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A Methodist Message For Christmas

Mark WakelinThis is the Christmas message from the President of the Methodist Conference, the Revd Dr Mark Wakelin:

“Truly this was the Son of God!

“I was asked once by a well-known broadcaster, ‘do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God?’ I replied, as you do, by asking him, ‘it depends on what you mean by, ‘Son of God.’  His reply shook me because he then said, ‘It’s a perfectly simple question, ‘Is Jesus Christ the Son of God?’ My own thought was immediately, ‘I wonder which bit of ‘Son of God’ he is finding simple?’

“I presume he meant do I believe in a literal way? But that is hardly simple. Literal language is OK for baked beans and possibly sunsets, but it gets a bit thin when talking about most of the things that really matter such as love, sadness and wonder. It runs out of steam totally when talking of God. You can’t say anything literal about God!

“I was once in an argument about the new hymn book (I am afraid I get a bit grumpy about some of the alterations to ancient poems that we make and think that our desire to modernise the old is a little like the Christians who wanted to cover the modesty of the paintings in the Sistine Chapel). My colleague disliked the word ‘ineffable’ because he felt no one would understand it. There is a certain irony in that as you can imagine! Given that ‘ineffable’ basically means something we can’t understand, I would have thought it was a useful word to hang on to if we also want to talk about God. God is ‘ineffable’ – and that’s the point.

“That’s the point of Christmas. How does God communicate with us when words are not adequate? How can we even try to talk of God when literal language so lets us down? God’s answer is, of course, the ‘self sending’ – of a God who in Charles Wesley’s words is, ‘contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man.’ What we can ever understand of God has to begin by taking account of God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. Who is written about in Colossians 1:15: ‘He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation’ and verse 19: ‘For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.’

“The ‘Word’ is God, says John. Now this isn’t simple language either, but it directs you a kind of struggle to understand that is different from, for example, trying to get your head around Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity! Because it is truth revealed and held in a person, understanding and engaging with that truth is as much about love and obedience as it is about intellectual capacity and linguistic dexterity. We are not so much asked to assent to a philosophical or religious claim, ‘yes I agree that Jesus is the Son of God,’ but inhabit a story, the Christmas story, to live within ancient tale of human struggle and courage, of wonder and delight, of mystery and of angels declaring good news. Children get this much more easily than adults who want the whys and the wherefores of an extraordinary story which is far more than an odd biological claim on the Universe.

“Do I believe that Jesus is the Son of God? Of course, wonder of wonders, ‘Let earth and heaven combine, angels and men agree, to praise in songs divine the incarnate deity.’ I inhabit this ancient story and find it to be true. Wrapped in our clay we may not immediately recognise the creator of all things. But it is our life task, to discover a vulnerable God who is on a mission to finish the ‘new creation’ and is looking for followers.

“Happy Christmas!”

 

Sermon: The Majesty of God in Creation

Psalm 8

Last Sunday evening, I got in after Richard Goldstraw’s farewell service and tea at Addlestone to find that we had a new temporary resident in the manse.

The Queen.

OK, it was a life-size cardboard cut-out of her, and apparently it is doing the rounds of every house in our road that will have her, ever since the Diamond Jubilee street party.

Jokingly, I put up a comment on my Facebook page, saying that this had happened, and asking any of my friends if they had any messages they would like me to relay to her. These included one friend who had recently been to a Buckingham Palace garden party asking me to give her a cheery wave and say ‘thanks’ for the tea. Another thought I could ask her to whip up a sermon for today. Somebody wanted to know if she had changed her mobile number. And another saw the opportunity for a lucrative business opening. I could advertise my services to parents who are regularly nagging their children over their manners by offering a practice Royal Garden Party. They could ‘meet the Queen’ and ‘have tea with the vicar’.

Of course, I wanted to have some fun with this, but our concept of a ruler’s majesty has declined over the years. The Psalmist, on the other hand, has a rich view of God’s majesty. Yet even then, the way in which that majesty is expressed on earth and in the heavens (verse 1) is surprising at times.

Firstly, God shows his glory in weakness.

Recently I had to take our daughter Rebekah on a Brownies’ trip to the dry ski slope at Aldershot, where the girls had an hour of ‘donutting’ – that is, coming down the dry ski slope in a glorified large rubber tyre, while wearing helmets for safety. As we arrived at the car park, Brown Owl suddenly got very excited and shouted to everyone, “Look! A Vulcan!”

I should explain that this was not a reference to Star Trek but to a Vulcan bomber that could be seen in the sky. The Farnborough Air Show was about to start.

And maybe an air show like that is what we expect in terms of rulers showing their power and might. They use displays of military hardware or force. Think back to all those parades of the Soviet Army through Red Square that we used to see on the news.

But God goes explicitly against this in the display of his majesty:

Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
to silence the enemy and the avenger. (Verse 2)

What could contradict military might much more than ‘the mouths of babes and infants’? Those who claim might and majesty by force are those God treats as enemies. He shows his glory instead in a tiny, fragile life.

The Psalmist wasn’t to know this, but several hundred years later God would show this explicitly. His majesty would be seen not in the palaces of Rome or Jerusalem, but in a manger in Bethlehem. Supremely Christians see this in the incarnation of Jesus. There is God’s upside-down majesty. Wonder at his glory in, say, the words of Charles Wesley:

Our God contracted to a span,
Incomprehensibly made man.

For me, this is captured in the words of a contemporary Christian poet and singer, Bruce Cockburn, in two of his songs. One is called ‘Cry of a Tiny Babe’.

The chorus says:

Like a stone on the surface of a still river
Driving the ripples on forever
Redemption rips through the surface of time
In the cry of a tiny babe

Why does ‘redemption [rip] through the surface of time in the cry of a tiny babe’? Because this is how God shows the splendour of his glory – his majesty. He does so in a reversal of the world’s ways and the world’s values. In the scandal of humility, God reveals his glory.

What does that mean for us? Go to another Cockburn song, one called ‘Shipwrecked at the Stable Door’.

The stable door of the song is the stable in Bethlehem. In the lyrics of the final verse, Cockburn connects the frailty of the Incarnation with the revolutionary words of the Beatitudes:

Blessed are the poor in spirit –
Blessed are the meek
For theirs shall be the kingdom
That the power mongers seek
Blessed are the dead for love
And those who cry for peace
And those who love the gift of earth –
May their gene pool increase

Cockburn took inspiration here from a wonderful spiritual writer called Brennan Manning. The final chapter of one of his books, ‘The Lion and the Lamb’, is called ‘The Shipwrecked at the Stable’. Manning makes the case that it is the poor and the weak who find hope in the infant Christ:

The shipwrecked at the stable are the poor in spirit who feel lost in the cosmos, adrift on an open sea, clinging with a life-and-death desperation to the one solitary plank. Finally they are washed ashore and make their way to the stable, stripped of the old spirit of possessiveness in regard to anything. The shipwrecked find it not only tacky utterly absurd to be caught up either in tinsel trees or in religious experiences – “Doesn’t going to church on Christmas make you feel good?” They are not concerned with their own emotional security or any of the trinkets of creation. They have been saved, rescued, delivered from the waters of death, set free for a new shot at life. At the stable in a blinding moment of truth, they make the stunning discovery that Jesus is the plank of salvation they have been clinging to without knowing it!

All the time they are battered by wind and rain, buffeted by raging seas, they are being held even when they didn’t know who was holding them. Their exposure to spiritual, emotional and physical deprivation has weaned them from themselves and made them re-examine all they once thought was important. The shipwrecked come to the stable seeking not to possess but to be possessed, wanting not peace or a religious high, but Jesus Christ.

The God who comes to us in weakness and vulnerability can only be encountered in weakness and humility. Strutting pride and forceful power are not the entry tickets to the kingdom of God. The vulnerable God of Bethlehem meets those who are weak, who admit their need of him, and in doing so reveals his majesty.

