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Sermon: The Purposes Of Pentecost

Acts 2:1-21

Perhaps you know the old story of the vicar who visited a primary school where they were learning the Creed. The children lined up for the vicar and one by one recited a section. However, an embarrassing silence enveloped proceedings part-way through.

Eventually, one child blurted out an explanation. “I’m sorry, the boy who believes in the Holy Spirit isn’t here today.”

Is there sometimes an embarrassing silence about the Holy Spirit in our churches? That can be true in some traditional churches. Well has it been said that Catholics believe in Father, Son and Holy Mother, whereas Protestants believe in Father, Son and Holy Bible.

The reasons for embarrassed silence aren’t hard to find. Often, they can be put down to one word. Fear. The Holy Spirit? Or worse, the old name ‘the Holy Ghost’. It sounds spooky, if not frightening. On top of that, you get stories like this one in Acts 2 with the account of people speaking in tongues. In some circles, I have only to mention that and people get upset with me!

As a result, we either ignore or domesticate the Holy Spirit. When we domesticate the Spirit, we reduce his work to a bland coating of the mundane. It’s like cooking without spices or herbs.

What a tragedy. For Pentecost is one of the key events in God’s story of salvation, along with creation, the Incarnation and Easter. And while today I don’t have time to explore the particular anxieties many have around the specific issue of speaking in tongues, what I want to do in this sermon is explore the purposes of Pentecost.

Here’s the first purpose: Pentecost makes us more like Jesus. Let me give you some background in order to explain that. If you know your Bibles, you will know that Luke’s Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles are both written by the same author (whom I take to be Luke himself) to the same recipient (a character otherwise unknown to us called Theophilus). Luke’s Gospel describes what Jesus began to do and teach; by implication, Acts is then Part Two of his story. In Acts, Jesus is still at work, but by the Holy Spirit through the Church.

In particular, there are parallels between some of the early episodes in Luke’s Gospel and those near the beginning of Acts. Both contain a promise that disciples will be ‘baptised with the Holy Spirit’. Then the Spirit comes down – upon Jesus at his baptism and upon the disciples at Pentecost. After that, there is a key sermon that explains what God is fulfilling – Jesus preaches at Nazareth, Peter preaches in Jerusalem after the Pentecostal outpouring. Then there is witness to people nearby.[1]

Put that together, and what is Luke telling us? He’s showing the early disciples going through the same process as Jesus. Pentecost begins their empowered public ministry just as the baptism did for Jesus. By drawing these parallels, Luke is telling Theophilus – and us – that the Holy Spirit has come in order to make us ‘little Jesuses’. The Spirit has come to make our lives and ministries much more like that of Jesus.

How often is it we lament that our lives are nothing like Jesus at all? Quite frequently, I’d guess. As Christians, we want to be more like him, but much of the time we know how vast the distance is between the way we live and how he did on earth.

What failing or weakness do we lament in our Christian lives? Is it that, unlike Jesus, we struggle to display selfless, sacrificial love? The Holy Spirit is here to move us closer to the example of our Saviour. Is it that we have no assurance that our prayers are heard and answered? The Holy Spirit comes to move us in the right direction. Do we lack courage to share the love of God with others through our words and deeds? Again, the Holy Spirit comes upon us to remake us more in the image of Christ.

Let me put it another way, in order to underline this point. Many Jewish people celebrated Pentecost, the Feast of Weeks, as a commemoration of when God gave his people the Law at Mount Sinai.[2] God gave the Law after he had delivered his people from Egypt. It set out the ways they were to please him in gratitude for that deliverance. We too seek to please God out of gratitude for our deliverance (not from Egypt but from our sins). The Pentecostal gift of the Spirit is what enables us to please God. God has shown us the ways we might please him, but he has also given us his Spirit so we may have the power to do what delights him.

The second purpose is this: Pentecost is a taste of God’s kingdom. Let me introduce this thought with an illustration. Every now and again, we go into Chelmsford town centre on a Saturday as a family for various reasons. There is one stall among all the market stalls where we are almost guaranteed to stop every time. That is the fruit and vegetable stall. Apart from the fact that we enjoy buying some of their delicious fruit, they have samples available on a table by the stall. Usually they have cut up oranges and pineapples in the hope that passers-by will try some and then say, “Wow! I must buy some!” Regardless of whether we are going to buy any, our seven-year-old daughter Rebekah stops off for a little feast. In her eyes, the fruit samples are there purely as a public service.

Pentecost is like the opportunity to sample a taste of some fruit, too. The Jewish Feast of Weeks was a harvest festival. Not a full harvest festival like that celebrated at the end of the summer when all the crops have been brought in, but a festival of first fruits. When the first crops came in during late Spring, the people got a taste of what was to come three months or so later.

Pentecost, then, becomes the taste of what the fullness of God’s kingdom will be like, when God sends his angels to bring in the great harvest of the ages. Just as the Resurrection of Jesus is also described as the first fruits (of the great resurrection of all) and anticipates the day when God will make all things new, so too the gift of the Holy Spirit brings a foretaste of the new creation, when God will renew the heavens and the earth. Every sign of the Spirit’s work now, whether large or small, quiet or loud, private or public, is a taste of God’s fruit stall.

So when the Holy Spirit inspires us to care for the stranger, we taste God’s future. When the Spirit calls someone from the darkness of sin to the light of Jesus Christ, our taste buds anticipate the flavours of the kingdom. When the same Spirit does a work of healing in a life (be that physical, emotional, social or any other kind of healing), we glimpse the glorious future where there will be no more pain. When the Spirit leads God’s people to confront evil powers with a prophetic word of truth and justice, we taste the new society to come. When the Holy Spirit does his supreme work of revealing Jesus to people, we get a flavour of that time when we shall no longer know in part, but see him face to face.

