Monthly Archives: June 2013
“What does your church offer that’s missing at the YMCA? … When you read your church’s bulletin and determine the invitation you offer, you will know whether your church is a community center or the globalizing, wounded arm of the Savior.”
But it seems to be a good question. What is different about the church? Or, what could or should be different about the church?
And it seems good to ask it today, when we have so many visitors here for Emma’s baptism. I know some of you are churchgoers, but I expect a good number of you aren’t. You join us in the middle of a series where we are thinking about what our vision for a worshipping community is, and if you have any constructive feedback for us, please let us know.
It’s easy, of course, to find fault with the church, and often the fault-finding is deserved. While I sometimes recount that the famous celebrity who grew up along the same road as I did was Bruce Forsyth – and I play with ideas of changing the liturgy to begin with, ‘Nice to see you’ – another local lad was the late broadcaster Adrian Love. He attended the same grammar school as my Dad. Love was a churchgoer in his younger days, but gave it up because he couldn’t abide the persistent atmosphere of gossip in the church.
Against that background, it’s easy to have a romantic view of the early church, but the Apostle Paul would not have had to dictate the words of his that we read a few moments ago had everything been perfect then. So for the next few minutes we’ll consider those words on the basis that there is a gap the church needs to straddle, between how things are now and the vision of how things could be. This isn’t going to be an exercise in slating the church, but it is meant to be a time when we might become restless with things as they are, and develop a longing for how they might be.
Here, then, are three characteristics of a Christian worshipping community:
Firstly, love. I don’t think there is any other way to sum up the first three verses of the reading. Let’s hear them again:
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. (Verses 12-14)
Compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, bearing with each other, forgiving one another – all united by love. These are the qualities of love, of wanting to do whatever it will take for others to flourish. All of them could be taken as qualities of Jesus’ life – he was compassionate, kind, humble, gentle, patient and forgiving. Paul is calling Christians to love after the pattern of Jesus. It’s not real worship unless we love one another. Our relationships need to be whole, healing and authentic. If I say I’m worshipping God while I’ve got it in for my brother or sister Christian, then I am not truly worshipping at all.
But it’s a bit scary to speak about loving after the pattern of Jesus, isn’t it? Who could possibly do that? We know we fall short. The everyday reality is that we are fallible, failing, sinful people. We don’t make the grade. I was once at a conference where a seminar speaker asked us to take Paul’s famous words about love from 1 Corinthians 13 – ‘love is patient, love is kind, love keeps no record of wrongs’, and so on – and remove the word ‘love’, substituting our own names. Then we had to read it aloud. Most of us tripped into embarrassed laughter at the thought that we were patient and kind, keeping no record of wrongs. The speaker then asked us to remove the word ‘love’ and put in the name ‘Jesus’. Reading the words then made complete sense: ‘Jesus is patient, Jesus is kind,’ and the rest.
We are left, then, with this gap between the kind of people we sadly know ourselves to be and the sort of people we would aspire to be. And if we had to love like Jesus from a standing start straight to self-giving and self-sacrifice, we wouldn’t have a chance.
But it’s not like that. Paul starts with these words:
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved … (Verse 12a)
He can call us to love, because of who we are in God’s sight. We are chosen, holy (set apart) and – perhaps most important of all, dearly loved. The love we are called to demonstrate is not something that is a cold obligation. Rather, Paul says, love because you are loved. When you know you are loved, does that not change the way you live? The knowledge that someone loves you gives you security, and you risk doing things you wouldn’t otherwise have chanced. When you know you are loved, you don’t walk with stooping shoulders but with your head held high.
It’s all that and more in a relationship with Jesus Christ. We don’t love in order to be loved by God: we love because we are already loved. Loved with an everlasting love, the Bible says. Loved to the point of death, death on a Cross. And when we know we are loved like that, we find through God’s Holy Spirit the beginnings of bridging that gap between our weaknesses now and the vision of loving like Jesus.
Secondly, peace. Now – the love we have just described puts us on the road to peace, especially when we bear with each other and forgive one another. We start demonstrating a measure of reconciliation that is deeply appealing to broken and suffering people.
But Paul speaks of peace in another way in verse 15:
Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace.
When Paul says, ‘Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, the Greek word translated ‘rule’ is one that means an umpire or a referee. Christ’s peace is to blow the whistle in the church. When there are disagreements or even disputes – and we’d be naïve to think we won’t have them – then it is the peace of Christ that stops play or calls a foul. When there is something good – dare I say when we have scored a goal? – it is Christ’s peace that marks the fact and the style of our celebrations.
But if we really stretch the metaphor even further beyond what Paul had in mind, it might be worth asking, what kind of referee or umpire are we dealing with? Unfortunately, we often treat Christ and his peace like a football referee. We think we can argue him out of the decision he has made. We think we can show dissent and get away with it. And I know, of course, that Colin Stone would be deeply disappointed if I didn’t make an allusion to Chelsea players in this respect! How tragic it is that in the church we too often dissent from what the peace of Christ decrees. We don’t get our way, so we throw our toys out of the pram. Some aspect of church life doesn’t suit our tastes, so we break our relationships to go elsewhere. We don’t like what one individual does, so we bad mouth them behind their backs.
But what if we were dealing not with a football referee but a rugby referee, where dissent is punished by moving the kick ten metres nearer your goal? And therefore what if we allowed every aspect of Christ’s peace to rule our lives as a community? Not just peace in the sense of quietness, but the desire to overcome conflict, the desire to see harmony flourish, a commitment to justice in our relationships, strong resolve to work for healing in every area of life? I dare you to believe that spiritually we can hear Christ blowing the whistle on some of our behaviour, and that if only we were to treat him as the rugby referee whose will must be obeyed rather than the football referee who is constantly challenged, then we would take further steps towards being the worshipping community we long to be. We would be one in heart and mind as we come before God.