Secondly, God shows his glory in insignificance.

I grew up as the son of an amateur astronomer. Even now, my father still belongs to the British Astronomical Association. One Saturday, Dad took me to London for a BAA lecture given by Patrick Moore. I didn’t understand it, but I noticed how he spent as much time afterwards answering the children’s questions as he did the adults’. Conversations at home were punctuated with Sirius, Orion, the Plough, the Pleiades, Aldebaran and the star I as a child called Beetlejuice. Television meant the Apollo missions, Tomorrow’s World and James Burke science shows. To learn that the nearest star outside our solar system was four light years away – that’s 23 trillion miles – was mind-blowing and awe-inspiring. Later, when I came to faith in my mid-teens, although I had not kept up the interest in astronomy, to gaze up at a clear night sky was to engender a spirit of worship:

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them? (Verses 3-4)

The Psalmist didn’t know what we know about the night sky, but what we know gives these words even greater force: our Sun is but one star among between two and four hundred billion stars in our Milky Way galaxy. There are one hundred and seventy billion known galaxies in the observable universe.

In a world like that, don’t you feel tiny and insignificant? No wonder some people say our own planet Earth is just ‘the third stone from the Sun’.

No wonder others say that humans are just ‘dust in the wind’.

The contemporary atheist movement makes a lot of this. It says that the scale of things are such that it is ludicrous to see human beings as in any way special. We are just an impersonal consequence of the Big Bang and evolution.

What is difficult for these arguments is the evidence for the fine-tuning of the universe. An apologist for the Christian faith called Andrew Wilson lays out some of these in his recent book ‘If God, Then What?’ According to Wilson, there are fifteen different mathematical constant numbers that all have to be right to one part in a million (or even more precisely) for life to exist. If the ratio between the strong nuclear constant and the electromagnetic constant were different by one part in ten million billion, we would have no stars. If the balance between the gravity constant and the electromagnetic constant altered by one part in 1040, the stars would not be able to sustain life. And there are many others. Wilson quotes scientists who say that it is like ‘the universe knew we were coming’ and laid out a ‘cosmic welcome mat’.

But more than this, the Psalmist sees human beings as having a specific status and dignity in creation:

Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honour. (Verse 5)

And not only that, this special status comes with a particular function on God’s behalf:

You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
(Verses 6-8)

Instead of being meaningless, human beings have dignity and responsibility in creation. In the face of feeling insignificant amidst the vastness and power of creation, God grants to the human race the moral management of creation on earth. This is our calling as a race, and it has huge implications.

For one, this is a restatement of Genesis chapter one, where the function of human beings made in God’s image was to look after this planet. That is far from insignificant. It is humans who feel insignificant. That is not how God regards us.

‘Looking after this planet’ implies our daily work. One sadness I encounter in pastoral conversations is with Christians who think that because they are not ordained or do not work for the church, what they do is of little value to God. I think this is a legacy of our past. The Catholic understanding of vocation was indeed something like this. You had vocations into the priesthood, or into a religious order as a nun or a monk. The Protestant Reformation widened this, and so we began praying for people in the healing, caring and education professions.

But there are all sorts of opportunities for Christian vocation if our calling as people made in God’s image is to look after his world. Graham Dow, who was Bishop of Carlisle until three years ago, wrote a booklet on ‘A Christian Understanding of Daily Work’. He argued that there were three purposes of work for Christians:

  1. Creative management of God’s world.
  2. Moral management for the good of all.
  3. A community of good relationships.

While he didn’t go as far as Martin Luther, who once said that if the job of village hangman fell vacant, the conscientious Christian should apply, we can see from these three purposes of work that we have many opportunities to give glory to God in everyday life and work.

Although it would take a whole sermon to explore the three purposes of work, I want you to see that tomorrow morning, you have an opportunity to give glory to our majestic God in your work. Whether you are in paid employment, doing unpaid work, unemployed or retired, God has set us in a world where we may work to his praise and glory, whether what we do is overtly religious or not.

Yes, in weakness and in work, we can live our lives in ways that reflect the words with which the Psalmist both begins and ends here:

O Lord, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth! (Verses 1 and 9)

Last Sunday’s Sermon: Peter Heals The Lame Man

Life has been frantic since returning from leave at the weekend – and still is. Here, belatedly, is Sunday’s sermon.

Acts 3:1-26 
Whenever I read Acts 3, one story always comes to mind. One of the thirteenth century Popes was showing the great Catholic thinker Thomas Aquinas around the Vatican. Having shown him many of the beautiful works of art, the ornate architecture and the lavish fittings, the Pope turned to Thomas and said, “No longer can the church say like Peter, ‘Silver and gold have I none’.”

“No,” retorted Thomas, “and neither can she say any more, ‘In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, rise up and walk’.”

So we come to this famous story, this first major episode after Pentecost and the formation of the early community of Jesus-followers. And it’s a big story. It extends beyond chapter three, which we read, into chapter four, where Peter and John are hauled before the religious authorities. Just as the opposition to Jesus begins early in the Gospels, so does opposition to the apostles and the Jesus movement in Acts. It makes for three phases in the story: the healing, Peter’s speech and the opposition.

But I’ll have to leave that final phase of this story to next week. There is more than enough to meditate upon with the first two elements of the healing itself and then the speech.

Firstly, then, the healing. Right from the start, this is a story about what discipleship means. Compare it with Luke’s first volume, his Gospel. There, Jesus’ first converts (his disciples in 5:1-11) are followed by – guess what? Jesus healing a lame man (5:17-26). For Peter and John to heal a lame man here ‘in the name of Jesus’ is a sign they are walking in his footsteps. Right from the start, this is a story, then, that points to Jesus, as indeed Peter will tell the crowd (verse 12). It’s one of those stories that remind us of that important theme: nothing we do as Christians is about drawing attention to us, it’s about pointing to Jesus. Someone once said to preachers, “You can’t make yourself out to be a great preacher and tell people how wonderful Jesus is in the same breath.” That’s true for us all, whatever our gift is. Let’s call attention to Jesus through what we do.

And what does Jesus do here through Peter and John? This is not just a miracle of healing, and if it were only that this story might be daunting or discouraging to those of us who have not seen healing. There is something Jesus does in this miracle that we can all do, whether we have a healing ministry or not. This is a miracle of inclusion.

How? The man was lame. Lameness excluded you from Temple worship under Old Testament Law. It made you ritually unclean. Healing him meant he could take his full place with the People of God at worship. While we’re not sure exactly which gate is meant by the ‘gate called Beautiful’, what is clear is that now he doesn’t need to be carried just to the gate each day. Now he can go inside the gate.

Is this not what the Gospel does? God’s grace is the miracle of inclusion. To those who believe they are unworthy, Jesus says, “Come.” To those who feel that what they have done excludes them, Jesus says, “I will make it possible for you to come inside. Here is strength for you. Here is forgiveness. Here is love. Here is a fresh start.”

Here’s a video, though, about how some people feel:

All sorts of people feel they can’t ‘come to church’. It can be about lifestyle. It can be about what culture you come from. It can be to do with your generation. Only the other day I read an article about a church where someone was preaching on the need to accept all sorts of different people in the Christian family. As it was a sunny day, the Junior Church went outside for some fun and games. But as the preacher was preaching, a man got up, went outside and told the children to shut up and stop interrupting the service. I have seen comparable incidents in my own ministry. This is, in my experience, a welcoming community. However, let’s not be complacent.
A final point about the man’s lameness. Isaiah prophesied (35:6 LXX) that the lame walking would be a sign of the age to come (along with the deaf hearing, the blind seeing, the dumb speaking and so on). It’s a scripture that Charles Wesley had in mind when he wrote ‘O for a thousand tongues’ and included the verse,

Hear him, ye deaf; his praise, ye dumb
Your loosened tongues employ;
Ye blind, behold your Saviour come;
And leap, ye lame, for joy!

