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Last Sunday’s Sermon: Peter Heals The Lame Man

Life has been frantic since returning from leave at the weekend – and still is. Here, belatedly, is Sunday’s sermon.

Acts 3:1-26 
Whenever I read Acts 3, one story always comes to mind. One of the thirteenth century Popes was showing the great Catholic thinker Thomas Aquinas around the Vatican. Having shown him many of the beautiful works of art, the ornate architecture and the lavish fittings, the Pope turned to Thomas and said, “No longer can the church say like Peter, ‘Silver and gold have I none’.”

“No,” retorted Thomas, “and neither can she say any more, ‘In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, rise up and walk’.”

So we come to this famous story, this first major episode after Pentecost and the formation of the early community of Jesus-followers. And it’s a big story. It extends beyond chapter three, which we read, into chapter four, where Peter and John are hauled before the religious authorities. Just as the opposition to Jesus begins early in the Gospels, so does opposition to the apostles and the Jesus movement in Acts. It makes for three phases in the story: the healing, Peter’s speech and the opposition.

But I’ll have to leave that final phase of this story to next week. There is more than enough to meditate upon with the first two elements of the healing itself and then the speech.

Firstly, then, the healing. Right from the start, this is a story about what discipleship means. Compare it with Luke’s first volume, his Gospel. There, Jesus’ first converts (his disciples in 5:1-11) are followed by – guess what? Jesus healing a lame man (5:17-26). For Peter and John to heal a lame man here ‘in the name of Jesus’ is a sign they are walking in his footsteps. Right from the start, this is a story, then, that points to Jesus, as indeed Peter will tell the crowd (verse 12). It’s one of those stories that remind us of that important theme: nothing we do as Christians is about drawing attention to us, it’s about pointing to Jesus. Someone once said to preachers, “You can’t make yourself out to be a great preacher and tell people how wonderful Jesus is in the same breath.” That’s true for us all, whatever our gift is. Let’s call attention to Jesus through what we do.

And what does Jesus do here through Peter and John? This is not just a miracle of healing, and if it were only that this story might be daunting or discouraging to those of us who have not seen healing. There is something Jesus does in this miracle that we can all do, whether we have a healing ministry or not. This is a miracle of inclusion.

How? The man was lame. Lameness excluded you from Temple worship under Old Testament Law. It made you ritually unclean. Healing him meant he could take his full place with the People of God at worship. While we’re not sure exactly which gate is meant by the ‘gate called Beautiful’, what is clear is that now he doesn’t need to be carried just to the gate each day. Now he can go inside the gate.

Is this not what the Gospel does? God’s grace is the miracle of inclusion. To those who believe they are unworthy, Jesus says, “Come.” To those who feel that what they have done excludes them, Jesus says, “I will make it possible for you to come inside. Here is strength for you. Here is forgiveness. Here is love. Here is a fresh start.”

Here’s a video, though, about how some people feel:

All sorts of people feel they can’t ‘come to church’. It can be about lifestyle. It can be about what culture you come from. It can be to do with your generation. Only the other day I read an article about a church where someone was preaching on the need to accept all sorts of different people in the Christian family. As it was a sunny day, the Junior Church went outside for some fun and games. But as the preacher was preaching, a man got up, went outside and told the children to shut up and stop interrupting the service. I have seen comparable incidents in my own ministry. This is, in my experience, a welcoming community. However, let’s not be complacent.
A final point about the man’s lameness. Isaiah prophesied (35:6 LXX) that the lame walking would be a sign of the age to come (along with the deaf hearing, the blind seeing, the dumb speaking and so on). It’s a scripture that Charles Wesley had in mind when he wrote ‘O for a thousand tongues’ and included the verse,

Hear him, ye deaf; his praise, ye dumb
Your loosened tongues employ;
Ye blind, behold your Saviour come;
And leap, ye lame, for joy!

Biblically, then, the healing of the lame by Jesus in the Gospels and now by his followers in Acts is a sign that God’s new age has begun. Since the coming of Jesus and especially since his Resurrection we live in overlap between the old age of death and sin and the beginning of God’s new age. Healing is one sign of the new age. More widely, as the Church we are called to be the community of the new age. All that we do and share is meant to be a sign of God’s coming kingdom. We are to be the family where those who are not OK find healing grace. We are to be characterised by love that works itself out in forgiveness and justice.

Friends, this is more possible than we think. Let me introduce you to Joel. He is six years old and lives in Reigate. He became deeply affected by what he heard at church and at school about world poverty. After seeing a TEAR Fund video at church, he knew he had to do something. He took an empty Frubes box, labelled it the ‘Poor Box’ and started collecting donations. He then decided to do a sponsored run with his mum. His Dad Martin set up a donations page on Virgin Money Giving, and wrote about it on his blog. Joel aimed to raise £60. But the word spread. So far, he has raised over £5000.

Joel could easily have said, ‘Silver and gold have I none.’ The difference is, he went on to say, in his own way, ‘But what I do have I give you.’ It’s time to stop looking at what we don’t have and offering what we do have for the healing of people – and indeed for the healing of the nations.

Secondly, let’s think about Peter’s speech. I say ‘speech’, because that’s what it becomes, but it’s not initially your conventional speech. Mostly you know when you’re going to give a speech. They are scheduled, they are by arrangement. But not in this case. it’s a spontaneous reaction. Peter and John have invoked the authority of Jesus to heal the lame man, and then there is something of an accidental ambush. Word gets out, and the crowd finds the man, and yes, he has been healed.

Peter has to respond. He is in Solomon’s Colonnade, a place where Jesus himself had taught, and like his Master, this is his opportunity for some courageous teaching – again, like Jesus.

Not only that, he makes Jesus the subject of what he says. If he is relying on the Holy Spirit to give him the words to say in a crisis as Jesus promised, then it is no surprise, since the work of the Spirit is to point to Jesus, if he is the theme of what Peter says. As I said, the miracle, by being a great act of mercy and social inclusion for the man, points to Jesus. Peter makes no mistake.
And this may be an encouragement for us. When we are in the world, we can get bogged down in all sorts of minutiae in what we talk about when the topic turns to religion. But one subject will always get us a hearing. One subject will always be fascinating. That subject is Jesus. I recently read a book by a Christian called Carl Medearis. He tends to spend his time in places and with people whom you would not expect to be sympathetic to Jesus. He has spent years in the Middle East, working among Muslims. Back in his native America, he befriended the gay owner of a liberal coffee shop. But Carl, rather than going for conventional evangelistic methods that put people off, simply talks about Jesus. He gets a hearing. His book ‘Speaking of Jesus: The Art of (Not) Evangelism’ is an easy and inspiring read.

