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Sermon: Acts – Good News

Acts 10:23b-48

Steve Wild

Steve Wild with the kids and me, August 2013

Last August, just before we went on holiday in Cornwall, I noticed that an old friend of mine, Steve Wild, the Chair of the Cornwall Methodist District, would be taking a service in the Methodist church in Looe, the town where we would be staying while we were there. Steve is one of the warmest, most positive Christians I have ever had the pleasure to know. And what’s more, he often turns up at services with puppets – most notably Clarence the Frog. So I contacted him and asked whether Clarence would be accompanying him to the service in Looe.

We went as a whole family to the service, and met Steve outside the chapel, where he greeted us in his customary enthusiastic manner. Inside, he led half an hour of community hymn singing before the service proper began. He desperately wanted our two children to pick something, but the church was still on the 1936 Methodist Hymn Book, and our two even find 1983’s Hymns And Psalms far too ancient. He hadn’t brought along Clarence the Frog, but he had brought one of Clarence’s friends, and he let Bex and Mark play with the puppet during the service. Also, at one point, noticing how difficult the service was for them, he conducted a commando raid on the refreshments during the middle of a hymn and came back with a supply of Jaffa Cakes for them.

All in all, Steve is good news. He embodies the good news that he has preached throughout his life as an evangelist, a lecturer, a local minister, and television presenter. And I consider it good news of another kind to hear this week that he has been elected to be next year’s President of the Methodist Conference.

Good news is our theme this morning. Not the good news of Steve, but the Good News of Jesus (whom Steve proclaims). We come to this reading on the back of the fact that both Peter and Cornelius are facing the challenge to change. Cornelius is a good man, a devout religious man, even, but his vision of a man in dazzling clothes (verse 30ff) has shown him he needs more. Peter is being challenged to move outside his Jewish comfort zone, as well. And the reason for both these challenges to change is the Good News of Jesus. We’re going to spend some time this morning thinking about that Good News.

Firstly, who hears the Good News? Listen again to what Peter says when he introduces himself, having disabused Cornelius of the idea that he is anything more than mortal:

You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. (Verse 28)

Unclean

Unclean by Edith Soto on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Never mind the notions of who’s in and who’s out, ‘Unlawful’ is a rather strong translation of a word that here should probably be taken to mean ‘taboo’[1]. All his social conventions and cultural pressure pointed against him having anything to do with Cornelius. But Peter says: ‘God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.’

Now that is potent. Social taboos tell us who the goodies are and who the baddies are. They tell us who is clean, and who is dirty. They wield great power, and tend to come with considerable pressure. Yet Peter resists the taboos, because God has told him otherwise. No-one is subject to God’s taboos when it comes to the Gospel.

What might that mean for us? It’s easy to draw up lists and examples of the social taboos we endorse today. Gypsies and travellers are often not welcome in an area, because they are all deemed to make a mess, but are they taboo to God? Evidently not, given the spiritual revival that has happened among them in recent years, and we have some evidence of that not far from here in the existence of a travellers’ church.

Or what about this week when we have seen two high-profile people in our society sent to prison? As a nation we have been disgusted by the phone hacking scandal that has been exposed in recent years, and it is only right that Andy Coulson, the convicted News of the World editor, has been jailed for eighteen months this week. What terrible things he authorised for victims such as Milly Dowler’s family. But has God declared him beyond the bounds of the Gospel? Was the judge right to declare these crimes ‘unforgivable’? Not at all. In fact, he desperately needs the Good News, and this would be a good time to pray for our prison chaplains.

Similarly, Rolf Harris. Many have been shocked to see his arrest, conviction and imprisonment for various sexual assaults, some upon minors. People are now queuing up to tell him to rot in prison and die there, but again – is he beyond the possibilities of God’s grace? By no means. In his twilight years, could he become like the repentant thief on the cross next to Jesus? Absolutely.

Of course, we don’t minimise the serious and deep repentance that will be needed by anyone who responds to the Good News of Jesus, but neither do we as believers in that Gospel deny people the opportunity to hear it and meet Christ.

