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Last Sunday’s Sermon: Peter Heals The Lame Man

Life has been frantic since returning from leave at the weekend – and still is. Here, belatedly, is Sunday’s sermon.

Acts 3:1-26 
Whenever I read Acts 3, one story always comes to mind. One of the thirteenth century Popes was showing the great Catholic thinker Thomas Aquinas around the Vatican. Having shown him many of the beautiful works of art, the ornate architecture and the lavish fittings, the Pope turned to Thomas and said, “No longer can the church say like Peter, ‘Silver and gold have I none’.”

“No,” retorted Thomas, “and neither can she say any more, ‘In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, rise up and walk’.”

So we come to this famous story, this first major episode after Pentecost and the formation of the early community of Jesus-followers. And it’s a big story. It extends beyond chapter three, which we read, into chapter four, where Peter and John are hauled before the religious authorities. Just as the opposition to Jesus begins early in the Gospels, so does opposition to the apostles and the Jesus movement in Acts. It makes for three phases in the story: the healing, Peter’s speech and the opposition.

But I’ll have to leave that final phase of this story to next week. There is more than enough to meditate upon with the first two elements of the healing itself and then the speech.

Firstly, then, the healing. Right from the start, this is a story about what discipleship means. Compare it with Luke’s first volume, his Gospel. There, Jesus’ first converts (his disciples in 5:1-11) are followed by – guess what? Jesus healing a lame man (5:17-26). For Peter and John to heal a lame man here ‘in the name of Jesus’ is a sign they are walking in his footsteps. Right from the start, this is a story, then, that points to Jesus, as indeed Peter will tell the crowd (verse 12). It’s one of those stories that remind us of that important theme: nothing we do as Christians is about drawing attention to us, it’s about pointing to Jesus. Someone once said to preachers, “You can’t make yourself out to be a great preacher and tell people how wonderful Jesus is in the same breath.” That’s true for us all, whatever our gift is. Let’s call attention to Jesus through what we do.

And what does Jesus do here through Peter and John? This is not just a miracle of healing, and if it were only that this story might be daunting or discouraging to those of us who have not seen healing. There is something Jesus does in this miracle that we can all do, whether we have a healing ministry or not. This is a miracle of inclusion.

How? The man was lame. Lameness excluded you from Temple worship under Old Testament Law. It made you ritually unclean. Healing him meant he could take his full place with the People of God at worship. While we’re not sure exactly which gate is meant by the ‘gate called Beautiful’, what is clear is that now he doesn’t need to be carried just to the gate each day. Now he can go inside the gate.

Is this not what the Gospel does? God’s grace is the miracle of inclusion. To those who believe they are unworthy, Jesus says, “Come.” To those who feel that what they have done excludes them, Jesus says, “I will make it possible for you to come inside. Here is strength for you. Here is forgiveness. Here is love. Here is a fresh start.”

Here’s a video, though, about how some people feel:

All sorts of people feel they can’t ‘come to church’. It can be about lifestyle. It can be about what culture you come from. It can be to do with your generation. Only the other day I read an article about a church where someone was preaching on the need to accept all sorts of different people in the Christian family. As it was a sunny day, the Junior Church went outside for some fun and games. But as the preacher was preaching, a man got up, went outside and told the children to shut up and stop interrupting the service. I have seen comparable incidents in my own ministry. This is, in my experience, a welcoming community. However, let’s not be complacent.
A final point about the man’s lameness. Isaiah prophesied (35:6 LXX) that the lame walking would be a sign of the age to come (along with the deaf hearing, the blind seeing, the dumb speaking and so on). It’s a scripture that Charles Wesley had in mind when he wrote ‘O for a thousand tongues’ and included the verse,

Hear him, ye deaf; his praise, ye dumb
Your loosened tongues employ;
Ye blind, behold your Saviour come;
And leap, ye lame, for joy!

Biblically, then, the healing of the lame by Jesus in the Gospels and now by his followers in Acts is a sign that God’s new age has begun. Since the coming of Jesus and especially since his Resurrection we live in overlap between the old age of death and sin and the beginning of God’s new age. Healing is one sign of the new age. More widely, as the Church we are called to be the community of the new age. All that we do and share is meant to be a sign of God’s coming kingdom. We are to be the family where those who are not OK find healing grace. We are to be characterised by love that works itself out in forgiveness and justice.

Friends, this is more possible than we think. Let me introduce you to Joel. He is six years old and lives in Reigate. He became deeply affected by what he heard at church and at school about world poverty. After seeing a TEAR Fund video at church, he knew he had to do something. He took an empty Frubes box, labelled it the ‘Poor Box’ and started collecting donations. He then decided to do a sponsored run with his mum. His Dad Martin set up a donations page on Virgin Money Giving, and wrote about it on his blog. Joel aimed to raise £60. But the word spread. So far, he has raised over £5000.

Joel could easily have said, ‘Silver and gold have I none.’ The difference is, he went on to say, in his own way, ‘But what I do have I give you.’ It’s time to stop looking at what we don’t have and offering what we do have for the healing of people – and indeed for the healing of the nations.

Secondly, let’s think about Peter’s speech. I say ‘speech’, because that’s what it becomes, but it’s not initially your conventional speech. Mostly you know when you’re going to give a speech. They are scheduled, they are by arrangement. But not in this case. it’s a spontaneous reaction. Peter and John have invoked the authority of Jesus to heal the lame man, and then there is something of an accidental ambush. Word gets out, and the crowd finds the man, and yes, he has been healed.

Peter has to respond. He is in Solomon’s Colonnade, a place where Jesus himself had taught, and like his Master, this is his opportunity for some courageous teaching – again, like Jesus.

