This summer at Knaphill, we return to the Book of Acts two years after spending a previous summer in it. And we return with a bang, starting with this story about the healing of Aeneas and the raising of Dorcas. Just the sort of incidents we encounter every day? Maybe not …
And perhaps that’s both one of the reasons these stories are in Acts and also one of the reasons they can be a problem to us. These are not exactly everyday occurrences. I want to tackle the passage by looking both the specific issue of healing and the general issue of blessing.
Firstly, then, the specifics of healing – and by ‘healing’, I am including the raising of Dorcas alongside the healing of Aeneas.
Perhaps where the place many of us begin is with our experiences. This week we have witnessed someone having a heart attack combined with brain damage, then not coming out of the induced coma, and having the life support machines turned off. I bring the experience of my Mum’s death in February and my Dad’s on-going health troubles. Should I have prayed for Mum to be healed? When she died, should I have prayed that she be raised, like Dorcas?
One of my college friends was confronted with a question like that when he was on a summer placement. A much-loved member of the church died, and somebody told my friend that they should go to the hospital mortuary and pray for this person to come back to life. My friend didn’t know what to do. There are a few biblical stories of people being raised back to this life, but at the same time the final enemy of death has not yet been ultimately defeated, and in those circumstances it seems wise to pray for a ‘good death’.
Certainly that is what we did when we knew my Mum didn’t have long. We prayed that her passing would be quick, peaceful and painless. God answered all those prayers. She declined rapidly in a few days, a community nurse stepped in to manage her pain control when she could no longer swallow tablets, and she slipped away peacefully in the early hours of the morning with a Christian nurse by her side as she took leave of the church militant to join the church triumphant. It wasn’t a raising from the dead, but it was an answer to prayer.
Or what about other experiences that we bring to these miraculous stories of healing and restored life in the Scriptures? How many people have you seen healed in answer to your prayers? To my knowledge, I have only seen one person healed when I have prayed for them.
Perhaps you have seen more healings than me when you have prayed. Or maybe in your disappointment you have lapsed back into tacking the words ‘If it be your will’ onto the end of your prayers as a catch-all clause that protects you from feeling let down when what you want to happen doesn’t occur.
And it is true that not everyone is healed in answer to prayer. We are dealing with the fact that the kingdom of God has come, but it has not come fully yet. In God’s kingdom there will be no more suffering or pain, and so we can expect healed bodies. Sometimes that does indeed happen in this life when we pray – as well as what the God-given skill of medical professionals achieves. But on other occasions, we see no healing. The kingdom of God has not yet come in completeness, and thus some suffer and struggle with chronic illness.
Against all that, let me set the testimony of one man whose approach to the healing ministry affected the Christian church for good in the late twentieth century. I refer to the American pastor John Wimber. He became famous for healings and for other ‘signs and wonders’ when he preached, and amongst the Christian denomination he founded, the Vineyard Churches. Back in 1984 I was one of thousands who crammed into Westminster Central Hall to hear him preach and lead prayer ministry for those present.
But it wasn’t always a smooth ride for John Wimber, either before his ministry became so popular or later, when he was diagnosed with cancer and died at the age of just 63 in 1997. Wimber’s healing ministry started with frustration, discouragement, and – dare I say – a spoonful or two of unbelief.
What happened was this: Wimber was converted from a life of drinking, smoking and drug-taking as a rock musician. (He had been the pianist for the Righteous Brothers.) When he found Christ, he heard the Bible stories about Jesus performing great miracles, and innocently asked at church, “When do we get to do this?”
Upon being told that they didn’t go in for such things at church and only held Sunday services, Wimber replied, “You mean I gave up drugs for that?”
Sometime later, he felt challenged by God to preach about healing from Luke’s Gospel. So he did. And faithfully every week, not only did he preach on the subject, he offered prayer ministry to anyone who had a need, especially those who were sick.
And nothing happened. Nobody was healed. If anything, some people got worse.
Wimber argued with God in prayer about this. God challenged him: “Are you going to preach your experiences or my Word?” So he kept on preaching the stories of the healing miracles. He continued to offer prayer ministry for anyone in need after the services. And then it all changed. Healings began to happen. The trickle became a stream became a river.
Might it be, then, that for all our disappointments, it is the right and worthwhile thing to do to keep praying for people to be healed, even if we don’t see those answers to prayer? When people told John Wimber that they were afraid to pray for people to be healed in case it didn’t happen, he had a wise response. “What’s the worst thing that could happen to someone who is prayed for? The very worst,” he said, “is that they will get blessed!”
Let us continue, then, to pray for people to be healed, and to believe that God will do what is blessed. At least we can ensure that people are blessed.
Secondly, having mentioned blessing, I want to talk about the generalities of blessing. As I said, the least that can happen when we pray in faith, even if we don’t see our desired outcome, is that people will be blessed.
And this gives us a way of finding stories like this one relevant when we don’t have the relevant spiritual gifts. Yes, we should pray and ask for people to be healed, but we also know that not everyone has the spiritual gift of healing. What about those of us who fall into that category?
Well, it seems to me that our lack of an appropriate spiritual gift should not stop us praying for people and blessing people. “I don’t have the gift of healing” should never be a cop-out clause. Every single Christian has the ability to bless people. Why? Because we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, we have the divine resources with which to affect people for the better.
If I am unable to bring about God’s healing through my prayers, then although I do not have that specific gift to offer, I do have the general gift of blessing. People can experience love – God’s love – through me. Do you believe that? What does it look like?
Well, it is unconditional. There is no hint in our story that Aeneas had to do anything in order to receive God’s blessing (of healing) through Peter. The apostle turns up, finds the paralysed man, and speaks God’s word to him. The miracle happens. There is no sense of Aeneas doing something to deserve this. He doesn’t receive healing because he is a good man. He is blessed simply because God loves him, and God’s servant shows that.
Can we look around and say, I may not have the gift of healing, but who needs a blessing? We are not to worry whether they deserve the favour of God – after all, none of us does! We look not at the earning of God’s favour, but simply on the need. Sometimes those who need a blessing will be those who straightforwardly evoke our compassion because of their desperate situation – as doubtless Aeneas did with Peter. But on other occasions, they will be difficult people, prickly people, the awkward squad, the annoying types. But they have a need, and the answer is the blessing of God’s love. We have a calling to offer unconditional blessing. It’s the way of Jesus. He scandalised the religious leaders of his day by blessing the undeserving, and it is our call today also to risk upsetting the pious by pouring out God’s love not on those who deserve it but on those who need it. A scandal! But it’s what Jesus would have done. You don’t need a WWJD bracelet to know that.
