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Sermon For Aldersgate Sunday: ‘I Submitted To Be More Vile’

Luke 10:1-20
On 24th May 1988, two hundred and fifty years after John Wesley’s conversion, I was exploring my call by being a Methodist independent student at an Anglican theological college in Bristol. Some months prior to that big anniversary, I had nabbed the Vice-Principal, who was also the lecturer in Church History, and asked if we could mark the anniversary at college. He readily agreed. We had a display in a corridor, and I led an evening in chapel.

One memory I have of the celebrations is the debates that raged in Methodism over the conversion. Was Wesley’s experience of his ‘heart strangely warmed’ a conversion, or just the assurance of faith? Well, you can make your own mind up on that one. I’m not going to touch on that this morning.
But another debate was whether we should only celebrate 24th May 1738, or whether we should also remember 1st April 1739. Why? Because that was the day John Wesley was finally persuaded by George Whitefield to preach the gospel in the open air to the miners at Kingswood. Up until then, Wesley said he would have regarded preaching outside a church building as a sin, but from that date he noted that he ‘submitted to be more vile’ by taking the Gospel outside the doors of the church.

And I think it must be in that light that Luke 10 is the Lectionary Gospel reading for Aldersgate Sunday. Today, I propose that we learn from Wesley and from Jesus how we might ‘submit to be more vile’. After all, if we have warmed hearts but just stay within the safe walls of the church building, what good is the experience, apart from it being a private religious bless-up?

Firstly, we have here a mixture of prayer and action. Jesus kicks off with prayer: ‘ask the Lord of the harvest’, but the people who are to pray are also the people who are sent out with the message. How wrong we are to divorce prayer from action, support from mission.

Wesley’s own life was marked by an extensive commitment to prayer, but also to mission. If there is one area where we do not reflect our founder in contemporary Methodism, it may be this. When the subject of mission comes up in the local church, often all that means is us raising money for other people to engage in mission. I’m not about to decry the fact that when we raise money, various organisations can achieve certain things on a large scale that are beyond us, but I do question the assumption that all we do locally is act as support services.

But for those of us in the Wesleyan tradition, and who follow Jesus, we cannot stop there. Whatever the benefits of contributing to large scale projects, we have no justification under the Lordship of Jesus for stopping there. We are called to pray and to support – but Jesus also calls us to be part of the answers to our prayers. Those of us who walk in the ways of Jesus are junior partners in his kingdom. Jesus calls us not only to enjoy the benefits of his kingdom, but to let it overflow to others. It isn’t just the leaders, the Twelve – Jesus does that one chapter earlier. He calls ‘seventy others’ – people from his wider circle both to pray and to engage. I think that implies all of us.

Now I am aware that in saying this, I can easily load a burden of guilt on people. If preachers tell congregations they need to share their faith, so let me put it like this. This is not about obligation. It is not a series of ‘oughts’. It is about overflow.
Put it this way. Our son enjoys drinking milk. He particularly likes it gently warmed in the microwave. Forty seconds – or fifty seconds during winter. The other day, he went to collect a full mug of milk from the microwave. But as he came out of the utility room and into the kitchen, he tripped up on a step between the rooms. So what happened? Spilt milk.

Similarly, our faith will spill out into the world when we are full, and someone or something trips us up. If we want to have a missionary effect upon the world, then it starts by becoming filled up with God – which will probably happen in prayer – and then overflowing when we get tripped up. So – prayer and action contribute to an overflow of God’s love to the world.

A second strand of Wesleyan mission in the spirit of Jesus would be simplicity. “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road,” says Jesus (verse 4).

Whenever I read that verse, I always think of a friend of mine who works for an Anglican evangelistic organisation. When they hold missions in an area, they have a rule of simplicity for those on the mission team. It involves taking no accoutrements with them like mobile phones, and only an allowance of £2 per day. They rely on the hospitality of the local church. Usually this works out quite well – despite the restrictions and all the physical effort of the mission, many participants return home, having put on weight!

However, what would it be if there is a general pattern that Jesus sets here of simplicity in our lifestyles? Not that every Christian does without everything pleasant in life, but that we resist the pattern of our culture to acquire more and more ‘things’, to think that buying the latest fashionable object will somehow make our lives complete. As well as making income available for others in need – ‘Live simply that others might simply live’ is the old slogan – there is also the fact that living in a way that says we do not have to lust after all the latest consumer items is itself a testimony to the fulfilment that can only come through Jesus Christ.
Is it surprising, then, that in some quarters of the church, not least among some young adults, there is a movement that has been called ‘new monasticism’? People are seeking to live by a rule of life that involves self-denial, not cloistered away behind abbey walls but in the midst of communities. Others put a big stress on hospitality – not simply in terms of inviting your friends for a meal, but in sharing food and care with strangers.

