Too many churches want nothing to do with Jesus.
Wait a minute! Isn’t that a bit judgemental? And what a thing to come and say as the visiting preacher at a Church Anniversary!
What I mean is this: many of the assumptions Christians make about the church bear only the most meagre resemblance to what Jesus teaches about the subject.
This morning, I want to contrast many of our popular suppositions about the church with what Jesus says here. There are great riches in our short reading, but I shall confine myself to verse 18 for a text:
And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.
We’re going to start in the middle of the verse and work our way outwards. Firstly, church. We may protest when the world assumes that ‘church’ means ‘building’ and say, “No, it’s the people,” but what is the reality? How much of our time do we spend talking about property and finance? How often do we say we want to get more people through the doors? Have we not got locked into this idea that church is a building and an institution?
But what did the word ‘church’ originally mean? It did indeed mean ‘the people’ and they didn’t have their own buildings, gathering instead in the larger homes owned by the more wealthy believers.
More specifically than that, ‘church’ comes from a word used in the early Greek democracies to indicate the calling out of a people to assemble together. Split down very literally, it is ‘the called-out people’ and that came to mean ‘the assembly’ of people.
We are a ‘called-out people’. We assemble together for worship because God in Christ has called us out to be distinct from the world. The church is the people who have heard the call to follow Christ, and that means gathering together (the assembly) as a holy people (we are called out from the world and set apart for a special purpose).
This, then, is church. Our prime concerns are all located in that single word. Does our worship reflect the Christ who calls us out? Are living as a distinct, called-out people? How are we co-operating with the Holy Spirit who is calling other people out of worldliness to join us as Christ’s new community?
And if all the discussions about property and finance were related to those issues, we’d be in a healthier position.
Secondly, my church. There is a healthy way in which people can say ‘my church’. They can mean, this is the congregation where I can love and be loved, and work out my discipleship.
The trouble is, too many churchgoers say ‘my church’ and mean something else. They act as if they own the church, or as if church solely exists for their benefit, and that it should conform to their tastes and prejudices. Such people throw wobblies when an act of worship does not sit nicely with their tastes in music.
But it’s Jesus here who says ‘my church’. The church belongs to him. It is his. In Paul’s terms, it is the Body of Christ and Jesus is the head.
Not so many years ago, it was popular in some Christian circles to hear preachers declare this claim: “Jesus wants his church back.” You know what? I think we could do with hearing that again. It’s his church, not ours. How many of our worship wars would be different if we were more concerned about what Jesus likes than what we like? How many of our petty arguments would fade in the brilliant light of knowing that the church belongs to Jesus? Aht do we need to hand back?
Thirdly, I will build my church. An evangelist I used to know said that whichever town he went in the UK, the local Christians always told him the same thing: “This is the hardest place in the country for the Gospel.” Now some of that might reflect the general difficulty we have in the present climate for sympathy to Christianity, and I can understand that. But what is the alternative? If you were to believe some Christians, it is to batten down the hatches and simply ensure that my local congregation will see me out. Once I’m dead, it can close.
If that attitude shocks you, let me assure you that it is widespread among churches.
Yet whatever the difficulties, it has to be clear that Jesus has a big vision for his church. It is to be built. Let’s not have any arguments about quality versus quantity, Jesus wants both. He wants to build both the quality of our spiritual lives – holiness – and he wants to build the quantity of those who follow him – evangelism.
It is therefore only right to ask whether questions of holiness and evangelism are central to our conversations and our meeting agenda. I fear we avoid them and major on minors. Where are the class meetings where we hold one another accountable for our growth in grace? Where are those who are making sure we focus on how we shall reach out into the local community?
Fourthly, I will build my church. Some people who have got to know me well know one of my pet peeves. It’s the idea that churches and Christians run after the latest techniques and fads in order to turn around their fortunes. If someone else has made something work, then this is what we must do. If this is what we have learned at this conference, then it must be right for us. If this is the latest big-selling Christian paperback, then we must put it into practice here as soon as possible and as much as possible.
Now I don’t have any problem learning from the best of what is happening. I happen to be an avid reader. I told our daughter’s teacher at a parents’ evening last week that you can’t be a Faulkner if you aren’t a reader.
But what does this attitude do? It assumes a kind of technological, push-the-button approach to the spiritual life. Follow these five steps and everything will be all right. Practise this technique and your troubles will be over.
For God is not a machine who responds to us programming him. God is sovereign, and if that means anything it means that he has more free will than we do. It is Jesus who promises to build his church. We want to see it grow, too, but Jesus will be the one who makes that growth take place.
What does that mean for us? We may or may not use popular programmes such as the Alpha Course, but our attitude is to ask Jesus what he wants to do and what he is doing. We then seek to join in. Rather than us try to control or even manipulate things with our religious techniques, we instead place ourselves in a position of vulnerability rather than of control. Instead of taking charge ourselves, we ask Jesus to take that position. If he is to build his church, then that requires us to be dependent upon him, and therefore to seek to hear his voice and respond.
Fifthly, you are Peter and on this rock I will build my church. Here’s another challenging thought, something that goes against many of our natural instincts – something ‘counter-intuitive’ to use a popular fancy word these days. If we want the church to grow more, then wouldn’t it be obvious that to be able to include more people in the church we should lower the bar for entry? Shouldn’t we make church membership easier? Besides, we don’t like to ask embarrassing or intimidating questions, nor do we want to appear judgemental. That should start to increase our numbers.
But, no, Jesus sees it differently. When he says, “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church,” he is surely responding to what Peter has just done. Peter has just confessed his faith in Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus grows his church by confession of faith in him. If you lower the bar, you stop being the church, because the church is the body of people who have faith in him. You might inflate your numbers in the short term, but in the long term you will no longer be the church. You might just about be a religious club, but you will no longer be the church of Jesus Christ.
So what about the people on the fringe whom we are nurturing? Are we discriminating against them? Are we excluding them? There is still room for them. John Wesley had a number of small group meetings, not just the famous class meeting. Some of them were reserved for those who had made a clear commitment of faith and obedience to Jesus Christ. Others were open to both those who believed and those who were enquiring about the faith – or, in Wesley’s words, ‘desired to flee from the wrath to come’.
Church holds an aspiration before people, namely to become radical disciples of Jesus Christ. Set the bar high. Make it worth the leap.
Sixthly and finally, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. Let’s call in the doom and gloom merchants again. The church is under attack. Christians in this country are now being persecuted. (Goodness knows how they would describe what happens to Christians in some other countries, then.) Everything and everyone is against us. It’s time to pull up the drawbridge and defend what we’ve got.
