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Sermon: Unwrapping Discipleship

This Sunday, I get to preach at one of my colleagues’ churches. So I’m reverting to the Lectionary for one week only. There are a few things in this sermon that have appeared before, notably in the first point. Please excuse that if the odd bit is something you’ve read from me before.

Matthew 4:12-23

Both Debbie and I had our main Christmas presents after the big day. I had asked people for money or vouchers that I could put together so I could buy an Amazon Kindle e-reader. Debbie followed a similar route, and when she had finally weighed up the options and dismissed the idea of a new phone, she ordered a new camera. Like me, she ordered her present online from Amazon.

Being cheapskates – or as we like to think of it, good stewards – we ordered both products on Amazon’s free Super Saver Delivery. Effectively, that means second class post. Amazon gives you an estimated date by which your order should be with you.

I had ordered my e-reader first. I memorised the due date. I counted down, like a child. The due date came. And went. I phoned the local sorting office to see whether it was there and got a jobsworth who really couldn’t be bothered. Eventually, it turned up two days late, left outside the front door by the postie, even though we weren’t in. Debbie’s camera was a similar story. Apparently it was all down to a backlog they were still trying to clear since the snow of November and December.

We waited for the time of fulfilment and were disappointed. In that respect, we were like the people to whom Jesus came. Matthew tells us that his house move from Nazareth to Capernaum was fulfilment of the prophetic hope (verses 12-16). Just as Debbie and I (OK, particularly I) were wondering when our packages would come from Amazon, so God’s people were wondering when the Messiah would come and inaugurate God’s kingdom. Now, at last, the package arrives, and he’s called Jesus.

So – if the package has arrived, if Jesus the Messiah has come, bringing the kingdom of heaven – what do we do when we unwrap him?

The first action is repentance. The opening tone of Jesus’ message is,

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. (Verse 17)

What is repentance? We know it has to do with being sorry for our wrongdoings, but there is more to it than that. If it were only feeling sorry but without any change of heart or change of lifestyle, it would only be remorse. And remorse doesn’t change anything – apart from maybe persuading a judge to give a more lenient sentence in response to mitigation.

Repentance is bigger than that. In the Greek of the New Testament and even in English it means ‘a change of mind’. It means to ‘rethink’. Those of you who know French will recognise where the English word ‘repentance’ comes from. Remember penser, to think, so repenser is to rethink, to change your mind. The Greek metanoia is similar. When we repent, we change our minds about the way we live.

It’s like doing a u-turn in a car. We know we are going the wrong way, so we change our minds and our direction. Repentance, then, means a change of mind, so much so that we are sorry enough to change our actions.

So that unpacks one problem we have in understanding repentance. It is not simply being sorry, it is a change of mind that leads to a change in our actions. That is why it is also not the same as condemnation, which simply tells us how terrible we are but leaves us desperate and desolate about ourselves. Repentance brings positive change and hope.

Another problem we have with repentance is that we associate it with conversion and the beginnings of Christian faith, but not always with the ongoing life of Christian discipleship. Yet we do not make all the changes we need to make in our lives all at once, when we first encounter Jesus Christ. We don’t even make all the essential changes before we die.

My point is this: repentance is not a one-off change of direction, it is an ongoing process in our lives. One of my favourite stories to tell about this involves the Local Preacher who was always the most popular preacher among my youth group in the church where I grew up. John Evill was born in Wales in 1902, two years before the Welsh Revival. He preached like the revival was still going on. In one sermon, he asked the congregation: “Have you been converted?” Then he added, “I’ve been converted – many times.” His point wasn’t that he’d regularly slipped back and denied Christ, it was that time and time again Christ had to call him to change.

So it is with repentance. It is a change of mind that leads not simply to one change of action, but to repeated changes of action in our lives, until our dying day. Paul tells the Philippians that God who began a good work in them will complete it on the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6). Or, as the t-shirt slogan puts it:

Please be patient with me. God hasn’t finished with me yet.

When we unwrap the kingdom Jesus brings, then, the first thing it involves is a lifestyle of ongoing change, reorientating ourselves to the ways of God from our selfish ways.

