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Sermon: Life On The Frontline 5: The Frontline Cry (Kingdom Dreamers)

Whoops. I seem to have forgotten to upload two or three sermons lately. Sorry.

Anyway, here is tomorrow morning’s sermon as I preach again in the Life On The Frontline series at Knaphill Methodist Church.

Matthew 6:9-13 with Isaiah 29:13-24

Heaven

Heaven by Ozan on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

While walking down the street one day a corrupt Senator was tragically hit by a car and died. His soul arrives in heaven and is met by St. Peter at the entrance.

“Welcome to heaven,” says St. Peter. “Before you settle in, it seems there is a problem. We seldom see a high official around these parts, you see, so we’re not sure what to do with you.”

“No problem, just let me in,” says the Senator.

“Well, I’d like to, but I have orders from the higher ups. What we’ll do is have you spend one day in hell and one in heaven. Then you can choose where to spend eternity.”

“Really? I’ve made up my mind. I want to be in heaven,” says the Senator.

“I’m sorry, but we have our rules.”

And with that St. Peter escorts him to the elevator and he goes down, down, down to hell.

The doors open and he finds himself in the middle of a beautiful golf course. In the distance is a clubhouse and standing in front of it are all his friends and other politicians who had worked with him. Everyone is very happy and in evening dress. They run to greet him, shake his hand, and reminisce about the good times they had while getting rich at the expense of the people. They played a friendly game of golf and then dine on lobster, caviar and the finest champagne.

Also present is the devil, who really is a very friendly guy who is having a good time dancing and telling jokes. They are all having such a good time that before the Senator realizes it, it is time to go. Everyone gives him a hearty farewell and waves while the elevator rises.

The elevator goes up, up, up and the door reopens in heaven where St. Peter is waiting for him, “Now it’s time to visit heaven…”

So, twenty-four hours passed with the Senator joining a group of contented souls moving from cloud to cloud, playing the harp and singing. They have a good time and, before he realises it, the twenty-four hours have gone by and St. Peter returns.

“Well, then, you’ve spent a day in hell and another in heaven. Now choose your eternity.”

The Senator reflects for a minute, then he answers: “Well, I would never have said it before, I mean heaven has been delightful, but I think I would be better off in hell.”

So St. Peter escorts him to the elevator and he goes down, down, down to hell…

Now the doors of the elevator open and he’s in the middle of a barren land covered with waste and garbage. He sees all his friends, dressed in rags, picking up the trash and putting it in black bags as more trash falls from above. The devil comes over to him and puts his arm around his shoulders.

“I don’t understand,” stammers the Senator. “Yesterday I was here and there was a golf course and clubhouse, and we ate lobster and caviar, drank champagne, and danced and had a great time. Now there’s just a wasteland full of garbage and my friends look miserable. What happened?”

The devil smiles at him and says, “Yesterday we were campaigning. Today, you voted…”[1]

Now, I find that joke rather delicious as we approach a General Election in six months’ time. But I didn’t tell it for political reasons this morning. I told it, because it assumes the traditional teaching that our destiny for eternity is either heaven or hell.

And that’s a mistake. The New Testament doesn’t teach that.

Really? Did you hear that right? The minister is saying that heaven or hell is not our eternal destiny?

Well, you did hear me correctly, but I still believe in ‘heaven and hell’. It’s just that I believe – as Tom Wright has put it – that ‘heaven is important, but it’s not the end of the world’.

N T Wright

The Rt Revd Tom Wright with new book by Gareth Saunders on Flickr. Some rights reserved

What the New Testament teaches is this: when we die, we rest in either Paradise or Hades. Jesus tells the repentant thief on the cross, ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise.’ In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, he envisions the evil wealthy man as suffering in Hades, the place of the dead. These are resting places, or waiting rooms, until our final destiny.

And our final destiny is not to float on clouds, plucking harps. The end of all things in the New Testament is God making all things new – the heavens, the earth, and our bodies. God’s kingdom in all its fullness constitutes a whole new creation. That’s why at the Last Day, we shall be raised from the dead physically. The idea that the physical and material doesn’t matter, and all that matters is our ‘soul’ is not originally a Christian idea: it comes from Greek philosophy, and from heresies that the early Church rejected. It’s why C S Lewis said that ‘Christianity is the most material of all religions’.

