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Yesterday’s Sermon: Shaped By The Covenant Meal (Covenant Service Sermon)

Mark 14:22-25

What am I reading@

What Am I Reading? by John on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Henri Nouwen was a much-lauded Dutch Roman Catholic priest. A brilliant man, he held doctorates in both psychology and theology, and rose through various academic posts to become Professor of Pastoral Theology at the prestigious Yale University. He later taught at Harvard, so effectively he taught at the American equivalents to our Oxford and Cambridge. He also had the common touch, and wrote popular books about the spiritual life that sold in quantities that delighted his publishers. We studied one of them, The Return Of The Prodigal Son, in an ecumenical Lent course here in Knaphill.

But for all his acclaim, Nouwen was uncomfortable. It wasn’t until he joined the staff at L’Arche, an international community for people with developmental disabilities, that he felt he was living a truly authentic Christian life.

In looking for a model of how to live the spiritual life in a secular world, he settled upon the Last Supper, and wrote about it in a wonderful book called Life Of The Beloved. What he said there so struck me when I read it that I want to use his framework as we consider our covenant with God again this year. The covenant meal – Holy Communion – provides a structure for the covenant life.

Essentially, what Nouwen is saying is this: what Jesus does with the bread, he does with us. Hear again verse 22:

While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘Take it; this is my body.’

Note the four actions Jesus does with the bread: took, gave thanks, broke, and gave. Jesus does the same with us, says Nouwen: he takes us, gives thanks for us, breaks us, and gives us.

If that seems a bit far-fetched, then bear with me for the sermon, but also listen to these reflections on the passage before us from Tom Wright:

This Passover-meal-with-a-difference is going to explain, more deeply than words could ever do, what his action , and passion, the next day really meant; and, more than explaining it, it will enable Jesus’ followers, from that day to this, to make it their own, to draw life and strength from it. If we want to understand, and be nourished by, what happened on Calvary, this meal is the place to start.[1]

So, on the day when we once again ‘make this covenant our own’, let us do so by making the covenant meal our own.

Pastoral Baguettes

Pastoral Baguettes by Kurmann Communications on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

First of all, Jesus takes the bread and he also takes us. In our communion service, we represent this simply by unveiling the elements, removing the white cloth. Other traditions process the bread and wine to the table. I don’t do that, and I won’t bore you with the reasons now, but note that we simply take the bread.

And Jesus takes us, too. He takes the initiative to choose and call us. Yes, we made a choice to follow him, but it only came because before we ever thought of him he thought of us, and in his love reached out to us.

We start, then, from a perspective not only of having been chosen by Jesus but in that choosing being taken and held in his hands. Whatever happens from here, we are not alone but in his hands. The covenant life starts in a safe place. As we come to renew our covenant today, we are coming to the One who promises never to leave or forsake us.

So we start from that point of security. Like the child held by the parent, we are safe. Like the friend giving us a hug, we are reassured. Like the beloved held by the lover, we know we are loved. This is the beginning of the covenant. On Covenant Sunday, I am always thinking about those who are nervous about making promises to God which amount to an abandonment to his will and wonder what that would mean. But I come back to the fact that we begin in this place: Jesus takes us. Covenant starts in a good place, not a scary one.

Give Thanks!

Give Thanks! by Kevin Dooley on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

The second action of Jesus is that he gives thanks for the bread – and he gives thanks to the Father for us, too. Again, we might feel uncomfortable, but stay with me to think about this.

One of my nephews used to get so impatient about when a meal was due to arrive that by the time the plate was put in front of him, he was famished. Not wanting to wait a second longer than necessary to eat, he would sometimes abbreviate grace to three words: ‘Father God, Amen.”

Our custom of saying ‘Grace’ derives from the Jewish custom of giving thanks to God for food, and for all sorts of aspects of the material creation. Here, for example, is a traditional prayer said after a meal:

Blessed are You, L-rd our G-d, King of the universe, who, in His goodness, provides sustenance for the entire world with grace, with kindness, and with mercy. He gives food to all flesh, for His kindness is everlasting. Through His great goodness to us continuously we do not lack [food], and may we never lack food, for the sake of His great Name. For He, benevolent G-d, provides nourishment and sustenance for all, does good to all, and prepares food for all His creatures whom He has created, as it is said: You open Your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing. Blessed are You, L-rd, who provides food for all.

The thanksgiving for the unleavened bread at Passover (and I am assuming Jesus was celebrating a form of Passover with his disciples at the ‘Last Supper’) begins in similar vein. The sense is maintained that created things are good, they are a gift from God, and have a divinely ordained purpose in the world. Therefore God is praised for his good gifts.

And in Covenant, God is praised for his good gift of you. God has made each of us in the church as a gift to one another and a gift to the world. For this reason, Jesus praises the Father for us. It is not that he praises us, but he praises God for us.