Thirdly and finally, thankfulness. When Paul finally gets onto the subject of worship in explicit words in the last couple of verses, note how words that suggest thankfulness (or gratitude) keep recurring:
And be thankful. 16 Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Verses 15b-17, italics mine.)
Where do we fall short when it comes to thankfulness? This is serious, because thanksgiving is central to our worshipping life. But – when we are ungrateful for all the good things God has given us, something is wrong. When we take our material and spiritual blessings for granted, things are going awry. When we become so detached from our brothers and sisters in Christ that our first instinct is to look for what we can grumble about, then we have departed from God’s vision for us as a worshipping community. Sadly, some people in our churches are known for their expertise in moaning.
What would begin to change us? How would we grow in thankfulness as a Christian community? It isn’t enough to be told to be thankful: there has to be a reason. Paul’s answer is that it’s to do with ‘the message of Christ’. As we dwell on all aspects of Christ’s life and ministry, it leads us to thankfulness. We are grateful for his coming. We give thanks for his life and teaching. We express gratitude for his suffering on our behalf. We offer thanksgiving because he conquered the grave. It is a case of turning our eyes on Jesus. Reflecting on Jesus rather than on our own petty dissatisfactions will begin to transform us.
But how can we do that? Not on our own, according to Paul. It’s something where we need one another. He envisages the wonders of Jesus being embedded in every style of worship the church offers – psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. And he anticipates not our style of worship where it’s all led from the front and one person chooses almost everything, but a group of people who together say to one another, ‘I think this hymn (or psalm, or spiritual song) will encourage you.’
And from there, it starts to fan out to the whole of our lives. Whatever you do, says Paul, do it in thankfulness, is how he ends. Our life as the worshipping community doesn’t end when I pronounce the blessing at the end of the service. That is but the beginning. When we are thankful for all that Christ has done, a light shines on all parts of life.
In fact, there was a church where the exit had a sign over the arch. As the congregation left the building, there were the words, ‘Servants’ Entrance’. Because we go as a worshipping community from this place with love, peace and thankfulness into the world.
I was tempted to start this week’s sermon the way I began my sermon last Sunday. I figured you wouldn’t notice, as I was at Knaphill and this is Walton. The only people who would notice were those who read this on my blog.
I was going to talk about a woman called Nancy Duarte, who is a world authority on how speakers might craft the best visual presentations. She talks about the need to find something in your message that will resonate with your hearers, so that there is empathy between speaker and audience (or congregation).
But for a lot of contemporary Christians, there are difficulties finding that resonance or empathy with today’s Gospel reading. Some get worried by the references to demons. Others are troubled by what happens to the pigs. A few will know there are issues around the reference to ‘the country of the Gerasenes’ (verses 26, 37) and whether it extended to the border of the Sea of Galilee.
Nevertheless, I want to ask you to stay with me as we explore this story. Whatever problems some of you might have with the account, I believe Jesus has much to teach us here about the way we share in his mission in the world today.
In fact, let’s take up that theme at the outset: this passage is first and foremost about mission.
Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. (Verse 26)
Then? What has just happened? Jesus and his disciples have just crossed the Sea of Galilee to the ‘other’ side, the Gentile side. They have survived a terrible storm, which threatened their lives, but which didn’t bother Jesus, who commanded it to stop. This is a deliberate journey. It is an utterly intentional act that he leads the disciples away from the safety and familiarity of the Jewish side of Galilee to the Gentile side. Jesus is leading his disciples out of their comfort zone.
And that is something we need him to do with us if we are to be on mission with him. How often do we want to stay in our familiar surroundings? How often do we describe outreach as ‘getting more people to join us’? We would rather it were all done on our territory, on our premises. But Jesus will not let us get away with that. If we just want to get people to join us, we are doing little more than recruiting people to our religious club. We have lost the vision of calling people to make their allegiance to the kingdom of God.
Yes, that will put us in uncomfortable circumstances. I was dwelling on that a few weeks ago when I went to the barber’s. As I waited my turn with one of the two guys in there, a student was having his hair cut by one of them. I heard him speaking disparagingly about a posh but attractive woman he had met at a social gathering. Without a trace of shame, the young man said, “It wasn’t as though I wanted a relationship with her, I only wanted to go to bed with her.” You can add your own stories, and some of you encounter these vastly different values every day. Yes, we can feel nervous when we come across them, because we are aware that our convictions will be laughed at, but it’s no good retreating from the challenge.
Make no mistake, there are forces that will want to prevent us from making our journey to the Gentile shore. The storm that rose threatened to derail Jesus and his disciples would probably have been seen by first century Jews as a demonic manifestation. The sea was a symbol of fear and for a storm to rise up there was more than a meteorological phenomenon. This was opposition to Jesus’ journey.
We face opposition, too. Yes, there are secular groups that want to obliterate all reference to God from the public discourse, not least the National Secular Society, an organisation that refuses to divulge how many members it has, but probably has no more than seven thousand.
But we have opposition within ourselves. We prefer our comforts. We want to avoid the difficult road. But you know what? We’ve tried that, and look around! It’s not working.
Friends, if there were one priority I could set for every church today, it would be to give mission the priority Jesus did, and to stop us running all our lives and our spare time around church activities. Things need to be cut. Certain high priorities at present need to be put far lower down our lists. We need to be in ‘Gentile territory’ with the love of God.
The second thing to notice – and you’ll say I’m just stating the blindingly obvious here – is that Jesus’ mission is about confrontation with evil. But before you ask why on earth the circuit is paying me a stipend to say such things, please notice that the confrontation with evil is more complex than it first appears.
