How many Christians does it take to screw in a light bulb?
Three, but they are really one.
How many agnostics does it take to screw in a light bulb?
Agnostics question the existence of the light bulb.
How many fundamentalists does it take to screw in a light bulb?
THE BIBLE * DOES * NOT * SAY * ANYTHING * ABOUT LIGHT BULBS!
And finally … how many Methodists does it take to screw in a light bulb?
Change? What’s this word ‘change’?
Change is what our Bible readings these last three Sundays have been making us think about. Peter the Jewish apostle had to contemplate change in order to take the message of Jesus to Cornelius the Roman centurion. Cornelius had to consider change, because although he was a good man who believed in God, he needed more. Now, after Peter’s visit to Cornelius, where God has brought about dramatic change by the Holy Spirit, he is interrogated in Jerusalem who have heard about the incident on the grapevine and don’t like it:
‘You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.’ (Verse 3)
So what if you’re like these people, not involved in the big change at the time but coming to it second hand at a later date? What if, like these people, you are among those who has to consider whether a change is good or not? How do you judge it? What if your minister or your Church Council say to the congregation, “Such-and-such is the way we should go,” but it all sounds rather flaky to you. What would a good response look like?
After all, it’s easy to judge a proposed change based on your instinctive temperament. You may have heard it said that when a group of people is faced with a proposal for change, they fall roughly into four groups:
- The radicals, who want change, and today would be too late. Yesterday would be preferable;
- The progressives, whose natural instinct is for change, but who may not be as extreme as the radicals;
- The conservatives, who would prefer not to change. However, if you can make a good case, then they will happily go along with it;
- The traditionalists, who will not change at any price.
The traditionalists are rather like the Anglican church warden who had been in office for forty years when the bishop met him one day on a visit to the church.
The bishop said, “You must have seen a lot of changes here during your forty years.”
“Yes,” replied the church warden, “and I’ve opposed every one of them!”
So, then, if you are not the first to hear the news, how do you respond toproposed change? The first constructive thing the Jerusalem disciples did was to listen.
I get the impression that when they say to Peter, ‘You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them,’ it’s a rather hostile, aggressive, accusing question. I say that because Peter’s speech in response exhibits all the classic signs of an ancient defence speech. He quotes the testimony of witnesses, the evidence of signs, and concludes with a rhetorical question.
But to their credit, ‘the circumcised believers’ (verse 2, as Luke describes them) do not interrupt or hassle Peter. They listen carefully to his speech. We can be grateful that for all their initial antagonism, they are not the sort of people we sometimes find in our churches and in the wider world whose motto could be, ‘I’ve made my mind up, so don’t confuse me with the facts.’ You know the sort of person who only listens to a contrary view with the greatest of reluctance. Perhaps they are actually afraid that if they listen, the truth will persuade them they are wrong and they will have to change when that is the last thing they want to do.
Not the Jerusalem disciples, though. Sceptical they may be, but their actions show they want to go in the direction of God’s truth. And since a major part of that discernment process will be to detect where God is already at work, they devote themselves to listening to Peter.
So how good are we at listening to others in order to perceive the work of God? It requires above all that we have a heart and mind that is committed to finding the will of God and following it. Sadly, there are people in our churches who are too embedded to the traditions they love that they will not take the holy risk of listening. I suggest that such people probably love their traditions more than they love God.
Or there are those of us who prefer the sound of our own voices to those of others. We have an inbuilt pride that assumes God is more likely to speak through us than through other Christians, and so we don’t invest time and energy in listening to others.
Rather, listening is an act that honours other people. What they claim to be an account of God at work is worthy of our attention. We grant them dignity is people made in the image of God and called to be servants of God by giving them our time and concentration.
Note that in all this I am not saying that listening should be naïve and uncritical. It certainly should not be the kind of exercise where we absorb everything that is said without filtering it. That is why the second element of responding toproposed change is to discern.
Here’s where I see discernment going on in the story. Peter does something very modest in his speech. He omits all reference to the sermon he preached – he is not claiming that the conversion of the Gentiles is his work. Instead, as he prepares to tell his listeners about how the Holy Spirit fell upon Cornelius and his household, he substitutes for his sermon the words of Jesus:
John baptised with water, but you will be baptised withthe Holy Spirit. (Verse 16)
Now these words of Jesus were originally aimed at his disciples, not later Gentiles, but Peter clearly sees an applicable parallel. He knows how the words were fulfilled at Pentecost, and he has just seen something similar at Caesarea. The words of Jesus are an appropriate interpretation of the recent ground-breaking events he has witnessed.
What does this have to do with discernment? These words of Jesus, taken by Peter to support a valid interpretation of the spiritual experience in question, are the decisive matter for ‘the circumcised believers’. Now they know that what they are hearing about from the apostle fits within the grand sweep of God’s purposes, because they fulfil a great biblical theme. Later in Acts the believers in the town of Berea will test what they encounter against the Scriptures, so here the listeners don’t even have to search the Scriptures themselves, a relevant one is given to them on a plate by Peter. Not only that, it fulfils ancient prophecies in which Israel is called to be a light to the nations. The call that Jonah ran away from is embraced here.
The test of discernment, then, is whether what they hear in their concentrated listening constitutes something that is in harmony with the great purposes of the God who sent his Son and later sent his Spirit.
We, too, would do well to engage in a similar approach to discernment. If something is being proposed, it will not be something with a proof text we can find in the Bible – and let’s remember how the various disciples in Acts underwent vastly different fates. Some survived and were honoured; others suffered; still others were martyred. So with varying destinies in this life, we can hardly take the proof text approach.
