In many a sermon, I have urged congregations to engage with the Bible devotionally, even if it doesn’t seem exciting all of the time. I have used metaphors relating to food: in one, I point out that not every one of your three meals a day has to be memorable, but you need to take in nutrition for health. In another, I compare it to the actions of Joseph in Genesis urging Pharaoh to store up food in the seven years of plenty, ready for the seven years of famine.
With that in mind, read this testimony by Gordon MacDonald. Here is a clear illustration of the ‘Joseph’ approach. What MacDonald learned as a teenager has resourced him spiritually in old age. Read and heed.
When I began at secondary school, I was given a homework diary. It was designed as a record of all the homework I was assigned and had completed, and my parents had to sign it each week. Within it were the expectations of the school about the amount of work that would be involved. When you started at the school, you would have two pieces of homework a night, each lasting thirty minutes. But by the time you revised for public examinations, that would increase to what the headmaster gleefully called “endless toil”.
I suspect many churchgoers see the Christian faith as a matter of ‘endless toil’. Not simply the relentless list of jobs to be done in church (as some people here know only too well), but the sense that you will never have done enough in order to please God. The Methodist ordination service says that the ministry will make great demands on ministers and their families, and while it goes onto promise the help of the Holy Spirit, it nevertheless leaves an impression that genuine ministry is about ‘busyness’. That’s certainly the way congregations often measure their ministers – are they busy? More worryingly, it’s often the way ministers measure their own value. Am I busy? A full diary becomes a sign of spirituality.
So we come to Martha and Mary. We may be tempted to think that the contrast is between Martha, who is on her feet, and Mary, who sits at Jesus’ feet. If we value the idea of being busy, we will have a problem with Jesus’ commendation of Mary. A church member I once knew said she felt sure Luke didn’t record the whole story, and that Jesus would have asked Mary to go and help Martha.
But the story is not a contrast between Martha ‘doing’ and Mary ‘being’. It cannot be. It occurs immediately after the Parable of the Good Samaritan (which was last week’s Lectionary Gospel reading, and you may have had a sermon on it). Jesus can hardly commend the radical action of the Samaritan one day, and condemn Martha for being busy the next day. Maybe instead this story balances the Good Samaritan story.
Martha’s problem is not that she has a lot to do. It is that she is ‘distracted by her many tasks’ (verse 40), as Luke puts it. Jesus tells her she is ‘worried and distracted by many things’ (verse 41). The worry and the distraction are the core issues. Martha is frantic and fretful. And that’s where Jesus picks her up.
In some respects, worry and distraction are only human. How often have you said to someone – perhaps a loved one – “You drive me to distraction”? Maybe a son or daughter gives you cause for concern. Perhaps you don’t have enough money for all you think you need. It wouldn’t be surprising if worry took over.
Or it might be that you believe that your acceptance by God depends on whether you are a good enough person. You devote all your energies to doing what you are believe are the right things. However, it’s a tyranny, because you never know whether you have reached an acceptable standard. Probably you haven’t, and so with even more worry you redouble your efforts. All the time you do this, you might say you believe in the love of God, but really your whole existence is being lived in complete doubt as to whether God loves you or not. Your image of God is actually of a tyrant.
Think of some attitudes we encounter in the church. We are told that we should not be slapdash in our preparing to meet God – quite rightly: excellence is a noble thing. But someone then says to us, “You wouldn’t be so careless if the Queen were coming to your house; why are you about meeting the King of Kings?” We then feel that nothing we can ever do is good enough for God. Either we strive even more, or we give up in despair.
If it’s not a matter of fear, it might be a question of pride. If I can earn my own place of favour with God, how good am I? it’s tantamount to saying, “I don’t need the Cross of Christ. I can make my own way to God on my own.” It’s as if we dare to stand before Jesus on the Day of Judgement and say, “Lord, it was awfully decent of you to die on the Cross for the sins of the world, but you really didn’t need to, old chap.”
Another way of looking at the motives behind being distracted by the tasks we have to do is to see it in terms of urgency. There is so much that needs doing, and so little time. So I have to crack on. I can’t let up. Something will be missed if I don’t keep at it relentlessly.