Now plug all that into the Lord’s Prayer, and especially into the lines

your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven. (Verse 10)

The first line – ‘your kingdom come’ – is explained by what follows – ‘your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’ When we pray for God’s kingdom to come, we pray for his will to be done here on this earth, just like it is in heaven, his dwelling-place. We are longing for that kingdom where heaven and earth have been made new, and human bodies made new in resurrection, and where God’s will is done as fully and wholeheartedly as it is in his immediate presence.

So if we want to pray for the coming of God’s kingdom, we do something like this. Knowing what we do of God’s will, we imagine what our world as we know it would look like if people were doing the things that give God pleasure.

That’s effectively what Isaiah does in chapter 29 that we heard read before the Lord’s Prayer. Isaiah imagines the dry land of Lebanon becoming fertile, even like a forest. He imagines deaf people hearing God’s message, and the blind seeing again. He envisions the humble and the needy having cause for great joy, instead of being trampled down by the unjust. In fact, he sees a time when such ruthless people will vanish, when mockers will be no more, and when there will be no more evil people manipulating the justice system to their own twisted ends. He sees shamed people standing in awe of God, and wayward spirits and habitual moaners accepting instruction (verses 17-24). All this imagining becomes a vision for the future, and therefore a captivating image to stimulate prayer, and ask God to bring these things about.

Now let’s plug all this into our lives today, because we can do something similar. And we need to, because one aspect of the poor reputation Christians often have today is that we are a bunch of moaners. We are the people who are only known for the things we are against, the things we complain about. One reason Christian MPs can have a hard time in Parliament is because they and their colleagues are subject to hectoring letters and flame-filled emails.

So – rather than just bewailing all that is wrong with our world (and I wouldn’t deny there is a lot that is at odds with our faith) – why don’t we instead start exercising a prayerful, holy imagination to conceive how we would long the world to be. Rather than railing against the way people use the Internet in negative ways, such as verbally attacking others, or accessing pornography, ask in the presence of God what the Internet would look like if it were used in a pure and kind way. Rather than sitting around as barstool Prime Ministers declaiming against a society that is obsessed with money, possessions, and buying the latest thing, prayerfully consider what our culture would look like if spirituality and relationships were dominating values, and the poor were not all derided as scroungers.

In short, for Christians to pray ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ is to serve notice on the ‘moaning minnies’ version of religion that we often serve up, and commit instead to imagining a better world, praying for it, and working for it in the power of the Holy Spirit. I believe that’s what Jesus wanted of his followers when he taught them the Lord’s Prayer.

And there is a specific application to make in this particular sermon and teaching series that we are following. We’ve been thinking about what we’ve called our ‘frontlines’, those places where we are no longer cossetted among our fellow Christians, but interact with those who don’t share our faith. It may be our workplace, our families, our next-door neighbours, or where we spend our leisure time, from the health club to the U3A.

Crawley U3A poetry group

Crawley U3A poetry group by George Redgrave on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

These locations, too, are often far from what we would ideally like them to be. Much as we enjoy the friendship of others there, these places may be centres of gossip, sharp practice, back-biting, and unjust behaviours. Even if it’s not that bad, they can become mundane and meaningless, and hence the parody of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs that we sometimes use to describe our paid working life: ‘I owe, I owe, it’s off to work I go.’

So here we choose not simply to carp about the things that annoy us, or stay permanently on a downer about the people who get our backs up. Instead, we employ a holy imagination, and ask ourselves this question: ‘From what I know about Jesus’ teaching, what would this environment look like under the reign of God?’ And then we dream what it would look like.

And having established our ‘kingdom dream’, we then pray it: ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’ Little by little, we shall see signs of transformation as we do so.

Now maybe asking us all to be dreamers – even kingdom of God dreamers – will not go down well in some quarters. Dreamers have a bad reputation. They are detached from reality; they are not practical people. And we have seen worldly dreamers who garner a bad reputation. You only have to think of John Lennon singing, ‘You may think I’m a dreamer’ in his execrable song ‘Imagine’ – a song where he exhorts us to ‘imagine no possessions’, all the while being filmed singing the song in his Ascot mansion. Any dream won’t do.

But kingdom dreams are wonderful things. It isn’t for nothing that the Bible often links dreams with visions. They can give direction. Used prayerfully, they can lead to transformation.