And not only that, some of our taboos are not even about people who have done wrong. There are still taboos against people for the colour of their skin. There are various ways in which we exclude people because they are ‘not one of us’. But if God does not treat them as ‘profane or unclean’, then what right do we have to exclude them from the offer of God’s love? How can we? The heart of the Good News is a message of mercy and grace for all – including us, because we need that as much as anybody.

We're all waiting for good news

We’re All Waiting For Good News by Meg Wills on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Secondly, what is the Good News? Many years ago, I read a Christian magazine article where famous church leaders were asked to define the Gospel in fifty words or less. One or two of them said it wasn’t possible, and implicitly they were derided for complicating a simple message.

Well, the Good News is simple, but it is also huge. Whole books have been written about it, and we can only scratch the surface by looking at how Peter described it to Cornelius before the Holy Spirit interrupted his sermon.

Some Christians will read the account of Peter’s address and major on the ‘simple’ message beginning with peace through Jesus Christ (verse 36) and ending with the forgiveness of sins (verse 43). It’s what many of us are tuned in to hear – that Jesus died for our sins and through his sacrifice we can be forgiven.

Now in what I am about to say I do not want anyone to think that I deny that message. I don’t. I believe it, and it is central to my faith, too. But I want you to notice that it is only one thing among many that Peter says – and he doesn’t even get as far as linking forgiveness to the Cross! And the broad context is that Peter gives a brief account of the story of Jesus. Yes, the message starts with peace and ends with forgiveness, but that is all part of an invitation to enter into the story of Jesus.

The danger with only emphasising the message of forgiveness is that we gain the impression that Christianity is simply a ticket into heaven when we die. But the call is not only to be at peace with God and discover forgiveness through Jesus Christ, it is also to be part of the Jesus story. It is to live a Jesus life that is made possible by God’s peace and forgiveness. It is to know that the Resurrection doesn’t simply mean we have the hope of heaven, but that Jesus

is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. (Verse 42)

‘Judge’ may not sound like good news, but this is the Jesus who has already been described as ‘doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil’ (verse 38).

The message, then, is about receiving God’s forgiveness and peace, but going on from there as a disciple of Jesus, one who learns by seeking to copy his life. Yes, there is the hope of heaven, but before then there is the call as a disciple to build for the kingdom of God and make a difference in this world. This is what Peter calls Cornelius to embrace. This is what we are called to believe and live if we call ourselves Christians. And this is the message we are to take to the world.

Thirdly and finally, how is the Good News lived? It all happens when Peter’s sermon is interrupted. How on earth anyone can come up with the popular cliché that the Holy Spirit is a gentleman when that very Spirit decides that Peter has said enough and it’s time for action is beyond me. But he falls on the listeners ‘while Peter was still speaking’ (verse 44). The Gentiles get the same beginning – ‘speaking in tongues and extolling God’ (verse 46) – that the first disciples had had at Pentecost. The ‘taboo’ people – those thought ‘profane or unclean’ until God’s intervention are most definitely nothing of the sort.

I wonder whether we have ever seen God pour out his favour upon someone of whom we disapproved? Because that’s what Peter and his team witness here. And it is so decisive that Peter orders the immediate baptism of Cornelius and his household. There is all the evidence he needs to know that these are people who have converted to the Good News of Jesus.

Reconciliatoin

Reconciliation by Yohann Aberkane on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

And now, the two groups that were previously hostile to each other are united in Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. Here is a powerful sign of God’s ministry of reconciliation. The Gospel again is not simply about my personal forgiveness of sins. We are not only reconciled to God, we are reconciled to each other and called to live a life where we are at peace with God and one another.

Yes, living as a disciple starts right now as God unites us in Christ with people we wouldn’t otherwise choose to be our companions. The old adage that you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family is just as true of our spiritual family. But if we are serious about seeing the healing of the nations as we work for the kingdom of God, then we need to start by being an example of a healing community right here.