Now I say all this as someone who tomorrow morning is having the so-called ‘superfast’ fibre broadband installed at the manse! I am far from opposed to us enjoying good things in life. As Paul puts it:

For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving (1 Timothy 4:4).

But we have a society that is drunk on consumer goods. And Christian testimony needs to stand in contrast to the false values embraced by many. It isn’t enough to preach the Gospel with our words, it must be lived with our actions and our attitudes, too.

A third element of this ‘submitting to be more vile’, this Wesleyan mission in the spirit of Jesus, would be what Wesley called ‘prevenient grace’, or what regular people call God going ahead of us to work before we get there. We see this in the part of the passage where Jesus tells his followers to go into a home saying, “Peace to this house!”, and waiting to see whether ‘anyone who shares in peace’ is there (verses 5-6).

Fruitful mission, in other words, is not where we take the initiative, where we force the pace, but where God has already gone ahead of us and is at work in people’s lives through the Holy Spirit to prepare them for the good news of his love.

It’s exactly how Jesus himself shared in the mission of the Father. In John 5:19 he said, “I only do what I see my Father doing.” Even Jesus didn’t take the first step: the Father did.

It’s a principle that – once you know it, you will notice it here, there and everywhere. Sometimes it comes in a dramatic form: I have heard stories of people taking the Gospel to a community somewhere in the world that has never heard of Jesus Christ. However, when the Christians begin to tell the stories of Jesus, people say something like this: “Oh, so that’s the person who has been popping up in my dreams!”

Or it is as simple as having an ordinary conversation with a friend whom you think has no interest in spiritual matters, only for them suddenly to ask a major spiritual question. You think, “Now where did that come from?” Well, maybe it came from God going ahead of you, working to woo that person with love before you ever arrived on the scene.

When I talk about this, I usually tell people this is good news! You see, it takes the pressure off us! We don’t have to force or manipulate situations – and of course we shouldn’t! But we can pray and see how God leads. A common catchphrase is to say that mission is ‘seeing what God is doing and joining in’. Just as Jesus told the seventy to offer peace and see whether anyone else [already] shared in it, so we go blessing people in his name, looking for where he has already started prompting people and we then share in his mission as junior partners.

And that mention of ‘blessing’ leads to the fourth and final aspect I want to share this morning about mission: blessing people is our priority. It’s not only the offer of peace, it’s not merely the preaching of God’s kingdom, the mission includes ‘curing the sick’ (verse 9) and I take that to include not only physical healing but also a mandate to meet all sorts of needs in Christ’s name.

I believe that provides a corrective to the way we often view the relationship between Christians and the world. Too often what we are known for is the way we declaim against the wickedness of the world. I’m not denying a proper place for prophetically speaking against sin in all its forms. But there is something about the way we do that, which has earned us a reputation as self-righteous people who consider themselves above everybody else. Ask many MPs what their image of Christians is, and they will tell you that these are the constituents who write the nastiest letters. Ask a Christian MP about their witness in Parliament, and they may well tell you this is one of the greatest hurdles to their being received sympathetically.

What if we were known as the people who are a blessing to anyone in distress? How would that portray the love of God? What if we were the people always available to the hurting in the neighbourhood? What if each of us took seriously the different networks we move in, and sought to be blessings there? The workplace; the street where we live; the people we mix with socially when we relax. All these are places where we can be a blessing.

Yes, there will be times when we run into conflict with the world, and when what we do or say is not appreciated. There will be seasons where we experience rejection. Then – and only then – do we wipe the dust off our feet in protest and move on elsewhere (verse 11). But I have to tell you, that if I wracked my brain for examples of this, the main one I would come up with wouldn’t be about a parting of the ways with non-Christians, but with church people!

In conclusion, there is so much more I could say about this passage. It is one that has meant a lot to me over the years – so much so that I had to limit what points I wanted to make today. But if it does one thing for us this Aldersgate Sunday, I pray it gets us out of our churches and into the world with the love of God, rather than forever vainly waiting for people to come to us.

John Wesley ‘submitted to be more vile’. What about us?

Palm Sunday Sermon: Fruitfulness

Matthew 21:1-11


Location, Location, Location
. The Channel 4 programme about people trying to buy their dream home. It was one of a glut of home buying and home improvement TV shows that hit our screens a few years ago.

