rôle of Jesus as mediator between God and humankind. Paul wants Christians to pray for those in authority so that the climate will be right in a society for the unfettered spread of the Gospel.

Now there are certainly Christian traditions that pray regularly for the Gospel to reach more people at home and abroad. The trouble is, it’s not one of our strengths. You rarely see anything like that alluded to in official liturgical intercessions, and it doesn’t always come naturally to our lips when our preachers construct extempore intercessions, either. It has slipped off our radar – which is all the more strange when you consider how concerned we become about the decline in church attendance and membership. Wouldn’t you think that one thing we would want to pray for was for more people to start following Jesus Christ and becoming part of his community, the Church? This is something we need to recover.

Certainly we need to lead by example by including this in our weekly public intercessions, and – I would suggest – in our Thursday morning prayers here. But then we also need to follow through in our own private devotions. I don’t know what you include in your private prayers at home – I hope you do pray regularly! One thing we could include is a list of people we know who do not yet know and follow Jesus. Should we not be consistently praying for such people, that the Holy Spirit will be at work in their lives to show Jesus to them?

It is said that the famous evangelist D L Moody had a long list of people he prayed for. By the time of his death, all but two of them had found Christ. I wonder whether he went to his death sorrowful about those two.

If so, he needn’t have despaired. After he died, both of them became disciples of Jesus.

Friends, the question of people becoming committed Christians is a spiritual issue. It will not be solved simply by adopting a programme or a set of techniques. It needs to be handled spiritually, and that at very minimum means prayer.

In fact, what of value does happen in the kingdom of God without prayer? Let us commit ourselves to it.

The Internet, Facebook And The Church

Via Internet Evangelism Day’s Facebook page: Internet World Stats have published details of Facebook usage statistics around the world. Not only that, these same statistics also mention general Internet usage in the nations of the world.

Of particular interest to me are the United Kingdom stats, which can be found on the European Union page. As of June last year, 82.5% of the population had Internet access. As of August last year, 44.6% were Facebook users.

OK, so some will have opened accounts and either not used them or only used them sporadically, but how much more convincing do churches need that an Internet and social media presence and strategy is no longer optional, it is central? It isn’t enough to say that these statistics don’t reflect the much lower usage among members of an elderly congregation, even when that is true, because such thinking openly betrays the lack of missionary thinking. Is the Internet just a glorified internal communication tool for the church, or is it somewhere to interact with the world in the name of Christ and with the love of God?

Both my churches here have Facebook pages that I set up. At present we don’t use them a lot, and I have to remember to put updates on them. Mostly there is the automated feed of my blog posts through them, but we could think of more, I’m sure. Similarly, Knaphill has a website. Addlestone used to, and is in the process of designing a new one.

The church needs to recognise that people are living a large amount of their lives online today. I don’t simply mean the minority who live almost exclusively online to the detriment of face-to-face relationships: I mean that millions live online in extension to the rest of their lives.

So thank God for initiatives like CODEC and others, such as the forthcoming Open Source evening at the Pentecost Festival (which, sadly, I can’t attend). We need to take what comes out of these ventures and translate them into mission in the local church.

All of this may be obvious to readers of this blog. You come here, either because you visit the site, you get the email updates, you follow it in a feed reader or via my Twitter stream or on Facebook through my account, the blog page, or one of the two churches above. But others need convincing, and this is something we need to communicate passionately and eloquently in our churches – not so that our online usage is a mere digital church notice sheet, but so that we genuinely and conversationally interact with a massive section of the population that we say we want to reach.

One or two of my church leaders recently wanted to think about streaming a video feed of church services online. It isn’t going to prove practical since there are too many hurdles, such as child protection, data protection, the number of personnel to do it effectively and possibly the cost, too. However, nothing could delight me more than that they are thinking imaginatively and not letting the old “We haven’t done it before” slogan prevent them coming up with ideas. What a great bunch of people they are to work with, especially in this culture.

What Would You Say To The Organist?

I’m on leave this week, hence a few more opportunities to blog than usual. So yesterday I visited another church, out of the area. (I’m not giving any clues about its identity.) The welcome was warm, friendly and appropriate. The minister was a thoughtful, clear and challenging preacher. But one thing I witnessed led to extra exercise for one of my eyebrows, and it’s this.

The organist. No, this is nothing to do with the old ministers’ joke, what is the difference between an organist and a terrorist? The answer is, you can negotiate with a terrorist. By no means all church musicians are like that, and at Knaphill I am blessed with a godly organist and worship group leader.