Let’s begin with the problematic issue of the demons. It’s easy to assume, because we feel so superior as modern educated people, that the ‘primitive’ authors of the biblical books were mistakenly attributing what we would call mental illness to demonic activity. However, why do we make that assumption? Is it because we have already decided we are embarrassed by what is often called the ‘supernatural’? Or maybe we do so, because we know of Christians who have been irresponsible in their easy labelling of anything disturbing as being ‘of the devil’, sometimes causing pastoral damage by doing so. This has certainly happened.
But ultimately do we not as Christians have to deal with the fact that Jesus recognised the existence of the demonic? Were we then to say that Jesus only did so because he was a child of his time, then have we not come close to denying that he is Lord? It is one thing to say that Jesus limited himself in his incarnation, but it is quite another to say that he was wrong.
So I conclude that there is a spiritual dimension to evil that needs to be faced – and faced not with fear but with faith. I think it fair to say that the demonic is real but rare. In twenty years of ministry, I can only point with certainty to one case – although there may have been others. Indeed, the late John Wimber, whose famed healing ministry included a deliverance element, said he could count on the fingers of his hands the number of times he had encountered a demon.
However, I said that the confrontation with evil was more complex than first appears. The effect of Jesus’ ministry is not only the expulsion of the demons from the afflicted man. That is one of at least four effects Jesus has in this story. A second is that he has an effect upon the local economy when he allows the demons to enter the herd of pigs. Whatever we make of that action, the local farmers will not have been pleased. Even if we say that to a Jew the pigs were unclean (which isn’t an easy justification, because Jesus declared all foods clean), we are still left with an economic effect of Jesus’ battle with evil.
It isn’t the only time something like this happens in the New Testament. In Acts 16, Paul casts a demon out of a slave girl, and the girl’s owner is enraged that he has lost his income stream. In Ephesus, the craftsmen who make idols for people to worship become angry with Paul and his entourage who promote the worship of a different deity, one who prohibits images. Gospel preaching and deliverance ministry not only have a positive effect on those who are blessed, but a negative effect on those whose economic self-interest is dependent upon sin and exploitation.
As well as the exorcism and the social effect, there is a third effect of the confrontation with evil, and it is a positive one: the man’s relationship with society is healed. No longer does he have to be ostracised as a graveyard-inhabiting madman in chains, the only people he sees being those engaged to guard him (verse 29). Now, instead of being naked he is clothed, and instead of being afflicted he is in his right mind (verse 35). The Gospel heals his relationship with society. It heals social brokenness. Relationships are restored. Ostracism and exclusion are dissolved.
The fourth Gospel effect in Jesus’ confrontation with evil is that the healed man becomes a disciple. No longer is he subject to other powers, he is now free to follow Jesus. And so much so that he wants to leave his home and go on the road with Jesus (verse 38), although Jesus has a different task for him, a missional one among his own people of proclaiming what God has done (verse 39).
This all reminds us, then, that the mission to which we are called will be a fully rounded one. Some Christians talk as if you can pick a preference: the Gospel is about conversion, or it is about supernatural healings, or it is about reconciliation, or it is about social justice. However, there is no ‘or’ about it. The Gospel affects all areas of life, and we need to share it with that in mind. Jesus cannot be limited to a small compartment of our lives: he comes to reign in every area of life. This is the Gospel of the kingdom of God: that God seeks to act as king in every sphere. This is what we proclaim, and this is what we are to live.
Naturally, there are no guarantees here. People are not computers that can be programmed to provide a guaranteed response. Hence, when the townspeople become fearful and ask Jesus to leave them (verses 35, 37). And perhaps the frightening thing for such people is that Jesus honours their terrible request to go away.
But, but, but! If Jesus had not taken the missional initiative and confronted evil, that man would never have found healing and faith. It is because Jesus went away from the familiarity of Jewish Galilee to Gentile Galilee that the man was blessed and became a disciple.
I ask you to draw a contrast between where we are in many churches now and where we might be. Mostly, we wait for people to come to us. We follow Einstein’s definition of insanity: we keep doing the same thing, but we expect a different result. We ought to have got the message by now: doing the same old same old over and over as we do a credible impersonation of a heritage industry rather than a living organism will not get us any other result than the current one of decline and aging.
I hold out to you instead a vision of a church that is prepared to cross the stormy waters from safety to vulnerability. A church that is not interested in self-preservation but in overflowing with the Good News of God’s kingdom in every area of life, expressed in word and deed. A church that in doing so is willing to risk the negative responses of those who will tell her to go away for the sake of those who will drink the message of the kingdom as life-giving water, as the afflicted man in this story did.
Friends, if you compare where we are now with where we could be, which future do you want? The present scenario is sometimes expressed in terms that I find uncomfortable: I hear some of our older members in some churches saying, “As long as this church sees me out, that’s all I care about.” In other words, as long as the congregation doesn’t die before they do, that’s enough. I find that depressing and distressing.
We have a better alternative. Yes, it’s a bit scary, but it’s the way of life. It’s the way of Jesus.
We have two choices before us. I pray we choose the way of life.
Well, OK, not everyone; one commenter on Facebook described it as
Complete mush and the usual patronising Internet twaddle that gets over emotional people interested. Thank goodness there’s plenty of love in my family without this ‘Barney The Dinosaur’ drivel.
While that guy returns to his Chuck Norris DVDs and his Mark Driscoll books, I’ll tell you why it touched a nerve with me. Yes, there is some gooey stuff in the article, like the point when Mr Scoggins’ little daughter says, “Daddy, when I was still in heaven, I wished for a Daddy like you.” But give the little lass a break. It may be inaccurate, but hear the heart of a small girl who feels utterly safe with her father.