But what we can do is ask whether what is being proposed fits harmoniously in with what we know of God’s great story, his grand narrative of salvation. Does the proposal honour Jesus Christ? These should be the ways in which we discerningly evaluate whether to accept the suggested change. What we should not do is merely evaluate according to our own tastes and preferences.
Finally, there is a third characteristic of responding to calls for change, but it is one that only comes into play if the first two stages – the listening and the discerning – have been passed positively. If the proposal has been filtered out by those two, then what I am about to talk about does not apply. So – if the proposal for change has met the tests, this third element is praise. Hear the final verse of the reading again:
When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, ‘So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.’ (Verse 18)
What a transformation this is for the Jerusalem disciples, who began this dialogue with a sceptical, even hostile question. The aggression has gone, and now we have worship. Division has been averted, and we have a heightened sense of unity among the believers. There is a great opportunity now for the early church to take giant strides forward, not only with those who could have been at odds united, but also with an expansion to include the Gentiles.
Nothing energises the Church of Jesus Christ like a united sense of joy in his purposes, and delight in the God who calls us to be his worshippers, disciples, and witnesses. Holding onto what we’ve got because we feel the need always to defend the old ways will not lead us into joy and praise, because it will only inculcate in us a grim defensiveness like Canute vainly telling the waves to retreat. And changing just for the sake of change will not lead us to deeper and truer praise, either, because all that will do is make us into flaky fly-by-night characters.
No: true praise bursts out from among us when we detect God taking us back in a fresh way to his ancient plans and purposes. Praise comes when we sense that God is doing something new among us, something new that is yet also compatible with all he has revealed about himself in the past.
What is our corporate voice as a church? Is it one of joy and praise, because we are committed to going forward in the purposes of God? Or do we have an uncertain voice, because we have not made up our minds whether we are serious about following God’s will rather than our own self-indulgences? Or is there a heaviness among us, because we fill our time with criticising one another or taking pot-shots at all our petty hates?
Or do we have a heart as big as the world, a heart that therefore embraces God’s love for all creation, where he longs to do his transforming work, and to which end he desires to change us first so that we might be suitable vessels for his purposes?
Last August, just before we went on holiday in Cornwall, I noticed that an old friend of mine, Steve Wild, the Chair of the Cornwall Methodist District, would be taking a service in the Methodist church in Looe, the town where we would be staying while we were there. Steve is one of the warmest, most positive Christians I have ever had the pleasure to know. And what’s more, he often turns up at services with puppets – most notably Clarence the Frog. So I contacted him and asked whether Clarence would be accompanying him to the service in Looe.
We went as a whole family to the service, and met Steve outside the chapel, where he greeted us in his customary enthusiastic manner. Inside, he led half an hour of community hymn singing before the service proper began. He desperately wanted our two children to pick something, but the church was still on the 1936 Methodist Hymn Book, and our two even find 1983’s Hymns And Psalms far too ancient. He hadn’t brought along Clarence the Frog, but he had brought one of Clarence’s friends, and he let Bex and Mark play with the puppet during the service. Also, at one point, noticing how difficult the service was for them, he conducted a commando raid on the refreshments during the middle of a hymn and came back with a supply of Jaffa Cakes for them.
All in all, Steve is good news. He embodies the good news that he has preached throughout his life as an evangelist, a lecturer, a local minister, and television presenter. And I consider it good news of another kind to hear this week that he has been elected to be next year’s President of the Methodist Conference.
Good news is our theme this morning. Not the good news of Steve, but the Good News of Jesus (whom Steve proclaims). We come to this reading on the back of the fact that both Peter and Cornelius are facing the challenge to change. Cornelius is a good man, a devout religious man, even, but his vision of a man in dazzling clothes (verse 30ff) has shown him he needs more. Peter is being challenged to move outside his Jewish comfort zone, as well. And the reason for both these challenges to change is the Good News of Jesus. We’re going to spend some time this morning thinking about that Good News.
Firstly, who hears the Good News? Listen again to what Peter says when he introduces himself, having disabused Cornelius of the idea that he is anything more than mortal:
You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. (Verse 28)
Never mind the notions of who’s in and who’s out, ‘Unlawful’ is a rather strong translation of a word that here should probably be taken to mean ‘taboo’. All his social conventions and cultural pressure pointed against him having anything to do with Cornelius. But Peter says: ‘God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.’
Now that is potent. Social taboos tell us who the goodies are and who the baddies are. They tell us who is clean, and who is dirty. They wield great power, and tend to come with considerable pressure. Yet Peter resists the taboos, because God has told him otherwise. No-one is subject to God’s taboos when it comes to the Gospel.
What might that mean for us? It’s easy to draw up lists and examples of the social taboos we endorse today. Gypsies and travellers are often not welcome in an area, because they are all deemed to make a mess, but are they taboo to God? Evidently not, given the spiritual revival that has happened among them in recent years, and we have some evidence of that not far from here in the existence of a travellers’ church.
Or what about this week when we have seen two high-profile people in our society sent to prison? As a nation we have been disgusted by the phone hacking scandal that has been exposed in recent years, and it is only right that Andy Coulson, the convicted News of the World editor, has been jailed for eighteen months this week. What terrible things he authorised for victims such as Milly Dowler’s family. But has God declared him beyond the bounds of the Gospel? Was the judge right to declare these crimes ‘unforgivable’? Not at all. In fact, he desperately needs the Good News, and this would be a good time to pray for our prison chaplains.
Similarly, Rolf Harris. Many have been shocked to see his arrest, conviction and imprisonment for various sexual assaults, some upon minors. People are now queuing up to tell him to rot in prison and die there, but again – is he beyond the possibilities of God’s grace? By no means. In his twilight years, could he become like the repentant thief on the cross next to Jesus? Absolutely.
