When I was training for the ministry, I remember bridling in one lecture at the assertion that when we chaired meetings, we had to stay neutral. Weren’t we there to give a lead? But rules of meetings took precedence over leadership, apparently.
I found myself in this position last week. I had to chair a complex discussion at my Addlestone church about some proposals to develop our relationship with the local New Frontiers congregation, Beacon Church. They had recently taken over from some Salvation Army people the running of a toy library that hires our hall. They also wanted to run their debt counselling service from our hall, and they suggested starting a post-Alpha course Bible study group on our premises.
This situation would be a problem for some Methodists. While Methodism and New Frontiers agree on core gospel issues, there are some areas of Christian belief where we are at opposite ends of the spectrum. We are Arminian, New Frontiers have big Calvinist influences. We are egalitarian when it comes to gender relationships, they are complementarian. My friend Dave Warnock regularly documents these differences, especially the latter one, with some passion.
But despite the potential pitfalls, the story of last week (and the negotiations leading up to our Church Council) is one of grace on both sides. There had been a gap of several months between the old toy library finishing and it restarting, but during that time the rent to us had mistakenly still been paid. There were errors on both sides, and the new manager suggested that each party took a 50% hit. Our Church Council would have none of it. It decided to refund 100% of the overpayment, and calculated there had been a further overpayment which it wished to give back. We knew that although we were not rolling in money, the toy library needed not to be short of funds.
As to the debt counselling, my small and to some extent quite elderly congregation rejoiced that our friends wanted to use our premises. (Beacon don’t have any of their own, and we are located in a prime position in the town.) So yes, have the church hall free of charge for an experimental three-month period. Don’t start until you’ve publicised it properly, but this is a serious social need and if we were younger and fitter it is what we would have wanted to have done. If you can do it on our premises, then God bless you.
And the Bible study? We’re not there yet, because the exact proposals are not firm yet. However, Tom, the senior pastor, has assured us that he will run any study material past us first to ensure we are happy doctrinally with it, and is only too happy if the Methodist deacon and I participate in the group.
Neither side has changed its core convictions. If we debated them, neither of us would convince the other. We would both passionately cling onto what we believe, and to why we think the other party’s views are seriously wrong. However, grace and love can make a way. I hope that is what will continue to characterise the relationship, and will make for a positive witness to the community.
So I was sitting in that meeting straining at the requirement to be neutral. It had some advantages: it made me ensure I was as scrupulously fair as possible to all sides of the debate. But inside? I rejoiced when the Church Council voted as it did.
Being a good (neutral) Christian, though, I had to be sure I didn’t smile.
Before reading on, may I invite you to watch this video teaser for Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins?
Now tell me how that proves Bell is a universalist? He may be, or he may not. This is far too ambiguous. This video raises the questions. It doesn’t give Bell’s answers. To be precise:
Unambiguously stating that Gandhi is in Hell does raise concerns. If you are an exclusivist (only those who have personal faith in Christ will be saved) you might well say that. But if you believe the biblical evidence leads in another direction, you will be bothered by this. That doesn’t simply apply to universalism (all will be saved, regardless of faith in Christ); it also applies to inclusivism (God will deal justly and mercifully with those who never get the chance to respond to Christ). And there is plenty of evidence for inclusivism in the Bible: take Melchizedek the priest of Salem in Genesis, for example. Take Job, possibly. And besides, Bell at very least may only be raising the questions our culture asks and which need answering.
Likewise, Bell’s portrayal of the Gospel as preached by some that a loving Jesus rescues us from an angry God. What kind of Trinity is that, where Christ is love but the Father isn’t? That certainly should be up for debate.
And as for the slogan ‘Love Wins’? Well, if Christians don’t believe that in some form or another, we’re in big trouble. There is something deeply troubling about a brand of Christianity that is more certain about who is going to Hell than who is going to Heaven – after all, Calvinism has always had a problem with knowing how you are one of the elect.
Oh, and by the way, the publisher’s blurb is correct: eternal life does start now. Read John’s Gospel, especially chapter 17 verse 3: ‘eternal life is knowing you’ (emphasis mine).