Well, let’s not deny that the climate is not so positive towards Christianity in our society anymore. That much is obvious. But is it really faithful to Jesus’ vision of the church to conceive of the battle as all being one way, the forces of darkness rampaging against the church? I don’t think that stands up to the words of our Lord here.
Did you notice I didn’t read the old translation, ‘the gates of Hell will not overcome it’? The association with Hell makes people think this is about evil forces assailing the church of Christ. But the translation I read is better: the gates of Hades. That is, the place of the dead. Death will not prevail against the church. Certainly, individual churches close and many decline, but Jesus is asserting the indestructible nature of his church. Can death ever conquer a community of faith founded in the Resurrection? Not a chance!
And specifically, there is no need to be negative here for this reason. ‘The gates of Hades’: when was the last time you were assaulted by a set of gates? It’s ridiculous! Gates are defensive tools. They are used to protect against invasion. But Jesus is saying that his church invades and conquers the forces of death. Where death attempts to reign, we proclaim resurrection. Where the forces of sin lead to death, we proclaim forgiveness. Where death is at work in the world, we proclaim the kingdom of God. The gates of death tremble as the gospel community, the church, preaches the good news of her Saviour and Lord!
In conclusion, then, yes, the church faces all sorts of challenges and difficulties today. But part of our problem is that we have allowed ourselves to believe distorted accounts of what the church is. When we return to the teaching of Jesus about the church, we have every reason to believe that God has given us a hope and a future. Let us put our house in order. Let us be humbly dependent upon Jesus Christ. And then let us face the world with confidence in him and his Gospel.
I have changed my views in the sexuality debate.
If you’ve known me for many years, this post might surprise you. If the 1993 Methodist Conference debate on sexuality had approved of homosexual relationships, I would have resigned as a probationer minister. Had our Pilgrimage Of Faith report in the mid-2000s approved the blessing of civil partnerships on Methodist premises, I would have had a serious problem of conscience. I would have regarded such decisions as tantamount to apostasy.
So I’m now supporting the gay rights agenda? No.
Are you confused? Join the club, and read on.
The more I watch the debate among Christians since the Government announced its consultation on gay marriage, the more I am concerned about the tone we are setting. Honourable exceptions granted, this post is an appeal for the exercise of Christian love and respect between those of opposing opinions. This is the area where I am working hard to change, not least by spending much more time reading different opinions and befriending people with opposing views. There are several areas where both sides need to listen to each other.
Both parties have launched petitions in support of their causes, and neither one deserves my support. Can we get past the sloganeering, please? The ‘traditional’ Coalition For Marriage begins with sloppy language:
Throughout history and in virtually all human societies marriage has always been the union of a man and a woman.
So they haven’t heard of polygamy, even where kings of Israel take multiple wives. I agree with them that marriage is the exclusive life-long union of one man and one woman, but it hasn’t always been like that, and a campaign that can’t get its facts right from the outset is dodgy. The Coalition For Equal Marriageis equal in sloppiness. It starts,
I support the right of two people in love to get married, regardless of gender. It’s only fair.
They don’t answer the traditionalist point about the legal equality to marriage that civil partnerships give. They don’t say why ‘it’s only fair’. The Reformed theologian Mike Bird, in commenting on the similar debate in Australia, wonders what distinctions rule gay marriage in and polyamory out. Please, then, can both parties think harder? Clear thinking and expression are important here.
In my native Methodism, the debate is tainted over thirty years by the ‘Issues in Human Sexuality’ report that reached Conference in 1982 (I think). It listed six grounds on which Christians discerned truth, ending notoriously with ‘The spirit of the age’, which was then used to trump traditional interpretations of biblical teaching. It gave the evangelical movement in Methodism (and please note in the current debate it isn’t as simple as evangelicals versus liberals any more) fuel to claim that support for homosexual practice was opposition to Scripture. Therefore anyone who takes such a view is heretical. Still it is assumed by the great majority of evangelical Methodists that the Bible is clear on human sexuality: one man and one woman exclusively for life, and chastity outside of such relationships.
More widely, the public split ten years ago between the Evangelical Alliance and Courage made it look like the only ‘biblical’ position on this was opposition to homosexual practice.
However, what is different in the debate now is that those in favour of committed gay relationships are interacting much more seriously with the Scriptures. In this I include Christians of various denominations. Twenty years ago I don’t think you would have had an organisation like Accepting Evangelicals, founded by Anglican priest Benny Hazlehurst. He won’t remember me, but we crossed over at theological college by a year. If you want charismatic evangelical credentials, Benny can supply them: he was not long back from serving in Hong Kong with Jackie Pullinger when I met him in Bristol. But he believes that support for gay marriage can be held with integrity alongside a commitment to the authority of the Bible.
However, in my assessment there are strengths and weaknesses in both sides’ biblical interpretation. The traditional view states that every scriptural reference to homosexual practice is negative (quite true), but those campaigning for change say that these reflect particular circumstances, such as abusive relationships and gay prostitution (as in the unusual Greek words used by Paul in 1 Corinthians), and that none of them reflects the contemporary notion of committed homosexual relationships.
I have to say I think that’s (only) partly right. For example, go to a moving website such as Reluctant Journey, run by George Hopper, an elderly Methodist Local Preacher who became persuaded of the case for change, and who has sought to become a Christian friend to gay people. In his analysis of the biblical material, he argues that the centurion’s servant who was healed by Jesus was most likely his master’s gay partner. That suggests some level of commitment, and therefore unwittingly contradicts the pro-gay stance.
At this point my personality traits kick in, hoping to resolve the problem, but they don’t help. You see, I’m one who goes for the wood not the trees, the big picture not the fine details – I’m ‘N’ not ‘S’ in Myers Briggs terms. So rather than get caught up in atomistic discussions of individual verses or even words, I ask where the overall trajectory is leading us. Even then I can’t resolve it. The foundational principle for the biblical discussion in both Jesus and Paul is Genesis 2:24, which grounds everything in heterosexual terms:
For this reason a man will leave his father and his mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.
On the other hand, Jesus – who makes no comments about homosexuality – shows radical inclusion to social outcasts. You could argue it either way. Perhaps what we need is for people from both groups to sit down together rather than throw theological grenades.