Yes, it is frustrating and painful that not everyone is healed, not everyone responds to the call to follow Christ, and that powerful forces dish out injustice. We long for the great harvest of love, healing, righteousness and justice. But right now we are in the era of the first fruits. God calls us to welcome his Holy Spirit and co-operate with him, so that there may in the meantime be many more foretastes of his kingdom when he will rule unchallenged.

The third purpose I want to highlight is that Pentecost is about mission. Even though I take it not that the disciples spoke to the crowd in ‘other tongues’ but rather that the crowd overheard, what is clear is that the Holy Spirit crosses national and cultural boundaries so that people hear the praises of God in their own languages.

Now on one level, there is something almost unnecessary about this miracle. Although the Jews who heard were from different lands, these are almost certainly

‘not in the main … pilgrims [who had] come to Jerusalem from the Diaspora for the feast, but rather Diaspora Jews who had come to live or retire in Jerusalem, and no doubt would have attended some of the synagogues founded in Jerusalem by Diaspora Jews’[3]

In other words, this is a group of people who could speak a common language together anyway, despite their different nationalities. They could understand Hebrew, the language of their faith. Why not just address them in Hebrew?

But the Holy Spirit takes the Gospel to them in the language of each of their cultures. They do not have to work within the language and culture of the established religion in order to hear the Good News.

For me, this is a vital approach in mission. One of the problems we have in church life is that we want to draw people into the community of faith, but we expect them to adapt to our ways of doing things and learn our jargon. We add unnecessary barriers to the acceptance of the Gospel.

This is not what the Holy Spirit does. Think about the ministry of Jesus himself in the Incarnation. He did not stand at a distance and expect people to come to him. Rather , he took on human flesh and dwelt in the midst of the people to whom he was sent. The Holy Spirit mirrors Jesus. He desires to take the Gospel to people where they are in a form they can understand.

That becomes the challenge for us. When we are filled with the Spirit, we shall not simply want to make more people who are Methodist or United Reformed like us. We shall want to establish new communities within the many cultures of our world, our nation, and even of our locality. That’s why ‘Fresh Expressions’ and all sorts of experiments in sharing the Gospel in culturally appropriate ways are at heart Spirit-led approaches to mission.

We should expect this. When Jesus told his followers they would be baptised with the Holy Spirit, he said the consequence would be that they would be his witnesses. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of mission. The disciples were to be witnesses ‘in Jerusalem, in Judea and all Samaria, and to the ends of the earth’. Again, the work of the Spirit is not in creating a church that waits for people to come to her on her terms. The Spirit makes us missional people who move out of our comfort zones into the places where those who need the love of God are comfortable. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we share the love of God in Christ in other people’s comfort zones, not our own. This is what Spirit-led people do.

In conclusion, then, we have every reason to welcome the Holy Spirit rather than fear him. Who wants to be more like Jesus? Let us welcome the Holy Spirit. Who is hungry for a taste of God’s coming kingdom? Let us invite the Holy Spirit to come. And who wants to share the love of Christ in word and deed in a needy world? The Holy Spirit is already at work, within us and going ahead of us. Let us seek more of his power.

Yes, come Holy Spirit.


[1] See Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, p128f.

[2] Although we’re not absolutely certain this was the case at this time – see Witherington, p131.

[3] Witherington, p135.

Sermon: Imitating Missional Jesus

Quite a difference this week. Last Sunday I was invited to preach in a Baptist church and was given half an hour for the sermon. You may have noticed the sermon was longer than usual. Tomorrow it’s an Anglican church where a friend is the priest in charge, and my limit is fifteen minutes.

Luke 4:14-21

When my sister left home for college, she went to study in York. It wasn’t very long before her North London accent gained a North Yorkshire twang. We seem to have a knack for picking up other people’s accents in our family.

Then one summer she went on placement to Ipswich. One Saturday afternoon I took a phone call. There was a strange-sounding young woman on the other line. It took me a minute or two to realise this was my sister. London plus Yorkshire plus East Anglia made for a confusing accent, further magnified by the telephone line. Perhaps my sister above all exemplifies this family trait of picking up accents.

As Christians, we are called to pick up an accent, too – the accent of Jesus. Not that I mean we should speak in a first century Palestinian dialect – as if we could know what that sounded like anyway. But rather, our calling as disciples is to pick up the accent of his life. The New Testament says we are to imitate him.

So I want to take today’s Gospel reading and ask about the ways in which we might imitate Jesus.

Firstly, Jesus is filled with the Spirit. He has come out of the wilderness temptations and the first thing we hear is that ‘filled with the power of the Spirit, [he] returned to Galilee’ and that created a stir (verse 14). When he enters the Nazareth synagogue, he is handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and begins reading from what we call chapter 61, with the words, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me’ (verse 18).

And if you’ve been reading Luke not in little chunks like we do on Sundays, but from cover to cover, you’ll get this message even more clearly. Jesus has been conceived by the Holy Spirit, and at his baptism he has been anointed by the Holy Spirit. You just can’t get away from Luke telling us an important point: whatever Jesus’ special divine status, he conducts his entire ministry dependent upon the power of the Holy Spirit.

And if he does, how much more do we need to do the same. If the Son of God needed to live this way on earth, what price us?

