Media attention is hovering around Steve Chalke’s article (due to be published in an abridged form in the next issue of Christianity magazine) in which he declares his support for faithful, permanent, exclusive gay relationships. The ‘extended’ article is here. For reasons of pastoral care – to protect deeply vulnerable, at-risk people – Steve takes the argument beyond exegesis to hermeneutics.
I have to say that on a first reading not every part of his biblical argument convinces me. Even his dear friend Tony Campolo writes sympathetically, but still committed to a conservative position.
Why do I think it’s too much to hope for that the result of this will be a thoughtful, respectful conversation, one which is more about light than heat? Please, Christian world, prove me wrong.
UPDATE: the Christianity magazine material is now online. In addition to Steve Chalke’s piece, there is a ‘taking the temperature‘ article by editor Ruth Dickinson, and a conservative response by theologian Greg Downes: this is the extended version. There is also a brief response from Steve Clifford of the Evangelical Alliance, with the promise of a longer response later and a theological one from Steve Holmes of their Theology and Public Policy Advisory Commission.
A fortnight ago I preached on Mark 13:1-8 and said that despite certain appearances that chapter wasn’t about the Second Coming. Today, Advent Sunday, we start a new year in the Lectionary and we switch our main Gospel readings from Mark to Luke. The Luke reading set for today is the end of his equivalent chapter to Mark 13, and I would still contend that – despite appearances – it is more to do with the fall of Jerusalem to Rome than it is with the Second Coming.
Yet the Second Coming is a traditional theme for Advent Sunday. As we enter the season where we prepare to mark Jesus’ first coming, we also look forward to his appearing again – this time, in glory.
It was in remembering that emphasis for Advent Sunday that I decided instead to preach from today’s Lectionary epistle in 1 Thessalonians. There is no doubt that both of Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians have plenty of sane things to say to Christians about the return of Christ, and so I want to take verse 13 from our reading as a text this morning to explore this theme.
Let’s read it again:
And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.
Firstly, let us think about Paul’s statement that Jesus is coming. We have to get beyond some of the silliness around the doctrine of the Second Coming in order to see that actually this is a wonderful and beautiful truth. We shouldn’t be distracted by the lurid interpretations of this. We should pay no attention to those who claim to have made elaborate deductions from Scripture about the relevance of present-day events to a heavenly timetable for Christ’s return. We should ignore those who use this doctrine as a way of scaring people. And I know that last one, having been subjected as a teenager to an American film called A Thief In The Night, which basically tried to frighten young people into following Jesus. It gave the members of some youth groups who watched it nightmares for years afterwards. Its effect was more like a religious horror film than an instrument for the Gospel.
But just because the fruitcake brigade exists doesn’t mean that sane interpretations don’t also exist. To believe in Christ’s return is to have real hope for our lives and for all creation. It is like the mirror image of Christmas. For just as his incarnation was announced by angels, so here Paul envisages his return, flanked by the entire army of angels. Paul refers to ‘the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints’, where ‘saints’ is literally ‘holy ones’ and in this case that probably means angels, not Christians. Jesus is coming back to wrap up what he began. Like Magnus Magnusson or John Humphrys on Mastermind, he is saying, “I’ve started, so I’ll finish.”
To put it another way, let us remember how Jesus came, proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand, and indeed had come. The evidence was seen in the healing of the sick, the release of the demonised and the preaching of the good news to the poor.
But it didn’t all come. Evil resisted Jesus, and still does. We do not live in a society where sickness, death and injustice have been conquered. We await that day. In other words, the kingdom of God has come, but not fully. In the words of some, it is both ‘now’ and ‘not yet’. When Jesus comes again, it is, as I said, to finish what he started. It was promised in the ministry of Jesus. It was guaranteed in his resurrection.
How does this affect us now, as we continue to live in a world where we are surrounded by suffering? One answer is that it fortifies us with hope. Other people are driven to despair, but we who live in the light of the resurrection and the hope of the Second Coming know that God will one day make all things new. He will banish all tears and pain.
I am fond at this time of year of telling a story about Tony Campolo, the American preacher, social activist and sociologist. He tells of how someone asked him how come he wasn’t despondent when faced with all the pain and wickedness of the world. He replied, “I’ve got the book and I’ve taken a peek at the final page, so I know the ending: Jesus wins!”
On Advent Sunday, we are the people who believe that Jesus wins, and we, too, are strengthened with that hope as we too live for him in a world that is often otherwise grim.
Secondly, we need to think about a fitting response to the news that Jesus is coming back to complete the coming of his kingdom. How might we be in harmony with God’s kingdom, fully come? Paul certainly anticipates something like that when he talks of us being ‘blameless’ when Jesus comes again with the angels.
What would it mean to be blameless before God? Well, this too is a matter of the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet’ of God’s kingdom. There is a sense in which we are already blameless, and a way in which we are not yet blameless. What do I mean?
We are already blameless in that we are forgiven by God in Jesus Christ. Our sins are forgiven, we are proclaimed ‘not guilty’ before God and the Great Judge has ‘justified’ us – he has declared us to be ‘in the right’ before him. As the Psalmist says, ‘As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.’ Not only have we been pardoned from all our sins, the record is wiped clean. There is nothing left on our record before God. All has been dealt with at the Cross. ‘He remembers our sins no more.’ That much is our ‘already.’ This is what we already have.
But to hear the word ‘blameless’ is to feel the force of the ‘not yet’ as well. We are not yet fully blameless in the way we conduct our lives. Forgiven and justified we may be, but we do not live in perfect harmony with the will of God. Sometimes we are only too conscious of the ways in which we continue to fail God and disappoint Jesus. We have a long way to go to become blameless in our everyday lives.
Yet what would be more fitting and appropriate in the kingdom of God but to be utterly blameless? If Christ returns to make all things new, to make a new creation where not only is there no more sickness and pain, there is also no more sin and evil, then how would we fit in if we continue to be sinners? Does it not follow, then, that although God has already declared us blameless in his sight, he also wants to make us blameless in practice?
It therefore becomes our aspiration, as Paul says here, to seek greater holiness in our lives. Just because we have been forgiven we cannot sit back and say, “I’m OK, I have my ticket for heaven.” Rather, if we know we have been forgiven by such love and at such cost to Jesus, our response will surely want to be one of gratitude. What can I do to please such a Saviour? What can I do to demonstrate my thankfulness for receiving such a priceless gift? We shall never want to settle for some idea that we have already arrived in the Christian life. There is no room for complacency in the life of the disciple. Disciples are always learning, and not simply learning religious facts. Disciples are learning more how to live after the pattern of their Teacher, Jesus.
The story is told of a little girl who saw her grandma reading her Bible. “Grandma, why are you still reading the Bible at your age?” asked the girl. “Surely you’ve read it all by now. Why do you keep doing it?”
Because I’m studying for my finals,” replied grandma.
This leads us to the third and final theme this morning. How can we achieve such blamelessness? Surely it’s beyond us.
Paul knows that, and he doesn’t expect us to manage it ourselves. Remember how the verse began:
And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless … (emphasis mine)
The third theme is that God makes us ready for his kingdom.
