Monthly Archives: April 2010

links for 2010-04-30

Regarding The Missing Sermon

This is another week when I am not posting a new sermon. I find myself having to look through my digital files and retrieve an old one to preach tomorrow.

The reason is this: although I had some rough ideas in my head for a sermon this week, everything changed on Thursday. I began bleeding and could not stem the flow – or at least it took hours for it to slow down. My GP referred me urgently to the local hospital’s Emergency Assessment Unit. After waiting over six hours to see a surgeon on call (they were all in theatre) I was told it was not sinister and not the kind of blood loss to need surgery, nor had I become anaemic. I just needed a non-urgent referral to an out-patients’ clinic. Hence they sent me home and I went off to hail a taxi.

So it was quite a fright. As is usual with me, although my rational mind told me it was all OK, my imagination kicked in and my body reacted by playing a game of ‘How high can we send Dave’s blood pressure?’ Not my favourite game, and it certainly concerned the nurses at the hospital.

Anyway, I am all right, but I lost a lot of time at a critical juncture of the week, and especially with having to attend Synod today (why do they always have them on warm, sunny days?), I cannot realistically come up with something fresh for this weekend. I hope those of you who enjoy the sermons will understand. Those who don’t enjoy them can appreciate the break!

The Volcanic Ash Cloud

As ash from the Icelandic volcano continues to blow across the UK, I am only too aware of ministry consequences from it. Tomorrow I take a funeral, and the next of kin will not be able to be present. Please pray for this family.

I also know of people returning from a mission trip in the Far East, who will be at least six days late back. They were delayed in Russia, but somehow are getting a flight to France. Then they need to travel across France and queue for a ferry.

In all this, it is interesting to see how the Internet in general and social media in particular are helping people. Rory Cellan-Jones posted an informative blog about this on the BBC website.

Religion And Statistics

Thanks to an email from my friend Pete Phillips I have found the British Religion In Numbers website, a project based at Manchester University. Before anyone trots out the old ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’ line, may I say that

(1) while I resist any idea that numbers and material measurability can completely interpret faith, this is a fascinating site; and

(2) Lies, Damned Lies are or were a very fine rock band.

There is a useful ‘news‘ section on the site, which functions as a blog.  Take, for example, this news story today, ‘Christians and the General Election‘. It reports an opinion poll sponsored by Premier Christian Media on Christian voting intentions. My instinct is that the likely figures are at least partly way off: 37% of Christians see David Cameron as the best choice for Prime Minister, 20% Gordon Brown and 6% Nick Clegg. 22% are undecided and 12% have no faith in any of the leaders. The figure for Clegg seems surprisingly low, even if the poll was conducted before his performance in last Thursday’s first ever televised leaders’ debate. Apparently, ComRes interviewed 423 Christians and balanced the results to reflect the 2005 Church Census. Does this reflect Christian disquiet about Clegg’s atheism, or are the stats just bonkers? Whatever, I look forward to more stimulating material from this site.

links for 2010-04-17

Sermon: Fishermen And Shepherds

John 21:1-19

Our children are growing up in a twenty-four hour society. Twenty-four hour shop opening, the decline of the traditional Monday to Friday, nine to five job, and twenty-four hour entertainment. If I were to tell them about the days when television finished late in the evening, it would be outside their experience. Well, unless the energy crisis means a modern version of the three day week.

And you will remember from that time the way a TV station closed down with ‘The Epilogue’. Overly sincere clergymen, looking and sounding woefully out of place, delivered five minutes of holy thoughts before you went to bed. Much lampooned – I have a vague memory of Clement Freud satirising it – it went the way of all flesh.

John 21 Is an epilogue, but it isn’t one we should discard. John seems to end his Gospel at the end of chapter twenty, and that would make sense: Jesus has risen from the dead, he has convinced the hesitant among his disciples and he has either promised or actually given them the Holy Spirit as they prepare to continue his mission. Not only that, we learn that the Gospel has been written for people to find or grow in faith.

But then we get this chapter. Yet whether it’s an afterthought added by the original author or an appendix contributed by someone else, it’s an important epilogue. It’s not just that someone has remembered another resurrection appearance to cram in – the chapter ends with a confession that you would never get all Jesus said and did into a book.

No, this epilogue, this final resurrection appearance is one that fills out the identity of the Christian community. It’s a story that tells us the purposes of the church. We see it in the two occupations that characterise Simon Peter in the reading: the fisherman and the shepherd. Both of these rôles are critical in the life of the church.

