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Masculinity, The Church And Christian Faith

Oh, good grief:

And worse?

(HT: Matthew Paul Turner)
Has Mark Driscoll been out-Driscolled by Pastor Ed Young? Maybe Harry Hill should get Young and Driscoll together. Because, in the words of his catchphrase, there’s only one way to settle this – fight!

Only a couple of days ago, The Guardian reported on ‘muscular Christianity’, complete with art of a tattooed, muscle-rippling Jesus, who sadly doesn’t look remotely Semitic. (And conveniently overlooking, as one commenter noted, the Jewish prohibition on tattoos.)
That article is at least slightly serious but sadly a little short. It ends by quoting Eric Delve, the vicar of St Luke’s, Maidstone, saying,

Men are looking for action figures. That’s why they follow footballers.

This is a theme Eric has had for many years.  In the midst of how easy it is to laugh or to throw up our hands in horror at the Young/Driscoll approach (how dangerous is it when combined with hard-line complementarianism?), it’s also important to remember that while this is a deeply defective and distorted image of Christ and faith, these guys are knowingly tapping into a well-known perception by men of Christianity. Faith is a lifeboat affair: women and children first.

An acquaintance at college did some research into the different ways in which women and men came to faith. While all this must be seen on a spectrum rather than expecting everyone of a particular sex to behave in the same way, he noted that women responded more to a message of forgiveness and men more when the message was couched in terms of giving a purpose for life. This would make some sense of Delve’s quotation, although it still leaves no room for the Young video that sees nothing wrong with people punching the lights out of each other. It’s an irony, perhaps, that the forgiveness message is usually preached by … men.

So however crude and ugly some of the he-man Christianity is, there is still a fair point. We’ve known for a while that church is thought to portray a wishy-washy image of Jesus. But the he-man approach gets the notion of strength all wrong. It isn’t strength to inflict pain on someone: the strength of Jesus is in the courage to suffer.

Meanwhile, some of us feel we don’t fit into either the wishy-washy camp or the muscular lot. Me, I like sport but I wasn’t born with the build to get into all the heavy physical stuff. I was born with scoliosis, a curvature of the spine, so I’m probably disqualified from Young or Driscoll’s churches like some defective animal that wouldn’t be sacrificed in the Old Testament.

What, then, is a healthy attitude to maleness and Christian faith? Thoughts?

Sunday’s Sermon: Qualities Of Discipleship

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Luke 5:1-11

‘It was like the preacher was speaking just to me.’

Have you ever had that experience? A sermon is preached to a congregation, but somehow you feel singled out. The message is for you.

I think Simon Peter is a little like that in this reading. In the midst of Jesus teaching the crowds, he has a separate, personal conversation with him. This is not his first encounter with Jesus, he has already been tagging along. But now Jesus clarifies why he has called him.

Again, isn’t that like us? We may have been ‘tagging along’ with Jesus for years before our purpose becomes clear. That has certainly been my experience.

Hence, I agree with the writer who says this is not the story of calling the fishermen, but rather an occasion where Jesus announces to Simon what he has had in mind for him all along. So perhaps we can read this famous story to hear more about the qualities Jesus seeks in his disciples.

The first is this. Every Friday morning, on my day off, I go into our children’s school and spend twenty minutes helping a group of pupils in Rebekah’s class with their reading. This means being in there for registration, and as I check over the book and notes assigned to the group, I observe how the teacher goes about her job. I wonder how she would feel if I – as someone with no training in teaching and who wouldn’t fancy the job in the slightest – proceeded to tell her how she could do her work better? Much as teachers are probably used to getting flak from parents, I don’t think she’d be impressed. Thankfully, Rebekah’s teacher is a marvel and usually I sit there astonished at her ability!

However, look at what happens here. A carpenter tells a group of fishermen how to do their job!

“Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” (Verse 4)

At first, you can hear the frustration in Simon’s voice:

“Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing.” (Verse 5a)

And that makes sense of Simon’s occupation. Galilean fishermen knew their best results came at night. This carpenter is so ignorant he’s telling them to go fishing in daylight hours! What does he know? If they can’t catch any fish at night, they have even less chance in the day.

