“What does your church offer that’s missing at the YMCA? … When you read your church’s bulletin and determine the invitation you offer, you will know whether your church is a community center or the globalizing, wounded arm of the Savior.”
But it seems to be a good question. What is different about the church? Or, what could or should be different about the church?
And it seems good to ask it today, when we have so many visitors here for Emma’s baptism. I know some of you are churchgoers, but I expect a good number of you aren’t. You join us in the middle of a series where we are thinking about what our vision for a worshipping community is, and if you have any constructive feedback for us, please let us know.
It’s easy, of course, to find fault with the church, and often the fault-finding is deserved. While I sometimes recount that the famous celebrity who grew up along the same road as I did was Bruce Forsyth – and I play with ideas of changing the liturgy to begin with, ‘Nice to see you’ – another local lad was the late broadcaster Adrian Love. He attended the same grammar school as my Dad. Love was a churchgoer in his younger days, but gave it up because he couldn’t abide the persistent atmosphere of gossip in the church.
Against that background, it’s easy to have a romantic view of the early church, but the Apostle Paul would not have had to dictate the words of his that we read a few moments ago had everything been perfect then. So for the next few minutes we’ll consider those words on the basis that there is a gap the church needs to straddle, between how things are now and the vision of how things could be. This isn’t going to be an exercise in slating the church, but it is meant to be a time when we might become restless with things as they are, and develop a longing for how they might be.
Here, then, are three characteristics of a Christian worshipping community:
Firstly, love. I don’t think there is any other way to sum up the first three verses of the reading. Let’s hear them again:
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. (Verses 12-14)
Compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, bearing with each other, forgiving one another – all united by love. These are the qualities of love, of wanting to do whatever it will take for others to flourish. All of them could be taken as qualities of Jesus’ life – he was compassionate, kind, humble, gentle, patient and forgiving. Paul is calling Christians to love after the pattern of Jesus. It’s not real worship unless we love one another. Our relationships need to be whole, healing and authentic. If I say I’m worshipping God while I’ve got it in for my brother or sister Christian, then I am not truly worshipping at all.
But it’s a bit scary to speak about loving after the pattern of Jesus, isn’t it? Who could possibly do that? We know we fall short. The everyday reality is that we are fallible, failing, sinful people. We don’t make the grade. I was once at a conference where a seminar speaker asked us to take Paul’s famous words about love from 1 Corinthians 13 – ‘love is patient, love is kind, love keeps no record of wrongs’, and so on – and remove the word ‘love’, substituting our own names. Then we had to read it aloud. Most of us tripped into embarrassed laughter at the thought that we were patient and kind, keeping no record of wrongs. The speaker then asked us to remove the word ‘love’ and put in the name ‘Jesus’. Reading the words then made complete sense: ‘Jesus is patient, Jesus is kind,’ and the rest.
We are left, then, with this gap between the kind of people we sadly know ourselves to be and the sort of people we would aspire to be. And if we had to love like Jesus from a standing start straight to self-giving and self-sacrifice, we wouldn’t have a chance.
But it’s not like that. Paul starts with these words:
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved … (Verse 12a)
He can call us to love, because of who we are in God’s sight. We are chosen, holy (set apart) and – perhaps most important of all, dearly loved. The love we are called to demonstrate is not something that is a cold obligation. Rather, Paul says, love because you are loved. When you know you are loved, does that not change the way you live? The knowledge that someone loves you gives you security, and you risk doing things you wouldn’t otherwise have chanced. When you know you are loved, you don’t walk with stooping shoulders but with your head held high.
It’s all that and more in a relationship with Jesus Christ. We don’t love in order to be loved by God: we love because we are already loved. Loved with an everlasting love, the Bible says. Loved to the point of death, death on a Cross. And when we know we are loved like that, we find through God’s Holy Spirit the beginnings of bridging that gap between our weaknesses now and the vision of loving like Jesus.
Secondly, peace. Now – the love we have just described puts us on the road to peace, especially when we bear with each other and forgive one another. We start demonstrating a measure of reconciliation that is deeply appealing to broken and suffering people.
But Paul speaks of peace in another way in verse 15:
Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace.
When Paul says, ‘Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, the Greek word translated ‘rule’ is one that means an umpire or a referee. Christ’s peace is to blow the whistle in the church. When there are disagreements or even disputes – and we’d be naïve to think we won’t have them – then it is the peace of Christ that stops play or calls a foul. When there is something good – dare I say when we have scored a goal? – it is Christ’s peace that marks the fact and the style of our celebrations.