Of course, we don’t minimise the serious and deep repentance that will be needed by anyone who responds to the Good News of Jesus, but neither do we as believers in that Gospel deny people the opportunity to hear it and meet Christ.
And not only that, some of our taboos are not even about people who have done wrong. There are still taboos against people for the colour of their skin. There are various ways in which we exclude people because they are ‘not one of us’. But if God does not treat them as ‘profane or unclean’, then what right do we have to exclude them from the offer of God’s love? How can we? The heart of the Good News is a message of mercy and grace for all – including us, because we need that as much as anybody.
Secondly, what is the Good News? Many years ago, I read a Christian magazine article where famous church leaders were asked to define the Gospel in fifty words or less. One or two of them said it wasn’t possible, and implicitly they were derided for complicating a simple message.
Well, the Good News is simple, but it is also huge. Whole books have been written about it, and we can only scratch the surface by looking at how Peter described it to Cornelius before the Holy Spirit interrupted his sermon.
Some Christians will read the account of Peter’s address and major on the ‘simple’ message beginning with peace through Jesus Christ (verse 36) and ending with the forgiveness of sins (verse 43). It’s what many of us are tuned in to hear – that Jesus died for our sins and through his sacrifice we can be forgiven.
Now in what I am about to say I do not want anyone to think that I deny that message. I don’t. I believe it, and it is central to my faith, too. But I want you to notice that it is only one thing among many that Peter says – and he doesn’t even get as far as linking forgiveness to the Cross! And the broad context is that Peter gives a brief account of the story of Jesus. Yes, the message starts with peace and ends with forgiveness, but that is all part of an invitation to enter into the story of Jesus.
The danger with only emphasising the message of forgiveness is that we gain the impression that Christianity is simply a ticket into heaven when we die. But the call is not only to be at peace with God and discover forgiveness through Jesus Christ, it is also to be part of the Jesus story. It is to live a Jesus life that is made possible by God’s peace and forgiveness. It is to know that the Resurrection doesn’t simply mean we have the hope of heaven, but that Jesus
is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. (Verse 42)
‘Judge’ may not sound like good news, but this is the Jesus who has already been described as ‘doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil’ (verse 38).
The message, then, is about receiving God’s forgiveness and peace, but going on from there as a disciple of Jesus, one who learns by seeking to copy his life. Yes, there is the hope of heaven, but before then there is the call as a disciple to build for the kingdom of God and make a difference in this world. This is what Peter calls Cornelius to embrace. This is what we are called to believe and live if we call ourselves Christians. And this is the message we are to take to the world.
Thirdly and finally, how is the Good News lived? It all happens when Peter’s sermon is interrupted. How on earth anyone can come up with the popular cliché that the Holy Spirit is a gentleman when that very Spirit decides that Peter has said enough and it’s time for action is beyond me. But he falls on the listeners ‘while Peter was still speaking’ (verse 44). The Gentiles get the same beginning – ‘speaking in tongues and extolling God’ (verse 46) – that the first disciples had had at Pentecost. The ‘taboo’ people – those thought ‘profane or unclean’ until God’s intervention are most definitely nothing of the sort.
I wonder whether we have ever seen God pour out his favour upon someone of whom we disapproved? Because that’s what Peter and his team witness here. And it is so decisive that Peter orders the immediate baptism of Cornelius and his household. There is all the evidence he needs to know that these are people who have converted to the Good News of Jesus.
And now, the two groups that were previously hostile to each other are united in Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. Here is a powerful sign of God’s ministry of reconciliation. The Gospel again is not simply about my personal forgiveness of sins. We are not only reconciled to God, we are reconciled to each other and called to live a life where we are at peace with God and one another.
Yes, living as a disciple starts right now as God unites us in Christ with people we wouldn’t otherwise choose to be our companions. The old adage that you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family is just as true of our spiritual family. But if we are serious about seeing the healing of the nations as we work for the kingdom of God, then we need to start by being an example of a healing community right here.
What does that mean? Well, by the power of the Holy Spirit it means I am not going to ignore that person I don’t like. I am instead going to see whether reconciliation is achievable. It means I am not going to keep poisoning our community by indulging in cheap criticism of people, especially when I do it from a perspective that sounds like I think I am superior, I have got everything together, and I am the better disciple of Jesus. It means I am not going to start complaining at the drop of a hat. I do not come to church to be a consumer, and expect that the purpose of church is for everything to be according to my taste, and that I can therefore rattle off my moans when it isn’t exactly how I want it to be. No, I come to my church community to be part of God’s work of reconciliation and healing. I come on Sundays and other days to live out Jesus Christ’s vision of peace – peace with God, peace with one another, and peace for the world.
In short, as I embrace in Jesus’ name those who are socially under a taboo, and seek to lives as disciples of Jesus alongside them, I am committed to a life whose very actions speak the Good News that Christ brought.
Nothing less than that is Christian faith and Christian church.
You may know the story of a question set in a training examination for police recruits:
‘You are on the beat and you see two dogs fighting. The dogs knock a baby out of its pram, causing a car to swerve off the road, smashing into a grocer’s shop. A pedestrian is severely injured, but during the confusion a woman’s bag is snatched, a crowd of onlookers chase after the thief and, in the huge build-up of traffic, the ambulance is blocked from the victim of the crash.
‘State, in order of priority, your course of action.’
One recruit wrote, ‘Take off uniform and mingle with crowd.’
Which direction do you walk in when there is conflict? Do you walk towards it, or do you – like the police recruit – behave like Jesus really said, ‘Go out into the world, shut up and keep your heads down’?
Perhaps you want to avoid conflict, because you see the potential it has to be destructive. And so our theme this week is about how we can affirm hope in conflict. Because if we come through conflict healthily, it can be constructive, it can result in growth.
So how can we approach conflict in hope?