Yet Simon doesn’t stop there. He says,

“Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” (Verse 5b)

This first quality, then, is obedience. It makes no sense, but Simon will follow Jesus’ instructions. Just as for us, many of the things Jesus calls his followers to do make no sense, because they clash with the received wisdom of the world – yet he calls for obedience. His commands contradict the way we’ve always done things – but the call is still to obedience. No-one can be a disciple without a commitment to obedience, because that’s what a disciple does.

So if there is something challenging, or outside our experience that Jesus is talking to us about, we know that sooner or later – preferably sooner – we need to heed his voice. Like Simon, our attitude must be founded on those words, ‘Yet if you say so.’

Not only that, Simon doesn’t even know Jesus’ full identity at this stage. So far as he is concerned, he is a rabbi. He doesn’t yet know he is the Messiah, let alone the Son of God, but he still obeys. Therefore, obedience to Jesus cannot be delayed by saying we don’t know enough about him yet.  It’s no good saying, “I don’t know as much as other people about my faith,” because Simon shows us that even a minimal knowledge of Jesus is enough to get on with some basic obedience. Maybe the real issue is that some of us don’t want to commit to those words, ‘Yet if you say so.’

Let us remember that without the obedience of Simon and his friends, they would not have had the blessing of the bulging nets full of fish.

The second quality revolves around Simon’s reaction to the miraculous catch of fish:

But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Verse 8 )

One moment Simon is on his knees in a posture of worship, and you would therefore expect him to be drawing near to God. But in the same breath he asks Jesus to depart from him, because he is a sinner.

What’s common to this apparently contradictory reaction? It’s all about the holiness of God – that explains both the move towards worship and the recognition of personal sinfulness. And if we recognise the presence of God’s holiness, then we see that the second quality exhibited in Simon here is humility.

When I came back from sabbatical last year, I shared at my presentation the work of George Bullard on ‘The Life Cycle of a Congregation’. He compared the birth, growth, decline and death of some churches with the stages of a human life cycle (not that this should suggest a sense of inevitability). The point at which a church starts to decline, he said, is the stage of ‘maturity’. And that is characterised by an attitude of saying, ‘We know what we’re doing.’ The moment we think we know what we’re doing is the time when we no longer need humble dependence upon God. We can get on with the life of faith all very easily, thank you very much. Remove the need for humble dependence and we cut ourselves off from the power of God. No wonder many of our churches are so lifeless.

However, Simon doesn’t look at the miraculous catch of fish, start a backslapping session with his colleagues and say, ‘I knew it would all work out. After all, we are professional fishermen, and our expertise would win out in the end.’ He can’t say that, because he knows that the amazing result of the surprise expedition is down to trusting what Jesus has said and living in the light of that.

So what if – like the disciples – we’ve failed to catch any ‘fish’? It seems to me that rather than shopping around for some technique we can employ, Jesus calls us to something simpler, yet more demanding. It’s to match the obedience we’ve already spoken about with humble trust. Never mind new programmes or good management – they both feature on the ‘decline’ side of the ‘Life Cycle’ model – it’s about vision and relationships with God and one another. And all that means humble trust. It means saying, ‘We don’t know what we’re doing’ and looking to Christ to give us a challenging way forward.

The third quality is one we are used to observing in this story – discipleship means mission. Just as the holy Jesus won’t depart from sinful Simon, so the disciples of holy Jesus must not stay away from sinners. In fact, quite the opposite:

Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” (Verse 10b)

It’s the famous ‘fishers of men’ line from older translations, of course. But familiar as it is, I learned something about it this week that I don’t ever recall coming across before. It’s to do with the expression ‘catching people’. The word translated ‘catching’ is a compound of two Greek words. One has the general meaning of ‘catching’ or ‘hunting’, and so that describes the basic outlook Jesus expects of Simon and all his disciples: he always intends us to be on the lookout for people who need the Gospel of his love. Mission isn’t an add-on for the enthusiasts in the church, it’s the responsibility of every Christian. We may not all be evangelists, but we are all witnesses. A community of Christians is meant to be fundamentally outward-looking by design. If it is not, there is a serious flaw.

But here’s the other thing I discovered this week, and it tells us something about the way in which we participate in mission. I said the word for ‘catching’ was a compound word, and that one half meant ‘hunting’ or ‘catching’. The other half means ‘alive’. When we put the two halves together it doesn’t so much  mean that we ‘capture people alive’ (as opposed to dead), it probably more likely means that we captivate people with life. In catching people for the kingdom of God, we are doing so in order to restore them to life and strength.