But of course, while this may sound like an efficient use of time, it is both foolish and dangerous. It is like saying, “I have a long car journey to make today. I cannot afford to stop for a rest, and neither do I have the time to call in at a petrol station and refuel.” This is the plague of being distracted with busyness: our commitment to keep on do-do-doing all the time may be for honourable intentions, but it sucks us dry. It leaves us with nothing to feed on, and nothing to offer. Is it any wonder many churches seem as arid as the desert when the distractions of busyness dominate such places?
All of which brings us to Mary’s honoured place in this story. We pause a moment to note how revolutionary it was that Jesus was teaching her in the first place. Women did not normally have the privilege of being taught by a rabbi. But Jesus was different. He was ushering in a kingdom that was open to female and male, child and adult, Gentile and Jew. Martha in her fretting and worrying had missed the fact that Jesus was teaching a woman – like her! She could have had this privilege, but her over-busy lifestyle means she misses this radical implication of the Gospel. It makes you wonder how much of the Good News we also miss, because we are too obsessed with doing this, that and everything.
So what makes Mary’s grabbing of her Gospel privilege as a daughter of God so important? For one thing, she understands something about grace. She knows that before anything else, a disciple needs to receive from Jesus. Discipleship doesn’t start or depend on all the effort we make for God: it begins with God graciously and lovingly approaching us in Christ, especially in the Cross. For there we learn that we are not people who are capable of pleasing God by our own efforts. We need God’s forgiveness in Christ through his death in our place. Everything starts there for the Christian. And it sets a pattern for the whole of life. It all begins with Jesus, not us. In a simple way, I believe Mary knew that.
Therefore, alongside the joy Mary has being a woman whom Jesus has chosen to teach, there is a basic humility. If Martha stands over Jesus, Mary sits at his feet. Everything worthwhile will come from Jesus taking the initiative and listening to him. Jesus himself said he only did what he saw the Father doing; it becomes the rôle of the disciple to listen to Jesus first and then respond.
All of which tells us that Mary’s action is not a case of ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’. It is ‘being’ before ‘doing’. She takes the old maxim of ‘Don’t just sit there, do something’ and reverses it into ‘Don’t just do something, sit there’.
Why? She knows that you can’t set off on all those good and noble tasks that Martha has plunged herself into unless you have first received direction from Jesus. What does he want me to do? There are plenty of good things to do in the world, but I cannot do them all. Which ones does he want me to take on? When you know that, you are freed from the frazzling effect of a Martha-like frantic lifestyle. There is no danger that Mary will simply stay at the feet of Jesus and not turn it into action – she won’t be a hypocrite like that. But she knows what needs to come first.
Put it this way: the English word ‘obedience’ has its roots in the Latin word ‘audire’ – which means ‘to hear’. Mary has to hear from Jesus first, before plunging into work.
Not only that, Mary knows that you need a balance in your Christian life that features both being and doing. We need both action and reflection. It is something the early church came to understand very quickly. Think of the story in Acts chapter 6 where there is a crisis over the distribution of food to Greek-speaking widows. The apostles resist the idea that they must do everything. They ensure that the food distribution project continues by having the community appoint a team of Spirit-filled people to undertake it. For themselves, though, they cannot compromise their call to ‘the ministry of the Word and prayer’. Between the apostles and the team appointed to serve the widows, the balance is held: the community together embraces both listening to God and practical action for the kingdom of God.
What it amounts to is this: you can’t just be a ‘being’ person and you can’t just be a ‘doing’ person. Nor can the church just be one or the other. If all we do is listen, pray and contemplate, we will be too heavenly minded to be of any earthly use. If all we do is plunge ourselves into action, we shall burn out. The Marys of this world know that you have to fill up the car before you can set out on the journey.
I hope the implications for all of us are clear, especially because I believe this is often important for Methodists. Surveys in recent years have shown that generally we are a people who are good at social action but less comfortable with prayer. Jesus wants Marys, but Methodists are often Marthas. Too many of us therefore become discouraged, exhausted and burnt out.