Not only that, he makes Jesus the subject of what he says. If he is relying on the Holy Spirit to give him the words to say in a crisis as Jesus promised, then it is no surprise, since the work of the Spirit is to point to Jesus, if he is the theme of what Peter says. As I said, the miracle, by being a great act of mercy and social inclusion for the man, points to Jesus. Peter makes no mistake.
And this may be an encouragement for us. When we are in the world, we can get bogged down in all sorts of minutiae in what we talk about when the topic turns to religion. But one subject will always get us a hearing. One subject will always be fascinating. That subject is Jesus. I recently read a book by a Christian called Carl Medearis. He tends to spend his time in places and with people whom you would not expect to be sympathetic to Jesus. He has spent years in the Middle East, working among Muslims. Back in his native America, he befriended the gay owner of a liberal coffee shop. But Carl, rather than going for conventional evangelistic methods that put people off, simply talks about Jesus. He gets a hearing. His book ‘Speaking of Jesus: The Art of (Not) Evangelism’ is an easy and inspiring read.

But of course to speak about Jesus to this audience has different implications from those we have. Peter is dealing with people who may have been involved in the events of only some weeks earlier. His speech is similar to the one he gives at Pentecost in that he starts with defending what has happened, and then moves onto the offensive. There is more than irony here that people who longed for the fulfilment of Israel’s hopes are faced with the One in whom God would indeed fulfil their aspirations, but they conspired to have him killed. Peter has to go from showing how God has vindicated Jesus and how Jesus is behind the wonderful miracle they have witnessed to confronting his hearers with their guilt, and calling them to repentance as the only way to the blessings of God they so greatly desire. And of course, that criticism will soon lead to conflict.

What about us? When our Christian lives lead to the need for an explanation – and if they don’t, then why not – what happens when we speak of Jesus? As I said a moment ago, there is something deeply attractive about Jesus, even in a society where the church is either boring, irrelevant or negative. But also, to talk about Jesus, his Cross and Resurrection will be such that people will need to make a response. As Peter says, once Jesus is in the frame God no longer overlooks ignorance, and that means people need to make a decision about him. That can go strongly one way or the other. It may be the kind of welcome because people find Jesus attractive, or it can be the kind of hostility that is seen in different ways – from the outright violent persecution that Christian suffer in some lands to the more subtle attempts to keep faith out of the public square that sometimes happen in the West.
So, for example, the question of facing people with the claims of Jesus has been n the national news in Canada recently. A nineteen-year-old Christian student called William Swinimer wore a t-shirt to school with the slogan ‘Life is wasted without Jesus’. Some students complained they found it offensive. The vice-principal asked him not to wear it. He refused on principle, and thus began a series of suspensions which led to five days at home. Eventually the school relented, but not before Swinimer had been told he could support his religion provided he did not offend others, and the vice-principal accused him of ‘hate talk’.

Now you can listen to that as an older and potentially wiser Christian and wonder whether this young man was naïve, but just as Peter was courageous so William Swinimer was willing to risk not graduating, rather like a promising British student risking missing A-Levels and hence university.

In conclusion, you might think then that blessing others in the world in the name of Jesus is a risky business. There is no dodging that fact: it is. But what is the alternative? If we don’t, then think of the many people who won’t be blessed. And let us think of our own faith, wasting like an unused muscle.

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Joel Versus Poverty

I have told a story on here somewhere before about making a visit to a school with our children, where we witnessed a display in the entrance hall about a link the local community had with a Ugandan village. The local people there relied on growing and selling chillis to eke out a meagre existence. Our kids were 7 and 5 at the time, and we had to explain huge issues, because they couldn’t initially believe that people lived in such desperate straits in our world.

Later, when we got home, Mark (then 5) announced at the dinner table: “I’ve changed my mind about what I’m going to do when I grow up. I’m not going to become an author, I’m going to save Africa.”

Trying not to show considerable surprise, nor wishing to pour cold water on his noble ambition, and secretly pleased, we asked him how he proposed to do this.

“I’m going to open supermarkets all over Africa where people can buy the food they need to live.”

“But where are they going to get the money to buy the food? The people you want to help don’t have much money.”

“That’s easy,” he replied – as only a child could. “I’ll open money shops as well.”

Mark retains his passion for Africa. He still doesn’t spend much of his pocket money or other gifts he receives.
Why am I retelling this story? Because another young boy in a Christian household is doing the same. Read Joel Vs Poverty. The difference is, Joel is getting into fundraising for TEAR Fund as a result. Not only has he written ‘Poor Box’ on an old cardboard Frubes container, he has decided to do a sponsored run on 23rd June. He has a page on Virgin Money Giving where you can donate to the cause.

There is a hashtag on Twitter to help you follow what’s happening, and it’s #TeamJoel. However, the important thing is not only to do clever social media things, but to use them in the service of giving and of changing our world.

Introducing Development Issues To Children

My six-year-old son Mark has an ambition in life. At one stage, he wanted to be a famous author. At other times, he has quite fancied being a professional footballer, helping Tottenham Hotspur thrash Arsenal.

But his abiding ambition is even more noble. He wants ‘to save Africa’. In his simple analysis, he wants to open supermarkets across Africa, so that people can buy enough food to live. When faced with the question, “Where will they get the money?” he has a simple reply: “I’ll build money shops as well.”

Sorted. Now take over 10 and 11 Downing Street, Mark. You can do it.

I thought I’d encourage his thinking about world issues. You can’t start them too young when they already care about the poor, can you? So Mark and I set about this afternoon going around the websites of various Christian relief and development agencies, in search of suitable resources to stimulate his interest.

We gathered only slightly more than zilch.

World Vision, nothing. Christian Aid, zero. Methodist Relief and Development Fund, nada. Compassion, you can sponsor a child but I couldn’t find anything for children who are interested in their projects. Nil points.

Only TEAR Fund had anything, and it wasn’t much. It took some devious searching to find a page of ‘children’s resources’, and it hadn’t been updated since 23rd June. All of these organisations had plenty for teenagers. Apparently, you only care when you get into the church youth group.

So come on, Christian relief and development charities, where is your material to inspire primary age children? Mark and Rebekah’s school supports a charity working in Uganda, Chilli Children. Is it that you have resources but they are buried under centuries of rubble on your sites? Or don’t you think six-year-olds know that Jesus cares about the poor?

Maybe someone reading this can point me to what I’ve missed, because  Mark and I would dearly like to find some good Christian educational material for primary-age children. It must be there, but where is it?

Help!

