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Sermon: Chain Of Fools

Knaphill is having a sermon series on Philippians. It was launched last week by a Local Preacher. Tomorrow, I get to preach the second sermon in the series. Each week is named after a song – hence this week’s title ‘Chain of Fools’. More strictly, this is about chains and fools.

Philippians 1:12-30

Opportunity Knocks

TV Shows We Used To Watch – Opportunity Knocks 1956-1978 by Paul Townsend on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

People of a certain age will remember the TV talent show ‘Opportunity Knocks’ with Hughie Green telling us every week, “I mean that most sincerely, folks”. And anyone who has to remind you they are being sincere is automatically suspect to me.

For that show, the opportunity that came knocking was for fame and perhaps fortune. It was the opportunity that a door would open into a wide vista where all things might be possible for those who won the public vote. For winners such as Freddie Starr, Paul Daniels, Les Dawson and many others, that was the outcome.

But in our reading today the apostle Paul is telling us that opportunity knocks in a different way – not when the doors are flung open but when the doors are shut tightly, and chains are attached to his feet. Paul’s opportunity comes in prison. He is under the fiercest of constraints.

And this morning I want us to explore what Paul tells us about the opportunities we still have as Christians when our lives are constrained. Our constraints may not be imprisonment, but they may be ill health, aging, unemployment, financial loss, bereavement, or any one of many unwelcome intruders into our lives. What kind of opportunities does Paul envisage us having?

The first area where constraints become an opportunity for Paul is in the advance of the Gospel. Writing from prison in Rome, Paul says,

Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. 13 As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. 14 And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear. (Verses 12-14)

The Gospel has got into the imperial household, not by Paul hob-nobbing with the high and mighty, as if the only way to do so is by mixing with movers and shakers, but by his interaction with the soldiers guarding him. Not only that, his example in straitened circumstances has encouraged the local Christians ‘to proclaim the gospel without fear’.

So find encouragement here if you think the only way the Gospel can prosper in society is if we  in the church have connections with the high and mighty. Do not fear when you see the diminished public influence of the church, because the spread of the gospel is not dependent upon our level of influence in the media or government – much as I believe that it is important for Christians to be involved in both of those areas, creating stories and making policies that have their roots in the Christian faith. Do not be perturbed because you are one of society’s nobodies. The influence of the gospel doesn’t work like that. It goes from person to person as we let people see that Christ has changed us.

And what could be more impactful than the fact that people see how our faith transforms our attitudes when we are down and struggling? It’s easy to say how wonderful Jesus is when times are good, when money is plentiful and when life is on the up. But when we can still speak of his love in those seasons where we are suffering loss or injustice, then we have a powerful testimony to God’s love in Christ for us and the world. It has been said that it is in the bad times that we know how much of God we have: I would say further that it is in the bad times that other people know how much of God we have.

You see, the advance of the gospel in these isles doesn’t depend on the church supplying an unending list of celebrity testimonies, and it doesn’t depend on the Church of England retaining its Established status. The cause of the gospel in our land has more to do with ordinary Christians, even and especially those facing privation in their lives, commending Jesus Christ to people.

The second area where constraints become opportunity for Paul is in the blessing of others who are not suffering.

Listen to what he says next:

It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. 16 The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defence of the gospel. 17 The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. 18 But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. (Verses 15-18)

We move from the chains to the fools. When your circumstances are less than optimal, isn’t it easy to be generous about people who are taking advantage of your misfortune. Some preachers seem to be using Paul’s incarceration as an opportunity to advance themselves in the church. You might expect a person like Paul to be mad about this. Yet he is gracious:

‘The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.’

It’s one thing being chained into a life circumstance you don’t like and still finding a positive way to live for the gospel, but when people who should be colleagues and friends act not in co-operation but in competition, then liberal doses of sodium chloride are applied to an open wound. It may be that at work, someone takes advantage of your misfortune in order to further their career. It may be that in the church, someone you counted on as a friend discreetly puts you down to others behind your back, casting doubts about your suitability for something you are passionate about, and it all leads to them doing something in church life that you had longed to do – and they knew it.

How might we react in such a situation? Well, help is at hand if you want to lash out at them. Just go online to the Biblical Curse Generator on the Ship Of Fools website, and let it randomly give you some juicy Old Testament smiting words to apply. Purely in the interests of research, I tried it out, and I received the following to use:

I pray thou shalt beget difficult teenagers, O thou offspring of a squashed cockroach!

