Monthly Archives: August 2013
One of my daughter’s hobbies is gymnastics. Sometimes I think she would prefer to cartwheel somewhere rather than walk.
The other evening, she asked me to time how long she could hold a handstand with her feet against a bedroom wall. I had to ask her to stop, because I could see her face going beetroot red with the blood. She was disgusted, as it turned out she had not achieved the time she wanted to make.
Our Gospel reading today is about Jesus turning things upside down. Just as the early Christian preachers were accused, according to the Book of Acts, of ‘turning the world upside down’, so had Jesus done precisely that before them. They were only following in their Master’s footsteps.
There are two major areas of life that Jesus turns upside down in these verses. The first is religion itself.
Think about the story of Jesus meeting the man suffering from dropsy on the Sabbath (verses 1-6). The Pharisees are watching him. Healing is banned on the Sabbath, but Jesus asks an awkward question:
“Is it lawful to cure people on the Sabbath, or not?” (Verse 3)
In the face of their embarrassed silence, Jesus heals the man, sends him away, and then asks another embarrassing question that exposes the hypocrisy of the religious rules they were operating:
“If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on the Sabbath day?” (Verse 5)
Again, embarrassed silence (verse 6).
Now, it’s easy for us to be smug and talk about those wicked Pharisees. But … there are a couple of elements here that should make us nervous.
One is that what Jesus shows up with his light here is the darkness of hypocrisy. You know as well as I do that one of the charges non-Christians level at Christians is that we are hypocrites. I know we can retort with comments such as, “Yes, the church is full of hypocrites – but there is always room for one more,” but perhaps sometimes we need to look at our hypocrisies, or at very least our inconsistencies. What are the areas where our lives contradict what we claim to be the truth of God? For a lot of us, there are rather too many.
Sometimes, this is blatant in the way that we do not lives up to the stringent standards that Jesus laid down for the life of discipleship. We do not love the poor. We are glad to have a Food Bank at our church, but we do nothing to support it, not even an occasional tin in the basket.
But our inconsistencies can show up in the most surprising forms. We proclaim that God is love, but we don’t actually believe he loves us.
The late Brennan Manning, one of whose books we have been studying in the Discovery Group, once said that he was convinced that on Judgement Day, God would only ask us one question, and it was this: “Did you believe that I loved you?”
“Do you believe that the God of Jesus loves you beyond worthiness and unworthiness, beyond fidelity and infidelity—that he loves you in the morning sun and in the evening rain—that he loves you when your intellect denies it, your emotions refuse it, your whole being rejects it. Do you believe that God loves without condition or reservation and loves you this moment as you are and not as you should be?”
Some of us actually don’t believe that God loves us. And because deep down some of us don’t truly believe God loves us – and loves us like this – we manufacture a substitute religion. It comes out in the other thing that Jesus is criticising here: we construct a religion of rules. If we can’t believe God loves and live in response to that, then we will come up with something else that makes it look like we truly believe: outward conformity to rules. It’s as if we are saying that keeping the rules makes us acceptable to God, or keeping the rules shows that we are on the inside of the boundary between those who are God’s people and those who aren’t.
That is what the Pharisees were doing – and they ended up with labyrinthine rules that led to the prohibition on healing on a Sabbath day.
But it’s also what we do. We do it when a sincere churchgoer says to the preacher after the service, “If we only returned to the Ten Commandments, all would be well.” (Not that I am knocking the Ten Commandments!) We see it when we turn those in the religious hierarchy into people who police the laws of our institution, rather than preachers of the Gospel. Anglicans can turn Archdeacons into their police officers, and Methodists can do it with their Superintendents. When we are more concerned with maintaining the institution, we have fallen out of love with God.
Turning religion into a set of rules can actually happen for the best of reasons. We are so used to seeing the Pharisees as the villains of the New Testament piece that we forget they started out as good guys. Before the birth of Christ, they had begun as a group that wanted to return the people of God to the purity of the faith, and away from spiritual compromise. It was a noble goal. But somewhere along the way, they took a wrong turn or two and ended up with a caricature of pure faith. Could it also be possible of us that we are people who began with worthy goals as Christians, but took our eyes off Jesus Christ and the grace of God and ended up with a distortion of the real thing, one that – unlike Jesus – rarely brought any kind of healing to people? If that is a description of our faith, then do we not need to start dwelling again on the radical nature of God’s love for us and for the world?
The second are of life that Jesus turns upside down is power. He notices how the guests at the meal lust for the places of honour. But he tells them instead to seek the place of least privilege, and when putting on dinner parties themselves not to invite the movers and shakers of this world but the least and the last, for that is the way of eternal blessing (verses 7-14).
This is the same Jesus who would refuse the request of James and John to sit at his right and his left in glory. He knew the human tendency to seek power, or – if we are unable to gain it for ourselves – to associate with those who are powerful, and so at least be influential.