UPDATE: following a conversation on Facebook, I have now been made aware that the Methodist Relief and Development Fund (possibly the smallest of the agencies I mentioned, except for Chilli Children) has a sister site, World AIMS.  I found this site earlier, but was put off by the specific reference to Methodist schools (many of which are fee-paying). However, if you click on ‘Resources’, you can find various items of educational material, classified according to Key Stage. (For non-Brits reading this, the Key Stages are used in the British education system, and roughly correspond as follows: KS1 is ages 5 to 7; KS2, ages 7 to 11; KS3, ages 11 to 14; KS4, ages 14 to 16.) It could be easier to find, and the name of the website put me off the scent.

Violence And Football

So, England were deservedly thrashed by Germany in the World Cup today. If I have any hope as an England fan, it’s that this humbling will wake up a sport drenched in greed, with players who earn five times in a week what I earn in a year and who still lust for further dosh with Hello magazine spreads, and start coming back to some healthier values. I’m not optimistic, though. Not while the Premier League has its stranglehold on the ‘national game’.

But there is another dark side. The English propensity to football hooliganism is infamous. Though far less evident than it used to be, the real issue seems not its near-eradication at the top level, but that it has moved to other arenas. There is still football-related violence in this country, but much of it now happens away from the stadia. Last week, I had an email from TEAR Fund which included this sobering statistic:

on England match days during the last world cup violence in the home went up by 25% in British homes, it is utterly unacceptable and totally preventable.

How sick is that? And tonight, after England’s defeat, the violence has come near to us on our estate here. Only yesterday, some lay leaders at the local parish church said they had already sustained £3000 of damage to the premises after earlier England games in the tournament, and they were talking of mounting a guard near the building after today’s match.

I don’t yet know whether anything has happened there this evening, but for approximately two hours from 7 pm, we have been serenaded by hovering police helicopters. Checking friends’ status updates on Facebook, we discover that a number of incidents have occurred. There has been a glassing at a local branch of Tesco (I’m not sure which one). Trouble also broke out at a pub we know that shows football on large screens inside while children play outside on a bouncy castle. And there has been an incident with baseball bats and a gun at the pub-restaurant on our quiet, middle class estate. That establishment is right opposite our children’s school. People are staying inside their houses, with windows closed on the hottest day of the year so far.

I cannot prove that any of these incidents are football-related, but the timing is suspicious, especially for an area that is largely unfamiliar with this kind of trouble. Of one thing I am sure, though: our society that trundles along without God should not be so complacent. It reminds me of two powerful quotes from Eunice Attwood’s wonderful Vice-Presidential address to the Methodist Conference yesterday. Firstly, speaking of when she began to get involved with Healing On The Streets:

One of the Big Issue sellers who I know well, called me over and with a very serious look on his face said, ‘At last you’re here, we need you Christians here, Eunice. Why doesn’t the church come here every day? It’s no good staying in your lovely buildings’.

Secondly, in talking about her work with Street Pastors:

When John Wesley came to Newcastle in 1742 he spoke these now famous words, ‘I was surprised so much drunkenness, cursing and swearing even from the mouths of little children) do I never remember to have seen and heard before in so small a compass of time. Surely this place is ripe for him who came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.’

I didn’t get out on the streets tonight. Was I wrong? I don’t know. With police cars, a riot van, paramedics and other supporting people, part of me says I shouldn’t have meddled. But I didn’t know about those details until the helicopters started to disappear, and it’s surprising how alluring putting the rubbish out, emptying the dishwasher and making the children’s sandwiches become. But whether I succeeded or failed as a Christian tonight, Debbie and I shall have a rôle as representatives of the Prince of Peace tomorrow morning at the school gate, when we discover whether and how much people have been troubled by today’s goings on.

Richard Bauckham

The other day I discovered that my research supervisor of twenty years ago, Richard Bauckham, now has his own website. (No blog, alas!) When I studied under him he was already a respected and renowned scholar, not least for his commentary on Jude and 2 Peter, and his work interpreting Jürgen Moltmann. It was the latter interest, and his work as a theologian rather than a biblical scholar, that made me want to have him as my supervisor. I was relating the doctrines of ecclesiology and eschatology, and Moltmann’s book ‘The Church in the Power of the Spirit‘ was probably the most important text at the time for me, along with Howard Snyder‘s less technical volumes.

Richard went on to become much more well known, not least in the last four years for his book ‘Jesus and the Eyewitnesses‘, which claims to turn many long-prized assumptions of New Testament scholarship methodology on their heads. But what was it like to have him supervise all those years ago?

The simple answer is that it was a wonderful privilege. Richard doesn’t merely have ‘a brain the size of the planet’, he has a humility and gentleness about him. I recall once turning in some work that really wasn’t up to snuff, but the way he let me know that was so gracious that I didn’t go away crushed but felt I had a way forward.

He is also a man whose faith and scholarship are deeply entwined. One consequence of being registered as a Manchester University student then was that you were entitled to attend any lectures you liked outside your own studies. I chose to audit two of Richard’s undergraduate courses. One was on Christology, the other on the Holy Spirit and Eschatology. I used to come away from those lectures knowing I had been both academically stimulated and spiritually fed.

The nature of his supervision and his faith came together in the way he drew together four of his research students, all of us ‘mature students’. We met every couple of weeks to discuss Moltmann’s then latest book, ‘The Way of Jesus Christ‘. Not only did we have an hour of lively conversation, we then went for lunch together in a university refectory. Over lunch and coffee we often discussed important matters of faith. It was there that I first discovered his passionate commitment to green issues as intrinsic to Christian faith. Richard is an evangelical, and while such a commitment is much more common today thanks to organisations like TEAR Fund and A Rocha, it wasn’t then. I knew he was clear about the Bible’s political dimensions – I had read his book ‘The Bible in Politics‘ – but this was a new departure. One of that research group was Celia Deane-Drummond, a former botanist working on her second PhD, studying Moltmann’s ‘God in Creation‘. Celia is now a leading lecturer and writer in the field.

So if you haven’t discovered Richard’s work yet, why not start? Try his website. There are essays, lectures, sermons and poems to read. Then why not treat yourself to one of his books?

Sermon For Sunday Week: In Christ Alone My Hope Is Found

Tomorrow (Saturday) I begin a week’s leave to spend half term with Debbie and the children. I have just finished writing my sermon for Sunday week, when I return to duty. Here it is.