Behold, thou shalt have more mother-in-laws than King Solomon, thou relative of Herod!

Woe unto thee, O thou Mesopotamian harlot, for you will go on a diet of crunchy, unsweetened locusts!

But Paul doesn’t do that. Not only does he leave vengeance to God, rather along the lines of Psalm 35, which begins with the words, ‘Contend, O Lord, with those who contend with me,’ he does more. He rejoices in the successes of others. He just cares that even those who are preaching the gospel for the wrong motives are – well – preaching the gospel.

This is a test of grace. Can we show that the gospel has been having an effect upon our lives in this area, too? We live in a culture whose building blocks include a large one called ‘envy’. Our economy is largely built on the idea that we must get bigger and better things, because other people have bigger and better toys. But can we rejoice that others have things we don’t?

Another building block of our culture is called ‘status’. Can we be pleased for others who are elevated when we languish in obscurity? That young whippersnapper who came into the company after us, and who had the proverbial meteoric rise, shooting past us – can we rejoice in their success, and bless them?

According to the gospel, our self-worth is not in our money and possessions and nor is it in our status. We are valued for far greater reasons: we are made in the image of God, we are redeemed by Christ, and we are being remade into God’s image by the Holy Spirit. These facts give us far more dignity than anything our society can offer. And if these things are central to our identity, we are free to bless others who enjoy the limelight while we are in the shadows.

The third and final area where constraints become opportunities for Paul is in evaluating life and death.

Again – remember Paul is in prison. His future is ambiguous. Will he be released, or will he be executed? That uncertainty would torture the minds and emotions of many.

But not Paul. Again he sees something positive. He weighs up the pros and cons. If he lives, he can preach the gospel and encourage the Philippian Christians. If he dies, he gets to be with Christ – and nothing can better that. He regards his future as what we would call today ‘a win-win situation’. He simply can’t lose. Either he gets to do more useful kingdom work, or he goes to glory.

Let me commend Paul’s positive outlook on the future to you. If life had been easier for him, I wonder whether he would have thought like this. But the chains of prison lead him to this faith-filled assessment of the situation that he just can’t lose, whatever happens to him.

And as we dwell on Paul’s positive faith in the face of adversity, let me ask you again about the uninvited intruders in your life that have the potential to sow discouragement in you. For me, you will not be surprised to know that presently that means the traumas associated with my parents’ increasing frailty, and the major decisions my sister and I are suddenly faced with, far sooner than we expected. Can I live through this, believing in the God who works for God in all things for those who love him, or will I allow the crisis to drag me down? Can I believe that God can be glorified in my parents’ time of weakness and need?

I think one reason why our trials stress us is that we forget to bring God into the evaluation. Without God, and without a hope that death is trumped by resurrection, all will seem futile. But when we factor in our Risen Lord Jesus Christ, things look different. They may still be painful, but they are transformed by him.

Let me put the whole issue this way. If you set someone an assignment to complete in the creative arts, they may well produce their best work if you constrain their options. Ask someone to produce a painting, but limit the number of colours to be used. Invite a photographer to take pictures of an event, but only allow them one lens to use on their camera. These constrictions force new, creative thinking.

Peter Gabriel

Peter Gabriel @ Forest National 2013 by MadmiKe.59 on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

There is one famous example I can think of from the world of rock music. When the singer Peter Gabriel was making his third solo album, he invited his former Genesis band mate Phil Collins to play the drums on the tracks. But Gabriel told Collins he wasn’t allowed to play any cymbals. It contributed towards an unique and pioneering sound.

Paul sets something similar before us here. His options have been limited. His best choices have been removed. And comparable things will happen to us as well. But the apostle rises to the challenge, and his faith in the crucified and risen Lord enables him to advance the gospel, to bless those of whom he might be jealous, and to see the most enormous kingdom possibilities in an uncertain future.

I don’t mean to trivialise or minimise the woes in our lives. But I do hope we can take a lead from Paul in seeing that even when life is tough, we can find positive opportunities to live kingdom lives for the Gospel.

N T Wright Sings The Theology Of Creation And New Creation

It doesn’t get better than this for me. A great theologian – N T Wright – putting theology to music. Here, he sings ‘Genesis’ – words that he and Francis Collins, of the Human Genome Project put to the Beatles’ ‘Yesterday’.

(Originally featured at The Rabbit Room.)