And not only do we ask, ‘Who do we bless?’, we also ask, ‘Where do we bless?’ Dorcas (or Tabitha) may be the greater miracle – a raising from the dead, not ‘merely’ the healing of paralysis, but it happens within the family of the church. According to verse 36, she is a disciple. Her miraculous blessing comes rather in the way we pray for one another in the church. Aeneas? Well, he may be part of the church, too, given that Peter encounters him when he comes to Lydda ‘to visit the Lord’s people’ (verse 32). This healing stuff is challenging enough as it is, so let’s keep it within church structures! We’ll pray, we’ll have a prayer list for our intercessions, and we might put on the odd healing service (although we might feel rather awkward if someone from outside the church turns up – what will do or believe then?). But let’s keep it there.
The trouble is, the news gets out in both cases, which must mean that the disciples of Jesus at Lydda were well connected with their wider society. They cannot have been like many modern Christians whose only friends are other church members. They are plugged into the wider world, and when people get blessed – healed, or raised from the dead, even – their society gets to know that in both cases, Luke tells us that many people ‘turned to the Lord’ (verse 35) or ‘believed in the Lord’ (verse 42).
Isn’t it the case that too often we settle for some kind of soft life as Christians, a set of easy options where we enjoy one another’s company and do good things for each other, but make nothing like as much effort to bless the world as we do to bless one another? Yet if we were to give the sort of priority to blessing people in the world that we do to socialising with fellow Christians, or arguing about church politics, or rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic (which is what a lot of church structures and hierarchies want to do), then I do believe we would see a change in the public perception of the Christian faith. Ultimately we would see a softening of people’s hearts to Jesus Christ, and our willingness to let blessing leak out from the church to the world might just begin a spiritual transformation in our society.
You know, it’s quite common before a service in the vestry for a church steward to pray a prayer with the preacher that asks for the service to bring a word that will connect with what people will do in serving God on a Monday morning as well as on a Sunday. Well, the way in which the astonishing news of Aeneas’ healing and Dorcas’ raising break out beyond the community of Jesus’ disciples in this story gives us such a word with which to climax this sermon. Whether we have the gift of healing or not, will we go out into the world this week and ask this simple question: who is God calling me to bless, regardless of whether they deserve it, and only giving regard to whether they need it?
If the Christian church did that consistently, I truly believe things would begin to change in the long term.
I was tempted to start this week’s sermon the way I began my sermon last Sunday. I figured you wouldn’t notice, as I was at Knaphill and this is Walton. The only people who would notice were those who read this on my blog.
I was going to talk about a woman called Nancy Duarte, who is a world authority on how speakers might craft the best visual presentations. She talks about the need to find something in your message that will resonate with your hearers, so that there is empathy between speaker and audience (or congregation).
But for a lot of contemporary Christians, there are difficulties finding that resonance or empathy with today’s Gospel reading. Some get worried by the references to demons. Others are troubled by what happens to the pigs. A few will know there are issues around the reference to ‘the country of the Gerasenes’ (verses 26, 37) and whether it extended to the border of the Sea of Galilee.
Nevertheless, I want to ask you to stay with me as we explore this story. Whatever problems some of you might have with the account, I believe Jesus has much to teach us here about the way we share in his mission in the world today.
In fact, let’s take up that theme at the outset: this passage is first and foremost about mission.
Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. (Verse 26)
Then? What has just happened? Jesus and his disciples have just crossed the Sea of Galilee to the ‘other’ side, the Gentile side. They have survived a terrible storm, which threatened their lives, but which didn’t bother Jesus, who commanded it to stop. This is a deliberate journey. It is an utterly intentional act that he leads the disciples away from the safety and familiarity of the Jewish side of Galilee to the Gentile side. Jesus is leading his disciples out of their comfort zone.
And that is something we need him to do with us if we are to be on mission with him. How often do we want to stay in our familiar surroundings? How often do we describe outreach as ‘getting more people to join us’? We would rather it were all done on our territory, on our premises. But Jesus will not let us get away with that. If we just want to get people to join us, we are doing little more than recruiting people to our religious club. We have lost the vision of calling people to make their allegiance to the kingdom of God.
Yes, that will put us in uncomfortable circumstances. I was dwelling on that a few weeks ago when I went to the barber’s. As I waited my turn with one of the two guys in there, a student was having his hair cut by one of them. I heard him speaking disparagingly about a posh but attractive woman he had met at a social gathering. Without a trace of shame, the young man said, “It wasn’t as though I wanted a relationship with her, I only wanted to go to bed with her.” You can add your own stories, and some of you encounter these vastly different values every day. Yes, we can feel nervous when we come across them, because we are aware that our convictions will be laughed at, but it’s no good retreating from the challenge.
Make no mistake, there are forces that will want to prevent us from making our journey to the Gentile shore. The storm that rose threatened to derail Jesus and his disciples would probably have been seen by first century Jews as a demonic manifestation. The sea was a symbol of fear and for a storm to rise up there was more than a meteorological phenomenon. This was opposition to Jesus’ journey.
We face opposition, too. Yes, there are secular groups that want to obliterate all reference to God from the public discourse, not least the National Secular Society, an organisation that refuses to divulge how many members it has, but probably has no more than seven thousand.
But we have opposition within ourselves. We prefer our comforts. We want to avoid the difficult road. But you know what? We’ve tried that, and look around! It’s not working.
Friends, if there were one priority I could set for every church today, it would be to give mission the priority Jesus did, and to stop us running all our lives and our spare time around church activities. Things need to be cut. Certain high priorities at present need to be put far lower down our lists. We need to be in ‘Gentile territory’ with the love of God.
The second thing to notice – and you’ll say I’m just stating the blindingly obvious here – is that Jesus’ mission is about confrontation with evil. But before you ask why on earth the circuit is paying me a stipend to say such things, please notice that the confrontation with evil is more complex than it first appears.
Let’s begin with the problematic issue of the demons. It’s easy to assume, because we feel so superior as modern educated people, that the ‘primitive’ authors of the biblical books were mistakenly attributing what we would call mental illness to demonic activity. However, why do we make that assumption? Is it because we have already decided we are embarrassed by what is often called the ‘supernatural’? Or maybe we do so, because we know of Christians who have been irresponsible in their easy labelling of anything disturbing as being ‘of the devil’, sometimes causing pastoral damage by doing so. This has certainly happened.
But ultimately do we not as Christians have to deal with the fact that Jesus recognised the existence of the demonic? Were we then to say that Jesus only did so because he was a child of his time, then have we not come close to denying that he is Lord? It is one thing to say that Jesus limited himself in his incarnation, but it is quite another to say that he was wrong.