Revelation 21:1-8

All around me I find people struggling for hope. For some, it is the economic uncertainties of the recession. Will they have a job? Can they pay their mortgage? For others, it is the onset of serious or potentially terminal illness. I think of two families I know where a child has cancer. Or people wonder what legacy we are leaving to our children and grandchildren from the environmental devastation our greed has caused.

And of course, I find it in the church. I think of one church facing an imminent decision about possible closure, and another where the signs are not promising for ten years’ time.

I’ve come to the conclusion that our problem is that we conceive of hope wrongly. This is all hope based on circumstances, or on what people do. It’s an uncertain hope: “I hope that such-and-such will happen.” Such-and-such may or may not happen.

Christian hope is different. Let me introduce it this way. A couple of weeks ago, Debbie and I went to a concert by the worship leader and hymn writer Stuart Townend. We sang his hymn ‘In Christ Alone’, and it’s easy to slip past the profundity of that first line: ‘In Christ alone my hope is found.’ The Christian hope is in God. Our hope is in God in Christ.

So to our passage from Revelation. We’re familiar with it at funerals, where its words bring comfort, and that’s good. But there is so much more it can offer us. Why? Well, if you want a bunch of people who needed Christ-shaped hope, the first readers of Revelation would be good candidates. Facing persecution in the AD 90s under the Roman emperor Domitian, they saw loved ones arrested, tortured and killed. Our troubles look small fry in comparison. The vivid pictures that John gave them form a Christ-shaped hope. I believe we need a Christ-shaped hope to fit a Christ-shaped hole in our lives. Come with me as we explore this. Let it strengthen us for whatever we are facing.

Firstly, there is hope for creation. Whenever we go on holiday, an important item on my check list for packing is books. This year, I packed three but only got through one. Last year, I took a couple and only managed one. You’d have thought I’d have learned my lesson this year, wouldn’t you? But you’ll perhaps remember I never want to be caught short of reading material!

And the book I read on holiday last year was one that has helped a lot of people rethink their understanding of Christian hope. It is called ‘Surprised By Hope’ and was written by Tom Wright, the Bishop of Durham. One of the most important slogans in the book is this: ‘Heaven is not the end of the world.’

Got that? Heaven is not the end of the world. We frequently speak about the Christian hope after death as being the hope of going to heaven to be with the Lord. That is true as far as it goes. But the Bible talks about so much more. The biblical story doesn’t end with heaven: it ends here with ‘a new heaven and a new earth’. In some way that Revelation doesn’t explain, heaven and earth will be renewed. 2 Peter speaks about the destruction of the earth, but again followed by a new earth where righteousness will reign.

Our hope is not to be disembodied spirits floating somewhere in space, it is physical. God is interested in the physical and the material. He made it and he will redeem it. Just as God will not simply leave the dead in Christ in heaven but will raise them to life with new bodies, as he did with his Son, so he will also bring in a new creation.

What does that mean for us? It gives us hope for creation. Since God cares about his physical creation, so do we. Christians should be at the forefront of concern for the environment. We shouldn’t be like some Christians who say that the human race was put in charge of the earth and we can do whatever we like with it. That’s wrong. It’s God’s world, and we look after it as his stewards. One day he will renew it.

Debbie and I are no experts on green issues, but we see it as our duty to encourage Rebekah and Mark in a responsible attitude to the creation – not in a negative, hectoring way, but by filling them with a sense of wonder. Every now and again, we visit a country park near Basildon and Pitsea called the Wat Tyler Country Park. There are plenty of the usual attractions for children there, but there is one place we always visit when we go there. The RSPB has a place there, and we take the children to that so they may gain more of a sense of wonder about wildlife. It does help that Rebekah fancies herself as a young Doctor Doolittle anyway, but Mark enjoys the activities, too – I recall him coming out once, very proud of the wormery he had made!

As adults, we know this is serious stuff. You may well be aware of the forthcoming Copenhagen Climate Summit. At the time I prepared this sermon, European Union leaders were in deadlock about how to take further steps in reducing climate damage. So I’ve done my little bit of lobbying. Various organisations make it easy to do this, especially if you are online. I use something called Superbadger from TEAR Fund on Facebook. Recently, I have sent a couple of emails to Gordon Brown, asking him to continue his efforts in this area. So have thousands of others.

But let’s remember, this is about hope. The fact that God will replace the current heavens and earth with a new one means that whether we succeed or fail in our efforts, the purposes of God will not be thwarted. We put ourselves in harmony with his purposes when we care for creation. Done with the right spirit, creation care is for Christians an act of worship, and a sign of God’s hope.

Secondly, there is hope for humanity. The holy city, the new (there’s that word again) Jerusalem, comes down out of heaven, like a bride adorned for her husband (verse 2). Mention of the bride makes me think about the Church, the Bride of Christ, rather than a literal city. This speaks of the redeemed community.

The hope for humanity is a simple one: God dwelling in the midst of the redeemed community, for the voice from the throne says,

‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them …’ (verse 3)

You may think me odd, but this puts me in mind of Magnus Magnusson on old editions of Mastermind. This is one of those “I’ve started, so I’ll finish” moments. Why? Let me render part of verse 3 more literally: ‘See, the tabernacle of God is among mortals. He will tabernacle with them …’

Perhaps you remember the tabernacle, the ‘portable sign of God’s presence’ in the Old Testament. Holding that in your mind, go back with me to John chapter 1, where we read of Jesus, ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among them’ – or, more literally, ‘The Word became flesh and tabernacled among them.’

So here in Revelation 21, God’s purposes in John 1 are fulfilled. What God started in Jesus, he will finish. The mission of Jesus will be fulfilled. God will dwell with ‘his peoples’ – and note it’s ‘peoples’ not ‘people’. The Bride of Christ will be composed from every tribe, tongue and nation under heaven, a vision that must be anathema to Nick Griffin and the British National Party. How distorted is their attempted takeover of Christian language. In Christ, people are reconciled to God and to one another. It’s a sign of hope for a divided and troubled world. Be clear about one thing: the extinction of the Church is not on God’s agenda. Rather, it has a vivid, glorious, multi-coloured future in God’s new creation.