Biblically, then, the healing of the lame by Jesus in the Gospels and now by his followers in Acts is a sign that God’s new age has begun. Since the coming of Jesus and especially since his Resurrection we live in overlap between the old age of death and sin and the beginning of God’s new age. Healing is one sign of the new age. More widely, as the Church we are called to be the community of the new age. All that we do and share is meant to be a sign of God’s coming kingdom. We are to be the family where those who are not OK find healing grace. We are to be characterised by love that works itself out in forgiveness and justice.

Friends, this is more possible than we think. Let me introduce you to Joel. He is six years old and lives in Reigate. He became deeply affected by what he heard at church and at school about world poverty. After seeing a TEAR Fund video at church, he knew he had to do something. He took an empty Frubes box, labelled it the ‘Poor Box’ and started collecting donations. He then decided to do a sponsored run with his mum. His Dad Martin set up a donations page on Virgin Money Giving, and wrote about it on his blog. Joel aimed to raise £60. But the word spread. So far, he has raised over £5000.

Joel could easily have said, ‘Silver and gold have I none.’ The difference is, he went on to say, in his own way, ‘But what I do have I give you.’ It’s time to stop looking at what we don’t have and offering what we do have for the healing of people – and indeed for the healing of the nations.

Secondly, let’s think about Peter’s speech. I say ‘speech’, because that’s what it becomes, but it’s not initially your conventional speech. Mostly you know when you’re going to give a speech. They are scheduled, they are by arrangement. But not in this case. it’s a spontaneous reaction. Peter and John have invoked the authority of Jesus to heal the lame man, and then there is something of an accidental ambush. Word gets out, and the crowd finds the man, and yes, he has been healed.

Peter has to respond. He is in Solomon’s Colonnade, a place where Jesus himself had taught, and like his Master, this is his opportunity for some courageous teaching – again, like Jesus.

Not only that, he makes Jesus the subject of what he says. If he is relying on the Holy Spirit to give him the words to say in a crisis as Jesus promised, then it is no surprise, since the work of the Spirit is to point to Jesus, if he is the theme of what Peter says. As I said, the miracle, by being a great act of mercy and social inclusion for the man, points to Jesus. Peter makes no mistake.
And this may be an encouragement for us. When we are in the world, we can get bogged down in all sorts of minutiae in what we talk about when the topic turns to religion. But one subject will always get us a hearing. One subject will always be fascinating. That subject is Jesus. I recently read a book by a Christian called Carl Medearis. He tends to spend his time in places and with people whom you would not expect to be sympathetic to Jesus. He has spent years in the Middle East, working among Muslims. Back in his native America, he befriended the gay owner of a liberal coffee shop. But Carl, rather than going for conventional evangelistic methods that put people off, simply talks about Jesus. He gets a hearing. His book ‘Speaking of Jesus: The Art of (Not) Evangelism’ is an easy and inspiring read.

But of course to speak about Jesus to this audience has different implications from those we have. Peter is dealing with people who may have been involved in the events of only some weeks earlier. His speech is similar to the one he gives at Pentecost in that he starts with defending what has happened, and then moves onto the offensive. There is more than irony here that people who longed for the fulfilment of Israel’s hopes are faced with the One in whom God would indeed fulfil their aspirations, but they conspired to have him killed. Peter has to go from showing how God has vindicated Jesus and how Jesus is behind the wonderful miracle they have witnessed to confronting his hearers with their guilt, and calling them to repentance as the only way to the blessings of God they so greatly desire. And of course, that criticism will soon lead to conflict.

What about us? When our Christian lives lead to the need for an explanation – and if they don’t, then why not – what happens when we speak of Jesus? As I said a moment ago, there is something deeply attractive about Jesus, even in a society where the church is either boring, irrelevant or negative. But also, to talk about Jesus, his Cross and Resurrection will be such that people will need to make a response. As Peter says, once Jesus is in the frame God no longer overlooks ignorance, and that means people need to make a decision about him. That can go strongly one way or the other. It may be the kind of welcome because people find Jesus attractive, or it can be the kind of hostility that is seen in different ways – from the outright violent persecution that Christian suffer in some lands to the more subtle attempts to keep faith out of the public square that sometimes happen in the West.
So, for example, the question of facing people with the claims of Jesus has been n the national news in Canada recently. A nineteen-year-old Christian student called William Swinimer wore a t-shirt to school with the slogan ‘Life is wasted without Jesus’. Some students complained they found it offensive. The vice-principal asked him not to wear it. He refused on principle, and thus began a series of suspensions which led to five days at home. Eventually the school relented, but not before Swinimer had been told he could support his religion provided he did not offend others, and the vice-principal accused him of ‘hate talk’.

Now you can listen to that as an older and potentially wiser Christian and wonder whether this young man was naïve, but just as Peter was courageous so William Swinimer was willing to risk not graduating, rather like a promising British student risking missing A-Levels and hence university.

In conclusion, you might think then that blessing others in the world in the name of Jesus is a risky business. There is no dodging that fact: it is. But what is the alternative? If we don’t, then think of the many people who won’t be blessed. And let us think of our own faith, wasting like an unused muscle.

Sermon: Ascension – The Forgotten Festival

Acts 1:1-14
Like every English football fan, I turn into an amateur pundit when an England squad is announced for a major tournament. It was thus with interest and trepidation that I followed Wednesday’s announcement of Roy Hodgson’s squad for the Euro 2012 tournament. Were I a Frenchman, I would be quite pleased with the England squad. I wondered how certain players could be forgotten – notably Peter Crouch and Aaron Lennon. The fact that Lennon plays for Spurs, Crouch used to and that Spurs are my time, did not cloud my judgement at all.

And if we think about forgotten men, we come in the Ascension to the forgotten festival. For many Christians, it’s Christmas, Easter and hopefully Pentecost. Ascension gets overlooked. Whether it’s because it always happens on a Thursday, because biblically the event it marks happened ten days before Pentecost, I don’t know, but it is certainly our forgotten festival.

But perhaps there is one reason that leads to our embarrassed silence about the Ascension, and that’s all this talk about Jesus rising up out of sight in a cloud. It all sounds so primitive, so unsophisticated to our scientifically tuned ears. We make our assumptions that the ancients believed that earth was ‘down here’ and heaven was ‘up there’, whereas our knowledge of astronomy and related disciplines seems to make that unlikely.

Yet how else were ancient people going to understand that Jesus had returned to his Father’s presence? Some riding off into the sunset, like the hero of a Western movie, wouldn’t have worked. Could it be that the strange account in Acts of Jesus being taken up from the disciples and obscured by a cloud (verse 9) is the only way God could have communicated this to them? I like to think this is an example of what John Calvin called the ‘doctrine of accommodation’, that many things are just so beyond the human mind that God can only show them in any way to us by simplifying them to our terms. Some of the creation stories may do the same, taking Babylonian myths of the day but importing very different meanings into them.
So the first theme of the Ascension for me, then, is this one of divine mystery accommodated to puny human minds. Let us not think with all our additional knowledge today that we are in any less need of God accommodating himself to our own failures to understand him. As Charles Wesley put it about the Incarnation in one of his hymns,

Our God contracted to a span,
Incomprehensibly made man.

‘Incomprehensibly.’ The saving works of God are so beyond and above our thinking and our imagination that the Lord has to find ways of communicating them to us that can make some kind of sense to us.

Hence I would say that a major challenge of the Ascension for us as Christians is to embrace the mystery of God and to stop thinking that we can put him into little boxes of our own making. If God chooses to put small boundaries around his revelation so that we have some chance of comprehension, that is up to him. But it is not for us to say what the limits are. It is not up to us to say, ‘But of course God could not do such-and-such’ – unless it contradicted his character.