So – er – imagine that you are in Washington DC, and a great crowd has assembled to hear you speak. And as you speak your prepared words, you hear the Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson call to you, “Tell them about the dream!”

And you change your speech on the hoof to tell them about the dream. It won’t fire you for much longer, because soon you will be dead. For Mahalia Jackson actually called out, “Tell them about the dream, Martin,” and you are Martin Luther King, and your speech becomes “I have a dream.” It’s a kingdom of God dream, and it will inspire many to take the torch relay on from you.

This week, then, when you leave the service, I am sending you out to be dreamers. Dream what your frontlines would look like if they were under the kingdom of God, and then pray that God’s will may be done there.

Yes – dream sweet dreams. And change the world.

 

[1] From the Grove Books weekly email, 10th November 2014.

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Sermon: God Is Smiling (The Beatitudes)

Matthew 5:1-12

I wonder whether you recognise this person? Those of you who remember news stories from the 1960s may do so. This is Archbishop Makarios III, a key figure in the Cypriot campaign for independence from Britain. He was well-known in my native north London, which had heavy pockets of Greek Cypriot communities. We had consecutive Greek Cypriot next-door neighbours. One family set up a thriving dry-cleaning business near Tottenham Hotspur’s football ground. They promised that if you brought your suit in before the match, it would be ready by the time you came out.

Makarios. I wonder whether you know what his name means? Blessèd. I don’t think the British authorities considered him blessèd or a blessing.

But ‘makarios’ is the word Matthew uses in the Beatitudes for the blessedness Jesus pronounces on God’s behalf here. ‘Makarios’ are the poor in spirit, the pure in heart and so on. What do we understand Jesus to mean when Jesus says that these disciples whose characteristics are so far from what many say are the priorities of life are ‘blessèd’?

Infamously, the Good News Bible translates ‘makarios’, ‘blessèd’, as ‘happy’. So the poor in spirit, the pure in heart and the persecuted are all happy. Hmm. Maybe sometimes, but it’s not guaranteed. Take those who are persecuted for their faith. On occasion they will feel it is an honour to suffer for Christ, but at other times they will cry out for relief from that suffering. Does ‘happy’ cover it? I’m not convinced.

I think the point may not be that the disciples are happy, but that God is happy – he is happy with what they are doing. The Beatitudes describe attitudes, actions and priorities in our lives that bring joy to the heart of God. The Christian rock band Delirious had a song called ‘God is smiling’, and I think the ‘Blessèd’ of the Beatitudes may indicate that God is smiling when this is how we choose to live for him.

So the Beatitudes becomes a text for learning how we please God. There is a text in Ephesians where Paul urges his readers to ‘find out what pleases the Lord’. Well, the Beatitudes would be a good place to stop by and discover what pleases the Lord.

But before we plunge into them, there is one thing to remember about pleasing God in the Beatitudes, and it’s this. Jesus’ statement that God blesses certain things is followed by a reward. For example, ‘Blessèd are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ What are we to make of this reward? How are we to understand the idea that God rewards us when we do what pleases him?

As a father, I’m delighted when my children do something particular in order to please me. But it’s not as though I wasn’t pleased with them before they did it. I can just go into their bedrooms at night and look at them sleeping to feel my heart leap with joy at the sight of them. When they deliberately set out to please me, it’s from an existing relationship of mutual love. It doesn’t earn my love, it simply brings my existing love for them to the surface.

It’s similar when thinking of our relationship with God. If we set out to make God smile by following the Beatitudes, it won’t earn us his love. We have his love already. He has offered it to us in Christ, and we have responded in repentance, faith and a commitment to following Jesus. If we embrace the Beatitudes, let’s do so because God already looks upon us in love, and we simply want to draw that to the surface with a heavenly smile.

Overall, then, the movement is something like this: God calls us – we respond – God rewards us.

Right – enough with the preliminaries. Let’s ask two questions about each Beatitude, then: firstly, what makes God smile? Then, secondly, how does he reward?

God smiles on ‘the poor in spirit’ (verse 3). When we so lack things that – rather than simply desire what the rest of the world lusts after – we  throw ourselves upon him in dependence and faith, then God smiles. His heart aches when he sees people in poverty, but he rejoices when those who lack what is needed trust him to provide what they need. When we are in desperate straits but we trust him, God smiles.