What is our part in this now? If God’s mission to dwell in the midst of reconciled peoples was expressed in Christ dwelling in the midst of the human race, then we are called to something similar. For Jesus said, ‘As the Father sent me, so I send you’. Therefore, just as Jesus dwelt in the midst of those he came to reconcile to the Father and each other, so must we. No religious ghettos. No spiritual escapism, where we run inside our castle, pull up the drawbridge and be relieved that we can worship without the distractions of the world. No more the increasingly futile approaches to mission that wait for ‘them’ to come and meet ‘us’ in our comfort zone. Instead, as the Father sent Jesus, so he sends us. Our sharing in God’s hope for humanity means we choose not to engross ourselves in church-filled lives but live out God’s love in the midst of the world, where we are needed. For now, I’ll limit myself to these words from Henri Nouwen:

More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them. It is a privilege to have the time to practice this simple ministry of presence. Still, it is not as simple as it seems. My own desire to be useful, to do something significant, or to be part of some impressive project is so strong that soon my time is taken up by meetings, conferences, study groups, and workshops that prevent me from walking the streets. It is difficult not to have plans, not to organize people around an urgent cause, and not to feel that you are working directly for social progress. But I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn’t be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own, and to let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them, but truly love them.

Thirdly and finally, our passage has hope for the individual. I want to consider those famous words from verse 4 that make this reading so apposite at a funeral:

‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’

To those who first read Revelation or had it read to them, these words had immense impact. Remember ,they were facing hideous persecution. Tears, death, mourning, crying and pain frequently soundtracked their lives. How they longed for it to pass. How they, the suffering ones, longed for justice – which is surely why Revelation takes delight in the downfall of the wicked.

So this constitutes the good news of God’s hope for individuals. Whatever we struggle with in this life will be abolished in the new creation. Be it sickness or injustice, its days are numbered. One day, God will call time on all that corrupts the beauty of his creation and will restore all things. Indeed, this is so important that when the voice from the throne says in verse 5, ‘See, I am making all things new’, this is at most only the third or fourth time God himself is reported as speaking directly in Revelation[1]. Not only that, God has given an advance sign of his promise to do all this in the Resurrection of Jesus. The Resurrection constituted amongst other things – the healing and transformation of a body traumatised to the point of death, and God’s vindication of his Son in the face of those who condemned and executed him. The Resurrection is healing and justice. We look forward to both of those in full measure when God’s new creation comes. The Resurrection guarantees our hope in God’s healing and justice.

But meanwhile – what do we do? Shall we lie down and allow pain and wickedness to walk all over us and others? By no means! We pray for healing, we campaign for the oppressed and we accompany the suffering – for that is what we must do if, like Jesus, we are to dwell in the midst of the world, with all its pain. Sometimes, we shall see victories and rejoice. At other times, it will seem like evil has won the day. But when it does, with Christian hope we can laugh at the darkness, for whatever battles it wins, God’s hope means the war is lost. Whatever discouragements we have, our certain hope in God means we need never completely lose heart. We have a vision of hope to fortify us, and the Resurrection to guarantee it.

In conclusion, let me take you back to that Stuart Townend concert I mentioned near the beginning. He introduced another of his famous hymns, his version of the Twenty-Third Psalm, ‘The Lord’s My Shepherd’. He talked about how loved that psalm is by millions, both inside and outside the Church for its sense of comfort.

However, he said we needed to do something with that comfort, and that was why he wrote the chorus with its words,

And I will trust in You alone.
And I will trust in You alone,
For Your endless mercy follows me,
Your goodness will lead me home.

If we are comforted, then we need to trust, he said. And I think it’s the same with the Christian hope, which we find ‘In Christ alone’. We may be encouraged by the prospect of God’s hope for creation with its new heaven and new earth. We may find succour in the hope for humanity found in the God who dwells in the midst of peoples reconciled to him and to one another. We may be comforted by the thought that one day, sickness and injustice will finally be completely conquered when all – like Christ – are raised from the dead.

But we need to trust. And that means action. Action in creation that is consistent with God’s purposes of renewal. Action in the church, as we dwell in the midst of the world to offer reconciliation in Christ. And action for the sick and oppressed, as we anticipate the fulfilment of their hope in Christ.

Let us be strengthened in God’s hope. And let that hope propel us to trusting action.


[1] Robert H Mounce, The Book of Revelation, p373.

Sermon: Exercising Faith

Mark 5:21-43

Nineteen seventy: a terrible year for music. It was the year that songs by football teams took off. Not only did Chelsea FC inflict ‘Blue is the colour’ on the nation when they reached the FA Cup Final, the England team heading to Mexico to defend the World Cup assaulted our ears with ‘Back home’. Does anyone else have painful memories of those songs? (Not that as a Spurs fan I can be too superior, given the Chas and Dave songs my team put out in later years!)

Back home: Jesus is back home in this reading. He has come back from the eastern side of Lake Galilee, where people compromised Jewish faith with other influences. He’s on home territory. The fanboys are out – on this side of the lake he’s surrounded by a crowd, rather than suffering people asking him to leave as soon as possible, as happened when he cast the demons from the Gerasene demoniac into a herd of very non-Jewish pigs. Maybe you could say he is in a more pastoral than missional context here. (Although you’ll often be surprised how missionary you need to be in pastoral situations!)

Back home, people are in need and in desperation are showing the depth of their faith in Jesus. Both the woman with the issue of blood and Jairus, facing the death of his daughter, display extraordinary faith. I’d like us to explore these well-known stories with the goal of increasing our own faith in Christ, too.

Touch
On Thursday morning, we were walking the children into the school playground when Mark ran to follow Rebekah. However, he tripped up over Debbie’s foot and gashed both knees. He ended up in Injuries before he was in his classroom that morning. Although he had a plaster on for a few hours, we’ve tried as much as possible to let the air get to the wound, even though it has wept and left marks on bed blankets.