Firstly, we can have a hopeful attitude to conflict by looking to our future goal. Hope is about what the future will hold, so if we can envisage a future goal and work towards it through conflict, that will help.
And – surprise, surprise – Paul has that in mind in Ephesians 4. It’s about unity, one of the things we fear will be a casualty of conflict. He starts the chapter with the fact that God has already given us unity in Christ, and he looks for us to maintain and build that unity. So the unity that is already given is present in all the ‘one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all’ language (verses 4-6), but he also calls us to ‘make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace’ (verse 3, italics mine). By the end of the passage, he is talking about us as one body, where every part does its work together in love (verses 15-16).
Our goal, then, is unity. We have been given and entrusted a basic unity of the Spirit in Christ, but it is our duty to live out the unity we have been given.
What does that mean for us when conflict arises? It means we engage in the humility, gentleness and patience that Paul writes about (verse 2). None of these qualities is about compromising our convictions – humility doesn’t simply mean lying down, rolling over and saying to the other person, “Well of course I was wrong, you are right.” It does mean we bring a certain attitude of heart and mind to the discussion, where we value the worth of the person we disagree with, where we do not shoot them down on the assumption that we are always right and they are always wrong. It means we treat those we disagree with as people who – like us – are made in the image of God, and so should be treated with dignity, love and respect, however much we may genuinely believe they are in the wrong. If we only see conflict as a battle to win, we shall end up with disunity. But if our goal is to resolve our differences honestly and become more united, then we shall bring humility, gentleness and patience to the table. Again, this does not mean we walk away from conflict or pretend it isn’t happening, because those strategies just perpetuate the open wound. But we hold our convictions with a Christ-like heart.
So – to those of you whose natural instinct is to charge into conflict aggressively, I say – by all means don’t duck the conflict, but do take a step back before you get involved in order to check your heart. Please make sure you are entering the fray with humility, gentleness and patience.
And to those of you who find conflict stressful and who would rather duck out, I say – your gifts are needed in order to heal the tensions. You do not need to be afraid of voicing your beliefs, there is an important place for those who would put their point across quietly. We need to hear you, too, and remember that assertiveness is not about being belligerent, it is simply about being able to state your position, your desires and your needs. That truly can be done in a Christ-like way.
There is a second future goal in Ephesians 4, and it is maturity. Listen again to the final three verses of the reading, and note the references to growing up:
Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
From infants to a mature body. That is our goal. How often is it that among a group of people who are physically grown up, the level of behaviour when it comes to working through conflict is nothing less than childish? Too often I have come across actions in churches by adults that amount to more than “It’s my ball, I’m taking it home and you’re not playing.”
So what makes for maturity, according to Paul? His answer would appear to be, getting stuck into Christian service. Tracing back the few verses before these, maturity in the church comes from his people learning to serve, and that’s what leaders are about. Immaturity comes when people just say, “Feed me, feed me, I’m not being fed,” and they complain and spread disgruntlement. It’s no good treating Sunday morning as once-a-week spiritual feeding station, then just going away until next week. That’s a consumer mentality that thinks everything we like must be laid on for us, and we should get something for what we pay. Such an attitude knows little or nothing of the Gospel, and it therefore causes strife in the church by its moaning and bleating.
If we are to be hopeful, then, about conflict, we shall see that one of the ways we can become a more mature, grown-up fellowship is by committing ourselves to serve Christ by serving one another and serving the world. That way, we become less me-centred and more God-centred and other-centred. This takes us away from the complaining state of mind that inevitably follows from a mentality that expects everything in the church to be provided on a plate for me. Too often, the problems we deal with are caused when someone moans that the church in some way let her down, when she has not been cultivating an attitude of service herself.
You see, we are not just shaped as people by what we think: we are shaped by our desires and by our actions. And even if we do not currently desire to serve, we should begin serving, because eventually such action will affect our desires and our attitudes towards others.
Thirdly and finally, although I have touched on some practical action as we have considered how our hopes shape us, there is a particular course of action to which Paul calls us to aspire in our desire to grow into maturity. And yes, it comes in those words of his that have become a hackneyed expression in Christian circles: speaking the truth in love (verse 15). This, he says, helps us grow.
But ‘speaking the truth in love’ is difficult. Some of us are better at truth than love, and so we go up to someone and offer ‘a word in love’, which turns out to be cover for negative criticism. Others of us are better at love than truth, and we use love as a justification to avoid a conflict when one is actually needed.
How, then, can we break the impasse? Let me offer a suggestion. While the context and other uses of the word almost certainly refer to ‘speaking the truth in love’, the literal translation here is, ‘truthing in love’. In general, there is not simply an obligation upon Christians simply to speak the truth but to live the truth. Some of our problems are caused by barstool Prime Ministers who love to criticise but do little to live out the Gospel. We need fewer pontificators and more practitioners. When we are devoted to practising the Gospel life – to ‘truthing in love’ – our hearts become softened by grace. We are aware of how much we need the mercy of God, and this affects the way we approach others.
Naturally, it will also bring us into greater connection with the holiness of God, and this will alert us to many things that are wrong with the church and the world. But before that happens, the holiness of God will expose what is wrong with us.
Equally, for those of us who are too nervous to confront an issue and prefer to pretend it’s not a problem at all, living the truth leads us into a greater courage so that we can bring problems out of the darkness into the light where they can be dealt with healthily.
Unity, maturity, truthing in love – yes, we do actually have cause for hope in the face of conflict.
This Sunday, I get to preach in a sermon series on prayer.
The Christian playwright Murray Watts tells a story of how in his early days in the profession he was waiting at a bus stop with his fellow playwright and actor Paul Burbridge. Fed up with waiting for a bus to come, they decided to pray for one. While they closed their eyes and prayed, a bus came … and went past. Watts says that has always been a reminder to him of Jesus’ words to ‘Watch and pray.’