But if we really stretch the metaphor even further beyond what Paul had in mind, it might be worth asking, what kind of referee or umpire are we dealing with? Unfortunately, we often treat Christ and his peace like a football referee. We think we can argue him out of the decision he has made. We think we can show dissent and get away with it. And I know, of course, that Colin Stone would be deeply disappointed if I didn’t make an allusion to Chelsea players in this respect! How tragic it is that in the church we too often dissent from what the peace of Christ decrees. We don’t get our way, so we throw our toys out of the pram. Some aspect of church life doesn’t suit our tastes, so we break our relationships to go elsewhere. We don’t like what one individual does, so we bad mouth them behind their backs.
But what if we were dealing not with a football referee but a rugby referee, where dissent is punished by moving the kick ten metres nearer your goal? And therefore what if we allowed every aspect of Christ’s peace to rule our lives as a community? Not just peace in the sense of quietness, but the desire to overcome conflict, the desire to see harmony flourish, a commitment to justice in our relationships, strong resolve to work for healing in every area of life? I dare you to believe that spiritually we can hear Christ blowing the whistle on some of our behaviour, and that if only we were to treat him as the rugby referee whose will must be obeyed rather than the football referee who is constantly challenged, then we would take further steps towards being the worshipping community we long to be. We would be one in heart and mind as we come before God.
Thirdly and finally, thankfulness. When Paul finally gets onto the subject of worship in explicit words in the last couple of verses, note how words that suggest thankfulness (or gratitude) keep recurring:
And be thankful. 16 Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Verses 15b-17, italics mine.)
Where do we fall short when it comes to thankfulness? This is serious, because thanksgiving is central to our worshipping life. But – when we are ungrateful for all the good things God has given us, something is wrong. When we take our material and spiritual blessings for granted, things are going awry. When we become so detached from our brothers and sisters in Christ that our first instinct is to look for what we can grumble about, then we have departed from God’s vision for us as a worshipping community. Sadly, some people in our churches are known for their expertise in moaning.
What would begin to change us? How would we grow in thankfulness as a Christian community? It isn’t enough to be told to be thankful: there has to be a reason. Paul’s answer is that it’s to do with ‘the message of Christ’. As we dwell on all aspects of Christ’s life and ministry, it leads us to thankfulness. We are grateful for his coming. We give thanks for his life and teaching. We express gratitude for his suffering on our behalf. We offer thanksgiving because he conquered the grave. It is a case of turning our eyes on Jesus. Reflecting on Jesus rather than on our own petty dissatisfactions will begin to transform us.
But how can we do that? Not on our own, according to Paul. It’s something where we need one another. He envisages the wonders of Jesus being embedded in every style of worship the church offers – psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. And he anticipates not our style of worship where it’s all led from the front and one person chooses almost everything, but a group of people who together say to one another, ‘I think this hymn (or psalm, or spiritual song) will encourage you.’
And from there, it starts to fan out to the whole of our lives. Whatever you do, says Paul, do it in thankfulness, is how he ends. Our life as the worshipping community doesn’t end when I pronounce the blessing at the end of the service. That is but the beginning. When we are thankful for all that Christ has done, a light shines on all parts of life.
In fact, there was a church where the exit had a sign over the arch. As the congregation left the building, there were the words, ‘Servants’ Entrance’. Because we go as a worshipping community from this place with love, peace and thankfulness into the world.
More specifically, it happened in the vicinity of Silver Street train station. (And today, Sky news is reporting another stabbing near the station.) Where do you find conkers near Silver Street station? From the chestnut trees in Pymmes Park. Which part of the park do you find most of them? The part bordering Victoria Road, the road where I lived from the age of two to twenty-six. My sister and I would pick up the conkers that fell opposite our house. At around this time of year, we would witness little horrors climbing up on the cars parked on the opposite side of the road to throw sticks at the trees, trying to dislodge the large specimens.
So I’m not pretending it was idyllic when I was growing up. Late at night there would be sexual or drug-related misbehaviour in the park, or the ‘Midnight Path’ that ran between the main park and the football park. Bullying could happen in the day-time. One summer evening, as I walked over to a council play scheme, two teenage boys demanded to know my identity. When I refused, they pinned me to the ground and kneed me in the face.
The area, then, had long begun deteriorating from the pleasant place that Bruce Forsyth described in an early chapter of his autobiography (he, too, grew up in Victoria Road, some thirty-plus years before me).