Rebekah has had her usual big-sister-cum-little-mummy concerns for her younger brother. However, we have had to tell her not to touch Mark’s knees! It’s just the latest example among many where as parents we’ve had to issue the ‘Don’t touch’ command. You can, I’m sure, think of many examples where you have had to say ‘Don’t touch’ to a child, because you are concerned about hygiene. They don’t understand about invisible germs, and you scream ‘Don’t touch’ in order to prevent the risk of infection.

Jewish faith had a strong ‘Don’t touch’ component to it, too. There were certain objects – or people with certain conditions – that you didn’t touch, for fear of spiritual infection as much as anything else. In our story, both the woman with the bleeding and the dying twelve-year-old girl fell into this category. The woman’s blood made her ritually unclean. Anyone touching her would also be unclean. The same was true of a dead body – and remember that by the time Jesus arrives at Jairus’ house, the girl is dead. Neither should be touched. Not unless you wanted to be isolated for a period of days before having a check-up with the priest.

And what does Jesus do? He welcomes the touch of the bleeding woman, and he touches the hand of the dead girl. Jesus disregards any thought that he would become ritually contaminated, because he knows that through the touch, God has healed the woman and he will heal the girl. Jesus sees the power of God to heal as greater than any contaminating power. To Jesus, God’s power and love are not equal opposites to sin and darkness: they are greater. The ‘Don’t touch’ rules put both the woman and the girl outside the orbit of help and healing: Jesus, by embracing the need for touch, brings them within that orbit and they are made whole again.

This is good news! If there is something we feel unclean about, Jesus wants to touch it with healing. If it is something that ostracises us, or we think will ostracise us if others know about it, again Jesus wants to heal it with his touch. Perhaps there is a secret we harbour, one that we don’t feel we even dare share with friends at church, because we think it will lead to us being cut off socially from others or spiritually from God.

Obviously I have a privileged position as a minister, but it never ceases to amaze me just how many such secrets exist in congregations. Well, Jesus says, be ashamed no longer. Fear not. In his presence the risk of contamination is zero. Come to him, even if you tremble like the woman with the haemorrhage, because his touch will heal you. No longer need you struggle with shame or rejection. In the grace of God, wholeness is yours. Fear no more: Jesus’ only desire for you is healing.

This good news also creates a challenge for the church. If Jesus wants to touch untouchables with his love and healing, then we are called to be a community that accepts people. We truly need to be a safe space for folk. It might involve people who don’t know the usual social graces, or those whose background is unacceptable. It might be their appearance or some other socially unacceptable feature or condition.

By way of just one example, I read these words last Saturday in the TEAR Fund prayer diary:

Similar to many countries around the world, stigma is one of the biggest challenges for people living with HIV in Ireland. Pray for Tearfund partner ACET Ireland, who provide practical and emotional care for individuals affected by drugs. Pray that Christians in Ireland will demonstrate the unconditional love of Christ to all those affected and that local churches will become the safest places for people living with HIV.

Wow. What a challenge: ‘that local churches will become the safest places for people living with HIV’. But if our faith is in the healing touch of Jesus to restore those whose conditions have severed their social and spiritual links, then this is just the sort of aspiration a community centred on faith in Jesus will have.

Tension
I don’t know whether you’ve ever engaged in a practice such as Ignatian Bible Study, where you are invited to imagine yourself as one of the characters in a biblical story. Whether you’ve done that or not, perhaps you recognise that in certain stories you instinctively identify with one person.

In this story, I identify with Jairus. It’s not his position of influence and authority: it’s the fact that he is the father of a little girl. Ever since I became a parent, stories like this one tug at my heart strings much more than they used to. I can’t read about Jairus without thinking, what if it were my Rebekah? It gets me every time.

And I think that if I were Jairus, I’d be emotionally all over the shop when Jesus stopped to identify the woman who had touched him. Jesus, that’s nice but there’s no time to waste, I’d say. Every second counts if you’re to heal my daughter! Can’t you come back later and speak to this lady? Frankly, my desperation would reach warp speed.

But when the bearers of bad news come with the news that the little girl has passed away, Jesus says to Jairus, ‘Do not fear, only believe’ (verse 36). He’s got to be kidding, hasn’t he?

Except Jesus views the girl’s death in the light of what he is going to do (which is why he says she is only sleeping and why he later dismisses the mourners). And he takes Jairus on an extraordinary journey of faith. It’s one where Jairus holds together two things in tension: one is trust in Jesus, the other is that he unflinchingly stares at the darkness. His faith doesn’t lead him to ignore the darkness or pretend it isn’t there. And the darkness doesn’t extinguish his faith.

The other day, I read a piece by Michael Hyatt, the Chief Executive Officer of the American publishers Thomas Nelson. He was reflecting on the euphoria in many quarters when Barack Obama won the Presidential election last November, contrasted with the perilous economic situation the new President would inherit, typified by his election being followed by the biggest post-election decline in the American stock market. He said that the glass was both half empty and half full, and went on to say this:

In times like these, leaders must do two things simultaneously:

  1. Confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they may be.
  2. Retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties.

You see it again, just like Jairus: prevailing faith and an embrace of the darkness.

Hyatt went on to recount a story that the business guru Jim Collins tells in his famous book ‘Good To Great’. Collins refers to ‘The Stockdale Paradox’, and tells about a man called Admiral James Stockdale, who was a prisoner of war for eight years during the Vietnam War.

After his release, a reporter asked Admiral Stockdale, “How in the world did you survive eight years in a prisoner of war camp?”

He replied,

“I never lost faith in the end of the story. I never doubted not only that we would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event in my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”

The reporter then asked, “Who didn’t make it out?” Admiral Stockdale replied,

“Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. They were the ones who said, “We’re going to be out by Christmas.” And Christmas would come and go. Then they’d say, “We’re going to be out by Easter.” And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

Collins then goes onto state that an attribute of truly great companies and great leaders is that they are able to embrace simultaneously these twin truths of their current reality and their ultimate triumph.

Jairus had that kind of faith in the best form: a Christ-centred form. Jairus had a desperate plight and a deep faith. Neither escapism nor despair.

Is that what we need? Often I think it is. Perhaps it is a circumstance in our own lives – our health, or troubles facing a family member. Jesus calls us both to look into the abyss and also trust him for ultimate victory.