As I say, it is possible that Bell might be a universalist. But there is nothing in these two minutes and fifty eight seconds to establish that with any certainty. Therefore it is pretty unworthy for the new Calvinist militants to go after him like this. I say this as one who takes doctrine very seriously – this shouldn’t be the way a Christian theme ends up in the top ten trending topics on Twitter, as this did on Saturday.
I guess someone who commented on Christianity Today’s blog about the controversy got it about right:
Kudos to HarperOne’s marketing team. Job well done. I’d imagine this kind of buzz before the book’s release can only improve sales.
I want to introduce you to a new religion. It will involve cannibalism, vampires and the overthrow of cherished ancient traditions. Are you interested?
Or are you shocked? Because that is what the first followers of Jesus thought he was proposing. ‘Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them,’ he said (verse 56). They were offended, and many on the fringes of belief turned away from him in this reading. They were scandalised by his claims.
He called people to eat his flesh – well, who wants cannibalism? And he said they were to drink his blood. Remember that Jews never drank the blood from a dead animal, because it was thought to contain the life of the creature.
Vampires? OK, actually no. I just wanted to underline the shocking nature of Jesus’ words about drinking his blood. But maybe you get a feeling for how Jesus’ first hearers felt scandalised by his teaching. We may find it hard to appreciate that, because two thousand years of familiarity have changed our perceptions. But in its original context, the person and message of Jesus were offensive.
And today, for all our familiarity with Jesus, it is just as possible to be offended by him, his words and his deeds. If we look at what upset those early disciples, we might get some clues to some issues today. Who knows? We might be the ones who need to change. Let’s see.
Firstly, Jesus himself and his teaching is offensive:
When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ (Verse 60)
You might think that gentle Jesus, meek and mild would respond with a word of gentle explanation, but no:
But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, ‘Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?’ (Verses 61-62)
What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? This is not only about the Ascension itself, but also about what leads up to it, for in John’s Gospel, Jesus ascends to the Cross. This is therefore about the Cross, the Resurrection and the Ascension. This is about the deity of Jesus, and what he accomplished in his atoning death and resurrection before he returned to the Father’s right hand.
How is that offensive? Let me recount a story.
In one past church, an elderly couple joined the congregation. They began worshipping with us every week. After a while, I visited them and they raised the question of church membership. In the past, they had been active members of a Baptist church, but must have lapsed for a period of years. Having plied me with tea and cakes, they asked, “Are we good enough to join your church?”
That is a question that can only be asked by people who don’t understand the Cross, or who find the Cross offensive. Like a fool, I paid insufficient attention to it and chose to explain it away. I brought them into church membership, and it was a terrible mistake. The husband in particular spent every week’s home group ripping to shreds the previous Sunday’s preacher. Week after week, until the two leaders of the group could take it no more and resigned. We ended up having to close the group.
All because I didn’t pay attention to a couple who didn’t understand the Cross, and who later showed in their behaviour that they didn’t appreciate grace. I should have let them be offended by the Gospel.
The trouble is, a Jesus ascended on a Cross humbles us. We have to lay aside the pride of our respectable lives, and kneel before him as sinners needing forgiveness.
I’ve seen it not only in the respectable but also in the intellectual. People want to find God by their own cleverness, but God will not have that. I have seen such people harbour all kinds of destructive behaviour, all because they will not kneel at the Cross.
Those who are merely interested in Jesus may well fall away, like the crowds here. Those who are willing to meet him at the Cross are those who will be his true disciples.
Secondly, the work of the Holy Spirit is offensive to some. Jesus goes on to say:
‘It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.’ (Verses 63-64a)
We may only come to know God through the work of the Holy Spirit, who makes the presence of God real to us and the Word of God alive to us. Normal human abilities – ‘the flesh’ – are ‘useless’, says Jesus.
This too is an affront to many people. We have lived through several centuries of scientific discoveries, breakthroughs and advances. Human society has benefitted hugely from many of these things. The idea has arisen that the human mind will ultimately solve all problems. Thus today, leading atheists like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and others mock the thought of anything that cannot be perceived by human reason. If it does not originate from reason, then it is superstition.
But these ideas are false. Yes, society has seen great wonders, not least in medicine. But the same human reason is fallen through sin, and science has given us nuclear weapons and climate change. Ultimately, the thought that reason can solve everything is pure arrogance and idolatry. God is not against the use of the mind at all – in fact it can be properly used to his glory – but he knows how we idolise our reason and so, in the words of John Arnott, ‘God offends our minds to reveal our hearts.’