Unaccountably, despite Jesus’ clear example, this is a lesson the church has struggled to learn over two thousand years. For some bizarre reason, we think the testimony of a celebrity who has become a Christian is more valuable than that of nobodies like us. We think that the church should have clear links with power, whether that is Anglicans clinging on to the idea of being the Established Church, or Methodists not wanting to move our central offices out of London, where we suppose we can talk with national politicians.
And if you think it doesn’t infect ordinary local Methodism, think again. When I arrived in one previous circuit, I inherited a building refurbishment programme. Six months in, we had a grand reopening and managed to get the President of the Conference to preach and dedicate the bright and shiny new premises, with the local mayor performing the official ‘opening’. My biggest headache in the organisation of the day was in satisfying a circuit steward that we had the right dignitaries on the platform. When all that was juggled and agreed, there was no space on the dais for the local MP. He had to sit in the congregation. Thankfully, he wasn’t bothered – unlike the circuit steward!
We need to see, along with Jesus, that the world’s ideas of who should be preferred by virtue of status and power are wrong. They need to be reversed. Let’s think about the examples I’ve just given. The evangelistic initiative that features the testimony of a famous person is actually less effective as a method than ordinary, everyday Christians telling the stories of their faith to friends. The linking of the church with powerful political forces is more likely to end up with spiritual compromise as we try to stay on the right side of these people in order to gain a hearing, whereas the work of the church at street level in standing up for the poor and the forgotten is more credible. And if we have a big event locally, then if we choose to invite the great and the good in order to garner headlines and attract people who otherwise might not come, we will probably largely attract people who come for the wrong reasons – reasons that are inimical to the Gospel, reasons that harden their hearts to Jesus’ message of God’s upside down kingdom, as one author put it.
So the question is, how upside down are we when it comes to power and status? Do we have our own little hierarchies, where we elevate people in a worldly way? Is there any sense here in which we see certain people as more important than others? I certainly hope you don’t see me as your minister as more important. Maybe we even say that some people matter more than us, because we think so little of ourselves, despite the fact that we are loved so much by God.
Or do we set an example here of reversing the world’s values? Do we raise up the lowly and bring down the mighty? Do we bless the poor and not worry too much about what the rich think? Do we favour servanthood over power-grabbing? Are we impressed with humility and disdainful of attempts by people to elevate themselves to positions of prominence?
And do we translate these words and attitudes into action? We know the early church did what it could, even though politically it was a powerless organisation. Slaves became bishops. One early bishop was called Onesimus – the same name as the converted slave Paul sent back to his master, Philemon. It could be the same person. Are we as willing to go against social convention when the Gospel demands it as those first Christians were?
The fourth verse of five pertains to this second point about Jesus upending power and status:
The world wants the wealth to live in state,
but You show a new way to be great:
like a servant You came,
and if we do the same,
we’ll be turning the world upside down.
However, the first verse – which is repeated as the fifth and final verse, too – sums up all we have been talking about:
O Lord, all the world belongs to You
and You are always making all things new.
What is wrong, You forgive,
and the new life You give
is what’s turning the world upside down.
May we be turned upside down by the love of God in Jesus. And may we go out, cartwheeling and hand-standing, to do the same in the world.
One reason for light blogging in recent weeks has been pressure of work. But we have also had a fortnight’s holiday in East Looe, Cornwall. One night near the end of the two weeks I jotted down some of the highlights. Here goes:
Food – a supermarket that sells Dark – yes, dark! – Chocolate Hobnobs again.
The Smugglers’ Cott must be the best carvery we have ever visited. A choice of four meats. Not just beef, pork and turkey, but lamb, too. And the beef was offered in rare or well done joints. The kids asking for ‘a piece of crackling for my mum, please’.
Being introduced to the Baobab fruit at the Eden Project, especially when its powder is added to a Pineapple and Coconut Smoothie. The most refreshing drink of the summer, and apparently an energy booster. Will it help us keep up with Mark?
Kelly’s award-winning fish and chips. Beware the Trip Advisor reviews, many of which are based on the over-priced eat-in restaurant: the takeaway is excellent.
Moomaid ice cream: when a dairy farm made losses on milk sales, it decided to use it’s milk production differently. They tried cheese, and then struck gold with ice cream. Cornish ice cream is great anyway, but this beat anything else we tasted. No additives, so the choc mint crisp flavour is white, not green. Shame the Eden Project stopped selling it, because Moomaid wouldn’t drop their prices to uneconomic levels (they must have learned their milk-selling lesson, but how ethical and Fairtrade was the EP on this issue?).
