His response to the furore is fascinating. You can’t comment on the blog post. What’s the matter, Mark? Are you afraid those cowardly Brits will beat you up online?
He didn’t like the aggressive line of questioning from the journalist. Can I just say the words ‘pot, ‘kettle’ and ‘black’, Mr Driscoll? I thought you liked men to be aggressive.
And he accuses the journalist of being liberal, because – amongst other things – he doesn’t believe in hell as a place of conscious, eternal torment. So, would you have been man enough to call John Stott a liberal to his face in his lifetime for his annihilationist views, pal?
As for bemoaning the lack of famous young British Bible teachers, please don’t get sucked into celebrity culture: a preacher can choose in ambition between making Jesus famous and making themselves famous. You can’t go for both. If God raises you up to prominence, fine. But that’s God’s business, not yours or mine.
Some wonder whether we should take Mark Driscoll seriously. Part of me would like to think of him as Christian comedy, the same way I laugh at Jeremy Clarkson, but not with him. However, ask in any school playground whether you should take bullies seriously. Because this kind of accusation amounts to bullying.
Most of all, what sticks in my throat is the way I see the word ‘Pastor’ in front of his name all the time. It’s Pastor Mark this, it’s pastormark.tv, and so on. What exactly is pastoral about this behaviour? We all slip. I do. But Driscoll has been called out as a bully before, and his elders have taken him to task. I think it’s time for a repeat. And a look at why this kind of behaviour keeps recurring.
Yesterday evening, reports appeared on the web that John Stott had passed away yesterday afternoon at the age of 90. (This search will take you to about two hundred stories in Google News at the time of typing.) Obituaries cover his evangelism, his leadership of All Souls, Langham Place, his key place with Billy Graham in the Lausanne Movement, his commitment to social action as core to evangelical understandings of mission, his clear Bible teaching, his concern for the Majority World, his love of birdwatching and much more. I particularly recommend Christianity Today’s obituary.
More concisely, Maggi Dawn has described him this morning on Twitter as
The most compassionate, sane evangelical Christian I ever met.
I have read many of his books. Favourites of mine include his expositions of Acts and Ephesians (the latter is particularly worn and battered). However, I only heard him preach once. I was training for the ministry in Manchester at the time, and he came to preach one evening at the local Anglican church, which had a large student ministry. Dr Stott agreed to stay behind afterwards and field questions.
I attended that meeting. I was engaged in my postgraduate research in Theology, specialising in ecclesiology, the doctrine of the Church. I asked him a question. Why did he think Archbishop Robert Runcie had chided evangelical Anglicans at the third National Evangelical Anglican Congress in 1987 that
‘If the current evangelical renewal in the Church of England is to have a lasting impact, then there must be more explicit attention given to the doctrine of the church’?
Dr Stott gently batted the question back at me, with quiet grace and a faintly sparkling smile. “Why do you think he did?”
I had no sense that he was trying to dodge the question. Rather, like Jesus, he knew that questions could be more deeply explored by asking further questions. He wasn’t short of answers himself, and for those who want to know, it is worth reading his book The Living Church.
Farewell, then, in this life, to one of the most gracious, compassionate and hard-thinking evangelical Christians to have come to prominence in the last century. May more of us in that tradition seek to emulate his example.
My dear young man, don’t take it too hard. Your work is ingenious. It’s quality work. And there are simply too many notes, that’s all. Just cut a few and it will be perfect.
To which Mozart replies,
Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?
A sermon topic like today’s runs that risk – too many notes. When we think about the Holy Spirit and mission, there is so much to say. Hence if I don’t cover your favourite theme within this strand today, I’m sorry. But don’t worry, I’m sure it will pop up elsewhere, either in this sermon series or at other times.
So if you wanted to hear about the way the Holy Spirit goes ahead of us and prepares the way in mission – fear not, you’ll hear me talk about that on various occasions. If you wanted me to cover the use of spiritual gifts – well, they get their own billing later in the series.