Even so, some people find this hard to accept. They feel worthless and insignificant, small and wracked by sin. How can Jesus praise God for me, they ask?

He can, because of God’s work in you. And God has some special purpose for you. He has given you gifts and talents, he has placed you in certain families, neighbourhoods, workplaces, and leisure, and for that Jesus is thankful. However much the holiness of God cannot abide sin, there is no picture here of an angry God, only of the Son of God who is pleased that you are God’s good gift. So rejoice that you are seen this way.

Break Free

Break Free by Nick Wheeler on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Jesus’ third action is to break the bread, and also break us. Here we may feel we are getting closer to the challenging, if not severe, side of the Covenant that intimidates some church members into not attending this service each year.

At one level, though, this isn’t a fearful picture. For the one bread to be distributed, it has to be broken. And for the one church to be sent on the mission of God, she has to be dispersed to different places. Some of this is just a natural expression of what happens at the end of worship when we are dismissed to serve Christ in the world. It’s like the church building which had a slogan over the exit door: ‘Servants’ Entrance’. We go from here to our separate localities as Christ’s witnesses. We are the church gathered and we are also the church dispersed.

But in another way, being broken by Jesus is part of that submission to whatever he needs to do in our lives. I am not talking about something so extreme as military training, where the civilian is destroyed in order for the soldier to emerge, although we should take seriously the call to a disciplined life as Christians.

And in this respect, Jesus uses the circumstances of life that he allows us to face, or even perhaps brings into our lives, to shape us into better people. However, those life situations are not always pleasant. They may be little different from what people who do not share our faith also encounter, but in our case, Christ allows brokenness to be a tool that leads us to pursue a life that is more like his.

So even in the joy of a marriage, we come face to face with just how self-centred we are. In the loss of something important, we confront the call to decide exactly where our faith and trust lie.

Christiane Caine

Christine Caine by Willow Creek D/CH on Flicr. Some rights reserved.

This week I read an extraordinary testimony by the Australian preacher Christine Caine. An energetic pastor, evangelist, and campaigner against human trafficking, she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and other conditions in her body. I would love to read you the whole testimony, but it’s long, and I can only focus on a couple of brief parts. Firstly, here are just a few of the words she said to her surgeon after her diagnosis:

Leslie, it’s okay. Cancer is not terminal. Life is terminal. I will live every second of every day that God has ordained for me to live on this earth, and then I will go home. … We are on a battlefield, not a playground; it’s time to go to war. You tell me what to do medically, and I will fight this spiritually, and whatever happens, Jesus will have the final victory.

And then I note how she said,

I wanted to be delivered FROM this situation, but ten weeks later, I discovered God wanted me to walk THROUGH this.

Why walk through this? Because it brought her into contact with other cancer patients. Lonely, fearful people. Those who had lost their hair, were marked with radiation lines, bruised by needles, or unable to walk without assistance. A father wheeling his son in for treatment. In her broken condition, she could minister. As she says,

I wondered why so many people wanted a platform ministry when there was ministry waiting in hospital waiting rooms all over the world.

How many are waiting for us to go to them while we wait for them to come to us?

Waiting rooms are waiting for us.

What are you waiting for?

And this leads me into the fourth and final action of Jesus: he gives the bread, and he gives us, too. That’s where we’ve been heading from the beginning. Just as the bread is destined to be given, so are we. Chosen and cherished by God in his taking of us and Christ’s thanksgiving for us, the breaking that then ensues in the knowledge that we are so loved is in order for us to be distributed into the world.

Just as ancient Israel had to learn that her special covenant with God was not a matter of élite status but in order to bless the world, so the same is true of our ‘new covenant’. It does grant remarkable status to us as children of God, but the purpose is not to luxuriate in that, but to become God’s gift to the world, calling others to meet this astonishing God who calls them too into the covenant community.

LICC

LICC by Brett Jordan on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

And so this theme comes at a good time, with our Life On The Frontline series beginning this Wednesday with a midweek meeting at 8:00 pm and continuing next Sunday with the first sermon in the series. Here is the chance to identify the people and places to which God has given us so that we might be his ambassadors.

If we are serious about renewing our covenant with God this year, we shall be serious about the fact that Jesus gives us to others in his name.

So if you are aware that Christ has taken hold of you and you are safe with him; if you realise that Jesus thanks his Father for the gifts and opportunities he has given you; if you realise that the brokenness in your life has been allowed for a kingdom reason; and if you acknowledge that Jesus is giving you to the world …

… then why not take part in Life On The Frontline. And be ready as part of working out your covenant vows to seek openings to be Christ’s witness in word and deed.