But of course to speak about Jesus to this audience has different implications from those we have. Peter is dealing with people who may have been involved in the events of only some weeks earlier. His speech is similar to the one he gives at Pentecost in that he starts with defending what has happened, and then moves onto the offensive. There is more than irony here that people who longed for the fulfilment of Israel’s hopes are faced with the One in whom God would indeed fulfil their aspirations, but they conspired to have him killed. Peter has to go from showing how God has vindicated Jesus and how Jesus is behind the wonderful miracle they have witnessed to confronting his hearers with their guilt, and calling them to repentance as the only way to the blessings of God they so greatly desire. And of course, that criticism will soon lead to conflict.

What about us? When our Christian lives lead to the need for an explanation – and if they don’t, then why not – what happens when we speak of Jesus? As I said a moment ago, there is something deeply attractive about Jesus, even in a society where the church is either boring, irrelevant or negative. But also, to talk about Jesus, his Cross and Resurrection will be such that people will need to make a response. As Peter says, once Jesus is in the frame God no longer overlooks ignorance, and that means people need to make a decision about him. That can go strongly one way or the other. It may be the kind of welcome because people find Jesus attractive, or it can be the kind of hostility that is seen in different ways – from the outright violent persecution that Christian suffer in some lands to the more subtle attempts to keep faith out of the public square that sometimes happen in the West.
So, for example, the question of facing people with the claims of Jesus has been n the national news in Canada recently. A nineteen-year-old Christian student called William Swinimer wore a t-shirt to school with the slogan ‘Life is wasted without Jesus’. Some students complained they found it offensive. The vice-principal asked him not to wear it. He refused on principle, and thus began a series of suspensions which led to five days at home. Eventually the school relented, but not before Swinimer had been told he could support his religion provided he did not offend others, and the vice-principal accused him of ‘hate talk’.

Now you can listen to that as an older and potentially wiser Christian and wonder whether this young man was naïve, but just as Peter was courageous so William Swinimer was willing to risk not graduating, rather like a promising British student risking missing A-Levels and hence university.

In conclusion, you might think then that blessing others in the world in the name of Jesus is a risky business. There is no dodging that fact: it is. But what is the alternative? If we don’t, then think of the many people who won’t be blessed. And let us think of our own faith, wasting like an unused muscle.

Free Gifts And Happiness

Coca-Cola did this as a publicity stunt, I’m sure. But isn’t it a parable of the Gospel? Isn’t it the kind of thing the church is meant to be doing all the time – lavish, free, unconditional giving to the world?

(Thanks to the weekly email from Share Creative for this.)

Sermon: Ruth Part 1, Together In Suffering (A Covenant Service Sermon)

This Sunday, my two churches begin a five-part series on the Book of Ruth. At the one where I’m preaching this weekend, it also coincides with the annual Covenant Service, where we Methodists renew our commitment to Christ. Hence there is a lot of reference to that in the sermon below.
I should add that before you read it, I owe a huge debt for background issues on this sermon to Daniel I Block’s magnificent commentary on Judges and Ruth in the New American Commentary series.

Ruth 1:1-22

There was no monarch or President. Transport was primitive and you couldn’t go to the shops for retail therapy. There was no Social Security system and women were entirely dependent upon men.

It sounds a world away from our lives, and you could say it is. Yet human nature being what it is, and God’s nature being what it is, the story of Ruth is one that can have a surprising number of connections with our call to be Christian disciples today. Today, as we begin a new year, it can even frame the renewal of our covenant promises to God as we ponder the dedication shown in this opening episode.

Firstly, there is a context to set, and it begins with a famine (verse 1). That might seem a long way from our experience, situated in the middle of fast food outlets and just down the road from a Tesco Extra. But we of course are putting our weight behind the establishment of a food bank, and the economic prospects for Western society remain poor. People are struggling.

Indeed, in that fact there is another potential similarity. The famine in Israel happens ‘when the judges ruled’ (verse 1), and you may recall from reading the Book of Judges that when disaster hits Israel it is usually the displeasure of God at his people’s sins, following on from the warnings in Deuteronomy. This famine, therefore, could well be one of God’s judgments against his people.

Now without wishing to be too dramatic, it doesn’t seem entirely impossible to me to construe some of our current economic woes as a divine judgment on our society. We can blame the banks for selling credit too easily, but in our desire to munch up everything a consumer culture threw at us, we accepted it. As a result, we face stark measures to try and tame our colossal national debts. Could it be that God is letting us reap the whirlwind of our choices to seek pleasure instead of him? I do not think, therefore, that it is too remote an idea to consider that we too face the challenges of discipleship as part of a society which makes God weep, and where his severity is part of his call to return to him.

There are hints, too, right at the beginning, that this story is going to turn from pain to tragedy. We see this in the names of the two sons. Mahlon probably derives from the Hebrew verb ‘to be sick’, and Chilion from the verb ‘to be finished, to come to an end’ (verse 2).

Not only that, if I am right that there is a background of God’s judgment, Elimelech makes a bad move. Instead of sharing in some corporate repentance for the sins of his people, he takes what he thinks will be the quick and easy way out, which is to move to Moab. But this is to embrace one of Israel’s ancient enemies. In doing so, he leaves Bethlehem (verses 1 & 2) – at this time a small and insignificant community, but one destined to be central in the purposes of God. Elimelech misses this, because he wants his instant solution.

Having set the scene of despondency and desperation, the second thing we find is that it all gets worse. Elimelech isn’t saved: he dies (verse 3). And then the two sons marry pagan women, outside their clan (verse 4). In fact, it doesn’t even sound like a normal form of marriage: when our English translations say they ‘took’ Moabite wives (verse 4), ‘took’ is quite a forceful word. It implies they abducted Ruth and Orpah. These were far from pleasant young men. The women are effectively the victims of domestic violence. You wonder what the resulting relationships were like. Certainly, within the understanding of the time the fact that in ten years of marriage no children are born to either couple and then the husbands die (verses 4-5) indicates more displeasure on God’s part.
For many of us, that will all seem rather remote. But the awful truth is that many Christians today are victims of domestic violence (I can certainly think of some people I know), and that means in some cases the violence is perpetrated by Christians. It is not a wild suggestion to make that today in Methodist churches around the world, there will be people renewing their covenant promises who do so against a background of consistent suffering at home.