Therefore, at Ascension-tide, let us face the challenge that God wants us to think bigger about him than we ever have done before. We may find it hard, but it may be essential. Indeed, unless we do, how ever will we truly worship him? If we are the ones who set limits on who he can be and what he can do, then is he any longer truly God? If God contracts things to help us understand, then that is his business. But we have no business in contracting God for ourselves with the tool of unbelief.

The second theme the Ascension has for me is the joining of earth and heaven. That Wesley hymn I just quoted starts with the lines,

Let earth and heaven combine,
Angels and men agree

And the Ascension is about the uniting of earth and heaven. Jesus’ journey from earth to heaven is not a vacating of earth – after all, ten days later he will send his own Spirit. It is about the joining of earth and heaven.

Remember that this is central to Jesus himself. In Jewish thought, the Temple was the place where earth and heaven met. But Jesus presented himself as the true Temple when he said, ‘Destroy this Temple and in three days I will rebuild it,’ referring to his death and resurrection. Earth and heaven meet, and worship is the fitting response. The Ascension shows us, as does the Incarnation and other aspects of Jesus’ ministry, that he is the one where earth and heaven meet. He is the true Temple. He, therefore, is to be worshipped and adored. Ascension is a reason for worship.

And so we might be puzzled by the Ascension, but we need to get beyond the default modern reaction in order to worship the one who has brought earth and heaven together. Ascension tells us that Jesus is worthy of all our praise and honour, not only as we sing and pray but as we live for his glory each day.

That call to worship leads us neatly into a third theme, which is that Ascension shows Jesus as both Lord and king. Tom Wright tells how one of the ways in which the myth of Roman emperors becoming gods at the time of their death is that a slave was – shall we say – ‘encouraged’ to report that they saw the soul of the dying emperor flying to heaven at the moment of death.

When Luke tells us the story of the Ascension, witnessed not by conscripted slaves but willing disciples, and not just a soul but the whole raised body of Jesus, his initial audience is surely meant to understand that this is a claim that here is the true emperor of the world. Caesar may call himself Lord, but the true Lord is Jesus.

The Cross, of course, has already declared that Jesus is King. ‘When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to me,’ he had said. Pilate had put up the notice, ‘King of the Jews’, and the Gospel writers mean us to understand that this is ultimately not a criminal charge, nor a statement of irony, but the truth. Jesus is enthroned as king on the Cross. The Resurrection then sees that king’s kingdom coming in power. Now this is capped by the Ascension as a visual sign of his reign. Jesus is Lord and King of the universe.

But it all means that he reigns in a different manner. He had reminded his disciples that the rulers of the Gentiles lorded it over people, but they were not to be that way. They were to serve. His own enthronement, as I said, was to be on the Cross – in suffering. And as we bow before our ascended Lord and King, we commit ourselves to work for his kingdom in sacrificial ways. If we worship Jesus, the true Temple who brought earth and heaven together, and we should because he is both Lord and King, then that worship cashes out in costly service. Ascension, then, asks us the question: what has my devotion to Jesus Christ cost me? Because if it has cost us nothing then we may never have understood Jesus in the first place.

There is a fourth and final Ascension theme I want to share, and it’s reflected in Hebrews 10:11-18. What does Jesus do when he gets back to the right hand of the Father? He sits down. That could mean a number of things. It could be another statement about his authority – after all, a Jewish rabbi sat down, rather than stood up, to teach. Remember that is what Jesus himself did when he preached at Nazareth. He has not stopped speaking, and as we are reminded elsewhere in the Scriptures he has not stopped praying, either.
But I prefer to see the sitting down in the terms of a rest. When Methodist ministers apply to retire, we have a quaint practice of going before our Synod and ‘asking permission to sit down’. Before we retire, we are deemed to be in what is called ‘the active work’. When we retire, we ‘sit down’. It is about a sense of completion (although the church may still call on us to do certain things).

And the ascended Jesus sits down, because the main burden of his work is done:

Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.  But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God,  and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool.  For by one sacrifice he has made perfect for ever those who are being made holy. (Hebrews 10:11-14)

As Jesus said on the Cross, ‘It is finished’, so the Ascension confirms that fact. Everything has been done to ensure salvation. We are forgiven through his death. We have new life through his Resurrection. From the right hand of the Father he pours out the Spirit so that we can live sacrificially for his kingdom. As the ascended Jesus waits for the final destruction of death, he has given us all we need to lives as little Jesuses, to be the faithful people and new community he wants us to be.

Ascension, finally, then, says, let us rise to the task. Jesus is waiting.

Singing The Faith: A First Look

Singing The Faith is the first new official British Methodist hymn book for nearly thirty years, superseding the (in my opinion) deadly dull Hymns and Psalms. My copy arrived in the post on Friday, and I’ve been skimming through it for some first impressions.

Hymns and Psalms just had to go, and many churches were voting with their wallets. It had the misfortune to come out just before the explosion in contemporary worship music (twelve months too early even for Kendrick‘s ‘The Servant King’,

I seem to recall). But you got the feeling that even if it hadn’t, that stuff would probably not have been included. It was published around the high water tide of liberal antipathy to evangelical and charismatic Christianity in Methodism. Furthermore, the musical arrangements were, as one friend put it kindly, ‘for musicians by musicians, to interest musicians’. I can’t judge the truth of that as a non-musician, but it may explain why they were largely deadly dull to me.

It had its bright spots – and I think particularly of the additional verse it includes in ‘When I Survey The Wondrous Cross‘ (retained here) that I’ve never seen elsewhere, the scholarship applied to restoring original texts and the Scripture Index in the music edition.

Methodist Conference and the panel that put together Singing The Faith faced the implications of several cultural revolutions that have deeply affected how Christians, Methodists included, approach faith and sung worship. Revolutions in communications (especially the Internet), transport (you can more easily get to a church whose style you prefer) and ecumenism (people are exposed to other traditions more easily and frequently) mean that fewer Methodists will be easily satisfied with ‘what we already know’. Some would argue (myself included) that technological changes and the fact that churches had already bought all sorts of supplementary books, such as Songs Of Fellowship, Mission Praise and The Source, meant that a new hymn book probably wasn’t the answer, and another approach was needed. The moment of publication is the beginning of fossilisation today. However, Methodism is almost umbilically attached to hymn books, and so a new book it was.

Given that fact, the new book, then, would need to embrace a diversity of musical and theological styles. Centralised or hierarchical control of doctrine may technically be still present in our system, but for many people it is long gone. There is therefore a huge question here of how Methodism maintains her doctrine in this central aspect of our piety, our singing. It may be that the forthcoming additional resource Singing The Faith Plus will act as some kind of clearing house to reflect on which of the newer material that is published from now on is consonant with Methodist doctrine, but we’ll see.

When it gets to the handling of theological diversity, there certainly is a spread in Singing The Faith. It embraces both the neo-Calvinist emphasis on the wrath of God at the Cross in Stuart Townend‘s ‘In Christ Alone’

and at the other end we have Marty Haugen‘s ‘Let Us Build A House (All Are Welcome)’

which some have criticised for allegedly extended the universal offer of salvation into universalism. So the issue of acceptable diversity is alive and well within the book!

It is also worth noting the considerable reduction in Charles Wesley hymns – very significant for Methodists, this. Hymns And Psalms was originally to be edited by an ecumenical committee, but when Methodist Conference insisted on at least two hundred Wesley hymns, the United Reformed Church pulled out. And for the URC to withdraw takes quite something! In the new book, at a quick count Wesley is down to seventy-nine contributions. Much as I love Wesleyan theology, I think this is the right move. Indeed, if many in our churches who have been most vocal about singing Wesley hymns had been as fervently aligned to his doctrine as to the music, Methodism might be more vibrant! Here is a prime example of the argument that allegiance to hymns, however central they are to Methodist spirituality, has not always maintained and fed our faith in the ways to which we might aspire.