What does that mean? Well, by the power of the Holy Spirit it means I am not going to ignore that person I don’t like. I am instead going to see whether reconciliation is achievable. It means I am not going to keep poisoning our community by indulging in cheap criticism of people, especially when I do it from a perspective that sounds like I think I am superior, I have got everything together, and I am the better disciple of Jesus. It means I am not going to start complaining at the drop of a hat. I do not come to church to be a consumer, and expect that the purpose of church is for everything to be according to my taste, and that I can therefore rattle off my moans when it isn’t exactly how I want it to be. No, I come to my church community to be part of God’s work of reconciliation and healing. I come on Sundays and other days to live out Jesus Christ’s vision of peace – peace with God, peace with one another, and peace for the world.

In short, as I embrace in Jesus’ name those who are socially under a taboo, and seek to lives as disciples of Jesus alongside them, I am committed to a life whose very actions speak the Good News that Christ brought.

Nothing less than that is Christian faith and Christian church.

 

 

[1] Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, p353.

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Sermon: The Gospel And Change (Peter And Cornelius)

Acts 10:1-23a

There is an old joke that takes a Bible verse about some people not dying before the Second Coming of Jesus and applying at as a motto for a crèche or other gathering of babies:

“We shall not all sleep but we shall all be changed.”

Change

Change by Len Matthews on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Change. Children change your lives like nothing else. Marriage is a big change, but having children requires far greater adjustment.

In our Bible reading today, we meet two people who are on the verge of major change in their lives – Cornelius the centurion, and Peter the apostle. Both are in a comfortable place in their lives, but things are about to take dramatic twists for both of them as their lives are about to meet.

First, Cornelius. To the readers of Acts, who are probably Roman, Cornelius as a centurion is an all-round good guy. Roman citizens admired their centurions, rather like the way many in our society see our soldiers as heroes. One Roman writer put it this way:

“They wish centurions not so much to be venturesome and daredevil as natural leaders, of a steady and sedate spirit. They do not desire them so much to be men who will initiate attacks and open the battle, but men who will hold their ground when worsted and hard pressed and be ready to die at their posts.” (Polybius, Histories, 6.24.9)

And not only that, Cornelius would have been regarded as a good egg by Jews – at least, as good as a Gentile could be:

He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. (Verse 2)

He hadn’t quite gone all the way to becoming a Jewish convert – that would have required a painful snip for him – but in prayer and giving to the poor he practised two of the three basic disciplines expected of a Jew (the other being fasting).

But we can’t stop there. According to the angel who appears to him, even God has taken a shine to him:

Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God. (Verse 4)

It’s all good, isn’t it? Admired in society, respected in the community of faith, and pleasing to God.

Except … God still has an agenda of change for him. That’s why he needs to meet Peter and hear Peter’s message. He believes in God, he does good deeds, and contributes to the well-being of society. Yet God says, ‘Cornelius, you need more. You need change in your life.’

Perhaps we know similar people today. We might be one of them. Good people – after all, the church has no monopoly on goodness. They may pray or even turn up at worship sometimes, but some say, “I don’t need to go to church to be a good Christian.” They may work hard at their job, love their families, and put in extra effort of an evening to do something positive in the local community.

And maybe God says the same today. ‘You need more. You need change.’ Specifically, I think he says something similar to what he effectively says to Cornelius. ‘You need to meet someone who will tell you about Jesus.’ Because that is what Peter would go on to do when they finally met.

Why do we need to meet Jesus when we believe in God, and do good in our community? Well, if we are serious about our belief in God and wanting to do what he likes, then we shall want to be acquainted with the One he sent to bring peace, forgiveness and true purpose of life. That One is Jesus. If God has been quietly working in our lives and we’ve been seeking to respond to him, then when we hear about Jesus we’ll be positive. If on the other hand all our talk about believing in God and being good is a smokescreen to avoid serious commitment, then the mention of Jesus will expose the truth of our hearts.

Happily, Cornelius wasn’t like that. He was truly interested in God and God’s ways. Change would come for him. Dramatic change, but good change.