The second thing we do when we unwrap the Jesus package is we follow. Having turned around, we now start positively and actively going in our new direction, the direction in which Jesus is travelling. To Simon Peter and Andrew, he says,

Follow me, and I will make you fish for people. (Verse 19)

Then he calls James and John and we read,

Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. (Verse 22)

I find the nature of Jesus calling these fishermen to follow him utterly amazing. For one thing, I am staggered by their immediate decision to leave their family businesses and go with him. Some people have said that they may already have known Jesus in the area, but it’s still quite a decision to go off like that. Why would they do it?

Here’s one theory. As I’m sure you know, it was common practice for Jewish rabbis to call certain young men to follow them, learn their teaching and emulate their lifestyles. However, they tended to pick the cream of the crop, those who showed promise from a young age. If you got as far as getting into regular work – as Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John had – then you certainly weren’t among the elite. You were among the rejected. You were among those who were not considered up to the task of following a religious master.

But Jesus sees it differently. He calls these men. To him, they are not rejects, they are people who are every bit as capable of following him as anybody else. Why? Because – as the old catchphrase puts it – it’s not your ability that matters, it’s your availability. You don’t need great gifts and talents in order to follow Jesus, you just need to be willing to say ‘yes’ to him. And that’s what these four guys do.

So imagine you are one of them. Imagine you have been passed over by other rabbis as not good enough. Now this one comes along when you are at an age when you no longer think such an opportunity exists and he says to you, “Follow me.” What does that do for your self-esteem? I like to imagine the four young men striding off from their boats with their heads held high and their chests puffed out.

Translate that into our church context. One of the things that saddens me as a minister is the time many church members speak of how inferior they feel to ministers. “You can do {X, Y, Z] because you’re more learned than me,” some say. However, in Jesus’ eyes, it’s not the alphabet soup I have after my name because I spent six years studying Theology that matters. It’s whether I say ‘yes’ to Jesus. I hope I can bring benefits to people by sharing my learning. But what matters in the end is one simple matter that puts everybody on an equal following, regardless of gifts, talents, opportunities, wealth or privilege. It’s this: will we say ‘yes’ to Jesus? All we need to be concerned about today is whether we are saying ‘yes’ to him in the places where he is calling us to follow him.

The third way we unwrap Jesus is by imitation. Hear again the final verse in the reading:

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. (Verse 23)

The playwright Murray Watts tells a yarn that might explain how some of us feel about this verse:

An evangelist was so successful, he converted his own horse. He decided to develop his ministry with animals and took his horse to market, to exchange it for another. A farmer came riding along, on a very old horse, and the evangelist begged him to swap animals. The farmer looked at the fine fettle of the evangelist’s horse and agreed, delighted with his bargain. As he mounted his new steed, the evangelist explained to him about the horse’s religious zeal. The farmer looked at him incredulously.

‘It’s no good shouting “giddyup!” or “whoa, there, boy!”’ the evangelist went on. ‘To start, you have to shout, “Praise the Lord! Hallelujah!” and to stop you have to shout, “Amen!”’

The farmer now realised that he was dealing with a nutcase, but he decided to humour him. The horse was in excellent condition and he accepted. As the evangelist trotted away on the famer’s ageing horse, the farmer shouted ‘Giddyup thar!’ to his steed. There was no reaction. He whipped the horse, but there was still no reaction.

‘Go on tharr! Get going!’ he screamed, digging in his heels. The horse refused to budge. The farmer scratched his head.

‘Perhaps that old preacher wasn’t so crazy after all,’ he thought, ‘oh well, no harm in trying.’ He took a deep breath and shouted: ‘Praise the Lord, hallelujah!’ Immediately the horse galloped off. The astonished farmer clung on for dear life as it sped along the road.

‘Whatever its religious quirks,’ he mused, ‘this is some horse!’ On and on the pious creature went, crossing fields, jumping gates. At last, hearing the sound of the sea in the distance, the farmer knew they were approaching the cliffs of Dover.

‘Whoaa there, boy!’ he called. ‘Whoaa there!’ He yanked the reins. The horse sped on regardless. ‘Silly me,’ thought the farmer, ‘I’ve got to say that special word.’

‘Blessing!’ he shouted. ‘No, that’s wrong. Faith!!’ he called, urgently. ‘No, that’s not right either.’

The sound of the sea came nearer, and try as he might, the farmer could not remember the right religious word. Suddenly, within yards of the cliff edge, he remembered.