Two more traditional-style contemporary Methodist hymn writers, Andrew Pratt and Marjorie Dobson, both participated in the STF committee, and both are represented in the final collection. Both have nine entries. With those numbers, I don’t think anyone can accuse the compilers of favouritism. I imagine the STF panel did what the HAP committee did, and required authors who were members of the group to vacate when their potential contributions were being discussed.

On, then, to think about those writers who have come more out of the explosion in contemporary worship styles. Matt Redman (also) features nine times, and the observation that interests me here is how it isn’t always his ‘hits’ that have been chosen. It looks to me like the committee has taken a real interest in what he writes about struggle and suffering. So as well as the popular ‘Blessèd Be Your Name’ we get ‘When We Were In The Darkest Night’ (‘God Of Our Yesterdays’)

and ‘We Have Nothing To Give’. No sign of ‘The Father’s Song’: one hopes that isn’t about avoiding male language for God, in the way that Fred Pratt Green‘s ‘For The Fruits Of His Creation’ has been altered to ‘For The Fruits Of All Creation’.

Having said that, the compilers are less confident that middle of the road Methodist congregations are ready for much by the late Delirious? Martin Smith and Stuart Garrard get in a couple each, but that’s it. This might be about some of the slightly unusual ways the band expressed itself lyrically, or it is about the more performance-oriented style, or possibly some other reason.

There is also evidence of taking into account the effect of contemporary worship trends on older hymns. It has become popular, particularly under so-called ‘Celtic’ influences, to sing the afore-mentioned ‘When I Survey The Wondrous Cross’ to the tune ‘O Waly Waly’ as well as ‘Rockingham’. This is recognised in Singing The Faith.

But beyond the contemporary worship movement, one area where I am particularly pleased to see innovation is in children’s worship songs. Mark and Helen Johnson of Out Of The Ark Music have been producing worship songs for primary schools for many years. Indeed, that is how I was introduced to them – by a primary head teacher. It’s a delight to see songs such as ‘Everywhere Around Me’

included, along with songs about the Incarnation and the Crucifixion (which actually doesn’t feature that often in their lyrics). Sadly, the wonderful ‘Harvest Samba’

Vodpod videos no longer available.

isn’t in. Did it lose out because it has a middle eight, and that would confuse some older congregations? I wonder.

However, overall, as you will gather, for someone who stays on the fringes of the Methodist establishment, and who is usually quite uncomfortable about it, I greatly welcome Singing The Faith. I still think a new book wasn’t the right approach in a fast-moving creative and digital world, but given that the decision was made, I think what has been produced is far better than many of us might have hoped.

Sermon: The Unity Of The Spirit

We’re two months through a three-month series on the Holy Spirit. This was our subject last Sunday morning, but it was an all-age worship service, where we couldn’t go into much depth. Normally we have an evening service on the same day where we take that morning’s them deeper. However, this time that service got delayed by a week, and so here is the adult sermon for tomorrow night based on last week’s theme. You’ll see the odd reference back to last week in this text. Longstanding readers will also notice one or two favourite old sermon illustrations coming back into play.

John 17:20-26

Ephesians 4:1-6

Are we united? Are we one as Christians? As Methodists? As worshippers at KMC? To listen to some Christians, you would think that the whole matter of unity was simple. Someone in a previous circuit once glibly told me that Methodists and Catholics believed the same things. Er, no we don’t. And after the recent episode where Liverpool’s Roman Catholic cathedral withdrew permission for a Methodist ordination service to take place there, it’s clear the Catholics don’t think we believe the same.

Or is it right what I heard in a prophecy at an ecumenical renewal gathering many years ago: “Weep, for my Body is broken”? Yet on the other hand, there is so much we have in common.

So which is true: are Christians united, or not?

The answer, surely, is both. Yes and no. And in the two passages we have different answers. As Jesus prays for all who will believe in him, he assumes his disciples are not united and prays for the Father to make them one. As Paul writes to the Ephesians, he assumes that the church is one in the Holy Spirit, and so his concern is not to make them united but that they maintain it. Both will be a challenge to us. Let us explore them in turn.

Firstly, we are not united. Jesus prays that all who believe in him may be as united as he and the Father are united, and that this unity will be a missionary witness to the world (John 17:20-23).

One of my previous churches had what I thought was a rather tacky letterhead for official correspondence. The logo was an outline drawing of the church building. I objected that the church was not the building, but the people. I asked that we have a new logo, showing some people gathering around the Cross. Because that was the church.

Did I get my way? No.

But I think I was right. I believe Jesus came to form a community, centred on him, even if it was in continuity with Israel. The New Testament word ekklesia literally means, ‘those called out’, and it originally referred to the assembly of people who made decisions in a Greek city. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, it renders a Hebrew word qahal, which also means assembly: it refers to the assembly of Israel in the wilderness, when she was called out of Egypt. We are ‘called out’ to be an assembly of people. No special buildings existed for a long time.

We become one, then, when we are drawn to the Father through the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus and in the power of the Holy Spirit. Our unity is based on the Father’s love, the atoning work of Jesus and the enabling of the Holy Spirit. So deeply do we share in what God has done for us that we become one.

And we become one, not only in the sense that we have these things in common, but that God binds us together and makes us into one body. We are not isolated individuals who share a common interest: God binds us into a new community, because his purposes were always bigger than just saving individuals. Human beings were created as social creatures, and society needs a model of a new community. That is God’s great purpose for the church.

So our witness is seen when we so live for Christ and for one another, that we put God and one another ahead of our own desires. This is what speaks powerfully to the world. They will not be impressed by a mutual love of Wesley hymns, or a preference to hear different preachers every week. Solid, binding love in the company of Jesus will make an impression. Nothing less.

What will not give a good witness is when we major on minors, when we behave as if we can live without each other, when we gossip or when we tear each other to shreds. There is more than enough of that in the world. It does not need the Church to add to it. Of course, we shall have conflict, but our task then is not to pretend that the conflict does not exist, but to model a path of love, grace and truth towards resolving it. We have the same differences as human beings as the rest of the world, but what Christ has done for us gives us the resources to work through those tensions and be a model of harmony.

So we do not have unity without God giving it to us in Christ, but the fact that he has leads on to the second half of our thoughts, where Paul says we are united. He builds on what God has done for us in Christ, and which the Holy Spirit makes real and present. Now we do have the gift of unity, our task is to maintain it.

And so before we ever get to all the protracted and apparently fruitless discussions between denominations about formal unity, Paul gives us some basic tasks in our relationships that will enable us to maintain the unity of the Spirit:

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. (Ephesians 4:2)

I wonder if you remember the four sets of contrasts I set up between different types of people in the all age worship last Sunday morning? Some of us are such opposites that it requires these very qualities of humility, gentleness, patience and bearing with one another in order to maintain our unity. We need to deploy these qualities so that we appreciate the different gifts other people can bring, rather than being frustrated by them.

So the person who loves being in crowds mustn’t tell the one who loves solitude that he is not a people person, and the one who appreciates solitude must not say that a sociable person is shallow. The person who uses her five senses and has an eye for fine detail can be a gift to the man who operates by a sixth sense and only sees the big picture. The man concerned for the truth and the woman who cares for harmony and love both have essential gifts for the church. The one who plans and the one who is spontaneous need patience to avoid winding each other up, when in fact each of them has a useful contribution to make.

I’ve not always found it easy to believe that the church can exhibit this kind of unity in the Spirit. I’ve been in gatherings where we’ve sung Charles Wesley’s hymn ‘All praise to our redeeming Lord’, and we’ve come to verse four and found it hard to sing:

E’en now we think and speak the same
And cordially agree;
Concentred all, through Jesu’s name,
In perfect harmony.