So I conclude that there is a spiritual dimension to evil that needs to be faced – and faced not with fear but with faith. I think it fair to say that the demonic is real but rare. In twenty years of ministry, I can only point with certainty to one case – although there may have been others. Indeed, the late John Wimber, whose famed healing ministry included a deliverance element, said he could count on the fingers of his hands the number of times he had encountered a demon.
However, I said that the confrontation with evil was more complex than first appears. The effect of Jesus’ ministry is not only the expulsion of the demons from the afflicted man. That is one of at least four effects Jesus has in this story. A second is that he has an effect upon the local economy when he allows the demons to enter the herd of pigs. Whatever we make of that action, the local farmers will not have been pleased. Even if we say that to a Jew the pigs were unclean (which isn’t an easy justification, because Jesus declared all foods clean), we are still left with an economic effect of Jesus’ battle with evil.
It isn’t the only time something like this happens in the New Testament. In Acts 16, Paul casts a demon out of a slave girl, and the girl’s owner is enraged that he has lost his income stream. In Ephesus, the craftsmen who make idols for people to worship become angry with Paul and his entourage who promote the worship of a different deity, one who prohibits images. Gospel preaching and deliverance ministry not only have a positive effect on those who are blessed, but a negative effect on those whose economic self-interest is dependent upon sin and exploitation.
As well as the exorcism and the social effect, there is a third effect of the confrontation with evil, and it is a positive one: the man’s relationship with society is healed. No longer does he have to be ostracised as a graveyard-inhabiting madman in chains, the only people he sees being those engaged to guard him (verse 29). Now, instead of being naked he is clothed, and instead of being afflicted he is in his right mind (verse 35). The Gospel heals his relationship with society. It heals social brokenness. Relationships are restored. Ostracism and exclusion are dissolved.
The fourth Gospel effect in Jesus’ confrontation with evil is that the healed man becomes a disciple. No longer is he subject to other powers, he is now free to follow Jesus. And so much so that he wants to leave his home and go on the road with Jesus (verse 38), although Jesus has a different task for him, a missional one among his own people of proclaiming what God has done (verse 39).
This all reminds us, then, that the mission to which we are called will be a fully rounded one. Some Christians talk as if you can pick a preference: the Gospel is about conversion, or it is about supernatural healings, or it is about reconciliation, or it is about social justice. However, there is no ‘or’ about it. The Gospel affects all areas of life, and we need to share it with that in mind. Jesus cannot be limited to a small compartment of our lives: he comes to reign in every area of life. This is the Gospel of the kingdom of God: that God seeks to act as king in every sphere. This is what we proclaim, and this is what we are to live.
Naturally, there are no guarantees here. People are not computers that can be programmed to provide a guaranteed response. Hence, when the townspeople become fearful and ask Jesus to leave them (verses 35, 37). And perhaps the frightening thing for such people is that Jesus honours their terrible request to go away.
But, but, but! If Jesus had not taken the missional initiative and confronted evil, that man would never have found healing and faith. It is because Jesus went away from the familiarity of Jewish Galilee to Gentile Galilee that the man was blessed and became a disciple.
I ask you to draw a contrast between where we are in many churches now and where we might be. Mostly, we wait for people to come to us. We follow Einstein’s definition of insanity: we keep doing the same thing, but we expect a different result. We ought to have got the message by now: doing the same old same old over and over as we do a credible impersonation of a heritage industry rather than a living organism will not get us any other result than the current one of decline and aging.
I hold out to you instead a vision of a church that is prepared to cross the stormy waters from safety to vulnerability. A church that is not interested in self-preservation but in overflowing with the Good News of God’s kingdom in every area of life, expressed in word and deed. A church that in doing so is willing to risk the negative responses of those who will tell her to go away for the sake of those who will drink the message of the kingdom as life-giving water, as the afflicted man in this story did.
Friends, if you compare where we are now with where we could be, which future do you want? The present scenario is sometimes expressed in terms that I find uncomfortable: I hear some of our older members in some churches saying, “As long as this church sees me out, that’s all I care about.” In other words, as long as the congregation doesn’t die before they do, that’s enough. I find that depressing and distressing.
We have a better alternative. Yes, it’s a bit scary, but it’s the way of life. It’s the way of Jesus.
We have two choices before us. I pray we choose the way of life.
For many years now, one of my favourite quotes has been the late John Wimber‘s statement that ‘faith’ is spelt R-I-S-K. So it was a pleasure this morning while watching the live stream of the HTB Leadership Conference was to hear Archbishop Justin Welby say that ‘The church should be a safe place to do risky things in the service of Christ.’ How appropriate after that, then, to find myself listening to Esther Alexander‘s song ‘The End of the Land’, where she sings,
Is this the end of the land here
Or the beginning of the sea?
(You can listen to the song and download it here.)
Perhaps that’s our dilemma. We are more scared by being at the end of the land than we are by being at the beginning of the sea. What will it take for us to change, and why would we change? Too many churches want to change in order to save their skins. ‘We must reach out in order to keep this church going.’
Heaven help us. Really.
Welby also said this morning, ‘We cannot live for our cause to win, we have to live for his cause to win.’ May it be so.
‘Ello. I wish to register a complaint.
Anyone who ever followed Monty Python’s Flying Circus will soon recognise those words from the famous Dead Parrot Sketch. John Cleese’s character Mr Praline has bought a Norwegian Blue parrot from a pet shop but it proves to be dead. The pet shop owner says, “He’s not dead, he’s resting.” Exasperated, Mr Praline eventually declares the animal to be “an ex-parrot”.
The Dead Parrot sketch came back into my mind as I re-read Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones. A friend of mine rewrote it as The Dead Church Sketch. So for the part of the sketch where Mr Praline complains that the parrot is not moving and he is told that the parrot has been nailed to its perch, we instead hear the excuse that the congregation has been nailed to the pews.
In Ezekiel 37 the prophet encounters a vision of a ‘Dead Church’, or Dead Israel to be more accurate. A Dead People Of God. He is taken back and forth among the bones to make it clear that the people of God in exile in Babylon are ‘dead’. Spiritually dead.
The vision is appalling and offensive. You didn’t leave dead bones out in the air: the Jewish custom was (and still is) to bury the dead within a day or two of the death. And contact with dead bodies made a Jew ritually unclean, so to leave them out like this for so long increased the number of people who would be made unclean by coming near them.
More offensive than the implications for Jewish ritual law is the message of the vision: the people of God are dead.
Somewhere among our struggles for the future of Church is a similar fear. Declining church numbers. The lack of under-40s. Does The Future Have A Church?