And ‘location, location, location’ might be a good theme for understanding the challenge of the Palm Sunday story that we’ve heard so often. Matthew starts with a detailed location report:

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives (verse 1)

Why? The prophecy of Zechariah (14:4) looks to the day when the Lord will stand on the Mount of Olives. It has notions of God fulfilling all his purposes for all time, and it is messianic.

But Bethphage? It’s a place whose name is literally translated, ‘house of unripe figs’[1]. When you remember that a few verses later Jesus curses an unripe fig tree as a prophetic sign, you might say that the challenge of Palm Sunday is that the Messiah has appeared: are we bearing fruit?

So what does a fruitful life look like? To see what the Palm Sunday story tells us about that, we’re going to look at Jesus, his disciples and the crowd.


Firstly
, Jesus. It’s not often that my wife Debbie and I get out to the see a film together, but last month we finally managed to see The King’s Speech before it left the cinemas. You will know the story, I’m sure – however relaxed the relationship between the screenplay and actual history was. Prince Bertie – later King George VI – has terrible trouble with public speaking, due to a stammer. In an early scene where he addresses a massive crowd on behalf of his father, King George V, he goes to pieces and you sense the difficulty his audience has, as well as his own agony. His authority is undermined.

There is no record of Jesus stammering, but he does undermine conventional approaches to authority. He comes into Jerusalem ‘humble, and mounted on a donkey’ (verse 5). His authority is expressed in humility. And that’s something some people find hard to understand or accept.
In the 2004 film King Arthur the Knights of the Round Table are portrayed as pagans, and Arthur as a Christian – albeit the only decent Christian, since all the other Christian figures in the film are shown to be corrupt[2]. One day, pagan Lancelot overhears Arthur praying for the safety of his men before they go on one final, dangerous mission. Lancelot says, “I don’t like anything that puts a man on his knees.” Arthur replies, “No man fears to kneel before the God he trusts. Without faith, without belief in something, what are we?”

If we want to be fruitful in the kingdom of God, then Jesus shows us that humility is a prime quality. We may or may not be given special authority (beyond the general authority every child of the King has), but we are all called to demonstrate humility.

Yet isn’t that one problem the world often has with the church? Humility is not the first quality they associate with us. Arrogant, judgmental and with an air of moral superiority are more likely the characteristics of Christians, in their estimation. I’m not suggesting we should water down our profound moral convictions – far from it – but the way we present ourselves can suggest we know little of the grace that brought us to Christ in the first place. It is remembering that grace, that undeserved merciful love of God, that leads us to live in humility.

Sometimes we even inflict that arrogance on others in the church. Again, the problem is the same: someone who does not demonstrate humility is a person who has not let the gospel of God’s grace to sinners permeate deeply into their soul. Jesus didn’t need grace – he wasn’t a sinner. Yet he showed humility as he entered Jerusalem. If he, the sinless Son of God, behaved like that, then how much more should we?

Would it not be a good idea, then, for us to reflect all the more on the fact that we are sinners saved by grace, and let that stimulate the growth of humility in us? What could be more appropriate as we journey with Jesus towards Good Friday?

Secondly, the disciples. Elsewhere the disciples come in for a bad press in the Gospels. They don’t understand Jesus, they don’t do what he wants, they let him down. And coming up in Holy Week is perhaps the biggest failure story of a disciple: Simon Peter’s denial of Jesus.

But what do we have here? We have a positive story about two of Jesus’ disciples. He sends them to the village ahead with cryptic instructions to untie a donkey and her colt, and bring them to him. We don’t know whether Jesus had prearranged a signal with the owner of the animals, or whether this is some prophetic word. Either way, though, it puts the two disciples in a strange position. They could have looked (and felt) like fools, acting on Jesus’ instruction. But the good news is, they obeyed. And that is the second sign of spiritual fruitfulness here: obedience to Christ.

However, obedience stands in contrast to certain cultural values today, especially the popular understanding of freedom. A shallow understanding of freedom is quite common, thinking that freedom is only about me being free to do what I want. I am my own master. I take no orders from anybody else – well, apart from my manager at work, and I only do that in order to draw a salary.