Let me tell you a pretty open secret. You may disagree with me, but one Christmas carol I truly dislike is ‘Away in a manger.’ It’s that silly line, ‘But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes’, that always gets to me. If Jesus were fully human, he would have cried! It ranks alongside ‘How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given’ from ‘O little town of Bethlehem’ – words clearly written by someone who had never attended the birth of a child.
But how does ‘Away in a manger’ end? ‘And fit us for heaven, to live with thee there.’ Now while I would still like to finesse that line a little too, because technically in the New Testament heaven is where we go between our death and our resurrection, but after our resurrection we live in God’s new creation, but nevertheless I like the thought that God fits us for eternity. ‘And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness’ indeed.
If God strengthens us, then that usually indicates the work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the power of God. Jesus is coming again and will make all things new. We need to be ready for that, yet we are unable to be. But just as God has provided for our forgiveness, so he has also provided for our holiness. When we respond to the grace and mercy he lovingly offers us in Christ and we find redemption, he then grants us the gift of the Holy Spirit so that he can begin his work of fitting us for eternity. The power of God is available to us.
This doesn’t mean we become perfect overnight. Experience tells us that. But let us dwell on that image of being ‘fitted’ for eternity, and let that inform Paul’s teaching that God strengthens us in holiness. Think of someone who goes for a fitting for some clothes – perhaps a bride for her wedding dress. It takes a number of sessions over a period of months. A design is chosen. The bride is measured. She goes back a while later and the measurements have to be retaken, because she is making an effort to lose weight, ready for her wedding day. The dressmaker makes some adjustments, and notes what needs to be changed. And so it goes on, until the great day when the bride walks down the aisle, and stuns everyone with her beauty.
I think that what God does in strengthening us in holiness is a little like that. It is a process over a long time. It involves adjustments and changes. Eventually, one day, we – not as individuals but corporately as part of the Church, which is the Bride of Christ – will walk down the aisle for the marriage to Jesus the Bridegroom, and we shall stun people with our beauty – the beauty of holiness, as the hymn writer put it.
And let us remember also that the fact that God strengthens us in holiness does not absolve us from personal responsibility. We do not sit back and let God take the strain while we have an easy, quiet existence. Oh no. We need to co-operate with the Holy Spirit. The dressmaker would not be able to make the bride look beautiful unless that young woman co-operated with her work. We need to be open to the Holy Spirit, not closed.
This, then, describes some of the Advent hope. Jesus is coming again. He will finish what he started, by making all things new. It is only fitting that we seek holy lives in accordance with his kingdom purposes. However, we cannot do that on our own. Thankfully, God steps in with his Holy Spirit to strengthen us and fit us for eternity.
Our Advent calling, then, is to co-operate with the Spirit’s work in our lives. The same Spirit who brought Jesus into the world is available to us, so that we might live to please the One who came and who is coming.
Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. (Verses 25-27)
Here is the sermon for this coming Sunday, the second in our series from the Sermon on the Mount. Those who have read my sermons here in recent years may recognise one or two things I’ve quoted before, but they get a repeat here for a new church!
Salt and light. The salt of the earth and the light of the world. If the Sermon on the Mount is where we learn to be disciples before the watching world, as I argued in my introduction last week, then salt and light are prime examples of this. Not only do we live our faith while the world is watching – as if we were actors in a TV show being viewed by others – we live our faith with those people and towards the world. That is, when Jesus calls us the salt of the earth and the light of the world, he is telling us we live as disciples for the blessing of the world.
There you are, done. In one minute.
But I’m going to say more, because this is so important. And while we might think we affirm the importance of being salt and light, I want to say this morning that we pay lip service to it, and the way we run our churches often undermines this essential Christian task.
How am I going to do it? Firstly by thinking about salt and secondly about – you guessed it – light.
So we begin with salt.
You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. (Verse 13)
I am sure you have heard several preachers expound on why Jesus describes as salt, and what our saltiness is meant to achieve. Some will tell you that salt is a preservative, and so Christian involvement in the world is about preventing moral degradation in society. More positively, others will say that salt is for seasoning or purifying, so Christian disciples have a rôle in improving the moral and ethical life of our culture. Another positive image of salt is to see it as fertiliser, stimulating the growth of righteousness, justice and spirituality in the world. Others interpret salt as a metaphor for wisdom, and therefore Christians provide acute moral insight to help society. This might be an argument for Christian involvement in politics, even for having bishops in the House of Lords. Then there are those who point to the use of salt in Old Testament texts about sacrifice or about God’s covenant.
There’s just one problem with all these views. Jesus doesn’t ascribe to any of them.
In other words, Jesus doesn’t take his simple analogy of us as the salt of the earth and extend it into some great allegory. He just says we are the salt of the earth, full stop. We have to seek his meaning not in ancient uses of salt nor in Old Testament verses, but in what he says about the image.
And the point Jesus wants to make about being the salt of the earth is a negative one. He is concerned about his disciples not being the salt of the earth, not influencing society for good – whatever that entails:
But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. (Verse 13b)
So let’s pause and consider the problems here. I read an article on Friday by Krish Kandiah, who holds a senior position with the Evangelical Alliance. He asked, what do churches have to do in order to reach the missing young adults in their twenties and thirties? One of the problems he cited as making the church unattractive to people in that age range was the disconnect between Sunday and Monday. In your twenties and thirties, he said, you are faced with a lot of life changes. You may go through university, leave home, start a job, begin paying a mortgage, get married, have children and so on. To face such major challenges requires a lot of energy, and this shows itself in other ways. Often such people are ones who want to see the world changed for the better.
Unfortunately [says Kandiah] what 20-30s often hear in church is not encouragement to take huge steps in their faith, but to take on huge responsibilities within the church.
He quotes American pastor Tim Keller, who says that
as a pastor he was taught how to make people busy working in the churches.
What a tragedy this is! We are more concerned with filling church jobs than with encouraging people into character-building witness opportunities where they are the salt of the earth. Jesus says that salt without the saltiness, disciples who don’t influence the world for good, is
no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. (Verse 13b)
And the word translated ‘no longer good for anything’ is a word that means ‘to become or to make foolish’. Not being the salt of the earth, not making it a priority for Christians to influence the world for good, is foolishness in the eyes of Jesus. We are quick to condemn when people in politics, the media or popular arts take stances that are ignorant of Christianity or hostile to it. Yet how often is it the case that Christians have vacated these areas, seeing involvement there as inferior to church work?
Indeed, we institutionalise such an approach. Kandiah reminds me in his article of a story I have heard several times before. It was told by Mark Greene, the Executive Director of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. He speaks of a teacher who was being prayed for in church, in support of his rôle in the congregation teaching Sunday School. The man broke down in tears. Why did he only receive prayer for the one hour a week he had contact with Christian children, but no prayer at all for the forty hours a week he devoted to contact with non-church children.
Wasn’t Jesus right? Are we not fools when we give no priority to influencing the world for good as the salt of the earth?
By way of transition to talking secondly about light, let me tell you about a circuit steward from one of my previous appointments. It was always hard to get hold of him by phone or email, because he was so busy. Not only was he a circuit steward, his day job was a responsible managerial one for an international shipping company and he was also a governor at his daughter’s school. One day, I was talking with his wife about the pressures he was under.