The historian Callum Brown said in his book The Death Of Christian Britain that he could envisage the disappearance of Christianity from this nation. Ten years ago Archbishop Cormac Murphy O’Connor spoke of our faith as having been ‘almost vanquished‘.
We’re beginning to look like a pile of dead bones out in the air.
Might we turn on to Ezekiel again and see whether God might bring a similar message of hope in the face of devastation to us?
Three times God tells Ezekiel to prophesy. The first occasion is this:
Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.’
To dead bones comes the promise of life. Life will enter the dead by the breath of God, that is, his Spirit. It’s the same word in Hebrew for wind, breath and spirit. Just as the Spirit brooded over the waters at creation and God put his breath in the man so that he might have life, so to have new life – spiritual life – requires the breath or Spirit of God.
Somebody once said that if the Holy Spirit were taken from the Church, ninety-five per cent of all activities would continue just the same. Was that person right? Instead of defining the Christian life as life in the Spirit, we have defined it by busyness and by whether the church has a full and varied programme of activities.
In my last circuit the ministers had to give reports to every Circuit Meeting on the ‘new initiatives’ in each of our churches. Healthy church life was
measured in new programmes and projects, not in signs of the Spirit. Eugene Peterson says,
Along the way the primacy of God and his work in our lives gives way ever so slightly to the primacy of our work in God’s kingdom, and we begin thinking of ways that we can use God in what we are doing. … [I]t turns out that we have not so much been worshipping God as enlisting him as a trusted and valuable assistant.
[Christ Plays In Ten Thousand Places, p 124.]
The Old Testament calls God the Helper of Israel. Some English translations of the New Testament call the Holy Spirit the Helper. But this should not be taken to justify that subtle shift from utter dependence upon God to regarding him as an accessory. When we treat the Spirit of God like that, we end up as dead bones.
Ezekiel calls us, then, to receive the life of the Spirit and stop depending upon our dead ways of doing church and being Christian. We fill our empty lives with busyness and possessions, when the only fullness that will satisfy is the fullness of the Holy Spirit.
Some will object and say that throughout the Old Testament the Spirit was only given to certain people and at certain times. In our era, living after Pentecost, the Spirit has been given to all who believe and we who have faith in Christ have already received the Holy Spirit. In response I offer a favourite story.
The evangelist D L Moody was once taken to task for the way he preached on Ephesians 5:18, where Paul says, ‘Be filled with the Spirit’. Moody pointed out that it could be translated, ‘Continue to be filled with the Spirit’, and accordingly encouraged his listeners to be filled again with the Holy Spirit.
Afterwards, a minister berated him, saying, “I received the Holy Spirit at conversion. Why are you telling me to be filled with the Spirit again?”
“Because,” said Moody, “I leak.”
Have we leaked the Spirit? Are we living by faith in dependence upon the power of the Holy Spirit? How many of us can honestly say, “Yes”?
The second prophecy. Ezekiel sees some movement:
So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them.
‘But there was no breath in them.’ Devastating. That which the bones most desperately need – breath – is still absent. What next?
Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.’ I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
‘Prophesy to the breath.’ And if the breath is being summoned prophetically by Ezekiel, then we have here something like that ancient prayer of the Church, ‘Come Holy Spirit’ (‘Veni Sancte Spiritus’), so often used at ordination services. In our terminology, Ezekiel is praying, “Come, Holy Spirit.” It’s an ancient prayer that has come back in popularity in the last twenty years or
so, largely thanks to the late John Wimber and the Vineyard Movement.
Again, certain people will object. They will again say we are living in a post-Pentecost world where the Holy Spirit has been given and is already present. Why say, “Come, Holy Spirit” when the Spirit is here anyway?
Because we are distinguishing between the general presence of the Holy Spirit and the Spirit’s particular actions and interventions. We are not simply seeking the general presence of the Holy Spirit, but the manifest presence. We need to experience the Spirit at work in our lives and in our midst. Dry bones need to know that the breath is coming into them.
But how do we know when the Holy Spirit has manifestly come? In the Book of Acts there seems to be a common denominator of bold speech in the name of Jesus. It may be the gift of tongues, it may be preaching, it may be courageous testimony.
Other occasions in church history have seen obvious signs that the Spirit was at work. We think of Wesley having his heart strangely warmed and also the dramatic effect upon listeners to his preaching as they sensed the gravity of their sin before God and their need of salvation. We saw it a few years ago with the dramatic phenomena of the so-called ‘Toronto Blessing’.
There are, then, clear signs in history of the ‘manifest presence’ of the Holy Spirit. But the Spirit also comes quietly, and it is not for us to choose whether the mode of his coming is quiet or dramatic. The ‘fruit of the Spirit’ – his work in us to produce Christ-like character – is a slow process, just like the growth of ordinary fruit. There may be few outward, visible signs when this work begins or continues.
What matters is that we are open to God to do his work in and through us as he sees fit, and not be limited by our restricted vision, our fears or our prejudices.
We recognise that we need the Spirit’s empowering, and refuse to be complacent. The Holy Spirit may be ‘the Helper’, but he is not our ‘Santa’s little helper’. He is one Person of the Trinity. When we pray, “Come, Holy Spirit,” we are saying, “Come, Holy Spirit, in whatever way you see fit, and to do whatever work you see fit.”
Can we pray that? We need to.
The third prophecy:
The story so far: Ezekiel has seen the deadness of God’s exiled people. He has firstly been summoned to prophesy their need for the breath or Spirit of God. Secondly he has prophetically called on God’s Spirit to fill them.
But what now? The loss of hope still needs addressing. It’s no good bringing God’s people back to spiritual life if they are still left in their sense of despair. So this is how the vision concludes:
Then he said to me, ‘Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am theLord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.’
Ezekiel addresses ‘the whole house of Israel’ and he brings them good news. Their new life in the Spirit will involve being placed on their own soil again.
But for that to mean something for us as Christians, it needs translating. Although Christianity has continuity with the Jewish faith, it does not share the promise of physical land.
Our inheritance is both now in Christ and future in heaven. If the Spirit of God places Christians ‘on their own soil’ now, it may or may not indicate a revival of Christianity in our land. But it will mean renewed confidence in Christ. It will mean a sense of hope about our faith that goes beyond the personal hope of glory. It will mean being positive about Christ rather than forever being on the defensive. It will mean boldness to speak of Christ even when we might face opposition, because we know the Holy Spirit will give us the words. It will mean finding ways to live for one another and not for ourselves, as the Early Church did soon after Pentecost, in defiance of our consumerist culture. It will mean the Sermon on the Mount becoming a lived-out reality now.