Firstly, the fisherman. Here’s why I just emphasised that both of these jobs are to be seen positively in the life of the church. There’s a tradition in some church circles of judging Simon Peter’s decision to go fishing negatively. They say, in the last chapter he’s just met the risen Lord, been commissioned for mission and and either promised or given the Holy Spirit. How can he go back to his old job? It’s seen as some kind of retrograde step, and it devalues the fishing in comparison with the later conversation with Jesus where he is called to ‘feed [the] sheep’.

But there is no hint in the story that going fishing is a bad thing to do here. For one thing, does that mean we see all occupations outside of church leadership as inferior? Aren’t jobs in the world a primary vehicle of Christian mission, as Christians do their work in Christlike ways and seek to earn the right to speak about Jesus? Downgrading Peter’s fishing expedition is a way of saying that the only thing which really counts in the church is pastoral care, and the mission side is just for the enthusiasts. It’s a disastrous and wrong-headed conclusion.

For the way the fishing trip ends is so positive. The only negatives are not about the fact of going fishing, but the way the seven disciples go about it. The fishing here clearly has a deeper layer of meaning, and that is about how the church gathers more people (‘fish’) into the net.

If there’s a problem about the fishing, it’s the way the disciples set out. That may seem a strange thing to say, given that they do all the right things. They draw on their professional experience on the Sea of Tiberias and they go out at night (verse 3). That was acknowledged to be best practice if you wanted to have a successful expedition: the fish came closer to the surface at night and were thus easier to catch.

What’s wrong with that? It doesn’t work. They catch nothing by daybreak (verses 4-5). And if this is meant to symbolise the missionary call of the church, then I think this alerts us to the way in which we habitually do what we’ve always done. We repeat what we’ve learned ‘works’. We default to old habits, to tried and trusted traditions that worked in the past. Worst of all, we don’t even think about it, we barely discuss it, I might even suggest we probably don’t seriously pray about it. No: we just assume. And then we fail.

If there’s a fishing lesson here for mission, it’s a surprising one: the disciples only make their net-busting catch of fish when they listen to the voice from the shore, the voice of Jesus. It’s bizarre that he ought to be able to instruct them in successful fishing. It wasn’t his trade. He tells them to do something against their experience. And besides, how can he see from the shore that there are fish just beneath the surface of the water on the right side of the lake (verse 6)? But he must know something, because when the disciples reach him, he has already got fish that he is barbecuing on a charcoal fire (verse 9).

The simple lesson about mission in this story is that we have to listen to Jesus. it isn’t good enough to keep on doing the old things, however honourable they are and whatever great track record they have. Jesus knows where fish are waiting to be caught. Mission is a deeply spiritual exercise rather than a technical or strategic one. Only with prayerful listening and obedience following what we have heard will mission bring a catch ashore to Jesus.

So if we are serious about bringing people to Jesus (and that must be our motive – not saving our own necks) then it isn’t enough just to pull a technique down from the shelf and implement it here. It requires taking the time to tune into the voice on the shore, to listen carefully and when we are sure we have heard him, we then obey what he says – even if it goes against all our past experience.

Secondly, the shepherd. After breakfast, we get the beautiful story of Jesus restoring Peter. We know how Jesus asks Peter three times whether he loves him, as if to overwrite the three denials. And just in case we don’t see that, he does it by a charcoal fire – just as Peter denied him around a charcoal fire. These two stories are the only places where one is mentioned in the New Testament.

So we come to this story with warm, encouraging feelings. Jesus has a way back for those who have failed him. It’s a message of hope for all of us who are keenly aware of our frailties and sins. If Jesus restored Peter and gave him a second chance, he offers the same to us.

If we understand the story that way – that it’s about Jesus pastorally caring for Peter – that’s true as far as it goes, but it misses a lot. In particular, it misses why Jesus engages in pastoral care for him. We sometimes think that pastoral care is about helping someone through a difficult situation, but no more. I have been guilty of this short-sightedness on numerous occasions.

However, Jesus has a reason for restoring Peter. “Feed my lambs”; “Tend my sheep”; “Feed my sheep” (verses 15-17). Jesus pastorally cares for Peter so that he can get him back on track in his calling. In fact, Peter is to share in the pastoral calling himself – “Feed my sheep”. Remember that the word ‘pastor’ is related to ‘pasture’. As Jesus has strengthened Peter, so Peter will strengthen others. Perhaps his own experience of brokenness and restoration will be important to him. As is said of Harry Potter early in the first novel in that series, “Scars can be useful.” As the early church faces pressures and persecution, Peter will know the way to bring wounded disciples back into the front line.