I suspect science is becoming less relevant to the debate. Every now and again the media will publicise some story about a scientific basis for sexual orientation. This seems to have some populist appeal on the naïve ‘If it’s scientific it must be true’ basis. None of these has ever convinced traditionalists. A doctrine of original sin is usually deployed to this effect. Moreover, as the American Baptist theologian Roger Olson recently argued that a scientific ‘is’ doesn’t make for a behavioural ‘ought’.
Until recently such scientific evidence has been used in support of gay rights.
However now even such a vocal campaigner as Peter Tatchell has admitted that the evidence is rather more fluid. I think I am right in saying (but have not found the link) to say that his line has become ‘Never mind science, this is a human right’. Please either correct me if I am wrong or let me know where he said this.
All of which makes some of the arguments over Anglican Mainstream’s use of controversial psychiatrists to oppose homosexuality rather irrelevant. And besides, even if they were to host a conference with a psychiatrist whose reputation could not be argued to be tarnished by their opponents, essentially their position in using psychiatry seems to be that homosexual orientation is a disorder. If it is, then it is a medical issue, not a moral one.
So what is the basis for deciding what’s right and wrong in sexuality? What it all comes down to is, ‘How do we know that we know?’ In other words, to give it its technical word, epistemology, that is, the study of knowledge.
The traditional view takes the teaching of Scripture and makes the case I have described. Those seeking change used to put human reason more highly but that is now vulnerable. Some of the argument in the church is about differing interpretations of Scripture, particularly about which of the diverse elements of the Bible take priority, as well as the questions of translation and context.
Beyond that lies the ‘secular’ argument of human rights that is such a strong narrative in society. It seems to be based on an assumption that what two consenting adults do in private is nobody else’s business, just so long as it is not harmful. Furthermore, it is influenced by a society that has downgraded the notions of responsibility and duty in favour of personal fulfilment.
And I do believe it is correct to call this a ‘secular’ argument. It is essentially premised upon the ideas of personal sovereignty and consumerism. Whatever view we take as Christians, we cannot get sucked in by these. Personal sovereignty contradicts the notion that Jesus is Lord. The consumerist attitude of personal fulfilment stands against sacrifice. And in passing, I note that the Church has not only asked homosexual people not to fulfil their feelings, she has asked many single women to do the same. For given both the teaching that Christians should only marry within the faith and the fact of female predominance in Church, many single women, not finding a life partner in Christian circles have seen it as their duty to stay celibate. Whether you agree with the teaching or not, at heart both parties have been called to make difficult and painful sacrifices.
Ours should be a conviction based on the big themes of the Gospel – a good Creator, who begins to make all things new in the wake of fallenness and brokenness, One who is seen supremely in his Son, a God of grace, truth and love. Which leads to my final thought.
A story: I used to take some students on placement with me from a Bible college. One team led a midweek discussion group based on Nicky Gumbel’s book ‘Searching Issues’, which he wrote in response to the most commonly raised objections to Christianity raised on the Alpha Course. One of those topics was homosexuality, and the original chapter is now available as a separate booklet. Gumbel takes a traditional view of the subject.
During a debrief, I asked the students how they got on. ‘We told them the biblical view,’ said one. And I thought, ‘Oh no, you didn’t.’ Because by ‘the biblical view’ I knew they only meant, ‘what actions are right and wrong’. I said, ‘You didn’t give them a full biblical view if you didn’t start from the position of God’s unconditional love for all people.’
My spontaneous reaction that day is still a touchstone for me, especially because I am aware there are people on both sides (sorry to keep using that language, but I fear it’s true) who are hurting. I have gay friends who have suffered hurt, rejection and bullying. I have theologically conservative friends who are worried that the Gospel and mission are at stake here. Add to them the single women I mentioned above, of course.
The Christian Church, then, needs a huge dose of love to work through this matter, and I expressed my concern about the tone of the debate in my introduction. That’s the essence of my appeal here. I don’t know, but I wonder whether we will work ourselves through to the kind of place that James Jones, the Bishop of Liverpool, described a few years ago, to the consternation of many fellow evangelicals. His Presidential Address of March 2010 calls for ‘diversity without enmity’. He believes that the differing convictions on this subject are analogous to the differences Christians hold on subjects such as the just war and pacifism.
Is his proposal possible or desirable? What do you think? Or should the Church stick to one particular position? Indeed, would Jones’ proposal itself lead not to co-existence but to a singular conclusion?
Just one final word. I am happy to have comments from people of whatever persuasion, but in the spirit of this post I will watch for the tone of comments. Please, no labelling of people as homophobes or unbelievers. Let’s see if we can demonstrate love in the tone of our contributions.
It sounds counter-intuitive to many Christians, that listening is a key to mission. Isn’t mission about proclamation, about us speaking? Watch this superb video of Mike Frost on adopting a posture of listening:
He contrasts listening with prepackaged, prefabricated approaches to mission. Our culture likes to buy a package off the shelf to solve a problem, and the church is no exception when it comes to solving our problems of mission, of decline, of making worship more interesting …
Yet one of my churches is currently doing one of these very prefabricated mission packages, Alpha. However, we didn’t adopt it, because we were desperate to stimulate church growth. We ended up doing it as a result of listening. We had made a specific attempt to listen to our community at last summer’s village fair. We offered a lucky dip and asked adults who called at our stall to answer one question about what they thought the church should do in the community. We had about thirty responses, almost all of them positive. Our Leadership Team debated the replies, but didn’t come up with anything concrete.
Alpha came up a few months later. We had a moving and powerful memorial service for a much loved church member. It prompted spiritual questions. From some of those people came the request for Alpha, not us. It wasn’t on our agenda.
I love the way the Frost video ends with the appeal to listen to your community, because it is telling you how to evangelise it. How are you doing that?
When I was training for the ministry, I remember bridling in one lecture at the assertion that when we chaired meetings, we had to stay neutral. Weren’t we there to give a lead? But rules of meetings took precedence over leadership, apparently.
I found myself in this position last week. I had to chair a complex discussion at my Addlestone church about some proposals to develop our relationship with the local New Frontiers congregation, Beacon Church. They had recently taken over from some Salvation Army people the running of a toy library that hires our hall. They also wanted to run their debt counselling service from our hall, and they suggested starting a post-Alpha course Bible study group on our premises.
This situation would be a problem for some Methodists. While Methodism and New Frontiers agree on core gospel issues, there are some areas of Christian belief where we are at opposite ends of the spectrum. We are Arminian, New Frontiers have big Calvinist influences. We are egalitarian when it comes to gender relationships, they are complementarian. My friend Dave Warnock regularly documents these differences, especially the latter one, with some passion.