Perhaps it is about the state of the church. Numbers keep going down. We find it harder to cover every essential task in church life. Jesus calls us to admit honestly the difficulties we are in, and at the same time to trust him that we know the final outcome, which is not the obliteration of God’s people but the final victory of Christ. It may be getting darker, but we are heading towards the dawn.

It was the same for Jesus himself. On the one hand he embraced the darkness. The Gospels tell us he set his face resolutely towards Jerusalem. He warned his friends he faced betrayal, rejection, suffering and a cruel death. But he did so, knowing by faith in his Father he would prevail in the conquest of death, leaving behind an empty tomb.

Conclusion
Friends, we are the community of faith – faith in our crucified and risen Lord. Let us embrace that faith to receive the touch of Jesus that heals our woundedness and shame, and let us offer that touch to society’s rejects as we make church a safe space for the hurting.

And in crying out for that touch, we acknowledge we shall travel on a journey filled with tension. We shall hold in tension both the darkness and the deepest faith. It is the way Jesus himself walked. Let us have the courage to walk that way, too, knowing it is the road to his triumph.

Worshipping At Home

As I said yesterday, I determined that since I would be housebound today I would find other resources for worship. I’ve never been happy with Songs Of Praise because a series of hymns does not of themselves make an act of worship. Likewise, the Sunday service on Radio 4 has never connected much with me. It always contained more elements of worship, but has always felt liked a précis to me.

I thought this would be a good discipline for myself to find some worship. I also thought it would be good, given the number of elderly church members who end up being temporarily or permanently housebound and reliant on whatever the airwaves bring.

Having said that, given that I was eschewing Songs Of Praise and the Sunday Service, I was looking at other delivery methods: digital TV and Internet streaming. 

This morning, I opted for TV, knowing that most of the streamed Internet sources I’d found were from North America, and time zones meant they woulnd’t be viewable until tea-time. So, going through the ‘religion’ section on the Sky TV electronic programme guide, I avoided the obvious prosperity filth from Kenneth Copeland. Likewise, I steered clear of glossy Hillsong pep talks from Brian and Bobbie Houston, and I didn’t go near Ed Young, the man who infamously put out a video complaining about sheep-stealing pastors when he sets up new churches in an area without checking with the existing ministers.

But there was something British on UCB TV, and I opted for that. AT 10 am they were showing ‘Days Of Wonder’ from New Life Church, Hull, with Jarrod Cooper. Cooper wrote the popular worship song ‘King of kings, majesty‘, which I have found a helpful, humble and orthodox piece for services.

The opening credits showed Cooper walking (around Hull?), whilst linking the programme to the church, giving a subliminal hint that New Life Church equals Jarrod Cooper. He is the senior pastor, but I’d hope he wouldn’t want to give out a message like that. There may have been an intention to communicate something else, but I have to say that is a ‘viewer response’ reading.

Then Cooper introduced the show briefly, and I thought he said we were then going over live to worship at the church. However, that clearly wasn’t the case. We went straight into his message, which was video edited for the length of the programme.

The skeleton of his talk was fine and worthy, but I was concerned by some applications. It was a sermon about the supremacy of Christ, and although he referred to biblical passages as he went along, I didn’t hear an opening passage he was expounding. Colossians 1 would have fitted nicely. He preached about the supremacy of Christ in four areas: over the church, over creation, over wisdom, and I’m afraid I’ve forgotten the fourth point.

In supremacy over the church, he was uncontroversial but what he said needs hearing. Christ is head of the church, not the Pope, not the pastor and not the trustees.

As to supremacy over creation, this is where it all started going hyper-charismatic. He only – as I recall – illustrated this from the miraculous: the feeding of the five thousand, the translation of Philip in Acts 8 etc. He spoke of a five hour car journey taking two hours. Now I don’t have any theological problem with the miraculous, but I have a pastoral concern here about balance. I am all for expanding people’s faith – often the problem I encounter in myself and others is an insufficient level of expectation about what God can do. However, if you only accent the miraculous in talking about the supremacy of Christ over creation, you are setting up other believers for a fall, when not everything works out in the Christian paperback blockbuster way they’d hoped. Furthermore, Christ’s supremacy over creation is about ongoing issues like the upholding ogf the universe by the word of his power. I have to admit, something could have been edited out, but I was left with this concern about balance from what was shown.

When he got onto the supremacy of Christ over wisdom, I got more than concerned. Don’t misunderstand me: the basic point is both sound and important. As someone who enjoys the intellectual side of faith (but sees that as an opportunity for worship), I wholeheartedly agree that all our thinking must be submitted to Christ. Yet what we got in this section of the sermon was just some bashing of left wing stereotypes. “The feminists [they're all the same, aren't they?] have a problem with Ephesians,” he announced. Onto the usual stuff about headship and submission and that the male/Christ headship is based on sacrificial love. Well, yes, but what is headship? Didn’t Paul say that the great mystery he was speaking about here was about Christ and the Church, in which case he’s using an illustration from the marriage patterns of his day rather than making male headship normative? Has Cooper ever read any egalitarians? Yet he sees fit to bash them.

A little while later, he announced that “Global warming is the latest religion of the Left”. Well, apart from the sloppy language – the point is, nobody adores global warming, they are devoted to reversing climate change – I thought, oh no, he sounds like the American Christians who deny the overwhelming scientific evidence. But we shouldn’t be bothered, he said, because one day God is going to roll up this planet like a blanket. If I’d had my copy of Tom Wright‘s ‘Surprised By Hope‘ to hand, I swear I would have thrown it at the TV screen. I had hoped that British evangelical-charismatics were better informed on this one, thanks to the efforts of TEAR Fund and others, but the message isn’t getting through to some of the troops.

The service ended by cutting to brief footage of prayer ministry time at the end of the service. Cooper was praying with a man who was deaf in one ear. After prayer, the man said he could hear now in that ear. I do hope and pray that is still the case. I remain convinced that it is important we ‘show ourselves to the priests’ and offer evidence to society of healings. I do believe God heals today, but we have to think about how we present those claims.

Finally, the broadcast concluded with “Buy my CD, please!” A long commercial for Cooper’s current CD. It was no different from the adverts at the end of the Brian and Bobbie Houston or Ed Young shows, it just came with an English accent, not an Australian or American one. 

