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Back To Church Sunday

Joy of joys, today was Synod. That day when two hundred Methodists sit on their backsides for six hours, listening to a select few speaking from the front. (It’s not quite that bad usually, but it can be like that.)

Today, our Synod had a theme: ‘The Invitational Church’. This was good for two reasons: (1) we focussed on mission; (2) business items were kept to a minimum (although the Spring Synod is usually the monster for bureaucracy).

In particular, we had a guest speaker, Michael Harvey, founder of Back To Church Sunday. I have never encouraged a church to take part in BTCS, because it seems to me it concentrates on getting that ever-smaller band of people, the dechurched, into our congregations, and overlooks that growing group, the unchurched. In fairness, BTCS can tell some success stories, and I shouldn’t be mean about them. My worry is that it plays into the notion of meeting people in our comfort zone.

But Michael Harvey had one vital gem for all of us today, whatever our perspective on mission. He pointed out that churches ‘eat strategies for breakfast’. We can come up with as many strategies as we like, but they will all fail, because the core reason people to not invite others to church (or engage in mission generally, I would argue) is fear. Fear of rejection. Fear of embarrassment. We use other words like ‘anxiety’ or ‘sensitivity’ but really we’re talking about fear. In other words, the key issue for mobilising the church in mission is attention to the inner life of existing Christians.

What do you think?

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Sermon: A Missional Wedding Banquet

I’m not preaching in my own churches or even circuit tomorrow. We have a visiting minister at Knaphill, taking a missions Sunday, and I am filling one of his pulpits. Hence you may recognise the odd little bit of content here that you’ve seen previously from me.

Matthew 22:1-14
Legend tells of Ian Paisley preaching ferociously about the ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’ that we hear about in this and a couple of other parables in Matthew’s Gospel. As he described the torments awaiting the ungodly in Hell, one elderly woman spoke up:

“What about me? I’ve only got dentures!”

“Teeth,” replied Dr Paisley, “will be provided!”

For those of us who have a cosy image of Jesus and his parables, the ending to this one is a shock. We shall come to think about that shock in the final part of the sermon, but for now let me just say that we have become so used to the parables that we miss their shocking nature. The Good Samaritan is a shocking story. A Samaritan helps a Jew? Whatever next? A terrorist helping a wounded person in New York?
And the Prodigal Son? There’s nothing fluffy in that story. Jesus’ listeners would have been appalled when they heard that the father looked out for his errant son and then ran to meet him. Culturally, the father should have been waiting inside the house for the younger son to return crawling on his hands and knees, grovelling for all he was worth – which wasn’t much.

I would say it is a key to understanding many of the parables: look for the shock. With today’s parable, I venture to suggest that the ending is not the only scandalous part. And I think that in this parable of mission, Jesus needs to shock us into recognising key aspects of God’s mission, in which we share.

Consider, firstly, the initial invitation. This should be routine, shouldn’t it? The servants go out ‘to those who had been invited’ (verse 3). These people are expected to come. We might think with some justification that these are the people who would fall into the natural orbits of the two families about to be joined together. While social conventions are different today, we know that there are certain groups of people from whom we naturally draw the bulk of the numbers when we are issuing wedding invitations. Family – starting with the closest; friends – from school or university, from church or work or social circles related to our hobbies and pastimes. And so on. Most wedding couples don’t spring massive surprises with their guest lists, other than the usual difficulty of deciding where the cut-off point is.

And similarly, perhaps, with our strategies for mission. There are certain people whom it seems right to connect with first, if we hope to touch people with the love of God in Christ with our words and deeds. There are particular groups of people who we shall naturally invite to join us at church. There are those who once used to come, but then dropped out. They may be relatives of existing church members. There will be people associated with groups that hire our premises. Perhaps this list might include uniformed organisations. We might think of people who show a certain affinity with us, even if they do not yet share our commitment to Christ. If you have come across Back To Church Sunday in recent years, that is a strategy directly aimed at those who used to go to church, but who retain more of a sympathy for the church than we might commonly imagine.

Indeed, for a long time now, our mission strategy has been based on an appeal to ‘come’, and in generations when churchgoing was much more natural than it is today, that approach had certain degrees of success.

But there are a couple of dangers.