Yet it is desperate in a new way when these thuggish young men die. This is a society where no men means no hope. Men were the providers. What on earth are these three widows – Naomi, Orpah and Ruth – going to do? Yet into this horrendous situation comes the third element of our story: God’s grace. Naomi hears good news in the midst of her grief:

Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had had consideration for his people and given them food. (Verse 6)

God has visited his people in mercy. ‘His people’: the language of the covenant relationship between Yahweh and Israel. Judgment is not the last word in God’s vocabulary, grace is. And he has not simply ‘given them food’, the word is ‘bread’, which is significant for Naomi, as Bethlehem means ‘house of bread’. The house of bread is being restocked. This is grace: not only forgiveness, but provision for needs.

It is grace like this and far more that brings us to a covenant service. The grace of God in which he gives up his only begotten Son for the salvation of the world brings us here. The grace that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself brings us here. The God who not only mercifully withholds judgment in favour of justifying us but who also in grace blesses us with many things we do not deserve – all this brings us to a covenant service. If it were only about the solemn promises we make, this would be a severe and sombre occasion. But we are here because God’s grace is extravagant and healing.

Therefore the fourth movement in this episode is Naomi’s response. Grace has shown her where she belongs – not in Moab but among the people of God, and so she heads home, accompanied by Ruth and Orpah (verse 7). Having heard of God’s mercy to her own people, she offers mercy to her daughters-in-law. She urges them to go home, so that they might have the chance to remarry and thus find their own security in having a husband provide for them – and this time, hopefully treat them better (verses 8-9). Naomi, the one who has come to know grace, must first of all respond in kind to others. In today’s parlance, she ‘pays it forward’ to others. The very essence of our own response today to God’s grace is that we seek to offer grace to others.
Now in the fifth stage of the story, Ruth and Orpah react. Have they been affected by Naomi’s graciousness? Had they all been bound together in their common suffering? They promise to come with her (verse 10). However, Naomi assumes they will be doing so in order to find husbands – not an unreasonable assumption. She moves quickly to show them that gaining new husbands through her is a ludicrous idea (verses 11-13a). But in doing so, it exposes an unhealed, unredeemed side of her. At heart she is angry with God for her circumstances. There is no self-examination, just a lashing out at God. She says:

No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me. (Verse 13b)

It may well be that today we need to reflect on this. We are at our covenant service because we know that God has shown grace to us and we are making a gut response to that of wanting to show our gratitude by demonstrating that grace to others. However, we have those areas of our lives that may be forgiven but which are not yet transformed. Someone has said that the Gospel is about salvation from sin in at least three different senses: we are saved from the penalty of sin (that is, forgiveness), one day we shall all be saved from the presence of sin (when God brings in his new heavens and new earth), but in the meantime God wants to save us from the practice of sin (that is, enable us to grow in holiness).

And if the covenant service is anything, it is a commitment to holiness. I believe that one reason why we sometimes feel uncomfortable about the promises we make today is that they highlight those areas of our lives we have not yet been willing to hand over to Christ for purification. I don’t want to promise to follow Christ with no strings attached: I want to retain a veto over what he asks of me. For Naomi, it was an issue of anger, bitterness and, I would suggest, trying to justify herself. In the final part of today’s reading, we shall see that she still has not resolved it: she says God has dealt bitterly and harshly with her, taking everything away from her (verses 19-21). What is it for us? Can we at least say to Christ today, I do not feel that willing to be changed, but I am willing to be made willing? May we not let it fester, as Naomi appeared to do.

Orpah, then, takes the natural human course and returns home (verse 14a). She is not to be blamed for this. But Ruth clung to Naomi (verse 14b) and from this springs the most remarkable and beautiful sixth phase of this story, where her commitment is worked out in the way she devotes herself to Naomi. It’s really quite astonishing, because we have yet more evidence of Naomi’s rather fragile faith here. She implores Ruth to follow Orpah back to Moab ‘to her people and to her gods’ (verse 15, italics mine). Naomi, a follower of Yahweh, the one and only God, speaks as if the Moabite claim to other deities is true. Sheer heresy! Yet Ruth is attracted to her mother-in-law and her feeble faith. Ruth will travel and live wherever Naomi goes; Ruth will transfer her allegiance from her people and gods to Naomi’s people and Yahweh; Ruth considers herself part of Naomi’s family now, because she wants to be buried in the same family grave (verses 16-17).

Do not let the weakness of your faith prevent you from speaking out for Christ. God does not wait until you have it all together for him to use you. God uses a woman like Naomi, with her unresolved feelings and her theological errors, to draw out a true sense of covenant from Ruth. Come, with whatever weaknesses you know you have, to renew your commitment to Christ in our service today.

But of course, as it is often said, God loves us just as we are, but he loves us too much to leave us as we are. For that reason, aspire less to be like Naomi and more like Ruth. For Ruth becomes a wonderful example of what it means to make a covenant commitment. She is committed to God and to God’s people. This is what covenant means. We bind ourselves to our Lord, because in grace he has bound himself to us. But we do not do so in isolation. God’s covenant is not merely with individuals, but with a community, with his people. The purpose of his covenant is make us more truly into the community of his kingdom, a living, breathing witness to his love. Like Ruth said to Naomi, so we say to each other today, ‘Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.’ And as Ruth also said to Naomi, so we also say to one another today, ‘Where you go, I will go.’

Today, in a context of suffering and judgment, even from the pain of our own lives, let us acknowledge with joy the grace of God in Christ and respond by seeking redemption for our brokenness, and by binding ourselves to our Lord and to each other.

Let it be so.

Christmas Eve Sermon: Grace And Truth

Here is the sermon for the ‘midnight’ communion service tonight. It concludes the series on the Prologue to John’s Gospel, and given the hour at which it will be delivered, is shorter than my typical Sunday morning sermons.

John 1:14-18

Grace and truth. As we complete our reflections on the Prologue to John’s Gospel tonight, these two words dominate the final verses. Grace and truth. They are such rich words, and not to be trivialised in the way we often do, where grace is no more than what we say before meals and truth is no more than being right. Here, grace and truth are linked to the rich beauty of the Incarnation, the birth of our Lord in human flesh.

In particular, there are two strands about grace and truth in these final verses of the Prologue.