Sabbatical, Day 2

Well, here’s a tune for today:

Yes, after the snow that made a flourishing entrance yesterday afternoon, it continued all night and we woke up to a thick and persistent covering, with temperatures comfortably below zero Celsius. The children’s school was closed, as were most in Essex, and the snow received such a welcome from the children that it decided to keep arriving all day.

This morning, we spent an hour or two in the garden. I don’t know whether Rebekah is an instinctive young feminist – her usual prediliction for girlie things and the colour pink might not fit the stereotype – but she insisted we make a snowwoman:


Rebekah and Mark by the snowwoman, 2nd February 2009

Rebekah and Mark by the snowwoman, 2nd February 2009

After a walk to the local Somerfield for soup and a few goodies, we had a restful lunch before a trip to the nearby green, a few hundred yards down our road. Two more hours of freezing while the children sledged down an incline and played with neighbourhood friends.

I’m sure I should have done some theological reflection as my extremities protested about the temperatures, but in truth I was more warmed later by the news that Robbie Keane is returning to Spurs.

All ‘proper’ sabbatical work has been relegated to this evening. I am beginning to write a summary document of The Starfish And The Spider, which I recently referenced here. I said I was interested in this book, because it has been popular over the last two years in missional and emerging church circles. Tonight I’ve started to type up a summary of the book, complete with some reflections on where it might intersect with Christian faith, and how far its insights are compatible with a biblical faith.

In due course, I hope to post some of those reflections here on the blog for discussion. They might be split up into a series of posts, or it could be rather long and uninviting. Watch this space.


Our hairdresser is a family friend. We go together to her house for haircuts. Earlier this year, we were at Gemma’s and we noticed some fabulous new photos of her daughter.

‘Where did you get those done?’

She replied that she had used a new photographer in town. We had a 20″ x 16″ portrait of the children in the dining room, but it was two years old. At the age of our small children, that’s a long time in which they had changed.

So we booked a session with Melanie, who was wonderful, and Debbie asked that one of the shots be a new 20″ x 16″ as a birthday present for her. Mark was impeccable during the shoot, and Rebekah started out well before switching into full drama queen mode.

A little while later, Melanie gave us a CD of the best shots, and we spent an evening narrowing down our choices. Eventually, we placed the order and last week I collected them. They are fabulous. The new big portrait is up. Mark’s cheeky smile radiates across the room, and in Rebekah’s case you can see glimpses of the beautiful young woman she will become. It’s stunning.

So the first purpose of this post is an unsolicited plug for Melanie’s work. I’m not posting copies of the photos here for two reasons: firstly, I would be breaching her copyright, and secondly I don’t in any case put photos of our children in the most public parts of the web. I only use parts of my Facebook profile and Flickr that friends can see.

But the extended purpose of this post is to meditate on change and continuity. It’s there in the different photos of our children, separated by two years. It’s even more obvious when you go to the church social and the ice-breaker game is stuck on the walls: ‘Guess which church member this is as a baby.’

This struck me even more on Friday night, when Debbie and I sat down to watch Friday Night With Jonathan Ross. The main guest was one of my musical heroes from the 1970s, Stevie Wonder. His run of albums from ‘Music Of My Mind’ to ‘Hotter Than July’ (excepting ‘Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants’!) has to be one of the most sustained streaks of brilliance in popular music. I don’t care for much of his music since – indeed if ‘I Just Called To Say I Love You’ could be permanently deleted from the world’s memory, I’d be happy.

But I love his Seventies music as much today in my forties as in my teens. ‘Living For The City’ still has to be one of the great social justice songs. So am I behaving as an overgrown teenager when I put his music on, or am I still genuinely appreciating his music, despite the fact that I have grown – and hopefully matured?

One thing I did was ponder the roots of my musical taste. My love of some black music clearly comes from growing up in multi-racial north London. My best friend’s brother introduced me to Otis Redding and Stax.

But my taste is – well, the polite word is ‘eclectic’. Singer-songwriters feature prominently. Some of that comes from being a child in church during the Sixties when folk and protest music was acceptable in the mainline denominations. It was more respectable than that pop racket. Also, I’m quite an introspective person, so the Seventies singer-songwriters were an obvious touchstone for me – Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell and so on.

And I’ve always had a thing about lyrics. I’m keen on meaning, so those people who say that lyrics don’t matter have little sympathy from me. Not only that, I tried writing songs with my best friend. Given that he was and is a musician and I never have been, the words were my department. Don’t worry, none of them has ever been released. You are safe. But it gave me a deeper appreciation of lyrics.