One is that the religiously sympathetic are not always the most likely to commit themselves to the radical step of following Jesus. Just as the natural invitees to the wedding banquet in the parable ignored, mistreated or killed the second wave of servants that was sent to summon them, so religious people can be those most inoculated against the Gospel. And could it be, given the way the king in the parable sends his army against those people who reject his invitation (verse 7), that God is less impressed with the religious and the respectable than we are?

The other danger is that the natural constituency for this approach is shrinking fast. If we do step out in mission, we want to be as comfortable as possible about it, so we only reach out to people we feel safe with, and furthermore we only do it in locations where we feel at ease – such as our own church buildings.

Secondly, let’s consider the second group that the king invites. The king sends his servants to invite ‘anyone [they can] find’ (verse 9), and this leads them ‘into the streets’ where they [gather] all the people they could find, both good and bad’ (verse 10).

What might this mean for us in terms of the call to Christian mission? Clearly in Jesus’ own day he is indicating a message that will ultimately go beyond the Jewish community to the unconscionable Gentiles. When those we might humanly expect to respond to God’s redeeming love do not do so, God has a way of pushing us out to the least and the last, to those least likely – at least in our eyes.
Before I studied Theology and candidated for the Methodist ministry, my prior work was as a civil servant, working in Social Security. As some people said, that was certainly one way of seeing life. During my first year in the civil service, I had my final family holiday with my parents. We went on a Methodist Guild Holiday[1]. One devout Methodist we met on the holiday asked me what my work was. I explained that I worked in Social Security. Back came a response I have never forgotten: “At least you are on the right side of the counter.”

Obviously, I have never forgotten those words for all the wrong reasons. Apart from the fact that in my work I knew full well that the great majority of those claiming benefits were honest people who didn’t want to be in the situations they had found themselves in, there is also the fact that this parable shows us how the Gospel is for those who are ‘on the wrong side’.

Could we not do with a challenge in the church sometimes to this effect? Who are the people whom we would not naturally consider, but who are loved with an everlasting love by God through Jesus Christ? Are there those he is calling us to reach in word and deed with his love?

Might it be that we just have a problem in the church with being that little bit too comfortable that we need reminding God sends to ‘anyone [we can] find’? Might this be to do with the same fear we hinted at in the first point that leads us just to operate our mission in places where we feel at home? We base our concepts of mission on attracting people to where we are already. However, while we want to bring people into the Christian community, could it be that in a day when – as I said – the number of people for whom it is natural to come onto church premises is shrinking so fast – that we might need to change our primary verb from ‘come’ to ‘go’?
Indeed, might Jesus be saying to us, look at how I embraced the Father’s mission? I am the Word who was made flesh and dwelt among you. I did not wait for you to come to me, I took the initiative and brought the Father’s love to you. And since at my Resurrection I said I sent you as the Father sent me, then do you not hear? Your call in mission is not to say, “Come to us”, but to go to the world, to anyone you can find.

Thirdly and finally, let us consider the intruder at the wedding.
Our own royal family knows all about intruders. Whether it’s Michael Fagan getting into the Queen’s bedroom, a comedian dressing up as Osama bin Laden or protestors from Fathers For Justice landing inside Buckingham Palace, they tend to suffer spectacular intrusions every few years.

I’m not sure whether the word ‘intruder’ is the right one here, but it will have to do. What I’m concerned with is the shocking end to the parable where the king finds a man who has managed to get into the wedding banquet without wearing wedding clothes. He suffers a cruel fate as the king orders him to be bound and thrown out. What could explain such an apparently harsh reaction?

When you attend a wedding today you normally dress up. I remember conducting a wedding in my first appointment and wearing my customary suit and clerical shirt only for a guest to complain that the minister ‘had no sense of occasion’. He was expecting a robed Anglican and got me!
They dressed up for weddings in the ancient world, too. Although a wedding feast could begin at almost any time, there was the tacit understanding that you had time in between receiving your invitation and the wedding beginning for you to find appropriate attire and put it on. There was also a tradition where a king would provide guests with festal clothing. Either way there was no excuse: if you come to the wedding, you will be dressed appropriately. To do otherwise was to bestow a grave insult upon your host.[2]

Now we can understand what was so wrong about the man who was not in wedding clothes. He has insulted the king. Either he had the chance to dress properly and he didn’t bother or the king offered him clothes and he had the temerity to turn him down. The man has enjoyed the invitation but he has not accepted the responsibility that came with it.