“Yes,” she said, “we’ve had some conversations about that. He’s decided he’s going to give up his post as a school governor in order to concentrate on the more important things – like his church work.”
She was surprised when I suggested that his church work might not be the most important thing he did. Because, I argued, it meant losing another person from the front line of Christian witness in the world.
And that, positively, is Jesus’ point when he goes on to describe Christians as the light of the world:
You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. (Verses 14-16)
What we say and do is seen by the world. It is our witness, whether good or bad. But we can take this positively. We can see this as a wonderful opportunity for witness in the world. It isn’t that shining our light before others so that they see our good deeds is about us boasting or acting as if we are superior. Jesus says we can do it for a different motive: ‘that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.’ Isn’t that what we want? Don’t we want our witness to attract other people to Jesus and his Father?
So what might we do about it? Our witness is about both our words and our deeds. It isn’t that we speak about our faith and don’t match it with our actions. Nor is it that we engage in worthy deeds as a reason to avoid talking about Christ. I suggest that one thing implied here is that we so live lives of love and concern for the people in our world that it leads to questions and opportunities, so that then we can tell people the Gospel of the Saviour and Lord in whom we believe.
One of my favourite examples of this was told by the American pastor and sociologist Tony Campolo. Over the years, he has had a special concern for some of the impoverished nations in the Caribbean, such as Haïti and the Dominican Republic. He has campaigned against multinational companies that have exploited their workers in these lands, and he has taken groups of Christians from the United States on mission trips there.
In particular, he tells a story about a Christian doctor who went out to one of these nations – I think it was the Dominican Republic. That doctor set up a surgery in a poor village. By day he gave himself to providing medical care for people who otherwise would not be able to access it. By evening he would drive around the area, preaching the Gospel. People listened. With a touch of grudging admiration, a local Communist Party official said, “He has earned the right to speak.”
I believe Jesus calls us to earn the right to speak. He calls us to stop treating the church as our one-stop provider of religious services and our social life, and to get our hands dirty in the world. The moment we start treating the church as the provider of our religious services we start asking the wrong questions about whether the church is meeting our needs, and then walking out when the preaching, the music, the small groups or the children’s ministry doesn’t reach the standards we set in our minds. And when we think that our social lives should revolve around the church, we cut ourselves off from the world where we are meant to shine our light, by reflecting Christ.
No: Jesus calls us to see the church as the people of God gathering to edify one another and strengthen each other for witness in the world. We have neighbours whom we can love in the name of Christ. We have neighbourhoods, villages, towns and institutions that need the love of Christ. We are part of a world that needs to see the love of Christ demonstrated and explained.
And although some will mock, many will ‘glorify [our] Father in heaven.’ That might simply be we’ve done a good bit of PR for the faith. But it might well be part of their journey to faith in Christ themselves.
In short, cutting some ties from the institutional church and simplifying some of the ways we do church in order to release ourselves to spend more time blessing people in our communities with the love of God in word and deed is absolutely critical to our sharing in the mission of God.
Or, to put it another way, someone has put it like this. The test of a church is whether the local community would miss it if it shut.
So a good test of whether we are salt and light is whether Knaphill and the neighbouring villages would be upset if KMC closed.
What do you think?
Have you ever forgotten something you know you should have remembered and then said, “Silly me, I was having a ‘senior moment’”?
Sometimes we can laugh at ourselves when we fail to remember. But at other times, not remembering is painful. I think of Hubert, in the early stages of dementia, not always remembering that Vera is his wife. Some of you have been through experiences like that with a loved one.
And in 2 Peter 3, we hear how important remembering is for our spiritual health. We too face scoffers who mock our faith, and we too need to hear how the writer says,
I am trying to arouse your sincere intention by reminding you that you should remember the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets, and the commandment of the Lord and Saviour spoken through your apostles (verses 1b-2).
The early Christians faced scoffers, and we do, too. In our day, it ranges from friends and acquaintances who think we can’t possibly be serious about believing what we believe to sophisticated and organised atheist scoffers. Only in the last week the National Secular Society, an organisation of less than 10,000 members, have called for RE to be banned in schools. Richard Dawkins is always claiming you have to choose between evolution and a Creator God.
So it is worth us today hearing what Scripture says to us about how to stand firm when others mock our faith. To this end, 2 Peter 3 calls us to remember – to remember some things we already know, because they will fortify our faith. What are they, and what should we do about them?
Firstly, we remember what God has done – because what God has done in the past gives a sign of what he will do again. When you know what someone has done previously, it gives you hope for the future. God is not silent. He has not resigned. He is still up to the job. When we remember what he has done, we stand with hope in the face of mockers.
In particular, 2 Peter points to two things God has done in the past, and their counterpoints in what he will one day do again. Those two events are the Creation and the Flood. Just as God once judged the world in a flood of water (verse 6), so one day he will judge it with a flood of fire (verses 7, 10-11). And just as God made the heavens and the earth (verse 5), so in the future he will not simply destroy creation with the flood of fire, he will remake the new heavens and the new earth (verse 13).
How specifically does remembering these twin themes of Creation and Flood help us in the face of mockery? Let us take creation first. The fact that God has acted in creation (whatever means he chose to accomplish it) points to the new creation he will usher in at the end of all things as we know them now. Our Christian hope is not simply of ‘going to heaven when we die’; the biblical hope is that we shall receive resurrection bodies and live in a renewed creation. This is our destiny. The God who created, and who goes on upholding even this broken creation, will one day make all things new – including the heavens and the earth. And that renewed creation will be our home for ever. Remembering God’s work in creation firms up our faith in where we are going.
One thing Debbie and I did in preparation for moving here was that we bought sat-navs for our cars. They have been a great help in our first fortnight here. We know we only have to punch in the postcode and perhaps the door number of where we are doing, and – provided we follow the instructions – we will arrive at our destination.
Occasionally, of course, they go wrong. I had to educate mine to recognise that the postcode for this church did not put it in an unnamed road, but in Station Road! And occasionally, too, we go wrong. I did on Friday night, when we drove back from the circuit welcome service. We arrived at a roundabout in Chobham, I think, where I was instructed to go straight on. Only problem was, you had to go left or right. I knew I had been on a roundabout like that a few days ago, where the same thing happened, and the correct solution was to go right. In the dark, I thought I was at that roundabout.
Well … I wasn’t. Turning right led us ultimately down a narrow country lane, where further progress was blocked by a ford. Debbie is better at reversing in tight circumstances than I am, so she took the wheel and eventually the sat-nav recalculated a route home for us and we made it back.
The life of faith can be rather like that. We can end up on detours caused by our own foolishness or the actions of others, but when we live by faith in Christ, arrival at the ultimate destination is still certain. God’s creation and the promise of his new creation tell us that. And knowing that gives us a reason to stand firm when others mock us. We have reason to believe in a hope-filled future.
But you’ll remember it wasn’t just the Creation to which 2 Peter pointed, it was the Flood as well. As God once judged people’s sin in a flood of water, so this chapter tells us he will also one day judge with a flood of fire.