It’s like this for me. I didn’t get married until I was 41. I had had the odd girlfriend and one broken engagement, but mostly I was the kind of man who attracted the “Let’s just be friends” response from the fairer sex. For me, it was never a case of when I got married, but if I got married. And then to marry at an older age meant lengthened odds in the parenting stakes, and shortened odds in the disabled baby stakes.
For a long time, I’d wanted to be a Dad. I have a sister and no brothers, and I felt that strange male desire to keep the family name going. I would have felt like I was a failure if it hadn’t happened. I know that’s irrational, but that’s how I felt. I wanted children, and I especially wanted a son. For different but equally strong emotional reasons, my wife wanted a daughter.
As some of you know, we had a daughter, and then a son. I never knew how much I would adore having a daughter, and I don’t think my wife knew how much my wife realised how much she would love having a son. I love having a son, too: we have a common understanding. It’s great to go to football and cricket together, or watch rugby. I love the fact that he has inherited my talent for Maths. My wife gets on a wavelength with our daughter, and I see them connecting in special ways, too.
Childbirth is precarious, and we certainly saw that with our two. Both were born by Caesarean section. In our daughter’s case, it was an emergency section. Debbie was a week and a half overdue, and was taken into hospital to be induced, but little or nothing happened. The medical staff increased the hormones being pumped in, hoping this would bring on labour, but all that happened was that our daughter’s heartbeat started going all over the place. We went to theatre quickly.
In our son’s case, we had booked an elective section for health reasons with a supportive consultant, and were relieved to have done so, because the cord was around his neck. We could have lost either of our children at birth.
So I never care on Father’s Day whether Debbie has organised big presents from the children, because nothing can beat two blue eyes looking into mine and saying, “I love you, Daddy. You’re my real Daddy, my only Daddy, not a step-Daddy and I won’t have another Daddy.”
Inside, I blub. Even though I too can’t bear Barney the Dinosaur.
Happy Father’s Day.
Continuing our sermon series on worship:
Nancy Duarte is something of a hero to me. She married her husband Mark at eighteen, and they planned to go Bible college and then find a church to pastor. Instead, Mark bought a computer, and set up a business which Nancy now heads. They design visual presentations for major international clients such as Apple. Their most famous work was to design the visuals for Al Gore’s film about the environmental crisis, ‘An Inconvenient Truth’. Nancy is a pastor, though – to her staff.
One of the key themes Nancy Duarte teaches about designing engaging presentations is that they must resonate with the hearers. There must be an empathy, a deep inward ‘Yes!’ to what the speaker is saying.
My problem with today’s passage was that initially I thought it might be difficult to get it to resonate with a good number of you. Some of you will struggle might be troubled by the references to speaking in tongues and prophecy. But it isn’t just that: Paul has a completely different conception of what a typical gathering for worship looks like from traditional twenty-first century Christian worshippers. We are used to most or all things being led from the front, but he assumes that everyone has a contribution. Not for him is the content all down to a trained expert.
So how are we going to appreciate what Paul says here about the common use of spiritual gifts in Christian worship? Well, one thing I need to do immediately is to take you out of the pews. In fact, not just out of the pews, but out of the church building. Because Paul was not writing to a congregation that had its own special religious space like us. The notion of church buildings is so ingrained into us, but it distorts what Paul is saying.
To put it more specifically, I once heard Professor Jimmy Dunn say that when we read that the early church met in homes, we can probably assume that they met in the homes of the wealthier members. Archaeological evidence of large homes in the Roman Empire suggests that we are talking about a space that could accommodate thirty, or at most forty people. It is neither like typical Sunday services as we know them, nor is it like the house groups of our experience.
But it does provide a context that makes sense of so much of what Paul teaches about worship in 1 Corinthians. For example, if you bridle at his command that women should keep silent, remember first of all that they are being allowed to learn in the early church (unlike other religions), but that they are probably saying, “What does that mean?” every now and again to their husbands in a confined space where that will be disruptive. Hence they are to keep their questions until they get home for the sake of good order. It also makes sense of the chaotic scenes at the Lord’s Supper in Corinth, if you read chapter 11.
And I suggest to you as well that a gathering for worship in a large home makes sense of Paul’s teaching here. See if some of what Paul says resonates more with you if I can ask you to imagine thirty or forty people crammed together in a large reception room. They are not all sitting on chairs; many are cross-legged on the floor, and others are reclining. For me, it means recalling a holiday I had with friends many years ago where we hired a villa on the Algarve. Imagine something similar – but definitely delete the pews and the church building from your thoughts this morning.
So – if you can picture this different style of gathering – let us ask three questions of the text to help us understand the place of spiritual gifts in Christian worship. Those three questions are ‘Who?’, ‘What?’ and ‘Why?’
Firstly, we ask ‘Who?’ The answer to this is, ‘Everyone’.
What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up. (Verse 26, italics mine)
It’s just the way of things in the early church. Paul doesn’t need to command ‘each of [them]’ to bring a contribution to worship: they do, anyway. This statement is indicative of the existing situation, and Paul doesn’t have any problems with it. After all, when he began his teaching about spiritual gifts in chapter 12, he soon used his image of the Body of Christ, where every member plays a part.
You may have heard some preachers say that church is often like going to a football match, where twenty-two thousand people in need of exercise watch twenty-two people in need of a rest. Over the centuries, we have deified forms of worship led by the experts – whether it is the more Catholic insistence on the need for a priest who can lead us into the presence of God, or the more Protestant emphasis on a sermon like this that makes teaching the Word of God more like a lecture. That, of course, comes complete with rows of seating. And as we sit in rows (whether in pews or on chairs), we reduce our sense of community and the congregation becomes passive, listening to the minister.