Hence this is a powerful picture to challenge the way we respond to God. We may not be like the religious people who refuse the need for grace – indeed we may know only too well that we are entirely dependent upon grace in order to enter God’s presence.

But some of us stop there. We know that Jesus accepts us as we are, but we then coast along complacently. We do not accept the obligation to change – to be clothed differently.

The old saying is that Jesus loves us just as we are, but he loves us too much to leave us as we are. In other words, he provides new spiritual clothes. He expects us to be different. The dirt must go and a clean, holy lifestyle replace it. What else is appropriate as a thankful response to the King for inviting us to his Son’s wedding banquet?

Tragically, some of us are just not serious about living a holy life. God offers us the new clothes – that is, he himself makes it possible for us to be transformed. He does this by the power of his Holy Spirit whose work is to make us more like Jesus. Think of the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control – is that not a description of Jesus’ character? This is what God offers us.
But some of us are happy just to wear the same old dirty clothes. I have to admit that too often my wife has to remind me when my suits need to be dry cleaned. I don’t notice the marks on them. Part of my function as a minister is to hold before us all the need for a spiritual dry-clean. We need the reminder that we have got dirty again and we need to be cleaned up.

What does this have to do with mission? Quite a lot, to be honest. The Gospel is the Gospel of the kingdom. God’s kingdom is one of free grace that accepts us as we are. However, God is calling us to be community that is a sign of the kingdom, a sign of what is to come, and that means transformed lives. This too is part of our witness. Our call to mission is not only to go into the streets and gather anyone we can find, it is also to be dressed in our wedding clothes.

Are we playing our part in getting ready for the great wedding?


[1] Now Christian Guild Holidays.

Sermon: The Problem Of King Jesus

John 18:33-37

‘What is truth? said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer.’

Many of us think of Francis Bacon’s famous words when we read this account of Jesus before Pilate. But we have a problem: the Lectionary omits verse 38 where Pilate says, ‘What is truth?’ for reasons that are beyond me. Well, unless it is to do with the political correctness that afflicts the Lectionary in some places. Maybe Pilate has to be rehabilitated.

But aside from strange editorial decisions in the compilation of the Lectionary, this is a difficult passage, however familiar it seems. We read it today, because today, the Sunday before Advent, is the Feast of Christ the King, also known as Stir-Up Sunday, from the famous collect

Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

And hence Jane’s piece at the beginning of the service with the cake! If today were just about cake, we’d have few problems with it – maybe it would be suitable for Back To Church Sunday!

But the kingship of Jesus is a problem. It’s a problem throughout the Gospels, and it’s a particular problem here. The kingship of Jesus is a problem for everyone who encounters him. By considering how King Jesus is a problem for different people, we shall see how his kingship challenges us all.

Firstly, and obviously, King Jesus is a problem for Pilate. To return to Francis Bacon’s words, I don’t think he is ‘jesting Pilate’ at all. Pontius Pilate has a serious political problem here. As a Roman Governor, he is used to being able to throw his weight around, using the occupying army to subdue the locals. His trouble is that he has done it too heavily-handed once too often, having desecrated the Jerusalem Temple. The Jewish leaders had sent a deputation to Rome to protest, with the result that Pilate was on a final warning. However aggressive the Roman Empire was, they saw no need to cause what they believed to be unnecessary provocation in the lands they conquered.

So when the Jewish leaders hand Jesus over to him, Pilate has a big problem. Yet to be fair, he starts from a position of justice: ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ (verse 33); ‘What have you done?’ (verse 35)

Yet by the end of the interview, we know Pilate, like a politician today, will cave into compromise and short term expediency. Throughout the conversation, he can’t get a handle on who Jesus is. He doesn’t fit his categories. Because Pontius Pilate only understands one language: the language of politics. He’s expecting Jesus to be a revolutionary. Well, he is, but not in the sense Pilate expects: Jesus is no terrorist. Not only does Jesus’ lifestyle deny such an idea, he contradicts it in his reply:

‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ (Verse 36)

Some people seize on this as a sign that obeying the kingship of Jesus means we don’t get involved in politics. They quote it as ‘My kingdom is not of this world’. Therefore, they argue, since we are part of that kingdom, we should not get embroiled in dirty, everyday politics: that’s a different kingdom.

