I’m not preaching in my own churches or even circuit tomorrow. We have a visiting minister at Knaphill, taking a missions Sunday, and I am filling one of his pulpits. Hence you may recognise the odd little bit of content here that you’ve seen previously from me.
Legend tells of Ian Paisley preaching ferociously about the ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’ that we hear about in this and a couple of other parables in Matthew’s Gospel. As he described the torments awaiting the ungodly in Hell, one elderly woman spoke up:
“What about me? I’ve only got dentures!”
“Teeth,” replied Dr Paisley, “will be provided!”
For those of us who have a cosy image of Jesus and his parables, the ending to this one is a shock. We shall come to think about that shock in the final part of the sermon, but for now let me just say that we have become so used to the parables that we miss their shocking nature. The Good Samaritan is a shocking story. A Samaritan helps a Jew? Whatever next? A terrorist helping a wounded person in New York?
And the Prodigal Son? There’s nothing fluffy in that story. Jesus’ listeners would have been appalled when they heard that the father looked out for his errant son and then ran to meet him. Culturally, the father should have been waiting inside the house for the younger son to return crawling on his hands and knees, grovelling for all he was worth – which wasn’t much.
I would say it is a key to understanding many of the parables: look for the shock. With today’s parable, I venture to suggest that the ending is not the only scandalous part. And I think that in this parable of mission, Jesus needs to shock us into recognising key aspects of God’s mission, in which we share.
Consider, firstly, the initial invitation. This should be routine, shouldn’t it? The servants go out ‘to those who had been invited’ (verse 3). These people are expected to come. We might think with some justification that these are the people who would fall into the natural orbits of the two families about to be joined together. While social conventions are different today, we know that there are certain groups of people from whom we naturally draw the bulk of the numbers when we are issuing wedding invitations. Family – starting with the closest; friends – from school or university, from church or work or social circles related to our hobbies and pastimes. And so on. Most wedding couples don’t spring massive surprises with their guest lists, other than the usual difficulty of deciding where the cut-off point is.
And similarly, perhaps, with our strategies for mission. There are certain people whom it seems right to connect with first, if we hope to touch people with the love of God in Christ with our words and deeds. There are particular groups of people who we shall naturally invite to join us at church. There are those who once used to come, but then dropped out. They may be relatives of existing church members. There will be people associated with groups that hire our premises. Perhaps this list might include uniformed organisations. We might think of people who show a certain affinity with us, even if they do not yet share our commitment to Christ. If you have come across Back To Church Sunday in recent years, that is a strategy directly aimed at those who used to go to church, but who retain more of a sympathy for the church than we might commonly imagine.
Indeed, for a long time now, our mission strategy has been based on an appeal to ‘come’, and in generations when churchgoing was much more natural than it is today, that approach had certain degrees of success.
But there are a couple of dangers.
One is that the religiously sympathetic are not always the most likely to commit themselves to the radical step of following Jesus. Just as the natural invitees to the wedding banquet in the parable ignored, mistreated or killed the second wave of servants that was sent to summon them, so religious people can be those most inoculated against the Gospel. And could it be, given the way the king in the parable sends his army against those people who reject his invitation (verse 7), that God is less impressed with the religious and the respectable than we are?
The other danger is that the natural constituency for this approach is shrinking fast. If we do step out in mission, we want to be as comfortable as possible about it, so we only reach out to people we feel safe with, and furthermore we only do it in locations where we feel at ease – such as our own church buildings.
Secondly, let’s consider the second group that the king invites. The king sends his servants to invite ‘anyone [they can] find’ (verse 9), and this leads them ‘into the streets’ where they [gather] all the people they could find, both good and bad’ (verse 10).
What might this mean for us in terms of the call to Christian mission? Clearly in Jesus’ own day he is indicating a message that will ultimately go beyond the Jewish community to the unconscionable Gentiles. When those we might humanly expect to respond to God’s redeeming love do not do so, God has a way of pushing us out to the least and the last, to those least likely – at least in our eyes.
Before I studied Theology and candidated for the Methodist ministry, my prior work was as a civil servant, working in Social Security. As some people said, that was certainly one way of seeing life. During my first year in the civil service, I had my final family holiday with my parents. We went on a Methodist Guild Holiday. One devout Methodist we met on the holiday asked me what my work was. I explained that I worked in Social Security. Back came a response I have never forgotten: “At least you are on the right side of the counter.”
Obviously, I have never forgotten those words for all the wrong reasons. Apart from the fact that in my work I knew full well that the great majority of those claiming benefits were honest people who didn’t want to be in the situations they had found themselves in, there is also the fact that this parable shows us how the Gospel is for those who are ‘on the wrong side’.