Now once you get beyond the numbers that were in a typical early church meeting, then the group dynamics change, and they certainly do if you go for a more formalised structure. But that is to beg the question of what to do when you grow – maybe instead of getting bigger a church should divide into two.
Of this I am sure: we have disabled many members of Christ’s Body from being able to contribute in worship. It is not to say that everybody has to lead from the front – Paul doesn’t assume that here – but it is to say that we have squashed people’s gifts. Sometimes we ministers don’t want the contributions of others. Sometimes congregations want to stay passive. Christians judge a church or a preacher by whether they were ‘fed’, but shepherds don’t merely feed the sheep, they also teach the sheep where to feed for themselves.
Hence, I want to announce something this morning that I have been thinking about ever since I came. Just as I have made a modest increase in worship participation at the communion services by involving our Youth Church, so I now want to increase adult participation, and I shall do that in the non-sacramental services. I am introducing a feature that runs in a number of churches, called ‘This Time Tomorrow’. The aim is to make the link between 10 am on Sunday and 10 am on Monday. I would like people who are willing to share (perhaps by being interviewed) what they do in the week away from church, how they approach it as a Christian, and what challenges they face for which they would like prayer. You can be in paid work, you can be retired or unemployed, you can be doing something voluntary in the community. If you would like to do this, please speak with me after the service, but I am on the lookout and will have a sign-up sheet available, too! The key is to connect our worship more clearly with every member, and through every member to the world in mission.
Our second question is ‘What?’ That is, what is every member bringing to worship?
What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up. (Verse 26, italics mine)
Here is why we can’t allow the rule of experts to disable the ministry of all God’s people. It’s because God has equipped not only the leaders but all of his followers. There is a wide range of gifts here. At one end are gifts that traditional Christians would easily recognise, such as ‘a hymn, or a word of instruction.’ At the other end are the gifts that unnerve some Christians, because they seem so far away from everyday life and conventional behaviour – ‘a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation.’ Yet all good gifts are from God and are to be welcomed in a spirit of trust.
We shouldn’t trivialise this. The thought that someone can bring ‘a hymn’ should not be reduced to some kind of community hymn-singing, or just an opportunity to sing someone’s favourite hymn. It is all about the contribution that can be made to the overall act of worship. I would not be picking a hymn for myself, but for the sake of the gathered body of disciples. ‘A word of instruction’ is not the chance for someone to inflict their hobbyhorse on the congregation, but the prospect of someone who has been close to God in prayer and the Scriptures bringing a word that has the aroma of heaven. Likewise, the more spectacular gifts of ‘a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation’ are not occasions for Christians to show off some supposed spiritual prowess, but an opening to use something precious from God to bless his people.
But here’s where our disparity from the way the early church gathered makes it difficult for us to take this on board. Once you get beyond a certain size, only particular types of people are willing to speak up and ask for their contributions to be included. Sitting in rows doesn’t help, either. It has to be done in more intimate, flexible gatherings we have such as the house groups.
In public worship in our culture it would have to happen in a more controlled way, because we require that someone takes responsibility for ensuring that the content of worship is consistent with the Christian faith as the Methodist Church has received it. That person is the preacher appointed to take the service. But there is no reason why members cannot approach the preacher (in good time, of course!) and say they have something which they think could be of benefit to the congregation. Heaven knows, there are few Local Preachers and ministers who are highly skilled in every aspect of worship. That means the church as a whole is missing out if others do not come forward with their gifts and offerings. I want to encourage you to break through the barriers that our current practices create, so that we can all be enriched by what God has given you. If that means you having a word with me to tell me you have something that could be a gift for our worship together, then I want to urge you to speak with me.
Our third and final question is ‘Why?’ Come back again to verse 26:
What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up. (Verse 26, italics mine)
So that the church may be built up. That’s why Paul goes on to give some instructions about how many people should speak, how what is said should be weighed, how some speakers should give way to others, and how generally those who offer their gifts should exercise self-control and demonstrate peace and good order. The gifts of the Spirit in worship are not about manufacturing religious superstars or launching careers in the Church: they are to be used with one motive in mind only, the building up of Christ’s church.
Or let’s see it this way. Never mind those who harbour the vain ambition to be big fish in the small pond of the church, we would probably all agree that the building up of the church is a noble goal for worship. But presently we leave that task of building up largely to one person – the preacher. Paul clearly believed that it took the actions of the whole Body to build itself up. There’s nothing particularly contentious among Christians about a goal to build up the church. But the idea that such a goal requires more than the diligence of the preacher is resisted in places. In one church it was said, “Why buy a dog and then wag your own tail?” Even in churches where there is a lot of participation in various areas of its life, there can still be a disturbing division. The minister is expected to do the ‘spiritual’ work, while the congregation does the ‘practical’ stuff.
Of course, some will ask, “How can I contribute to the edification of the church? I haven’t got anything worthwhile to offer.” To that I would reply in two ways. Firstly, either you already have some latent spiritual gifts you can offer that you haven’t noticed, or you could ask God to give you spiritual gifts that you can use for the benefit of the church. And the second thing I would say is to quote the Apostle Peter:
Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.
In other words, nurture your spiritual life and you will find that something grows in you that you can share. I talked last week about some of the opportunities we offer in KMC and which we have offered to help you grow in the life of the Spirit. The nub of the matter is that if you share in the view that worship should build us all up, then that implicates you in playing a part that contributes towards that goal.
Where does all this leave us? It gives us a radical view of Christian worship that departs from our traditions in some significant ways. But really it’s our traditions that have departed from the apostolic testimony. When the Holy Spirit is at work, that will happen in an apostolic way, not a traditional way, and if we are not careful we shall find that the new wine of the Spirit is poured into the brittle old wineskins of our traditionalism.