We need to find our ways of sitting at the feet of Jesus before we do anything else. Exactly how we do it will vary from person to person, because we have different personalities and temperaments, and our life circumstances are not the same. But we need our own ‘ministry of the Word and prayer’ in some form: we need to reflect on the Scriptures and how they are pointing us to Jesus, and we need to pray. These things need to be more than just something that is done for us on a Sunday, and they need to be more than at crisis times. In my experience, we need to aim for a daily pattern of devotion.
So you may find that first thing in the morning works best. You may like to reflect prayerfully on the day at its end. You may be one of those people who likes to read the Scriptures and pray during a lunch break, reviewing how things have gone so far and looking forward to the rest of the day.
You may use Bible reading notes, a daily Lectionary, a website or some other pattern. You may find one approach to prayer works better than another for you. Just so long as it’s Christ-centred, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the time of Bible reading and prayer doesn’t just feed your head with interesting titbits of information, it draws you close to Jesus.
For if it does, you will soon find that by sitting at the feet of Jesus like Mary, he will then raise you to your feet for action.
And – unlike Martha – you will be ready and equipped.
This Sunday, my church at Broomfield is experimenting with bringing its annual Covenant Service forward to the beginning of the ‘Methodist year’ rather than the calendar year. Hence what follows is a sermon for a Covenant Service, rather than on one of the regular weekly Lectionary readings.
At my office, I worked with a Muslim guy. Javed (or ‘Suave Jave’ as we called him, for his attitude to the ladies) was more Muslim by upbringing than practice. But one day, he brought in to show us his mother’s copy of the Qur’an. It was edged and blocked in gold leaf. It came in a special tissue-like wrapper. One thing neither Javed nor his mother would have done with that book was write in it. Even touching it seemed risky, in case of damage.
But I don’t treat my copies of the Bible that way. In particular, I was taught as a young Christian to underline words in my Bible. Not only verses that struck me, but also some key words. ‘But’ was a good word to underline. It indicated an important change in Paul’s arguments.
And Romans 12 starts with another key word: ‘therefore’.
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)
‘I appeal to you therefore’: therefore indicates all that has preceded Romans 12. It indicates the first eleven chapters of Romans, summarised here as ‘the mercies of God’. We make and renew our covenant because of ‘the mercies of God’. All we offer today is in response to the mercies of God. Not just one-off mercy in initial forgiveness, but mercies. Over and over again, God is merciful to us. Our sins, our mistakes, our foolishness and weakness: for all these things God is merciful to us in Christ through the Cross. And because he is relentlessly merciful – his mercies are ‘new every morning, [so] great is [his] faithfulness’ (Lamentations 3:23) – we offer ourselves to him.
How does Paul ask his readers to respond to the mercies of God? In these two verses are two ways:
Paul urges Christians to ‘to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship’ (verse 1).
‘Spiritual worship’ here implies that it is reasonable, rational and true. This is the right and proper thing to do in light of God’s enduring mercies to us. The mercies of God come to us through the sacrifice of Christ: is it not appropriate, urges Paul, for us to make sacrifices as a grateful response?
But what are these sacrifices? ‘Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God’, he says. It’s not just something we do ‘spiritually’: we present our bodies. And if I might just re-order the words to reflect what many commentators think is the sense of the Greek, we make ‘sacrifices, living, holy and acceptable to God’. Those adjectives ‘living’, ‘holy’ and ‘acceptable to God’ illustrate the kinds of sacrifices we might make with our bodies.
‘Living’ – we freely offer our bodies to God, because of what he has done for us in Christ. It may cost us something. The author Robert J Morgan tells how one Sunday, the late Corrie ten Boom was preaching in Copenhagen on these very verses. She was eighty years old at the time. Two young nurses at the church invited her to lunch afterwards, but they lived in a tenth floor flat and there was no lift. Not what you want at eighty.
She struggled up the stairs as far as the fifth floor, but her heart was pounding and her legs buckled. Collapsing into a chair, she complained to the Lord. But she sensed God whispering to her that it was important she carried on.
