So says Rick Warren. OK, you’d expect Warren to use the word ‘purpose’, but the thrust of the article is the benefits of structuring a church around people’s gifts, rather than in trying to fit them into a predetermined structure. Makes sense to me. But it means there are some powerful institutional forces we need to resist in our denominations.
‘It was like the preacher was speaking just to me.’
Have you ever had that experience? A sermon is preached to a congregation, but somehow you feel singled out. The message is for you.
I think Simon Peter is a little like that in this reading. In the midst of Jesus teaching the crowds, he has a separate, personal conversation with him. This is not his first encounter with Jesus, he has already been tagging along. But now Jesus clarifies why he has called him.
Again, isn’t that like us? We may have been ‘tagging along’ with Jesus for years before our purpose becomes clear. That has certainly been my experience.
Hence, I agree with the writer who says this is not the story of calling the fishermen, but rather an occasion where Jesus announces to Simon what he has had in mind for him all along. So perhaps we can read this famous story to hear more about the qualities Jesus seeks in his disciples.
The first is this. Every Friday morning, on my day off, I go into our children’s school and spend twenty minutes helping a group of pupils in Rebekah’s class with their reading. This means being in there for registration, and as I check over the book and notes assigned to the group, I observe how the teacher goes about her job. I wonder how she would feel if I – as someone with no training in teaching and who wouldn’t fancy the job in the slightest – proceeded to tell her how she could do her work better? Much as teachers are probably used to getting flak from parents, I don’t think she’d be impressed. Thankfully, Rebekah’s teacher is a marvel and usually I sit there astonished at her ability!
However, look at what happens here. A carpenter tells a group of fishermen how to do their job!
“Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” (Verse 4)
At first, you can hear the frustration in Simon’s voice:
“Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing.” (Verse 5a)
And that makes sense of Simon’s occupation. Galilean fishermen knew their best results came at night. This carpenter is so ignorant he’s telling them to go fishing in daylight hours! What does he know? If they can’t catch any fish at night, they have even less chance in the day.
Yet Simon doesn’t stop there. He says,
“Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” (Verse 5b)
This first quality, then, is obedience. It makes no sense, but Simon will follow Jesus’ instructions. Just as for us, many of the things Jesus calls his followers to do make no sense, because they clash with the received wisdom of the world – yet he calls for obedience. His commands contradict the way we’ve always done things – but the call is still to obedience. No-one can be a disciple without a commitment to obedience, because that’s what a disciple does.
So if there is something challenging, or outside our experience that Jesus is talking to us about, we know that sooner or later – preferably sooner – we need to heed his voice. Like Simon, our attitude must be founded on those words, ‘Yet if you say so.’
Not only that, Simon doesn’t even know Jesus’ full identity at this stage. So far as he is concerned, he is a rabbi. He doesn’t yet know he is the Messiah, let alone the Son of God, but he still obeys. Therefore, obedience to Jesus cannot be delayed by saying we don’t know enough about him yet. It’s no good saying, “I don’t know as much as other people about my faith,” because Simon shows us that even a minimal knowledge of Jesus is enough to get on with some basic obedience. Maybe the real issue is that some of us don’t want to commit to those words, ‘Yet if you say so.’
Let us remember that without the obedience of Simon and his friends, they would not have had the blessing of the bulging nets full of fish.
The second quality revolves around Simon’s reaction to the miraculous catch of fish:
But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Verse 8 )
One moment Simon is on his knees in a posture of worship, and you would therefore expect him to be drawing near to God. But in the same breath he asks Jesus to depart from him, because he is a sinner.
What’s common to this apparently contradictory reaction? It’s all about the holiness of God – that explains both the move towards worship and the recognition of personal sinfulness. And if we recognise the presence of God’s holiness, then we see that the second quality exhibited in Simon here is humility.
When I came back from sabbatical last year, I shared at my presentation the work of George Bullard on ‘The Life Cycle of a Congregation’. He compared the birth, growth, decline and death of some churches with the stages of a human life cycle (not that this should suggest a sense of inevitability). The point at which a church starts to decline, he said, is the stage of ‘maturity’. And that is characterised by an attitude of saying, ‘We know what we’re doing.’ The moment we think we know what we’re doing is the time when we no longer need humble dependence upon God. We can get on with the life of faith all very easily, thank you very much. Remove the need for humble dependence and we cut ourselves off from the power of God. No wonder many of our churches are so lifeless.
However, Simon doesn’t look at the miraculous catch of fish, start a backslapping session with his colleagues and say, ‘I knew it would all work out. After all, we are professional fishermen, and our expertise would win out in the end.’ He can’t say that, because he knows that the amazing result of the surprise expedition is down to trusting what Jesus has said and living in the light of that.
So what if – like the disciples – we’ve failed to catch any ‘fish’? It seems to me that rather than shopping around for some technique we can employ, Jesus calls us to something simpler, yet more demanding. It’s to match the obedience we’ve already spoken about with humble trust. Never mind new programmes or good management – they both feature on the ‘decline’ side of the ‘Life Cycle’ model – it’s about vision and relationships with God and one another. And all that means humble trust. It means saying, ‘We don’t know what we’re doing’ and looking to Christ to give us a challenging way forward.