Are we seeing these things now? How do we measure up? For however far we fall short of these signs of the Spirit, that is the indication of how much we need to be filled with the Holy Spirit.
So let us pause. If we are not showing all the signs of life in the Spirit that Jesus would wish us to then now is not the time to rush on. Let us stop and drink from the rivers of living water that he gives us.
Perhaps you’re like a guy called Charlie. He worked in a laboratory. After a Christian meeting he asked the visiting speaker this question: “It says of the early disciples that people took note that they had been with Jesus. How come no-one says that about me?”
The preacher prayed with him. Nothing spectacular happened at the time.
But a few days later, one of his work colleagues said to him, “Charlie, what happened to you the other night? You’re a different kind of Charlie.”
For those of us who want to be a different kind of Charlie, this is the hour. Come, Holy Spirit, breathe life into us. May we be planted in the soil you have prepared for us.
 Deuteronomy 33:29; Isaiah 41:13-14; Hosea 13:9
 Where others say Comforter, Counsellor or Advocate – John 14:15, 25; 16:7.
One of the well-documented advantages of the Internet is the opportunity to buy goods at reduced prices. Not only are items frequently cheaper, there are websites and other tools that enable you to compare prices and find the best bargain. Perhaps after this last week’s Emergency Budget, with all its cuts and the forthcoming VAT rise, these things will become even more popular. We all want to reduce our costs.
And Jesus knows there is another area where we want to reduce the cost. Many want to reduce the cost of following him. In our reading, three different characters are interested in following Jesus. The first and third approach him; Jesus calls the second. But what is common to all three is their desire to reduce the cost of discipleship.
How so? When we examine the background to what they say and Jesus says, we’ll see how they are trying to lower the cost of commitment[i]. But we’ll also recognise that some of their reasons for trimming the cost are similar to ours. This being so, we shall gain a picture of what real Christian discipleship involves.
Let us listen to the first conversation Jesus has:
As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Verses 57-58)
I suppose we are used to seeing this dialogue as being one that illustrates the poverty Jesus embraced as part of his mission. He is effectively homeless. (Although there are some Gospel texts that may imply he had his own house – see Mark 9:33 and Luke 5:18.)
Being willing to give up so much is challenging enough. Yet this conversation may be about more than what lifestyle preferences we might give up in order to follow Jesus. It seems to be a dialogue about rejection. The references to foxes and birds of the air may have political overtones. ‘Foxes’ was the name Jews gave to the Ammonites, a racially similar group who were their political enemies. It’s perhaps significant that four chapters later in Luke, Jesus calls the ruler Herod Antipas ‘that fox’. He was a despised ruler from a mixed race family. ‘Foxes have holes’ might therefore be a reference to the comfort that enemies have.
Similarly, the birds of the air. In the time between the Testaments, they were a symbol of the gentile nations, and so here Jesus may be referring to the occupying Romans who are, so to speak, feathering their nests.
Put all this together and Jesus may well be saying that those who oppose the will of God will often have a comfortable life, but those who come his way will have to get used to discomfort and rejection.
How do we receive a word like that? If you grew up in a generation where Christianity was respected – even if sometimes it was only honoured in the breach – then the idea of rejection will be strange to you. More likely you will witness certain changes in our nation and protest, “But this is a Christian country!” I’m not sure what a Christian country is, or even whether such a thing can exist, but I am sure of one thing: this nation isn’t.
We have to get used to the fact that we are a minority faith in a world where faith matters very little. Read the latest edition of Radio Times and you will see an article by Alison Graham about swearing on TV. She refers to an OFCOM report, based on focus group research. While the ‘f’ word and the ‘c’ word are still kept after the watershed, ‘Jesus Christ’ is OK before 9 pm. While she rightly says we should be concerned about images of violence against women on television, it’s clear that people just don’t understand (or care?) about insulting our Lord and Saviour.
Furthermore, while many people will be willing to do things for others, a lot will be offended by the Christian insistence on resolutely putting others first – that saying ‘charity begins at home’ is really an excuse for selfishness.
So just as Jesus prepared that person who claimed they would follow him wherever he went for the likelihood of rejection, so he prepares us for a similar fate. Even if we go to a society that is sympathetic to faith, it will always be the case that if we are serious about following Jesus, that will lead to us embracing a lifestyle and values that conflict with the prevailing ones in that culture.
If you want to follow Jesus, pull out of the popularity contests.
Now let’s hear again the second conversation:
To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” (Verses 59-60)
To our ears, this sounds unbearably cruel. Would Jesus really expect a son to leave his family in the middle of mourning a belovèd father? Where is the compassion of Jesus here?
However, everything changes when we consider the Middle Eastern background. We are used to there being a gap of one to two weeks between a death and the committal at the crematorium. That didn’t happen in Palestine, and it still doesn’t in the Middle East, nor in Jewish or Muslim traditions elsewhere, as a result. The hot climate meant it was imperative to bury the body as quickly as possible. If this man’s father had just died, the son would either be keeping vigil over the body or participating in the funeral. That he wasn’t tells you that his father isn’t dead.
No: he wants to stay living at home until his parents have died, and only then follow Jesus. Now it was the normal custom to do this. It was an expression of respect for parental authority that you did so. That gives a different twist to Jesus’ challenge here: he is saying that following him ranks higher in importance than the demands of family and the customs of the community. Therefore this second dialogue is about authority.
What might that mean for us today, in our very different culture? Perhaps peer pressure is an expression of social expectations today. We know how strong peer pressure is for children and teenagers at school: you have to appear ‘cool’, and in with the right people. It isn’t that much different for adults. There are certain expectations, not all of which sit with the call of Jesus. There are certain things we are expected to say or do at work. There are particular ‘right’ opinions to hold in an office conversation around the water cooler. Given that most of us have a desire to feel accepted, there is considerable pressure upon us to go with the flow of peer pressure, even on the occasions when it is not being applied heavily.
We may not want to pay the price of being left out of the gang, or the mockery. Yet the question for us as Christians is about remembering the price Jesus paid for us. Often he is asking us to pay a much lower price than he did. Yes, for some Christians it will end up being the same terrible cost – the price of a life – but in the ordinary turns of daily life, can we not, with the help of the Holy Spirit, choose to follow him when it is to our disadvantage, and be honoured that he has asked us to do that for him?
Finally, let’s turn to the third conversation:
Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Verses 61-62)
Again, to our ears, Jesus sounds like he’s being unreasonable. Surely you should be able to say goodbye before venturing off, who knows where, following him? It made me think about someone I know whose brother is giving up his job, house and possessions to become a Franciscan monk. He has taken great trouble to spend time with his relatives and friends before entering the monastery permanently. Would Jesus condemn him for half-heartedness?