Is this just a case of saying that those who disagree with us have got it coming to them? No, it’s more than that. This chapter tells us that the reason some people don’t merely disagree with our convictions but specifically scoff at us is because they ‘come, scoffing and indulging their own lusts’ (verse 3). In other words, some people who vehemently mock Christianity do so because to accept Christian faith would be to invite judgment on their morally dubious lives. The Christian speaker, author and activist Tony Campolo tells a story of how a student who had previously been well disposed towards Christianity came up to him one day and said that he’d been having doubts about God for about six months.
“Is that when you started sleeping with your girlfriend?” Campolo replied.
And he was right. The student’s intellectual objections were a cover for his rejection of Christian sexual ethics.
It isn’t that every objection to faith stems from that motive – of course not! But 2 Peter 3 reminds us that some of our opponents have hidden, unworthy motives for attacking our faith. The more mocking they are, the more likely it is. And they won’t get away with it in the long run. God sees their lives and their hearts. This is not anything for us to gloat about – in fact, we should be stirred to pray for such people. But it is a reassurance that we serve a God whose ultimate purposes are justice.
So the first step in coping with mockery of our faith is to remember what God has done and recognise what he will do. We gain confidence in God’s good future for us, and in his justice.
Secondly, we remember God’s character. The original readers of this letter were being mocked for their belief that Jesus would return and that God would judge creation. “Where is the promise of his coming?” (verse 4), they taunted. So 2 Peter 3 reminds them of Psalm 90,
that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day (verse 8 )
and from that draws the conclusion that God has delayed his final purposes in his divine patience, because he does not want any to perish, but to come to repentance (verse 9). He does not want to have to judge the mockers – he would rather they found new life in Christ. Nor does he want Christians to fall away – he desires that we resist that temptation and stay faithful, even when it would feel more comfortable to disown our Lord and Saviour.
What, then, do we need to remember about God’s character? One word: grace. We would not know God in Christ were it not for his grace, his unmerited favour extended in love to us through Jesus and the Cross. God wants to demonstrate that same love even to those who ridicule his Son and our faith in him.
Every now and again, I read discussions on the Internet about the existence of God. Some of the comments from atheists are arrogant and hateful. My instinctive feelings towards such people are not good. But I need to remember that these are people for whom Christ died, and had God not been gracious to me I would never have known him. It is when we forget truths like this that we may be most likely to slide away from true faith into a parody of true religion that is full of self-righteousness rather than God’s extravagant love to the world through Jesus Christ.
Sometimes we need to remember just how much God has forgiven us, and let that fact inform the way we relate to difficult or hostile people. God wants them to know him. He may well want to use us in reaching them. That will have implications for our words, our actions and our attitudes.
The third and final thing we need to do is to remember God’s call. If we have a future in the new creation, and if God is both just and gracious, what kind of people does he call us to be? Let me just draw together a couple of fragments.
In verse 13, where we read about the new heavens and the new earth, we learn that the new creation is a place ‘where righteousness is at home’. If we want to be at home, we need to lead a consistent life, a righteous one. And to that end, the final plea of the letter in verse 18 is that its readers might
grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
What does this amount to? If we believe in God’s coming new creation, then we need to live in harmony with it. That means righteousness (and justice – the Greek word covers both). And if we believe that God is gracious enough to want even his enemies to find his love and put their faith in him, then we need to grow in grace – to become more like him, especially in becoming more full of grace to others ourselves.
All that amounts to a tough call. In the face of opposition and mockery, God calls us not to give up or mingle with the crowd, but to live righteous and just lives that are full of grace for the most undeserving of sinners. But how else are we going to live a convincing witness to Jesus Christ in the world? We are deluded if we think all we have to do is provide the right answers to people’s questions – although that is important. Jesus calls us to a difficult assignment, but an important one: to live the life of faith, even and especially when we are under fire.
But he’s simply asking us to do what he did when the heat was on, and the good news is that he gives us the Holy Spirit in order to do his will. When I read the claims of atheists on the Internet, I realise they not only need to hear reasonable answers from Christians, they need to see Christians show by their lifestyles that a different way is real and possible.
And that’s a good place for me to end my first sermon here, with that challenge. Our calling is to live different, Jesus-shaped lives in the midst of the world and not just in our religious ghettoes.
Who is up for the challenge?
more about “Sabbatical, Day 68, Maundy Thursday: …“, posted with vodpod
You have just watched video number five from Damaris Trust for Holy Week. Nick Pollard talks about Jesus’ prayer in the garden of Gethsemane on the night of his arrest. He discusses the significance of this, and what the command to the disciples to ‘watch and pray’ might mean for us.
I should add that today is very significant for me, both as 9th April and as Maundy Thursday. For it was on 9th April 1976, which was Maundy Thursday that year too, that I found faith in Christ.
When I was at theological college, we never got to celebrate Easter together. It always fell in the – guess – Easter vacation. So we celebrated it ‘proleptically’ (along with Holy Week and Good Friday). That is, we celebrated it in advance of it happening. And what follows here is something of a proleptic post. Three days ahead of time, I’m typing a few thoughts here about the Resurrection. It’s part of a synchroblog today suggested by Slipstream, the Evangelical Alliance‘s network for ‘younger leaders’. (I ended up in it because I was part of its predecessor, Leaders’ Digest, before anyone gets sarky about my age.)
And the Resurrection is the great proleptic event of all history. Mind you, even the Apostle Paul doesn’t use such a fancy word as ‘proleptic’. Just as Jesus regularly did, he uses an agricultural image. He calls it the ‘firstfruits‘. Ancient Israel celebrated two harvest festivals. One was the great ingathering at the end of the summer, rather like the harvests we still mark in a post-industrial, credit crunch, Web 2.0 world. The other was in the late Spring, when the ‘firstfruits’ appeared, and is the festival that was happening when Pentecost erupted in Jerusalem. The appearance of the first fruits promised what was to come.
In that sense, Jesus’ resurrection is ‘proleptic’ for us. It promises our resurrection at the end of time, and with it the new heavens and new earth promised in Revelation 21. As Tom Wright has correctly reminded us, it’s about so much more than ‘going to heaven when we die’. How right he was to say that ‘heaven is not the end of the world’. It’s the foretaste of the new creation. You want hope in what I just called our ‘post-industrial, credit crunch, Web 2.0 world’? You have it – in the Resurrection. Jesus has the currency the world craves.
And it’s not just for the world: it’s something we need as disciples of Jesus to renew us over and over again. Yesterday, I bumped into a friend. She is on the leadership of a church where a number of people are going through major pastoral crises. “We just need to get to Easter,” she said. I think you could take her comment more than one way. It’s not just about getting to a certain point in time. It’s that getting to Easter puts you at the place of hope.
Michelangelo once broke out in indignant protest against his fellow artists who were for ever depicting Christ in his death on the cross. ‘Paint him instead the Lord of life. Paint him with his kingly feet planted on the stone that held him in the tomb.’
But Michelangelo continued to isolate the death of Christ, from the Pietà of his youth in St. Peter’s to the unfinished Pietà in Florence … so did the theologians and the preachers.