But what does this mean for us? After all, the Spirit of God dwells within each of us from the time our faith in Christ begins. We cannot allow that fact to lull us into complacency. Too many churches and Christians work on auto-pilot. So much of what we do and how we behave is little different from any other organisations or individuals.

So certainly we should all make it a matter of prayer that God would fill us with his Spirit, again and again. None of us can trade on past glories. As has often been said, the church is always just one generation from extinction.

Yet also we cannot sit around simply waiting for a powerful spiritual experience before doing anything for the kingdom of God. What strikes me about Jesus and the Spirit in this passage (and generally in Luke) is that, having received the Holy Spirit, Jesus gets on with what the Father wants him to do. There is no bargaining. He knows he has received the Spirit, and he sets to work. Perhaps some of us know perfectly well what God has called us to do, but we keep employing delaying tactics. Yet if we have received the Spirit when we found Christ, why are we doing that? Truly Spirit-filled people make a difference for the kingdom.

Secondly, Jesus has a message of freedom. It seems to me that ‘freedom’ is a major theme of the verses Jesus reads from Isaiah. The obvious examples are ‘release to the captives’ and ‘to let the oppressed go free’, but ‘good news to the poor’ and ‘recovery of sight to the blind’ are kinds of freedom, too. (Verse 18)

We know that Jesus put this manifesto into action. He dignified the poor by proclaiming the good news to those beyond the pale. He set the captives and oppressed free when he commanded demons to go. He healed the blind and the sick. His was a wide-ranging message of freedom that was proclaimed in word and deed. He evangelised. He healed and delivered. And while he wasn’t directly political, the implications for social justice are present in his ministry.

Our imitation of Christ, then, is to be bearers of a message of freedom. It comes in the gospel theme of forgiveness. The Greek word translated ‘forgive’ in the New Testament means ‘set free’, and that is what forgiveness is. When we forgive somebody, we set them free from the obligations they are under to us. They are no longer bound to us. Not only that, when we forgive, we set ourselves free. For the alternative is bitterness, and that binds us tightly.

We bring freedom to others when our hearts are moved with the compassion of Christ for their plight. For some, that may involve the ‘miraculous’. For others, it may mean trailblazing a way forward in care for those in need. Why do we have hospitals today? Because Christians of earlier generations invented the infirmary. Why does Karen, your priest, conduct funerals for all and sundry in the parish? It isn’t simply because the Church of England is the Established Church in this country. It’s also because in the earliest days of Christianity, disciples of Jesus took pity on those who could not give their loved ones a proper burial.

Or what about this? The other day, our six-year-old daughter discovered that some of her friends wouldn’t play with another girl, because she was black. Our daughter set out to be the black girl’s friend. Even at six, she knows racism is wrong in the sight of God. Now if a six-year-old can do something in Christ’s name for justice, what about us? Ours is the precious message of freedom, as we imitate Christ and anticipate God’s new creation by showing glimpses of God’s kingdom.

Thirdly and finally, Jesus brings the fulfilment of God’s promises. In just over six months’ time, we shall be leaving Chelmsford for a new appointment. The profile of the appointment is very close to what I feel I can offer as a minister. My wife can see where she can get involved on behalf of the church in the community. The schools look quite promising. The manse (which being translated to Anglicans is ‘vicarage’) is more suitable than the one we live in here.

So there’s a level of excitement I feel – but we have to wait until early August when we move!

The Jewish people had been waiting, not for six months, but for centuries, for the promised Deliverer, the Messiah. Now Jesus says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (verse 21). You don’t have to wait any longer, he says.

We imitate Jesus by bringing a message of fulfilment, too. All around our communities and across the world are people waiting for something or someone that will give them hope. They may be damaged by the hurtful actions of loved ones. They – or someone they love – may be bound by dreadful illness or bereavement. They may be victims of injustice. There may just be an aching emptiness in their hearts, because they have believed our society and bought one possession after another in pursuit of happiness, only to find they might as well be chasing the crock of gold at the end of the rainbow.

And we have the privilege to say to such people, you don’t have to wait any longer. Your emptiness, your pain or your brokenness can be healed, because there is a God who loves you. He loves you enough to give up his only Son for you.

Now that is exactly why we hear calls to be a ‘Mission Shaped Church’ – because unless the church is about mission, she is not truly the church. It is why our two denominations – and now also joined by the United Reformed Church – co-operate on the Fresh Expressions project to reach out to people within their own cultures. It’s why although not every Christian is an evangelist, every Christian is a witness. Each one of us can speak about our experience of Christ.

Because that’s what happens when – like Jesus – we are filled with the Spirit and have a message of freedom. The time is now.

Sermon: The Problem Of King Jesus

John 18:33-37

‘What is truth? said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer.’

Many of us think of Francis Bacon’s famous words when we read this account of Jesus before Pilate. But we have a problem: the Lectionary omits verse 38 where Pilate says, ‘What is truth?’ for reasons that are beyond me. Well, unless it is to do with the political correctness that afflicts the Lectionary in some places. Maybe Pilate has to be rehabilitated.

But aside from strange editorial decisions in the compilation of the Lectionary, this is a difficult passage, however familiar it seems. We read it today, because today, the Sunday before Advent, is the Feast of Christ the King, also known as Stir-Up Sunday, from the famous collect

Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

And hence Jane’s piece at the beginning of the service with the cake! If today were just about cake, we’d have few problems with it – maybe it would be suitable for Back To Church Sunday!