But despite the potential pitfalls, the story of last week (and the negotiations leading up to our Church Council) is one of grace on both sides. There had been a gap of several months between the old toy library finishing and it restarting, but during that time the rent to us had mistakenly still been paid. There were errors on both sides, and the new manager suggested that each party took a 50% hit. Our Church Council would have none of it. It decided to refund 100% of the overpayment, and calculated there had been a further overpayment which it wished to give back. We knew that although we were not rolling in money, the toy library needed not to be short of funds.
As to the debt counselling, my small and to some extent quite elderly congregation rejoiced that our friends wanted to use our premises. (Beacon don’t have any of their own, and we are located in a prime position in the town.) So yes, have the church hall free of charge for an experimental three-month period. Don’t start until you’ve publicised it properly, but this is a serious social need and if we were younger and fitter it is what we would have wanted to have done. If you can do it on our premises, then God bless you.
And the Bible study? We’re not there yet, because the exact proposals are not firm yet. However, Tom, the senior pastor, has assured us that he will run any study material past us first to ensure we are happy doctrinally with it, and is only too happy if the Methodist deacon and I participate in the group.
Neither side has changed its core convictions. If we debated them, neither of us would convince the other. We would both passionately cling onto what we believe, and to why we think the other party’s views are seriously wrong. However, grace and love can make a way. I hope that is what will continue to characterise the relationship, and will make for a positive witness to the community.
So I was sitting in that meeting straining at the requirement to be neutral. It had some advantages: it made me ensure I was as scrupulously fair as possible to all sides of the debate. But inside? I rejoiced when the Church Council voted as it did.
Being a good (neutral) Christian, though, I had to be sure I didn’t smile.
My dear young man, don’t take it too hard. Your work is ingenious. It’s quality work. And there are simply too many notes, that’s all. Just cut a few and it will be perfect.
To which Mozart replies,
Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?
A sermon topic like today’s runs that risk – too many notes. When we think about the Holy Spirit and mission, there is so much to say. Hence if I don’t cover your favourite theme within this strand today, I’m sorry. But don’t worry, I’m sure it will pop up elsewhere, either in this sermon series or at other times.
So if you wanted to hear about the way the Holy Spirit goes ahead of us and prepares the way in mission – fear not, you’ll hear me talk about that on various occasions. If you wanted me to cover the use of spiritual gifts – well, they get their own billing later in the series.
Excuse me, then, if I limit myself to the big themes here in Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost. They will give us an outline, and on other occasions we can fill in some detail. After all, you wouldn’t want a preacher with ‘too many notes’, would you?
Here’s the first strand. At college, one of my friends had a well-worn T-shirt which reflected another 1980s film with a musical theme: The Blues Brothers. Ian’s T-shirt had the slogan from the film: ‘We’re on a mission from God.’ These days, Ian is respectable in the church, with a PhD and a job as a theological college principal!
But the story of the film is of a man being released from prison, only to find that the Catholic home where he and his brother were raised by nuns is under threat of closure if it cannot pay a tax bill. They reform their old band and seek to raise the funds. Hence, ‘We’re on a mission from God.’
And the first part of Peter’s sermon shows that we all are on a mission from God when the Spirit comes. This is about the universal nature of the Spirit’s work in mission. The Spirit makes mission from all to all – from all in the church, to all in the world.
All that talk about blood and fire, billows of smoke, the sun going dark and the moon like blood (verses 19-20)? It’s not a weather forecast! It’s dramatic language, underpinning the basic point that this work of the Spirit to use all God’s people to reach all people with God’s love in Christ is an earth-shattering, game-changing moment. This is a great ‘day of the Lord’ (verse 20) when ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’ (verse 21), because God has poured out his Spirit on all people (verse 17), to the extent male and female, young and old, slaves as well as free will dream, have visions and prophesy (verses 17-18).
Yes, all of God’s people are equipped to prophesy, to speak God’s message boldly. Well did one preacher say that the Bible doesn’t just teach the famous Reformation slogan of the priesthood of all believers, it teaches the prophethood of al believers. When you say that only certain ranks of people in the church are ‘good enough’ for certain tasks, you forget that God has poured out the Spirit on all his people for his mission. Granted, we each have distinct gifts, but the Spirit comes on all who profess faith in Christ, and one reason for that is we are all ordained. God ordains all of us into the work of his mission.
Or, put it this way: we are not all evangelists, but we are all witnesses. We may not be able to explain and answer everything, but like a witness in a court case, we can all say what we have seen and what has happened to us. We can all talk about what Jesus has done for us. The Holy Spirit has come into our lives, and equipped us to do that.
This is not a threat or a demand, it is a promise. It fulfils the promise Jesus made about the coming of the Spirit before his Ascension: ‘You will be my witnesses.’ That isn’t an order, it’s a promise. When the Spirit comes, we are all ordained into the universal mission of God’s saving love: from all, to all.
The second strand in the Holy Spirit’s mission work here is this: it’s all about Jesus. For the rest of Peter’s sermon, he goes on and on about Jesus (verses 22-36). This is who he is. This is what he has done. This is how you have reacted to him so far. This is what you need to do about him. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.
This amplifies what I’ve just said about us all being witnesses. Some of you may be familiar with a Christian website called Ship of Fools, a site which includes humorous sections such as Gadgets for God, featuring the latest in tacky Christian memorabilia, a Caption Competition, Signs and Blunders, through Mystery Worshipper reports on church service around the world, to serious discussion of pressing issues.
Ship of Fools started life as a print magazine in the early 1980s. I know, because I was one of the subscribers. In one of those issues, they carried a cartoon strip article called ‘Born Again Testimonies’. ‘You may be – but has your testimony been born again?’ the article asked. It depicted Christians who were discouraged that the story of their spiritual experience was not as dramatic and exciting as that commonly portrayed in Christian testimony books. It offered a rewriting of your story by Hollywood scriptwriters, plastic surgery, dental and gymnastic care, all to make you ready for the platform of an evangelist at a crusade.
I suspect it touched a raw nerve, because it hit on a feeling I’ve noticed among regular churchgoers. “I don’t have a Damascus Road experience to talk about, so my testimony will count for nothing.” If you haven’t been a drug dealer, a bank robber or a celebrity, no-one will be interested in your story.
However, as the great John Stott once put it, ‘Testimony is not autobiography.’ In other words, testimony is not my story, it’s not ‘me, me, me’, it’s the story of what Jesus has done in my life. Now again, you may think that unless what Jesus has done in your life is the religious equivalent of a fireworks spectacular, it may not be worth talking about.