The point Green makes in the book is that it’s dangerous to separate the death and resurrection of Christ in our thinking or our emphasis. It’s something Jürgen Moltmann stressed in a different way. In ‘The Crucified God‘, he says we should speak of both ‘The Cross of the Risen One’ and ‘The Resurrection of the Crucified One’.
Why is it important to hold Cross and Resurrection together? Because when we emphasise one at the expense of the other, dangerous distortions creep into our thinking and discipleship. When we overlook the Resurrection, we preach that ‘Jesus died for your sins’ but turn it into legalism: ‘You’d better be grateful and live a good life.’ Atonement has to connect death and resurrection. When we overlook the Cross, we enter tawdry triumphalism and entertain a faith that cannot grapple with suffering, like those who come to worship on Easter Day having avoided Good Friday. Or we are like the church steward who once prayed with me in the vestry before a Good Friday service and referred to the day as a tragedy.
A third and final reflection. (Oh why not, I’m not getting to preach this Easter due to my sabbatical, so here’s my chance!) I want to dig out a favourite story. In my first ministerial appointment, one couple (who had left the Methodist church for the URC anyway!) disdainfully nicknamed me ‘Laugh-a-minute Faulkner’. Why? Because I committed sacrilege in my sermons by usually opening them with a funny story. I know, terrible. Write the disciplinary charge now.
One Easter, the churches in the town decided to hold a united service on Easter Sunday evening. There was to be no sermon, but I got the gig for the five-minute thought for the day. I recounted a story I’d heard from Tony Campolo, in which he told how on the afternoon of Easter Day, Russian Orthodox priests would get together and tell one another their biggest belly-laughs to celebrate the joy of the Resurrection. More soberly, I then cited the poet Patrick Kavanagh who said that the Resurrection is ‘a laugh freed for ever’. I concluded that I had ample theological justification to tell a joke.
Which I proceeded to do.
You can guess which two people didn’t laugh.
You can guess which two people refused to share the Peace with me.
Now I know how to be miserable. Ask Debbie about my Scrooge impersonation around Christmas. But one thing I know about the Resurrection is that it’s the reason for great joy. If I can outdo Larry for happiness at the thought of the Resurrection – it’s what has held me together when I’ve had crises of faith – then something was desperately wrong with this poor couple. In every sense of the word they were sad.
Maybe on Sunday, the truth that ‘Christ is risen, he is risen indeed’ can force a smile onto the stoniest of faces. After all, why be stony on the day the stone was rolled away?
Finally, here is a list of the other blogs confirmed as participating in this synchroblog, as of yesterday afternoon:
On Friday, by the wonders of the Internet, I listened to a podcast of my old college tutor giving a Bible Study on Isaiah 43. In it, he made a provocative statement. He said that many modern worship songs were like adverts for toilet paper. What he meant was this: the typical advert for toilet paper will tell you how soft it is and how strong it is, but it will never tell you what it is for. No advert for toilet paper tells you its purpose is for wiping your bottom. Similarly, some of our worship songs say how loving, kind and gentle Jesus is, but they never say what he came to do.
And I suggest – if it’s not too provocative for you – that we have treated our passage from Mark like an advert for toilet paper in a similar way. We have thought about the coming of Jesus, the call to discipleship and the invitation to make ‘fishers of men’ [sic] in a soft and strong, comforting way. But when we do, we miss dangerously what Jesus came to do here. I want to set that within these headings: coming, calling and commissioning.
Quick Bible trivia quiz – no one who has studied Theology is allowed to answer: which one of the four Gospels has none of the Christmas stories? Answer: Mark, the Gospel from which we have heard this morning. Mark is more concerned with the coming of Jesus in terms of his arrival on the scene as an adult, and that’s what happens here:
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ (Verses 14-15)
At Christmas that in Christ God had come near to us. He is Immanuel, God with us. Mark shows us Jesus putting that into practice. In not just the birth of Jesus but his ministry too, God comes near. He comes near in space and near in time. In space he comes close – ‘Jesus came to Galilee’. And he comes close in time – ‘The time is fulfilled’.
Now here I want to suggest the ‘advert for toilet paper’ principle comes in again. Because that’s the way we sometimes talk about the coming of Jesus at Christmas. All the nice warm and fuzzy bits, but forgetting what Jesus came to do and why. Well, here is his coming portrayed by Mark not through the lens of Dickensian Christmas cards but through the closeness of his coming. And the closeness of Jesus’ coming in space and time makes things urgent.
Put it this way. If Jesus turned up physically in our midst today, how would we react? My guess is it wouldn’t be anything like the way we talk at Christmas. We might be nervous. We might think of our sins and failures. We might get down on our knees. We might not even dare to look at him. Because if the living God comes close, I think that’s a more likely reaction.
When Jesus comes to Galilee and announces that God’s time is fulfilled, then anyone who catches half a glimpse of who he is and a little bit of what this might mean is not going to sing Jingle Bells. No, there is something urgent about the coming of Jesus. In his coming, the kingdom of God is coming near. He is here on God’s business. Like a space mission perfectly timing the launch of a rocket to leave Earth’s orbit and land its lunar module at the right part of the Moon, so Jesus has come on God’s mission with precision timing. So we’d better believe this isn’t just the spiritual equivalent of ET showing up, or reruns of Robin Williams goofing around as an alien visitor in Mork and Mindy. The coming of Jesus is serious. It’s about the salvation of the world and all creation. Mark is telling us we’d better listen up. So what should we do? That follows in the second and third elements of the passage.
Well, if Jesus’ coming displays a sense of urgency and seriousness, it will be little surprise if the call he issues to people is of the same tone:
‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ (Verse 15)
Repent and believe the good news. There is good news to believe about a God characterised by love, grace and mercy. But the route to receiving that good news is via repentance. That’s urgent. That’s serious.
Before very long we will hit Lent, and with my sabbatical I shall have no opportunity to share anything on that theme with you this year. However, the Lent themes are highlighted here: repent. We have to get beyond the giving up of chocolate, because this is about serious lifestyle changes (much as not eating chocs will be lifestyle alterations for some of us). Repentance is more than being sorry. It is about being sorry enough to commit to change. It is about taking a u-turn in our lives.
The Greek word for repentance, metanoia, means to change one’s mind. In repentance, we change our minds about God, our lives and the world. We turn around a go a different way.
Now something as major as that is urgent and life-changing. To speak of ‘repenting at leisure’ is an outright contradiction. To wait for a death-bed conversion is playing fast and loose with God, even a merciful God.
You might think this just has to do with conversion and the initial discovery of faith in Jesus. It does have to do with that, but it is something that needs to become a habit. It’s no good thinking, ‘Phew, I got all that challenging repentance stuff done and dusted when I found Christ’ and then sit back for the ride with our ticket to heaven, because God will not be mocked. Repentance is the Christian’s regular habit. Not because we are people with a permanent downer about ourselves – ‘I’m just a worm’ and all that. No: it’s because God has set about a lifelong project of transforming us.