Daughter and Boyfriend

Daughter and Boyfriend by Peter on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Second, Peter. In order to get inside Peter’s attitude to life, let me ask you this question: have you ever been concerned with the fear that bad company corrupts good character? Perhaps if you are the father of a daughter and you are bothered what kinds of boyfriends she might have, you will understand this mindset. Can any young man ever possibly be good enough for your princess? What will you want to do to him if he wickedly steps out of line – say, he brings her back from a date five minutes later than promised? Really, you don’t want your angel influenced by such a wayward soul.

Translate that into a religious context and what you’ve got is a guy who has been brought up to believe that you shouldn’t mix with the wrong sort of people or your pure religious faith will be contaminated. And so, as a good Jew, he had believed he should have nothing to do with those who, in religious terms, were ‘unclean’. Cornelius, despite hanging out at the synagogue, was in some sense unclean to him, because he hadn’t become a fully fledged Jew.

Now, it has to be said, Peter isn’t always consistent in his convictions. We learn in this story that ‘He is staying with Simon the tanner’ (verse 6), and that is suspect behaviour for a devout Jew. Why? Because a tanner in his trade deals with the skins of dead animals, and good Jews were not meant to have anything to do with dead bodies. Yet Peter accepts hospitality from such a man. Either he’s compromising his convictions or he’s beginning to change before this incident. I suspect it’s the former.

But here, everything definitely begins to change for him when he gets hungry at lunchtime. As he falls into a trance he sees this strange vision of a huge sharing platter. Some of the items on the menu are foods regarded as unclean by Jews. The call to eat ritually unclean food becomes a metaphor for mixing with people he would normally shun (verses 9-20).

If Peter is to live in the will of God according to the love of God, then he has to make a drastic change to his life. He has to begin hanging out with people who are different from him. He needs to start relating to people whom he would otherwise consider anathema. What’s more, he will have to do all this for the sake of sharing God’s love in Jesus Christ.

You see, up until now, the followers of Jesus were effectively nothing more than a small Jewish sect. Just about everybody who had begun following the way of Jesus had been Jewish. There was the odd exception, like the heretics of Samaria, but the new faith hasn’t burst outside Jewish boundaries. The question of whether it should hasn’t even been raised.

But it is about to be raised, and effectively it’s God who does so. God calls Peter to a radical change that will take his life-transforming love in Jesus beyond the Judaism where it has begun to the rest of the world. Christianity as a world faith is about to begin in this story, especially in next week’s episode.

And you know what? It means something similar for those of us who are church regulars, too. Those who have heard me a lot here won’t be surprised to hear me say this, but it needs repeating, because we must take this on board. It might feel nice and safe to draw most of our friends from the people like us who share our beliefs and values, but really that’s the way to build a spiritual ghetto. We need to make friends with people outside the church if we are going to make a missionary difference today. I hope we will not be known as the kind of religious people who are forever looking down their noses at those whose values we query.

The church is not a social club. It is a worshipping community and a base from which to launch God’s mission of love for all people. If we are to see God’s love spread to more people, then like Peter we may need to embrace a radical change where we don’t wait within the walls of the church building for people to come to us on our terms. Instead, we risk getting dirty in the world showing the love of God to people.

Maybe then we shall meet the Cornelius types. People where God is already on their case and who are reaching out for him. Perhaps we can have the humble privilege of making the introductions.

You know, it could even happen today if people are reaching out for God.

What Is The Gospel?

Scot McKnight is worried:

He’s not the only one. I’m currently reading Michael Frost‘s book ‘The Road To Missional‘, in which he builds on the work of N T Wright and the late David Bosch to say that mission is alerting the world in announcement and demonstration to the fact that Jesus is King.