But the kingship of Jesus is a problem. It’s a problem throughout the Gospels, and it’s a particular problem here. The kingship of Jesus is a problem for everyone who encounters him. By considering how King Jesus is a problem for different people, we shall see how his kingship challenges us all.

Firstly, and obviously, King Jesus is a problem for Pilate. To return to Francis Bacon’s words, I don’t think he is ‘jesting Pilate’ at all. Pontius Pilate has a serious political problem here. As a Roman Governor, he is used to being able to throw his weight around, using the occupying army to subdue the locals. His trouble is that he has done it too heavily-handed once too often, having desecrated the Jerusalem Temple. The Jewish leaders had sent a deputation to Rome to protest, with the result that Pilate was on a final warning. However aggressive the Roman Empire was, they saw no need to cause what they believed to be unnecessary provocation in the lands they conquered.

So when the Jewish leaders hand Jesus over to him, Pilate has a big problem. Yet to be fair, he starts from a position of justice: ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ (verse 33); ‘What have you done?’ (verse 35)

Yet by the end of the interview, we know Pilate, like a politician today, will cave into compromise and short term expediency. Throughout the conversation, he can’t get a handle on who Jesus is. He doesn’t fit his categories. Because Pontius Pilate only understands one language: the language of politics. He’s expecting Jesus to be a revolutionary. Well, he is, but not in the sense Pilate expects: Jesus is no terrorist. Not only does Jesus’ lifestyle deny such an idea, he contradicts it in his reply:

‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ (Verse 36)

Some people seize on this as a sign that obeying the kingship of Jesus means we don’t get involved in politics. They quote it as ‘My kingdom is not of this world’. Therefore, they argue, since we are part of that kingdom, we should not get embroiled in dirty, everyday politics: that’s a different kingdom.

But what Jesus says is perhaps better rendered, ‘My kingship is not from this world’[1]. He’s not advocating withdrawal from the world, he’s saying that he does things differently. His kingship comes from heaven, where justice is not established by force or violence. His kingship is therefore radically different from the tactics employed by Roman Emperors or Jewish Zealots.

Jesus doesn’t bail out of politics: it is about the common good, and he cares about that. But his kingship redraws how his disciples will get involved. They will do so peaceably, not forcefully.

What does that mean for us? Not all of us are directly involved in politics. Apart from anything else, I believe it means that if we live under the reign of King Jesus, we conduct ourselves in public in a peaceable way. We do not shout, scream, demand, manipulate and scheme. We speak up more for the poor and the voiceless than for ourselves. We do so passionately, but without aggression. Is that possible? Jesus managed it.

Secondly, King Jesus is a problem for the Jewish leaders. There’s a lot of reference in John’s Gospel to ‘the Jews’. Tragically, down the centuries some Christians (and others, such as Hitler) have used it to justify prejudice and violence against Jewish people.

However, John does not use ‘the Jews’ to mean the entire Jewish race at the time. He normally uses it to refer to a distinct group, and he is clearly aware of other people in the story – not least Jesus – who are also Jewish but are not included under ‘the Jews’. Mostly, it stands for the religious authorities who are in opposition to Jesus and his ministry. It is these people, designated ‘the Jews’, who have handed Jesus over to Pilate (verse 32).

What’s their problem? Simple. Jesus doesn’t fit their expectations. Jesus is at odds with most of the major groupings in the Judaism of his time. He won’t cosy up to the Roman authorities like the wealthy Sadducees and some of the priestly classes. He won’t use the Scriptures as a weapon to exclude people in the way the scribes and Pharisees do. He won’t retreat to a secluded, pure community like the Essenes. And as we’ve already noted, he rejects the violent revolution of the Zealots. He just doesn’t fit.

So what are you going to do with a misfit who keeps causing you trouble? You’ll try to get rid of him. The traditional Jewish punishment of stoning was still sometimes spontaneously used, as we see from the story of the woman caught in adultery . But around AD 30, Rome took away the Jewish right to execute someone. But it further suited the purposes of the religious establishment to have Jesus crucified, because then by being hung on a tree he would be subject to a curse, according to Deuteronomy. It’s sobering what lengths human beings will go to in order to exclude someone they regard as a misfit.

I’ve talked before in sermons about the way we wrongly fit Jesus into our own preferred image and can’t cope with the fact that he won’t be confined to it. Recently, I read something helpful that a friend posted on Facebook. Pam is an American Christian (a Methodist minister, in fact) who recently returned to the USA from the UK. She has obviously been listening to the famous American radio show ‘A Prairie Home Companion[2], hosted by the author Garrison Keillor, author of the well-known series of books that began with ‘Lake Wobegon Days’. Keillor, a Christian of Lutheran and now Episcopalian background, tells fictionalised stories based on life in rural Minnesota. They often draw on his My friend Pam quoted a gem from a recent broadcast by Keillor:

Jesus came to earth and disappointed a lot of people.

When you follow Jesus, he will disappoint you. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day were quickly disappointed by him. He won’t conform, and life with him will not always go the way we want it to. For he is king, and it is his rule that matters.

The question therefore comes, what will we do with our disappointment? Will we attempt to banish or exclude him, like the Jewish establishment of two thousand years ago? Or will we continue to follow him, mixing joy and disappointment? It’s a hard choice, but let’s remember that only those who continued with Jesus through disappointment got to see him in his risen glory.