[1] Wright, N. T. (2004-03-01). Mark for Everyone (p. 194). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

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Sermon: Cleopas On The Emmaus Road (People At The Cross And The Tomb)

Luke 24:13-35
This morning we have heard a Bible passage for a wedding service – the Emmaus Road.

What – not 1 Corinthians 13? No. The Anglican Rector friend of mine who preached at our wedding nearly ten years ago chose the Emmaus Road story as his text. He relied on an old tradition that Cleopas and his companion on the journey were a married couple, and proceeded to make five points about marriage from the account. I can’t tell you what those five points were, though, because we never did receive the recording of the service that we were promised.

But today we come to this famous Easter story with a more conventional agenda. What does the experience of Cleopas and his companion of the Risen Christ tell us about true faith? Here are three aspects I have noticed:

Firstly, their experience tells us about the importance of revelation. Faith in Christ is not simply about our free will decision: it requires a revelation from God to understand the truth.

If you come into my study, you will find not only my books but my CD collection. Much as I would like it to be in the main family living space, if I put the shelves of CDs in the lounge, there would probably be no room for the three-piece suite.
Among my large assortment of music you will find plenty by U2, led, of course, by Saint Bono. Their most recent album, No Line On The Horizon (not one of their best – known to some as No Tunes On The Album), there is a song called I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight.

It contains this line, which is pertinent to the Emmaus Road story:

How can you stand next to the truth and not see it?

That seems to be the predicament Cleopas is in. He and his companion don’t just stand next to the truth, they walk next to the truth and just don’t see it. They are trapped in their old way of thinking that Jesus was supposed to have redeemed Israel (which I take to mean they thought he would overthrow the Romans) and that all those hopes were dashed in the conspiracy to have him executed (verses 19-21).

Now you know and I know that they were wrong. We know with hindsight and with faith that the reality was different. But what changed it for them? It comes with the response of Jesus:

He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken!  Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?”  And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. (Verses 25-27)

They needed a word from the Lord. They needed revelation. An encounter with the Risen Christ brings that.

And we need revelation, too. Whatever our human skills and talents, whatever decisions we are capable of making, the life of faith does not start with us. It begins with God revealing himself to us. In our context, with Christ ascended to the Father’s right hand, that means the work of the Holy Spirit.
What implications are there here for us? It reminds us that for anyone to find faith in Christ, there must be revelation from God. Christian witness cannot be reduced just to us saying the right words or doing the right things so that people will come to faith. Think of John Wesley having his ‘heart strangely warmed’. Or hear this testimony from the former pop star Yazz, famous for The Only Way Is Up:

Her life and career had fallen apart after her two or three big hit singles. What was going to heal her life? She says this:

At that point, I’d tried everything to fill this ache inside except Christianity. One evening I asked Mum for a Bible. I didn’t understand what I read, but as I laid the book down next to me I was filled with something that felt like warm peace flowing through me.[1]

So in our witness we rely on the Holy Spirit to reveal Christ and God’s love to people.

But it isn’t purely about the call to conversion. It’s about every aspect of the Christian life. Always we need the revelation of God. However much I study a Bible passage, I need the Holy Spirit. We all do.


Secondly
, Cleopas and his companion discover the importance of a Christ-centred interpretation of Scripture. If there is one thing that non-Christians perceive about Christianity and the Bible, it’s the thought that you can make it mean whatever you want, by picking the bits that suit you. So, for example, the broadcaster Jon Snow, who is the son of an Anglican clergyman, when asked in an interview, ‘Is there anything in the Bible that has particularly resonated with all you have been witness to?’, replied:

‘Yeah, I think treating your neighbour as you would have them treat you is a pretty good idea. I think that turning the other cheek is a pretty good idea. I think there’s a fair amount on conflict resolution in the Bible. But the problem with the Bible, as is well illustrated in Middle America, is that it’s very open to a pick’n’mix approach.’[2]

I’m not about to suggest that I can solve all those problems in one fell swoop, nor resolve all the differences between Christians of various persuasions both presently and throughout history, but the experience of Cleopas does show us one vital, central approach to interpreting the Bible: it all centres on Jesus. It all revolves around Jesus. He is the centre of the Bible, he is the aim of the Bible, he is the key to interpreting it because he is the ultimate focus of it. Hence Luke says,

And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. (Verse 27)

Is it any wonder, then, that our High Church friends often stand for the reading from the Gospels in a communion service, and in some traditions also parade the Gospel into the middle of the congregation before the reading? They are proclaiming in a liturgical way their belief that Jesus is at the centre of the Scriptures.
What will it mean for us to interpret the Scriptures in the light of Jesus at the centre? It’s rather more than might be popularly imagined. You will remember that only a few years ago one Christian fashion accessory (how did we get ourselves in such a state?) was a bracelet with the initials ‘WWJD’ – What Would Jesus Do? That’s a good question, but even that is not enough for what I am suggesting here.