Firstly, God’s grace and truth in the Incarnation are the glory of God.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (Verse 14)

When the Word is made flesh – when Jesus is born – we see the glory of God, and that glory is ‘full of grace and truth’.

When he says ‘we have seen his glory’, John may want his readers to think about the time in the Book of Exodus when Moses asked to see God’s glory. When indeed God’s glory passed near to him, the Lord proclaimed that he was

the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. (Exodus 34:5-7)

So back then, seeing God’s glory meant discovering the goodness of God. Now, as we see God’s glory in the birth of his Son, we also find the goodness of God revealed to us: he is ‘full of grace and truth’.

We might think that to see the glory of God is a fearful thing and in one sense it is. We can no more see the glory of God in all its splendour than we can safely look straight at the sun. But at heart, seeing the glory of God is a good and wonderful thing. The glory of God is that he is the saving God.

And we celebrate this supremely at Christmas. Here above all we see God’s glory. He is the saving and redeeming God. His Son takes on human flesh in order to bring his grace and truth to the world. Perhaps here the old saying that GRACE stands for God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense comes into its own. The riches of God which we do not deserve come to us courtesy of all that Christ gives up. Eventually that will be the Cross. But it begins with the Incarnation. Tonight we mark when God goes up a gear in the salvation of the world.

And what a privilege it is to mark this. ‘We have seen his glory’ – we have, says John, and the implication is that not everybody has. He has not long said that

He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him (verse 11).

Let us never treat the glory of God’s goodness, his grace and truth, as a commonplace. It is not that we are some kind of élite because we have seen his glory, but it is the most awe-inspiring privilege. This is the One who outstrips John the Baptist, because although he came after him in terms of birth is actually senior to him because he originates before him (verse 15). This is the One who would later claim, ‘Before Abraham was, I Am’.

So in the morning, even amidst the rushing of preparation and the rustle of paper, might we have a moment to contemplate what a truly wonderful thing it is to know that God has revealed his glory in the coming of his Son? Here is grace and truth: grace in God giving us the blessings we do not deserve as sinners; truth in that he who himself is the truth has come into our midst. What wonder. What glory. What goodness this is.

Secondly, God’s grace and truth in the Incarnation are a greater grace. Here I want to tease out something of the relationship between God’s work as witnessed in what we call the Old Testament and his work in Jesus Christ Incarnate. Sometimes we seem to set them up in opposition to each other. Because we can come to the Scriptures in that frame of mind, we can hear a verse like verse 17,

For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ

and think that ‘law’ is being opposed to ‘grace and truth’. Law is bad, grace is good, we think.

But this is to miss the force of verse 16, immediately before it. The NIV translates it,

From the fulness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another.

However, I would translate it more literally:

From the fullness of his grace we have all received grace instead of grace.[1]

What preceded the coming of Jesus was grace. The Old Testament Law was not originally given in order to say to God’s people, ‘Follow these rules and you will be saved.’ It had a different purpose. The Law was given at Mount Sinai, after God had saved them from the Egyptians. Salvation had taken place. The Law then showed them how to live as the people of God in grateful response to that salvation.

Why, then, does Paul speak about ‘law’ and ‘grace’ in Romans as if they are opposites? Because people ended up using the Law of Moses in the wrong ways. Either they used it to say, “I’m one of the in-crowd and you’re not” (the elitism I spoke about near the end of the first point) or they said, “My keeping of the Law is what saves me” (salvation by works, not by faith).[2] The Law was unable to save in itself, but it could show where people needed to change and it could show ways of faithful and grateful response to God’s salvation, just as the ethical passages in the New Testament can for Christians. And because it could have a good purpose in the plans of God, it was a gift of grace.

Therefore when Jesus comes, he brings a greater grace. It is ‘grace instead of grace’. Jesus is the fulfilment of all the Old Testament hopes – not just the prophets, as we often remember in Advent, but the Law, too. What the Law could not do in transforming us, he can. What the Law pointed to, he brings to fulfilment. The grace of the Incarnation replaces all the promises of the Old Covenant: truly, ‘The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.’

It’s like going to a concert where there is a support act before the main act you have gone to see. When the main act is about to take to the stage, they may be introduced with words to the effect that this is who you’ve been waiting for. John is telling us that Jesus is who we have been waiting for. In him is the grace of forgiving love, for he will offer a sacrifice that does not need to be repeated like the Old Testament sacrifices – this is ‘grace instead of grace’. In him is not only the example of how to live in gratitude for the love of God, but also the gift of the Spirit in order to live that way, unlike the Law – again, this is ‘grace instead of grace’.

John’s Prologue, then, concludes at a fitting place as we stand on the cusp of Christmas – never has the glory of God’s goodness been better seen than in the grace and truth of Jesus. And the gracious God of the Old Covenant now gives a greater grace as his Son inaugurates the New Covenant. ‘O come, let us adore him – Christ the Lord.’

[1] Italics mine.

[2] Yes, I am hedging my bets on the New Perspective/Old Perspective debate here!

Brennan Manning On Failure

Failure. Now there’s a word for this blog lately. Nothing except links since 5th December. There are reasons, but best not mentioned publicly. Even my pre-Christmas sermons are not here. In some cases, I wrote one and changed to an old one on the spur of the moment.

Anyhow, by way of dipping my toe gently back in the water, a couple at church gave us a beautiful book for Christmas. Lion And Lamb: The Relentless Tenderness Of Jesus by Brennan Manning.  I’ve been savouring chapter 4, ‘The Affluent Poor’. It’s the chapter that contains the words

we were created from the clay of the earth and the kiss of God’s mouth (p 55)

that Julie Miller read, recounted to Emmylou Harris, and which became Emmylou’s remarkable song about God’s longing for humans, ‘Here I Am‘, on her CD ‘Stumble Into Grace‘:

But it’s a passage three pages later that has stayed with me. Here goes:

Children have no past. They abandon themselves to the reality of the present moment. The one who is childlike is not surprised that he often stumbles. He picks himself up again without discouragement, each time more determined to get where he’s going.

I saw that in action last week.  As compensation for not having a summer holiday this year due to our August move, we took them to Lapland UK. Part of the experience was half an hour’s ice skating. I say ice skating, the surface was synthetic in order to reduce the carbon footprint of the event. Rebekah has ice skated once or twice before, with older friends. Mark – this was his first time. Usually he displays my cautious traits, but he went on the ice without hesitation. Five times he fell down. Five times he got up and continued, sometimes with the help of his sister.