Jesus calls us to keep short accounts with God. Repentance is like a commitment to pay our bills on time, not to let our debts build up. I’m not saying, of course, that we would still pay for our sins: when we ‘repent and believe the Good News’ that is completely taken care of through the Cross of Christ. But I am using this as a metaphor: if God calls us to account about something, then are we in the habit of responding to him quickly?
And by the way, let us note also that when God calls us to repentance it is for something specific. It is never a general condemnation, as if he says, ‘You are worthless, hopeless and useless’ – that is the work of the enemy. He puts his finger on something in particular. And for that, he calls us to urgent action in changing our minds and making a u-turn.
Might he specifically call us to repent of those sins which undermine our life together as Christian community? Isn’t that why he has so much to say about the spiritual sickness of unforgiveness? Is it not the bitterness and petty quarrels that sometimes stain our churches that are worse denials of the Gospel than any arguments by atheists? Repentance becomes an urgent task for the sake of having a credible witness.
We move from the general message Jesus gave when he began his ministry, to the specific one he issued to Simon and Andrew (and presumably to James and John, too):
‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ (Verse 17)
Whenever I’ve quoted that saying of Jesus in a sermon, I’ve usually given a little reminder of the old chorus ‘I will make you fishers of men if you follow me’ and talked about how the disciples’ working life as fishermen was not wasted, but was a preparation for their ministry with Jesus. I’ve done that in this pulpit.
I still believe that. But this week as I prepared, I discovered something else about the call to be ‘fishers’ in a spiritual sense. It’s another ‘advert for toilet paper’ moment, where we may have missed the force of the meaning.
For once again, there is something urgent about this summons from Jesus, this commission to ‘fish for people’. There is an Old Testament background to this expression. It’s more than Jesus just making a clever play on words, based on their profession. No, the prophets see God as the great ‘fisher for people’, and whenever they speak that way, there is an ominous tone of judgment. Jeremiah 16:16, Ezekiel 29:4-5 and 38:4, Amos 4:2 and Habakkuk 1:14-17 all speak this way.
Combine that Old Testament context with the unusual sign of Jesus calling people to follow him, in contrast to the way the rabbis of his day waited for potential disciples to come to them, and you can’t miss the urgency of his words here. ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people’ is a way of saying that if the kingdom of God is near, then not only is it time for us to get our lives in order, we need to find ways of calling other people to do the same. It’s the call to be evangelistic and prophetic in the world.
That kind of call is never popular or easy. Jesus came with his message ‘after John was arrested’ (verse 14) – arrested for condemning adultery in high places.
It is no easier today. People say, ‘Who are you to say that to us?’ Sadly, they are sometimes right to do so, given the track record of Christian hypocrisy. They call us ‘self-appointed moral guardians.’ Others say that we each have our own truth and we mustn’t impose whatever works for us on others.
So we’re tempted to backtrack, be very British and keep our religion to ourselves – just as our critics want. Yet isn’t there an alternative that falls in between strident judgmentalism on one hand and being ashamed of the Gospel on the other?
I think there is. It involves actively living out our faith in the world in such a way as to earn our right to be heard. Tony Campolo used to tell a story about a poverty-stricken nation close to his heart, the Dominican Republic. In one village where the communists were highly influential, a Christian doctor would spend his days treating the sick, especially from the poorest groups who could not afford to pay for medical care. By night he would go around the village, preaching the Gospel. The local communist leader grudgingly admitted that the doctor had earned his right to be heard.
I believe we are called to something similar. It involves us living out a full-blooded compassionate lifestylee in the world, so much so that people want to know what makes us do it. Then we tell them about Jesus, no holds barred.
I can’t guarantee such an approach will protect us from criticism – Jesus warned us that goodness will always face opposition. But I can suggest that this is a Christlike response to our commissioning that can get under the radar in a society that is decreasingly sympathetic to the Good News.
In a recession, we might just have what they need. After all, the ‘atheist bus campaign’ with its advertising slogan ‘There’s Probably No God. Now Stop Worrying and Enjoy Your Life’ looks a bit sick in these economically straitened times, doesn’t it?
So isn’t it time that we responded again to the urgency at the heart of Jesus’ coming, the urgency in his call to repent and believe, and the urgency of taking up his commission to be and to share Good News in our communities?
Hope is in short supply right now. Increased unemployment. Home repossessions threatening to hit 1991 records. Banks, the backbone of our economy, in turmoil. Many suffering fuel poverty as gas and electricity prices stay high, even when petrol prices have reduced. You know the rest. We could do with some hope.
In the time of John the Baptist, Israel could have done with some hope. You’ve heard it enough times. In their own land, yet feeling like exiles, because they were occupied by Rome. Every now and again, someone popped up to offer hope in terms of an uprising. Every time, Roman legions quelled the rebels and executed them publicly.
Well, you root yourself in another time when the people of God needed hope. The time addressed in Isaiah 40. Most of God’s people had been deported to Babylon, and had been there a few decades by this point. A handful had been left in Jerusalem.
Then, a prophet in the Isaiah tradition turns up in Babylon, addressing the dispirited exiles and the desolate residents of Jerusalem. Using three metaphors from the physical world around him – wilderness, grass and mountains – he offers God’s hope to those lacking it and most needing it.
And this theme of hope complements what we thought about last week, on the first Sunday of Advent. Then, our theme was waiting. Today, it is hope, which is the content of Christian waiting. Had we read to the end of Isaiah 40, we would have heard – depending on which Bible translation we used – about those who will renew their strength by either ‘waiting’ or ‘hoping’.
So – without more ado – how does the Isaiah prophet help us to hope, using these images of wilderness, grass and mountains?
Last week, as we considered the theme of waiting, we wondered how we live when it feels like God is absent. Isaiah 40 is bold in response to this: you may feel that God is not here, but God is coming! He gives us a picture that is a bit like the building of a new road (hopefully without the environmental concerns we have about such a project in our society). Prepare God’s way in the wilderness, make a straight highway in the desert, raise the valleys, lower the mountains, and smooth out the rough terrain, and you will see God’s glory (verses 3-5).
So – in a time of God’s apparent absence, the good news is that God is coming. In a time of spiritual darkness, the good news is that you will see God’s glory. Music, surely, to the ears of disillusioned exiles in Babylon, and beaten-down people in Jerusalem. This is a message of comfort. Your punishment is over. Enough is enough (verses 1-2).
We may not know when things will change for the better for Christian witness in our culture, but we can hear similar echoes of hope in Advent. Our waiting and hoping is for Jesus who is called Immanuel, God with us. God is coming. We are not alone. Christ is coming. Christ came. The Father sent the Spirit of Christ. Our sense of aloneness is only apparent. It is not actual.
Of course, we must be careful: proclaiming that in Christ, God is with us, can make us sound like we have a religious superiority complex. This is not a matter of our deserving special rank. It is a matter of grace, God’s undeserved favour to sinners. The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost. It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. Jesus, God with us, came for lost and sick people – including us. Yes, God is with us in Christ. But we hold that knowledge humbly. And as we share it, we do so as one beggar telling another where to find bread.
And the wilderness was specifically to be a place where God’s glory would be seen. Would God’s glory be seen in raining down fire and brimstone? No. It would be seen as he led a raggle-taggle bag of exiles back home.