And it is that complete dependence upon God that means the kingdom of heaven is our reward. Faith in God through Christ is what brings us into God’s kingdom. We are in that kingdom now, because when we trust ourselves to Christ we place ourselves under his reign. That kingdom has not yet come fully, because people, institutions and other forces still oppose God’s rule. But one day God will put every enemy under his feet. In the meantime, all those whose hopeless condition causes them to put their trust in God find themselves already in the kingdom. That is the reward as God smiles on their faith, even in terrible circumstances.

The second Beatitude we often quote at funerals, usually when the minister is walking in with the coffin. Those who mourn are blessèd, because they will be comforted (verse 4) – presumably by God. I wouldn’t want to deny that our God blesses those who grieve, but I would want to expand how we traditionally understand this particular Beatitude.

How? There is a clear link in the language with Isaiah 61, the passage Jesus read out in his home synagogue at Nazareth to describe his mission. In that chapter, God promises ‘to comfort all who mourn’ (Isaiah 61:2). Why are people mourning? Because the world is not the way God wants it to be. They are mourning not merely for themselves, but for a society where things are not as God would have them be. To those who grieve that the world is not as God wants it to be, Jesus promises comfort. ‘One day,’ he says, ‘it will not be like this. Your grief and anguish in prayer will be rewarded when the Father makes all things new in heaven and upon earth.’ So do not be afraid to keep weeping and praying for the world – God is pleased that you do, and your reward will be to see the coming of his kingdom.

Then we move to the London Underground, to the famous graffiti: ‘The meek will inherit the earth – so long as the rest of you don’t mind.’ The meek ‘are not persons who are submissive, mild and unassertive’[1], but those who have been humbled. Psalm 37 promised that such people would ‘inherit the land’, and the inheritance of the land was of course a powerful thought for Jewish people. (It still is, with arguments over territories and one state or two with the Palestinians.) But Jesus doesn’t limit this to the land of Israel: the whole land, the earth itself, is for those who have been humbled. God does not grant his new creation to the powerful, the wealthy or the violent, but to those of no account, those disregarded and trampled upon in the world. And many of the early disciples were just that. Beaten down, because they confessed Christ as Lord. To such people, and not to the emperors and armies, Jesus ‘promised the earth’. God would be pleased with their courageous, sacrificial witness, and he would reward their humble bravery at the end.

When we come to God’s delight in ‘those who hunger and thirst for righteousness’, we are into the area of multiple meanings. You will know the old saying, ‘The Greeks had a word for it,’ meaning that the Greek language had many words to encompass different shades of meaning – for example, the several different words for the various kinds of love. However, it’s also true that individual words also carried a range of meanings, just as we look up a word in a dictionary and see several varying definitions.

That is true of the word ‘righteousness’ here. When we hear ‘righteousness’ in English, we tend to think of personal, individual qualities of right living. But the Greek word Matthew uses is one that has not only an individual meaning, it also has a social meaning – that is, ‘justice’. Jesus says that God delights in those who care so much for justice that they are hungry and thirsty (literally). They may be hungry and thirsty for justice, because they themselves have been denied it. But they will not keep quiet, they will not be denied, even at the cost of diet, nutrition and hydration.

Yet they will not be empty always, ‘they will be filled’ – that will be God’s reward. God is pleased when people do not sit down, lie back and accept injustice. He is thrilled by people who make his justice their mission in life, even at great cost.

But the ‘righteousness’ element isn’t lost in the concentration on justice. It is those who are righteous in God’s sight – vindicated by him through Christ – who will enjoy the justice of God’s kingdom rule. The person who pleases God and calls forth his reward is the one who wants to be right with him in Christ and who also then is restless for justice, to the point of personal sacrifice.

The fifth Beatitude is where we learn of God’s pleasure in the merciful, who themselves will be shown mercy. In a world which all too routinely says that certain things are ‘unforgivable’, and which calls for ‘no mercy’ to be shown to undesirables, Jesus extols mercy. Mercy isn’t the province of do-gooders, of bleeding-heart liberals who excuse the inexcusable. Mercy knows that sin is always unjustified, but it forgivers.

The other day, a friend of mine from Essex put these slogans about mercy from the American pastor Rob Bell on his Facebook wall:

Revenge doesn’t work
Bitterness is Unfulfilled Revenge
To forgive is to set someone free and then find out it’s you.
To not forgive is to let someone rent free space in your head.
Why let the wrong they did determine your joy?