When she finally made it to the tenth floor, she met the parents of one of the nurses. Neither was a Christian, but they were both interested in the Gospel. Corrie ten Boom led them to faith in Christ. All because she reluctantly followed her own sermon and made her life – her very body – a sacrifice in climbing ten flights. She was willing to go where God led her, despite the cost.
‘Holy’ – our dedication to God may also sometimes come at a price. The Covenant Service promises balances the way some parts of our discipleship are attractive and others are costly:
Christ has many services to be done: some are easy, others are difficult; some bring honour, others bring reproach; some are suitable to our natural inclinations and material interests, others are contrary to both; in some we may please Christ and please ourseleves, in others we cannot please Christ except by denying ourselves. Yet the power to do all these things is given to us in Christ, who strengthens us.’ (Methodist Worship Book, p288.)
Holy sacrifices are about being willing to pay the price of unpopularity and difficulty for the sake of dedication to the right thing. It is also a matter of doing so graciously, rather than with complaint, self-righteousness or attention-seeking.
‘Acceptable’ – this probes our motives. Other translations say, ‘well-pleasing to God’. It’s about a desire to please God. In marriage and other human relationships, we make it our first goal not to please ourselves but our spouse, or whoever it is we love. So too with God. When we know how merciful he has been to us and how regularly he has been merciful, the fitting response is to set our minds and hearts on doing the things that bring him joy.
There is a story told in the Old Testament that gives a small illustration of what I am talking about King David wanted to buy some land from a subject and use it for worship. The owner says he can have it free of charge, but David says, no: he insists on paying. Why? ‘I will not give to the Lord that which has cost me nothing,’ he says. Discipleship and giving need to cost us something to be genuine. It may be financial, material, emotional, psychological, even social. If we realise just how merciful God continually is to us, then out of joy we shall be willing to show love in return, even if it comes at a price.
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
‘Do not be conformed to this world’ – or, as J B Phillips famously translated this passage, ‘Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould’. Do not be conformed, be transformed, says Paul. Don’t be squeezed by the world, ‘let God re-mould your minds from within’ (Phillips).
Yet how easy it is to conform to the world, to let it squeeze us into its mould. Often we don’t notice. The late Lesslie Newbigin once observed that just as a goldfish is not consciously aware of the water in which it swims, so we are often unconscious of the culture we live in and its values.
In our society’s case, think about how we easily use popular words such as ‘tolerance’. It is presented as a quality that everybody must have. Woe betide the intolerant! But the word ‘tolerance’ carries with it overtones of a benign attitude to things that are wrong, enduring wrong things or having no deep convictions oneself. It’s a slippery slope towards tolerating sin. All these shades of meaning are therefore anathema to the Christian, but we refer to tolerance as much as anyone! The world is squeezing us into its mould, if we are not careful. I could give examples from other apparently innocent or positive words such as ‘inclusiveness’ and ‘community cohesion’.
So how do we resist social pressures to adopt ways of thinking that are inimical to the Gospel? Paul exhorts us to ‘be transformed by the renewing of [our] minds’, or to let God re-mould us from within, as Phillips puts it. Spiritual transformation involves a battle for the mind, because what we think affects our attitudes and our actions.
This doesn’t mean we all have to be intellectuals. Any Jesus-follower can develop Gospel thinking, Gospel attitudes and Gospel actions. That is Paul’s vision. Where do we begin?
We start with reading and reflecting on the Bible and its great story from the Garden to the New Jerusalem. It is Scripture above all that will help us to be Gospel thinkers. However, we don’t do so alone. Private Bible reading is good and worthy, but most of the books in the Bible itself were written or dictated to be heard less by individuals than by groups of disciples. It’s important, therefore, to get to grips with the Gospel together. If you’re not part of a small group that does that, you’re missing out! For starters, join the Living Faith course! It will help us get to grips with the big picture of our faith together.
But it’s not enough just to read the biblical message and discuss it. There are many people in churches who know their Bibles well, but who are harsh, unloving and judgmental. (Not that any of us is perfect – least of all, me.) So just reading the Bible and talking about it isn’t enough.
In other words, the biblical authors didn’t write their books just to be read or heard. They wrote them to generate action. The Bible isn’t just to be read, it’s to be done.