The organist yesterday was competent. The music was played competently at a decent, consistent tempo. What could possibly make me wonder?
It was the choice of music before the service. My eyebrow started to get in training for next year’s Olympics when I realised the organist was playing John Lennon‘s ‘Imagine‘. That’s right, the one with the line, ‘Imagine no religion.’ Now I’ve blocked that from funeral services I take, something I don’t often do, but I even barred it when I once took the funeral of a woman who had danced with the Beatles at the Cavern in her youth. (We had ‘Twist and Shout’ instead as we left the chapel.)
Then having settled down again to talk with the people next to me in the pew, my eyebrow sprang into action again. George Benson, but sadly not from his jazz guitar phase. No: ‘The Greatest Love Of All.’  And that contains the line, ‘Learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.’

I find it hard to think that the musician would not have known the lyrics. One time a dodgy choice maybe, but two before the same service? Perhaps the thought was, the music is nice but as I’m just playing this instrumentally and we’re not singing the contentious words, it’s OK. However, this service had a number of visitors present, and it could have been predicted there would have been on this occasion for certain reasons. I wonder how they reacted. With a smirk, maybe?

I wouldn’t want any of this to outweigh all the good things from that service, and there were many. The sermon ended with a moving video, and I happen to know there are many good and kind-hearted people in that congregation. The minister is not just a good preacher, but a good person.

However, I wouldn’t be surprised if the pastor had a quiet word with the organist afterwards. I think I would seek a diplomatic conversation if this happened in a church.

But maybe I don’t know all the facts, and perhaps I would be wrong in talking to the organist. What would you do?

Letting Jesus Heal

Sally Coleman and I seem to be interested in much the same things right now. Not only have we both written about theology in the last couple of days, she has written about healing and now here am I doing the same.

We’ve just started running the DVD course ‘Letting Jesus Heal‘ from the Christian Healing Mission at Knaphill. Now before I go any further, I should make full disclosure and say that I have known John Ryeland, the director of the CHM, for a good number of years, and indeed went to school with his wife Gillian! So you can accuse me of bias if you like.

However, I want to commend this course enthusiastically, based on the first two weeks of the six. What I like about the teaching here is that John combines a faithful openness to the power of God to heal with a quiet, gentle approach. In style this is about as far removed as you can get from the hyped-up school of healing ministry so prevalent in some places. It is therefore both safe and ideal for introducing an expectancy that God will work in a context where people might be nervous of showmanship, noise or manipulation.

Not only that, one thing I deeply value about John’s teaching is that he opens people up to the belief and experience that God is speaking to us much more than we realise. How often do we think that God is not speaking to us, or just does not speak to us – especially in contrast to other Christians who, in the words many years ago of Gerald Coates, ‘have more words from the Lord before breakfast than Billy Graham has had in a lifetime’?

Eighteen months ago, I heard John give his teaching on ‘Encountering Jesus‘ and had a simple but profound experience of Christ in relation to some serious pain and disappointment in my life. It forms the second session of the healing course, and while I obviously cannot share any confidences, I know that a number of people heard Jesus speak to them on Wednesday night in the course.

If you are looking for something to encourage people in the area of Christian healing, then, I recommend you take a good look at this course. And if you’re not far from Knaphill, feel free to drop in on us next Wednesday at 8:00 pm.

Easter: Energy And Exhaustion

I don’t do 5:30 am. Although I had to, today. Easter Day began with a 7 am ‘sunrise service‘ at Bisley Clock Tower, the highest piece of land locally. It’s part of the National Shooting Centre, so what better place to celebrate the resurrection of the Non-Violent One?

We gathered to sing three traditional hymns that we couldn’t include in the later 10 am All Age Communion, all to the accompaniment of a melodica. During the hymn before my talk, I felt prompted to change what I was going to say. Working from Matthew 28:1-10, I spoke about the women, the angel and Jesus. The women are the first apostles – they are the first witnesses to the resurrection. Effectively, they are the apostles to the apostles. You would not have chosen women as witnesses in the first century if you wanted to be believed – this is a hint of the account’s veracity. And God is always choosing unlikely people as his witnesses.

As for the angel, I loved the piece where – after rolling away the stone, he sat on it. The very object that had contained the imperial seal of Rome. For the Resurrection shows God’s conquest of all powers and authorities. Whatever we see today in terms of opposition, the Resurrection guarantees that principalities and powers will be ‘sat on’!

And Jesus – whereas later I was to talk about meeting him, now I emphasised him going ahead. Not only is the risen Lord always with us, he also goes ahead of us. Wherever we have to go in our life’s journey, we can find that Jesus has gone ahead of us to meet us there.
From that service to Addlestone for an 8:30 am communion, singing our hymns to the backing of CDs ripped to a laptop. And then it was back to the church building at Knaphill, where our wonderfully creative all age worship team had devised a service featuring scents and spices, an earthquake sound effect, drama, dance and Noel Richards‘ recent Easter hymn ‘Because He Lives‘. Back in February you could email Noel for a free MP3 of the song – not sure if that offer is still available, but in case it is, the link is here.