The serious side of me also went for prog rock – notably Genesis and Yes. (Genesis went down the pan when they became a pop band.) My love of the serious and the complex kept my loyalty to this kind of music in the punk wars. The late Alan Freeman once held a vote on his Saturday afternoon Radio 1 show. Punk yes or no? No won 51% to 49%. I was in the 51.

You can still trace a lot of these influences in music I enjoy thirty years later. Boo Hewerdine, John Hiatt and Aimee Mann are all currently trapped in my car CD player, strongly representing the singer-songwriter camp. I recently bought Stomu Yamashta‘s Complete Go Sessions on eBay on the prog front. And Stevie Wonder on the TV probably has me digging out some of those classic albums.

At the same time, however, there are aspects of my teenage record buying habits that I wouldn’t want people to know about. There are some singles I was glad disappeared when I finally and reluctantly said goodbye to vinyl. I’m too embarrassed to name them here, so I’ll just leave you to guess. Some of them should only have been bought by teenage girls, that’s all I’m saying. It’s change and continuity again.

All this is an extended introduction to say that holding together continuity and change is an important spiritual and theological issue. I’m not even referring to the management of change in a congregation, although there is plenty that could be said about that. At this point, I’m confining myself to the personal aspects.

The Reformation enshrined this when it said that people were simul justus et peccator, both justified and yet still sinners. Justification brings redemption and leads to sanctification, that is, change, yet we are still what we always were: sinners.

Or to put it another way: our past and our present go a long way to explaining us, and hope draws us on into God’s New Creation.

And in that respect, Tom Wright’s great sign of the New Creation to come is the Resurrection of Jesus, itself am expression of continuity and change in the nature of Christ’s resurrection body. There was continuity: once the disciples had got past their considerable intellectual barriers to resurrection happening in the middle of history, Jesus was recognisable. He was ‘known by the scars’, to take Michael Card‘s old phrase. But there was also change: whatever miracles Jesus did before the crucifixion, he never suddenly appeared in the middle of a locked room, as is recorded twice in John 20. In the Resurrection, Jesus is endowed with the ‘spiritual body’ of which Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 15, and which my MPhil mentor Richard Bauckham used to say means, ‘a body animated by the Holy Spirit’.

So it isn’t necessarily a mark of immaturity if certain things remain from my youth. They may be part of an acceptable continuity that will travel with and in me throughout life in this age and the age to come.

Indeed, if the theory behind the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is correct that we have the same personality type for life, then that is an expression of this. You’ll see from the description I gave about the roots of some of my musical taste that a fair bit has to do with personality. No personality type is perfect: all have weaknesses. However, this is not necessarily about moral failure or weakness. God made humans to be interdependent, and in the Church God made us to be the Body of Christ, with complementary gifts.

But other things will fall away and be replaced or renewed. And that’s OK, too. That’s where the issues of holiness come in. So for example years ago I read an article in Third Way magazine about one of my musical heroes, Van Morrison. The author (Martin Wroe?) acknowledged that Morrison was not so much a practitioner of faith as a student of religions. He also acknowledged the commonly known fact about Morrison’s personality, namely that he is a notorious curmudgeon. Rock’s Mister Grumpy, indeed. However, he expressed a hope that there would be a place for him in the kingdom of God.

If there is, then it will be by the grace of God, just as it is for all of us. However, the question will arise for him, as it does for everyone, of change. How will he and we be made ‘fit for heaven’ (or the New Creation)? Transformation begins in this life by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, but is it complete at death?

The classical Catholic answer to this has been in terms of Purgatory. Tom Wright makes a good response to this in ‘Surprised By Hope‘. He describes it as a medieval metaphor and myth, without biblical support, having more to do with Aquinas and Dante. He quotes the current Pope, who appeals to 1 Corinthians 3, where the Lord himself is the fire in judgment who purifies us. Purgatory is unnecessary. God will see to it that we are fit for heaven and the New Creation.

And when he does, in that favourite verse of babysitters, ‘We shall not all sleep but we shall all be changed.’ By the grace of God, he will make us worthy of his presence. And there will be a degree of recognition due to continuity, although exactly what that is becomes another difficult question. Suffice to say it must be about more than physical likeness.

Who knows, maybe even some of my music collection will survive!