But what Jesus says is perhaps better rendered, ‘My kingship is not from this world’[1]. He’s not advocating withdrawal from the world, he’s saying that he does things differently. His kingship comes from heaven, where justice is not established by force or violence. His kingship is therefore radically different from the tactics employed by Roman Emperors or Jewish Zealots.

Jesus doesn’t bail out of politics: it is about the common good, and he cares about that. But his kingship redraws how his disciples will get involved. They will do so peaceably, not forcefully.

What does that mean for us? Not all of us are directly involved in politics. Apart from anything else, I believe it means that if we live under the reign of King Jesus, we conduct ourselves in public in a peaceable way. We do not shout, scream, demand, manipulate and scheme. We speak up more for the poor and the voiceless than for ourselves. We do so passionately, but without aggression. Is that possible? Jesus managed it.

Secondly, King Jesus is a problem for the Jewish leaders. There’s a lot of reference in John’s Gospel to ‘the Jews’. Tragically, down the centuries some Christians (and others, such as Hitler) have used it to justify prejudice and violence against Jewish people.

However, John does not use ‘the Jews’ to mean the entire Jewish race at the time. He normally uses it to refer to a distinct group, and he is clearly aware of other people in the story – not least Jesus – who are also Jewish but are not included under ‘the Jews’. Mostly, it stands for the religious authorities who are in opposition to Jesus and his ministry. It is these people, designated ‘the Jews’, who have handed Jesus over to Pilate (verse 32).

What’s their problem? Simple. Jesus doesn’t fit their expectations. Jesus is at odds with most of the major groupings in the Judaism of his time. He won’t cosy up to the Roman authorities like the wealthy Sadducees and some of the priestly classes. He won’t use the Scriptures as a weapon to exclude people in the way the scribes and Pharisees do. He won’t retreat to a secluded, pure community like the Essenes. And as we’ve already noted, he rejects the violent revolution of the Zealots. He just doesn’t fit.

So what are you going to do with a misfit who keeps causing you trouble? You’ll try to get rid of him. The traditional Jewish punishment of stoning was still sometimes spontaneously used, as we see from the story of the woman caught in adultery . But around AD 30, Rome took away the Jewish right to execute someone. But it further suited the purposes of the religious establishment to have Jesus crucified, because then by being hung on a tree he would be subject to a curse, according to Deuteronomy. It’s sobering what lengths human beings will go to in order to exclude someone they regard as a misfit.

I’ve talked before in sermons about the way we wrongly fit Jesus into our own preferred image and can’t cope with the fact that he won’t be confined to it. Recently, I read something helpful that a friend posted on Facebook. Pam is an American Christian (a Methodist minister, in fact) who recently returned to the USA from the UK. She has obviously been listening to the famous American radio show ‘A Prairie Home Companion[2], hosted by the author Garrison Keillor, author of the well-known series of books that began with ‘Lake Wobegon Days’. Keillor, a Christian of Lutheran and now Episcopalian background, tells fictionalised stories based on life in rural Minnesota. They often draw on his My friend Pam quoted a gem from a recent broadcast by Keillor:

Jesus came to earth and disappointed a lot of people.

When you follow Jesus, he will disappoint you. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day were quickly disappointed by him. He won’t conform, and life with him will not always go the way we want it to. For he is king, and it is his rule that matters.

The question therefore comes, what will we do with our disappointment? Will we attempt to banish or exclude him, like the Jewish establishment of two thousand years ago? Or will we continue to follow him, mixing joy and disappointment? It’s a hard choice, but let’s remember that only those who continued with Jesus through disappointment got to see him in his risen glory.

Thirdly, King Jesus is a problem for us today. It’s simply this: even if Jesus radically reinterpets kingship into a peaceful form, it’s still a reworking based on a notion of kingship that has very little equivalent in our world today. We may still have a monarchy, but our Queen is meant to act on the advice of her ministers. Largely, therefore, she gives Royal Assent to Bills in Parliament that have been shaped by politicians. She retains certain powers, but they are much diminished. She is no absolute monarch. Long gone are the days when we spoke about ‘the divine right of kings’.