Our attempts to catch people for Christ are not attempts to bolster our numbers in order to keep our church going. We do this because people need the life of Christ in them. Therefore our relationships with people we are in contact with must reflect the life of Christ. It’s no good condemning people who have no idea of our ways and our etiquette: if we are to minister life, our dealings with people must be saturated in grace. Anything less is contrary to the Gospel and therefore counter-productive. What I am sure about is this: no church can be complacent about this. Almost any church believes it is welcoming, but not every visitor supports that belief. We need to remember that grace and life are our currency. With them we are rich; without them, we are bankrupt.

There is a fourth and final quality of discipleship I want to highlight. Let me approach it this way. When I was at my Anglican theological college, one student who overlapped with me was a well-known evangelist who had felt called into parish ministry. His name was Eric Delve. He had been a travelling evangelist for nearly twenty years. One thing he told us about those times was that the Christians in every town he visited to conduct a mission always told him the same thing: “This is the hardest place in the country for the Gospel.” Over the years, Eric got tired of that attitude. He felt it said more about the Christians than the non-Christians.

What has this got to do with our passage? And isn’t it true that it’s difficult to bring people to faith today? Jesus’ approach seems so different. He sends his disciples to ‘catch people’. For them to do so, they ‘[leave] everything and [follow] him’ (verse 11). Catching people doesn’t require crying a tale of woe about how hard it is for the Gospel today. Rather, it requires ‘leaving everything’. Not, that is, always leaving ‘secular’ employment: ‘left everything’ has a particular nuance here, and it’s about being released or set free. It may be a release from work or from family obligations or possessions or some other personal priorities, but it may also be the need to be released from an attitude of heart: bitterness, pride or a superiority complex.

This fourth quality, then, is one of spiritual health. Rick Warren, the American megachurch pastor, says in his book ‘The Purpose Driven Church’,

“The wrong question: What will make our church grow? The right question: What is keeping our church from growing?”

He goes onto say,

“All living things grow — you don’t have to make them grow. It’s the natural thing for living organisms to do if they are healthy. For example, I don’t have to command my three children to grow. They naturally grow. As long as I remove hindrances such as poor nutrition or an unsafe environment, their growth will be automatic. If my kids don’t grow, something has gone terribly wrong. Lack of growth usually indicates an unhealthy situation, possibly a disease.

“In the same way, since the church is a living organism, it is natural for it to grow if it is healthy. The church is a body, not a business. It is an organism, not an organization. It is alive. If a church is not growing, it is dying.” (p 16)

Now while that might be a bit simplistic – there are all sorts of reasons why churches don’t always grow – nevertheless it behoves us to examine our spiritual health. What is holding us back? What do we need to be released from? It’s a critical question, because we bring a Gospel that claims to set people free in Christ – in the forgiveness of sins, in enabling them to forgive others, in freedom from sinful habits and ultimately the eradication of all sin from God’s creation. If that is our message, it will only make sense if we too are on a journey into greater freedom ourselves.

Sermon: Begone, Unbelief

Mark 6:1-13

Many years ago, I was listening to the radio late at night, when a song came on that I’d never heard before and I’ve never heard since. Not only that, I can’t find any trace of it on the Internet, despite all sorts of searching. It was by an American soul singer (now deceased) called Lou Rawls, and it was called, ‘You can never go back home’. I’ve found one or two other songs of the same title, but not the one he recorded. [UPDATE: the song is called ‘You can’t go home’, it’s a duet with George Benson, and is on the At Last album. Thanks to my sister!]

‘You can never go back home’ could have been a song for Jesus in this reading. It was all looking so good. Having returned from the eastern side of Galilee where the people had begged him to depart after he ruined the pig farming industry (how we could have done with that at a multinational’s pig farm in Mexico not so long ago), he has arrived back on the west to be greeted by crowds, and he has healed the woman with the haemorrhage and Jairus’ daughter. The woman and Jairus were great examples of faith (as we saw last week).

So – a homecoming to Nazareth should top everything, shouldn’t it? This should be the climax, the triumphant homecoming.