This, however, is a terrible misunderstanding of freedom. True freedom is not about self-indulgence, it is about being free in order to do what is right. Mostly we do not have that kind of freedom, because we are enslaved to sin. But if freedom is the possibility to do the right thing, then freedom and obedience are connected. They are not opposites.
A journalist called Tobias Jones wrote a book in 2007 called Utopian Dreams. He wanted to find out why we affluent westerners were so unhappy. He went to explore various experiments in communal living that were proposed as solutions. Eventually, he embraced Christianity, saying it ‘works because it is true’. He realised that if freedom were only about pleasing myself, then community would not be possible: we would all be doing our own thing, regardless of each other. He concluded that freedom and obedience were not opposites, but two qualities that belonged together.[3]

Now I suggest to you that the two disciples who obeyed Jesus’ strange command to bring the donkey and her colt knew that: the health of their community of disciples depended on obedience. Obedience to Jesus gave them freedom for all that was good.

And does it not make sense for this to be the second sign of fruitfulness? If we know we are sinners saved by grace and that engenders humility, then something that also leads to is obedience to Christ in gratitude for all he has done for us. With that obedience comes true freedom – not just freedom from sin, but freedom for goodness.

Thirdly and finally, the crowd. You may have noticed that I have not included one major potential hymn for Palm Sunday today – ‘My song is love unknown’. Not that it doesn’t have a lot of worthy content, but there is one aspect of the words that I find seriously misleading. It’s the way the hymn portrays the rôle of the crowd in Holy Week. It presents an idea that the same crowd that acclaimed Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is the one that also cried out for his execution. You’ll remember the words go from ‘Sometimes they strew his way’ to ‘Then “Crucify!” is all their breath’.

It’s a seriously misleading and highly unlikely scenario. Why should the same crowd be around several days later, when thousands of pilgrims descended upon Jerusalem for the Passover? And isn’t it more natural to read that the mob who bray for Jesus’ death are associated with the chief priests and teachers of the law who handed Jesus over to Pilate? Indeed, the word ‘crowds’ used there may simply mean ‘those alongside’[4].

If that is so, then all we are left with here is not a crowd that will later turn against Jesus, but simply a crowd that is trying to come to terms with him, and which isn’t quite there yet. Jerusalem is in turmoil at Jesus’ entry (verse 10), just as it was when news of his birth reached King Herod, and to the question, “Who is this?” the crowds reply, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee” (verse 11).

Of course, that doesn’t really do Jesus justice, does it? He is a prophet, but he is more than a prophet. Not until he is crucified later in the week will he be recognised for who he truly is.
How, then, do we react to people who have an incomplete picture of Jesus? It would be very easy to go into ‘telling-off mode’. We’re quite good at that, as I said when considering the humility of Jesus. Thinking back more years than I care to admit, I recall that when Jesus Christ Superstar became a popular West End musical, some Christians reacted by saying, ‘Jesus Christ is not merely a superstar. He is the Son of God. Accept no substitute!’

Now I agree with the content of what they said, but not the tone. And we have a gospel opportunity to be alongside people who have only caught a half-glimpse of Jesus. We can be the quiet voice of gentle encouragement, not the strident voice of condemnation.

What I think we’re witnessing here are the early signs of God’s work in these people, preparing them for the message of his Son. I can recall being asked to visit non-churchgoers at times, not expecting much out of the visit, and probably stereotyping them before I went and at the beginning of the meeting. But then I find they start asking deep spiritual questions, and I realise that while they don’t yet have a handle on all that Jesus is, nevertheless something is going on in their lives. Actually, I don’t so much think it’s something happening in their lives, more like someone. The Holy Spirit is preparing them for the Good News of Jesus.

In other words, it’s what John Wesley called ‘prevenient grace’: God is at work in people’s lives before we ever show up on the scene, and our task is to join in with what he is doing. And that’s exactly how Jesus saw his own ministry on earth. He said he only did what he saw his Father doing (John 5:19).

A third sign of spiritual fruitfulness, then, is to ask the Holy Spirit to show us where he is already at work, so that we can have the privilege of being God’s junior partners in the work of his mission. Let there be no doubt that the Father wants people to find his forgiving love in Jesus Christ and discover true purpose as they become disciples of him. Whatever we think about the state of the church in the Western world at present, it doesn’t change the fact that God is hard at work in the world, wooing people with his love. But he needs us to be the midwives who usher his new life into the world. Humble and obedient disciples will want to pray, “Lord, show me where you are at work so that I may be your assistant in making more disciples of your Son.”

Now that doesn’t sound like a ‘house of unripe figs’ to me. It sounds like true fruitfulness.


[1] On the Mount of Olives and Bethphage, see Donald Hagner, Matthew 14-28, p593.