So when we are aware that someone in the church is facing troubles, it’s right and good that we help them through their problem, whether it be sickness, a family crisis or something else. However, it’s better if we get alongside them so that once they are over their obstacle, they can get stuck into Christian service again. If we are any kind of hospital as a church, we are like a field hospital that helps soldiers recover and return to the action if possible.

But the pastoral aspect of the church isn’t limited to crises. It’s something Jesus intends us to practise all the time. It’s not just like the times when we book a doctor’s appointment because we know something is wrong. It’s also the regular stuff we do for good health, like the discipline of five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, or seeing a doctor for a general health check.

How do we do that? I believe this is where we need to get specific about the words, “Feed my sheep.” A shepherd leads the flock to the place where it will find good grass to graze on. But he doesn’t stuff the grass into the sheep’s mouth. There may be times when those who care for sheep need not only to show the sheep where their food is but actually feed it to them, but that is more likely to be if you are on a farm and giving milk to a young lamb. More often, feeding the sheep does not mean the shepherd putting the food in the animal’s mouth, but taking them to good pasture and leaving them to feed. This would especially be how Middle Eastern shepherds viewed feeding the flock, because they see sheep as intelligent beings (whereas we, perhaps, don’t).

What does this have to do with pastoral care in the church? It is not so much about an educated minister with a dumb congregation who simply open their mouths to have wisdom tucked inside. The pastoral task is to lead people to good pasture, where they feed themselves.

What feeds us spiritually? I guess the short answer is that we feed on Jesus himself, who said he was the Bread of Life. What does that mean? Again, a shorter rather than longer answer would be, word and sacrament. Jesus has the words of eternal life. Every way in which we listen for his word – and then put it into practice – is a way of being built up spiritually. Primarily we hear his word in the Scriptures, but there are supplementary ways in which he speaks to us too.

Similarly, his flesh is real food and his blood is real drink, so it is incumbent upon us to take the sacrament in obedient faith that he might strengthen us there, too.

And therefore any neglect of regular listening to the word of God or of coming to the Lord’s Table is the spiritual equivalent of starving ourselves. We should not be surprised when churches that put a low premium on engaging with Jesus in word or sacrament struggle.

And so if the church is truly to function in pastoral mode, she will urge her people to find good pasture in the word and sacrament. It may be that part of that involves specialists, who, say, help unpack the word of God, but the sheep are intelligent too, and can also feed themselves. Hence it is fitting for a minister to preach and teach the word, and to lead the congregation at the Lord’s Supper, but it is not essential, not unless you treat the people of God as dumb sheep.

To conclude, then, John 21 shows us the external and internal dimensions of church life. The external is mission, where we ‘lean not on our own understanding’ as Proverbs says, but listen to the voice of Jesus from the shore, and follow his instructions. The internal is pastoral care, where the flock are encouraged to feed on Christ in word and sacrament, but not sit back and have it all done for them.

It is clear that both mission and pastoral care are basic to the church. Unfortunately, we have structured our churches as if pastoral care were mandatory and mission were an optional extra. We even see that in the ‘job description’ of a minister: it is ordination to a ministry of word, sacrament and pastoral charge. It’s all internal. Isn’t it time – especially given the missionary rôle we must surely now have as a minority in our culture – to be fishermen every bit as much as shepherds?

The General Election Debate, Stories And Preaching

Jon Snow comments today on last night’s ‘historic’ (the mandatory word, apparently) first ever live television debate between party leaders in a British General Election campaign:

The most notable American influence in the debate was the wheeling out of individual and anecdotal stories. They didn’t work – they were thin and largely inconclusive, sometimes begging the question as to whether they were true. They don’t seem to work in a UK context.

I heard the same observation on television news last night. (Can’t remember who said it.) Does this say anything to us about the church and communication? We are told to preach stories. We are told that people ‘think in stories’ and ‘live in particular narratives’. I’ve thought for years that stories help. But political reaction to last night’s debate is starting to make me wonder.

What do you think?