By the end of the morning, I was exhausted. No stamina, me. I didn’t go to the united service in the evening. But it struck me that on the original Easter Day, at least two disciples moved from exhaustion to energy – right at the end of the day. I’m thinking of the Emmaus Road story. Cleopas and his companion are downcast, discouraged and without hope. But when they recognise the risen Jesus in the breaking of bread, they hurry back to Jerusalem from Emmaus, late at night – even though they have invited the stranger (Jesus) in, because it’s late and you shouldn’t be travelling. The Good News that Christ is risen gives new energy – may it do so to us, too.

Passover

Notwithstanding the question I raised the other day about when the Last Supper happened, we celebrated a Christianised Passover at Knaphill tonight. We used this order of service, where one of the things I value is that it takes seriously the wide experience of human suffering. In particular, it does not gloat over the suffering of the Egyptians at the time of the original Passover, and uses that as a stimulus to pray for all who suffer. It also made links towards the end with where Christians see elements of fulfilment in the Passover themes.

We added in some hymns and songs – ‘The God of Abraham Praise’, ‘Thank You For Saving Me’, ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘And Can It Be’.

I’m grateful for a great team of people who made it work – those who planned, those who cooked (our lamb meal was Shepherd’s Pie – a bit of artistic licence there, and our apple-based dessert was a flapjack recipé that contained apples), those who set things out and cleared things up.

What did you do for Maundy Thursday? What do you recommend? Have you participated in a ‘Christian Passover’?

A Collaborative World?

 

Apparently, the revolution will be tweeted,

says Jason Gardner in an article which begins by reflecting on the use of social media such as Facebook and Twitter in recent people movements in North Africa. You may have read about the Egyptian who called his newborn child ‘Facebook’ in tribute to the way that site was used to spark potential social change.

So Gardner asks us to pay attention to Web 2.0, which

is about customisation and collaboration … That means that the story of the world is no longer dictated to us: we write it together.

Even powerful dictators’ efforts to use kill switches on the Internet have run into trouble as international people movements such as Avaaz have solicited funds from tens of thousands of people around the world to provide satellite links and other means for the previously disempowered citizens to keep communicating with each other and the outside world.

When I have written about this before, I have quoted Rex Miller‘s maxim that it isn’t that the medium is the message; rather, the medium is the worldview. Collaborative media mean collaborative approaches to life. And Gardner rightly says the church needs to take heed.

His particular application is in involving youth, and he makes the point that God is involving us collaboratively in his kingdom.

However, it’s worth thinking about for the whole church. While we have a long way to go, it gives me great pleasure to be involved in leading a church that already has signs of taking this seriously. I have a Leadership Team that meets weekly at Knaphill, and although I’m seen as the overall leader we take counsel together.

Or for another example, you’ll notice this is one of those weekends when there is no new sermon on the blog. That’s because it’s All Age Worship Sunday, and we have a team that plans these services. While I might bring a general overarching theme or message, I couldn’t possibly put together the services we lead. The creative gifts present among the team are amazing, and the worship is all the richer for it.

OK, if I get round to it, I might put up the short PowerPoint presentation that accompanies my brief talk on a site like Slideshare, but it isn’t a conventional sermon. It’s a talk on the theme of ‘belonging’, because we’ve just had Founders’ Day for the Scouts and Thinking Day for the Guides. And actually, did I come up with the theme this time? No. I couldn’t make the planning meeting, due to an emergency. Two other people prayed and set the theme, and I have attempted to fit in.

Of course, we need to go much further, but one thing is for sure. However much I am set aside to pray and discern, there is no going back to the world where an Anglican rector friend of mine saw his calling as to come down from the mountain with the tablets of stone, and for the people simply to accept his word to that effect.

Persecution Of Iranian Christians

The World Evangelical Alliance is demanding a halt to the Iranian government’s crackdown on Christians, reports Christian Today. Not that the tyrants in Iran will listen, but what concerns me is this. Our major denominations will speak out on Iran if it’s about their presumed nuclear power/weapons escalation – and that’s right. They will speak out and seek donations to care for those affected by an earthquake in that land – right again, very Christian to do so for a land so hostile to our faith. But why not on this issue – at least, so far? (I have googled to see if I can find any statements, but have been unsuccessful in my search.) Perhaps they will. I hope so.

One of my churches here hosts an Iranian church. (We are not the only Methodist church in the UK to do so: Hexthorpe Methodist in Doncaster also does this.) My Iranian Christian friends tell me they hear of this persecution on virtually a daily basis back home.

There must be something we can do to raise a voice for our brothers and sisters.

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