‘AMEN!!’ he screamed. The horse stopped, inches to spare. The farmer mopped his brow and, lifting his eyes to heaven in gratitude, murmured, ‘Praise the Lord! Hallelujah!’[1]

Maybe when we hear that Jesus went around preaching, teaching and healing, and when we realise that the call of the disciple is to imitate the teacher, we might feel like we are riding an out-of-control horse. Are we about to go over a cliff?

Disciples of a Jewish rabbi knew their call was to imitate the way their master lived. Some took that to considerable extremes, and if I mentioned specifics some of you might cry out that modern cliché, ‘Too much information!’[2]

So those first disciples of Jesus, watching him teach, preach and heal would have been making mental notes. This was their vocation, too.

But it contains scary aspects for us. Some of us are nervous about ‘proclaiming’ our faith. We would not feel able to ‘teach’ the faith. And as for healing people, well where do we begin?

I think there are two keys to embracing this. The first is to recognise that when we become disciples of Jesus, then we receive the Holy Spirit into our lives. And the Holy Spirit brings all sorts of gifts to us that we did not previously have. If we are open to the empowering of the Holy Spirit, then we shall find ourselves equipped for Jesus-like tasks that we would otherwise be unable to do.

The other key is this. Only together are we the Body of Christ. You will contribute some gifts towards copying the ministry of Jesus. Your friend will offer other gifts. I will bring different gifts of the Spirit.

So yes, imitating the ministry of Christ is daunting – but only if we view it purely humanly. If we put ourselves at the disposal of the Holy Spirit, all sorts of things become possible that previously were never even on the radar of our imagination.

Let’s pray.


[1] Murray Watts, Rolling In The Aisles, p 90f, story 153.

[2] See Michael Griffiths, The Example of Jesus.

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The Kindle Has Landed

Well, despite the rank amateurism of the Royal Mail, my Amazon Kindle arrived yesterday. The Royal Mail lived down to their standards: we were out when they called with the day’s post, and the Kindle box was left in a stand we keep outside the front door for flower and plant seeds. No card through the door telling me where it was, no attempt to take it safely back to the sorting office. I was fortunate that Debbie noticed the box with the big Amazon logo. No temptation for opportunist thieves there, clearly. (And we’re still waiting for a digital camera for Debbie, which is also overdue, so who knows what will happen with that?)

So what’s the Kindle like? There have, of course, been numerous debates about the pros and cons of e-readers in comparison to traditional books. One good article and debate can be found here, for example. They say you can download the first chapters of books as samples. That’s not always strictly honest: you often get the foreword, preface and part of chapter 1.
But I was persuaded to part with cash for a 1993 book by my former research supervisor, Richard Bauckham, called ‘The Theology of the Book of Revelation‘. Nice light reading, you’re thinking. Well, what Richard doesn’t know about eschatology and apocalyptic isn’t worth knowing, so anything he writes on this is worth the price. He also writes fluently.

However, I had a particular reason for purchasing an electronic version rather than a physical one. Here is the text of one customer review on Amazon:

This is one of the most maddening books I’ve read recently. The author’s work cannot be faulted (five stars for the theology); the problem lies with the editing of the book. If it is intended to be used as a textbook rather than read from cover to cover like a novel, it needs a really good index. It doesn’t have one. Worse still, in my 2002 printing, there is no biblical index at all. Trying to find out what the author has to say about any particular verse or passage in Revelation is like looking for a righteous man in Babylon, or, anyway, a needle in a…. I’m sure Cambridge University Press could have done better than this, and the author deserves better from them.

The problems clearly aren’t the author’s fault, but the publisher’s. The lack of indices had held me back from buying it before. However, with an electronic version it is at least searchable for any verse, word or theme I want to research. Does Richard have an opinion on a particular passage? Hold on, let me just do a search and I’ll find out. The Kindle (or another e-reader) is ideal in these circumstances.

My one curiosity with the Kindle edition of the book – and this is what I find maddening – is that it seems to have downloaded without a contents page to tell me what the chapters are.