And indeed the Gospel is not merely available to intellectuals – thank God! It is revealed by the Holy Spirit, whose work is available to all.
In our tradition of Christianity, we are so used to emphasising human free will (and I’m not saying we should ditch that!), but sometimes we stress it so much that we forget the life of faith is impossible without the prior work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit draws people to Christ; only then do we make response.
Listen for reference to that work of the Spirit in part of a testimony from a friend of mine:
‘I wasn’t raised in a Christian household, I was saved in a summer camp when I was 14….one night afterwards, I was dialing my radio around and found a Christian radio station. As I listened, I could feel the Spirit inside me awakening, and that station was basically how God “fed me” while I was at home. When I got old enough to drive myself, I was able to go to church myself.’
Once again, we see that it is our pride that gets offended – this time by the need to rely on the Holy Spirit for life in Christ. But also, this has implications for our evangelism. The prime need in our outreach is not the latest techniques, but prayer – prayer that the Holy Spirit will go ahead of us, working in people’s lives before we get there. Let us be released from having to think up new clever (and possibly manipulative) schemes, and instead remember that the Holy Spirit does the spadework. Let us call on the Spirit in prayer to do that in the lives of those who need Christ.
Well, if we’ve talked about the Cross of Christ and the ministry of the Spirit in the first two points, it won’t take a brain surgeon to work out that the third and final area in which people find the teaching of Jesus offensive is in what he says about God the Father.
And he said, ‘For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.’ (Verse 65)
Now again, that’s the kind of verse to make those of us in the Wesleyan Arminian tradition, who believe in the importance of human free will, to get rather nervous. It gladdens the hearts of Calvinists, who believe that some people are predestined by God to salvation, while he predestines the rest to damnation. But all it really stresses is another version of what we’ve just said about the Holy Spirit – namely that the first move in salvation is God’s.
It has always been the case. The first missionary in the Bible was God, walking in the Garden of Eden in the cool of the evening, calling, ‘Adam, where are you?’ God called Abraham and the patriarchs as he formed a people for himself. He called Moses, the Judges and the prophets. Finally, he sent his Son.
And how good it is that God has always made the first move. For as Leon Morris has put it, writing on this verse:
‘Left to himself, the sinner prefers his sin. Conversion is always a work of grace.’
It is God’s work to bring us to the possibility of salvation. It does not mean he is capricious: he wants all to be saved. But remembering what we have already learned about the need for humility, that comes into play here again, for if God makes the first move, we must pay attention. John Wesley thus commented on this verse:
‘Unless it be given – And it is given to those only who will receive it on God’s own terms.’
The Good News is that God sets out to rescue those who, by their own instincts, would always prefer to remain in sin. The Good Challenge is that we must accept God’s remedy. We must come on God’s own terms. Therefore that means not only welcoming Christ as God’s Saviour, but also bowing before him as Lord. If we can only come to Christ because God the Father makes the first move, then we end up coming to God not only for the blessings, but also for the obligations.
We can ask ‘What’s in it for me?’ and the answer will be about salvation from the penalty of sin, the practice of sin and the presence of sin. But to ask that question alone is to indulge in religious consumerism. Because the Father makes the first move there is another question: ‘What’s in it for God?’ And the answer involves him incorporating us into the People of God, because his desire has always been to form a people for himself, a new community that lives under his kingly reign. And therefore we must rise to the challenge and make the Church just such a community, instead of fighting and plotting against one another, and settling for cliques instead of community.
In Conclusion, then, God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit takes the initiative in saving the human race. This brings us to humility at the foot of the Cross and in dependence upon the grace of the Father and the power of the Spirit. We lay aside everything we trumpet about our respectability and intellect. But this news frees us from other tyrannies. No longer need we rack our brains for new methods of evangelism, when instead we begin in prayer for the Holy Spirit to move. And in the converted life, the Father who has graciously reached out to a world of persistent sinners not only saves us but makes us his subjects. Our only proper response is grateful obedience.
May we have the grace not to be offended, but to become God’s loyal servants and friends.
 Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, p387. Exclusive language unchanged from the source.
 John Wesley, Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament, p330.