When we show mercy, we not only set the sinner free, we set ourselves free – free from the chains of bitterness. The God of mercy looks with delight on those who have learned mercy from him. To understand the forgiveness of God is so to receive it that when we consider how much we have been forgiven, we have to extend that to others. God blesses that.

What, next, of the way God smiles on ‘the pure in heart’ who ‘will see God’ as their reward? I once had a conversation with a Muslim imam about this. He said that the inner person, the heart and the motives, didn’t matter. All that mattered was outward action. I don’t know how representative his view would be of Islamic teaching, but I beg to differ. Jesus knew that our inner life affected our outward action, hence his stress on the pure in heart. It was something the psalmists had proclaimed, too. According to Psalm 24, only those with clean hands and pure hearts (outward and inward life) would see God.

Of course, who can be completely sure of their motives and their integrity? But it is critical that we pay attention to them. I once read the testimony of a minister who had become enslaved to pornography. He tried various strategies to get free of his addiction. Eventually, it was this verse that set him free. The knowledge that he wanted to see God one day led him to purify his heart. When his heart was pure, he lost his desire for porn. The reward drove him to seek God’s pleasure.

The peacemakers bring pleasure to the Father, and will be called sons of God. Now that’s polemical in Jesus’ day. Who called themselves the sons of God in those times? The Zealots, the political terrorists who wanted to bring God’s kingdom by violence. But the kingdom comes not by causing violence but by suffering to bring peace – supremely in the Cross of Christ. It is the way of the Cross that God blesses – not only so that we may be forgiven, it is also the shape of our discipleship. Later, Jesus would say that his followers needed to take up their cross.

We’re near the end now. The last two beatitudes have similar themes. Both express God’s pleasure at those who bear persecution, the first group ‘because of righteousness’ (verse 10), the second ‘because of [Jesus]’  (verse 11). Is God sadistic in wanting to see people suffer? No: he is heartened by those who are brave to stand for what is right and for his Son, even when it costs them. He will not let their persecutors have the final say. So the kingdom of heaven is theirs (verse 10), and their reward will be great in heaven (verse 12).

Why? These are people who will not fight on the world’s terms, but in kingdom ways, and so they are rewarded according to God’s kingdom. Their attitude could be encapsulated in some words of Martin Luther King that an American friend of mine posted on Facebook in response to yesterday’s assassination attempt on an Arizona politician:

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

How, then, might we conclude these reflections on the Beatitudes? They show God’s pleasure when the disciples of Christ follow him radically, even at the risk of sacrifice, because they go against the grain of the world. This brings such joy to his heart that it overflows in reward – not always in the here and now; sometimes it is a promise for the future.

But this joy of God – the smile on his face that says ‘Blessèd’ – comes from the fact that he already loves us unconditionally as his children. We take these brave actions of discipleship not in order to win his love but because we are loved.

So let God’s love for us draw out courageous discipleship from us in response. And may that lead to his blessing and reward – which leads us to further joyful service. May our life of love with Christ, therefore, be not a vicious circle but a virtuous circle.


[1] Donald Hagner, Matthew 1-13, p 92.

Sermon: Your Labour Is Not In Vain

1 Corinthians 15:50-58

The last time I was invited to preach in a Baptist church was in the mid-1990s. I was ministering in Hertford and the then senior pastor of Hertford Baptist Church and I worked a pulpit exchange. The day before it was due to happen, I went down with flu and the inexperienced assistant pastor had to put together a sermon from scratch and preach in my place.

So I’d like to thank Paul for the invitation to preach here tonight. We first worked together on re:fresh08, and he then invited me to join the board of Ministry Today. It’s very kind of him to give me this opportunity, just six months before my family and I leave Chelmsford for pastures new.

To our Bible passage, then. You might think this is a strange choice for this time of year. We’ve just about got Christmas done and dusted, and here are some verses about the Resurrection! It is the climax of the apostle Paul’s teaching on the Resurrection. Some say it contains the text that should be placed over every church crèche: ‘We will not all fall asleep, but we will all be changed’ (verse 51b).

But, no, I’m not going to preach on that tonight, despite being the father of young children and the changing of nappies being a memory from only five years ago. Instead, I want to preach on a verse that has meant a lot to me. It has kept me going in bad times, even when I haven’t understood it. Not long ago, when I was going through a rough period, I was thinking about this verse. Someone who knew life was difficult for me prayed with me, and without knowing I was thinking about it, she prayed this Bible verse with me. It is very special to me. Because it has sustained me, my prayer is that it will encourage you if you are sailing through choppy waters in your life.