So how do we pray when it comes to intercession – that is, praying for human need? Our passage gives us some answers, but some of what it says doesn’t always correspond with the way we typically pray, either on our own or in Sunday services. It may be that these verses provide a corrective to the ways we often pray.
There are three questions I think this text will help us with. They sound obvious questions with obvious answers, but I’d like us to pause and hear the answers that are actually given, rather than the ones we would give us a reflex response.
Firstly, how do we pray?
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone (verse 1)
What do you make of these different words Paul uses for prayer here? ‘Supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings’ give us a range of prayer.
Supplications are usually prayers for ourselves. Some of us are reluctant to ask God for things for ourselves. Perhaps we think it’s selfish or greedy. Maybe you’re like me and when you were a child your parents didn’t have much money, so you got used to the idea that with your earthly parents you asked for little or nothing, and then you transferred that over to your relationship with your heavenly Father. In my case, it took some special experiences of answered prayer in my early to mid-twenties before I could begin to feel confident that I could ask God for big things for myself in prayer. I’m still careful and wary of my motives, especially when I want to ask for something I think I will like. Habitually I make major purchases a subject of prayer, and if it something that appeals to me – such as a new computer – part of my praying is to ask God to show me whether this is something I really need or whether I am just lusting after the latest technology. I certainly prayed before buying the iPad you have seen me using lately.
Prayers [and] intercessions probably go together. These are our requests for others. When we intercede, we are the go-between person, connecting those in need with God. It is a priestly role, representing human beings to God. However much some of our other Christian friends may call some of their ordained people ‘priests’, the New Testament sense is that all Christians are priests. We have the privilege of representing people to God, and representing God to people.
If that’s the case, then intercession is a privilege. We are invited into the throne room of God with our prayers for others. Yet if you’re anything like me on this one, sometimes the regularity and even the monotony of intercession make it dull. The sense of privilege gets worn away over time. So let’s pause for a moment and remember what a remarkable privilege it is. As the old hymn writer put it:
Large petitions with thee bring
Thou art coming to a king.
And linked with that sense of privilege, let’s note that the last word used in the ‘how’ of prayer is thanksgivings. Is this something we overlook, too? Intercession is linked with gratitude, because God answers prayer. Oh, I know we sometimes struggle to see the answer, and we often have to wait for him to do something, but answer he does and when he does it is only right to bring our thanksgivings as well as our requests.
This is something that Knaphill has tried to build into its practice of prayer. The church has a prayer chain. If someone has an urgent need of prayer, it is circulated around the people on the prayer chain and they will pray. But we also ask the person requesting prayer to let us know what God does in response to those prayers, so that we can report what happened and give thanks to God for all he has done.
Probably the only area of weekly public intercessions that includes thanksgiving is when we thank God for the departed in Christ. That’s good, but there is so much more to thank him for, when we consider all he has done for us in response to our prayers.
Secondly, who do we pray for?
for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions (verses 1b-2a)
How many of these people are Christians? Few indeed. We are to pray ‘for everyone’ – and Christians are a minority. We are to pray ‘for kings and all who are in high positions’ – well, in the days of this letter very few Christians held high office. But we seek the same amount of blessing for those who do not know Christ, or who are yet to know Christ, as for any Christians in need. It is the job of the Christian as part of mission to bless the world. We are not simply to rail against the aspects of life that we do not like, even if there is a place for a prophetic word against sin. We are also to bless those we believe to be outside the kingdom of God. It is like the days of Jeremiah. When some of the population of Judah was carried off to pagan Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar’s army, Jeremiah wrote them a letter, in which he told them to bless the place to which they had been taken (Jeremiah 29).
So can we ask ourselves, how can we bless the world where we live? Much of that will of course be by practical action, but it needs to be done on a foundation of prayer. Are there neighbours or colleagues we are praying for? Do our friends know that if they are in trouble, we would be willing to pray for them? Think: what might happen if your friend suddenly realised that Jesus had shown up in her life?
But as well as the general everyone, let us also think about the specific kings and all who are in high positions. Now we often pray for such people in our public intercessions. We pray for the needs of the world, we pray that rulers and governments will act with justice and for the sake of peace. All of that is good and I would not wish to stop it. However, Paul has other things in mind.
Note how this is linked with the reference in the next verse to ‘God our Saviour’. Not only is it true that God is our Saviour, Paul is reminding Timothy that these kings and rulers are not saviours. Some of them expected to be acknowledged as saviours: think of the claims to divinity by Roman emperors, for example. This, then, is prayer that puts things in perspective – God’s perspective. Today we have other people and forces in society who want to claim that they can ‘save’: think of the inflated promises made for consumer goods, to take one example. Intercessory prayer that remembers God is our true Saviour dethrones these idols from their pedestals.
We need to dethrone these pretenders to the throne of God in our own lives, of course, and it is also a vital task for Christians to pray that idols will come crashing down in society. In that respect, is it too irresponsible to wonder whether the financial woes of the last five years have at least in part been a bringing down of false economic gods that have wrongly laid claim to our worship? Does prayer not begin to clear the ground, spiritually speaking, for what God wants to do in truth and love in a society?
And that leads to the third and final question: why do we intercede?
Again, it probably seems like there is an obvious answer. We want things to get better. We want people to be healed. We want to see justice and peace.