But it is clearly far worse now, even if it wasn’t affected by the recent summer riots. They began in Tottenham, immediately to the south, and spread to Enfield, immediately to the north.
And the trouble is, I feel a huge hypocrite. Selfishly, I am glad not to be raising children there. I know too that long-term this needs a Christian presence, but like Moses if I thought I was being called I would say, “Here I am, Lord, send Aaron.”
Is it a cop-out just to pray?
There is no new sermon for tomorrow. Having to give up time yesterday to help nurse a son who had to come home from school mid-morning, I never got the new sermon finished. I ended up abandoning ship and lightly revising last year’s Pentecost message. After all, I’m in a new location, and furthermore not even at one of my two churches in the morning.
However, I did find a wonderful video for Pentecost on the web, which I’ll be using in the morning. My Facebook friends have already seen this, but here it is (again):
You can download it free in HD format here.
Meanwhile, in other news, headlines have been made here in the UK today by the publication of the annual Queen’s Birthday Honours List. Topping the news has been the knighthood for beloved entertainer Bruce Forsyth. Seventy-three MPs had signed an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons, calling for him to be knighted. (He was appointed CBE in 2005.) This honour is for ‘services to entertainment and to charity’.
Now, I have nothing against dear old Brucie, and indeed I have a tenuous claim-to-fame link with him: we grew up along the same road. Not at the same time: he is about the same age as my father. He was a local hero due to that fact, even if a little scathing in his autobiography about the way the town declined in latter years, in contrast to how nice it apparently was when he lived there. In his light entertainment career, he has put smiles on the faces of millions. And never more for me than the classic time he first hosted Have I Got News For You in 2008:
However, contrast this with the announcement that founder of The Message Trust Andy Hawthorne has also been awarded an honour, the OBE. He can’t beat Brucie’s sixty years in show business, but he has put nearly twenty years into work in some of the most deprived estates, with difficult young people and prisoners.
The question I ask is, who has given more to society? Because for me it’s Hawthorne. I have no problem with a nation having an honours system, even if ours contains some anachronisms mostly associated with the monarchy and some remembered feudalism. If a society wants to honour those who have made a positive difference to them, fine. And perhaps that will include entertainment, and even sport, given the gongs also awarded for our cricketers thrashing a poor Australian team last winter.
But make a difference? I’m sure Bruce has raised a lot of money for charity, but Andy Hawthorne has got his hands dirty. To me, in kingdom terms, Hawthorne deserves the higher honour, hands down. At least he awaits a reward in glory. In the meantime, this is an area of British life that only reflects God’s kingdom extremely imperfectly.
What do you think? What would you do with the Honours system?
No, not that one.
I first met Mike Burke at Trinity College, Bristol between 1986 and 1989. He was a guitar-toting, wisecracking Anglican ordinand, and I was a Methodist wondering where on earth God was calling me. When we left, we all had to pen fifty words about ourselves for a magazine sent to college supporters. It was no surprise when Mike wrote that he had fulfilled an ambition to get U2 played in college chapel.
Then we lost touch. He went off to his curacy in Sheffield, and I returned to the dark bowels of Methodism.
Years later (2001, I think), we bumped into each other again at an Evangelical Alliance conference in Cardiff. By then, he was a vicar in Gloucestershire. This time, we kept in touch. Often it was Mike sending me emails that I found ridiculously funny and my wife (who doesn’t share the same sense of humour) found ridiculous.
In recent years, Mike has come out of parish ministry. He now networks for the Church Mission Society with local congregations. He has used his creative gifts to turn the difficulties of traditional church life today and the need to find new forms of missional church to reach today’s cultures into a witty and poignant novel.
It makes sense from my perspective to communicate missional thinking in a narrative format. Much of the literature talks about the importance of story, so let’s use story! The only other example I have ever encountered in this field (perhaps there are others) has been Brian McLaren‘s ‘A New Kind of Christian’ trilogy. However, McLaren has in my opinion more of an agenda for revising classical theology than Mike does. Moreover, the American church situation is considerably different from the British contexts.
I know I’m biassed, but do read Mike’s book. You will find a healthy and humorous dose of reality, right through to the inner thoughts of the clergy. If you’ve ever wondered, then buy this!
Oh, and his first cultural quote is from Pink Floyd’s ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’. You can’t go wrong.
My one gripe would be with Highland Books, the publisher. They seem to have laid off a proof reader in place of a computer spell-checker. It was The Forsyte Saga, not the Forsyth Saga (Brucie, you can have a rest). A quantity of paper is stationery, not stationary. Something you can’t quite catch is elusive, not illusive.