[2] See http://www.damaris.org/cm/t4tquotes/743 (paid subscription required).

[3] See http://www.damaris.org/cm/t4tquotes/3029 (paid subscription required).

[4] I owe this insight to Dr Jim Fleming.

Sermon: Offended By Jesus

John 6:56-69

I want to introduce you to a new religion. It will involve cannibalism, vampires and the overthrow of cherished ancient traditions. Are you interested?

Or are you shocked? Because that is what the first followers of Jesus thought he was proposing. ‘Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them,’ he said (verse 56). They were offended, and many on the fringes of belief turned away from him in this reading. They were scandalised by his claims.

He called people to eat his flesh – well, who wants cannibalism? And he said they were to drink his blood. Remember that Jews never drank the blood from a dead animal, because it was thought to contain the life of the creature.

Vampires? OK, actually no. I just wanted to underline the shocking nature of Jesus’ words about drinking his blood. But maybe you get a feeling for how Jesus’ first hearers felt scandalised by his teaching. We may find it hard to appreciate that, because two thousand years of familiarity have changed our perceptions. But in its original context, the person and message of Jesus were offensive.

And today, for all our familiarity with Jesus, it is just as possible to be offended by him, his words and his deeds. If we look at what upset those early disciples, we might get some clues to some issues today. Who knows? We might be the ones who need to change. Let’s see.

Firstly, Jesus himself and his teaching is offensive:

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ (Verse 60)

You might think that gentle Jesus, meek and mild would respond with a word of gentle explanation, but no:

But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, ‘Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?’ (Verses 61-62)

What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? This is not only about the Ascension itself, but also about what leads up to it, for in John’s Gospel, Jesus ascends to the Cross. This is therefore about the Cross, the Resurrection and the Ascension. This is about the deity of Jesus, and what he accomplished in his atoning death and resurrection before he returned to the Father’s right hand.

How is that offensive? Let me recount a story.

In one past church, an elderly couple joined the congregation. They began worshipping with us every week. After a while, I visited them and they raised the question of church membership. In the past, they had been active members of a Baptist church, but must have lapsed for a period of years. Having plied me with tea and cakes, they asked, “Are we good enough to join your church?”

That is a question that can only be asked by people who don’t understand the Cross, or who find the Cross offensive. Like a fool, I paid insufficient attention to it and chose to explain it away. I brought them into church membership, and it was a terrible mistake. The husband in particular spent every week’s home group ripping to shreds the previous Sunday’s preacher. Week after week, until the two leaders of the group could take it no more and resigned. We ended up having to close the group.

All because I didn’t pay attention to a couple who didn’t understand the Cross, and who later showed in their behaviour that they didn’t appreciate grace. I should have let them be offended by the Gospel.

The trouble is, a Jesus ascended on a Cross humbles us. We have to lay aside the pride of our respectable lives, and kneel before him as sinners needing forgiveness.

I’ve seen it not only in the respectable but also in the intellectual. People want to find God by their own cleverness, but God will not have that. I have seen such people harbour all kinds of destructive behaviour, all because they will not kneel at the Cross.

Those who are merely interested in Jesus may well fall away, like the crowds here. Those who are willing to meet him at the Cross are those who will be his true disciples.

Secondly, the work of the Holy Spirit is offensive to some. Jesus goes on to say:

‘It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.’ (Verses 63-64a)

We may only come to know God through the work of the Holy Spirit, who makes the presence of God real to us and the Word of God alive to us. Normal human abilities – ‘the flesh’ – are ‘useless’, says Jesus.

This too is an affront to many people. We have lived through several centuries of scientific discoveries, breakthroughs and advances. Human society has benefitted hugely from many of these things. The idea has arisen that the human mind will ultimately solve all problems. Thus today, leading atheists like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and others mock the thought of anything that cannot be perceived by human reason. If it does not originate from reason, then it is superstition.

But these ideas are false. Yes, society has seen great wonders, not least in medicine. But the same human reason is fallen through sin, and science has given us nuclear weapons and climate change. Ultimately, the thought that reason can solve everything is pure arrogance and idolatry. God is not against the use of the mind at all – in fact it can be properly used to his glory – but he knows how we idolise our reason and so,  in the words of John Arnott, ‘God offends our minds to reveal our hearts.’

And indeed the Gospel is not merely available to intellectuals – thank God! It is revealed by the Holy Spirit, whose work is available to all.

In our tradition of Christianity, we are so used to emphasising human free will (and I’m not saying we should ditch that!), but sometimes we stress it so much that we forget the life of faith is impossible without the prior work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit draws people to Christ; only then do we make response.