Thirdly, King Jesus is a problem for us today. It’s simply this: even if Jesus radically reinterpets kingship into a peaceful form, it’s still a reworking based on a notion of kingship that has very little equivalent in our world today. We may still have a monarchy, but our Queen is meant to act on the advice of her ministers. Largely, therefore, she gives Royal Assent to Bills in Parliament that have been shaped by politicians. She retains certain powers, but they are much diminished. She is no absolute monarch. Long gone are the days when we spoke about ‘the divine right of kings’.

And in other cultures, the gap is even greater. How do you think about King Jesus when you live in a republic with a President as head of state? The American Christian author and speaker Brian McLaren has spoken of his cultural struggle with the biblical references to kingship and the kingdom of God. He suggests an alternative. We should refer to ‘the revolution of God’.

I think that’s helpful! If following King Jesus joins us up to the revolution of God, then one thing is certain: we are not in for a quiet, cosy time, at least not in the way some church communities seem to envisage. We are called instead to a dynamic, challenging, risky way of life.

The other day I read a piece by Bishop Graham Cray, who leads Fresh Expressions nationally for the Anglican, Methodist and United Reformed Churches. Let me read you a few sentences:

A risk-free existence can look very attractive for a while. Although the fine line between risk-free and unbearably boring is easily crossed. But those who want risk-free should never become Christians. To follow Jesus means risking all to follow him. I was recently reminded that the Church of Scotland report ‘Church Without Walls’ says that the essence of church is ‘People with Jesus at the centre, travelling wherever Jesus takes us.’ The whole fresh expressions initiative is about allowing Jesus to take us to those whom our existing churches do not reach, and working with him, as he forms a new group of people, who are willing to go wherever he takes them. That inevitably involves risk.

Because that is the logical conclusion of the other two issues we have thought about. Risk. It will be risky to follow King Jesus in the ways I have suggested. People who campaign for the poor in public life and do so in a peaceable way may end up on crosses. People who are willing to keep following Jesus even through disappointments are not signing up for a safe and quiet life, even if they do live with the hope of resurrection. But we remember how Jesus finally answered Pilate:

‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ (Verse 37)

Nothing else is the way of truth.


[1] Richard Burridge, John (The People’s Bible Commentary), p215.

 

[2] British listeners can hear this on BBC Radio 7.

Sabbatical, Day 79: Exile Or Revival; Ministry Patterns

After dipping into it over a couple of weeks, I’ve finally completed Patrick Whitworth‘s book ‘Prepare For Exile‘. When it first arrived in the post and I looked at the contents pages, I was disappointed. Ninety pages of history and only fifty of contemporary application: I wanted more of the latter. Further, when I read the final three chapters that concentrate on how we should prepare for exile in the western Church, I thought I was reading little I hadn’t encountered elsewhere or already concluded for myself. Many of the usual authorities are quoted: David Bosch, Walter Brueggemann, Michael Frost, and so on. 

Yet I think this is a significant book. Why?

Firstly, because the history matters. What Whitworth shows in those first ninety pages is just how fundamental the category of exile is to vibrant faith. Not only does he establish it as a much more critical theme of Scripture than we generally acknowledge, he shows from centuries of church history how it is often people and movements who have been forced into a posture of exile that have brought renewal to the church and society.

Secondly, because Whitworth writes as an Anglican. My guess is that being the Established Church has made it harder for the Church of England to come to terms with the thought that the Christian Church is going into exile in this country. For someone like him to write persuasively about a stance of exile is important.

Thirdly, because Whitworth seems to be writing as a charismatic, where one might expect him instead to write a book called ‘Prepare For Revival‘. However, revival gets scant mention in the book. I think its first mention comes only on page 134, where it is admitted as a possibility but Whitworth expects something different:

But if the historical process identified in the central section of the book still has some way to run (although arguably it could be overturned by an extraordinary Christian revival), which I believe it has, the process of secularization may well continue apace.

I don’t want to make it sound like the desire for revival is unworthy. At its best, it is a longing for a society suffused with the Gospel. However, in some charismatic circles, it has degenerated into something else. It is the cavalry coming over the hill to rescue the poor beleaguered church. Worse, it is the fantasy we indulge to prevent us thinking about painful reality.

…………

Next in my reading project for the rest of the sabbatical is to look at some of the stuff on ministry. Not the ministry and personality type stuff yet, for two reasons: firstly, the survey for ministers doesn’t finish until the 30th, and secondly, Waterstone’s still haven’t got my copy of Leslie Francis‘ ‘Faith and Psychology‘ that I need to accompany my thinking. It’s still out of stock at the publisher’s.

At this point, I want to look at whether traditional doctrines of ministry are fit for purpose in a world where, in Whitworth’s expression, we have to prepare for exile. That is, a world where the church needs to be missional. A diverse culture that calls for varied Fresh Expressions as well as some continuing forms of traditional church. That is, the ‘mixed economy’ church of which Rowan Williams has spoken.

In this world, emerging church and missional church thinkers have criticised our inherited understandings of ministry. They say that ordination to a ministry of word, sacrament and pastoral care might make sense if we lived in a true Christendom where all were believers and the task of the church were to call people back to a faith from which they were lapsed, but it is not our situation. So writers like Frost and Hirsch in ‘The Shaping Of Things To Come‘ call for churches (not necessarily individuals, note) to express the fivefold ministry of Ephesians 4: apostolic, prophetic and evangelistic as well as pastoral and teaching.

I want to examine the strength of this critique. If it is valid (my gut feeling is that in some form it probably is), then what does it mean for those of us in the historic churches? To do this, I see the need to look at three key areas.