Excuse me, then, if I limit myself to the big themes here in Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost. They will give us an outline, and on other occasions we can fill in some detail. After all, you wouldn’t want a preacher with ‘too many notes’, would you?
Here’s the first strand. At college, one of my friends had a well-worn T-shirt which reflected another 1980s film with a musical theme: The Blues Brothers. Ian’s T-shirt had the slogan from the film: ‘We’re on a mission from God.’ These days, Ian is respectable in the church, with a PhD and a job as a theological college principal!
But the story of the film is of a man being released from prison, only to find that the Catholic home where he and his brother were raised by nuns is under threat of closure if it cannot pay a tax bill. They reform their old band and seek to raise the funds. Hence, ‘We’re on a mission from God.’
And the first part of Peter’s sermon shows that we all are on a mission from God when the Spirit comes. This is about the universal nature of the Spirit’s work in mission. The Spirit makes mission from all to all – from all in the church, to all in the world.
All that talk about blood and fire, billows of smoke, the sun going dark and the moon like blood (verses 19-20)? It’s not a weather forecast! It’s dramatic language, underpinning the basic point that this work of the Spirit to use all God’s people to reach all people with God’s love in Christ is an earth-shattering, game-changing moment. This is a great ‘day of the Lord’ (verse 20) when ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’ (verse 21), because God has poured out his Spirit on all people (verse 17), to the extent male and female, young and old, slaves as well as free will dream, have visions and prophesy (verses 17-18).
Yes, all of God’s people are equipped to prophesy, to speak God’s message boldly. Well did one preacher say that the Bible doesn’t just teach the famous Reformation slogan of the priesthood of all believers, it teaches the prophethood of al believers. When you say that only certain ranks of people in the church are ‘good enough’ for certain tasks, you forget that God has poured out the Spirit on all his people for his mission. Granted, we each have distinct gifts, but the Spirit comes on all who profess faith in Christ, and one reason for that is we are all ordained. God ordains all of us into the work of his mission.
Or, put it this way: we are not all evangelists, but we are all witnesses. We may not be able to explain and answer everything, but like a witness in a court case, we can all say what we have seen and what has happened to us. We can all talk about what Jesus has done for us. The Holy Spirit has come into our lives, and equipped us to do that.
This is not a threat or a demand, it is a promise. It fulfils the promise Jesus made about the coming of the Spirit before his Ascension: ‘You will be my witnesses.’ That isn’t an order, it’s a promise. When the Spirit comes, we are all ordained into the universal mission of God’s saving love: from all, to all.
The second strand in the Holy Spirit’s mission work here is this: it’s all about Jesus. For the rest of Peter’s sermon, he goes on and on about Jesus (verses 22-36). This is who he is. This is what he has done. This is how you have reacted to him so far. This is what you need to do about him. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.
This amplifies what I’ve just said about us all being witnesses. Some of you may be familiar with a Christian website called Ship of Fools, a site which includes humorous sections such as Gadgets for God, featuring the latest in tacky Christian memorabilia, a Caption Competition, Signs and Blunders, through Mystery Worshipper reports on church service around the world, to serious discussion of pressing issues.
Ship of Fools started life as a print magazine in the early 1980s. I know, because I was one of the subscribers. In one of those issues, they carried a cartoon strip article called ‘Born Again Testimonies’. ‘You may be – but has your testimony been born again?’ the article asked. It depicted Christians who were discouraged that the story of their spiritual experience was not as dramatic and exciting as that commonly portrayed in Christian testimony books. It offered a rewriting of your story by Hollywood scriptwriters, plastic surgery, dental and gymnastic care, all to make you ready for the platform of an evangelist at a crusade.
I suspect it touched a raw nerve, because it hit on a feeling I’ve noticed among regular churchgoers. “I don’t have a Damascus Road experience to talk about, so my testimony will count for nothing.” If you haven’t been a drug dealer, a bank robber or a celebrity, no-one will be interested in your story.
However, as the great John Stott once put it, ‘Testimony is not autobiography.’ In other words, testimony is not my story, it’s not ‘me, me, me’, it’s the story of what Jesus has done in my life. Now again, you may think that unless what Jesus has done in your life is the religious equivalent of a fireworks spectacular, it may not be worth talking about.