Because my experience has not been of cordial agreement, but of rabid disagreement, sometimes on the most fundamental areas of Christian faith, sometimes because people were not prepared to have a generous spirit towards those whose personalities or cultural tastes were vastly different. It made it agony to be a Christian in those circumstances. I can think of one or two churches and religious institutions to which I would happily never return.

However, the challenge is clear, and the elements of healing and peace present when you encounter Christian communities and congregations that are committed to the humble, gentle, patient love that the unity of the Spirit entails make such places like iced water on a hot day. In fact, more than that, a community that exhibits these qualities can be a powerful witness to God’s love in the world.

And that leaves me with just a couple of closing questions. One is, how can we be like this? It seems to me that this is a basic issue of Christian holiness. And like all other matters of holiness, the New Testament holds two things in tension: one is that we are called to obey, and the other is that we need the Spirit’s empowering. I put these together and say that holiness is active co-operation with the Holy Spirit. Therefore we need to hear God’s call to this unity of the Spirit and be prepared to obey with the humility it requires to put it into action, but to do so in reliance upon the Holy Spirit. We say ‘yes’ to the Father, and at the same time seek the Spirit’s help.

My other question is this. It’s all very well saying that a Christian community living in the unity of the Spirit can be a powerful witness, but how will that be seen by the world? It isn’t much good if the only way this is experienced is within the inner confines of the church family. And seeing as most of the population don’t come much into contact with who are, what we are like and what we do, isn’t that all a bit hopeless?

I would suggest that this therefore comes down to another of those issues of where we need to reimagine church. Just as I’ve emphasised since coming here that mission is a primary function of the church, so we must carry that through to all areas of church life. One such area would be our small groups, where the love and unity is often best experienced. We need to think of our small groups as more than Bible study, fellowship and prayer for each other. We need to see them as cells for mission.

I have no time tonight to go into the details of what has become known as the ‘cell church movement’, but Graham Horsley, who is coming to preach at our Missions Sunday on 9th October, is a Methodist expert on that subject. But essentially, we can see small groups as the church in microcosm. They follow what has become known as the ‘Four ‘W’s’: welcome, worship, word, witness. In ‘welcome’, they get to know one another better. In ‘worship’, they worship in a form appropriate to the group size and members. In ‘word’, they study the Bible, but with an emphasis on practical application. And in ‘witness’, they pray for people who need God’s love and they plan outreach activities of all sorts. With that stress on witness, the cell group has a great opportunity to demonstrate the unity of the Spirit as it interacts with the world.

So the challenge of unity in the Spirit is clear and important. We have no unity save that in Christ, but what unity that is. It is to be guarded and maintained. If we do that with the humility that entails, and depending on the Holy Spirit and in the presence of the world, then we have a gift for those we live among, a missional gift of God’s love.

May it be so.

Sermon: People At The Cross – Judas Iscariot

This weekend, we start a new sermon series for Lent and Easter, in which we meditate on the characters who inhabit the Passion and Easter stories. I get to begin with Judas Iscariot.

John 13:1-5, 18-32

Miss Duffell was my English teacher. Despite my goody-goody image at school, she was the only teacher I ever wanted to wind up. It wasn’t the way she tipped her cigarette ash into her coffee cup when having a discussion with pupils at break time, it was the fact that she taught English Literature. To my teenage male way of thinking, that was the most useless, irrelevant subject in the curriculum. Especially if you favoured the sciences, as I did.

It was only when I reached adulthood that I saw the worth of all those essays where we had to write character studies of people in the plays we were studying – Bluntschli in ‘Arms and the Man’, Falstaff in ‘Henry IV Part 1’, and so on. When I began to understand the power of the narrative in the Bible, then I started to appreciate the value in appreciating the characters. I learned that we might identify with a person or see ourselves in opposition to them, and through either reaction be caught up more in what the message the author of the story had for us. I might also end up going further than the original author intended, of course!

It’s with that experience in mind that I begin this new sermon series about the people we encounter in the gospel stories of Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection. If reflecting on a character in a novel or play can have a powerful effect, how much more so when we dwell on those we find in the Holy Spirit-supervised words of Scripture? Especially when we also believe that the same Holy Spirit is here to help us hear, understand, believe and respond.

So this morning I have not given myself an easy task by starting with Judas Iscariot. As with several people in this series, there were several Bible passages I could have picked. But these verses from John 13 get us to the core of what I want to share about him.

The first reference to Judas in this account comes in verse 2:

The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus.

Our first reflection, then, is on Judas and the devil. Nothing like starting with a difficult and contentious theme, then!

Whenever I reflect on anything to do with the devil, I go back to the famous words of C S Lewis in his Preface to The Screwtape Letters, where he wrote:

There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors, and hail a materialist or magician with the same delight.

Although I know it is difficult for some people to believe in ‘the devil’, I cannot disbelieve in ‘his’ existence, given Jesus’ belief in him. I cannot reduce Jesus merely to a child of his time, however much he constrained himself in the Incarnation. He is still Lord, and what he says, goes. So rejection of the reference to the devil prompting Judas Iscariot is out for me.

But on the other hand, I know too many Christians who make too much of the devil. One Anglican rector friend of mine used to put every mishap and setback down to ‘the devil’, as if by a reflex reaction.

So when we read John’s careful words that ‘the devil had already prompted Judas’ (my emphasis), let us take particular note of that word ‘prompted’. It is not that the devil made Judas do what he did, but that he had sown thoughts in his head. Judas could then choose what he did about those promptings. Although John clearly portrays demonic activity at work here, human responsibility is still in play. We cannot absolve ourselves of our actions by saying, “The devil made me do it.” Neither could Judas.

We may find ourselves under pressure to sin through persistent temptation. In one respect, we can do nothing about that. It is the lot of all people. Being tempted is not a sin: Jesus was, especially in the wilderness. But in another respect, we sometimes lay ourselves open to those promptings, those temptations. We put ourselves in situations where we know we could be vulnerable to our weaknesses. The devil will exploit that. We deliberately sail close to the wind. The devil will exploit that. Later in this sermon, we’ll see how Judas did precisely that. But for now, let’s simply note that while yes, the devil prompts us with temptation, we still have a responsibility for our actions and we need to do what we can to put ourselves at a distance from circumstances where we know we are weak.

The second reference to Judas comes in the second half of the reading, in the conversation Jesus has with his disciples which begins with him saying,

I am not referring to all of you; I know those I have chosen. But this is to fulfil this passage of Scripture: ‘He who shared my bread has turned against me.’ (Verse 18)

It continues with Jesus’ troubled admission that one of the Twelve will betray him, and when pressed about who that will be says,

It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish. (Verse 26)

So this second reflection is about the astonishing fact that Jesus shared table fellowship with his betrayer.

I have often heard people observe, then, that Jesus even gave the bread to Judas at the meal where he instituted the Lord’s Supper. They then take it that we should not be judgmental (fair enough, in one sense) and that there should be no boundaries at the Lord’s table. However, that last statement is patently incorrect from a biblical point of view. Paul was at pains in 1 Corinthians 11 to remind his readers that self-examination was important before taking the bread and wine. Lax discipline at Holy Communion is not good practice.

I would rather see Jesus’ sharing of table fellowship with Judas this way. My current reading is the memoirs of a man who has written more profound books in recent years on what it means to be a pastor than anyone else I have come across. His name is Eugene Peterson, and he is better known for the popular paraphrase of the Bible called The Message. In his latest book, The Pastor: A Memoir, he talks about how when he began the Presbyterian church in Maryland that he went on to lead for thirty years, his early vision was to gather together a group of visionary Christians who were all passionate for what it really meant to be disciples and to be church in a New Testament sense. Instead, he found himself with a rabble, rather as David did at Ziklag when he was on the run from King Saul.