Worship – Steve Wild trying everything to involve our children in worship at Riverside Church. Bringing Horace the Frog with him. Asking them to pick a favourite hymn (a lost cause when the church only used 1982’s Hymns and Psalms and still the 1936 Methodist Hymn Book). Purloining Jaffa Cakes for them from the refreshments area before the service ended. Mark hearing ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic‘ as an actual hymn for the first time, but nevertheless singing, ‘Glory, glory, Tottenham Hotspur‘.
Place – I’ll mention it again: the Eden Project. Stunning is an inadequate adjective. We want to return. Twice.
Looe itself: even with all the tourist shops, it retains an old charm. Fishing trawlers share harbour space with pleasure boats.
Family – aside from the four of us and Rebekah’s sand sculpture of the word ‘family’, the good was to see cousins. My cousin, his wife and son. Debbie’s cousin , his wife and children. The bad – my mum falling and fracturing her hip on our second day here, the burden falling on my sister and her family, and us powerless at two hundred miles’ distance.
As a small child, I had a tricycle. But when the time came to graduate to a bike, I never had one. The owner of the local cycle shop wouldn’t sell bikes with stabilisers. He said stabilisers were harmful to children’s attempts at cycling proficiency. So because I had a bad sense of balance, my parents never bought me a bike and to this day I still cannot ride one.
Only later did I learn that my parents couldn’t afford a bike for me and that my poor sense of balance helped them save face, but my wobbliness was a self-evident truth.
Just as we need balance to become a cyclist, so we need balance in the life of the Spirit before God. It’s easy to be an unbalanced Christian. We have to hold together various paradoxes to have a truthful relationship with God, but some of us wobble to one side or the other.
To give one example: God is both awesome in holiness and intimate as a friend, but it’s easy to tilt to one side at the expense of the other. Some so stress reverence before a holy God that they fail to hear the good news of God’s passionate, personal love for us. But some emphasise that intimacy with God to such an extent that they become matey with God and miss the importance of his terrifying holiness.
This week’s Psalm is also about balance. It calls us to hold together two different approaches to God in order that we might have a healthy posture before him. They involve on the one hand a downward move and on the other an upward move.
First, the downward move: we call this humility.
My heart is not proud, Lord, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. (Verse 1)
Let’s make clear what we don’t mean by humility. We don’t mean the kind of debasing ourselves that sees ourselves as worth no more than a worm. We are not looking at the Uriah Heep notion of being ‘very ‘umble’. We are not referring to models that elevate the wealthy and powerful at the expense of the poor. There is good Christian reason for omitting the infamous verse from ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’:
The rich man in his castle, The poor man at his gate: God made them high and lowly And ordered their estate.
There is nothing bright and beautiful about these ways of conceiving humility.
Nevertheless, it is the opposite of pride to pursue ambitions beyond our abilities and callings. The RSV doesn’t say ‘My eyes are not haughty’, it renders the text, ‘My eyes are not raised too high’, and that’s the danger. The naked running after personal ambition in order to elevate ourselves is rampant in our society, and something Christians need to guard against. It isn’t just those in the office environment who climb higher by grovelling to those above them and treading on those below them. It also happens in the church. I know of two sad cases where ministers sought preferment beyond their capabilities, and their ministries were derailed by alcohol – in one case temporarily, in the other case permanently.
How can we judge our gifts with humility, then? Paul has a helpful approach in Romans 12. Significantly, it falls between his call for us to offer ourselves as living sacrifices and some descriptions he gives of the use of spiritual gifts. His link between the two is to call us to think of ourselves with sober judgement (Romans 12:3).
There are various practical ways in which we can come to a sober judgement of our gifts, so that we do not raise our eyes too high and then fall. One way would be this: there are various tools available that will create an inventory of our likely spiritual gifts. They usually come in the form of a questionnaire. You can find various examples on the Internet. Two of the best known are the Spiritual Gifts Inventory from Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois and the SHAPE test from Saddleback Church in California. None of these tests is perfect, but they will get you started. They can be useful material for a home group to use and discuss.
And that leads to the other helpful way to approach this: ask your friends and family what they think your strengths and weaknesses are. Again, it can be useful to do this in a small group. I have been in groups where we have written down not what we think our own gifts are, but what we think the gifts of the other group members are. If several people in the group start to spot similar abilities in you, then this is something to take seriously.
Ultimately, a sober judgement of our gifts that takes us away from selfish forms of ambition and pride is the way of peace. When we serve according to our abilities, we have the peace of knowing we are where God wants us.
Remember, it is about serving rather than ambition for ourselves. Our ambition must be for the glory of God, not ourselves. If we strain for things beyond us for the sake of our own advancement, we shall only know strife and cause strife. If we humbly accept the limits and extent of the gifts God has given us and use them for his praise, then that will bring with it the peace that comes from contentment.
So we move to the second element in our paradox, from the downward move to the upward move. If humility means a certain growing down, our second element, maturity, is about growing up.