And in other cultures, the gap is even greater. How do you think about King Jesus when you live in a republic with a President as head of state? The American Christian author and speaker Brian McLaren has spoken of his cultural struggle with the biblical references to kingship and the kingdom of God. He suggests an alternative. We should refer to ‘the revolution of God’.

I think that’s helpful! If following King Jesus joins us up to the revolution of God, then one thing is certain: we are not in for a quiet, cosy time, at least not in the way some church communities seem to envisage. We are called instead to a dynamic, challenging, risky way of life.

The other day I read a piece by Bishop Graham Cray, who leads Fresh Expressions nationally for the Anglican, Methodist and United Reformed Churches. Let me read you a few sentences:

A risk-free existence can look very attractive for a while. Although the fine line between risk-free and unbearably boring is easily crossed. But those who want risk-free should never become Christians. To follow Jesus means risking all to follow him. I was recently reminded that the Church of Scotland report ‘Church Without Walls’ says that the essence of church is ‘People with Jesus at the centre, travelling wherever Jesus takes us.’ The whole fresh expressions initiative is about allowing Jesus to take us to those whom our existing churches do not reach, and working with him, as he forms a new group of people, who are willing to go wherever he takes them. That inevitably involves risk.

Because that is the logical conclusion of the other two issues we have thought about. Risk. It will be risky to follow King Jesus in the ways I have suggested. People who campaign for the poor in public life and do so in a peaceable way may end up on crosses. People who are willing to keep following Jesus even through disappointments are not signing up for a safe and quiet life, even if they do live with the hope of resurrection. But we remember how Jesus finally answered Pilate:

‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ (Verse 37)

Nothing else is the way of truth.


[1] Richard Burridge, John (The People’s Bible Commentary), p215.

 

[2] British listeners can hear this on BBC Radio 7.

Links

Here are some more places I stopped on my electronic travels this week. Several of these links come from Leadership Journal, because I’ve been catching up on a few weeks’ worth of the Leadership Weekly email they send out over the last couple of days.

Science 
Some pictures from the Hubble telescope. Get beyond the first few and you’ll see some amazing ones. I’ve just made the image of the Sombrero Galaxy my desktop background. 

Spirituality 
Take seven minutes and forty seconds of your time to listen to Archbishop John Sentamu speak on the Advent theme of waiting.

A moving description of happiness from Ben Witherington III.

In Bedside Manner, Matt Lumpkin offers advice on caring for the sick and for yourself during pastoral visiting in hospital.

Mission 
David Keen looks at Back To Church Sunday and considers what proportion of the population is open to evangelism of a ‘come to us’ approach, compared with the need for a ‘missional’ strategy. (Via blogs4god.)

Coming and going is an interview that contrasts the attractional and missional approaches to evangelism and church. In the attractional corner, Ed Young, ‘the dude with the food’, ‘the worship event is the port of entry to the church’, ‘I believe God gives one person the vision – the pastor.’ In the missional corner, Neil Cole, ‘Using traditional [church] planting methods, it would cost $80 billion to reach Atlanta’, ‘Three things deter spontaneous multiplication: buildings, budgets, and big shots’, ‘We have to think in terms of mobilizing the kingdom to go where people are. Too many Christians are passive and unengaged.’

Walt Kallestad gave up on attractional with the big show and transitioned to a discipleship model.

On the other hand, Dan Kimball (of all people) has expressed missional misgivings and particularly urged missional churches not to criticise attractional congregations.

Credit Crunch 
According to Christian Aid, ethical giving hasn’t been hit by the credit crunch.

Also on the credit crunch, Gordon Macdonald says this is no time to cower for the Christian church. His fifth and sixth ideas sound very close to what many ‘missional’ Christians have been advocating.

Christmas 
Think tank Theos has published research showing that one in three Britons believes in the virgin birth. Of course, just believing a doctrine isn’t enough … 

Communion wine from Bethlehem is being stopped at checkpoints by Israeli soldiers who deem it – wait for it – a security risk.

Philip Yancey on observing a mellow, domesticated Christmas.