What kind of book is the Bible? Some see it is a book as rules. Others say it is God’s love letter to us.
Me, I see it increasingly as the story of God’s mission. (Which means that any rules tell us what pleases the God who loves us and has saved us. And which means that if it is a love letter, it is addressed to the world, not just God’s favoured ones.)
No, right from the beginning, God is on mission. And he is on mission in a particular way. God does not shout from a distance, expecting us to come where he is. From the start, he comes onto our territory. He is the first missionary, coming walking in the Garden of Eden, calling out, ‘Where are you, Adam?’ In the Incarnation, Jesus is ‘the Word … made flesh [who] dwelt among us’. In this parable, the landowner keeps going to where the workers are, rather than expecting them to turn up at his vineyard.
So God is a missional God, and this sermon attempts to explore some characteristics of our missional God.
The missional God is the sovereign God. ‘Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?’ he says to those who complain (verse 15a).
What do we mean when we talk about God being sovereign? Some of us get nervous, because we know how this has been used in history. In the Calvinist tradition, affirming the sovereign God has been used to advance the idea that God chooses some people to be saved and others to be damned. That’s not what I mean.
The sovereign God can do what he chooses, but what does he choose to do? It will be consistent with his character. The sovereign God wants his reign to be accepted everywhere, and so he reaches out to all. If he is truly sovereign, then he wants that reign to be embraced universally. Not all will accept the summons to his kingdom. Some will resist and face eternity without him. But it is his will that none should perish. And so, just as the landowner in the parable keeps going back to hire more labourers, so God keeps searching for more people who will turn from their former ways to follow his Son.
What does this mean for us? We are called to share in God’s mission. If God wants his reign to be embraced by all people in all places, then this is fundamental to the nature of the Church. Christianity is a missionary faith. Mission is not something we leave to those who are keen. It is something for all of us.
Yesterday, I was at Synod. The President and Vice-President of the Methodist Conference were with us. Our current President, Stephen Poxon, is Chair of the North Lancashire District. His District has twinned with three overseas Methodist Conferences. One of them is the Methodist Church in Uruguay. There are only six hundred Methodists in Uruguay, spread across twenty-five congregations. A Uruguayan Methodist visiting the UK said to Stephen Poxon, ‘There’s something I don’t understand about British Methodism. Back home, every single Methodist church has a community project. Why isn’t that so in British Methodist churches?’
I think that Uruguayan Methodist had a point. If the missional God wants to see his sovereignty acknowledged everywhere, then mission has to be our top priority, even our defining characteristic as the church.
Some of the famous quotes from the last century really come into their own here – like when William Temple said the church was the only organisation that existed for the benefit of those who weren’t its members. Or when the theologian Emil Brunner said that the church exists by mission as fire exists by burning. We are a missionary church, or we are no church at all. That much is certain if the missional God is sovereign.
The missional God is generous. ‘Or are you envious because I am generous?’ he says to the moaners (verse 15b).
What does it mean for the missional God to be generous? In the parable, it’s quite clear. He has promised a day’s wages to everyone who comes and works for him. The surprise comes at the end when he gives just as much to those who have worked for less than a day. He doesn’t give them what they’ve earned – which wouldn’t be enough to live on – but what they need – namely the rate for a whole day.
On the surface, this makes it sound like God is a socialist: ‘From each according to their means, to each according to their needs.’ But capitalists like this parable too, because the landowner is free to do what he likes with his wealth. Jesus didn’t tell this parable in order for people to fit it into the political philosophies that would come two thousand years after his hearers.
No, the Gospel is a message of divine generosity. All we need for salvation has been provided for us in Christ. In his Incarnation, he lived our life. In his death, he took away the sins of the world. In his Resurrection, he began God’s New Creation. We have everything we need in Christ. It has been generously provided in Christ, at immense personal cost.
God is on a mission to share his generous love. We are called to share the message of divine generosity to all people. But here’s the issue: the spirit of the message needs to fit the content of the message. So a message of God’s generosity needs to be couched in a generous spirit.
However, is that how we are perceived by non-Christians? One thing the Vice-President of Conference said at yesterday’s Synod was this. He talked about having visited the Greenbelt Festival for the first time. While he was there, he encountered a seminar led by a cross-party group of Christian MPs. Together, they explained to their sorrow that in Parliament the Christian Church is generally assumed to be a critical organisation. We are known far more for what we are against than for what we favour.