But we would be wrong. All that Peter describes about Jesus in this sermon – his ministry, his death, his resurrection, his Ascension and his sending of the Holy Spirit – all these things impact us. So what if in our lives it doesn’t come all-singing and all-dancing, complete with a laser light show? What matters is that we know Jesus has changed us – and is changing us. The majority of people live ordinary, unflashy lives, and so an ordinary, unflashy story of what Jesus means to us is every bit as likely, if not more so, to have an effect upon them.
So – why not give it some thought? What has Jesus done for you? Reflect on it. There will be material from your life that you can share about the work of Jesus. that’s where the Holy Spirit wants to focus: on Jesus. We can co-operate with the Spirit by being willing to talk about Jesus and his work in our lives.
The third and final strand of the Spirit’s work in mission that I want to draw out here has to do with the effect upon the listeners.
What happens at the end of the sermon?
When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (Verse 37)
What has the Holy Spirit done here? It’s what Jesus (as recorded in John’s Gospel) called ‘conviction of sin’. Conviction of sin is the third element in this passage of the Holy Spirit’s work in mission.
Conviction of sin is when the Holy Spirit shows people how they are in the wrong before God – either generally or specifically – and calls them to change. In that respect, it’s different from that work of the enemy we call ‘condemnation’, which just says, “You’re a terrible person, you’re useless.” Condemnation leaves someone without hope. Conviction of sin is different, because it is specific, and there is a remedy that draws us to God, namely repentance.
So we see in the story today that when the crowd asks Peter and the apostles what they should do, he gives a specific reply:
Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Verse 38)
We know that coming to faith involves repentance in some form. Faith in Jesus Christ and following him entails changing our way of life. In all sorts of areas, we shall need to perform the spiritual version of a U-turn, to go Christ’s way. The Holy Spirit shows us what we need to change and renounce.
By way of an aside, of course this is not something that happens just once at the beginning of the Christian life: it happens throughout, as the Holy Spirit patiently works to make us more Christlike.
But let us note that it truly is the Holy Spirit who does the convicting. Peter has described the situation, and yes he has told the people that they and others were responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus (verses 23, 36), but it’s still the Spirit who cuts them to the heart. We have to be careful not to do the Holy Spirit’s work ourselves, but faithfully to share God’s love and truth and leave the Spirit to do the convicting.
I once had the privilege of registering a wedding for someone who had begun worshipping at another church in the area, but one which did
not own its own building. She had come to faith through an Alpha Course that church had run, and wanted to be baptised. However, she was living with her partner without being married to him. The church had not harangued her for this, even though they believed (and I do, too) that living together falls short of God’s vision for relationships. However, she felt it was not right for her to be baptised until her relationship was regularised. So I registered the wedding, and her pastor conducted the service. I believe it was the Holy Spirit who convicted her, and who led her to marriage before baptism. In fact, the wedding was at 11 o’clock, and she then went to another church building to be baptised at 12 o’clock!
And we also might remember that the Spirit’s timetable and agenda for sorting out people’s lives might not be quite the same as ours. I once heard the preacher Clive Calver tell a story at Spring Harvest about how he kept praying, “Lord, please take away my pride.”
When it didn’t happen, he continued to pray, asking, “Lord, why aren’t you taking away my pride?”
“Because then there would be nothing left,” was what he believed God replied.
We don’t always know why the Spirit highlights certain issues in a person’s life but delays attending to others. What we do know is that coming to Christ involves the Spirit showing us where we need to change our ways in repentance, and that that begins a process that lasts the whole of our lives.
In conclusion, then, the Holy Spirit enlists us for God’s mission in Jesus. The mission is for all people, and needs all God’s people, empowered by the Spirit, for it to flourish. That mission will focus not on us, but on Jesus. Our rôle is to tell the story of Jesus’ activity in our lives. And the Spirit draws people to follow Jesus through conviction of sin.