Rather than just woodenly thinking of an appropriate Bible text from the life of Jesus, we do something bigger: we ask, how does this fit in God’s great plan of things? How does something fit in God’ grand scheme of salvation in history? Most specifically, how does it read in relation to the story of God taking on human flesh, living among us, dying for our sins, being raised to new life, ascending to the Father’s right hand in glory, sending the Holy Spirit and promising to appear again? How does the Scripture we are wrestling with point to this great narrative of divine blessing?

True, there have been some fanciful Christian approaches to this over the centuries, wanting to see the minutiae of salvation in the prescribed details of Israel’s tabernacle in the wilderness, and so on. But we are less about the minutiae and more about the big picture. And front and centre of our picture as we read the Bible is Jesus, because he is alive.

Thirdly, Cleopas and his companion discover Jesus in the midst of everyday life. He comes alongside them on the road (verse 15), he accepts their offer of hospitality at their home and he eats a meal with them (verses 29-30).
Here is a text where I have changed my mind about its meaning in recent years. I remember preaching on this as a young Local Preacher and making the point that Jesus’ rôle at the meal table in Emmaus foreshadowed Holy Communion. He took the bread, blessed it, broke it and began to give it to them (verse 30). The taking, blessing, breaking and giving were the same four actions as he performed at the Last Supper. Therefore the Emmaus Road story prepares us not only for remembering Jesus at the Lord’s Table, but for recognising his presence there, too.

It’s a popular interpretation. It’s one we sing, when we use the communion hymn,

Be known to us in breaking bread,
But do not then depart (James Montgomery)

But it’s wrong. We too easily ‘churchify’ our interpretations. Those four actions – taking, blessing, breaking and giving – were the four actions that were performed at any standard Jewish meal two thousand years ago. This is a normal family meal at Emmaus.

What we celebrate here is that the Risen Christ joins us everywhere in life. We meet him as much in everyday life as in church. Indeed, much of his public ministry was not conducted in the synagogues but in homes and outdoors – rather like the meal table and the walk in this story.

I am not saying that gathering together in church and in fellowship is unimportant – this is not a variation on the ‘You don’t need to go to church to be a Christian’ nonsense. Many of the ways in which we encourage one another and strengthen each other can only be done by coming together physically.

But I am saying this: we should be open to meeting Jesus in the world, and this has huge implications. It means that our daily working life is important to him. We can do it to his glory, and we can expect to find him there, helping us. I know churches who put a segment into their Sunday services called ‘This Time Tomorrow’, where congregation members talk about what they will be doing not on Sunday morning at 11, but on Monday morning at 11. They then receive prayer – because it’s daft to think that the only people we pray for are ministers, preachers, Sunday School teachers, and doctors and nurses. Jesus is with each one of us in our daily tasks.

It means also that just as Jesus took the initiative to come alongside Cleopas and his companion to explain the Gospel to them and lead them into truth, so he is also coming alongside people to do that today. In other words, it’s a question of how we understand mission. In seeking to take the love of God to people in word and deed, in evangelism and social action, it doesn’t all depend on us. Jesus goes ahead of us and accompanies people. Our job is to join him where he has already been at work in people’s lives before we got there.

So don’t just proclaim – listen to people’s stories. You will find spiritual yearnings, religious questions and even experiences of God in their lives, because Jesus is going ahead on the road to meet them, speak to them and work in their lives in order to draw them to him. He then calls us in as his junior assistants to be the ones who are used by his Spirit to bring people to a point of saving faith in Christ.

In conclusion, then, Cleopas finds the meeting with the Risen Christ on the road to Emmaus completely transforming. It requires revelation. It leads to seeing the Scriptures in the light of Christ. And it involves expecting to meet Christ everywhere in daily life.

The experience led to a revolution in the life of Cleopas and his companion. May we too meet the Risen Christ and have our lives turned upside-down.


[1] Interviewed in Q Magazine, June 2008; quotation via Tools For Talks (subscription required).

[2] Interviewed in Third Way magazine, Winter 2004; quotation again via Tools For Talks.

Children And Communion

I was taking the bread along a row of communicants yesterday, when I arrived at three-year-old Jake. As is my habit with children, I knelt down to be nearer his height. As is also my habit, I dispensed the formal liturgical words such as, “The body of Christ keep you in eternal life,” and said something like this as I tore off a piece of bread and offered it to him: “Eat this to remember that Jesus died for you and loves you.”

He looked at me and said, “No thank you, I’ve just had my biscuit.”