But we would be wrong. All that Peter describes about Jesus in this sermon – his ministry, his death, his resurrection, his Ascension and his sending of the Holy Spirit – all these things impact us. So what if in our lives it doesn’t come all-singing and all-dancing, complete with a laser light show? What matters is that we know Jesus has changed us – and is changing us. The majority of people live ordinary, unflashy lives, and so an ordinary, unflashy story of what Jesus means to us is every bit as likely, if not more so, to have an effect upon them.
So – why not give it some thought? What has Jesus done for you? Reflect on it. There will be material from your life that you can share about the work of Jesus. that’s where the Holy Spirit wants to focus: on Jesus. We can co-operate with the Spirit by being willing to talk about Jesus and his work in our lives.
The third and final strand of the Spirit’s work in mission that I want to draw out here has to do with the effect upon the listeners.
What happens at the end of the sermon?
When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (Verse 37)
What has the Holy Spirit done here? It’s what Jesus (as recorded in John’s Gospel) called ‘conviction of sin’. Conviction of sin is the third element in this passage of the Holy Spirit’s work in mission.
Conviction of sin is when the Holy Spirit shows people how they are in the wrong before God – either generally or specifically – and calls them to change. In that respect, it’s different from that work of the enemy we call ‘condemnation’, which just says, “You’re a terrible person, you’re useless.” Condemnation leaves someone without hope. Conviction of sin is different, because it is specific, and there is a remedy that draws us to God, namely repentance.
So we see in the story today that when the crowd asks Peter and the apostles what they should do, he gives a specific reply:
Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Verse 38)
We know that coming to faith involves repentance in some form. Faith in Jesus Christ and following him entails changing our way of life. In all sorts of areas, we shall need to perform the spiritual version of a U-turn, to go Christ’s way. The Holy Spirit shows us what we need to change and renounce.
By way of an aside, of course this is not something that happens just once at the beginning of the Christian life: it happens throughout, as the Holy Spirit patiently works to make us more Christlike.
But let us note that it truly is the Holy Spirit who does the convicting. Peter has described the situation, and yes he has told the people that they and others were responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus (verses 23, 36), but it’s still the Spirit who cuts them to the heart. We have to be careful not to do the Holy Spirit’s work ourselves, but faithfully to share God’s love and truth and leave the Spirit to do the convicting.
I once had the privilege of registering a wedding for someone who had begun worshipping at another church in the area, but one which did
not own its own building. She had come to faith through an Alpha Course that church had run, and wanted to be baptised. However, she was living with her partner without being married to him. The church had not harangued her for this, even though they believed (and I do, too) that living together falls short of God’s vision for relationships. However, she felt it was not right for her to be baptised until her relationship was regularised. So I registered the wedding, and her pastor conducted the service. I believe it was the Holy Spirit who convicted her, and who led her to marriage before baptism. In fact, the wedding was at 11 o’clock, and she then went to another church building to be baptised at 12 o’clock!
And we also might remember that the Spirit’s timetable and agenda for sorting out people’s lives might not be quite the same as ours. I once heard the preacher Clive Calver tell a story at Spring Harvest about how he kept praying, “Lord, please take away my pride.”
When it didn’t happen, he continued to pray, asking, “Lord, why aren’t you taking away my pride?”
“Because then there would be nothing left,” was what he believed God replied.
We don’t always know why the Spirit highlights certain issues in a person’s life but delays attending to others. What we do know is that coming to Christ involves the Spirit showing us where we need to change our ways in repentance, and that that begins a process that lasts the whole of our lives.
In conclusion, then, the Holy Spirit enlists us for God’s mission in Jesus. The mission is for all people, and needs all God’s people, empowered by the Spirit, for it to flourish. That mission will focus not on us, but on Jesus. Our rôle is to tell the story of Jesus’ activity in our lives. And the Spirit draws people to follow Jesus through conviction of sin.
All in all, then, the mission of God will not function without the primary work of the Holy Spirit. Never mind our plans, our campaigns, our techniques or what the latest book or conference speaker says. No Holy Spirit, no mission worthy of the name.
Come, Holy Spirit.
If you believed the media, nearly all of us are getting excited about the Royal Wedding on Friday week. Well, not all of us: I noticed that BBC1 are showing a repeat of Shrek that afternoon, and the wedding in that cartoon is more appealing to me.
Not that I wish Wills and Kate any ill-will. Trial by media and marriage by media: no fun. They really do need prayer for a long and happy marriage.
But the coverage of all the royal frills will encourage all the existing wrong expectations people have of weddings. No expense spared – even if you haven’t got a royal budget. All about the day, rather than the life – the wedding, rather than the marriage. A focus on the couple, rather than on the mutual sacrifice that a marriage requires, as Giles Fraser recently got into trouble for saying on Radio 4’s Thought For The Day. The coverage of who’s attending – whereas, as Maggi Dawn recently commented, all you need is the vicar, the couple and two witnesses.
So it was a joy today to register a very different wedding. The bride runs a toy library that uses the hall of one of my churches. A year ago she found faith in Christ through an Alpha Course run by the local New Frontiers church, who worship on Sundays in a local secondary school. But without anyone haranguing her, she came to the conclusion that it was wrong in the sight of God to be living with her partner outside marriage. So at 11 am today she was married, and at 12 noon (in the building of another local church) she was baptised.
It was wonderful to co-operate with her pastor on the marriage ceremony. No trimmings – both bride and groom had had that for their first marriages, and they knew it made no difference. A simple service, with about twenty friends and family present. Not even any hymns, but some worship music on CD – even if the laptop misbehaved for the music during the signing of the register!
I think I’ll remember today’s wedding for longer than next week’s.
Recently, for her bedtime stories, Rebekah has asked me to read some episodes from a children’s Bible that was written by the well-known Christian author Jennifer Rees Larcombe. We have been going through some Old Testament stories, and in particular she couldn’t wait to hear how Queen Jezebel came to a grisly end. For Rebekah, there was a real sense of justice in seeing a wicked person get her comeuppance.
However, when we got to Jonah and the part of the story where the Ninevites repented and God withdrew his threat of judgment, my beloved daughter was outraged. It just wasn’t right that God loved wicked people, in her estimation.
Just like Jonah himself in chapter 4.
So we come to this chapter today at the end of this short series, and we do so on Harvest Festival weekend. That is quite deliberate, because the Book of Jonah is about God’s desire for a spiritual harvest – for many more people to know his love and follow Jesus. That is, of course, often the theme of the Gospels where Jesus uses a harvest story in his parables.