Except – as we know with hindsight – it isn’t.

“On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offence at him.” (Verses 2-3)

‘The carpenter, the son of Mary’ is a derogatory expression. Jesus is just a common worker with his hands, like everyone else. He’s not special. He has no particular status[1]. In fact, he’s of low status: that’s indicated by ‘son of Mary’:

“It was contrary to Jewish usage to describe a man as the son of his mother, even when she was a widow, except in insulting terms. Rumo[u]rs to the effect that Jesus was illegitimate appear to have been circulated in his own lifetime and may lie behind this reference as well.”[2]

Familarity breeds contempt, we say. The congregation at the Nazareth synagogue thought they knew Jesus. They knew his family. Yet in a critical way they didn’t know him. Jesus labels himself as a prophet without honour at home (verse 4). He can only heal a few people (verse 5) and is ‘amazed at their unbelief’ (verse 6). Jesus was no less powerful, but his power has to be received. And instead of finding the open hands of faith to receive what he has to give, he encounters only clenched fists.

It would be different if Jesus visited us, wouldn’t it? We believe in him. We trust in him. We affirm our faith every Sunday and say words like those in the creeds. He wouldn’t find unbelief here, would he? A few doubts maybe, but surely not unbelief?

Or would he? Do we slip into unbelief at times? I think we do. I’m sure I do. For like the Nazareth congregation, it’s all too easy to think we know Jesus when in some important way we don’t. We tame him as ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’, when he vigorously confronted evil. Rarely do we express the contempt his fellow Nazarenes had for him (although I have come across occasional cynicism), but I do suspect that for us familiarity may breed complacency. We think we know him, yet he can’t do many miracles among us, either. Have we got so used to Jesus that we have forgotten his raw power? Is this why C S Lewis wrote that wonderful line in ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ where he said, ‘Aslan is not a tame lion’? And is it why the American spiritual writer A W Tozer said, ‘Most Christians live like practical atheists’?

Of course, Jesus does visit us. He is present by his Spirit. Yet where is the daring faith in many churches? Our problem with faith may not be the cynicism of Nazareth but the unwillingness to take risks. Many years ago, I heard the Anglican vicar and evangelist Eric Delve say how typical it was of British people to say goodbye to someone with the words, ‘Take care’. What kind of words are they, he asked? Watch out, everything around you is dangerous, keep safe and hide away!

And does that reflect in our churches? Sadly, it often does. Like the one-talent man who buried what he was given in the ground, we opt for playing safe rather than the adventure of faith. In the words of one writer (was it Neil Cole?), we need to be in places where we are done for unless Jesus intervenes. Only then are we living by faith in Christ.

That’s why when I gave my sabbatical presentation last Sunday afternoon, I referred to that challenging document ‘The Life Cycle of a Congregation’ by George Bullard. Those of you who were present heard me describe an eight-step process from birth to death (not that death is inevitable) for churches. There were four cycles in the ascent, and four in the descent to death. I’ll just re-read two sentences from my notes:

“The movement happens as soon as the repeat of good practice is desired. Comfort zone instead of risk-taking.”

The moment we say, ‘We know what we’re doing’, we are in danger of leaving the life of faith. It means we don’t need to trust Jesus any more. We can get by on our own, thank you very much. I now see danger flags waving every time I hear Christians say they know what they’re doing. It’s why I know that one thing I need to do is leave behind my old cautious attitude of ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, and instead make my maxim, ‘If it ain’t broke, break it’.

What does Jesus do when he doesn’t find faith? Faithlessness makes him unwelcome. He does the same as he did at Nazareth: he leaves. Remember how in the Book of Revelation he addressed seven churches. Often he warned them that if they did not live faithfully, he would ‘remove [his] lampstand’ from them – that is, he would remove his presence. Jesus is quite willing to leave churches that don’t have faith in him. It breaks his heart, but he is prepared to move on. Let us ensure we give him no reason to do that, by being people of daring faith.

So where does he go? The simple and startling answer is, he goes here, there and everywhere, all at the same time. How can that be? Because he authorises the Twelve to go out in pairs in his name (verse 7). They are an extension of his mission. In Jewish law, “the sent one is as the man who commissioned him.”[3]

And if the members of the Nazareth congregation fail to exercise daring faith in Jesus, one thing you can’t miss in the instructions to the Twelve is that Jesus expects them to have utter dependence upon God in their mission. They go in the clothes they are wearing, along with a staff and sandals. They get to take no food, no money and not even a second tunic to keep them warm at night (verses 8-9).