What’s the verse? It’s the very last one of the passage, verse 58:

‘Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labour is not in vain.’

I want to explore it with three questions: what, why and how? What is the problem? Why does this verse help? How can I live it out?

Firstly, then, what is the problem? Let me tell you some of my own story. From the age of five, teachers expected me to go to university. My favourite subject at school – this will put you off me! – was Maths. Accordingly, when it came to choosing my A-Levels, I selected Maths, Physics and Chemistry. I decided I wanted to study Computer Science at university, and received a very good offer from Imperial College, London.

One month before the A-Levels, it all went wrong. I suddenly began to suffer excruciating neck pain. I never sat the exams. I tried to repeat my final year at school, but although I would have been physically fit enough to take the exams twelve months later, I would never have done myself justice. I decided to leave school, take a job and review my future long term.

That job proved to be a clerical one in the Civil Service, working in social security. I worked for what was then called the Department of Health and Social Security – or, as our critics called us, the Department of Stealth and Total Obscurity. Much of it comes under the Department of Work and Pensions these days, or even HM Revenue and Customs.

I can tell you the odd funny story about that time. Not least when I had a job making sure that self-employed people paid the right National Insurance contributions. One day in the post came a letter from a woman who was returning her self-employed papers. She was winding up her business due, she said, to ‘unforeseen circumstances’. I looked up her records: she was a clairvoyant.

But mostly, those were chinks of light in a dismal and depressing job. What on earth was I doing there? Why had God allowed the neck problem? My career didn’t advance and the work didn’t normally use my abilities.

And Paul says in our verse, ‘in the Lord your labour is not in vain.’ I suggest that my experience of working life – and it can be the same in the ministry sometimes – is that we wonder what on earth we’re doing here. Our job doesn’t seem to achieve anything. Our studies at school or college seem to be going nowhere. Our experience of family or friends isn’t anything to write home about, however much effort we put into relationships. Has that been your experience? Perhaps it is right now.

And Paul says, ‘in the Lord your labour is not in vain.’ What we are doing sometimes does feel like it’s in vain. However hard we work, we aren’t achieving anything for the kingdom of God or our own personal fulfilment.

But you know what? Paul himself knew this experience. He refers elsewhere in this chapter, this letter and other letters to not labouring for the Lord in vain (15:10; 9:26; Galatians 2:2; Philippians 2:16). Not only that, he recognises it is a possibility for the readers of this letter. If you go back to the beginning of chapter 15, you find a clue as to why he dictated this chapter:

‘Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you – unless you have come to believe in vain.’ (Verses 1-2, italics mine.)

So if you feel like your efforts are in vain, let this give you good heart. You are not alone. Your experience was familiar to the great apostle and the early church. Don’t feel condemned. God understands you, and his word has encouragement for you.

It may be enough just to know that, but I’m going to move on to my second question, why does this verse help? Because if you’re anything like me, you want to know the whys and wherefores of an issue. Now I’m a parent of a six-year-old daughter and a five-year-old son, that comes back to haunt me. “Why, Dad?”

But ‘why’ is important. Why can Paul tell the Corinthians to ‘be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord’? What is it that means the know that ‘in the Lord’ their ‘labour is not in vain’?

There is an obvious answer. As we’ve said, this whole chapter is about the Resurrection. If you want to know why to keep on keeping on, the answer is the Resurrection. The Resurrection is what makes everything we do for the Lord worthwhile.

How does the Resurrection make our labour worthwhile? Let me pick out one thing Paul says about it from earlier in the chapter. He says in verse 20, ‘Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died’ (italics mine).

It’s this notion of first fruits. In New Testament times, you got to celebrate the harvest twice in the year. Not only was there the equivalent of our harvest festival in late summer or early autumn, there was a festival of first fruits in late spring. It happened at Pentecost. People celebrated the fact that the first fruits to be picked were the sign that the full and final harvest would come later in the year.

When Paul calls the Resurrection of Jesus the ‘first fruits’ he says it’s the promise of the full harvest, in other words, when all will be raised from the dead. It’s the promise that just as God the Father restored Jesus to bodily life, so he will physically resurrect all people.