This chapter could be conceived as being about the barriers to the spiritual harvest, and our first barrier is at hand here, in the way Rebekah echoed Jonah’s self-righteous anger.
I ended last Sunday morning’s sermon on Jonah 3 with these words:
I mean, you wouldn’t resent other people coming to share in the same privileges of the Gospel as you know, would you? It would be absurd.
I could tell from many people’s body language that they agreed. It would be absurd to resent other people finding the love of God. But I ended that sermon that way deliberately, so that we could build up to the shock of finding that Jonah actually is a resentful, angry, self-righteous man. (Apart from that, he’s quite nice!) In the first three verses of chapter 4, he complains to God about his mercy towards the heathen sinners of Nineveh.
But self-righteousness is dangerously common among religious people, and Jonah is a warning to us. It’s amazing and heartbreaking to see the way the concern for a righteous life loses its bearings and becomes judgmental. Jonah forgot that he was a sinner who had been rescued by the grace of God through the merciful sending of the big fish who saved him from drowning. He forgets he is a rescued sinner. He reverts to type. He says to himself, “I am one of the chosen ones. I am righteous. These Ninevites are wicked sinners. I enjoy the love of God. They should not.”
I’ve seen it time and again in Christian circles. You will know if you read my life story in the church magazine that when my life went awry due to a neck problem at 18, I took a job in the Civil Service. I worked in Social Security. (No, please come back! Please talk to me!) I recall being on holiday one year where a Christian woman asked me what my work was. On replying that I worked in Social Security, she said: “At least you’re the right side of the counter.” Clearly to her, every benefit claimant in the country was a despicable scrounger. Hardly the attitude of heart needed for reaching out with the Gospel of God’s love in Christ.
Or I think of a church coffee morning Debbie and I attended once. The doors were open in the hope that passers-by would drop in and meet the church members, in the hope that eventually they would come to church. But as we listened to the ordinary conversation, with its routine criticism of anything young people liked, or – and this was the deal-breaker for me – their disdain for gadgets (!), we knew that church would need a lot of prayer for it to connect meaningfully with the world.
Contrast that with the man I met once when he and I were both in-patients on a hospital ward together for several days. Before we were discharged, he gave me his business card so that we could stay in touch. After his name were the initials ‘SSBG’. I couldn’t fathom what academic or professional qualification that might be, so I asked him. SSBG, he told me, stood for ‘Sinner Saved By Grace’.
That is where we all have to begin if we desire a spiritual harvest. Unlike Jonah, we need to remember that we have been rescued by God. That needs to engender humility in our lives. The great Sri Lankan Christian D T Niles once said that evangelism was ‘one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread’. In the economy of God, it is the spiritual beggars who see the harvest. He calls us to humility.
We can notice the second barrier to a spiritual harvest in Jonah when we come to verse 5. After God asks him in verse 4, “Is it right for you to be angry?” we read,
Jonah went out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city.
In other words, Jonah left the city. The harvest had come when he had been in the city. Now he was outside, whingeing. Often the religious believer stays outside the places that need the Gospel and fires darts of criticism from a safe distance. Isn’t it better to be cocooned warmly with other Christians, enjoying fellowship?
Well, OK, there’s not much fellowship in Jonah chapter 4, but I hope you take my point. We do all our relating to people who do not share our faith, whether positive or negative in tone, from the outside. We even see that in the typical language we use about wanting more people in our congregations. We say things like, ‘How can we attract more people to come to us?’ Yet note those words ‘attract’ and ‘come’: our assumption is that we are here, and people need to move in order to be part of us.
In one previous circuit, I knew a group of Christians who left the United Reformed Church in the town, because they said they believed God was calling them to reach out with the Gospel to a needy housing estate in what was otherwise a generally prosperous town. They hired the St John Ambulance hall, and began weekly Sunday afternoon meetings. They also ran the Alpha Course. There was only one problem. None of them ever moved onto the estate.
We cannot expect a spiritual harvest if we ‘leave the city’, if we don’t get involved in the middle of people’s lives rather than staying at arm’s length and expecting them to come running gratefully to us. Those of you who were at the welcome service three weeks ago may recall I made reference in my short speech to John’s Gospel. In John 20, the risen Jesus says to the disciples, ‘As the Father sent me, so I send you.’ Therefore, I said, to know how Jesus sends us, we have to know how the Father sent him. And for that we go back to John 1, where we read, ‘The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.’ Jesus’ approach to mission was very largely ‘go’. It was to live among the people he wanted to reach.
So if we desire to see a spiritual harvest of people finding faith in Christ and following him, we need to abandon the ideas that a church needs to put together an attractive programme so that we can invite people to enticing events. It is less important to build programmes than to build people.
You will hear more from me on this particular theme as we get to know each other. Do not ‘leave the city’. Be part of the city. Bless the people who do not yet know the love of Christ. Make your lives the kind that provoke questions. And then be ready to answer them.
The third barrier to a spiritual harvest that Jonah demonstrates comes in his attitude to the mysterious Jack and the Beanstalk-type plant (maybe a gourd, maybe a castor-oil plant) that God causes to grow and then wither (verses 6-8). Jonah enjoys the shade it provides, but starts moaning again when it has gone. God brings him up short in the final three verses of the story:
But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the gourd?”
“It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.”
But the LORD said, “You have been concerned about this gourd, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”
In other words, the barrier here is that Jonah has a consumer’s attitude to God. Jonah is happy when God does something for him. But when God doesn’t, or when he requires him to do something unappealing, he wants out.
It’s the same attitude we see in Christians who frequently move church, because no church ever satisfies them. Their assumption is that they are consumers, and they should be satisfied by what is provided. So you hear Christians saying, “We left that church because we weren’t being fed.” Well, what happened to feeding yourselves? Mature Christians should have cultivated ways in which they take on board spiritual nurture for themselves! Any idea that it should all be spoon-fed to them is quite outrageous! The job of the pastor – the shepherd – is not to feed the sheep, but to show them where they can feed themselves.
Faith is not simply about what we can get out of God. If you remember the famous words of John F Kennedy, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country” could be translated into spiritual terms. “Ask not what your God can do for you – ask what you can do for your God.”