What they all seem to be getting at is that we have reduced the gospel to easy-believism. ‘Just accept Christ as Lord and Saviour.’ ‘Repent and believe.’ Well, yes, except the emphases on ‘Lord’ and ‘repent’ often fail to connect with Jesus’ frequent command in the Gospels to follow him. Indeed, these approaches are often embarrassed by the Gospels, drawing purely on a certain reading of Paul and only concentrating on the death of Christ, plus perhaps his birth to prove he was divine. The bits in between seem irrelevant to this approach.

How, then, should we summarise the Gospel? How would you summarise the Gospel? Indeed, can we summarise the Gospel briefly?

When ‘Church Unity’ Trumps The Gospel

Reported in many places, but particularly well in USA Today: Kentucky church barrs interracial couples as members.

Apparently

The recommendation “is not intended to judge the salvation of anyone, but is intended to promote greater unity among the church body and the community we serve,” according to the copy supplied by Harville to the Herald-Leader.

Yeah, right.

Not that we should be too smug. Churches are particularly good at elevating all sorts of things above the gospel as a false display of unity. This example is particularly vile, though.

Winning

Rebekah playing the camel derby

Rebekah playing the camel derby

One joy of our holiday in Great Yarmouth has been the children’s discovery of the camel derby attraction on the Britannia Pier. Not a real one, as held in Kenya and other places, but a mechanical-electrical game where contestants thrown balls into holes to propel their camels along the track.

Rebekah takes great delight in it, win or lose. It’s all good fun. She competes to the best of her ability, and accepts the verdict, wherever she comes in the race. She has even been known to give her winning token away to her little brother. Although the first time she won, she was delighted to use that token in order to gain the prize of a jigsaw that had to be made up and coloured in.

DSC_0073Mark is totally different. If he wins, he is ecstatic. So when he beat about fifteen others one evening, he nearly went into orbit. But if he loses, he isn’t just disappointed. He goes into the hugest strops imaginable. Old cliches about redheads and tempers come into play. He is inconsolable. Winning is everything to him. For Rebekah, playing the game is the be all and end all.

So who is right? The Brit in me sides with Rebekah. Play the game and enjoy it, but don’t be crushed by defeat. However, that can be just a coping mechanism to stave off the pain of losing. I guess (going by stereotypes) that if I were American or Australian, I might be more likely to side with Mark. The competitive spirit means the world.

And maybe we’re too British like this in the church. We can play the game and not worry about how we are doing. We rationalise away failure with slogans about faithfulness. (Not that faithfulness itself should be denigrated.) We dislike certain emphases on ‘success’ that rely heavily on manipulation, and I have preached and written against such things before. But sometimes we do so in such a way that we forget the New Testament injunction to ‘run in such a way as to win the prize’. Granted, it’s a different kind of prize, but sometimes the passion isn’t there, and we aren’t devastated when things haven’t gone as they should have done, according to the Gospel. Could we do with a bit more passion and devastation in the church?

Michael Eavis Of The Glastonbury Festival On Methodism And Faith

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

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

Later, he says this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sabbatical, Day 88: Body Image, Self-Esteem And The Gospel

“When I grow up, I want to be slim like Sophie, not fat like Louise.”

That was Rebekah (aged six, if you’re new here), at bath-time tonight.

She had said the same during the Easter holidays when she returned from a two-night sleepover.

Six years old and worrying about body image.

The other day, she’d been telling me she was stupid.

“Who tells you you’re stupid?” I enquired, knowing that we might get frustrated with her but we never call her that.

“I do,” was her reply.

So tonight when she came up with the slim versus fat line again, we reinforced all we’d said before (to no avail). The most important things are to know you are loved, and therefore to be happy and want to be healthy. Yes, slim is better than fat, but only if you are loved and happy.

But with it not having worked before, we explained further. Big mistake. We explained about how some get so obsessed with being slim they make themselves ill, and even die.

Whoops.

At this point, Mark starts wobbling and dissolves into tears. “Am I going to die because I’m not eating?” He never eats much when he’s ill (as at present), and we’d totally put the wind up him.

It took a lot of reassurance. No Mark, remember how we’ve been saying that you’re heavier than your sister, even though you’re younger? This sort of thing generally happens to girls. Etc.