Firstly, New Testament understandings of ministry and leadership as a foundation. However, that is not necessarily simple. Is there one pattern of New Testament leadership? Many think not. You can pick the ‘fivefold pattern’ out of Ephesians, and you can pick ‘bishops and deacons’ from Philippians. Which (if any) do you choose, and why?

Secondly, I need to look at the tradition. In my case, that means Methodism, with its official stance and varying views – some of it difficult to pin down, because our approach is rather pragmatic.

Thirdly, it means looking again at the missional literature and practice. Neil Cole‘s ‘Organic Church‘ and (when it arrives from Amazon) ‘Organic Leadership‘ come highly recommended, and I’ll be tackling them on top of my already wide reading in the emerging and missional area.

Obviously, this is going to occupy me beyond the sabbatical, and I’m going to want to read other things that interest me too! In the long term, this could well be the core of the PhD dream.

Starting out with a book from the first of these phases means that today I’ve begun to tackle ‘Stewards, Prophets, Keepers of the Word: Leadership in the Early Church‘ by Ritva H Williams. It’s not simply an aggregation of texts: she says in the Introduction she is going to argue that the early church took some of the social conventions about leadership and subverted them for their own purposes. If that is the case, then we might have an interesting foundation for creative approaches to Christian leadership and ministry in our culture. It could make the case for Methodist pragmatism being extended beyond what we say we have ‘received’, which is sometimes treated in a rather fixed way, despite our pragmatism.

All this talk about ministry could be so introspective, and that would fit my nature as an introvert (but then we’re back to the Myers Briggs stuff again!). However, I want to offer something to the church, not simply clarify my own thinking. If all I do is sort out my own thoughts, I’m still left with tensions and frustrations with the institution.

 

Sabbatical, Day 47: How Could I Forget My Daughter?

Pressed for time in blog writing last night, I made an unwise choice. Yes, I enjoyed writing about the bozos in the High Street, but how could I overlook the achievements of our wonderful daughter?

Yesterday was a terrific day for her. We saw her take the lead when her class led school assembly, sharing on a trip they’d had to Braintree Museum to explore Victorian life a couple of weeks ago. All the class said something, but Rebekah had to kick it off. Clear voice, good projection, nicely paced. Could  make a preacher of her yet.

Later in the assembly, the Deputy Head presented her with a certificate to mark the Maths test she passed last week. She looked so proud, in the right way. At the autumn term parents’ evening, her teacher had told us that Maths was her weakness. No longer, it seems. Not only did she pass this test, we had the spring term parents’ evening on Tuesday night, and she is attaining standards in numeracy ahead of her age now. So there has been a real turnaround. She has worked hard, and the teacher has done well with her.

Meanwhiles, Mark, according to his teacher, ‘can do everything’, and she’s having to hold him back on his reading because he’s so far ahead of the others. On its own, this would have worried us, but she discussed strategies with us for making a bit more of the books they’re expecting him to read that they know are below his capabilities. The real concern is his lack of socialising with children of his own age. 

Collecting the children from school yesterday, we were greeted with a very red Mark. Not only his hair, but blotches on his skin. We kept him off his swimming lesson. This morning, he was much better and we sent him in. However, by morning break the school had phoned me and I went in armed with Piriton. That did little, and at the beginning of lunchtime came the second phone call. We brought him home, and with the school anxious that he might be infectious with something like slapped cheek, Debbie took him to the doctor, where they had to wait alone in a side room before seeing a GP who wasn’t sure what it was, but said just to keep him off school tomorrow. Poor lad, ever since going full time at school in January, he’s struggled to do a full week any week.

Meanwhile, back at yesterday afternoon, Rebekah was fit for her swimming lesson. Once a term, the swim school tests the children. Yesterday, she passed her 20 metres badge, so great elation and more reason to eat chocolate!

Today, she is happy too, because another milk tooth fell out, thanks to a cherry cake that was served for dessert at school dinners. It has been irritating her for days. Tonight, it was not difficult to persuade her to sleep, because she is anticipating a nocturnal appointment with the Tooth Fairy. And in the tradition of a children’s book we once read about the dental sprite, she is sincerely hoping this tooth was clean and sparkling enough to find a home in The Hall Of Perfect Teeth. Our next door neighbour told her there would be an extra reward for such teeth.

Fat chance. The standard £1 coin is in the envelope with the TF’s letter. We’re not getting stung again.

Meanwhile on the sabbatical front, I still haven’t ordered any more books, but having a Myers Briggs personality type that likes to keep my options open, it was fatal today to receive a catalogue for church leaders from Wesley Owen. As I flicked through, hoping not to be tempted and take it on an early trip to the paper recycling sack, I was accosted by a few titles that could have something to do with my research. Not the ministry and personality type stuff, but the dialogue between traditional understandings of ordination and our contemporary missional context. 

So step forward Ministry By The Book by Derek Tidball. Prepare for Exile: A New Spirituality and Mission for the Church by Patrick Whitworth sounded interesting. And Evaluating Fresh Expressions:explorations in emerging church: Emerging Theological and Practical Models edited by Martyn Percy and Louise Nelstrop sounded like it might be useful as a critical voice from outside my tradition to ask hard questions about new forms of church. If anyone reading this has read any of these books, please let me know what you think in the comments below.

Sabbatical, Day 10

Two miracles in the last twenty-four hours: first of all, I slept well last night. Moving the bed away from the wall helped. I still can’t understand why the college thinks it’s a twin room, though. Not unless Snow White was moonlighting as an architect for friends. Thankfully, I’m alone in the room.