Similarly, Advent is a time when we wait in hope for the glory of God. His glory will be seen and sung about in skies over Bethlehem. His glory will be seen, in the words of Bruce Cockburn,
Like a stone on the surface of a still river
Driving the ripples on forever
Redemption rips through the surface of time
In the cry of a tiny babe
It’s a different kind of glory. It’s wilderness glory, a manger at the back of a house in Bethlehem, not a palace in Jerusalem. It’s the glory of God humbling himself into human flesh, one who later as an adult would not grant the wish of two disciples known colloquially as the Sons of Thunder, who wanted to unleash damnation on enemies.
Yes, come to unexpected dry places like a wilderness – like a manger – and find that God is present in strange glory. Come to Broomfield and find him? Why not?
When the prophet speaks about the people being like grass, I think he has wilderness grass in mind. It withers and fades in the heat of the wilderness, so when we hear about that happening when the breath of the Lord blows on it (verse 7), I think we’re meant to imagine that the Lord’s breath is hot and intense. The breath of the Lord, the Spirit of God, is not here life-giving but life-taking. The judgment of God had fallen upon the people with the Babylonian invasion and exile; now, like grass in the hot sun, they are withering and fading.
It’s not difficult to find similarities in later generations. In the days before Jesus was born, Israel was withering under oppression from Rome. In our day, we in the western church (especially in Europe) feel like we are withering and fading. What word of hope do we find here? It comes in verse 8:
The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.
Whatever happens to us, the purposes of God are not thwarted. Whether we wither due to divine judgment on our faithlessness or whether it is general oppression or persecution, hear the promise that ‘the word of our God will stand forever’.
A story was told during the time when Russian communism ruled Eastern Europe. Soldiers raided the home of a Christian family and made some arrests. To humiliate them, they threw the family Bible on the floor. But a soldier noticed that one page didn’t burn. It contained the words of Jesus: ‘Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.’ That incident was key in the soldier’s conversion to Christ.
There will be many attempts to destroy God’s word from its place in our society, and some of those attacks will focus on the church. But we are in Advent, the season of hope. The word of the Lord stands forever, and the gates of hell will never prevail against the church of Jesus Christ.
None of this is a reason for complacency, but it is a reason for hope. Therefore, it’s here to boost our faith and fuel our prayers for God to renew his wonders in our day.
So God is present in his strange glory, and he is speaking and will not be silenced. Those are grounds for hope, but they are not very specific. We need a vantage point. The herald, the preacher (who by the way is female in the text), needs to ‘get up to a high mountain’ to see things as they are and be several hundred feet above contradiction in preaching good news to discouraged people (verse 9).
What good news? That God is victorious over the enemies of his people, that he comes in conquest, with his people as his booty, and with the gentleness of a shepherd caring for ewes and lambs (verses 10-11).
Israel’s hope was the end of captivity in Babylon. The hope in Jesus’ coming was in his resurrection from the dead. Our hope, based on that resurrection, is that of God’s final victory when he appears again, not only to claim his own, but to renew all of creation, with a new heaven and a new earth.
There are always reasons in the world to make us gloomy. At present there is a plethora of reasons. There are also reasons to be pessimistic about the western church. You would think there were few grounds for hope. But when you get up the mountain to see things from God’s perspective, the situation looks different. You see hope in the promises of God, who has acted decisively in the past, who will do so again, and who one day will make all things new.
It’s rather like the old story told by Tony Campolo. People give him all sorts of reasons to be negative about the state of the world and the church. But his standard reply is, “I’ve been reading the Bible. And I’ve peeked to see how it ends. Jesus wins!”
So let the world write us off. Let our friends regard our faith as irrelevant. Let Richard Dawkins describe religion as a virus. But see God’s view from the mountain: Jesus wins. Let that fill us with Advent hope.
And while we’re on the mountain, let us – like the female herald in Isaiah 40 – proclaim it to all who will hear. Let us encourage one another in the church. Don’t be dragged down by the lies and limited perspectives of the world: Jesus wins.
And let us also proclaim it to a world sorely in need of hope. To people who thought they could trust in money, until the banks blew up. To people who gained their sense of identity from their job, until redundancy hit. To people struck down with disability or chronic or terminal illness, whose lives had been based on the vigour of their bodies. To all these people and many others, proclaim that Jesus wins. It is promised in the actions of God and especially in the Resurrection. We have a hope worth trusting in. Why be afraid? Why be dismayed?
You may recall I’ve said that my first circuit appointment was in the town of Hertford. There, the Methodists regularly quoted John Wesley’s Journal regarding several of the visits the great man made to the town on his preaching travels. They were fond of quoting one entry in particular, where Wesley was utterly discouraged. It said, ‘Poor desolate Hertford.’ Those words hung like a curse over them.
But you may also remember how I have talked of being involved in ecumenical youth ministry in the town. Somebody gave me the complete set of Wesley’s Journal, and I looked up all the entries on Hertford. They weren’t all doom and gloom. Some were, but one in particular wasn’t. In it, Wesley recounted coming to preach at a school in the town. To cut a long story short, he saw a revival break out among the children.
You can imagine the impact that story had on us as we gathered to pray about youth ministry. Never mind ‘poor desolate Hertford’. There was a heritage of Holy Spirit work among young people in the area. God had not been absent or silent. He had been gloriously present, proclaiming Good News.
So I want to say that the Advent hope is like that. It is time to cast off the darkness. The great Advent text in Isaiah 60 says, ‘Arise, shine, your light has come’. This Advent, might we just dare to believe and to hope in our God?
And might we find that in this hope we have something beyond riches to share with a world, whose own versions of hope have plummeted in value?
There is one line from an early school report of mine that I remember: ‘David takes simple things and makes them complicated.’
You may recognise that trait in me even today! And I have to say there is an element of it sneaking into this sermon. The Vision of the Sheep and Goats, as George Beasley-Murray called it (first complication there – it’s not really a parable!) seems to be a piece of teaching by Jesus that is very simple. Do good to the poor and you’ll receive eternal life; ignore the poor and you’ll burn in Hell.
Simple, isn’t it? No.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not about to find the get-out clause that means we don’t have to care for the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the prisoner. But there are questions of detail that readers of this vision have asked. And as we explore them, we fill out more of the meaning.
In particular, we need to think about who ‘the nations’ are that are gathered before Jesus, the Son of Man at the judgment. And we also need to think about who ‘the least of these’ are, who may receive acts of mercy. In considering these two groups in the story, I hope we’ll answer some questions that have troubled sensitive Christians about this passage.
Who are ‘the nations’ in the story? Are they everyone in history? Are they people who have never heard the Gospel, given the surprised ‘Lord, when was it we saw you …?’ responses? Do they represent Christians, or possibly the Jewish people? And why does the question matter?
It matters, because it ties into the question of salvation. Are we saved by good works? What is the relationship between good works and salvation by faith in Christ? Does God have a different way of judging those who have never heard of Jesus – would that explain the surprise?