Ironically, that’s why I’ve ended up speaking for a little longer than usual this morning. It has been an attempt to lay out a more thoroughly New Testament vision for worship, one that depends on us all using our spiritual gifts for the maturing of the church.
Friends, we might have to choose between our cherished traditions and the growth of the church.
From a new sermon series on worship:
I was once taken to task after a sermon I preached on worship when I was a Local Preacher. Having confined myself to the question of worship when we are gathered together on a Sunday, someone wanted to know why I hadn’t talked about the worship of our daily lives.
Well, you can’t include everything in one sermon – although some preachers try! But my friend had a point. If you consider Christian worship, you have to see that it is about more than Sunday morning. We are called to a lifestyle of worship, and is what Paul does here. Romans 12 is about Christian lifestyle, but it is packed with words from the realm of the temple – ‘offer’, ‘sacrifice’ and ‘worship’ all occur in verse 1.
And so if we are to have a series of sermons on worship, we must think about our lifestyle of worship. We speak about some people who are ‘Sunday Christians’ – they come to a church service on Sunday, but have no connection with the church in the rest of the week and Sunday morning has no effect on the way they live from day to day. The early church would not have recognised such people as authentically Christians at all. The summons is to follow Jesus, and you don’t get any annual leave away from that calling.
But behind all this is the first of two questions that Romans 12:1-2 addresses: why should we worship? Paul puts it quite simply: ‘in view of God’s mercy’ (verse 1). More fully, he says,
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship. (Verse 1)
We offer a lifestyle of worship to God ‘in view of God’s mercy’. The ‘Sunday Christian’ may not understand this. On occasion, I have asked congregations for ideas to include in the opening prayers of praise and adoration. “What reasons do we have for bringing our praise and worship to God this week?” I have asked. Often, my experience has been that the answers which come back have a lot to do with the goodness and beauty of creation, and for the sort of blessings that all sorts of people, religious or not, enjoy – good health, a new job, the birth of a new family member, and so on.
Now there is nothing wrong with any of those reasons. But what is missing? What we have is a collection of reasons to be thankful that are based on the goodness of God in creation, but what is absent is any recognition of the love of God in salvation. ‘God’s mercy’ is missing. Jesus and his Cross are absent.
Remember – this is Romans chapter 12. Paul has spent eleven chapters arguing why the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus change everything. When he says, ‘in view of God’s mercy’, he has in mind all the incarnate Son of God has done for us in giving his life and in being raised from the dead. If we are only Sunday worshippers, we have not grasped what God has done for us in Christ. Either we have not realised that Christ died for our sins and rose for our justification, or we are glad to receive his forgiveness but just enjoy the blessing without showing any gratitude.
In fact, Paul’s language is even stronger. He doesn’t simply say ‘in view of God’s mercy’, he literally says, ‘in view of God’s mercies’. It isn’t as though God was merciful to us in Christ at the Cross and that’s that, we’ve had our mercy (amazing as that is). No! God is consistently and continually merciful to us. How many of us have had second chance after second chance from him? How many of us can look at our lives and see him faithfully directing our steps? We remember the Old Testament words that the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end. But where do those words come from? Of all books, they come from Lamentations, where the author is grieving the judgement of God on sinful Judah in allowing Babylon to take God’s people into exile and cause devastation and destruction everywhere. Yet even the God of judgement can be merciful every morning. If he is merciful like that in the midst of judgement, how much more merciful is he in other ways?
So if we want reason to worship by the way we live each day, we have it in the mercies of our God. Surely a God who is merciful to us in the ways the Scriptures tell us is one to whom we should be deeply and consistently grateful. Surely we show that gratitude in the way we follow his Son.
Let me make this a little more specific, then: do you know that Christ died and rose for you? As you sense gratitude welling up to him for all that he has done and all that he continues to do for you, is there any particular way at present that he is calling you to give glory to him by imitating his life?
And let that lead us into the second of the two questions: how should we worship? Paul gives us two answers to ‘how’: firstly, with our bodies, and secondly, with our minds.
Firstly, then, our bodies:
[O]ffer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship. (Verse 1b)
Now we might get nervous about what ‘sacrifice’ involves, rather in the way people assume that whatever they fear most is what God is most likely to ask them to do. If you don’t like the thought of going to remote regions of Africa, then God will definitely call you to be a missionary there. No wonder someone once said, “The problem with living sacrifices is that they keep crawling off the altar.”
Essentially, though, a sacrifice is an offering of something or someone over to God for him to do with as he pleases. When we say the Covenant Prayer at the beginning of each Methodist year in September, there is a fine balance stated over and over in different ways between those callings that might be congenial to our aptitudes and interests, and those which might not be. God is neither a sadist nor an indulgent grandfather. He is merciful to us, we give ourselves over to him and he deploys us for his kingdom purposes.
More specifically, Paul describes the sacrifice of our bodies with three adjectives. You may think that only the word ‘living’ is attached to sacrifices, but a more precise translation would be ‘sacrifices, living, holy and pleasing to God’.
So note that God wants living sacrifices, not dead ones. Just as you might put money into an offering plate, I invite you to imagine yourself putting your whole body on a huge plate that is carried to the front and dedicated to him. We ‘offer’ not simply our money, but ourselves. We ‘present’ our bodies. You may recall that when our previous hymn book, Hymns and Psalms, came out, some people made a fuss about the wording in the final verse of ‘When I Survey The Wondrous Cross.’ Instead of singing,
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were an offering far too small
the words were,
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were a present far too small.
Some Christians didn’t like the use of the word ‘present’, but I don’t think it was a bad one. We bring gifts unconditionally to those whom we love, and Paul urges us to do something similar with our bodies. Let us offer what we can do with our physical bodies to God.