Listen for reference to that work of the Spirit in part of a testimony from a friend of mine:

‘I wasn’t raised in a Christian household, I was saved in a summer camp when I was 14….one night afterwards, I was dialing my radio around and found a Christian radio station. As I listened, I could feel the Spirit inside me awakening, and that station was basically how God “fed me” while I was at home. When I got old enough to drive myself, I was able to go to church myself.’

Once again, we see that it is our pride that gets offended – this time by the need to rely on the Holy Spirit for life in Christ. But also, this has implications for our evangelism. The prime need in our outreach is not the latest techniques, but prayer – prayer that the Holy Spirit will go ahead of us, working in people’s lives before we get there. Let us be released from having to think up new clever (and possibly manipulative) schemes, and instead remember that the Holy Spirit does the spadework. Let us call on the Spirit in prayer to do that in the lives of those who need Christ.

Well, if we’ve talked about the Cross of Christ and the ministry of the Spirit in the first two points, it won’t take a brain surgeon to work out that the third and final area in which people find the teaching of Jesus offensive is in what he says about God the Father.

And he said, ‘For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.’ (Verse 65)

Now again, that’s the kind of verse to make those of us in the Wesleyan Arminian tradition, who believe in the importance of human free will, to get rather nervous. It gladdens the hearts of Calvinists, who believe that some people are predestined by God to salvation, while he predestines the rest to damnation. But all it really stresses is another version of what we’ve just said about the Holy Spirit – namely that the first move in salvation is God’s.

It has always been the case. The first missionary in the Bible was God, walking in the Garden of Eden in the cool of the evening, calling, ‘Adam, where are you?’ God called Abraham and the patriarchs as he formed a people for himself. He called Moses, the Judges and the prophets. Finally, he sent his Son.

And how good it is that God has always made the first move. For as Leon Morris has put it, writing on this verse:

‘Left to himself, the sinner prefers his sin. Conversion is always a work of grace.’[1]

It is God’s work to bring us to the possibility of salvation. It does not mean he is capricious: he wants all to be saved. But remembering what we have already learned about the need for humility, that comes into play here again, for if God makes the first move, we must pay attention. John Wesley thus commented on this verse:

Unless it be given – And it is given to those only who will receive it on God’s own terms.’[2]

The Good News is that God sets out to rescue those who, by their own instincts, would always prefer to remain in sin. The Good Challenge is that we must accept God’s remedy. We must come on God’s own terms. Therefore that means not only welcoming Christ as God’s Saviour, but also bowing before him as Lord. If we can only come to Christ because God the Father makes the first move, then we end up coming to God not only for the blessings, but also for the obligations.

We can ask ‘What’s in it for me?’ and the answer will be about salvation from the penalty of sin, the practice of sin and the presence of sin. But to ask that question alone is to indulge in religious consumerism. Because the Father makes the first move there is another question: ‘What’s in it for God?’ And the answer involves him incorporating us into the People of God, because his desire has always been to form a people for himself, a new community that lives under his kingly reign. And therefore we must rise to the challenge and make the Church just such a community, instead of fighting and plotting against one another, and settling for cliques instead of community.

In Conclusion, then, God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit takes the initiative in saving the human race. This brings us to humility at the foot of the Cross and in dependence upon the grace of the Father and the power of the Spirit. We lay aside everything we trumpet about our respectability and intellect. But this news frees us from other tyrannies. No longer need we rack our brains for new methods of evangelism, when instead we begin in prayer for the Holy Spirit to move. And in the converted life, the Father who has graciously reached out to a world of persistent sinners not only saves us but makes us his subjects. Our only proper response is grateful obedience.

May we have the grace not to be offended, but to become God’s loyal servants and friends.


[1] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, p387. Exclusive language unchanged from the source.

[2] John Wesley, Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament, p330.

Sermon: Begone, Unbelief

Mark 6:1-13

Many years ago, I was listening to the radio late at night, when a song came on that I’d never heard before and I’ve never heard since. Not only that, I can’t find any trace of it on the Internet, despite all sorts of searching. It was by an American soul singer (now deceased) called Lou Rawls, and it was called, ‘You can never go back home’. I’ve found one or two other songs of the same title, but not the one he recorded. [UPDATE: the song is called ‘You can’t go home’, it’s a duet with George Benson, and is on the At Last album. Thanks to my sister!]