Now don’t misunderstand me. Of course we should rejoice and seek the many things God does for us and wants to do for us. But when we simply turn the spiritual life into ‘what I can get out of it’, we have missed the demands of discipleship, and especially the call for discipleship to be practised in a missional way in the world. Those who think that Jesus and the church are here simply to provide for their spiritual preferences are the very people who are usually a barrier to church growth. They so absorb the time of others and distract good Christians from better purposes that they wring the life out of Christ’s church.
All of which rolls us round quite neatly to the theme of harvest. Today, we celebrate what – by the grace of God – we can give, so that others may flourish. Commonly, we think of that in physical and material terms. We give food, money or other items so that the needy may receive what they need.
But there is a spiritual parallel. As we seek not be spiritual consumers but spiritual givers, people who are keen to see what we can do in the service of God’s mission, then other people will receive their spiritual needs. They will find the love of God in Christ for the first time and commit their lives to being disciples of Jesus. They will ‘grow in grace and in the knowledge and love of God’. They too will become missional disciples.
And if too we have been people who have chosen the path of humility, not self-righteous anger; and if we have been people who have not ‘left the city’ for the Christian ghetto but dwelt in the midst of humankind in all its needs; then might we not indeed begin to see a spiritual harvest, and – unlike Jonah – rejoice in it?
On Friday night, my wife slept outside in the cold. And I am proud.
Am I proud to be a heartless husband who is happy to allow his belovèd to be subjected to the onset of winter? No. I am proud, because she did it as one of sixty or so people participating in a sponsored sleep out for Chelmsford CHESS, a Christian organisation that supports homeless people in our town. Among them were what we used to call Sixth Formers from two local secondary schools.
I have calculated that after the addition of Gift Aid where claimed, she will have raised £684.53 towards the amazing work that Chelmsford CHESS undertakes. They began when the churches of the town used to open their halls on a rota basis as places where the homeless could sleep. Then they bought a property and made it a night shelter. They now also have a day centre which offers job skills and recreation, and another residential property for people they are helping to move on back into ‘normal’ life.
I am proud, too, that I have two of their trustees in my churches. One is the Managing Trustee. He has had a passion to serve the homeless since he took early retirement from the world of banking. The other has only recently become involved when he retired early from business. He plans to run an Alpha Course among the clients. That, to say the least, will be interesting.
Obviously, a sponsored sleep out is meant to simulate – but only to a limited extent – the plight of the homeless. It took place in a churchyard. The night had begun with musical entertainment. There were security patrols. Participants could go into the church and make a coffee if they wanted one. They had access to toilets. At 6:30 am, the sleep out was formally broken by the arrival of bacon sandwiches. None of which is to pretend it was easy – Debbie only slept for about twenty minutes all night – but it is to remember that those who are on the streets have it even tougher.
I’ve never been very good in dealing with homeless people. I’m not streetwise enough to find wise ways of serving them. I have oscillated between naïveté and insensitivity in my responses. But I am glad we can find simple ways of supporting organisations like Chelmsford CHESS.
It’s rather like the attitude my grandmother took to world mission. Inspired by the example of her friend Gladys Aylward, she longed to serve the church in overseas mission. However, health reasons prevented her. Unlike Aylward, who was also initially turned down, she was unable to find another way of going abroad. So my grandmother became a lifelong fundraiser for world mission causes. When it’s not possible to go in the cause of mission, Christians can pray and give.
The other side is that it’s easy for us to default to giving and prayer as a way of not doing mission, however much finances and intercession are needed as key jigsaw pieces in the picture of mission. Sometimes they are what we do as a cop-out, because we’d rather not find vulnerable ways of sharing the Gospel ourselves in word and deed. I have known too many churches where the understanding of mission is limited to fund-raising. A Home Missions or World Church Sunday has meant a visiting speaker and a collection. The congregation has then thought it has shared in mission. Church authorities have colluded in this deceit: just pay us, we are the experts.
But I do know that in Debbie’s case it was different. She had been so moved by hearing a speaker from Chelmsford CHESS at a church midweek meeting that she had to find something she could do as a Christian about this terrible social need – one that will surely only worsen, the longer current financial strictures continue.
So, yes, I am proud of my wife.
What do you do when no-one’s looking? That is a test of our character, isn’t it?
One American minister whose blog I read wrote about it this last week. He gave a few examples of what this might mean for Christians. How do we react when someone cuts us up on the road? How do I choose between two options when I am sure I know my spouse would prefer one of them? How do I behave around members of the opposite sex when my spouse isn’t around? Do I speak the same way about others in their presence as I would when they are absent? Do I pay my bills on time? Do I exaggerate my achievements on a CV, or generally boast unduly about my abilities?
Similarly, a few days before the Presidential election in the USA, the well-known church leader Rick Warren wrote a piece about the kind of leadership he believed America needed. He talked about the need for leaders to demonstrate integrity, humility and generosity. With regard to integrity, he said this:
Some people say that it doesn’t really matter what a leader does in his private life. It matters if you want God’s blessing. What you do in your private life always affects your public life. In fact, that’s the definition of integrity – your public and private life is the same.
Again, it’s a question of what you do when no-one’s looking.
What have these examples to do with the Parable of the Talents? Simply this: the parable is couched in terms of an absent master. He gives the talents to his slaves and then goes away for a long time.
You could say we live in the absence of Jesus. That sounds shocking. Quickly we object that he promised to be with us always, and that he promised to send his Spirit. Absolutely. Christ is present by his Spirit. But that presence is not always tangible, and certainly we often live as if he were absent. How we conduct ourselves when he is not physically present is a Gospel issue for his disciples, and the various servants in the parable show different responses to that situation.
It is the dream of many Christians to hear Christ address us on Judgment Day with the words the master uses to the trustworthy slaves here: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant’, followed by the invitation to enter into the Master’s joy. But what draws a delighted verdict of ‘Well done’ from Christ to his servants? How exactly have they been so faithful in small things that Jesus will now put them in charge of many things?
Well, clearly it’s an act of faith. But we need to be careful how we define faithfulness. For faithfulness is much more than simply doing things regularly. We say someone is faithful if they show up every week. There is a certain truth to that, which we ought to observe. Faithfulness involves endurance. It means sticking at things through thick and thin.
But I believe Jesus means much more than that in commending the faithfulness of the trustworthy servants in this parable. They take the money they have been given (remember, a talent here is currency, not a gift or ability) and speculate with it. Faithfulness here is much more than regular habits of spiritual commitment, important as they are.
I think it was best put by the late John Wimber, in one of my favourite sayings of his. He observed that the word ‘faith’ is spelt R-I-S-K. If faith is about radical trust and obedience to Christ, then it is going to involve risk.