Although I have just linked to it on Amazon, they were unable to fulfil my order, but I went through Amazon Marketplace to the trusty Book Depository, who sent me a copy quickly.
I’ve been tagged by my friend Jenny Vass on this web meme. This will take a while, so I’ll type a few random things as I remember them over the day, so here goes:
1. I was born in the Salvation Army Mothers’ Hospital in Clapton, north-east London.
2. I have a big head (I hope only literally), which made my birth distressing for my mother, and explains why my parents waited six years before having my sister.
3. I grew up in the same road that Bruce Forsyth did. Not at the same time.
4. On a school trip to Whipsnade Zoo, my mum gave me nineteen shillings in spending money. When the teacher announced we could only take seven shillings and sixpence with us, I kept quiet. I spent every last penny in the zoo gift shop. Mum was distraught: she had given me the balance of her housekeeping and had only intended the extra sum for an emergency.
5. I became best friends with my mate Jean when he joined my primary school at the age of seven. Nearly forty-two years later, we’re still friends and he was best man at my wedding.
6. Once, while Jean and I were boys, we were stopped by a van driver asking for directions. We made it all up and off he went.
7. Jean is an accomplished guitarist. We used to write songs together, even though I’m not musical.
8. When I was eight and my sister was two, she hit me over the head with my cricket bat.
9. I was the only child from my primary school to go to my secondary school.
10. I hated school, even though I did well academically. The reason? Bullying.
11. Glandular fever-like infections seriously disrupted my schooling at fourteen and fifteen, and a neck problem at eighteen. But for the neck problem, I would have read Computer Science at Imperial College, London.
12. I was a union rep for my office when I worked in the civil service.
13. I used to go to winter nets to practise with my Dad’s cricket team when I was a teenager. I didn’t know until adulthood that the men couldn’t read my spin bowling. I’d have given up quick bowling if I’d known.
14. Theological study: I had three wonderful years at Trinity College, Bristol and three terrible ones at Hartley Victoria Methodist College, Manchester.
15. On the surface I’m all academic, theoretical and conceptual, but underneath a creative person is trying to break out. That’s why I did a creative writing course at the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity with the Association of Christian Writers in my last sabbatical, and I’m taking a photography course at Lee Abbey in this one.
16. I am left-handed, have blue eyes and have worn glasses since I was eleven.
17. My first computer was an Amstrad PCW 9512. I ditched the noisy, inflexible daisywheel printer, bought an Epson 24-pin dot matrix and installed that instead. I wrote my MPhil thesis on it. I’ve been fiddling with computers ever since. Had the neck problem not hit when I was eighteen (see 11 above), I would have done so from a younger age.
18. My first car was a hideous yellow Ford Escort with a grim gearchange. I backed it into a tree, the boot sprang open, and for a long while I held it down with a friend’s old tie (= ‘necktie’ for my north American friends).
20. Our son Mark is named after my favourite of the Four Gospels. We brainstormed four names, wrote them down, folded them up and put them into a hat for Rebekah, then a small toddler, to pick. Both of our children have middle names taken from grandparents. Mark’s is Alan after my Dad, Rebekah’s is Anita after Debbie’s late Mum. That gives both of them full initials that have something to do with flying. Rebekah is RAF; Mark is MAF (Mission Aviation Fellowship). That’s a coincidence, but a nice one, since I come from an Air Force family.
21. I got into SLR photography after a mission trip to the north of Norway in 1981 when I was the only member of the party not to own a camera. Dad has been an amateur photographer as long as I can remember, and he took me to his favourite shop, City Camera Exchange by Cannon Street station in London, where I bought a Minolta XG-1.
22. I once tried to learn the guitar when a church member offered classes free of charge. As a result, I own a Fender acoustic. Unfortunately, the lessons began clashing with essential church appointments and I was unable to continue. The guitar and its electronic tuning gadget stay dormant in its case.
23. I studied Theology under George Carey. Shame he’s an Arsenal supporter.
24. I went from being a rabid teetotaller to a wine lover and now back to being teetotal. Originally, I held to a teetotal view on what I realised were legalistic grounds. Giving them up, I discovered the joys of wine. Unfortunately, medication I’m on for raised blood pressure now recommends I abstain.
Right, that’s taken far too long on and off. I’m going to tag twenty-five people on Facebook, once this has uploaded to my notes there.