Primark And Exploitation

Well, it has to be good news that the Irish discount clothing chain Primark has agreed to stop selling padded bikinis designed for seven-year-old girls. Just two questions, though:

1. Whatever possessed them to sell such items in the first place?

2. Will they now show the same concern for the workers in developing countries who produce their cheap clothes?

Sermon: Sustained By The Risen Lord

Revelation 1:4-8

What did you think when you heard there was to be a reading from Revelation in the service? Many Christians switch off. Revelation is regarded as the book for the weirdoes and extremists. It is full of strange language and has been the basis for all sorts of bizarre beliefs.

But Revelation is a book worth rescuing. It is written in the way it is, because it was addressed to persecuted Christians in the late first century. For them, it made sense to communicate in an unusual style that they understood, and maybe the Roman authorities didn’t. To such Christians, the news that Jesus, crucified  by the Roman authorities, had risen from the dead and was reigning, was the very best of good news. Hence Revelation begins with this big vision of the risen Jesus.

What does that do for us? We cannot claim we are being persecuted for our faith, although certain aspects of legislation and public opinion have certainly moved against us, and that is making some Christians nervous, especially as the General Election approaches. It may be that we end up further out on the margins due to our faith, and if it does, this reminder of our risen Lord will sustain us as we seek to follow him.

How does it do that?

Firstly, we have confidence based on who Jesus is. According to John, Jesus is

the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth (verse 5).

Taking those three descriptions in turn, we have each time something to fortify us in our witness if the going gets tough in society for us.

Jesus is ‘the faithful witness’. He was faithful in his witness to the kingdom of God. He was faithful, even to the point of death. Remember that the Greek word for ‘witness’ in the New Testament is the one from which we derive our word ‘martyr’. Jesus’ own life, then, showed that faithfully following the call of God is costly. It may even cost our lives, when we peaceably but firmly stand for God’s message. The early Christians, then, who faced persecution, knew they were walking in the way of their Master.

What, then, of when we face opposition? We too are called to be ‘faithful witnesses’. We hold resolutely to our faith, even when it is thought stupid, irrational or even morally wrong. We refuse to compromise. But we do not do so in some militant, aggressive way. We recognise that difficulties may come our way, including from those in political power. Jesus has not withdrawn his call to deny ourselves, take up the cross and follow him. Do you face something tough in your life because of your faith? Jesus is calling you to do what he did, to follow in his footsteps. It should not surprise us as Christians that this happens.

Is that depressing? If it is, that is where the next description of Jesus comes in. He is ‘the firstborn of the dead’. Jesus’ faithful witness led to the Cross. But it didn’t end there. He vacated the tomb when he was raised from the dead. Thus we have hope as faithful witnesses. Our witness may be costly, but evil will not have the final word. God will have that: he will vindicate his people in the resurrection and the judgment. As God raised Jesus from the dead to new life, so he will also raise us. This is our hope.

But not only is Jesus the first to be raised from death, promising the same for us in God’s great future, his title of ‘firstborn’ of the dead indicates his sovereignty. The firstborn of a king inherits the throne. Jesus is not simply back from the dead, he is reigning. So those who think they are in charge and controlling everything are mistaken. Fatally mistaken, you would have to say. The risen Lord has been given ‘all authority in heaven and on earth’ (Matthew 28:18).

And that is what leads to the third ascription: Jesus is ‘the ruler of the kings of the earth’. Who are these pretenders who think they control the destiny of an obscure religious sect two thousand years ago? They are not the ultimate rulers they think they are. They are subject to Jesus himself. If they do not submit to his rule now, they will be brought to justice. Again, it is part of the vindication God promises to his faithful people.

But more than that, it has a particular application for us during this General Election campaign. Whenever a politician proposes policies that go against the will of God or seek to marginalise his church, let us remember who rules over the kings of the earth – Jesus does. Any time one of our political leaders comes over all messianic is a time to remember that Jesus rules over the kings of the earth. Any time they start to promise heaven and earth is also a time to remember that Jesus reigns over the rulers of the earth. And any time we as an electorate look to our politicians and expect them to bring in the kingdom of God is also an occasion to recall that Jesus is king over all creation, and every human ruler must submit to him.

So this is who Jesus is. He is the faithful witness, who shows Christians that fidelity to God may well be costly, even to the point of death. However, he is also the firstborn of the dead, showing the resurrection hope of vindication in which the faithful share. And he is the ruler of the kings of the earth, to whom even the most unjust rulers will have to answer. In these respects, when we know who Jesus is, he truly is our hope when Christians are marginalised, pressurised or even persecuted.