All in all, then, the mission of God will not function without the primary work of the Holy Spirit. Never mind our plans, our campaigns, our techniques or what the latest book or conference speaker says. No Holy Spirit, no mission worthy of the name.
Come, Holy Spirit.
A neighbour of ours three doors down periodically changes her photo on Facebook. For a long time it was a snap of her with the rock singer Jon Bon Jovi. Then it became a picture of her with the Hollywood actor Johnny Depp. Michelle looks very happy and relaxed with them. They look pretty happy with her. It does rather help the matter that Michelle is quite glamorous!
Me, I’m not so sure I’d look as cool and laid back with a famous person as she does. Not that I’m terribly interested in handsome male rock stars or actors; I just have to fend off Debbie’s regular ribbing because I once commented how pretty one of the teachers at our children’s school is!
However, as I said, I don’t think I’d be as relaxed as Michelle. I think if I met a hero, or a famous beautiful woman, I think I would be a blubbering mess. How journalists keep their cool to interview well-known people, I don’t know.
All of which makes me rather like Peter at the Mount of Transfiguration. When he offers to make three dwellings – one each for Jesus, Moses and Elijah – Luke comments that he didn’t know what he was saying (verse 33). He’s overwhelmed, and he says something stupid. He’d like to preserve the moment or turn it into something he knows and can cope with – the three dwelling places he proposes are reminiscent of the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles.
But he’s missed the significance of the event as a result of his blubbering, and needs correction. That takes him into the terrifying experience in the cloud, where he hears the frightening, correcting voice of God: ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ (Verse 35) Don’t get blubbery about Moses and Elijah: listen to Jesus!
And I want to take that as an entry point into thinking about the Transfiguration today. It’s a traditional reading for the last Sunday before Lent, and I want us to look at how it shows Jesus as being superior to Moses and Elijah.
Firstly, Jesus’ superiority to Moses. So you book your dream holiday. You pay the deposit. You renew your passports. A couple of months before going, you pay the balance. A week before the off, you return to the travel agent to pick up your tickets and your currency. A day or two beforehand, you pack your luggage. Everything is ready for your departure.
And the Transfiguration is about a departure – especially in the connection with Moses. When Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus, we read
They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. (Verse 31)
His departure. Why the Moses connection? Because there’s an Old Testament book called ‘Departure’. It’s just that we know it by its Greek name: Exodus. The story of Moses leading God’s people to freedom from Egypt. When Luke writes about Jesus’ departure here, it is in the Greek his exodos. Moses’ departure was a liberation, Jesus’ forthcoming ‘departure’ from Jerusalem will be a liberation, too. But because Jesus is superior to Moses, his liberation will be superior, too.
If it’s Jesus’ departure from Jerusalem, then clearly we’re talking about his death, resurrection and ascension. That departure brings liberation. Jesus has been pointing the way to his future suffering and has said that disciples need to take up their crosses and follow him. Now we begin to understand that what is coming is a freedom event. The Cross will bring freedom. Jesus’ departure in his death is not a tragic event, as I once heard a Methodist church steward call it in the vestry before a Good Friday service. It is sacrificial love for the blessing of the world. Yes, it is agony and injustice. But it is also true heroism.
Now if this is the case, then we have to see the Transfiguration as more than we have often interpreted it. We know that the disciples come back down from the mountain to the challenges of everyday life. Hence we say that you can’t live on ‘mountain-top experiences’ all the time, you have to get on with ordinary living again. But if the Transfiguration points to Jesus’ departure at the Cross, it isn’t about coming down from a ‘high’ to face the mundane and the routine again. Rather, it’s about Jesus being strengthened to face his coming trial.
So if Jesus is being strengthened to face the trial of the Cross here, perhaps this event is similar to one or two others in the Gospels. It might be like the powerful spiritual experience he had at his baptism with the Holy Spirit coming down on him like a dove and – again – a voice from heaven affirming him, immediately before the Spirit leads him to the wilderness to fast and conquer temptation. It might be like the way he was mysteriously strengthened in the Garden of Gethsemane as he wrestled with his forthcoming betrayal and suffering. No wonder we read this on the last Sunday before Lent.