‘You can never go back home’ could have been a song for Jesus in this reading. It was all looking so good. Having returned from the eastern side of Galilee where the people had begged him to depart after he ruined the pig farming industry (how we could have done with that at a multinational’s pig farm in Mexico not so long ago), he has arrived back on the west to be greeted by crowds, and he has healed the woman with the haemorrhage and Jairus’ daughter. The woman and Jairus were great examples of faith (as we saw last week).

So – a homecoming to Nazareth should top everything, shouldn’t it? This should be the climax, the triumphant homecoming.

Except – as we know with hindsight – it isn’t.

“On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offence at him.” (Verses 2-3)

‘The carpenter, the son of Mary’ is a derogatory expression. Jesus is just a common worker with his hands, like everyone else. He’s not special. He has no particular status[1]. In fact, he’s of low status: that’s indicated by ‘son of Mary’:

“It was contrary to Jewish usage to describe a man as the son of his mother, even when she was a widow, except in insulting terms. Rumo[u]rs to the effect that Jesus was illegitimate appear to have been circulated in his own lifetime and may lie behind this reference as well.”[2]

Familarity breeds contempt, we say. The congregation at the Nazareth synagogue thought they knew Jesus. They knew his family. Yet in a critical way they didn’t know him. Jesus labels himself as a prophet without honour at home (verse 4). He can only heal a few people (verse 5) and is ‘amazed at their unbelief’ (verse 6). Jesus was no less powerful, but his power has to be received. And instead of finding the open hands of faith to receive what he has to give, he encounters only clenched fists.

It would be different if Jesus visited us, wouldn’t it? We believe in him. We trust in him. We affirm our faith every Sunday and say words like those in the creeds. He wouldn’t find unbelief here, would he? A few doubts maybe, but surely not unbelief?

Or would he? Do we slip into unbelief at times? I think we do. I’m sure I do. For like the Nazareth congregation, it’s all too easy to think we know Jesus when in some important way we don’t. We tame him as ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’, when he vigorously confronted evil. Rarely do we express the contempt his fellow Nazarenes had for him (although I have come across occasional cynicism), but I do suspect that for us familiarity may breed complacency. We think we know him, yet he can’t do many miracles among us, either. Have we got so used to Jesus that we have forgotten his raw power? Is this why C S Lewis wrote that wonderful line in ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ where he said, ‘Aslan is not a tame lion’? And is it why the American spiritual writer A W Tozer said, ‘Most Christians live like practical atheists’?

Of course, Jesus does visit us. He is present by his Spirit. Yet where is the daring faith in many churches? Our problem with faith may not be the cynicism of Nazareth but the unwillingness to take risks. Many years ago, I heard the Anglican vicar and evangelist Eric Delve say how typical it was of British people to say goodbye to someone with the words, ‘Take care’. What kind of words are they, he asked? Watch out, everything around you is dangerous, keep safe and hide away!

And does that reflect in our churches? Sadly, it often does. Like the one-talent man who buried what he was given in the ground, we opt for playing safe rather than the adventure of faith. In the words of one writer (was it Neil Cole?), we need to be in places where we are done for unless Jesus intervenes. Only then are we living by faith in Christ.

That’s why when I gave my sabbatical presentation last Sunday afternoon, I referred to that challenging document ‘The Life Cycle of a Congregation’ by George Bullard. Those of you who were present heard me describe an eight-step process from birth to death (not that death is inevitable) for churches. There were four cycles in the ascent, and four in the descent to death. I’ll just re-read two sentences from my notes:

“The movement happens as soon as the repeat of good practice is desired. Comfort zone instead of risk-taking.”

The moment we say, ‘We know what we’re doing’, we are in danger of leaving the life of faith. It means we don’t need to trust Jesus any more. We can get by on our own, thank you very much. I now see danger flags waving every time I hear Christians say they know what they’re doing. It’s why I know that one thing I need to do is leave behind my old cautious attitude of ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, and instead make my maxim, ‘If it ain’t broke, break it’.

What does Jesus do when he doesn’t find faith? Faithlessness makes him unwelcome. He does the same as he did at Nazareth: he leaves. Remember how in the Book of Revelation he addressed seven churches. Often he warned them that if they did not live faithfully, he would ‘remove [his] lampstand’ from them – that is, he would remove his presence. Jesus is quite willing to leave churches that don’t have faith in him. It breaks his heart, but he is prepared to move on. Let us ensure we give him no reason to do that, by being people of daring faith.