Secondly, we have confidence based on what Jesus does. Now I will admit that a distinction between ‘who Jesus is’ and ‘what Jesus does’ is artificial, because we know who someone is by what they do. But I use the distinction between who Jesus is and what Jesus does in this sermon to match up with the different ways in which our text uses language.

And I say ‘what Jesus does’, because I want to draw attention to a series of verbs in verses 5 and 6. Sorry if this sounds like an English lesson! Here they are:

To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen. (Verses 5b-6)

He loves us, he freed us and he made us. These three assertions also give us confidence in all manner of situations, including the times we are under pressure for our faith.

Firstly, ‘he loves us’. I remember a friend telling me that nothing gave her greater security in life than knowing that her husband wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. Forty or so years later, they are still together, and the husband gave up promotions in his career to stay at an ordinary rank so he could care for his wife, who has suffered persistently from mental illness. But even in her periodically fragile state, the wife knows she is loved, and it does her the power of good.

It’s similar with Jesus. He loves us. He is committed to us. He has no intention of letting us go. His hold on us is stronger than our hold on him. He has loved us with an everlasting love, from creation through the Incarnation, the Cross and Resurrection to the present day and beyond. Whatever we face, he loves us and is with us.

More specifically, the second thing Jesus has done in this reading is that he has ‘freed us’ – ‘freed us from our sins by his blood’. Here is the most decisive example of Jesus’ committed love for us. What we most need is to be freed from our sins, for they bind us. His death on the Cross loosens the chain and we walk free in forgiveness. The Cross is not only the example Jesus sets of being the ‘faithful witness’ I talked about earlier, it is also the greatest sign of God’s love, because it took God substituting himself for us in Christ to break the curse of sin.

This isn’t just someone saying he loves us; this is someone proving it in the most costly of deeds. If that is how we are loved in Christ, we can be all the more sure of God’s commitment to us through thick and thin. We may not always be accepted by the world, but if Jesus does this much for us, he is not about to give up on us when life gets sticky.

The final example John gives of what Jesus does for us is that he has ‘made us’. Made us what? He has ‘made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father’. His love which extends as far as redemption through the Cross does not finish there. We are not simply forgiven and then wait around on a platform with our ticket for heaven. Christ’s redeeming love has a purpose: it is to make us into something now. Whatever the world thinks of us, Jesus has made us with a purpose, to be a kingdom of priests, serving God the Father.

What does that mean? For starters, it means that we all have a special dignity in that Jesus has given us a purpose in life. Rejection and mockery from the world is contrasted by acceptance and purposefulness from God. As a kingdom, we have a royal standing in the eyes of God. Those whom the world despises have immense status in the eyes of God. Whatever the world sometimes thinks of us and however we appear to the world, we are in fact royalty in disguise.

But what is the purpose? We are priests, John says. Each one of us represents people to God in prayer and represents God to people in word and deed. We may bring the needs of anyone to the merciful presence of God. While we might especially do that for our sisters and brothers in Christ, we have the privilege also of doing that for those outside the family of God. Debbie and I offer to pray for people in the school community going through troubles. Lots of Christians do things like that. We don’t simply pray secretly behind people’s backs, though – we ask if we may.

Furthermore, we have a particularly special trick up our sleeves: we can pray for our enemies. When oppressed, the true Christian response is not to lash out. It is to pray for them. It heaps burning coals on them, but does not bind us up as bitterness does when we refuse to forgive.

Then on the other side of the priestly rôle, we represent God to the world. We do this in our words and matching deeds. Whether the world likes us or not, we are priests to them. Whether they accept what we offer is up to them, but divinely appointed priests is what we are. So the world cannot do without us! The purpose Jesus gives us in making us all priests not only gives us personal dignity, it gives us a vital rôle to play in the world.

In conclusion, if we are struggling because we are being pushed to the margins of society, Jesus has good news for us. By what he is and by what he does, he gives us confidence, purpose and dignity. He gives us the inner resources to sustain us in the face of apathy or hostility. No wonder this little passage leads to a doxology from John: ‘to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen’ (verse 6). May his goodness to us lead us also to doxology.

It Was * Years Ago Today

Thirty-four years ago today, I found faith in Christ, when the Holy Spirit used the promises and professions of faith in the 1975 Methodist Service Book to make the heart of Christian faith come alive for me.

Sixty-five years ago today, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed at Flossenburg.