Well, yes indeed to all those things! They can all be signs of God’s kingdom, and therefore such prayers are consistent with the Lord’s Prayer, where we pray for God’s kingdom to come, for his will to be done on earth as in heaven. But Paul goes further:
so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (Verses 2b-4)
The part about leading ‘a quiet and peaceable life’ is probably there because the early Christians were a small and insignificant group of people, often not from influential strands of society. They could not hope to make a big political difference in their culture – and remember, it wasn’t a democracy as we know it, anyway. The best they could hope for was the chance to live undisturbed by persecution. Millions are the Christians today for whom that is also true. They need our prayers.
Beyond that, the ‘why; of prayer goes to another kingdom of God theme: the spread of the Gospel. ‘God our Saviour … desires everyone to be saved,’ says Paul, and he goes on in the remaining verses to talk about the key rôle of Jesus as mediator between God and humankind. Paul wants Christians to pray for those in authority so that the climate will be right in a society for the unfettered spread of the Gospel.
Now there are certainly Christian traditions that pray regularly for the Gospel to reach more people at home and abroad. The trouble is, it’s not one of our strengths. You rarely see anything like that alluded to in official liturgical intercessions, and it doesn’t always come naturally to our lips when our preachers construct extempore intercessions, either. It has slipped off our radar – which is all the more strange when you consider how concerned we become about the decline in church attendance and membership. Wouldn’t you think that one thing we would want to pray for was for more people to start following Jesus Christ and becoming part of his community, the Church? This is something we need to recover.
Certainly we need to lead by example by including this in our weekly public intercessions, and – I would suggest – in our Thursday morning prayers here. But then we also need to follow through in our own private devotions. I don’t know what you include in your private prayers at home – I hope you do pray regularly! One thing we could include is a list of people we know who do not yet know and follow Jesus. Should we not be consistently praying for such people, that the Holy Spirit will be at work in their lives to show Jesus to them?
It is said that the famous evangelist D L Moody had a long list of people he prayed for. By the time of his death, all but two of them had found Christ. I wonder whether he went to his death sorrowful about those two.
If so, he needn’t have despaired. After he died, both of them became disciples of Jesus.
Friends, the question of people becoming committed Christians is a spiritual issue. It will not be solved simply by adopting a programme or a set of techniques. It needs to be handled spiritually, and that at very minimum means prayer.
In fact, what of value does happen in the kingdom of God without prayer? Let us commit ourselves to it.
Here is a brief talk for the morning service in our sermon series on Acts. But first, the PowerPoint:
I was on the bus home from secondary school one day. Several of us used to take the same bus each day.
Clifford spoke up, with a sneering voice. “I hear you had a spiritual experience last weekend,” he said to me.
“No,” I said, hurriedly.
But Clifford was right. I had been away on a youth weekend, and had felt much closer to God. Yet when Clifford raised the issue and I knew he was going to make cruel remarks about my faith, I denied it.
I wasn’t much like Stephen in our story today. He had had a spiritual experience. He had become a follower of Jesus and Luke has already told us he was filled with the Holy Spirit. Because of that spiritual experience, Stephen had started serving the poor and boldly telling people about Jesus.
The thing is, Stephen didn’t have to cope with someone who would mock him for his faith. He had to deal with a crowd of people who wanted to do far worse to him. They hated him, because all his talk about Jesus showed that what they believed about God was wrong. So they made up some lies to get him into trouble. The biggest trouble of his life.
Unlike me, Stephen was brave. He knew this mob could have him killed. The same group, more or less, had stitched up Jesus and had him crucified. He could surely expect no better. In fact, there are lots of parallels in Stephen’s story with the trials and execution of Jesus.
What would you do if you were on trial for your life? Think about that for a moment …
Here’s what Stephen did: ‘his face was like the face of an angel’ (verse 15). What does that mean?
‘The point of this expression is to convey the idea of a person reflecting some of God’s glory and character as a result of being close to God and in God’s very presence.’
Stephen was close to God, and that made him reflect more of what God is like to people. He clearly stayed close to God at this bad time. That helped him to be brave.
But he is facing something terrible, something most of us don’t face due to our faith. He could die because he loves Jesus! It’s wrong! It’s unfair! Why doesn’t God come down from heaven and beat up these evil people?
I think there is one other thing that helps Stephen to be brave. Just as there are so many parallels between what is happening to him and what happened to Jesus, he knows what put Jesus’ story right: God raised Jesus from the dead. Stephen knows that one day, God will raise him from the dead, too, and make all things right. That is the second thing that helps him to be brave. Even if things go wrong now, even if bad things happen to him, God won’t let evil have the last word. He will raise his people back to life. He will judge the world and put all things right.
So here are two things to help us be brave in standing up for our faith in Jesus when people don’t like that:
- Stay close to God. That means praying, reading the Bible, spending time with other Christians, worshipping, and living as much like Jesus as you can with the help of the Holy Spirit.
- Remember the resurrection. God put things right for Jesus, and he will do the same for us one day.
My current reading is ‘The Preaching Of Jesus‘ by William Brosend. I wouldn’t have come across it but for my membership of the Ministry Today board, because a copy was sent to us for review, and I volunteered.
I like reading books about preaching, but this one wasn’t a natural as the foreword is by Marcus Borg, a scholar whom I find altogether too sceptical. However, it was also commended on the back by a scholar I admire, Ben Witherington III.
In this short post, I want to highlight one early and important point in the book. Brosend uses an elaborate first chapter to argue that there were four major characteristics to the preaching of Jesus. The first of these is dialogical preaching. This is not the same as those hackneyed ‘dialogue sermons’ from thirty or forty years ago, where two people presented an artificial conversation to cover the loss of confidence in proclaiming the Word. (And in any case, ‘proclamation’ is Brosend’s second characteristic.)