How is this psalm about maturity? Because the writer speaks of being ‘like a weaned child’. Not a child, but a weaned child. This is not an image of being infantile, this is a picture of growth. A weaned child has come off the breast milk and is progressing with solids. Such a child is maturing physically.
Therefore the psalmist holds before us the need to be mature disciples. But what is it to be mature in Christ?
We hear a lot about the existence of mature and faithful Christians, when all we mean is that certain members have been in the church for many years, and turn up most Sundays. However, such people are not necessarily faithful or mature. They are simply regular. They may display signs of immaturity, throwing tantrums when they don’t get what they want, for example. Believe me, I’ve seen plenty such people in over twenty years of ministry.
No: a mature Christian is a growing Christian. Mature Christians are those who are never satisfied with the level of their spiritual lives. They want to know God’s will more deeply, and follow Christ more closely.
The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews got frustrated with his readers about this very issue. He told them that they should have progressed in spiritual terms from milk to solid food – it’s a similar image of weaning a child. But they hadn’t, and thus were more likely to succumb to the pressures coming on them from outside the church to compromise their faith, especially about the superiority and uniqueness of Jesus Christ.
Thus it is not an option for the Christian to mature, it is a necessity. Growing in grace is not merely for the keen Christians, it is for all who might be disciples.
That’s why I was saddened to read in our Family Friendly church questionnaire last autumn about the number of members here who don’t engage regularly with the Bible outside of Sunday services. I’m not saying that daily personal Bible reading is a religious panacea, not least because I have known church members elsewhere who have been avid daily Bible readers who have been among the nastiest of Christians. But it is one key discipline among many we need to practise for the sake of growth. It is part of our feeding and our exercise.
But one sure sign of the immature Christian is the person who forever demands to be fed spiritually and makes little effort to feed themselves. Remember that although Jesus told Simon Peter to feed his sheep, it is also true that the Lord our shepherd in Psalm 23 simply takes the sheep to the green pastures: the assumption is that the sheep get on with feeding themselves.
If we listen to the Apostle Paul, we will learn that the function of church leaders is not to keep administering baby food, but to see to it that the church family grows up. So in Ephesians 4 he says that the purpose of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers is to see the whole Body of Christ grow up. And in Colossians 1 he says that his aim as an apostle is ‘to present everyone mature in Christ’.
But, you may object, I aim at growth but I fail regularly. How, then, would I encourage us to live?
I would point to the words of the late Brennan Manning, who said in his classic book ‘The Ragamuffin Gospel’ that the Christian life is like a ‘victorious limp’ (chapter 10, passim). In particular, he says this:
The mature Christians I have met along the way are those who have failed and have learned to live gracefully with their failure. Faithfulness requires the courage to risk everything on Jesus, the willingness to keep growing, and the readiness to risk failure throughout our lives.
The image of the weaned child as one of growing maturity speaks to us on many levels. The child will fail regularly, but the parent lifts them up, dusts them down, and encourages them to keep trying – whether it is attempting to walk, to climb, or to learn another life skill.
The weaned child is growing, and knows that a lot more growing is needed. Think how a child looks forward to when it will be taller than its parents. It will take time, but the child expects to grow.
It is a mystery to me why some Christians therefore seem to give up on the spiritual diet and exercise that are required for growing in grace. I am bemused by those Christians who tell me they should just be concentrating on ‘consolidating’. Believe me, there are only two choices in the life of the Spirit: growth and decline. Would the church not be healthier if we were all aspiring, like a child, to be taller?
But the progress from infancy to childhood is bumpy. Eugene Peterson says,
The early stages of Christian belief are not infrequently marked with miraculous signs and exhilarations of spirit. But as discipleship continues the sensible comforts gradually disappear. For God does not want us neurotically dependent upon him but willingly trustful in him. And so he weans us. The period of infancy will not be sentimentally extended beyond what is necessary. The time of weaning is very often noisy and marked with misunderstandings: “I no longer feel like I did when I was first a Christian. Does that mean I am no longer a Christian? Have I done something terribly wrong?”
The answer is, “Neither: God hasn’t abandoned you and you haven’t done anything wrong. You are being weaned. The apron strings have been cut. You are free to come to God or not come to him. You are, in a sense, on your own with an open invitation to listen and receive and enjoy our Lord.”
Your duty in this is to attend to the diet and exercise that bring growth. My duty as your minister is to be a little like your personal trainer at the gym, advising you on the best ways to achieve fitness.
So we’re back to this question of balance. Some Christians can think altogether too much of themselves and need a dose of humility. Using our gifts requires sober judgement and a commitment to God’s glory, not ours.
But other Christians either don’t want to grow or belittle themselves as if they were no more than worms. To such we hold out the possibility of, and the need for growth in grace, by adjusting their spiritual diet and practising spiritual exercises.
Where does each one of us need to adjust our balance?