But rather than ‘say farewell to those at my home’, a better translation might be ‘take my leave of those at my home’. The distinction is important. When you take your leave of someone, you ask their permission for you to go. Even today in the Middle East, middle-aged professionals ask their parents’ permission to make major life decisions. The man in the story here is not saying, “Let me just nip home to say goodbye before I join you,” he is saying, “I will follow you – if my parents give me permission!”
In response to this, Jesus claims higher authority than the man’s parents. He responds with the image of ploughing a field. To use a first century Palestinian plough required full concentration as you co-ordinated the use of hands and eyes. Failing to give the task your undivided attention led to crooked furrows, and depending on what part of the process you were involved in, you could ruin the drainage of water or the covering of the seed.
What does this say to us? Parental authority is much diminished in our culture. However, there are plenty of other replacements. Perhaps most notable is the idea that I am my own highest authority. What I want, goes. But if we exalt ourselves, Jesus says, you can only come with me if you accept that I have supreme authority. Whatever we elevate to the highest position in our lives has to bow before Jesus. Nothing else is true discipleship.
Why? Because Jesus wants our undivided attention. Tilling the soil of God’s kingdom involves concentrated effort, even if we do undertake it in the power of the Holy Spirit. One of the unfortunate misunderstandings in our society is the idea that the church is a ‘voluntary society’. People can opt in or opt out, depending on their mood and whether or not they like what’s going on. As I’ve often observed, if there are religious advertisements in a local newspaper, they will usually be found in the leisure section.
Jesus is here to tell us that following him is not a leisure activity. The illustration I often use of this is one I borrowed from the late John Wimber. In one of his books, he described the expectations of some Christians as like turning up at the docks to board a ship. Arriving at the quayside expecting to find a luxury cruise liner, we discover instead that rather than boarding a sleek, white boat, ours is gun-metal grey. It is a battleship.
You may or may not like the military image, but the point is clear. Signing up with Jesus is not about taking up a hobby or joining a club – even if some churchgoers do treat church as a club. We have committed ourselves unreservedly to the cause of building for his kingdom. That means unswerving dedication, not opting in and out as the mood suits us. It means we don’t accept our society’s assessment of where true authority lies – because our fundamental allegiance is to Jesus. It means we will resist peer pressure, even if that means reduced popularity, or even rejection.
Why? Jesus, whom we follow, ‘set his face to go to Jerusalem’ (verse 51), where he knew what he would face. His total dedication to the will of the Father, even at the cost of ultimate human rejection – the Cross – is our model. In normal terms, it may not be an attractive model. But it is the way God extends the kingdom. May the Holy Spirit help us when we need to walk the narrow way.
[i] What follows is based on Kenneth Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes, pp22-32.
It has famously been said that women can’t read maps and men won’t ask for directions. Which means that if men are from Mars and women are from Venus, we’re all going to have trouble getting home!
Maps and directions: geography. I don’t know whether the word ‘geography’ brings bad memories back to you, in the way that ‘Maths’ or ‘PE’ do to some. I was OK at Geography, and got my O-Level, but I never really shone at it. Sadly, most of what I remember from school Geography lessons consists of the cruel tricks played by pupils on our teacher, who was blind.
On the other hand, Mark [our four-year-old] is already fascinated. He writes his own little books at home, which are full of references to the River Nile, the longest river in the world. I think I just need a sat-nav!
So why am I wittering on about Geography? Because it is important in the Gospels, and it has a particular rôle to play in this story. I’m going to use some geographical features of the reading to structure these thoughts. I think they’ll show this story has a slightly different meaning from the one we often take it to mean.
The Other Side
‘Let us go across to the other side,’ says Jesus (verse 35). Where is the other side? At this point, Jesus and his followers are on the western side of Lake Galilee, among villages where the people are good faithful Jews. ‘The other side’ is very different. You can get an idea if you know where Jesus and the disciples land in the story that immediately follows this one. They encounter the Gerasene demoniac, who lives among people who are pig farmers. Not exactly kosher Jews! Not only is the demoniac unclean, so are the general population. This whole area to the east of Galilee was one where Jewish people generally mixed and compromised their faith with alien influences from Greek culture.
Jesus is saying to his friends, “We can’t just stay among the people like us, those with whom we feel comfortable. We must move into other territory to advance the kingdom of God.”
And Jesus says the same to his twenty-first century friends. We too cannot stay just among the people we are comfortable with, because they are like us. We cannot spend all our time in church activities. If we are the community formed by God’s kingdom, then we have to leave our familiar places and go to our ‘other side’, wherever that may be. Insulation is not guaranteed in the life of faith.
Jesus calls us, then, not to spend every second of our lives on church matters. He calls us to mix with people not like us at all, with the intention of sharing God’s love in word and deed. They may not dress like us. They may have strange haircuts. They may hold beliefs we find dreadful. Their moral and ethical values may be far from ours, perhaps quite contrary. But Jesus died for each and every one of these people. We cannot stay in a church castle, protected by a moat and with the drawbridge up.
For Debbie and me, while we enjoy the company of those we mix with in the children’s primary school community, and while the great majority of the parents care deeply for their children and want only the best for them and others, we are also aware at other times that our values and beliefs are very different. We only know of one other Christian family represented in Rebekah’s class, and to date we know of none in Mark’s. But that’s good: it means we are in a missional context! It means we mix with people who don’t share our values about sexuality, with mothers whose children are all by different fathers. It means having to do with people who are heavily involved with questionable New Age and occult practices.
So while we share some things in common as fellow parents, obviously there are certain things that mark us out as different and leave us decidedly uneasy about the lifestyles of these friends. Yet this is our ‘other side’ at times. It is where God has led us and placed us as ‘the church dispersed’.
I believe each of us needs to know the ‘other side’ to which we are called. If we know our ‘other side’, all well and good. If not, then we need to listen, because Jesus is calling us into the boat with him and taking us somewhere beyond our usual boundaries on mission with him.
Here’s the next geographical feature, the storm on the lake. One commentator says:
The Sea of Galilee, surrounded by high mountains, is like a basin. Sudden violent storms on the sea are well known. Violent winds from the southwest enter the basin from the southern cleft and create a situation in which storm and calm succeed one another rapidly. Since the wind is nearly always stronger in the afternoon than in the morning or evening, fishing was done at night. But when a storm arises in the evening, it is all the more dangerous.
The storm was a natural, unsurprising event, yet a terrifying and life-threatening one. So it is that when we head for our ‘other side’ storms will blow up against us. The other day I was talking to a minister friend in another denomination. He said he had been at his church eight years, and was dedicated to seeing it transformed from a private religious club to a missionary agency. But he said that process was a painful one. Some people just didn’t want to be thrust out of their comfort zones and stirred up opposition.