No: Brosend means that when Jesus preached, he was in dialogue with Scripture, tradition, the culture and his listeners. Here I just want to highlight one important point he makes about the preacher’s dialogue with Scripture. It is this: are we in dialogue with the passage in a way that is sensitive to the way our congregations will be in dialogue with it? Will they have been wrestling with the passage all week? Most unlikely. Will they have been consulting learned exegetes? Even less likely.
It isn’t that protracted meditation and responsible exegesis are bad things. But if we only bring our own questions and/or the scholars’ questions, we are not going to connect the Word to the listeners.
I think that’s a salutary reminder when preachers are often taught (especially, in my experience, in the Methodist ‘Faith and Worship’ course) to put academic exegesis first. I’m glad for the reminder.
Perhaps you know the old story of the vicar who visited a primary school where they were learning the Creed. The children lined up for the vicar and one by one recited a section. However, an embarrassing silence enveloped proceedings part-way through.
Eventually, one child blurted out an explanation. “I’m sorry, the boy who believes in the Holy Spirit isn’t here today.”
Is there sometimes an embarrassing silence about the Holy Spirit in our churches? That can be true in some traditional churches. Well has it been said that Catholics believe in Father, Son and Holy Mother, whereas Protestants believe in Father, Son and Holy Bible.
The reasons for embarrassed silence aren’t hard to find. Often, they can be put down to one word. Fear. The Holy Spirit? Or worse, the old name ‘the Holy Ghost’. It sounds spooky, if not frightening. On top of that, you get stories like this one in Acts 2 with the account of people speaking in tongues. In some circles, I have only to mention that and people get upset with me!
As a result, we either ignore or domesticate the Holy Spirit. When we domesticate the Spirit, we reduce his work to a bland coating of the mundane. It’s like cooking without spices or herbs.
What a tragedy. For Pentecost is one of the key events in God’s story of salvation, along with creation, the Incarnation and Easter. And while today I don’t have time to explore the particular anxieties many have around the specific issue of speaking in tongues, what I want to do in this sermon is explore the purposes of Pentecost.
Here’s the first purpose: Pentecost makes us more like Jesus. Let me give you some background in order to explain that. If you know your Bibles, you will know that Luke’s Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles are both written by the same author (whom I take to be Luke himself) to the same recipient (a character otherwise unknown to us called Theophilus). Luke’s Gospel describes what Jesus began to do and teach; by implication, Acts is then Part Two of his story. In Acts, Jesus is still at work, but by the Holy Spirit through the Church.
In particular, there are parallels between some of the early episodes in Luke’s Gospel and those near the beginning of Acts. Both contain a promise that disciples will be ‘baptised with the Holy Spirit’. Then the Spirit comes down – upon Jesus at his baptism and upon the disciples at Pentecost. After that, there is a key sermon that explains what God is fulfilling – Jesus preaches at Nazareth, Peter preaches in Jerusalem after the Pentecostal outpouring. Then there is witness to people nearby.
Put that together, and what is Luke telling us? He’s showing the early disciples going through the same process as Jesus. Pentecost begins their empowered public ministry just as the baptism did for Jesus. By drawing these parallels, Luke is telling Theophilus – and us – that the Holy Spirit has come in order to make us ‘little Jesuses’. The Spirit has come to make our lives and ministries much more like that of Jesus.
How often is it we lament that our lives are nothing like Jesus at all? Quite frequently, I’d guess. As Christians, we want to be more like him, but much of the time we know how vast the distance is between the way we live and how he did on earth.
What failing or weakness do we lament in our Christian lives? Is it that, unlike Jesus, we struggle to display selfless, sacrificial love? The Holy Spirit is here to move us closer to the example of our Saviour. Is it that we have no assurance that our prayers are heard and answered? The Holy Spirit comes to move us in the right direction. Do we lack courage to share the love of God with others through our words and deeds? Again, the Holy Spirit comes upon us to remake us more in the image of Christ.
Let me put it another way, in order to underline this point. Many Jewish people celebrated Pentecost, the Feast of Weeks, as a commemoration of when God gave his people the Law at Mount Sinai. God gave the Law after he had delivered his people from Egypt. It set out the ways they were to please him in gratitude for that deliverance. We too seek to please God out of gratitude for our deliverance (not from Egypt but from our sins). The Pentecostal gift of the Spirit is what enables us to please God. God has shown us the ways we might please him, but he has also given us his Spirit so we may have the power to do what delights him.
The second purpose is this: Pentecost is a taste of God’s kingdom. Let me introduce this thought with an illustration. Every now and again, we go into Chelmsford town centre on a Saturday as a family for various reasons. There is one stall among all the market stalls where we are almost guaranteed to stop every time. That is the fruit and vegetable stall. Apart from the fact that we enjoy buying some of their delicious fruit, they have samples available on a table by the stall. Usually they have cut up oranges and pineapples in the hope that passers-by will try some and then say, “Wow! I must buy some!” Regardless of whether we are going to buy any, our seven-year-old daughter Rebekah stops off for a little feast. In her eyes, the fruit samples are there purely as a public service.
Pentecost is like the opportunity to sample a taste of some fruit, too. The Jewish Feast of Weeks was a harvest festival. Not a full harvest festival like that celebrated at the end of the summer when all the crops have been brought in, but a festival of first fruits. When the first crops came in during late Spring, the people got a taste of what was to come three months or so later.
Pentecost, then, becomes the taste of what the fullness of God’s kingdom will be like, when God sends his angels to bring in the great harvest of the ages. Just as the Resurrection of Jesus is also described as the first fruits (of the great resurrection of all) and anticipates the day when God will make all things new, so too the gift of the Holy Spirit brings a foretaste of the new creation, when God will renew the heavens and the earth. Every sign of the Spirit’s work now, whether large or small, quiet or loud, private or public, is a taste of God’s fruit stall.