Priceless. And certainly better than my own seven-year-old daughter, who took one look at the roll on the paten and said, “Is it Kingsmill?” Interesting that Kingsmill Bread’s latest campaign on its home page is Kingsmill Confessions

The Crowd Or The Cross

When I preached at Central Baptist Church, Chelmsford on Sunday, their assistant pastor, Nicholas Tuohy, used this video during Holy Communion. I found it very powerful. See what you think.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “The Crowd Or The Cross“, posted with vodpod

Sermon: Moses And The Feeding Of The Five Thousand

John 6:1-21

When I trained for the ministry in Manchester, we went out on preaching appointments all over the north west – everywhere from Liverpool to Newcastle under Lyme. If we were in a circuit morning and evening, we had lunch and tea with members of that circuit. I remember the Liverpool couple who were proud they lived just across from the estate where Brookside was filmed – unfortunately, I’ve always been allergic to soaps. I recall the farming couple in Chester who tried to marry me off to their daughter. I remember visiting a former superintendent of mine from home who was then in Newcastle under Lyme.

Less happy are my memories of a trip to a Methodist church in Swinton, Greater Manchester. Apart from my college principal turning up unannounced to assess my service, I got a frosty welcome in the vestry. The stewards had telephoned for the hymns during the week, and when I walked into the vestry they demanded I change two of them. “We don’t know this one and we don’t like that one.” I refused. I told them they could learn the unfamiliar one, and they could put up with the hymn they didn’t like, because it fitted my theme.

What was the hymn they disliked? ‘Moses, I know you’re the man’ (this link is a PowerPoint download). And I mention that this morning, because this famous story about the feeding of the five thousand – the only story to appear in all four Gospels apart from the death and resurrection of Jesus – is full of Moses references. Let me show you what I mean – and how that is relevant to us – not by taking things in the order they appear in this story, but by taking the ‘Moses’ elements of this account and placing them in the order they originally happened in Israel’s history.

Firstly, there is the element of Passover. According to John, this incident happened when ‘the Passover … was near’ (verse 4). You’ll remember that the Passover commemorated the deliverance of God’s people when God judged Egypt for enslaving them. It is a festival of freedom and justice.

And in Jesus’ day, many of God’s people felt the need for something similar. They may have been back in their own land, but they were occupied by the Romans. Even in this reading, the Sea of Galilee is also referred to by its alternative Roman name, the Sea of Tiberias (verse 1). The Jewish people once again needed deliverance. It’s telling that after this miraculous sign, they wanted to take Jesus by force and make him king (verse 15).

But as we know with hindsight and with faith, the deliverance brought by Jesus was a different kind of freedom. Not that he was or is indifferent to the plight of those who are under the cosh of a powerful enemy, but he knew that everyone also needs a far deeper liberation, not just the freedom from the sins of others but freedom from their own sins.

And that is where Christians celebrate a festival meal of freedom and justice. We call it Holy Communion, where we proclaim that Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us. Yet the moment you try to make that connection with John’s Gospel, you have trouble. John is the only Evangelist not to record the institution of the Lord’s Supper. The nearest he has is the feeding of the five thousand, followed by the conversation later in John 6 where Jesus describes himself as ‘the bread of life’. You also see in this story Jesus not simply saying grace before the bread and fish are distributed, but giving thanks, in language similar to that which he used at the Last Supper. It is no wonder that the nineteenth century Christian F D Maurice, when asked whether this passage was about the Lord’s Supper, said no, but that equally, there was no better place in the Scriptures to learn about Holy Communion than here.

I have always had a problem with the way we give such small amounts of bread and wine to worshippers at Holy Communion. But perhaps God intends us to expect a feeding miracle at the sacrament. As we receive small morsels of bread and take tiny sips of wine, God multiplies them in our hearts, as he makes himself real to us by his grace through our faith.

So we might wonder, especially in a well-fed western society what the feeding of the five thousand means for us, but we can immediately see one application. It helps us come to the Lord’s table with expectant faith that he will work in us.

Secondly, we have the Mountain. The disciples go up a mountain with Jesus (verse 3) after he has healed many sick people (verse 2), just as Moses went up the mountain to be with God, after God delivered the children of Israel from Egypt. Moses receives the Ten Commandments.

Now before we note what the Jesus equivalent here to the Moses parallel might be, we do well for a moment to think about the Ten Commandments. Sometimes we think these are rules for a healthy society, and everyone should follow them. Well – yes, they reflect God’s standards. But we are mistaken if we think we can commend them to others or command others to follow them and all will be well. As a young Local Preacher, I remember an elderly lady saying to me after a service, “If we could just get our country to follow the Ten Commandments again, everything would be all right.”

But it’s important to remember something about the timing of the Ten Commandments. God gave them to Israel after he delivered them from Egypt. In other words, keeping the Ten Commandments was never going to earn salvation for Israel. Rather, keeping the Ten Commandments was a grateful response to God’s faithful covenant love in delivering them. They were to keep the commandments as a sign of gratitude.