I think we got out of jail alive. But were we both devastated to have that effect on our son.

It’s one of our major goals to build up our children’s sense of self-esteem and self-worth, not for any pop psychology reasons, but because we believe that’s a consequence of the Gospel. It’s in creation: we’re made in the image of God. It’s in redemption: God loves us so much he gave up his Son, and even wants to dwell within us by the Holy Spirit. We even build something into our nightly prayer with the kids, where we pray that they will know how much God loves them and we love them, and that this will have a positive effect on them psychologically and spiritually. OK, we don’t quite use that language, but that’s a summary for grown-ups.

In my work as a minister (to which I shall be returning in an active sense on Sunday week), I find there is an epidemic of low self-esteem in our churches. It isn’t just the obvious theological causes, where people have been brought up to live in permanent fear of divine wrath, or with ‘worm theology’ (“I’m just a worm”). There is also the damage so many carry around from various life traumas, not least their upbringing. These damaged people then damage others, both within the church family and in the next generations of their biological families.

And yes, I know that a central component of the Gospel is that it addresses the problem of human sin. And yes, I also know that ‘grace’ makes little sense without an understanding of why we need it. And yes, I’m aware it’s easy to turn talk of God’s love into ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ slogans. But – without losing those things – I want to share all the more the knowledge of a God who is passionately committed in love to his creation, who doesn’t stop with weeping over human sin but who also, in the words of Zephaniah, rejoices and dances over that creation. 

Of course, I could be crazy. What say you?

Sabbatical, Day 45: The Gospel At The Post Office

You don’t go to our local Post Office when it opens on a Monday at 9 am. Not unless you need your benefits payment. The queue slithers out of the door and along the street. You’d better have something to occupy your mind.

For although our manse is on a prosperous estate, the nearest Post Office is across the park in a deprived area of town. It’s the only part of Chelmsford to have a tower block.

And, it turns out, you also don’t go there on a Tuesday at 9 am for the same reason. I know, I did that today. To keep things manageable in our small manse, Debbie sells toys, books and clothes the children have grown out of on eBay. She has sold about two dozen items in the last ten days, and I have been taking most of them to the Post Office for her. 

As I waited today, distracting myself with music on my MP3 player, I looked at the variety of people waiting. The tracksuited teenage couple with their toddler. Already, the mother was getting irritated by the child’s independent exploratory jaunts. The mother and adult daughter. Was one of them long term sick? The short, elderly lady immaculately turned out in a red coat far cleaner than any garment most other people were wearing. It was her public signal of dignity. The preponderance of up-to-date mobile phones, clutched by people whose demeanour suggested they couldn’t afford them.

And I thought, what is good news in a culture like this? I lived in such a place for eight years before moving here. Often, there was terrible low self-esteem there. People had been  rejected, dismissed and ignored by governments and commerce. You would have thought it were a simple case of ‘good news for the poor’.

But it wasn’t. For just as the good news is preceded by bad news as Wesley put it (preach law and then preach grace), there was the attitude that society owed them a living. 

Somewhere in between those two attitudes locally is something my local vicar friend Paul has described to me. His parish strides across half of our middle class estate and half of the deprived area. In one half, he has competent, educated, professional people who will volunteer for activities and get things done. In the other, he has people who either cannot or will not take the initiative to do things, because they swim in a culture where everything is done for them. Either they are disabled by that, or they have reason never to grow as people by taking more responsibility.

So what is the shape of the Gospel in such a place? I’m still wondering.

…………

This made me laugh: British nurse told to ‘take English test’ before she can work in Australia. The Daily Mail has gone all morally superior over another easy target case of ‘political correctness gone mad’ (™) but it is crazy. However, it does make a change from the Mail criticising people in this country who can’t speak English. 

Anyway, Happy St Patrick’s Day to you. I commend May We All Be Irish by James Emery White as a suitable Christian reflection for the day.

Sabbatical, Day 37: In Between Reading, Some Links And Videos

Today, some odds and ends. In between reading some Clay Shirky, here are some links I’ve found.