Perhaps the classic story in the Gospels is where Jesus walks on the water and Simon Peter says, ‘Lord, if it’s you, call me.’ So Jesus does call him and Peter gets out of the boat. For a while, he walks on the water, too. But then when he gets more concerned with the waves at his feet, he sinks.
What does Jesus do? He lifts him up. Contrary to some of our assumptions, Jesus does not condemn Peter for the moment when he takes his eyes off him and onto the circumstances. I believe that the balance of the situation is that Jesus commends Peter for his risky act of faith.
You will notice if you read the story that Jesus has no word at all for the disciples who remain in the boat. All his words and actions are directed towards risk-taking, faithful Peter. Don’t put this one down to the impetuous, blustering Peter. Here he takes risks of faith. In doing so, he shines much brighter than the other disciples.
So, the question is for us: are we the types who practise risk-taking faith? We need to cultivate an approach which is willing to try one thing after another, and not be discouraged if something doesn’t work out. If like Peter we begin to sink, then Christ will stretch his hands out to lift us up and encourage us to keep going.
I may have told you before that one of the most liberating things I ever read about ministry was the comment of an American pastor who said he didn’t mind if he tried ten different things in church, only for nine of them to fail, if it meant he found the one thing it was right for him to do. I believe that minister had an insight into risk-taking faith, the sort of faith that Jesus commends and rewards.
For Hatfield Peverel, this challenge comes as we approach the final session of the first Alpha Course we have specifically conducted as an outreach. Will people be converted? Will anyone join this church, or another one? If so, will it happen now or later? None of us knows. Suppose we see no obvious fruit: should we give up? No. Way. We should either continue to run Alpha Courses or something else. That is what risk-taking faithful servants do.
There is a ‘secular’ proverb that makes for good spiritual application here: failure is not falling down. The only failure is when we do not get up again after a fall. Those who practise risky faith are bruised from many falls. But they keep going. As a result, they bear fruit. And one day, they will be rewarded.
So onto the shocking part of the parable. I refer to the unfaithful servant, but the language of the master is much stronger. He calls him ‘wicked and lazy’. That’s a bit strong, isn’t it? Worse, this slave says he knows the master is ‘harsh’, and he seems to act in exactly that way in his anger. He has the one talent taken from this man and given to the servant with ten talents. Then he has him thrown into outer darkness. What are we to make of this horrifying and violent conclusion?
I want to begin by saying that while the parables of Jesus have allegorical features, not every detail is meant to have its allegory. So we should be careful about applying every last detail of a parable by looking for an exact parallel.
But in saying that, I do not want to dilute the challenge here. Often, Jesus includes a shock element in a parable: think about the scandal of the father welcoming home the prodigal son, for example. The shock is meant to guide us into the core of what Jesus is teaching us. So we should listen carefully to the condemnation of the one-talent servant. What might Jesus be saying to us here?
Let me approach that by way of an illustration. On Tuesday evening, the circuit ministers, circuit stewards and a few other circuit officers gathered to discuss the findings of our recent Circuit Review. Inevitably, we got onto the subject of change. Someone observed that one reason for resistance to change in our churches is this: the world is changing rapidly, and some of our folk find this bewildering and even frightening. They look for a place where they can find security in the familiar things they have known for years not changing. That place is the church.
I do not believe in advocating change for the sake of change. However, at the risk of sounding callous, can I suggest that such reasons for resisting change in the church and keeping things ‘as it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be’ betray the mentality of the one-talent servant? Our security is not meant to be with familiar practices, buildings and hymns. Christian security is found in Jesus Christ and God’s enduring love. Anything less is idolatry.
I have told the story how in my teens I took a poll of people’s favourite hymns in my home church. The top choice was a surprise. It wasn’t ‘And can it be’. Nor was it ‘O for a thousand tongues’ or ‘Love divine’. It was ‘In heavenly love abiding’. I was always convinced the reason that hymn got the most votes was for the line, ‘For nothing changes here’!
The one-talent servant would not engage in risk-taking faith. He wanted to keep everything the same. Change was a threat to him. He had an inkling the master would be angry, and he was right. Christ, too, will be displeased with us if we take the safe option. He called his disciples to leave everything and follow him. Might it be that he calls us to leave much that is familiar to us in order to go on a journey of risky faithfulness as his disciples? I believe he might well. Remember, he had no words of encouragement for those disciples who stayed in the boat while Peter attempted to walk on the water.
Maybe the problem for those of us who like to play it safe is the one with which I opened the sermon. We act as if Jesus were not present. He is not very real to us. If we had a sense of his close presence, how could we not take great risks of faith? Yes, we wonder whether we know his will at times. But wouldn’t he rather we took a chance on seeing whether something was his will and have a stab at it, rather than sit around with it buried out of doubt or fear?
On my daily exercise walks, I have taken to listening to podcasts, which are like radio programmes you can download from the Internet. I listen to them on earphones in the same way others listen to music. On Friday, I listened to a talk given at a conference in Southampton by the Australian missionary thinker Mike Frost. One thing he said that struck me was this. You can name all the signs you like that you think prove the Holy Spirit is at work in your life. But if you are not getting on with the risky subject of Christian mission, then how much can you say you are like the God who is always sending and who in his Son is not only sending but sent?
Playing safe just doesn’t fit with God. That’s why the master is angry.
The challenge of this parable is very personal for me. As some of you know, I resisted a call to the ministry for a long time, because I thought my personality didn’t fit what most congregations wanted from a minister. Sixteen years into circuit ministry, I still think that!
Not only that, although the great majority of people I have met through ministry have been lovely Christians, I have seen enough of Christianity’s dark underbelly to have had more than the occasional thought of quitting.
In my darker moments, I don’t always have the most worthy of reasons for staying in the ministry. I wonder what else I would do. I think about financially providing for my family. These are hardly heroic reasons.
Yet remaining as a minister is nevertheless a risk-taking act of faith for me. I still can’t fathom why God called me this way. All I know is that – to my sometimes incredulous surprise – he does something beautiful, because I’ve hung around in what is often an uncomfortable environment for me. This calling is where I exercise risky faith, just by following it. Were I to follow my natural inclinations as they tempt me when ministry is dry or discouraging, I would be playing it safe. I would be a one-talent servant.
Has God called you to an uncomfortable place, too? Do you think that like Peter you might sink? Hang around there. Don’t quit. Let Jesus pick you up when things go wrong. In due course you will bear fruit for the kingdom of God.
And let’s take risks as a church, too.