Moreover, it needs to be a holy sacrifice. To be holy is to be set apart for God’s special purposes. There is nothing mundane or routine in the offering of our bodies. God has a special purpose for us, and it can only be accomplished if we dedicate our bodies to him. What can I do with my strengths and my talents? How can they be used for kingdom purposes?
Finally, these sacrifices are pleasing to God. Do not get the image that God is po-faced and stern in the face of our offering. As we put our bodies at his disposal, he is pleased! This is what he longed for. We can give great pleasure to God by offering a present of our bodies to him.
Secondly, we worship with our minds:
Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Verse 2)
To say that we worship with our minds may make some people nervous, like watching the news report in the week about a thirteen-year-old girl from Surbiton called Neha Ramu, who has an IQ of 162. If we have to use our minds in worship, some of us will feel we are not qualified.
But this is not about being intellectual. It goes more like this: a lifestyle of worship involves finding out God’s will and doing it, in order to bring more pleasure to God. But the problem we have is with tuning in to God’s will. Sin affects our minds as much as any other part of our being. For example, that is why science can be used for ill as well as for good: think of weapons of mass destruction or environmental damage. It is also about the way we try to deceive ourselves and deliberately twist our thinking to find something acceptable that actually isn’t. Every part of our humanity is affected by sin, including our thinking. It is therefore part of redemption that our minds are renewed in godly ways of thinking. That is not something exclusive to eggheads, but something we all need. We remember that Jesus said we were to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.
So how do we allow God to renew our minds and thus transform us, so that we can do his will as an act of worship? Well, although ‘Be transformed’ is passive – it is something that happens to us – ‘the renewing of your minds’ is not. We need to be intentional about renewing our minds. That is why we promote daily Bible reading notes here, such as Our Daily Bread. That is why we have house groups. That is why we ran the Sacred Rhythms course to help people learn the practice of spiritual disciplines. That is why we promoted the Week of Accompanied Prayer.
But – we have to avail ourselves of these opportunities. It’s no good complaining that we can’t discern the will of God when we’re not taking our chances to let the Scriptures shape our thinking in godly ways. After all – which kind of believer would not be serious about knowing the will of God and walking in it? Would it not be the Sunday Christian again? There are plenty of other institutions in our world that want to shape our minds according to their values. Retailers and governments want us to think like consumers, not like disciples. It takes deliberate action on our part to put ourselves in a place where God can renew and transform our minds, so that our thinking and our believing is closer to his.
Friends, let us remember again that we are worshippers in response to ‘God’s mercies’. Think again about all the ways in which God has been merciful to you. Will you now consider these questions? How am I going to offer my body in devotion to Jesus Christ? And what steps will I take to allow God to make my mind Jesus-shaped rather than world-shaped?
I wonder what your personal prayers for other people’s needs are like. Perhaps part of your regular prayers are like a shopping list – you have a collection of people you regularly pray for, and you methodically go through the list, ticking them off as you’ve mentioned them.
But what are your prayers like when an urgent need comes up? When you are only praying for one person, do you find yourself starting to rehearse before God all the reasons why he should answer your request – perhaps to heal this person? Maybe sometimes we are so daunted by the seriousness of the appeal we are making to the Lord that we are trying to buttress our own faith by deploying reason after reason why we think God should say ‘yes’ to us.
In those situations, a common component of our prayers is to say, “Lord, the person I am praying for is a good person. Here is a list of all the worthy things she has done. Here, too, is a list of reasons why it would be important to heal her.” We hope that – like some barrister pleading for a client before a jury – we can persuade God to find in favour of the friend we are representing in prayer.
And you know what? It’s wasted breath. Our story tells us that.
The Jewish elders come to Jesus about their surprising friend, the Roman centurion, whose slave is ill. Luke tells us that the slave was ‘valued highly’ (verse 2), which may indicate one of these types of prayer – ‘Lord, look what dire straits this centurion will be in if his slave dies.’ More specifically, they tell Jesus how worthy the man is:
He is worthy of having you do this for him, 5for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us. (Verses 4b-5)
Now while Jesus doesn’t castigate them for this – indeed, the next thing we read is that he ‘went with them’ (verse 6) – it is apparent from the story that this is not why Jesus healed the gravely ill slave.
Remember – it is the centurion’s faith that Jesus commends. And what we hear from him is the very opposite account of himself. He does not have the temerity to approach Jesus and appeal to him on the grounds that he deserves a divine favour. Rather, we get the complete opposite. The whole tenor the centurion’s approach is not how worthy he is but how unworthy he is:
Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; 7therefore I did not presume to come to you. (Verses 6b-7a)
This, I believe, is the first of two elements in the centurion’s faith that Jesus praises so highly. We would say it is about grace. The centurion does not appeal to Jesus on the basis of being ‘good enough’. He knows that any divine response is never going to come on that basis. It will only come because God is gracious and merciful.
And that indeed is what happens. Jesus does not announce the healing on the basis of the man having funded a synagogue. In fact, Jesus even seems to honour the centurion’s request not to come under his roof, because he simply says that the healing has happened. The healing is discovered when the friends whom the man has sent (verse 6) return to the house (verse 10).
I want to say that there is both good news and bad news in this approach. The bad news is for those who want to earn their own favour with God. That is, the sort of people who want to put out a record of good works and claim they are worthy of the Almighty’s company and favour. This will not do. Not one of us. At the heart of the Christian Gospel is the stark message that ‘All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3:23). All. No exceptions. We need to put aside any religion that is based on thinking we can make ourselves good enough for God, or that we can put ourselves within his boundary markers. It isn’t possible. We delude ourselves dangerously when we do that. But we still have people in church congregations who believe this lie.