Now when Jesus invites the disciples up the mountain in this story and he is then joined by the large crowd (verse 5), what is the Son of God looking for? He looks for a response to his saving acts. The crowd know he has been healing people and the disciples know he has been performing wonders such as turning water into wine (2:1ff) and has been referring to himself as ‘the living water’ (4:10), relying on food from his Father (4:33). In other words, they know some amazing acts and statements of deliverance from him. Do you not think that he too looks for some grateful obedient faith?

And just as Moses didn’t get a great response from the Israelites – you’ll recall that a golden calf was involved – neither does Jesus. When he tests the disciples with the question of what to do about the problem (verses 5-6), Philip responds that six months’ wages would not be enough to feed everyone (verse 7).

Andrew does a little better, though.  Just as in an earlier chapter he brought his brother Simon Peter to Jesus, now he brings a small boy. ‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?’ (Verse 9) He doesn’t sound full of hope. Just a boy in a grown-up world. Just five loaves – and barley loaves at that, the food of the poor. Not only that, but the two fish are not fresh fish but dried or pickled fish – again, elements of a poor family’s diet. There’s not much, and it’s not of great quality.

Yet that is what Jesus uses. It may not be much and it may not be good, but he performs the miraculous sign with it. Just as Andrew’s faith was not much. Just as our faith may not be much.

What is God looking for? He is searching for grateful obedient faith in response to all he has done for us in Christ. We may not think we have anything much to give, but the challenge then is not to reject God like the Israelites, nor to be faithless like Philip, but to offer even the meagre faith of an Andrew. Even a response like that is enough. It puts us in God’s hands, at God’s disposal. That’s what we need to do.

Thirdly and finally, this all happens in a withdrawn place (verse 3 cf. verse 15). There may have been ‘a great deal of grass’ on which to sit down (verse 10), but it was clearly remote. It was the equivalent of the Wilderness. This story is about food being provided in a wilderness. So not only does it resonate with the Passover, it also makes connections with the provision of the manna.

You’ll remember that when God supplied the manna to the children of Israel in the wilderness, he did so after a bout of complaining. They were missing the home comforts of Egypt – a rich claim from a group of people who had been forced to make bricks without straw, but they were fed up with the plainness and simplicity of their desert life. They hardly had the best of motives. Yet God provided for them.

And here, you could say that the crowd didn’t entirely have the best of motives. I’m sure there was a certain amount of genuine human need mixed in as they followed the Healer to his mountain hideaway, but there was a clear element of going for what was in it for them – hence they label Jesus as the prophet they had expected (verse 14) and try to make him king by force (verse 15) to serve their purposes.

Yet just as in the wilderness where God provided for an unworthy bunch, so he did the same in Christ here. That may be revolutionary to us in a society where our welfare state is based on the idea of the ‘deserving poor’, but grace doesn’t simply give to the deserving. It wouldn’t be grace then. God in grace gives blessings to the undeserving.

Before I studied Theology and then trained for the ministry, I was a civil servant, working in what was then known as the Department of Health and Social Security (or the Department of Stealth and Total Obscurity, as some frustrated wags called it). I remember being on a Christian holiday one year, where a rather Hyacinth Bucket type woman asked me what my work was. Replying that I worked for the DHSS, she said, “Well at least you are on the right side of the counter.” That’s the kind of attitude that doesn’t understand grace.

No – the grace of a God who blesses the undeserving in the wilderness looks very different. It may be something apparently trivial, like the story of Steve Chalke who first went to church because that was where the pretty girls were, only to find himself bowled over by Jesus Christ. It may be someone who tries to strike a bargain with God – “If you do this for me, I will follow you.” It may be somebody in desperate straits that are partly or completely their own fault. In a book I recently read, Neil Cole said that you can ask the non-Christians in a street who most needs the Gospel, and they will usually be right. They will point you to the person in the most terrible situation. You can visit that person, and often they will be open to the Gospel. It may even be a heinous sinner who has become a social outcast, the modern equivalent of a Zaccheus. Whoever it is, the gracious God who in Christ blessed undeserving people in the wilderness wants to do the same today, through his Son who went to the wilderness of the Cross on our behalf. It is our privilege to be his ambassadors, introducing this reckless and extravagant love to a suspicious world.

And that means we too shall need to learn the habits of recklessness and extravagance if we are to model that grace. May God lead us willingly to the undeserving. For we were – and still are – ourselves among their ranks.

Links

Here are some more places I stopped on my electronic travels this week. Several of these links come from Leadership Journal, because I’ve been catching up on a few weeks’ worth of the Leadership Weekly email they send out over the last couple of days.

Science 
Some pictures from the Hubble telescope. Get beyond the first few and you’ll see some amazing ones. I’ve just made the image of the Sombrero Galaxy my desktop background. 