Isn’t it wonderful, then, that Jesus needed to be strengthened before he faced trials, including the greatest of all? And if that’s the case, then perhaps we might interpret our own ‘mountain-top experiences’ differently. They may not simply be a boost before we get back to the grind; they may be God’s way of equipping us for whatever difficulties are coming our way, particularly those where we end up in a painful place because of our faith. Perhaps God has a blessing for us in Christ that will give us the fortitude to face our trials, or perhaps we can look back at problematic times in our lives and see that before then God prepared us with a blessing. He may have given us our own mini-transfigurations. Not in the sense of exalting who we are – he only does that for Jesus – but in empowering and encouraging us.
Secondly, Jesus’ superiority to Elijah. How does Elijah connect with Jesus’ departure? The Moses connection is quite easy to see when you think of the word ‘exodus’, but it’s less easy to see why Elijah should be hanging out with Jesus now, and the particular way in which Jesus is superior to him.
However, there is a link between Jesus’ departure at Jerusalem and Elijah, and it goes like this. For Jews, Elijah was the great prophet of the end-time deliverance. He was the one who was expected to appear before God’s Messiah. You may recall there was a hoo-hah in the Gospels as to whether John the Baptist was Elijah come back from the dead to precede the Messiah. All this means that Elijah was the figure of hope. He signified to Jewish minds that God would make all things right, just and whole in his kingdom. Hence the theme of hope.
That may well have been why Peter almost thoughtlessly suggested the building of three booths, like the Feast of Tabernacles, as I said, because that festival was also known as the Feast of Ingathering, and looked forward to the fullness of God’s kingdom on earth. Peter’s mistake was just to see Jesus as an equal with Moses and Elijah.
But the voice from heaven says, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ (verse 35), because Jesus is superior even to Elijah. So we must infer that Jesus brings a superior hope at his departure.
I suggest we find that in his resurrection and ascension. Jesus will be raised physically from the dead. His body will be restored to him in a new way. Jesus’ resurrection body is the beginning of God’s new creation. God will make all things new, and he begins with his own Son. Elijah might be a sign or symbol of hope, but Jesus is more than that: his own resurrection body embodies our hope, even guarantees our hope of a new heaven and a new earth.
So death may and will come, but it doesn’t get the last laugh. God does. We wait in heaven, in what looks from earth like the sleep of death, but one day the Great Surprise will happen when God raises us from the dead and renews his creation. Elijah can teach us much, but only the Son of God can teach us all this. The Christian who dies trusting in Christ does so in peace, because Jesus fills her with hope in ways no-one else can.
And then there’s the ascension, Jesus’ final bodily departure from Jerusalem, reminiscent of the way Elijah left this world yet – again – superior to it. He ascends to the Father’s right hand, where he will reign until everything has been put under his feet. This is the part of hope that sustains us until God makes all things new, when the new Jerusalem descends and all creation is renewed.
The Christian’s chief occupational hazards are depression and discouragement.
But the Ascension reminds us that Jesus is reigning, even while rebellion takes place against his rule. Battles may be won or lost, but in the final analysis Christ is on the throne. To say that Christ is not reigning because there is still sin in the world would be like saying there cannot be a government in power because crime is still being committed.
In conclusion, then, Jesus at the Transfiguration offers us awesome hope. The liberation of the Cross, the hope in the Resurrection of God’s new creation and the assurance of his reign through the Ascension. Moses and Elijah may have been good, but Jesus outranks them everywhere.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, ‘Any study of Christ must begin in silence.’ No wonder we read that
When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen. (Verse 36)
Sometimes I’m all for the response to a sermon being in words and deeds after the service. Today, maybe like Peter, James and John, our best response might just be awed silence at the majesty of Christ.
Do you ever wonder what on earth Jesus is playing at? Because I do when I read this passage. Just before this story, Jesus and his disciples have been inside the Jerusalem Temple. They have witnessed the flamboyant giving of the rich, and the sacrificial giving of the widow with her mite. Jesus, you remember, commends the widow who gives all she has to live on. But now, having praised her contribution to the Temple, he announces its destruction. What exactly is the point?