Could we not do with a challenge in the church sometimes to this effect? Who are the people whom we would not naturally consider, but who are loved with an everlasting love by God through Jesus Christ? Are there those he is calling us to reach in word and deed with his love?
Might it be that we just have a problem in the church with being that little bit too comfortable that we need reminding God sends to ‘anyone [we can] find’? Might this be to do with the same fear we hinted at in the first point that leads us just to operate our mission in places where we feel at home? We base our concepts of mission on attracting people to where we are already. However, while we want to bring people into the Christian community, could it be that in a day when – as I said – the number of people for whom it is natural to come onto church premises is shrinking so fast – that we might need to change our primary verb from ‘come’ to ‘go’?
Indeed, might Jesus be saying to us, look at how I embraced the Father’s mission? I am the Word who was made flesh and dwelt among you. I did not wait for you to come to me, I took the initiative and brought the Father’s love to you. And since at my Resurrection I said I sent you as the Father sent me, then do you not hear? Your call in mission is not to say, “Come to us”, but to go to the world, to anyone you can find.
Thirdly and finally, let us consider the intruder at the wedding.
Our own royal family knows all about intruders. Whether it’s Michael Fagan getting into the Queen’s bedroom, a comedian dressing up as Osama bin Laden or protestors from Fathers For Justice landing inside Buckingham Palace, they tend to suffer spectacular intrusions every few years.
I’m not sure whether the word ‘intruder’ is the right one here, but it will have to do. What I’m concerned with is the shocking end to the parable where the king finds a man who has managed to get into the wedding banquet without wearing wedding clothes. He suffers a cruel fate as the king orders him to be bound and thrown out. What could explain such an apparently harsh reaction?
When you attend a wedding today you normally dress up. I remember conducting a wedding in my first appointment and wearing my customary suit and clerical shirt only for a guest to complain that the minister ‘had no sense of occasion’. He was expecting a robed Anglican and got me!
They dressed up for weddings in the ancient world, too. Although a wedding feast could begin at almost any time, there was the tacit understanding that you had time in between receiving your invitation and the wedding beginning for you to find appropriate attire and put it on. There was also a tradition where a king would provide guests with festal clothing. Either way there was no excuse: if you come to the wedding, you will be dressed appropriately. To do otherwise was to bestow a grave insult upon your host.
Now we can understand what was so wrong about the man who was not in wedding clothes. He has insulted the king. Either he had the chance to dress properly and he didn’t bother or the king offered him clothes and he had the temerity to turn him down. The man has enjoyed the invitation but he has not accepted the responsibility that came with it.
Hence this is a powerful picture to challenge the way we respond to God. We may not be like the religious people who refuse the need for grace – indeed we may know only too well that we are entirely dependent upon grace in order to enter God’s presence.
But some of us stop there. We know that Jesus accepts us as we are, but we then coast along complacently. We do not accept the obligation to change – to be clothed differently.
The old saying is that Jesus loves us just as we are, but he loves us too much to leave us as we are. In other words, he provides new spiritual clothes. He expects us to be different. The dirt must go and a clean, holy lifestyle replace it. What else is appropriate as a thankful response to the King for inviting us to his Son’s wedding banquet?
Tragically, some of us are just not serious about living a holy life. God offers us the new clothes – that is, he himself makes it possible for us to be transformed. He does this by the power of his Holy Spirit whose work is to make us more like Jesus. Think of the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control – is that not a description of Jesus’ character? This is what God offers us.
But some of us are happy just to wear the same old dirty clothes. I have to admit that too often my wife has to remind me when my suits need to be dry cleaned. I don’t notice the marks on them. Part of my function as a minister is to hold before us all the need for a spiritual dry-clean. We need the reminder that we have got dirty again and we need to be cleaned up.
What does this have to do with mission? Quite a lot, to be honest. The Gospel is the Gospel of the kingdom. God’s kingdom is one of free grace that accepts us as we are. However, God is calling us to be community that is a sign of the kingdom, a sign of what is to come, and that means transformed lives. This too is part of our witness. Our call to mission is not only to go into the streets and gather anyone we can find, it is also to be dressed in our wedding clothes.
Are we playing our part in getting ready for the great wedding?
The other week, I reported on some recent book purchases. One was Klyne Snodgrass‘ book Stories With Intent, about the parables of Jesus. This week I am using it for the first time in sermon preparation, since Sunday’s Lectionary Gospel is the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25:14-30.
My first impression of the book is that it is ‘everything you wanted to know about the parables but were afraid to ask’ – and more. In an eight hundred page book (no, I don’t plan reading it cover to cover), twenty four are devoted to this parable. Admittedly it is one of the parables that appears in more than one Gospel – in Luke it is the Parable of the Minas – and that creates certain problems. However, in terms of direct exposition on Matthew’s version, there are barely two pages of those twenty-four. It is fascinating detail, and if you want to go into scholarly questions of exegesis, hermeneutics and history, then you are going to love this book. However, it is no short cut for sermon preparation!