They say that failure is not falling, failure is only when we do not get back up after falling. Brennan Manning is someone who knows about that. Despite his faith, he ended up an alcoholic. But God lifted him up and gave him a wonderful appreciation of grace and ‘the fierce love’ of Jesus.

In the summer of 2009, I felt like not getting up again. I was close to quitting the ministry, or at least coming out of it for a few years. I couldn’t say anything about it here on the blog, and I still wouldn’t go public about the causes. I’ll only say that moral failure wasn’t involved – just to prove that at heart I’m probably a Pharisee. It was other people, notably my Chair of District, who helped me to my feet again, and enabled me to find a more fruitful place.

Thank God for the people he uses to lift us up when we fall.

Sermon: Martha And Mary

Luke 10:38-42

When I began at secondary school, I was given a homework diary. It was designed as a record of all the homework I was assigned and had completed, and my parents had to sign it each week. Within it were the expectations of the school about the amount of work that would be involved. When you started at the school, you would have two pieces of homework a night, each lasting thirty minutes. But by the time you revised for public examinations, that would increase to what the headmaster gleefully called “endless toil”.

I suspect many churchgoers see the Christian faith as a matter of ‘endless toil’. Not simply the relentless list of jobs to be done in church (as some people here know only too well), but the sense that you will never have done enough in order to please God. The Methodist ordination service says that the ministry will make great demands on ministers and their families, and while it goes onto promise the help of the Holy Spirit, it nevertheless leaves an impression that genuine ministry is about ‘busyness’. That’s certainly the way congregations often measure their ministers – are they busy? More worryingly, it’s often the way ministers measure their own value. Am I busy? A full diary becomes a sign of spirituality.

So we come to Martha and Mary. We may be tempted to think that the contrast is between Martha, who is on her feet, and Mary, who sits at Jesus’ feet. If we value the idea of being busy, we will have a problem with Jesus’ commendation of Mary. A church member I once knew said she felt sure Luke didn’t record the whole story, and that Jesus would have asked Mary to go and help Martha.

But the story is not a contrast between Martha ‘doing’ and Mary ‘being’. It cannot be. It occurs immediately after the Parable of the Good Samaritan (which was last week’s Lectionary Gospel reading, and you may have had a sermon on it). Jesus can hardly commend the radical action of the Samaritan one day, and condemn Martha for being busy the next day. Maybe instead this story balances the Good Samaritan story.

Martha’s problem is not that she has a lot to do. It is that she is ‘distracted by her many tasks’ (verse 40), as Luke puts it. Jesus tells her she is ‘worried and distracted by many things’ (verse 41). The worry and the distraction are the core issues. Martha is frantic and fretful. And that’s where Jesus picks her up.

In some respects, worry and distraction are only human. How often have you said to someone – perhaps a loved one – “You drive me to distraction”? Maybe a son or daughter gives you cause for concern. Perhaps you don’t have enough money for all you think you need. It wouldn’t be surprising if worry took over.

Or it might be that you believe that your acceptance by God depends on whether you are a good enough person. You devote all your energies to doing what you are believe are the right things. However, it’s a tyranny, because you never know whether you have reached an acceptable standard. Probably you haven’t, and so with even more worry you redouble your efforts. All the time you do this, you might say you believe in the love of God, but really your whole existence is being lived in complete doubt as to whether God loves you or not. Your image of God is actually of a tyrant.

Think of some attitudes we encounter in the church. We are told that we should not be slapdash in our preparing to meet God – quite rightly: excellence is a noble thing. But someone then says to us, “You wouldn’t be so careless if the Queen were coming to your house; why are you about meeting the King of Kings?” We then feel that nothing we can ever do is good enough for God. Either we strive even more, or we give up in despair.

If it’s not a matter of fear, it might be a question of pride. If I can earn my own place of favour with God, how good am I? it’s tantamount to saying, “I don’t need the Cross of Christ. I can make my own way to God on my own.” It’s as if we dare to stand before Jesus on the Day of Judgement and say, “Lord, it was awfully decent of you to die on the Cross for the sins of the world, but you really didn’t need to, old chap.”

Another way of looking at the motives behind being distracted by the tasks we have to do is to see it in terms of urgency. There is so much that needs doing, and so little time. So I have to crack on. I can’t let up. Something will be missed if I don’t keep at it relentlessly.

But of course, while this may sound like an efficient use of time, it is both foolish and dangerous. It is like saying, “I have a long car journey to make today. I cannot afford to stop for a rest, and neither do I have the time to call in at a petrol station and refuel.” This is the plague of being distracted with busyness: our commitment to keep on do-do-doing all the time may be for honourable intentions, but it sucks us dry. It leaves us with nothing to feed on, and nothing to offer. Is it any wonder many churches seem as arid as the desert when the distractions of busyness dominate such places?

All of which brings us to Mary’s honoured place in this story. We pause a moment to note how revolutionary it was that Jesus was teaching her in the first place. Women did not normally have the privilege of being taught by a rabbi. But Jesus was different. He was ushering in a kingdom that was open to female and male, child and adult, Gentile and Jew. Martha in her fretting and worrying had missed the fact that Jesus was teaching a woman – like her! She could have had this privilege, but her over-busy lifestyle means she misses this radical implication of the Gospel. It makes you wonder how much of the Good News we also miss, because we are too obsessed with doing this, that and everything.

So what makes Mary’s grabbing of her Gospel privilege as a daughter of God so important? For one thing, she understands something about grace. She knows that before anything else, a disciple needs to receive from Jesus. Discipleship doesn’t start or depend on all the effort we make for God: it begins with God graciously and lovingly approaching us in Christ, especially in the Cross. For there we learn that we are not people who are capable of pleasing God by our own efforts. We need God’s forgiveness in Christ through his death in our place. Everything starts there for the Christian. And it sets a pattern for the whole of life. It all begins with Jesus, not us. In a simple way, I believe Mary knew that.

Therefore, alongside the joy Mary has being a woman whom Jesus has chosen to teach, there is a basic humility. If Martha stands over Jesus, Mary sits at his feet. Everything worthwhile will come from Jesus taking the initiative and listening to him. Jesus himself said he only did what he saw the Father doing; it becomes the rôle of the disciple to listen to Jesus first and then respond.

All of which tells us that Mary’s action is not a case of ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’. It is ‘being’ before ‘doing’. She takes the old maxim of ‘Don’t just sit there, do something’ and reverses it into ‘Don’t just do something, sit there’.