So where does he go? The simple and startling answer is, he goes here, there and everywhere, all at the same time. How can that be? Because he authorises the Twelve to go out in pairs in his name (verse 7). They are an extension of his mission. In Jewish law, “the sent one is as the man who commissioned him.”[3]

And if the members of the Nazareth congregation fail to exercise daring faith in Jesus, one thing you can’t miss in the instructions to the Twelve is that Jesus expects them to have utter dependence upon God in their mission. They go in the clothes they are wearing, along with a staff and sandals. They get to take no food, no money and not even a second tunic to keep them warm at night (verses 8-9).

Is this a model we all should follow? I know one evangelistic organisation which takes the equivalent passage to this in Luke 10 as a principle for all the participants in its ‘Walk of a Thousand Men’ missions. To quote from their website:

“Team members come without cars, mobile phones or credit cards, only bringing £2 per day to engage in pub evangelism.

– They trust in God for provision of food and other necessities

– Teams of Walkers take this simplicity a stage further, carrying their own packs and sleeping on hall floors.”

In embracing simplicity, they encourage team members to exercise faith at the same time as they call people to faith. Having hosted a couple of their teams in the ‘Walk Kent’ mission ten years ago, I can tell you the faith is rewarded: most team members put on weight, thanks to generous hospitality!

It’s not that the precise instructions Jesus gave the Twelve for their mission should always be followed to the letter, but it is that the underlying principle of faith needs to be embraced. We can’t call people to faith unless we display faith ourselves. It’s what Jesus himself did. Making the community of faith something safe and predictable, both internally and in how we face the world, is far from the example of Jesus.

Full of faith, the Twelve are like Jesus. But also like Jesus, they may face rejection. In which case, they “shake off the dust that is on [their] feet” (verse 11), just as Jews did when they returned from alien lands. It was a sign that the place where they had been was pagan and polluted. And sometimes you just have to distance yourself from unbelief – it has a polluting effect on your own faith. Maybe those ancient Jews knew something. Jesus walked away from unbelief in his home synagogue. The Twelve were to do the same. If our faith is being sucked dry by people who won’t respond positively to Jesus, we might consider the same.

Yet at the same time, for all the warnings this passage contains about unbelief, it isn’t an unremittingly bleak reading. In the middle of Jesus’ call to the Twelve, he gives them a vision for the success of faith-filled mission. “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place” (verse 10). You will be welcomed. Don’t believe the old lie that your locality is too tough and hardened to receive the Gospel, because there will be some places where you and your message are welcomed.

Why? Because God will have gone ahead of you, preparing the way. It isn’t up to us to prepare the soil: God does that. The Holy Spirit is at work preparing people for the Good News before Christians show up. If we go into the community with the love of God then yes, in some places people will mock or ridicule us. But don’t let the possibility of a negative reception paralyse you. There will be many instances where your message will enter and stay.

Jesus said he only did what he saw his Father doing (John 5:19). That’s why many Christians today say that mission is ‘finding out what God is doing and joining in’. God is always making the first move. It’s what John Wesley called ‘prevenient grace’ And if you know your French, the word ‘prevenient’ will make sense: ‘pre’ meaning ‘before’ and ‘venient’ from ‘venir’, meaning ‘to come’. Prevenient grace is God’s grace coming before any human action.

And that means we go in confident faith, praying that we will know where God has sent the Holy Spirit as the advance party. We don’t always need dramatic experiences to know that God has been at work ahead of us, we simply look for where we encounter a welcome for our message, and we ‘stay’ with such people, giving them our time. The rejections will come, and yes they will be painful, but like Jesus himself we walk away and concentrate on where we might see fruit.

So this has been a story about faith and unbelief. We have seen that unbelief can strike in the unlikeliest of places, maybe even close to our own hearts, if we are not so much ‘not careful’ but too careful, too cautious, too play-safe. ‘Safety first’ is as dangerous to the soul as cynicism. We must guard against both, for we risk losing Jesus.

Instead, Jesus calls us to the wild adventure of faith. Yes, we may be rejected too, but those sailing on the high seas of faith set their sails for the wind of the Spirit that will take them away from the pagan lands of unbelief and follow where God is preparing the way for the Gospel. Those who set out on the voyage of faith will, like the Twelve, see demons cast out and the sick healed (verse 13). Those who would rather stay in their home harbour and those who denounce the sailors of faith will see no such miracles.

So let’s pull up the anchor and take to the seas with Jesus.


[1] William L Lane, The Gospel According to Mark, p 202.

[2] Op cit, p 203.

[3] Op cit, p 206f.