Similarly, it’s not surprising when the Church moves into the public arena, that atheists and secularists complain, especially if we happen to be moving onto some of their cherished territory. They say that religion should be kept as a private matter. Some even try to use laws against Christians. Some Christians believe we’re seeing signs of that in some legislation in our nation today.
And it’s interesting to see how Jesus responds to the storm when he is woken from his peaceful slumber. Listen to the language of verse 39:
‘He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.’
Does rebuking the wind and telling the sea to be still sound familiar? Jesus is addressing this storm, this natural event, as if it were demonic. Rebukes and commands to be quiet are the language he used when expelling demons.
We should not be surprised if storms whip up in our lives, often consisting of natural but frightening events, when we decide to cross with Jesus to our ‘other side’ and engage in mission. We are joining battle against an enemy when we do so. He will not take it lying down. He will use church people, non-Christians and social events in attempts to discourage and intimidate us. To paraphrase the late John Wimber, our boat is not a cruise liner; it is a battleship. We can expect storms of opposition. But we must not cower in their face.
The storm is a natural event, as I said, but the language Jesus uses to still it (the stilling of such storms also being known as natural events in those days) suggests this natural event has been whipped up by demonic forces opposed to his mission with the disciples to a region of compromised allegiance to God.
Jesus stills such a storm. He commands it to be calm. Jesus acts with the cosmic authority that is his. This is a kingdom of God action. He brings the storm under the reign and purposes of God. The kingdom is at work here, not simply to make the disciples’ lives easier, but so that the kingdom may advance when Jesus and the disciples land on ‘the other side’.
Jesus has himself been calm,
sleeping in the stern upon the pillow that was customarily kept under the coxswain’s seat for those who were not involved in the actual sailing or fishing.
In other words, Jesus commands the storm to be calm as he himself is calm. He brings the storm into line with his own person and character. That is what it means to bring something or someone under the kingdom of God. Jesus brings people and circumstances into his orbit, influence and likeness.
And when you put it like that, you see why his rebuke doesn’t stop with the storm. It extends to the disciples:
He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ (Verse 40)
As the calm Jesus makes the storm calm, so he seeks calm in his disciples. Prior to this incident they have sat as privileged insiders with Jesus. He has told parable after parable, leaving them as enigmatic stories for the crowds, but he has explained them to this inner circle.
Yet they still don’t get it.
‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’ they ask in verse 41.
And as Jesus sovereignly deals with the storms that oppose our early sorties into mission, so he commands calm in our lives. For he calls us to understand more of who he is in the face of the forces arrayed against us, and thus trust him.
My problem is I’m all to like those first disciples. In a difficult situation, faith tells me Jesus is in control and reason tells me my worst fears won’t materialise. But my body doesn’t listen. My pulse and blood pressure increase. I end up getting value for money from the National Health Service.
Like those earliest followers, I am on a long journey to the calm Jesus wants me to have. Maybe it’s not enough simply to have accepted intellectually that God is in control of events. I need to feed my mind with that truth. I need to meditate upon it. I need to share with other people of faith.
In short, I need to ensure I am on a journey of increasing faith. Jesus is calling me – and all of us – over to another side where we shall be his witnesses. Getting there will mean negotiating the storms of opposition, and for that we would do well to have the serenity that comes from trusting that Christ is ruling over all that happens, whether good or bad.
One of the early Christian symbols for the Church was a boat. You can see ancient drawings where the Church is represented as a boat. That idea is taken from this passage. When the Early Church set out on her task of Christian witness, she frequently encountered the storms of persecution for her faith. But they knew Jesus was asleep in the stern with them, and all would be under his sovereign care.
And perhaps you see now why I said at the beginning that we might end up with a slightly different application of this story from normal. We have often taken this story as an example of how Jesus will calm all sorts of storms in our lives, and I don’t want to deny he does that. Yet the primary application in the passage seems to be connected with mission. Jesus has a specific interest in conquering the fierce opposition to his church’s engagement with mission, and in calming his followers through a growing faith.
Knowing that, are we ready to venture across to our ‘other side’?
 William L Lane, The Gospel Of Mark, p 175.
 Ibid., p 175f.
What do you do when no-one’s looking? That is a test of our character, isn’t it?
One American minister whose blog I read wrote about it this last week. He gave a few examples of what this might mean for Christians. How do we react when someone cuts us up on the road? How do I choose between two options when I am sure I know my spouse would prefer one of them? How do I behave around members of the opposite sex when my spouse isn’t around? Do I speak the same way about others in their presence as I would when they are absent? Do I pay my bills on time? Do I exaggerate my achievements on a CV, or generally boast unduly about my abilities?
Similarly, a few days before the Presidential election in the USA, the well-known church leader Rick Warren wrote a piece about the kind of leadership he believed America needed. He talked about the need for leaders to demonstrate integrity, humility and generosity. With regard to integrity, he said this:
Some people say that it doesn’t really matter what a leader does in his private life. It matters if you want God’s blessing. What you do in your private life always affects your public life. In fact, that’s the definition of integrity – your public and private life is the same.
Again, it’s a question of what you do when no-one’s looking.
What have these examples to do with the Parable of the Talents? Simply this: the parable is couched in terms of an absent master. He gives the talents to his slaves and then goes away for a long time.
You could say we live in the absence of Jesus. That sounds shocking. Quickly we object that he promised to be with us always, and that he promised to send his Spirit. Absolutely. Christ is present by his Spirit. But that presence is not always tangible, and certainly we often live as if he were absent. How we conduct ourselves when he is not physically present is a Gospel issue for his disciples, and the various servants in the parable show different responses to that situation.
It is the dream of many Christians to hear Christ address us on Judgment Day with the words the master uses to the trustworthy slaves here: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant’, followed by the invitation to enter into the Master’s joy. But what draws a delighted verdict of ‘Well done’ from Christ to his servants? How exactly have they been so faithful in small things that Jesus will now put them in charge of many things?
Well, clearly it’s an act of faith. But we need to be careful how we define faithfulness. For faithfulness is much more than simply doing things regularly. We say someone is faithful if they show up every week. There is a certain truth to that, which we ought to observe. Faithfulness involves endurance. It means sticking at things through thick and thin.
But I believe Jesus means much more than that in commending the faithfulness of the trustworthy servants in this parable. They take the money they have been given (remember, a talent here is currency, not a gift or ability) and speculate with it. Faithfulness here is much more than regular habits of spiritual commitment, important as they are.