I’m not going to bore you with academic arguments, except to say that this story comes at the end of the fifth and final block of Jesus’ teaching that we find in Matthew’s Gospel. The first block was the Sermon on the Mount, and that set a theme for teaching about discipleship. All the teaching blocks are about discipleship in one way or another. This final block in chapters 24 and 25 focusses on questions about the end of all things. It fittingly climaxes here with a story about the Last Judgment.
So I do not think we can avoid the idea that Jesus is aiming this passage at those who claim to be his disciples. It fleshes out the statement in the Sermon on the Mount that not everyone who calls him ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of his Father. Obedience to the will of God is central and critical to Christian discipleship.
However, that raises the question I mentioned a moment ago. How does that thought sit with the teaching elsewhere in the New Testament that says we are justified in the sight of God not by our good works but by our faith in Jesus Christ? Doesn’t the sheep and goats story suggest that we are justified by good deeds?
To which I would reply that justification simply isn’t the issue here. The issue is one of identity: what does a disciple look like? And Jesus tells us here that a true disciple looks like someone who has compassion for the poor and needy – not just the deserving poor, but even the undeserving poor, because there is no hint that those in prison are in there for anything other than just reasons.
If we want to know whether we are progressing in discipleship, then the first test is not what dramatic spiritual experiences we have had. Nor is it whether we can muster a high score in a test of biblical and theological knowledge. Disciples are known by their actions for the sake of those in need. In his First Letter, John says that we cannot say the love of God lives in us if we see someone in need and fail to act. Such actions are the signs of true faith.
In that sense, it is connected to the question of justification, even though that is not Jesus’ particular concern here. It is rather like what Paul says in Galatians that faith works by love, and what James says in his Letter, when he maintains that those who are justified by faith show they truly are by their compassionate deeds of mercy.
So whether we care for people such as the hungry, thirsty, strangers, the naked, the sick and the prisoners is a test of true faith. Has God broken our hearts with the things that break his heart? And are we heartbroken enough to do something about it? This is a simple test of disciples’ obedience.
Nevertheless, we can probably extend this in a certain way to another question that is not Jesus’ primary concern in this passage. The question I have in mind is also one I mentioned earlier: how does God judge those who have never heard the Gospel? Some would argue that unless one actually hears the Gospel and responds, one is destined to damnation. It is a view that those who recognise other aspects of God’s character such as his mercy (as well as his judgment) find problematical.
And I suspect that the ‘Lord, when did we see you …?’ questions do give us a glimpse of how God would regard such people. Is it not the case that in Scripture God judges people according to how they respond to whatever light from him they receive? In Genesis, the priest Melchizedek appears out of nowhere and Abraham makes an offering to him – and God approves. Joshua is pleased to use the help of the Jericho prostitute Rahab. Isaiah 45 calls the pagan king Cyrus God’s anointed.
So might it just be that here in Matthew 25, we get an indirect view of how God will treat those who know that mercy to the poor and the weak is what matters? I can’t be certain, but I think it’s possible.
The Least Of These
So the judgment of the nations makes us realise that compassion for the needy, whether they are ‘deserving’ or not, is a valid test of discipleship. It may also show a way in which God judges those who have never heard the Gospel.
But what about those described as ‘the least of these’ in the passage – namely, those who are hungry, thirsty, aliens, naked, sick or prisoners? Who are they? Some would argue they stand for anyone who is poor and in need in the world. Other say this expression ‘the least of these’ is similar to other terms Matthew uses in his Gospel to describe oppressed Christians or Christian missionaries facing hardship. There are some similarities of language, but they are not conclusive. In any case, if God only judges people on how they treat the Church, doesn’t that make God’s people into some narrow-minded sect, where it’s only what we receive (and not others) that counts?
So I suspect that the vulnerable people in need in this story, whom Jesus labels ‘the least of these’, stand for anyone in the world who may be suffering these or similar conditions. God does not simply call us to look after our own. Let’s assume, then, that God gives us a brief that covers the whole world in demonstrating his love to those in need.
But does the passage make an even larger claim than that? Some Christians think so. The first time I ever heard Tony Campolo speak, he told a story about a trip he paid to the Dominican Republic, where he witnessed terrible poverty. As he was about to board his plane back to the USA, a mother tried to give him her child. The child would stand a far better chance in terms of health, education and prospects in the States. Campolo felt he couldn’t. But as his plane accelerated down the runway, he could see the mother and child still there. On the basis of this passage, he had an awful realisation: he hadn’t left a child in the Dominican Republic, he had left Jesus there. ‘Just as you did [not do] to the least of these, you did [not do it] to me.’
Similarly, the great German theologian Jürgen Moltmann has invoked the old Latin phrase ubi Christi, ibi ecclesia: ‘where Christ is, there is the Church’ from this text. He takes it to mean that if whatever we do to the poor we do to Christ, then Christ is present in the poor.
So does this teach that Christ lives in the poor? Does Christ perhaps even live in everyone, rather like the Quaker belief that there is an inner light within all people?
No, I don’t think the passage means that. It is a very heightened metaphorical way of speaking that Jewish people employed. ‘This is my body’ and ‘This is my blood’ would be of the same order. ‘Just as you did to the least of these, it is as if you did it to me’ might be a paraphrase that brings this out.
This, I think, would be more consistent with the rest of Scripture, which sees the Spirit of God as being directly involved in the creation of humankind but who only resides within people when they become disciples of Jesus. The idea that the divine is resident in all people is closer to the mystical beliefs of some New Age philosophies than Christianity. If we all have God within, there’s very little need for salvation.
Nevertheless, we still have incredibly strong reasons for serving all who are in need with the love of Christ. We do not do it simply as robots obeying a command programmed by our Master. We do so, because when he, as the agent of God’s creation, and in partnership with the Holy Spirit, made the human race, he made them ‘in the image of God’. Our lives and relationships are meant to mirror something about God, and God’s love.
There is no greater dignity anything in all creation has than to be made in God’s image. When the image-bearers of God are made to suffer, that is an attempt to obscure the image of God, and it is an affront to the God who made people with such a high status. Affording dignity, respect and healing to those who are suffering is about making the image of God more visible in creation.
So – it’s a clear test of discipleship whether we meet the practical needs of the poor and struggling. It may even be an indicator of how God judges those who have no genuine opportunity to hear the Gospel.
Not only that, we have an imperative to do so, because all people are made in the image of God, however much it has been damaged by sin. That means our call to love and serve those in need cannot just be a paternalistic ‘doing good’ to those who passively, but gratefully, receive all the good things we have to give. It must also mean that in affirming their special dignity we give power back to those who have become powerless.
We may have had to take some complex diversions to arrive at these conclusions. You may well think that school teacher was right to say I am the sort of person who makes simple things complicated. At the end, however, we do come back to some simple challenges. We may not be able to meet all the needs that a satellite television and broadband Internet world flashes before our eyes. But we can ask ourselves this: what time, money and possessions have I given up in order to practise God’s love for the poor?
My status as a disciple requires positive evidence in response to this question. So does my commitment to God’s revelation in Scripture. If I want to be a biblical disciple, then, I will know that I have responded to those who are suffering, and I continue to care for the suffering.
Can I answer yes?