In my final year as a student minister, I spent half my time on placement in a circuit. At one of the two churches where I worked, I led a Bible study every week. However, the minister who supervised that group had been very frustrated with it. ‘When are they going to stop talking about the Bible and start doing something?’ he said to me once. ‘They’re more interested in the maps on the inside covers of their Bibles than in putting the teaching into practice.’
And that’s what I’m on about. Spiritual formation in Christ – the transformation of our minds to which Paul calls us – involves Bible reading, reflecting on it together where we support and challenge each other, and then getting on with what we’ve learned. It’s when the thinking leads to action that we truly learn. If I were a betting man, I would wager that Katie learned more about God’s love for the poor through her trip to Kenya with Hand In Hand than I would have done simply by reading about the poor.
One famous preacher said, ‘Never finish your sermon without telling your congregation what you want them to do about it.’ I suggest you might almost say, ‘Never finish your Bible reading without deciding what you are going to do about it.’
If God has been so persistently merciful to us, then what might we give him as a present? It would be appropriate if our offering involved sacrifice, when we recall all that he has done for us in Christ.
Transformation is also appropriate: Christ did not die on the Cross only for our forgiveness: he died that we might be saved from sin in every way. Not only the penalty of sin, but the practice of sin (which involves us co-operating with the Holy Spirit in being transformed) but also the presence of sin (as we anticipate God’s New Creation by being colonies of God’s Kingdom).
This Covenant Service, let us pledge ourselves again – in promise and in action – to the God of abundant mercy.
Angie Ward has an excellent piece at Leadership Journal entitled Don’t Stuff The Dog. She talks of how pet owners have deceased animals stuffed and left in the house as a sign of denial and also sometimes to scare off strangers. She makes this telling comparison:
Churches seem to have a special proclivity toward “stuffing the dog,” maintaining programs, buildings, and even members in an attempt to forestall necessary change. In the short term, it’s sometimes much easier to stuff a church’s pets than to acknowledge their death, grieve their loss, and give them an appropriate burial.
These pets may take the form of programs that are tied more to history than to current effectiveness; they may be personal favorites, the “pet projects” and ministries of influential leaders who don’t want to let go of them; or they may just be familiar mutts that everyone agrees have passed their prime, but are more familiar (or maybe just cheaper!) than a new animal.
… stuffed animals might bring temporary comfort to those inside the organization, but they may actually turn off or even frighten newcomers who aren’t familiar with the history and meaning behind them. Whether it’s a particular worship style, a ritual, an outdated program, or even a powerful clique within the church, visitors will usually be quick to notice that something’s not quite right. They may not stick around to find out what, or why.
It’s so hauntingly familiar. How often as church leaders we are called to exercise spiritual terminal care over a church group that does not realise or want to contemplate that it is dying. For all my interest in contemporary ministry, the classic meeting that fits this idea wherever I go is the Women’s Fellowship. The formula is predictable. They meet on a midweek afternoon for an hour. There are always three hymns taken from a long-superseded hymn book, an opening prayer that remembers the sick who cannot be present, and a speaker who may be religious in theme or not. It meets a genuine need mostly for elderly widows who would not otherwise see many people from week to week apart from Sunday morning.
However they often cannot understand why the women in the congregation who have more recently reached retirement age don’t want to join them. There has been a culture change, and these women generally prefer the home group. It’s more informal and in the best ones more opportunity for vulnerable openness and mutual support.
But while it’s easy to look down on outmoded Women’s Fellowships, we may miss the likelihood that the home groups may themselves soon need terminal care. A Bible study where the challenge of the material is dissipated by a quick closing prayer and the opportunity over tea and coffee afterwards to move onto less uncomfortable topics of conversation, anyone?
In truth, all such new formulations are prone to this danger before too long. It isn’t just about culture change, it’s about losing the vision and the passion. What am I doing, both to give outmoded activities terminal care and a decent funeral, but also to help ensure that our whole focus remains on life and discipleship? Jut introducing something new as if ‘cell’ or ‘base communities’ or whatever were the answer is to miss the point. To change the metaphor, what am I doing to promote new wine and new wineskins?