Why? She knows that you can’t set off on all those good and noble tasks that Martha has plunged herself into unless you have first received direction from Jesus. What does he want me to do? There are plenty of good things to do in the world, but I cannot do them all. Which ones does he want me to take on? When you know that, you are freed from the frazzling effect of a Martha-like frantic lifestyle. There is no danger that Mary will simply stay at the feet of Jesus and not turn it into action – she won’t be a hypocrite like that. But she knows what needs to come first.

Put it this way: the English word ‘obedience’ has its roots in the Latin word ‘audire’ – which means ‘to hear’. Mary has to hear from Jesus first, before plunging into work.

Not only that, Mary knows that you need a balance in your Christian life that features both being and doing. We need both action and reflection. It is something the early church came to understand very quickly. Think of the story in Acts chapter 6 where there is a crisis over the distribution of food to Greek-speaking widows. The apostles resist the idea that they must do everything. They ensure that the food distribution project continues by having the community appoint a team of Spirit-filled people to undertake it. For themselves, though, they cannot compromise their call to ‘the ministry of the Word and prayer’. Between the apostles and the team appointed to serve the widows, the balance is held: the community together embraces both listening to God and practical action for the kingdom of God.

What it amounts to is this: you can’t just be a ‘being’ person and you can’t just be a ‘doing’ person. Nor can the church just be one or the other. If all we do is listen, pray and contemplate, we will be too heavenly minded to be of any earthly use. If all we do is plunge ourselves into action, we shall burn out. The Marys of this world know that you have to fill up the car before you can set out on the journey.

I hope the implications for all of us are clear, especially because I believe this is often important for Methodists. Surveys in recent years have shown that generally we are a people who are good at social action but less comfortable with prayer. Jesus wants Marys, but Methodists are often Marthas. Too many of us therefore become discouraged, exhausted and burnt out.

We need to find our ways of sitting at the feet of Jesus before we do anything else. Exactly how we do it will vary from person to person, because we have different personalities and temperaments, and our life circumstances are not the same. But we need our own ‘ministry of the Word and prayer’ in some form: we need to reflect on the Scriptures and how they are pointing us to Jesus, and we need to pray. These things need to be more than just something that is done for us on a Sunday, and they need to be more than at crisis times. In my experience, we need to aim for a daily pattern of devotion.

So you may find that first thing in the morning works best. You may like to reflect prayerfully on the day at its end. You may be one of those people who likes to read the Scriptures and pray during a lunch break, reviewing how things have gone so far and looking forward to the rest of the day.

You may use Bible reading notes, a daily Lectionary, a website or some other pattern. You may find one approach to prayer works better than another for you. Just so long as it’s Christ-centred, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the time of Bible reading and prayer doesn’t just feed your head with interesting titbits of information, it draws you close to Jesus.

For if it does, you will soon find that by sitting at the feet of Jesus like Mary, he will then raise you to your feet for action.

And – unlike Martha – you will be ready and equipped.

Sabbatical, Day 35: Missional Party-Going

If there’s one thing I struggle with Missional Jesus over, it’s parties. He loved them. I hate them.

OK, ‘hate’ is the wrong word, but they have too many connotations of embarrassment from the past. And tonight, Debbie and I were at a party for missional reasons.

M has become a friend of ours through pre-school and school. She has children of a similar age to ours. Major aspects of her life have been horrendous in recent times – I’m not going to detail them in a public medium here – and we have stood with her through some difficult and painful decisions. Most of the time, it has simply meant inviting her for coffee or lunch. We gave her a few spare possessions when she needed to move her accommodation. Occasionally, there have been overtly spiritual conversations.

But today was her thirtieth birthday. She could not afford a party, but good friends hired a hall and a DJ. They decorated it and provided food. We were among eighty or so guests who were invited, and we felt it right to accept the invitation, even though we knew it would be the kind of event where I in particular would feel uncomfortable.

It’s that raging introvert issue again. Discos are not my thing. The style of music isn’t my taste, and you’re not likely to see me dance any time before the Second Coming. King David may have danced before the Lord, but this David doesn’t. Thankfully, nobody tonight applied any of the heavy social pressure to which I have been subjected on other occasions: this bunch of largely non-Christians was a lot more relaxed about people making their own decisions than many Christian-dominated parties I’ve attended in the past.

But I can’t escape the fact that in the Gospels, Jesus seemed so comfortable at parties. I know there is no verse which says, “And it came to pass that Jesus got up and danced to ‘You’re The One That I Want’,” but to my mind he seems chilled and at home at parties. If we’re going to share in people’s lives on their territory, not ours, it is going to involve actions that are uncomfortable for us. Not in the sense of ethics and moral decisions, but in terms of personal preferences and tastes. It may not be party-going for you, but if it isn’t that, it will be something else. 

So yes, the incarnational theology stuff is important. We need to be ‘in the world’ and also ‘not of the world’ without giving the appearance that we have landed from another planet. But the practice of such theological theory requires a dose of chilled-out Jesus.

Yet what exactly was that? Was he happy at parties because he was an extravert? If I take the Myers Briggs definition of extraversion as someone who derives energy from being with other people, then he certainly did enjoy the company of gatherings large and small. Yet at the same time he displayed introvert tendencies in his ability to go off on his own for extended times of prayer. So I don’t think this is a matter of personality type, however much I am thinking about that subject at present.

I think it’s a matter of security in his own identity. He knew he was the Father’s belovèd Son, and that the Father was well pleased with him. God reminded him of that twice in his life. The first time was at his baptism, just before his public ministry started. The second time was at the Transfiguration, just before he made his deliberate journey towards his Passion at Jerusalem.

And isn’t it that same knowledge in us – in our case a blessing of grace – of knowing that we are loved beyond measure by the Father – that is our security and foundation? Is this not the rock where our feet stand firm, and where it doesn’t matter how other people treat us or what social pressures they exert? Isn’t this vital for the whole spiritual life, mission and worship? May this knowledge, and an the experience of it, grow in each of us, not simply that we are blessed out of our socks, but that we are chilled-out little Jesuses who bless others.

New Year Sermon: A Vision Of Jesus

John 1:1-18

Having children has had an effect on my mental health. Not just the increased stress; I find my memory is not what it is, and I don’t like to think that has anything to do with age! Debbie will ask me to bring three items in from the garage, and I will remember one. And while I’m sure some of that is down to the way that I as a typical man like to concentrate on just one task at a time in contrast to typically feminine multitasking abilities, I have to admit that there are just too many times when I forget things I would previously have remembered. Senior moments seem to have started in middle age for me.