It’s part of the great New Testament vision for the future, God’s new creation. The new heavens and the new earth. Whatever God destroys at the end of all things, he will make all things new. Our future is not to be disembodied spirits floating on clouds and playing harps, it is to be bodily resurrected people living, working and worshipping in God’s new creation.

And that vision is why the Resurrection helps us when we feel our labour is in vain. It’s because everything we do in the Lord’s service now is a sign of the new creation. We don’t know how God will incorporate or transform all our work for him now into the new heavens and the new earth – it will be ‘in ways at which we can presently only guess’[1].

Something Martin Luther once said about the Second Coming helps me envision what this means. He said that if he knew Jesus were returning tomorrow, he would plant a tree today. In other words, the new creation with the resurrection of the dead makes all those little deeds of goodness today worthwhile. Tom Wright puts it this way:

‘You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to fall over a cliff. You are not restoring a great painting that’s shortly going to be thrown on the fire. You are not planting roses in a garden that’s about to be dug up for a building site. You are – strange though it may seem, almost as hard to believe as the resurrection itself – accomplishing something which will become, in due course, part of God’s new world.’[2]

I think we best approach this as visionaries and dreamers. The other day I took a school assembly as part of a series about heroes of the faith. My topic was Martin Luther King. I downloaded from YouTube a video of the famous ‘I have a dream’ speech from 1963, and edited it down. During the assembly I showed a couple of minutes from the speech, beginning with the ‘I have a dream’ refrain, which doesn’t come until about twelve minutes in. So the children just saw the clips where King said he had a dream that his four children would one day be judged not by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character, and where he said he had a dream that one day black and white children would sit down and play with each other as sisters and brothers.

At the end of the assembly, I asked them to shut their eyes and imagine their dream of what God’s new world would look like, then to pray they would be brave enough to work for it.

And I think something like that is what Paul calls us to do here. What is your dream – based on Scripture – of what God’s new creation looks like? What do you believe is coming with the resurrection of the dead and the new heavens and new earth? How would you ‘build for the kingdom’[3] OF God? Can you be a dreamer for the kingdom with the passion to put your dream into practice by the power of the Spirit?

So to my third and final question: how can I live it out? Well, note that Paul talks about being ‘steadfast’ and ‘immovable’ – that is, steadfast and immovable in the gospel. The foundation for labouring hopefully is to nurture our faith. My Christian tradition has historically referred to certain practices as ‘means of grace’ – special things which God particularly honours as ways in which he builds us up in the faith. These include worship, prayer, taking Holy Communion and sharing in a small group. Today Christians often call these and other similar practices ‘spiritual disciplines’, and my congregations will tell you I am always banging on about them.

We need to renew our commitment to those regular, faithful acts where we deliberately put ourselves in a place where we expect to hear the voice of God. It won’t always be spectacular, but that isn’t the point. It’s more like an ongoing regular healthy diet than an occasional banquet.

And most especially when we use ‘means of grace’ or ‘spiritual disciplines’, the big issue is not simply to go on a head trip because we have understood something afresh or heard God speak. It’s to put it into practice. We can learn all the doctrine we like, but unless it’s a basis for godly action, it’s a waste of time. So let’s be grounded in the faith, taking advantage of opportunities that come our way, and from that foundation let’s spring into action.

But there’s one other emphasis in the ‘how’ that Paul makes and I’d like to stress it. I confess it’s one that challenges me. He talks about ‘always excelling in the work of the Lord’ (italics mine). I know the call to excellence is one thing that Paul your pastor feels very strongly about. Why does it challenge me? It isn’t that I don’t want to be good at what I do for the Lord – far from it. As somebody has put it:

‘If everything comes from God’s overflowing grace, can we measure service to Christ grudgingly?’[4]

There is no way we can hold a good conscience as Christians if we serve grudgingly. The gospel reminds us of God’s overflowing grace, and any response encouraged by the Holy Spirit is going to be a wholehearted one. That of itself encourages us in the direction of excellence, whether it’s something we do in church, whether it’s direct and overt witness to Jesus Christ, or whether it’s going about your studies or your work diligently and conscientiously.

I don’t have a problem with any of that. But where this challenges me is this: I can easily sign up to the ‘excellence’ idea when it’s about something I know I’m gifted in. Excellence becomes uncomfortable for me when I have to confront my weaknesses. To a certain extent I just want to concentrate on my strengths. To some extent that’s fine. I can advocate a creed of ‘do what you do, do well’ and find other people to cover the areas where I’m not strong. That’s a good and proper understanding of the Church as the Body of Christ where we all have our differing gifts and we all need each other.