And I observe that I have seen some friends fall away from faith over the years. Each time, they have been those whom I might consider the least likely. In at least two cases, it was weakness to sexual temptation that began their decline. It reminds me that Paul warned his readers in 1 Corinthians 10 that any of us who believe we are ‘standing’ in faith should beware lest we fall. It could be you. It could be me.

Therefore, when we too come to eat bread with Jesus this morning, let us pray that we will, in the words of Charles Wesley’s hymn ‘Soldiers of Christ, arise’ ‘leave no unguarded place’. Let us not simply be aware of our weaknesses so that we do not put ourselves in places where the devil might prompt us with temptation. Let us also positively ‘put on the full armour of God’, those godly qualities that are the very opposite of sin.

So what was Judas’ particular weakness? We get a hint later in the story, and this is my third reflection on him. After Jesus tells him, “What you are about to do, do quickly,” (verse 27), we read how the disciples misunderstood (verse 28) that statement:

Since Judas had charge of the money, some thought Jesus was telling him to buy what was needed for the festival, or to give something to the poor. (Verse 29)

Anyone who has read John’s Gospel cover to cover rather than in short segments will go back to chapter 12, when Mary anoints Jesus with a pint of expensive nard. There, Judas objected that the perfume would have been better used if it had been sold and the money given to the poor, but John reports that Judas didn’t care about the poor: he looked after the disciples’ common purse and wanted to dip his hands into the cash (John 12:4-6).

Judas’ weakness, then, was money. Here is where he failed to guard himself against the devil’s promptings to temptation. Here is where he thought he could stand in faith, but fell. No wonder his reward from the enemies of Jesus was thirty pieces of silver. That would have attracted him.

When the great contemporary spiritual writer Richard Foster wanted to publish a book about the major sins, is it any accident that he wrote about the ‘big three’? He called his book, Money, Sex and Power. These, he said, were the areas of human life with the greatest power to bless or to curse. Perhaps it is no surprise that monastic orders have taken vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience – in direct contrast to these three great temptations.

And perhaps for some of us the way to avoid our weakness will be by a strategy of avoidance. A friend of mine knows that he is incapable of drinking alcohol in moderation. If he has one drink, he will end up having a lot, and getting drunk. So his strategy is to be teetotal. In doing so, those who choose to avoid weaknesses can also be witnesses to a world that believes you can’t be happy unless you’re smashed out of your mind, sleeping around, buying all the latest consumer goods or climbing the greasy pole at work.

However, avoiding our besetting sins is not always possible. And we can also be good witnesses by facing temptation and avoiding it. That, though, requires not a spiritual gung-ho attitude but prayer, dependence upon the Holy Spirit and fellowship. And by ‘fellowship’ here, I mean deep Christian relationships where we regularly hold ourselves accountable to one another. It’s exactly what some of John Wesley’s small groups did. They talked each week about which sins they had been struggling with.

There are similar approaches today. We can form ‘accountability groups’. We can do it in other ways, too. One way that people facing the temptation of internet pornography cope with it is to install a program on their computer called Covenant Eyes which reports to a friend the details of every website the person looks at.

Fellowship is more than camaraderie at the Christmas Bazaar. It’s a vital tool in avoiding the trap that snared Judas.

But, of course, all of this is to some extent rather gloomy. Temptation, sin, avoidance. All necessary to consider for Christians, but is there any good news here? I believe there is, and it comes in the fourth and final reflection. Allow me to introduce it with an illustration.

When I was young and suffering bullying at school, my Dad tried to teach me some Judo. He had learned it in the RAF, and had kept his instruction manual. He argued that the virtue of Judo was that it was not itself violent, but you used your opponent’s strength against them in order to win.

In the light of  that, consider Jesus’ words at the end of our reading:

Now the Son of Man is glorified and God is glorified in him. (Verse 31)

Isn’t this what is going on here? Even the evil power at work as Judas gives in to his weakness and responds to the devil’s prompting is something God uses against his enemy for good, to win the victory over sin and death. Judas does not have the last word. Jesus does – in the forgiveness of sins through the Cross, and in the new life of the Resurrection.

Yes, here, in the murky, shabby story of Judas God the Father works his Gospel. He does not inflict violence, but he uses the violence and betrayal rendered against his only begotten Son to bring the salvation of the world. It is the truth of which Paul was to write,

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28)

In ‘all things’, even the treachery of Judas, God works for good. In ‘all things’, even the darkness of Calvary, God works for good.

And in all things today, God still works for good. The friends or acquaintances who betray us – God can turn it for good. The evil that affects us – God can even use that for good, as he uses the enemy’s force against him.

Allow me to conclude with a story. Members of the Church Council have already heard this, so I hope they will excuse hearing it again. Tomorrow, I return to a previous circuit to conduct a funeral. Sid was a proud Welshman – and his pride was not always his most attractive feature. He was married to Rita, an East German Lutheran Christian, whose response to Sid’s fierce Methodism was to vow never to become a Methodist, otherwise Sid would have won, in her words.

When I arrived in the circuit, he had just retired from a career in the Army and then some years in Civvy Street. That army background made him stiff and – yes – regimented. On one occasion when I had prepared an act of all age worship only to find the Junior Church not ready for it and going out after the second hymn, I received a stern lecture!

One thing Sid had never done, despite a lifetime in Methodism, was make a personal commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. I told him that one day he would have to get off the fence.

Well, one Saturday night he did. Sid and Rita attended a concert by a Christian band and choir. He heard one of the musicians give a testimony, and he suddenly thought, “If it can be true for him, it can be true for me.”

The next morning at church, he took Holy Communion for the first time. The look of joy on his face as he knelt at the rail and looked at me is an image that will remain with me for ever.

In the wake of that commitment, he started to soften. He lightened up. He began to forgive, and to become more humble.

In January, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and his health declined fast. Yet during his hospitalisation and treatment, he renewed his commitment to Christ, thanks to the witness of another Christian patient at the hospital.

Tragically, he had become alienated from one of his two daughters a few years ago, due to a terrible misunderstanding in a phone conversation. While he was in hospital, his other daughter said to him, “Dad, if you’re a Christian you’ve got to put things right with my sister.” The daughter in question lived in Germany, and Sid picked up a hospital phone and rang Germany. On his knees he sought reconciliation.

Sid’s suffering and death also led to another reconciliation – between his wife and the next door neighbours. When I visited, one of them was in the house, offering comfort.

The last sentence Sid uttered to his family was this. “You’re not going to like what I’m about to say, but I’m glad I’ve got cancer.”

I don’t know if I could ever say that, but I will say this. That is the testimony of a man who knows that the Judas in his life – in his case, a terminal disease – was something that God was using to overcome evil with good.

For the Judases of this world and the devils do not get the last word. God does.

Ancient And Modern

My friend Rob Ryan is an Anglican pioneer minister on the staff of Rochester Cathedral. What pioneering stuff does he do? Well, in among the outreach to the Wetherspoon’s community, he does such groundbreaking stuff as, er, the Book of Common Prayer. On Sunday morning, he tweeted:

8am BCP … ugh! when are people gonna realise even God is still asleep at such a time on a Sunday morning

Which took my mind to the question of why people continue to prefer these forms of worship. In one respect’, continued devotion to the Book of Common Prayer is surely contrary to the spirit of Cranmer, who wanted worship to be ‘in a tongue understanded of the people’. It isn’t a phenomenon limited to traditional Anglicans: there are equivalents in other streams of Christianity. In Methodism, it might be those who insist on a certain proportion of Charles Wesley hymns in an act of worship.

So what are the reasons, good and bad, for people clinging to forms of worship from bygone eras?