Answered prayer is not simply a reward for the good people. Do not mistake me: I still believe it is important to live a good life, and to make it a top priority to ‘find out what pleases the Lord’ as Paul said, and then do it. But that lifestyle is not a passport to heaven, it is the sign of our gratitude to God that in Christ he has been full of grace and mercy to us. A good lifestyle is the response of love to God. Having received his grace, we respond to Jesus’ call, when he says, ‘Follow me.’
So what is the good news here? Jesus invites those of us who know we are not good enough or worthy of his love still to approach him in prayer. What is it about yourself that makes you feel unworthy before Jesus? Is it all those times you have let him down? He still invites you to pray. Is it that recently you have done something you are particularly ashamed of? He still invites you to pray. Is it that you don’t feel like you fit in socially – either in society, or even, perhaps in the church? Guess what – in his grace he still invites you to pray. Perhaps you have a stigma – maybe it is the stinging words of someone who has always put you down and made you feel like dirt over the years. Jesus doesn’t speak to you like that. In fact – he invites you to pray. He says, ‘Speak to me. I am listening. I am full of grace and mercy. My Father wants you to approach him as his beloved child.’ Believe the good news.
The second of the two elements in the centurion’s faith is his understanding of authority. It’s about the delegated authority to speak an authoritative word of command. Listen to his words that his friends relay to Jesus:
But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. 8For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it. (Verses 7b-8)
It’s not just, ‘Jesus, I know what it’s like to give orders in the army; you can give orders in the kingdom of God.’ It is that, but it’s more. It’s more like this: ‘I can give my orders, because I am under authority. My authority comes from my superiors and ultimately from the Emperor. That is why my orders must be carried through. You, Jesus, are in a similar situation. Your orders have to be carried out, because you have placed yourself under the Father’s authority. Your orders have the backing of heaven. You can speak an authoritative word to heal my slave, because the Father has delegated his power to you.’
Now I know that putting it like that is rather to expand things beyond what the centurion probably understood at the time, but I think in the bigger New Testament picture of things, it’s justified. Jesus, the Word who was and is the eternal Second Person of the Trinity, was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and submitted himself as a servant, even to death. On earth, Jesus – despite being fully divine – acted as ‘a man in the power of the Spirit’ (Jack Deere). Under the Father’s authority, he could command healing, he could command the wind and the waves, he could turn water into wine and make five loaves and two fish feed a multitude.
Maybe it is something like this. When I worked in Social Security, I would issue several letters a day to benefit claimants or to self-employed people about their National Insurance. I signed every single one ‘pp’ the manager. My signing authority was that of my manager. That gave me the right to say what I said in those letters. The centurion had the ‘signing authority’ of the Emperor. Jesus had – and has – the signing authority of the Father.
What difference does this make to our praying? While I don’t want to minimise the difficulties we face when our prayers are not answered in the way we hope – whether we get a ‘no’, a different answer, or even the silence of heaven – what I want to encourage us to remember is this: it’s about the rank of the Person to whom we are coming. The risen and ascended Jesus is at the right hand of the Father. He is even praying for us, and the Holy Spirit prays through us. The Father is not being badgered: Jesus and the Spirit share his authority.
So I want us to be encouraged in prayer. The court of heaven is an environment in which we are welcomed and heard. We have been encouraged into the Father’s presence by his grace and mercy in Christ. Now that we are there, we can humbly revel in the authority he desires to exercise for the sake of his kingdom, so that things conform on earth to the way they are done in heaven. If you are considering bringing a request in prayer to God and wondering whether it is worthy being brought, simply ask yourself this: if this were answered, would it be a good fit with God’s reign coming more fully on earth as it is in heaven? That doesn’t always have to mean it’s super-spiritual. It doesn’t always have to mean that it’s an earth-shattering request. But it does mean this: would it reflect God’s love for people? Would it demonstrate God’s love in Christ for the last and the least? Would it be a sign of mercy, or healing, or peace, or justice? It may still benefit us, by the way, as the healing of the slave did the centurion.
As I prepared this sermon, a couplet from an old hymn came to mind:
Large petitions with thee bring
Thou art coming to a king.
The hymn starts with these words:
Come, my soul, thy suit prepare,
Jesus loves to answer prayer.
Does anyone know who wrote it? John Newton, author of ‘Amazing Grace.’ You don’t need me to remind you that Newton was a former slave trader who was converted to Christ, became an Anglican clergyman and supported William Wilberforce’s campaign to abolish the slave trade from which he had previously profited. Newton epitomises both of the strands of prayer that the centurion understood. He certainly knew that he was most unworthy to grace God’s presence in any way at all, least of all to ask for things in prayer. But he understood and experienced grace. He knew that in Christ and his cross God had forgiven him for some of the very worst things one human being could do to another. He would not have earned an audience with heaven on the grounds of his goodness.
But then, in backing the young Wilberforce and his parliamentary campaign of abolition, he understood something of Jesus’ delegated authority from the Father. To pray and work for abolition was huge. It took decades (and even Wilberforce’s victory did not result in the complete destruction of the slave trade). However, the elderly Newton knew that it was worth bringing ‘large petitions’ as he said in his hymn, because in prayer you are ‘coming to a king.’
Friends, this is what we do. Even if our lives are not as scandalous and colourful as John Newton’s – and unless anyone is hiding some remarkable details from us, I think I can safely say that’s the case here – we know we can and we may come to God’s presence because of his grace. Our humility does not exclude us, but leads us to the reason why we may come: God in Christ is gracious and merciful.
Then, when we come, we come to Christ who has authority from the Father. And therefore we can come with big requests. Big kingdom prayers.
Let us now allow anything to stop us. No lies of the enemy, no self-doubt, no voices of scorn or disbelief from people we know. Jesus calls us to the Father’s presence. And he tells us to ‘pray big.’
So let us pray. Not just now, in this service. But always.