I think it was best put by the late John Wimber, in one of my favourite sayings of his. He observed that the word ‘faith’ is spelt R-I-S-K. If faith is about radical trust and obedience to Christ, then it is going to involve risk.
Perhaps the classic story in the Gospels is where Jesus walks on the water and Simon Peter says, ‘Lord, if it’s you, call me.’ So Jesus does call him and Peter gets out of the boat. For a while, he walks on the water, too. But then when he gets more concerned with the waves at his feet, he sinks.
What does Jesus do? He lifts him up. Contrary to some of our assumptions, Jesus does not condemn Peter for the moment when he takes his eyes off him and onto the circumstances. I believe that the balance of the situation is that Jesus commends Peter for his risky act of faith.
You will notice if you read the story that Jesus has no word at all for the disciples who remain in the boat. All his words and actions are directed towards risk-taking, faithful Peter. Don’t put this one down to the impetuous, blustering Peter. Here he takes risks of faith. In doing so, he shines much brighter than the other disciples.
So, the question is for us: are we the types who practise risk-taking faith? We need to cultivate an approach which is willing to try one thing after another, and not be discouraged if something doesn’t work out. If like Peter we begin to sink, then Christ will stretch his hands out to lift us up and encourage us to keep going.
I may have told you before that one of the most liberating things I ever read about ministry was the comment of an American pastor who said he didn’t mind if he tried ten different things in church, only for nine of them to fail, if it meant he found the one thing it was right for him to do. I believe that minister had an insight into risk-taking faith, the sort of faith that Jesus commends and rewards.
For Hatfield Peverel, this challenge comes as we approach the final session of the first Alpha Course we have specifically conducted as an outreach. Will people be converted? Will anyone join this church, or another one? If so, will it happen now or later? None of us knows. Suppose we see no obvious fruit: should we give up? No. Way. We should either continue to run Alpha Courses or something else. That is what risk-taking faithful servants do.
There is a ‘secular’ proverb that makes for good spiritual application here: failure is not falling down. The only failure is when we do not get up again after a fall. Those who practise risky faith are bruised from many falls. But they keep going. As a result, they bear fruit. And one day, they will be rewarded.
So onto the shocking part of the parable. I refer to the unfaithful servant, but the language of the master is much stronger. He calls him ‘wicked and lazy’. That’s a bit strong, isn’t it? Worse, this slave says he knows the master is ‘harsh’, and he seems to act in exactly that way in his anger. He has the one talent taken from this man and given to the servant with ten talents. Then he has him thrown into outer darkness. What are we to make of this horrifying and violent conclusion?
I want to begin by saying that while the parables of Jesus have allegorical features, not every detail is meant to have its allegory. So we should be careful about applying every last detail of a parable by looking for an exact parallel.
But in saying that, I do not want to dilute the challenge here. Often, Jesus includes a shock element in a parable: think about the scandal of the father welcoming home the prodigal son, for example. The shock is meant to guide us into the core of what Jesus is teaching us. So we should listen carefully to the condemnation of the one-talent servant. What might Jesus be saying to us here?
Let me approach that by way of an illustration. On Tuesday evening, the circuit ministers, circuit stewards and a few other circuit officers gathered to discuss the findings of our recent Circuit Review. Inevitably, we got onto the subject of change. Someone observed that one reason for resistance to change in our churches is this: the world is changing rapidly, and some of our folk find this bewildering and even frightening. They look for a place where they can find security in the familiar things they have known for years not changing. That place is the church.
I do not believe in advocating change for the sake of change. However, at the risk of sounding callous, can I suggest that such reasons for resisting change in the church and keeping things ‘as it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be’ betray the mentality of the one-talent servant? Our security is not meant to be with familiar practices, buildings and hymns. Christian security is found in Jesus Christ and God’s enduring love. Anything less is idolatry.
I have told the story how in my teens I took a poll of people’s favourite hymns in my home church. The top choice was a surprise. It wasn’t ‘And can it be’. Nor was it ‘O for a thousand tongues’ or ‘Love divine’. It was ‘In heavenly love abiding’. I was always convinced the reason that hymn got the most votes was for the line, ‘For nothing changes here’!
The one-talent servant would not engage in risk-taking faith. He wanted to keep everything the same. Change was a threat to him. He had an inkling the master would be angry, and he was right. Christ, too, will be displeased with us if we take the safe option. He called his disciples to leave everything and follow him. Might it be that he calls us to leave much that is familiar to us in order to go on a journey of risky faithfulness as his disciples? I believe he might well. Remember, he had no words of encouragement for those disciples who stayed in the boat while Peter attempted to walk on the water.
Maybe the problem for those of us who like to play it safe is the one with which I opened the sermon. We act as if Jesus were not present. He is not very real to us. If we had a sense of his close presence, how could we not take great risks of faith? Yes, we wonder whether we know his will at times. But wouldn’t he rather we took a chance on seeing whether something was his will and have a stab at it, rather than sit around with it buried out of doubt or fear?
On my daily exercise walks, I have taken to listening to podcasts, which are like radio programmes you can download from the Internet. I listen to them on earphones in the same way others listen to music. On Friday, I listened to a talk given at a conference in Southampton by the Australian missionary thinker Mike Frost. One thing he said that struck me was this. You can name all the signs you like that you think prove the Holy Spirit is at work in your life. But if you are not getting on with the risky subject of Christian mission, then how much can you say you are like the God who is always sending and who in his Son is not only sending but sent?
Playing safe just doesn’t fit with God. That’s why the master is angry.
The challenge of this parable is very personal for me. As some of you know, I resisted a call to the ministry for a long time, because I thought my personality didn’t fit what most congregations wanted from a minister. Sixteen years into circuit ministry, I still think that!
Not only that, although the great majority of people I have met through ministry have been lovely Christians, I have seen enough of Christianity’s dark underbelly to have had more than the occasional thought of quitting.
In my darker moments, I don’t always have the most worthy of reasons for staying in the ministry. I wonder what else I would do. I think about financially providing for my family. These are hardly heroic reasons.
Yet remaining as a minister is nevertheless a risk-taking act of faith for me. I still can’t fathom why God called me this way. All I know is that – to my sometimes incredulous surprise – he does something beautiful, because I’ve hung around in what is often an uncomfortable environment for me. This calling is where I exercise risky faith, just by following it. Were I to follow my natural inclinations as they tempt me when ministry is dry or discouraging, I would be playing it safe. I would be a one-talent servant.
Has God called you to an uncomfortable place, too? Do you think that like Peter you might sink? Hang around there. Don’t quit. Let Jesus pick you up when things go wrong. In due course you will bear fruit for the kingdom of God.
And let’s take risks as a church, too.