Spirituality 
Take seven minutes and forty seconds of your time to listen to Archbishop John Sentamu speak on the Advent theme of waiting.

A moving description of happiness from Ben Witherington III.

In Bedside Manner, Matt Lumpkin offers advice on caring for the sick and for yourself during pastoral visiting in hospital.

Mission 
David Keen looks at Back To Church Sunday and considers what proportion of the population is open to evangelism of a ‘come to us’ approach, compared with the need for a ‘missional’ strategy. (Via blogs4god.)

Coming and going is an interview that contrasts the attractional and missional approaches to evangelism and church. In the attractional corner, Ed Young, ‘the dude with the food’, ‘the worship event is the port of entry to the church’, ‘I believe God gives one person the vision – the pastor.’ In the missional corner, Neil Cole, ‘Using traditional [church] planting methods, it would cost $80 billion to reach Atlanta’, ‘Three things deter spontaneous multiplication: buildings, budgets, and big shots’, ‘We have to think in terms of mobilizing the kingdom to go where people are. Too many Christians are passive and unengaged.’

Walt Kallestad gave up on attractional with the big show and transitioned to a discipleship model.

On the other hand, Dan Kimball (of all people) has expressed missional misgivings and particularly urged missional churches not to criticise attractional congregations.

Credit Crunch 
According to Christian Aid, ethical giving hasn’t been hit by the credit crunch.

Also on the credit crunch, Gordon Macdonald says this is no time to cower for the Christian church. His fifth and sixth ideas sound very close to what many ‘missional’ Christians have been advocating.

Christmas 
Think tank Theos has published research showing that one in three Britons believes in the virgin birth. Of course, just believing a doctrine isn’t enough … 

Communion wine from Bethlehem is being stopped at checkpoints by Israeli soldiers who deem it – wait for it – a security risk.

Philip Yancey on observing a mellow, domesticated Christmas.

Worship

John 4:5-26

‘God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ (verse 24)

That’s an obvious verse to pick for this circuit service on the theme of worship. But sometimes, however much I like to be obscure, obvious is OK!

There are several valid ways you can read this verse. Worshipping in spirit and truth can be about the fact that you can worship God anywhere. That’s true, and in the context, the woman has just raised the question of physical locations for worship.

You can also read the ‘spirit’ aspect as being about the need for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in order to worship. That has some merit, too, because there is much in John’s Gospel about the ministry of the Spirit.

Worshipping in ‘truth’ can be about the importance of basing our worship on the truth of God, rather than our own preferences or fantasies. That, too, would be valid.

But I want to offer a different – if complementary – approach to Jesus’ teaching that we are to worship in spirit and in truth. I think it also means our worship is to be Christ-centred. Why? The work of the Spirit in John’s Gospel is to point to Christ. And Jesus himself is the way, the truth and the life in John. Spirit and truth both focus on Christ. I’m going to use Christ as our framework for worship.

Incarnation
My sister is an Occupational Therapist. At the end of her college training in 1988, she had to take a final elective placement. With the support of her college Christian Union, she went out with a missionary society to Gahini Hospital in Rwanda.

One of her most interesting cultural experiences (apart from African driving!) was Sunday morning worship in the hospital’s Anglican church. People were not called to worship by the ringing of bells, but by drums. All well and good. 

But when worship began, it was the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. Seventeenth century England, transposed to twentieth century Africa. Crazy.

Why is that crazy? Jesus is the Word made flesh, who dwelt among us. He took on human flesh, and lived in his context as a first century Jew. Might it be that when it comes to worship, our worship has to live in the cultural forms in which we live, and of the people we desire to reach with the Gospel?

Can I bring that insight to the worship wars that often rip apart our churches? We need to drop the nonsense talk that hymns and choral music are somehow morally superior. And those who argue for contemporary music need to quit the notion that others are fuddy-duddies. The issue is this: who has God called us to reach?

The American pastor Rick Warren, who planted Saddleback Church in California, has a useful approach to this. He says that if you are going to plant a church, then the way you decide the musical style of the worship is this: find out what the most popular radio station in the area is, and model the musical aspect of your worship on that style of music. 

So never mind what we like: incarnation demands we live in the culture of the people where God has placed us on mission. And that will shape our worship – from music to other elements, too.

Cross
In my  last appointment, I was part of a team that put on a weekly Wednesday lunch-time prayer and worship event entitled Medway Celebrate. At one team meeting, I remember the founder of the event say he had asked all visiting worship leaders to put a particular emphasis on ‘celebration’ in the tone they set. 

Inwardly, I winced. What about people suffering pain or troubles? How would they cope with relentless joy and happiness? And at first glance, anchoring our worship to the Cross of Christ would support my reaction. In worship, the Cross leads us to confession of sin. It puts us in touch with the pain of the world, and so it also informs our intercession. And the central act of Christian worship, Holy Communion, is directly linked to the Cross: ‘This is my body … this is my blood.’