Second miracle: a meal tonight in the refectory that actually came with vegetables. After three consecutive meals accompanied by salad, this was a cause for thanksgiving. Not that the salads were bad at all – they were fresh and edible – but it’s good to have some balance in the diet. Besides, excess salad while snow is still around seems a tad strange.

Lectures have been good today. Two this morning from John Finney, the retired Bishop of Pontefract on the subject of personal and church renewal. Wisdom from an experienced church leader.

Two later from Stephen Skuce, the postgraduate tutor here. Controversial and provocative. He thinks the British church is done for, rather like the North African and Turkish churches of past centuries. We need to learn survival strategies, he says, in the way that the Chinese and Russian churches did under communism. He sees the emerging church movement as a group of lifeboats getting as far away from the sinking Titanic of the mainstream church as fast as possible. However, he thinks there are only twenty emerging church congregations in the UK. He should be in a position of authority on this, as Cliff College is the only place in Europe to offer an MA in Emerging Church studies. He doesn’t rate the idea of the ‘mixed economy’ church advocated by Rowan Williams as part of the Fresh Expressions movement. Fresh Expressions don’t generally count as emerging churches – I think I’m inclined to agree with him on that point.

Tonight he taught for an hour on William J Abraham‘s book ‘The Logic of Renewal‘. As much as anything, though, his purpose was to show the MA students how to research an author and a book. He happened to use a book that is on the theme of the week. It was interesting to see the students being taught these methods.

This evenng, I’ve been indulging my pleasure of offering technical support to someone with her laptop. I managed to get her wirelessly connected when the computer was hiding from doing that. I’ve also been listening to nervous students who’ve had tutorials today where they’ve had to present ideas for their next assignments. I made a suggestion to one woman about a possible book, but the tutor ripped the proposal to shreds.

Tomorrow, two of the students who will soon be celebrating ‘significant’ birthdays will be treating the rest of us on the course to coffee and cakes at the village tea rooms.

Plenty of other students tonight are watching Star Trek Deep Space Nine on DVD on a large screen via a digital projector. Me, I’m typing this instead. Sad? Maybe. Now, then, everyone together: “There’s Klingons on the starboard bow …”

The Starfish And The Spider, Part 3: How Do You Tell A Starfish From A Spider?

OK, here’s part three of my summary. As before, my comments are in red.

1. Is there a person in charge? Yes = spider and classic traditional church approach. There is more to come later in the book about ‘catalysts’ and ‘champions’ in starfish organisations. Later I shall offer some thoughts as to how consonant such people are with biblical faith.

2. Are there headquarters? Yes = spider and classic traditional church approach. Definitely consistent with Old Testament faith, less so with New Testament, notwithstanding the rôle of Jerusalem in Acts 15.

3. If you thump it on the head, will it die? Yes = spider and although this would be true of centralised churches, especially where there is also a high dependency upon the leaders (including the local ones), you might argue this wouldn’t have happened in the apostolic churches, and hasn’t happened in persecuted churches in recent decades. Not that too romantic a picture should be painted, even of more decentralised churches, given Paul’s statement in Galatians that before his conversion ‘I was destroying the churches’ (softened to ‘I was trying to destroy‘ in some versions). But Jesus saw the church as indestructible.

4. Is there a clear division of rôles? Yes = spider. Does that make churches which practise clear delineations on talents, offices and spiritual gifts spider churches? However, the priesthood of all believers is most definitely starfish on this basis. It depends whether we are stressing equality or diversity.

5. If you take out a unit, is the organisation harmed? Yes = spider. How does this relate to Paul saying, if one part of the body suffers, all suffer? We feel the pain, but are we harmed? ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,’ said Tertullian – was he expounding a starfish church?

6. Are knowledge and power concentrated or distributed? Concentrated = spider, distributed = starfish. Most churches concentrate it in specialists like me. However, there is sometimes a co-dependent conspiracy on this one. Not only do we ‘specialists’ like to be the ‘experts’, congregations sometimes like us to be also, even when we passionately want to distribute knowledge.

7. Is the organisation flexible or rigid? Flexible = starfish, rigid = spider. Most of the church is the latter. This expresses a lot of the tensions commonly felt at ‘grassroots’ in the church, in contrast to the hierarchies. I’ve come across it in ecumenical churches where there is huge frustration that failure to agree by ‘the top brass’ (revealing description) hinders local work. It’s the same with Fresh Expressions.

8. Can you count the employees or participants? Yes=spider. Methodism is particularly obsessed by this, with the ‘October Count’, now renamed ‘Statistics for Mission‘. You can’t help wondering about that newer name: it is a form of branding to give it a respectable label, given the dislike of many ministers for the process? Counting numbers of people has positive and negative examples in Scripture: King David holds a census out of pride and a curse falls on the people, but on the other hand the Acts of the Apostles seems very interested in numerical growth. Note comments about ‘measurement’ happening in a different way in the final post of this series.

9. Are working groups funded by the organisation, or are they self-funding? Former = spider, latter = starfish. I find churches to be a mixture of both. Most stuff is self-funded at a local level, making us a bit more starfish-like, except that with anything major we have to jump through various hoops set up by the hierarchy. Particularly large projects will include applications for grant funding, and that increases the spider content. One interesting factor in Methodism is the issue of trustees. The local Church Council members are but the ‘managing trustees‘ of the property for wider Methodism who technically own the building, yet the primary responsibility for maintenance rests with them.