However, if I’m not careful, it can degenerate into a cop-out. I spent some time last year during a sabbatical from work studying ministry and personality type. Part of this involved going away on a course. The tutor used a well-known tool that analyses the preferences of different personality types. For as long as we were looking at the preferences of different personality types, I was happy. But he then said this: it’s good in the first half of life to concentrate on your strengths. In the second half of life, it’s worth thinking about whether you can improve some of your weaknesses.

I didn’t want to hear that.

Then yesterday, I was reading a book I’m reviewing for Ministry Today and while it is a title aimed at pastors, there was a chapter on ‘excelling’, and a paragraph that related to this point:

‘What are your strengths and your weaknesses? Sharpen your strengths, and develop your weaknesses. Become better where you are good, and become good where you are weak. No matter what leadership gifts you think you lack, God is able to do great work in and through you. Believe in your call, then work and pray.’[5]

If you’re not called to leadership, ignore that reference. But we are all called. Is this something we can do – to become better where we are good and become good where we are weak? By the power of the Holy Spirit it certainly is. What a way to spite the enemy if he has discouraged us to the point of thinking our labour in the Lord is in vain! We can turn it back on him by redoubling our efforts, because we believe in the risen Christ and the coming new creation.

As I said at the beginning, we are due to leave Chelmsford in six months’ time. One of my goals in that period is not to be ‘demob happy’ but to use it partly to improve some of my weaknesses. For me, that’s a part of aiming to excel ‘in the work of the Lord’.

Could you make a commitment like that? Let’s pray.


[1] Tom Wright, Surprised By Hope, p169.

[2] Op. cit., p219.

[3] Op. cit., p157.

[4] Anthony C Thiselton, 1 Corinthians: A Shorter Exegetical and Pastoral Commentary, p290.

[5] Royal Speidel, Evangelism in the Small Membership Church, p114.

The Enduring Power Of Martin Luther King

Today, I took two assemblies in a school- one for the infants (ages 4-7) and one for the juniors (7-11). I was beginning a new theme for this term: heroes. Those of us on the assembly team from local churches had decided to eschew the word ‘saints’ in favour of something more understandable.

Not remembering that next Monday is the American public holiday in his honour I chose to speak about Martin Luther King. In preparation, I found this clip of the entire ‘I have a dream’ speech on YouTube:

I downloaded this, using the free utility YouTube Downloader. As you’ll see, it’s seventeen minutes long, so then I edited it in Windows Live Movie Maker to begin at the ‘I have a dream’ passage (at 12:29, if you’re interested).

After an introduction talking about issues of fairness based on real-life examples (Rosa Parks and tbe bus seat, water fountains, different schools, slavery in the case of the juniors and so on), I showed about one and a half minutes to the infants – up to the point where King says he wants hi four little children judged not on the colour of their skin but their character. With the juniors, I played a few seconds more – to the point where he envisions black and white children playing together and treating one another as sisters and brothers.

And that was when the Interesting Thing happened: when I paused the video for the juniors, several of them broke out in spontaneous applause. How wonderful it was to see the style and substance of King’s oratory make a connection with children in a different country, forty-seven years later.

So don’t tell me preaching is dead. We can legitimately talk about style, presentation and all the rest. But when we have a message to share and can do so with passion, surely the Holy Spirit still uses it to connect. Sure, King’s crusade was about a theme that would command common assent generally today, and when I went through the examples of ‘unfairness’ the juniors roared back their disapproval of what happened. But there is something here.

And it’s also about King’s story generally. Why did I choose King? Partly for this reason. Our chidren have been introduced to one or two famous figures at school via books recently. One was Florence Nightingale. Another was Mary Seacole. As a result, we have borrowed other books in the series from the library and read them with our two. One night I read a simple biography of King to Mark for his bedtime story. Granted, it omitted things like King’s alleged infidelities, but the impact on Mark was fascinating. The next day he told us he had changed his mind about what he wanted to do with his life. Previously he has wanted to be an English teacher or an author.

“Now I want to be a minister,” he said, “And tell people not to hate each other.”

He is only five. But I was only eight when King was murdered. There is real power here.