Is this a model we all should follow? I know one evangelistic organisation which takes the equivalent passage to this in Luke 10 as a principle for all the participants in its ‘Walk of a Thousand Men’ missions. To quote from their website:

“Team members come without cars, mobile phones or credit cards, only bringing £2 per day to engage in pub evangelism.

– They trust in God for provision of food and other necessities

– Teams of Walkers take this simplicity a stage further, carrying their own packs and sleeping on hall floors.”

In embracing simplicity, they encourage team members to exercise faith at the same time as they call people to faith. Having hosted a couple of their teams in the ‘Walk Kent’ mission ten years ago, I can tell you the faith is rewarded: most team members put on weight, thanks to generous hospitality!

It’s not that the precise instructions Jesus gave the Twelve for their mission should always be followed to the letter, but it is that the underlying principle of faith needs to be embraced. We can’t call people to faith unless we display faith ourselves. It’s what Jesus himself did. Making the community of faith something safe and predictable, both internally and in how we face the world, is far from the example of Jesus.

Full of faith, the Twelve are like Jesus. But also like Jesus, they may face rejection. In which case, they “shake off the dust that is on [their] feet” (verse 11), just as Jews did when they returned from alien lands. It was a sign that the place where they had been was pagan and polluted. And sometimes you just have to distance yourself from unbelief – it has a polluting effect on your own faith. Maybe those ancient Jews knew something. Jesus walked away from unbelief in his home synagogue. The Twelve were to do the same. If our faith is being sucked dry by people who won’t respond positively to Jesus, we might consider the same.

Yet at the same time, for all the warnings this passage contains about unbelief, it isn’t an unremittingly bleak reading. In the middle of Jesus’ call to the Twelve, he gives them a vision for the success of faith-filled mission. “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place” (verse 10). You will be welcomed. Don’t believe the old lie that your locality is too tough and hardened to receive the Gospel, because there will be some places where you and your message are welcomed.

Why? Because God will have gone ahead of you, preparing the way. It isn’t up to us to prepare the soil: God does that. The Holy Spirit is at work preparing people for the Good News before Christians show up. If we go into the community with the love of God then yes, in some places people will mock or ridicule us. But don’t let the possibility of a negative reception paralyse you. There will be many instances where your message will enter and stay.

Jesus said he only did what he saw his Father doing (John 5:19). That’s why many Christians today say that mission is ‘finding out what God is doing and joining in’. God is always making the first move. It’s what John Wesley called ‘prevenient grace’ And if you know your French, the word ‘prevenient’ will make sense: ‘pre’ meaning ‘before’ and ‘venient’ from ‘venir’, meaning ‘to come’. Prevenient grace is God’s grace coming before any human action.

And that means we go in confident faith, praying that we will know where God has sent the Holy Spirit as the advance party. We don’t always need dramatic experiences to know that God has been at work ahead of us, we simply look for where we encounter a welcome for our message, and we ‘stay’ with such people, giving them our time. The rejections will come, and yes they will be painful, but like Jesus himself we walk away and concentrate on where we might see fruit.

So this has been a story about faith and unbelief. We have seen that unbelief can strike in the unlikeliest of places, maybe even close to our own hearts, if we are not so much ‘not careful’ but too careful, too cautious, too play-safe. ‘Safety first’ is as dangerous to the soul as cynicism. We must guard against both, for we risk losing Jesus.

Instead, Jesus calls us to the wild adventure of faith. Yes, we may be rejected too, but those sailing on the high seas of faith set their sails for the wind of the Spirit that will take them away from the pagan lands of unbelief and follow where God is preparing the way for the Gospel. Those who set out on the voyage of faith will, like the Twelve, see demons cast out and the sick healed (verse 13). Those who would rather stay in their home harbour and those who denounce the sailors of faith will see no such miracles.

So let’s pull up the anchor and take to the seas with Jesus.


[1] William L Lane, The Gospel According to Mark, p 202.

[2] Op cit, p 203.

[3] Op cit, p 206f.