Jesus is using graphic language about cataclysmic events to make his followers face important issues about faith and discipleship. He poses them some challenging questions. By inference, he challenges us, too, to get our priorities of faith right.
Firstly, he challenges their priorities about the Temple. The disciples sound so much like typical Methodists to me, when they say, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ (verse 1). They sound exactly like church members welcoming a prospective minister who is considering a possible invitation to their circuit. (I can’t think why that is on my mind … ) They make a show of the building.
But Jesus asks, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down’ (verse 2). Better not worship the buildings: that’s idolatry. Yet it’s a common temptation for many of us. It’s not that we can do without buildings: any gathering of a certain size will need a building, whether owned or rented. But the problem is one of false worship.
For me, this became clearer this week in my studies for today which made me reflect on the fact that there are two New Testament Greek words used for ‘temple’. One means the buildings and surrounding area of the Temple, the other refers to the inner sanctuary, where God was believed to dwell. In this passage, Jesus uses the first word. He says the buildings will be destroyed, not the presence of God.
What about the second word, the word for the place of God’s presence? Jesus uses that elsewhere, to apply to himself. You may recall the time he said, ‘Destroy this temple, and I will rebuild it in three days’ (see Mark 14:58), meaning his own body in death and resurrection.
So what’s the crux of this point? Jesus tells his disciples – and us – that buildings may come and go (even beautiful religious ones) but the presence of God cannot be destroyed. Jesus, not a church building, is our temple, because the Holy Spirit, the presence of God, dwells in him. Which is also why Paul would refer to groups of disciples as the temple of the Holy Spirit, because God’s Spirit was present in their midst.
And if that’s the case, then it’s the gathering that matters more than the gathering place. The building needs to be suitable, we should take appropriate care of it, and so on, but what drives everything is the core issue of gathering to meet the risen Christ. That is our non-negotiable: meeting Jesus. Everything else may be nice, but is secondary and serves the main purpose of worshipping at the Temple which is the presence of Christ. It means we hold all other accoutrements lightly, including as our buildings.
But this isn’t just some reason to scold people who idolise church buildings. It’s also good news. How many Christian congregations are weighed down with the burden of maintaining a building when it has got beyond their capabilities? How many churches become obsessed with property and finance issues rather than the Gospel? Jesus reorders our priorities. However important it seems to us that we expend all our energies and finances on buildings, there are times when a proper concentration on Jesus relieves us of that pressure. So hear the good news: Jesus, not the fabric, is our Temple.
Secondly, Jesus challenges their priorities about Time. They get obsessed about the future:
When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, ‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?’ (Verses 3-4)
You might think they are like the kinds of Christians who go on endlessly about the end of the world, predicting the date of the Second Coming and terrifying people with visions of fire and brimstone. It rather sounds like one of those ‘The end is nigh’ routines, complete with statutory sandwich boards and tracts.
And if that’s the case, you might wonder what on earth they have to do with people in churches like ours. When we hear Jesus’ rebuke to them, we might think, “Good on you, Jesus, go for it!”
But maybe we shouldn’t be too hasty to be self-righteous and comfortable. For it might just be that we fall into an opposite temptation. One preacher described the danger we face in these words:
I think that a more common “wrong” view in our day is an understanding that there is no end. Rather than living our lives today guided by the future Jesus has promised, we are guided by today or the past, e.g., “This is the way we’ve always done it.” Congregations (and individuals?) should be pulled ahead by a vision of the future rather than be pushed by the past — or worse, seeking to return to the past that no longer exists.
How easy that would be for us, whether we are worrying about whether our church has a long-term future, or whether we are planning for a centenary in two years’ time. Both could be reasons for looking back and living in the past. We could retreat to the cosy warmth of our memories.
But Jesus won’t let us live like that. He won’t let us slip into the habit of detailed predictions about the end of the world, but he does call us to look forward. As the hymn puts it,
We’ll praise him for all that is past
And trust him for all that’s to come.