And you may be thinking I’ve had another memory failure in the choice of John 1:1-18 as our reading tonight. Didn’t we have it in the carol service? Yes. Didn’t we have it on Christmas Day? Yes: it’s the traditional Gospel reading for Christmas Day, and so if anyone has a memory relapse here, it’s the compilers of the Lectionary! And don’t I go on and on about verse 14 when talking about mission, ‘The Word became flesh and lived among us’? Yes. I’ve remembered all these things.

But when I saw that these great verses occurred again today, I saw an opportunity. This passage, known as the Prologue to John’s Gospel, gives us – to use an overworked word – an awesome vision of Jesus. This passage is for me the Mount Everest of the New Testament. And we have a chance here to let its towering vision of who Jesus is inspires us at the beginning of a New Year.

So I thought I would take some of the great images of Jesus here and explore each of them briefly, so that we might bow before his magnificence and kneel before his wonder. It’s a fitting place to get our bearings for the new year.

Before Jesus is named at the incarnation, he is the Word. Before time and for all time, he is the Word. He is the creative Word, involved in creation. As in Genesis God spoke and it came to be, so in John ‘all things came into being through’ the Word. So when the Word becomes flesh and speaks to the created order, he is continuing his work of creation. 

For Jesus, then, being the Word doesn’t mean words without action. There is no division between truth and deed. One leads to the other. We can see that in another way as well as Jesus being the Word through whom creation comes into being and is sustained. For John 1 has resonances with Proverbs 8, where Wisdom is spoken of in similar terms to the Word here. Now we might associate the word ‘wisdom’ with wise words or philosophy, but to the Hebrew mind wisdom was not merely intellectual. It was moral. Wise words maybe, but words connected with action. That’s why the Book of Proverbs is full of advice on how to live.

Now if Jesus the Word is the Wisdom of God, then he is not an abstract philosophy, he is the One who supremely shows us how to live. When we call Jesus the Word, we aren’t simply ranking him among or above the great philosophers of the world – although he belongs there – we are saying that he speaks in such a way as to show us the paths of life.

What does this mean for us? Something quite down to earth. It is a renewed commitment to walking in the ways of Jesus. Not only has he died for our sins and been raised to give us new life, he lays down the yardstick for living the new life he grants us.

I don’t know whether you’ve noticed, but in recent months the great majority of my sermons have been based on passages from the Gospels. I have concentrated on those four books where we most clearly get the voice of Jesus. It’s why Anglicans and Catholics stand for the Gospel readings at communion.

Not that he doesn’t speak throughout all of Scripture – of course he does – but the central biblical documents are the Gospels, and if I am to be any kind of Christian, I must tune into Jesus’ life-giving words and align my life accordingly. That would be a worthwhile vision for a new year.

In reception class at school, Mark and his friends have had to learn forty-five ‘action words’. They learned the words by learning the associated actions. (Except Mark knew them all already, including how to spell them.) Jesus the Word is an ‘action Word’. He is not ‘mere words’ but ‘the Word in action’.

The image of Jesus as light tells me something about his supremacy and victory.

On the one hand, his life is ‘the light of all people’ (verse 4) and he is ‘the true light, which enlightens everyone’ (verse 9). Whatever light may be found in this life has its source in Jesus. The old saying is that all truth is God’s truth. If something is good, beautiful, pure and life-enhancing, then it is from Jesus, whether it is overtly religious or not.  We Christians need not be afraid of truth, wherever we find it, because its origin will be Jesus, who is light to all people. Conversely, we may find goodness in many places but none will outshine Jesus.

So do not worry about truth. Sometimes the world’s discoveries seem to contradict our faith. In time, however, we shall either see how they harmonise (dare I suggest evolution and creation?) or that the world’s claims for truth were over-rated. Let us remember that whenever an intellectual controversy strikes this year. Jesus always brings light. 

But better than that, says John, ‘The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it’ (verse 5). The word translated ‘overcome’ is one of those rich, multi-layered Greek words. You could say, ‘the darkness did not overcome it’, but you could also render it as ‘the darkness did not understand it’, or ‘the darkness did not come to terms with it’.

Sometimes understanding is a way of coming to terms with something or controlling it. But darkness can never master light. Even a tiny speck of light cannot be extinguished by the surrounding darkness. And John tells us that the darkness in creation can never master the light of Jesus.

Now that, surely, is Good News for us. The light of Jesus can never be put out. Light and darkness are not even two equal and opposite forces: light is superior! So whenever the life of faith is discouraging – whether due to internal reasons or external pressures – we have good news. Jesus triumphs!

And this is not just a private pious hope for us to enjoy. In the world, when dictators ravage their people, we know they cannot finally prevail. When governments and armies rampage with their forces of war, we who believe in the light know that their darkness is not the final word. It is good news to proclaim to the world as well as the church that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it – nor will it. 

John makes a staggering claim about Jesus when he says that ‘we have seen his glory’ (verse 14), especially as he also acknowledges later that ‘No one has ever seen God’ (verse 18). Moses wanted to see God, but he had to hide in a rock and glimpse just a little of God’s glory from behind. Isaiah saw the Lord, but became stricken by a knowledge of his sin and his people’s sin. Claiming that we have seen divine glory in Jesus, then, is a monumental claim.

What might such glory look like? The Queen of Sheba saw the glory of King Solomon: it consisted of wealth, property and expensive possessions, as well as his famed wisdom. If we took a tour of Buckingham Palace, we might hope to see some royal glory, but not all of it would be on display, and that which was would be a matter of high culture, fine art and items from the most exclusive of suppliers.

Similarly, our popular culture has a crude version of glory. We see it in magazines like ‘Hello’, ‘OK’ and ‘Heat’, when they invite us inside the mansions of the rich and famous. Money, possessions and property are still a popular measurement of glory.

Jesus could call on all the resources of heaven to show dazzling glory that would make Bill Gates look like a pauper. But that is not the divine glory John describes. His glory is ‘the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth’ (verse 14).