More generally, the Kindle reading experience is good. The e-ink screen is much more naturally like paper than a bright screen on a computer or smartphone. Moreover, I found myself reading at a good pace. It’s difficult to be sure, given the fact that you don’t get page numbers, only a percentage of how far you are through the book plus some ‘location numbers’. Yet my perception is that I was reading slightly faster than a physical book. I don’t have the gift of speed-reading, so this is an advantage for me.

So my early impressions are favourable. I think the big danger for me could be with just how easy and fast it is to download a title. I could end up spending more money than I should.

Amazon And The Royal Mail: A Parable Of Customer Service

So I did what I said I’d do with my Christmas money. I put it all together and ordered an Amazon Kindle e-reader. I placed the order on 28th December. Amazon emailed me that day with the good news that they had dispatched it that very day. Not being in a desperate rush for it, I opted for their free Super Saver Delivery, and they said it would be with me by 5th January at the very latest. That is, yesterday.
Enter the Royal Mail, entrusted by Amazon to deliver the Kindle to me. No sign of it by today. All we do know is they are in the habit of leaving various packages on our doorstep without bothering to ring the doorbell. With no Kindle having appeared by today, the day after the deadline, I wondered what to do.

Amazon’s website asks you to check with your local delivery office that it isn’t waiting there. When I finally got through to them, I basically got the “No, guv, not possible, everything that comes in here goes out. Goodbye” response.

Ringing Amazon was totally different. Their representative apologised, and told me that if the Kindle hadn’t turned up by the 13th I could ring again and they could then treat it as a lost package. They would then send out a replacement and upgrade my delivery, free of charge.

Which company impressed me? I think you can guess. The Royal Mail employee disdainfully said, “Amazon shouldn’t have told you to ring us, they know there are delays.” Not our fault, no chance, we’re not even going to consider it, we won’t offer to check, no criticism of us is ever justified.

Amazon were quite different. That’s £109-worth of kit (well, £111 with the VAT increase this week) they are willing to replace, just like that. My one gripe is that they use a service like the Royal Mail where you can’t track a package. I’m seriously considering upgrading to their Amazon Prime service, although I feel too mean to pay the annual £49 fee. Maybe you get what you pay for.

An unwillingness to be self-reflective and accept criticism, as it seems was the Royal Mail’s attitude, is something we display as individuals as well as institutions. It can be because we fear the acid tongue of the critic, who may take advantage of our error and crush us. So we try to wriggle out, justify ourselves and defend the indefensible. I’m rather good at that. Maybe you are, too.

And while automatically accepting the criticism and trying to put something right may also not always be wise – it can be done for the sake of a quiet life – it may be more Christlike. He ‘took the blame’ and put things right for the human race, if not all creation. While some elements of Amazon’s business may not always be that moral, on this occasion it seems to me they were the more Christlike.

The Writing Industry And The Digital Revolution

We know the decimation of the music industry in the face of digitisation. A whole industry looked for a beach full of sand and buried its collective heads.

Thankfully, there are some signs that in the world of writing and publishing, there are some more visionary leaders. Take this Guardian interview with John Makinson, the head of Penguin books. He knows that devices like the Amazon Kindle and the Apple iPad are changing the landscape, now that Amazon’s US operation sells more e-books than hardbacks. He envisages all sorts of added value content in ebooks. Steve Ballmer knows that Microsoft needs to play catch-up. What are the pros and cons? A few thoughts:

1. Carrying around 3500 books with you on one small device, such as you can with a Kindle, has to be amazingly appealing.

2. Being able to search a book, rather like you do a Word document or a PDF, must also be a terrific advantage.

3. There is a clear focus from Makinson and others on the core issue, which is the promotion of good writing, rather than holding up soon-to-be-outdated structures. See Clay Shirky’s recent thoughts about newspapers and jounalism: the question isn’t protecting papers with paywalls, it’s a concern for journalists. Hence why I refer to the writing industry, not the newspaper industry or the publishing industry, even if what we are talking about is new forms of publishing.

4. More negatively, will we take in less cognitively this way? It’s generally accepted that people absorb about 25% less information on a PC screen than on hard copy. Will the same be true for 6 inch screens, even with e-ink?

5. What about the financial implications for smaller publishers, given the cash flow problems of independent publishers or the well-documented difficulties of Christian bookshops and publishers? Will they simply have to persist with print while the rest of the world marches on, or will this finish them off?

What do you think?