If I wanted quick sermon prep, I would revert to my previous favourite, Interpreting The Parables by Craig Blomberg. He has three or four pages on each parable, and you can soon find the part of the exposition where he sets out the main point or points of a story. Having said that, Blomberg spends less time distinguishing between the varying ways in which the different Evangelists present a parable. Snodgrass, in all his mammoth detail, gives incredible detail on how the Lukan version reflects recent history with Archelaus. If I were preaching on Luke, he would have a lot for me!
So that is just an initial reflection. I’m sure when you see sermons on this blog based on the parables, you will often find that Snodgrass is behind my exegesis. However, when I am in a hurry, it might well be Blomberg again! It’s rather like having the detailed commentary and the brief popular paperback. Not that I wish to demean Blomberg’s considerable scholarship by making that comparison, but if you were to be thinking about buying a book on the parables, you might want to take considerations like these into account.
In the meantime, we’ll see what shape things take for Sunday. As usual, the sermon should be posted here on Saturday night.
It’s half term, and I’m taking this week on leave. Daytime, I shall be having time with the kids, of course. We’ve been exchanging Tesco Clubcard vouchers for money off ten pin bowling and a meal at Café Rouge.
But in the evening, I’m beginning to delve into some newly arrived books. Yes, they are all Theology, and that might seem a strange choice when I’m away from ‘work’, but few things restore me like a dose of good reading. (Yes, I am an introvert, if you hadn’t guessed.) Here is what those nice people at Amazon and The Book Depository have sent me lately:
Eugene Peterson, The Word Made Flesh: Peterson explores the issue of language as a spiritual concern by examining the parables of Jesus in Luke’s so-called ‘Travel Narrative’ and in some of his prayers.
Klyne R Snodgrass, Stories With Intent: I love the parables of Jesus, and this looks like being the standard work for the next several years. A few months ago, Scot McKnight was raving about it. Then Paul Beasley-Murray did the same in Ministry Today. Already, I’m hooked. He has a subtle, multivalent treatment of the parables. For years I’ve loved Craig Blomberg‘s book Interpreting The Parables, because he so thoroughly took to pieces the anti-allegory school and gave a brilliant history of schools of biblical interpretation. However, it was beginning to feel a bit simplistic in some of its expositions. I think Snodgrass will bring the subtlety.
Colin Greene and Martin Robinson, Metavista: What do we do, mission-wise, after postmodernity? Greene and Robinson are sketching a vision. I met Greene five years ago on a Bible Society course at Lee Abbey, but I’ve never previously read his books. I was pondering buying this one when I saw him interviewed by Alan Roxburgh on the Allelon website. That convinced me.
Christopher J H Wright, The Mission Of God: another Scot McKnight rave. Eleven or twelve years ago, I bought Wright’s commentary on Deuteronomy, in which he interprets the book missiologically. Later, I bought his exposition of Ezekiel, which attempts something similar. This is his magnum opus, bringing together his skills as a biblical scholar and his past experience as the Principal of a missionary training college. Wright argues that the whole Bible is a missionary document. I believe this will be required reading for all of us concerned with the ‘missional’ approach. It promises to be the most important work of missiology since the late David Bosch‘s Transforming Mission.
Ben Witherington III, The Letters To Philemon, The Colossians, And The Ephesians – A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Captivity Epistles: I’ve bought several of BW3’s commentaries in the last year or so. I’ve been looking for something to complement and contrast Andrew Lincoln‘s majestic Word Biblical Commentary on Ephesians. Witherington is a prolific, eloquent and brilliant writer.
Richard Burridge, Imitating Jesus – An Inclusive Approach to New Testament Ethics: For someone whose calling involves helping people with ethical decisions, I don’t read as much as I should on ethics, although I’m indebted to Changing Values by David Attwood and The Moral Quest by the late Stanley Grenz. Burridge is flavour of the month in some circles I know, not least in Chelmsford, where he gave a Holy Week lecture earlier this year. Not long ago I reviewed his commentary on John’s Gospel, which was superb. This too has been well reviewed, again not least by my friend Paul Beasley-Murray. I had a quick dip into his section on Paul and homosexuality, and while not everything Burridge said convinced me, he said enough to shed new light for me on this painful debate.
I won’t read all these books cover to cover. Some will just go straight on the shelf for reference. In the case of others (e.g., Snodgrass) I shall read the introductory chapters before squeezing them into my statutory thirty yards of bookshelving in this study.
Have any of you read any of these titles? What did you think of them?
What are you reading, or have you read recently, that you would recommend?
I would be fascinated to know.
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.