10. Do working groups communicate directly or through intermediaries? Former = starfish, latter = spider. This is a difficult one in church life. Formally, we tend to be spiders, with different committees reporting to the Church Council, with churches reporting to the Circuit, and so on. However, when we get down to a small scale, especially with church decline, we can be more direct in our communication, because we have become more informal and closer in proximity to each other.

What Kind Of Leadership, If Any?

So a church member says to me, “The church needs leadership. We’ve had it up to here with namby-pamby enabling.”

And I think, I don’t think he’s saying I’m namby-pamby. But – since I’m going to think a bit about our understanding of ordained ministry and its relationship to missional Christianity and Fresh Expressions during my sabbatical – maybe this helps set some direction as I boil down my reading list.

Wait – because before I can think down any tangents, he dismisses Fresh Expressions. Since none of the examples on the (first) DVD were outright revival and because the Holy Spirit is the same today as in Wesley’s day, it’s a dead end. Fresh Expressions are clearly both namby and pamby. And furthermore, I’m fairly sympathetic to them.

And I make some connections with a brief conversation I had earlier that day with my friend Nigel, whose church has been growing numerically in recent years. We were talking about books on leadership. “Spend two days with Bill Hybels‘ ‘Courageous Leadership‘,” he advises. “You won’t regret it.”

Looking up the book on Amazon (see the link above) leads me to the solitary review of it there. The reviewer quite likes it, but there are a few caveats. One: can it be translated from American to British culture? Two: Hybels, as senior pastor of a megachurch, has the privilege of recruiting staff from a huge pool, within and without the congregation. Three: he quotes a senior churchman who says it’s a management book with a bit of Christianity bolted on. Hold that last thought.

Saturday comes, and my wife Debbie visits the local library, because the previous evening an automated phone message informs her that two books she had reserved were in for her. When she returns, I’m pleased to see that one of them is a book I’d decided to read during the sabbatical, but had saved money by ordering it on her library card. It’s one that is popular in missional and emerging church circles. It’s not a Christian book, but – guess what? – a business book. ‘The Starfish and the Spider‘ by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom. Subtitle? ‘The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations’. Leaderless. That’s right.

So here’s the contrast, and it’s familiar to many. Megachurches have a business approach to leadership. The senior pastor is the CEO. Emerging and missional churches like to be leaderless and resist the ‘head honcho’ approach.

But … missional Christians are just as much taking their ideas from business books as megachurches.

Both would claim biblical support for their approaches. Megachurches would find some support for a directive approach. Missional churches can find enough evidence for a servant style (if servant leadership isn’t an oxymoron, but that’s a debating point).

Therefore, what makes one choose a particular school of business thought? Is it about theology or culture or both? Is it about what fits Scripture or what fits preconceived ideas – or both? And do we then try to fit this stuff to us, like Cinderella’s ugly sisters trying to wear the glass slipper?

And haven’t we been this way before? Theologians have often overtly adapted a particular philosophical school and done their theology within it. Thomas Aquinas framed his work within Aristotle. Rudolf Bultmann and John Macquarrie saw everything through the lens of existentialism. The difference this time is the unknowing adoption of secular philosophies. Earlier iterations of this debate about leadership led to concepts of clergy professionalisation that have become debatable and divisive.

Maybe missional Christianity needs to keep an eye out for when it is unknowingly adopting cultural preferences.

Meanwhile, the approach to leadership remains unresolved.

Fresh Expressions: Emerging Church And The Historic Denominations

Going off at a tangent from a post by Pete Phillips, Fresh Expressions is a joint initiative of the Church of England and the Methodist Church to support ‘new ways of being church’. In a strangely modernist way they have identified twelve categories of new expressions of church!

But the thing is this: the historic denominations are increasingly interested in new forms of church. Is it for creative reasons? Is it desperate? Is it the Holy Spirit? What seems to be being swept under the carpet is the huge potential for clashes of values.

For example, won’t we have to start facing some sacred cows such as entrenched doctrines of ordination? Don’t existing ones play the power card in a way that postmoderns and Jesus-followers should be highly suspicious of? You don’t need to go the whole ontological way that the Anglicans do, just take the Methodist view that although ordination confers no separate priesthood, nevertheless it is ‘representative’ (which is pretty close to specialised priesthood) and it confers presidency at the sacraments on the grounds of ‘good order’. That may have been a pragmatic way of restricting presidency to the presbyters in years gone by without officially conceding a sacerdotal approach, but how does it read now? Let’s play reader-response in the 21st century with it. Who can keep good order? Normally only presbyters? What does that say about everybody else?

(Of course Methodism now allows ‘extended communion’ where authorised people can take communion into homes. It started out as something for the sick, but the Big Bad Rule Book can be interpreted to allow this for home groups. Nevertheless it’s only seen as delegated from the presiding minister at a Sunday service, and the people still need to be authorised.)

How far we have come from a Last Supper modelled on the Jewish Passover that was celebrated in the family. And how far we have come from a Saviour who took a towel and a bowl of water.

Although you can’t say the emerging church is all of one mind on every issue (it’s a ‘conversation’, it likes to think) nevertheless it’s pretty clear that it embraces an understandable postmodern suspicion of the link between truth and power, and it is deeply attracted to the radical picture of Jesus in the Gospels.

So this post is really to ask whether the emerging churches and the historic denominations can fully embrace each other. Either there will be compromise of principles on one side or the other (you can bet that those who still perceive themselves as powerful will expect the others to conform to them). Or there will be persistent conflict: the romance will break up. Or the new wine will break the old wineskins.

Someone please tell me I’ve got it wrong, and why. But my spiritual gift of pessimism comes into play on this issue.