John Martyn 
The official John Martyn website reports today that BBC4 will be repeating the one-hour Johnny Too Bad documentary, and by a half-hour solo acoustic performance from 1978. Dates and times for the documentary are Friday 20th March at 10:00 pm, Saturday 21st March at 1:20 am and Sunday 22nd March at 10:00 pm. The concert is being shown immediately after the Firday 20th documentary and immediately preceding the Saturday showing. It is not being broadcast on the Sunday.

Videos 
This video is doing the rounds of certain Christian blogs at present. N T Wright would be apoplectic in its denial of the physical and material in the afterlife. OK, don’t take it too seriously, but this is part of the problem with much populist Christian understanding of life after death:

(Via Parables of a Prodigal World and On Coffee.)

This one is popular, too. American comedian Louis CK interviewed by Conan O’Brien on the theme, ‘Everything’s amazing, nobody’s happy’. I watched this just after reading some more of Clay Shirky‘s book ‘Here Comes Everybody’ where he says that social change happens not once new technology is invented, but once is becomes ubiquitous. Louis talks more about how easily jaded we become with new tech:

(Via Collide Magazine and others.)

At least these are YouTube videos you can watch in the UK. From next Monday, UK viewers won’t be able to see premium music videos on the site.

Gospel 
David Wayne has a very pointed ‘failed Gospel tract‘.

Writing 
American pastor Mark Batterson on his rules for writing.

And that will have to do for today. I’m sure you’ll find something of interest somewhere in the abvoe.

 

Peacemakers

“Blessèd are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9)

I remember my first Remembrance Sunday service as a minister. The Anglicans and the Methodists gathered together every year in the parish church. The vicar didn’t like preaching, and always delegated that to the Methodist minister. He chose the Beatitudes of Jesus as the Bible reading. I’m sure you don’t see any parallels with this morning, then. 🙂

In my naïveté, I felt I had to expound the whole passage. I said something about every one of the nine beatitudes. So – here we are, another ecumenical Remembrance service in a village parish church, settle back into your pews … 

No. I’ve learned. There is enough in one of these Beatitudes to fill our thoughts on a day like this. I could have chosen, “Blessèd are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled”, but instead I selected, “Blessèd are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” What might these words of Jesus mean for us on Remembrance Sunday, and what might they mean for us generally in following him?

Peace with God
We cannot understand the mission of Jesus unless we see it as being out peacemaking between God and human beings. He said that he “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for the many” (Mark 10:45, italics mine). Jesus came to bring reconciliation. He came with the message of God’s grace and mercy for sinners. He demonstrated it by his outrageous association with the most unworthy members of society. He accomplished it in his death on the Cross, where he took the blame for the sins of the world. In his Resurrection, he made the new life of God’s kingdom visible and possible.

In the Gospel of Jesus, peacemaking bridges the gap between God and people caused by our sin. The apostle Paul says that God in Christ appeals to us to be reconciled to him. That happens through the Cross, when we respond by turning away from sin to follow Jesus and trust him. It is the work of Jesus as the Son of God to make God’s appeal to us and to make the bridge-building possible.

So what better time to find peace with God than Remembrance Sunday?

Peace with Neighbours
At college, a friend of mine bought a book of cartoons about the symbol of reconciliation at Holy Communion services, the sharing of the Peace. The cover had a cartoon showing one character offering the Peace to a rather frosty person. Its title? ‘No Thank You, I’m C of E.’

Some people think the introduction of the Peace into Christian worship is one of those touchy-feely happy-clappy trends that don’t fit with traditional worship. In fact, it’s a much more ancient tradition than the Book of Common Prayer. Only one tradition of Christian reconciliation is older, if you want to be truly traditional, and that is Paul’s command that we greet one another with a brotherly kiss. I don’t hear traditionalists calling for that too often!