Might it be that if we want to encourage people to embrace the generous love of God, we need to adopt a generous attitude towards them? Debbie and I try to get involved in the community that centres around our children’s primary school. We have tried to befriend two or three single mums, who have each had two children by different fathers, and they have not married the fathers. Then there are two families where the husband and wife have recently split up. In one case, we can understand why the wife kicked the husband out. In the other case, we can’t. But we have tried to be available and demonstrate Christian love to them.
There are some Christians who think the first thing we should have done was condemn sex outside marriage and divorce in these cases. I want to make clear that Debbie and I believe very strongly in the sanctity of marriage. There is a time and a place for talking about right and wrong. But how will people have a chance of believing in a generous God if we do not offer a generous spirit towards them? Believing that our missional God is generous calls all Christians to undertake acts of selfless, sacrificial and unconditional love in the name of Christ for those yet to discover his love.
Our missional God is merciful: ‘So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’ (verse 16)
Mercy is at the heart of the Gospel message. It is a message of God’s loving mercy for sinners. In Christ and Christ alone we have the forgiveness of sins and new life. Such is the mercy of God that he sends his Church everywhere in his Name to proclaim and demonstrate the mercy he longs to extend to all.
I expect we’re all used to speaking about the mercy of God like that. But when Jesus has the landowner say that the last will be first and the first will be last, the culture of mercy is extended further. That mercy is so fundamental to God’s kingdom that notions of order and rank are outlawed. One commentator on the parables puts it this way:
‘Earlier Jesus taught that there are degrees of punishment in hell (Lk 12:47-48); now he makes plain that there are no degrees of reward in heaven. The perfection of the life to come, by definition, does not allow for them.’
No superiority, no rank in the kingdom: we all need the mercy of God in Christ to enter the kingdom of heaven. The idea that because I am a minister I am more important is anathema to the Gospel. I should not expect to sit at the front of church like some worldly dignitary.
The early Church recognised this radical application of the Gospel: they even elevated slaves to the rank of bishop. They did not care for the world’s way of status. The Good News changed all that. Sometimes I see it in today’s Church, other times I don’t.
What does this have to do with mission? When we are obsessed with title or power, we start valuing some people less than others. While there may be certain ways in which the older approaches to rank and status are passing away today – such as the decline in respect for the Royal Family – other forms of the problem rise up to take its place. So we have an obsession with celebrity that seems to be about the kind of people our culture claims to be more important than others.
Now giving people differing value undermines the Gospel. God’s love in Christ is every bit as much for the least and the lowest as it is for the most and the highest. A true proclamation and living-out of the Gospel will have nothing to do with mimicking the world’s love of status. Nor will it fall into that contemporary trap, the making of Christian celebrities.
Rather, it will be counter-cultural. God loves all people, and that means he loves the poor and the obscure every bit as much as the rich and the famous. The Gospel is for our neighbours and the poor of the world.
One last example from yesterday’s Synod. Stephanie and I attended a workshop about mission opportunities in schools. It was led by a young woman from the Luton Churches’ Education Trust. Forty churches in Luton support this trust. It employs over twenty staff to work in secondary schools and with local teenagers. They don’t just do the normal schools work of RE lessons and assemblies. They also work with the sort of young people who are shunned or despised – those with ADHD, or who self-harm. As far as they were concerned, these children were as valuable as the gifted ones with the A* grades. That makes Gospel sense.
This parable leaves us in no doubt that God’s heart beats a missionary rhythm. If we are truly to be the Church of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, then mission will define what we are about. We shall have a passion to take the Gospel everywhere. We shall proclaim God’s generous love in Christ with a generous spirit. And God’s mercy for all will mean we are as interested in sharing that love with the broken as with the headline-makers.
I nearly included today’s Old Testament lesson from Jonah in the service. It’s the part of Jonah’s story where he complains to God that the sinners of Nineveh have repented at the sound of his preaching, and received the grace of God. If we have the heart of Christ, then may we not be moaners like Jonah. May we be people who rejoice when the missing find their way back to God. And may we press on with the Gospel, that there may be many more occasions for such rejoicing.