Some of us find it easy to praise him for the past, but harder to trust him for what is to come. Our future vision for the church is filled with images of struggle, decline and closure.
What are we to do? Just as our view of the Temple must be Jesus-centred, so our view of Time must be focussed on Christ. For Christians, the ultimate future is filled with one vision: the kingdom of God. It is a conviction that the final victory belongs already to Jesus. He has conquered sin and death. The last enemy will fall.
Every time we take Holy Communion, we allow this vision to fill our sight. For we are not only remembering the past with gratitude, we are enjoying ‘a foretaste of the banquet prepared for all the world’. We celebrate the Last Supper, and we anticipate the Wedding Feast of the Lamb.
Let us allow the Scriptures and the worship of the Church give us a proper perspective on Time in the economy of God. And let that give us a proper, proportionate sense of hope.
All of this implies a third and final challenge. Jesus challenges their priorities about Truth. For his response, which leads to all the talk about ‘wars and rumours of wars’ and ‘the beginning of the birth pangs’ (verses 7-8), starts with the words,
Then Jesus began to say to them, ‘Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and they will lead many astray. (Verses 5-6)
What kind of leading astray is going on here? Leading people astray from Jesus himself. This is about a host of temptations to divert from the Truth himself. At a simple level, it’s about those who peddle false Christs, as in cults and heretical sects. So the image of Jesus in the Jehovah’s Witnesses that makes him less than fully divine is a leading astray from the Truth. The image of Jesus who blesses married people more than singles as in Mormonism is another deviation from the Truth. Or the Christian Scientists who say that illness is an illusion cannot match up with the Jesus who healed the sick of very real diseases.
So far, so easy, so smug. But I believe we have to recognise that we have similar problems even within the boundaries of the Christian Church, among those whose basic beliefs about Jesus are thoroughly orthodox, consistent with Scripture and the affirmations of the ancient Creeds. We go in for a ‘leading astray’ from Jesus the Truth, too.
What we do is we conjure a picture of Jesus according to our own preferences. One give-away is when someone says, “I like to think of Jesus as like …”. What follows might be helpful, but more often is simply an image of Jesus conditioned by the preferences of the speaker.
Another example would be something that happened to me after a service once. I had expounded a Gospel passage where Jesus said some difficult, if not tough words. I tried to explain what those words might mean. Afterwards, a man told me Jesus couldn’t possibly have said those words. Why not? Because they didn’t fit his preconceived ideas of what Jesus was about. On that basis, the witness of those who were closer to him was dismissed. If the Jesus presented in the Gospels doesn’t fit what we want, we leave those bits out.
And so we become very selective about Jesus, even in the Church. We take the bits we like and pretend the other parts aren’t there. For some, Jesus is a politician or social worker. For others, he is an evangelist who calls people to a code of personal morality. For others he is a teacher or a healer. Yet in the Scriptures he is an evangelist, a pastor, a healer and a proponent of social justice.
Above all, he is Lord, and he will not submit to the way we miniaturise him in order to fit what we religious consumers will buy. It is not for him to fit into our vision; it is for us to fit into his vision. Anything else is to be led astray, often willingly.
The great Christian leader John Stott used to begin his sermon preparation for Sunday the preceding Monday by reading the Bible passage he was to preach about on his knees. It wasn’t that he worshipped the Bible; rather, he recognised that the text conveyed to him the will of the sovereign Lord to whom he must submit. That is the example we need to cultivate: one that rejects the picking and choosing of what suits us.
In conclusion, then, every single priority of faith and discipleship to which Jesus calls us turns out to be a focussing on him. Our ‘Temple’ priority is to see him as the location of God’s presence, rather than a building. Our ‘Time’ priority is to let his perspective of the future determine our attitudes to the past, present and future. And our ‘Truth’ priority is to stop being selective about Jesus or making him in our own image. Instead, we bow the knee to him as Lord.
After all, wasn’t ‘Jesus is Lord’ the earliest Christian confession?