But my serious point is this: a liturgical action like the Peace symbolises the fact that if we are at peace with God, we are called to be at peace with our neighbour, insofar as our efforts allow. That is why the Book of Common Prayer invited all those who were ‘in love and charity with [their] neighbour to take [the] holy sacrament to [their] comfort’.

In other words, we cannot have the blessings of reconciliation with God as a private possession without striving for reconciliation with people. Children of God will be such peacemakers. We will forgive those who have wronged us, not by pretending something didn’t happen or didn’t matter, but by separating blame and punishment. We shall take steps to apologise and make appropriate amends when we know others have been hurt by our actions. This is what those who have been adopted into the family of God do. God has built a bridge to us in Christ: we build bridges to others.

Peace with the World
Here’s the thorny problem with this text on Remembrance Sunday: if Jesus calls his followers to be peacemakers, should we ever go to war? Clearly, Christians have disagreed about that for two thousand years. I’m not about to settle it in one brief sermon. 

It’s worth noting that there was a political application to Jesus’ words here. If peacemakers were to be called ‘children [sons] of God’, then that would have struck a chord with his first hearers. In Jesus’ day, you will recall that his homeland of Israel was occupied by Rome. There were different Jewish responses to the fact of occupation. The wealthy Sadducees ingratiated themselves with their rulers. The Pharisees prayed for change.

And the Zealots were the freedom fighters. Rome would have viewed them as terrorists. What did the Zealots call themselves? ‘The sons of God.’ At very least here, then, Jesus repudiates the use of violence in advancing the kingdom of God.

It may be a different matter when it is not a matter of forwarding the Christian cause as one of justice for others, where we defend the oppressed. Jesus would have had the Hebrew word for peace in his mind, shalom. Now shalom is not peace simply defined as the absence of war. It is about the presence of justice and harmony in society.

Thus if promoting justice and harmony meant taking forceful action against the wicked, we might in some ways be peacemakers. However, that is something that needs weighing carefully and only pursuing in ways where we guard as much as possible against descending to the level of the oppressors. So, for example, that is why – although I disagree with Barack Obama on issues such as abortion – I welcome his commitment to close the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay.

An Anglican priest from Kenya once told me, “If I am attacked for being a Christian, I will not fight back. If I am attacked for being a black man, I will.” Whether you agree with him or not, he was trying to distinguish between the fact that Christians may not seek to advance the Gospel aggressively or violently, but we may use force if it is a matter of justice for others. However, let us exercise caution. Force should only be exercised with reluctance, not enthusiasm. 

One final area of peace to mention this morning:

Peace with Creation
This may seem an odd thing to talk about, and perhaps the moment I said ‘Peace with creation’ you thought this was going to be an excuse for some trendy talk about the environment.

Well, this point is about environmental concerns, but it is thoroughly rooted in the text. In the Old Testament shalom peace includes harmony with creation. This is not some ‘Hello trees, hello flowers’ approach, or viewing our planet as a goddess called Gaia, as some do. It is about taking seriously our stewardship of God’s world. If in the kingdom of God the lion will lie down with the lamb, if nothing will be harmed or destroyed on God’s holy mountain, and if the throne of God is surrounded not merely by humans but by ‘living creatures’, then we have a vision of harmony with God’s created order.

Even without this vision, we would surely want to fight to make peace with the environment for the sake of our children and grandchildren, just as many fought for a just peace in World War Two.

But the Bible’s vision of the future is a large and compelling one. It is not, as popularly supposed, one where the material is vaporised and we are all ethereal spirits floating on clouds. Rather, it is one where just as Jesus’ body was raised in a new physical form, so will ours be. It is one where heaven comes down to earth, and God inaugurates a new heaven and a new earth. Creation is redeemed with a new creation. Peaceable creation care today anticipates God’s future. It is in harmony with it.

Blessèd, then, are the peacemakers. Children of God are those who have been reconciled to their heavenly Father through the Cross of Christ. In response, they offer that same peace to others, they seek reconciliation with their neighbours, justice in the world and the well-being of creation.

May the Holy Spirit help us all to be peacemakers.