What about tonight? I watched a whole Sunday service online from Saddleback in California. I was much more favourably disposed towards this, although it wasn’t without its problems. The major issue I had with it is that – like Songs Of Praise – it really didn’t contain several critical elements of worship. The order of service went as follows:

Opening worship song
Notices – these included plugs for a church classic car event and the Saddleback Comedy Connection. Huh?
Two more worship songs 
Rick Warren‘s sermon
Post-sermon prayer
Mention of where resources were available to help with follow-up to sermon
Closing song, which didn’t seem to be for congregational participation.

What’s missing? Plenty. Let’s start with prayer. No adoration – well, you could say that was included in the songs. But no confession and assurance of forgiveness – I think that’s pastorally essential. How many people are coming to worship with burdens and need that assurance? Also, no intercession, so the church didn’t function in her priestly rôle. Finally, no Bible reading before the sermon. There were plenty of individual verses in the sermon. It was a topical sermon, rather than an expository one.

The worship songs were mainstream typical ones from the likes of Tim Hughes and Joel Houston. It was a bit liked watching a truncated version of Spring Harvest big top worship. Charismatic songs without the display of charismatic gifts. 

What about the sermon? I was much more comfortable here, even if I disagreed with the occasional comment and it was too long, around seventy-plus minutes. Worshippers get a sermon outline and it was available on the website, so that helped in following what Warren had to say. He is an engaging, warm speaker with a genuine pastoral heart. The issue was less with the seventy minutes than the seven (or eight, if you count the conclusion) points he made. There was too much to take in. Yes, again you could take it away with you, but it was a lot to work on. It was the third in a series called ‘The Jesus Model’ (what kind of model, I don’t know). This one focussed on Jesus as a model for stress management, making for a timely and relevant subject. Some will talk about ‘the curse of relevance’, but I think Warren wanted the people to apply their faith to life for it to make a difference. I took some notes ready for this blog post (and for my own personal benefit, I’d like to think), and so what follows is a summary of the thoughts that struck me from the sermon.

Warren began by referring to the new film ‘Terminator Salvation‘. The synopsis says that the grown-up John Connor. in fighting the machines as part of the resistance, has a ‘purpose-driven life’ (yes, really!) and has the weight of the world on his shoulders. However, said Warren, only one person has ever truly had the weight of the entire world on his shoulders, and that was Jesus on the cross. (Brilliant illustration! If only my people knew what Terminator was!) Because of that, he above all knows how to help us with stress.

1. Identification – know who you are. If you don’t know who you are, then society will try to label you. Don’t take your identity from brand names. (Warren meets Naomi Klein?) Don’t fall into the twin traps of either copying or comparing. He could have said a little more about our identity being in Christ as beloved children, I guess, but great start. 

2. Motivation – know who you are living for. You’ll always disappoint someone. Whoever you’re dependent upon for your happiness is your god. ‘Nobody can pressure me without my permission,’ he said – not quite sure that’s right, although I can see what he’s getting at. 

3. Vocation – know your calling. He used the familiar Saddleback SHAPE analysis to emphasise that everyone has a calling to ministry of one form or another. If you don’t clarify your calling, you’ll fall victim to the tyranny of the urgent, rather than getting on with the important. 

4. Concentration – focus on what matters most. If Satan can’t make you bad, he’ll make you busy. ‘You can fill your life with good things, or you can waste your life on good things.’ ‘This one thing I do, or these forty things I dabble in?’ ‘Is what I’m doing right now fulfilling my calling?’

5. Meditation – listen to God. A quiet time, yes, but more. Warren stresed the importance of extended silence. We have to strip away to give God a chance to speak to us. He talked about meditation as being like a worrying away at a biblical text. 

6. Collaboration – join a small group.  You were never intended to handle stress by yourself. To say you don’t need a small group is either arrogance or fear. Jesus needed a small group, and he was perfect! 

7. Recreation – take time to recharge. Sabbath-keeping is in the Ten Commandments for a reason, and remember Jesus said the Sabbath was made for humans, not the other way around. When Psalm 23 says ‘He makes me lie down in green pastures’, remember that if you don’t take sabbaths, God may well make you lie down for your own good, but it mgiht take something serious like an illness to slow you down to do it. 

His conclusion was about salvation in terms of Jesus’ invitation to take hiseasy  yoke upon us and discover that his burden is light.

Sabbatical, Day 52: Clay Shirky, Chapters 4-6

A few more thoughts from Shirky today.

Chapter 4 Economically, old media filtered information, and then published. Social media does the reverse: the process is now ‘publish, then filter’. And whereas one could do small things for love and big things for money, it’s now possible to do big things for love. People are no longer passive consumers, they are symmetrical producers. 

‘Publish, then filter’ has enormous implications for our instinctive desire to want things we don’t like banned. How do we cope if things we don’t like are already out in the wild?

How might we ‘do big things for love’?

It’s easy to treat church members and others with whom we ministers come into contact as passive consumers. Some are happy to be treated that way (especially in a consumerist culture). But what about those who want to be symmetrical producers? 

Chapter 5 Wikipedia works on the ‘publish, then filter’ principle. Hence criticism of errors, but Wikipedia is a tool (wiki) plus community, and it ‘self-heals’ on this ‘publish, then filter’ basis. It is a process, not a product. There is an unequal distribution among the contributors – a ‘power law distribution’ whre a few make a lot of contributions, and most people only make one contribution. This works, because people have a non-financial motive for contributing.

Often we complain about the ‘power law distribution’ in churches, where a small group of people do most of the work. But in the world of social media, this isn’t a bad thing. Discuss!

Chapter 6 Social tools and the Internet have made it easier for protest groups to assemble and campaign. It’s not so much about the latest technology, but about using that which has become commonplace.

This should be good news for the Church. TEAR Fund deploys its SuperBadger campaigns this way, but they are centrally driven. Maybe more might rise up from the margins.

What Did The G8 Accomplish?

There is a useful summary of the ups and downs of the Gleneagles G8 summit here from TEAR Fund. Clearly the work goes on.

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