The glory of God is not in the splendour of heaven or the armies of angels: it is in grace and truth. The awesomeness of our God is in the grace and truth brought by the ‘father’s only son’. For grace and truth are the family likeness. The glory of God is not in palaces but a manger. The glory of God is not in the amassing of wealth but in the humiliation of the Cross. The glory of God is not in fulness of possessions but in emptiness – Christ emptying himself of all but love, and the emptiness of the tomb on the first Easter Day. The glory of God comes not in the violent conquest of enemies, but love for enemies and forgiveness for sinners.

What does this mean for us? For Jesus, showing divine glory in the form of grace and truth is a matter of the family likeness: he is ‘God the only Son’ (verse 18). We are children of God in a different sense according to the passage: Jesus gave us the power to become God’s children when we received him (verse 12). In Paul’s language, we are adopted children. The family likeness doesn’t pass down easily – not in the same way that our little Mark looks so much like a red-headed version of me. For adopted children, it’s a matter of being open to the influence of the parents and the existing family (which of course is vital in other families, too).

So we are called to reflect God’s glory of grace and truth in also being humble, loving and forgiving of those who wrong us. However, it’s not an easy matter. It’s something that only comes as we grow in grace, and that means being part of the community of God’s family and being consciously open to the work of the Holy Spirit who imparts the character of God to us. (We call it the fruit of the Spirit.) We don’t work this out alone, but together under the influence of the Holy Spirit. That’s why not all the great spiritual disciplines are private actions, but many are also corporate practices, as in fellowship we seek to be open to grace in order that it may transform us and we may share it.

Jesus the Word, then, is the great ‘action Word’ in creation and ethically wise living. To encounter him who is the very Word of God is a call to our own action in response.

Jesus the Light is good news for the church and the world. Wherever we are enlightened by the truth, it is the work of Jesus. And the victory of his light over darkness is good news for all who may despair when evil advances.

Finally, Jesus brings the Glory of God in grace and truth. He reveals God as so different from the petty obsessions of the world, and calls us to receive and share grace.

These three aspects of Jesus – Word, Light and Glory – constitute just a sketch and not even an oil painting of our spiritual Everest. But I pray that even these sketches might give us enough vision of our incarnate, crucified and risen Lord to inspire our discipleship in this new year.

I Made It Up

What to do on New Year’s Day with the children yesterday? We began with a return to ‘the world’s least crazy crazy golf course‘. After freezing there, Debbie offered to buy lunch the local branch of Wetherspoon’s.

Wetherspoon’s may not do flashy food, but they are family friendly. So Debbie and I didn’t worry if our mixed grill was tough enough to suggest the animals had put up considerable and recent resistance: the monkeys were happy. They had activity books to decorate while we waited for the food.

And it is the activity books given by Wetherspoon’s that are central to this story. Rebekah is used to ‘spot the difference’ puzzles, but Mark had his first encounter with one on this occasion. Rebekah found the eight differences between the two drawings with little difficulty; Mark found five.

Suddenly, however, he had found eight, like his sister. However, they weren’t the same.

“Where did you find those differences?” we asked him. 

“I made them up,” he replied, laughing – and we joined in.

Sometimes, making it up is fun, especially when you are a four-year-old comedian like Mark. It is also part of that cherished part of childhood where the imagination is valued.

But sadly the currency of imagination is devalued as we grow older, even though poets and artists often have special insights on life. In that respect, ‘making it up’ has wrongly earned a bad reputation in a scientific culture, where to make something up is of lesser value than ‘hard facts’. That is something the church has imbibed. While there are many parts of Scripture where historicity is of vital importance, there is no loss to faith and truth, for example, if the book of Job is a literary creation to grapple with the problem of suffering in an artistic way.

Yet there is also a rightful concern to protect against a wrong kind of ‘making it up’. Imagination is fine, false witness is not. Not that Scripture condemns all forms of lying – see the example of Rahab the prostitute of Jericho at the beginning of Joshua, for example. But bearing false witness against your neighbour, as the commandment puts it, is most definitely out. And it is here that we have a problem, both on a large public scale and on the more personal level.

In terms of the public, it is easy to think of scandals. Like last August, when Michael Guglielmucci was found to have faked cancer (even writing a song called ‘Healer’ and performing with a tube in his nose), all deriving from a porn addiction. 

And yet it’s easy to get self-righteous about those types of incident when we do the same thing on a smaller scale, where fewer people are affected. From the modification of a CV to finding all those subtle ways in which we present ourselves in the best possible light, making it up is a curiously popular pastime for those of us who profess to follow the One who called himself the Truth.

Naturally I don’t mean that in the sense that a Richard Dawkins would allege against us. It is not a wilful attempt to believe a lie. On the contrary, our faith is based on reasonable evidence, and with that in mind we enter into a relationship of trust. But relationships of trust require honesty in order to flourish, and that’s where the fantasy stuff becomes dangerous.

I suggest our problem, at its root, is that we don’t believe the Gospel enough. If we believe in grace, do we need to perform? Do we need to appear like we reach a certain standard? The fact that we do suggests we have developed cultures that are not soaked in grace. We are not free to be ourselves, with our foibles and weaknesses.

Not that I seek to justify sin, you understand. But the lack of acceptance that we need in order to face change and growth in holiness is disturbing. If I feel I am going to be judged all the time, I shall go on the defensive and spend time justifying myself, even when in my heart I know full well I am in the wrong. As such, a judgmental culture does not bring greater righteousness but a deeper retreat into sin. If I know I am loved unconditionally, then I feel able to face what is wrong in my life.

What would it take to create a culture in the church where we don’t have to make it up? It would require that we actually believe the Gospel of God’s free grace in Christ, and that by such grace we may face the need to repent of our sins and co-operate with the Holy Spirit in the project of sanctification.

It would also surely free us from the religious celebrity culture which contributes to the public scandals by creating an expectation of the spectacular or dramatic. When you are nurtured by grace, you don’t need to be an immature thrill-seeker. You are thrilled by God instead.


So we’re in Café Rouge having a lovely family lunch out, when Mark, our four-year-old, wanders off with his glass of apple juice.

“What are you doing, Mark?”

“I’m going to the kitchen.”

Poor lad. He had assumed that he needed to take his empty glass, plate and cutlery to the kitchen, just like at home. The idea that a waiter would come and collect it for him, while he needed to do nothing, hadn’t clicked, no matter how many other times we’d been out for meals.

Maybe he’s like many of us. We can’t believe that God will come and do something for us. We have to do it. And we fail to understand grace and integrate it into our personalities. At best we think God should be paid, just as (indirectly) our waiter was today. What a difference that is from the gratitude and love God longs to draw from our hearts.