Not only that, something like one third of Israel’s hymn book, the Psalms, are the so-called ‘Psalms of Lament’, where the psalmists bring their pain and complaints to God in worship. So surely it’s right that worship is not persistently happy-clappy.

There must be room in worship to express pain. But – it’s only half the story. Even when the Cross shows us our need to confess, we don’t stop there: we receive forgiveness. When we intercede about the pain of the world, we do so expecting that God will answer. When by faith we take the tokens of Christ’s body and blood in the sacrament, we are renewed.

I was once at a Good Friday united service at the Baptist Church in my home town. Our own minister was preaching. He had chosen a song that was popular at the time: ‘I get so excited, Lord, every time I realise I’m forgiven‘. As a congregation, we sang it in the most drab way. Michael stopped us and berated us. How could we not be excited that God had forgiven us in Christ?

As we come to the foot of the Cross in worship, yes we bring our pain at the sin that put Christ there. We also bring the pain of the world. But we come for healing and restoration. Making the Cross central to worship is a matter of joy as well as pain.

Resurrection
I referred to Holy Communion a moment ago when talking about the Cross and worship. But it’s the Resurrection that makes sense of the sacrament.

‘What? Isn’t the Lord’s Supper about the death of Christ?’ you may object.

Yes, but it’s OK to stop there if you only believe communion is a symbolic memorial of a past event. If it’s remotely more than that, you need the Resurrection to explain it. How many memorial services have you attended where the deceased was present? How many funeral wakes have you been to where the one you were remembering served you the food? Jesus is alive! And our worship is filled with hope. Whatever discourages or depresses us, Jesus is risen from the dead and there is a new world coming.

So my friend who wanted celebratory worship had a point. Just so long as it wasn’t escapism, celebration is the proper tone for those who know the Christian hope. We experience suffering and we witness suffering, but in the Resurrection we know it won’t have the final word and our worship is an act of defiance based on Christian hope. In the words of Steve Winwood, we’re ‘talking back to the night‘. But we talk back to the night because the dawn is coming.

And when the dawn comes, God will no longer feel distant or remote. God will always be close. Thus if Resurrection characterises worship in spirit and truth, our worship will have a sense of intimacy with God. We cannot use hymns about the majesty of God to make him distant, even if we also avoid songs that make Jesus sound like a boyfriend.

Ascension
If there’s one curse in all the worship wars that occur in church, it’s the way we use sophisticated arguments to hide the fact that what we’re really campaigning for is ‘what we like’. The Ascension of Jesus puts paid to that.

Why? Because the Ascension is the enthronement of Jesus at the right hand of God. It is the confirmation that Jesus is King over all creation, including the Church. When we treat worship as what pleases us, worship becomes idolatry, for we worship ourselves. When we recognise the kingship of the ascended Christ, I cannot ask what pleases me. I can only ask, what pleases you, Lord?

It also means we must stop treating worship as spiritual escapism. When a steward prays in the vestry before the service about us ‘turning aside from the world for an hour’, I cringe. When we sing an old chorus like ‘Turn your eyes upon Jesus‘ with its line about ‘The things of earth will grow strangely dim’, I wonder what some people are thinking when they sing those words.

If worship is in spirit and in truth – if that means it’s Christ-centred – and if that includes the Ascension – then worship cannot be used to escape from the world. It can only be used in preparation to face the world. For the king of the Church is on the throne of creation.

There is a church building in Germany, which has over the exit doors these words: ‘Servants’ Entrance’. Worshipping the ascended Christ thrusts us into the world. It’s why the Roman Catholic Mass is called the Mass – after the Latin ‘Eta misse est’: ‘Get out!’ Our feeble version is, ‘Go in peace to love and serve the Lord’: perhaps that should be ‘Go in boldness to love and serve the Lord’! The test of worship isn’t Hymns And Psalms versus Mission Praise versus Songs Of Fellowship. It’s whether we continue to worship by our lifestyles in the world where Christ reigns.

Conclusion
Archbishop William Temple wrote a classic devotional commentary on John’s Gospel. I can do no better in concluding this sermon than quoting some of his most potent words on this very verse:

For worship is the submission of all our nature to God. It is the quickening of conscience by His holiness; the nourishment of mind with His truth; the purifying of imagination by His beauty; the opening of the heart to His love; the surrender of will to HIs purpose – and all of this gathered up in adoration, the most selfless emotion of which our nature is capable and therefore the chief remedy for that self-centredness which is our original sin and the source of all actual sin. Yes – worship in spirit and truth is the way to the solution of perplexity and to the liberation from sin. [p 65]

May we worship like that.