A good reason might be theology. Sometimes the older forms express a depth of theology, or they include important aspects that are neglected in contemporary music and liturgy. Another Anglican friend of mine, Brian Kelly, once said to me that BCP was good for emphasis on the Cross, whereas the modern liturgies were better on the Resurrection. Methodists might identify with this. Scour the eucharistic prayers in our 1999 Methodist Worship Book and you will find few references to the Cross as atonement. Not substitution, representation, Christus Victor, exemplarism or any other theory you care to mention. Most of the references to Christ’s death in those prayers seem to be necessary staging post on the way to celebrating his conquest of death. (Which I’m not against! But something vital is routinely omitted.)

Similarly, you will find a richness of theological expression in Wesley’s hymns that you rarely encounter in contemporary hymns and worship songs. Simplicity is good, too, but not as the sole diet.

A poor reason would be aesthetics. Yes, the language of ancient rites is beautiful to many people, but who or what is then being worshipped? Is this a vehicle for worship, or is idolatry going on here? Take this to its logical conclusion and you will employ a pair of scissors on the Scriptures. You will retain the Shakespearean Hebrew of Job, but cut out the tabloid Greek of Mark’s Gospel.

Another poor reason would be escapism. I find this approach used as a way to baptise a strong disconnect from everyday life. This is the holy stuff, not those modern songs and liturgies. The same people who endorse older worship forms at criticise modern ones have, in my experience, also been the people who had discos for their silver wedding celebrations. There is a serious lack of integration.

None of this is to say that all things modern are automatically correct, nor that we can completely comprehend God in worship. Both such propositions are ridiculous. But it is to ask, would you add anything to my list of good and bad reasons? Do you have a constructive critique of my thoughts?

By the way, after BCP this morning, Rob tweeted again:

now experiencing the good side of 8am BCP … a big ‘spoons breakfast and a large black coffee mmmmm 🙂

Michael Eavis Of The Glastonbury Festival On Methodism And Faith

When I used to read that dismal publication the Methodist Recorder you could guarantee that every year when the Glastonbury Festival came around there would be a reference to its founder, Michael Eavis, as ‘a Methodist’. Well, we learn exactly what kind of Methodist Eavis is in an interview published in the July 2009 edition of Word Magazine. It’s in their ‘Word to the Wise’ column, where well-known people dispense the ‘wisdom’ they have learned over the years. It makes for depressing reading. He says:

I’m a Methodist, we’re chapel people. That’s strange in the 21st century, but Methodism is the social side of religion. We don’t care whether there’s a God or not, really. We’re not that interestested; it’s all about the social side. Charles Wesley, our founder, was a believer in love divine. I’m a believer in love but my love is not divine. I believe in love on earth. We need love for breeding and procreation. Without the love factor on earth we could all be rapists, and that would be dreadful. Love is the most important thing to me personally – but it’s not divine. As Methodists we have enormous social responsibility bred into us. If we make any money we have to spend it on our fellow humans – not all of it, I hasten to add – but most of it. We’ve just built some social housing in Pilton for 22 salt-of-the-earth working-class families with children. And that’s the greatest things I’ve ever done in my life. We have fun, too – we enjoy ourselves, we’re not bearded Mennonites. I’m all for praising nature and you have to tell someone, so we sing loudly and with excitment about creation – we just don’t care precisely how it came about (explodes into laughter)! (Page 60)

Later, he says this:

But with drugs it’s just not my job to stop people doing what they want to do. It’s the Methodist in me. We have broad shoulders. We put up with everyone! (Page 61)

Well, where do I begin? Methodism may – for good or ill – be a broad church, but one thing is for sure: Eavis’ Methodism sure isn’t mine. Yes, my Methodism breeds a sense of social responsibility (although it’s a curious one that cares about homelessness but not about drugs). But to disconnect it from belief in God and God’s love kills the roots of it. (Oh, and to nit-pick: our founder was John Wesley, not Charles.) Eavis might just be a’ cultural Methodist’, to coin a term, much in the same way that we might say there are ‘cultural Catholics’, who have been brought up in that faith but who do not embrace the core beliefs, but that’s about it.

You could say that the Eavis article is typical of much contemporary malaise. The idea that someone famous can dispense wisdom and pronounce on weighty matters such as religion and God is ludicrous and shallow. Much as I might welcome the fact that he still has some kind of social conscience, he is typical of a society that wants social projects but without the religious capital behind many of them. Then, what do we make of his attitude to drug use? Would I be being too cynical if I suggested that it wouldn’t be in the interests of the Glastonbury Festival’s founder to oppose it? No, it must be a coincidence.

Perhaps I am being hard. Maybe I should be more sympathetic and compassionate. I just think the Methodist Church should speak for Methodism (even if I disagree with our hierarchy from time to time). Letting a Michael Eavis trumpet his ignorant views of Methodist Christianity perpetuates ignorance of the Gospel.

But then a ‘secular’ magazine should not be responsible for the Gospel, of course. So maybe this becomes a cry for all of us who do find the core experiences, values and doctrines of Methodist-flavoured Christianity to make them more well-known. Like the need for all to be saved; the belief that no-one is beyond that redemption; that anyone can know they are loved by God in Christ; that personal and social holiness is possible, and we can have an optimism of grace for just how much transformation the Holy Spirit can bring about in and through us.

Because when it comes down to it, God doesn’t rely on the famous. God isn’t dependent upon celebrity culture to spread the Gospel. God calls the ordinary and the obscure to do that job. If you’re as mad as I am by the nonsense spouted by Michael Eavis, let’s rise to the challenge and do it better.

First Day Back

A nice surprise was awaiting me when I arrived this morning at St Augustine’s to take my first service after the sabbatical. They had taken the trouble to buy a ‘welcome back’ card. Many members of the congregation had signed it. I’m not sure, but if I’ve identified the handwriting correctly, then I think it was the initiative of the Anglican priest, Jane. The old cliché says that little things mean a lot, and in this case the cliché was true. It was a simple gesture of love and thoughtfulness, and that from the congregation that gets the least of my time. 

Tonight was the café church service at Broomfield with a lot of DVD clips. Well, I say café church: really it was simply an informal service. I had wondered about the wisdom of constructing an act of worship entirely without hymns, but as it happened, no musician was present, and few present with strong voices to pitch a note, so the format worked better than it might have done. 

To some more liturgical traditions, a service without music might not always seem surprising, but it goes against a core element of Methodist spirituality. As the preface to a previous official hymn book famously put it, ‘Methodism was born in song.’ The rôle of Charles Wesley alongside John in the eighteenth century revival makes that clear. You could say that if you spotted a traditional Baptist, Anglican and Methodist on their way to worship, each would be carrying a book. The Baptist would be carrying a Bible, the Anglican a prayer book and the Methodist a hymn book. It tells you something about the expression of spirituality. Some put it like this: Methodists sing their theology.

Perhaps that’s why a ‘worship war’ over musical styles can be much more painful in Methodist churches. I certainly found that in my first circuit. Having spent my first two years battling a serious problem with unsuitable children’s workers, we had no sooner put that issue to bed than some traditionalist members tried to split the church over music. Ironically, the more charismatic members who enjoyed the contemporary worship songs had no problem singing the great hymns alongside the modern material, because their spiritual experiences helped them identify with what Wesley and others wrote about in their hymns. 

Most of the technology worked tonight – well, the DVDs did, but the XP laptop didn’t want to play a slide show of photos I’d taken on the sabbatical. It only seems happy to pass them onto the video projector if they’re in a PowerPoint show. They weren’t.

Beyond that, I then got embroiled in a church property problem that it wouldn’t be diplomatic or sensible to recount here, and I got home much later than usual.

So that’s about as up to date as I think I can reasonably bring you. It’s not been the smoothest of re-introductions tonight, and I’m back with a bump.