So when the Holy Spirit inspires us to care for the stranger, we taste God’s future. When the Spirit calls someone from the darkness of sin to the light of Jesus Christ, our taste buds anticipate the flavours of the kingdom. When the same Spirit does a work of healing in a life (be that physical, emotional, social or any other kind of healing), we glimpse the glorious future where there will be no more pain. When the Spirit leads God’s people to confront evil powers with a prophetic word of truth and justice, we taste the new society to come. When the Holy Spirit does his supreme work of revealing Jesus to people, we get a flavour of that time when we shall no longer know in part, but see him face to face.
Yes, it is frustrating and painful that not everyone is healed, not everyone responds to the call to follow Christ, and that powerful forces dish out injustice. We long for the great harvest of love, healing, righteousness and justice. But right now we are in the era of the first fruits. God calls us to welcome his Holy Spirit and co-operate with him, so that there may in the meantime be many more foretastes of his kingdom when he will rule unchallenged.
The third purpose I want to highlight is that Pentecost is about mission. Even though I take it not that the disciples spoke to the crowd in ‘other tongues’ but rather that the crowd overheard, what is clear is that the Holy Spirit crosses national and cultural boundaries so that people hear the praises of God in their own languages.
Now on one level, there is something almost unnecessary about this miracle. Although the Jews who heard were from different lands, these are almost certainly
‘not in the main … pilgrims [who had] come to Jerusalem from the Diaspora for the feast, but rather Diaspora Jews who had come to live or retire in Jerusalem, and no doubt would have attended some of the synagogues founded in Jerusalem by Diaspora Jews’
In other words, this is a group of people who could speak a common language together anyway, despite their different nationalities. They could understand Hebrew, the language of their faith. Why not just address them in Hebrew?
But the Holy Spirit takes the Gospel to them in the language of each of their cultures. They do not have to work within the language and culture of the established religion in order to hear the Good News.
For me, this is a vital approach in mission. One of the problems we have in church life is that we want to draw people into the community of faith, but we expect them to adapt to our ways of doing things and learn our jargon. We add unnecessary barriers to the acceptance of the Gospel.
This is not what the Holy Spirit does. Think about the ministry of Jesus himself in the Incarnation. He did not stand at a distance and expect people to come to him. Rather , he took on human flesh and dwelt in the midst of the people to whom he was sent. The Holy Spirit mirrors Jesus. He desires to take the Gospel to people where they are in a form they can understand.
That becomes the challenge for us. When we are filled with the Spirit, we shall not simply want to make more people who are Methodist or United Reformed like us. We shall want to establish new communities within the many cultures of our world, our nation, and even of our locality. That’s why ‘Fresh Expressions’ and all sorts of experiments in sharing the Gospel in culturally appropriate ways are at heart Spirit-led approaches to mission.
We should expect this. When Jesus told his followers they would be baptised with the Holy Spirit, he said the consequence would be that they would be his witnesses. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of mission. The disciples were to be witnesses ‘in Jerusalem, in Judea and all Samaria, and to the ends of the earth’. Again, the work of the Spirit is not in creating a church that waits for people to come to her on her terms. The Spirit makes us missional people who move out of our comfort zones into the places where those who need the love of God are comfortable. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we share the love of God in Christ in other people’s comfort zones, not our own. This is what Spirit-led people do.
In conclusion, then, we have every reason to welcome the Holy Spirit rather than fear him. Who wants to be more like Jesus? Let us welcome the Holy Spirit. Who is hungry for a taste of God’s coming kingdom? Let us invite the Holy Spirit to come. And who wants to share the love of Christ in word and deed in a needy world? The Holy Spirit is already at work, within us and going ahead of us. Let us seek more of his power.
Yes, come Holy Spirit.
 See Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, p128f.
 Although we’re not absolutely certain this was the case at this time – see Witherington, p131.
 Witherington, p135.
What a beautiful day! Undoubtedly the warmest of the year so far, around 15°C or more here today. I’ve been walking without a coat for the first time this year, even without a jumper. (Don’t worry. It didn’t get worse than that.) So what better day for sitting in front of the computer and garnering a few choice links?
Allan Bevere is celebrating Lent with some jokes. Here is The Man Who Orders Three Beers and here is You’re Not A Monk. Special words for Allan – not only does he produce the weekly Methodist blogs round-up on a Saturday, he was also the first person to join my Facebook group, Christian Ministry And Personality Type. Thank you, Allan.
Some atheists want to rewrite history. Makes you wonder if they understand the baptism they’re decrying. Their point might make sense if baptism works automatically (‘ex opere operato’), without the consent of the one baptised, but for those of us who don’t believe that’s what baptism is about, this is more ludicrous atheist posturing.
If this doesn’t move, you nothing will: The 7 Life Lessons Of Craig Wong, 1972-2009.
Other than that, not an exciting day on the sabbatical front. More a time for some domestic jobs, like taking some old toys to a council centre to see whether they could be recycled. Buying a roasting chicken and some accompaniments before a church friend comes to dinner tomorrow: she’s going to babysit while we go to parents’ evenings for both children. Getting a repeat prescription from the surgery. Mark throwing a supersized wobbly, accusing me of stressing him (yes, he is really only four) when he wouldn’t change out of school uniform to play in the garden.
So it was good to discover Graham’s blog Digging A Lot with his Lenten series on finding grace in the smallest and most ordinary of things. Without his comment today on yesterday’s post, I wouldn’t have known about this blog. What a joy it is. Recommended to all my readers.
I’ve been dilatory in ordering the books I need for the rest of the sabbatical, but I have three vouchers from W H Smith, not my usual first choice for literature. Each offers £5 off books costing £10 or more if ordered by the 29th. They might just make the difference. So I’m off to surf there now; I’ll see you tomorrow, I hope.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.