The third quality is one we are used to observing in this story – discipleship means mission. Just as the holy Jesus won’t depart from sinful Simon, so the disciples of holy Jesus must not stay away from sinners. In fact, quite the opposite:
Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” (Verse 10b)
It’s the famous ‘fishers of men’ line from older translations, of course. But familiar as it is, I learned something about it this week that I don’t ever recall coming across before. It’s to do with the expression ‘catching people’. The word translated ‘catching’ is a compound of two Greek words. One has the general meaning of ‘catching’ or ‘hunting’, and so that describes the basic outlook Jesus expects of Simon and all his disciples: he always intends us to be on the lookout for people who need the Gospel of his love. Mission isn’t an add-on for the enthusiasts in the church, it’s the responsibility of every Christian. We may not all be evangelists, but we are all witnesses. A community of Christians is meant to be fundamentally outward-looking by design. If it is not, there is a serious flaw.
But here’s the other thing I discovered this week, and it tells us something about the way in which we participate in mission. I said the word for ‘catching’ was a compound word, and that one half meant ‘hunting’ or ‘catching’. The other half means ‘alive’. When we put the two halves together it doesn’t so much mean that we ‘capture people alive’ (as opposed to dead), it probably more likely means that we captivate people with life. In catching people for the kingdom of God, we are doing so in order to restore them to life and strength.
Our attempts to catch people for Christ are not attempts to bolster our numbers in order to keep our church going. We do this because people need the life of Christ in them. Therefore our relationships with people we are in contact with must reflect the life of Christ. It’s no good condemning people who have no idea of our ways and our etiquette: if we are to minister life, our dealings with people must be saturated in grace. Anything less is contrary to the Gospel and therefore counter-productive. What I am sure about is this: no church can be complacent about this. Almost any church believes it is welcoming, but not every visitor supports that belief. We need to remember that grace and life are our currency. With them we are rich; without them, we are bankrupt.
There is a fourth and final quality of discipleship I want to highlight. Let me approach it this way. When I was at my Anglican theological college, one student who overlapped with me was a well-known evangelist who had felt called into parish ministry. His name was Eric Delve. He had been a travelling evangelist for nearly twenty years. One thing he told us about those times was that the Christians in every town he visited to conduct a mission always told him the same thing: “This is the hardest place in the country for the Gospel.” Over the years, Eric got tired of that attitude. He felt it said more about the Christians than the non-Christians.
What has this got to do with our passage? And isn’t it true that it’s difficult to bring people to faith today? Jesus’ approach seems so different. He sends his disciples to ‘catch people’. For them to do so, they ‘[leave] everything and [follow] him’ (verse 11). Catching people doesn’t require crying a tale of woe about how hard it is for the Gospel today. Rather, it requires ‘leaving everything’. Not, that is, always leaving ‘secular’ employment: ‘left everything’ has a particular nuance here, and it’s about being released or set free. It may be a release from work or from family obligations or possessions or some other personal priorities, but it may also be the need to be released from an attitude of heart: bitterness, pride or a superiority complex.
“The wrong question: What will make our church grow? The right question: What is keeping our church from growing?”
He goes onto say,
“All living things grow — you don’t have to make them grow. It’s the natural thing for living organisms to do if they are healthy. For example, I don’t have to command my three children to grow. They naturally grow. As long as I remove hindrances such as poor nutrition or an unsafe environment, their growth will be automatic. If my kids don’t grow, something has gone terribly wrong. Lack of growth usually indicates an unhealthy situation, possibly a disease.
“In the same way, since the church is a living organism, it is natural for it to grow if it is healthy. The church is a body, not a business. It is an organism, not an organization. It is alive. If a church is not growing, it is dying.” (p 16)
Now while that might be a bit simplistic – there are all sorts of reasons why churches don’t always grow – nevertheless it behoves us to examine our spiritual health. What is holding us back? What do we need to be released from? It’s a critical question, because we bring a Gospel that claims to set people free in Christ – in the forgiveness of sins, in enabling them to forgive others, in freedom from sinful habits and ultimately the eradication of all sin from God’s creation. If that is our message, it will only make sense if we too are on a journey into greater freedom ourselves.
As I said yesterday, I determined that since I would be housebound today I would find other resources for worship. I’ve never been happy with Songs Of Praise because a series of hymns does not of themselves make an act of worship. Likewise, the Sunday service on Radio 4 has never connected much with me. It always contained more elements of worship, but has always felt liked a précis to me.
I thought this would be a good discipline for myself to find some worship. I also thought it would be good, given the number of elderly church members who end up being temporarily or permanently housebound and reliant on whatever the airwaves bring.
Having said that, given that I was eschewing Songs Of Praise and the Sunday Service, I was looking at other delivery methods: digital TV and Internet streaming.
This morning, I opted for TV, knowing that most of the streamed Internet sources I’d found were from North America, and time zones meant they woulnd’t be viewable until tea-time. So, going through the ‘religion’ section on the Sky TV electronic programme guide, I avoided the obvious prosperity filth from Kenneth Copeland. Likewise, I steered clear of glossy Hillsong pep talks from Brian and Bobbie Houston, and I didn’t go near Ed Young, the man who infamously put out a video complaining about sheep-stealing pastors when he sets up new churches in an area without checking with the existing ministers.
But there was something British on UCB TV, and I opted for that. AT 10 am they were showing ‘Days Of Wonder’ from New Life Church, Hull, with Jarrod Cooper. Cooper wrote the popular worship song ‘King of kings, majesty‘, which I have found a helpful, humble and orthodox piece for services.
The opening credits showed Cooper walking (around Hull?), whilst linking the programme to the church, giving a subliminal hint that New Life Church equals Jarrod Cooper. He is the senior pastor, but I’d hope he wouldn’t want to give out a message like that. There may have been an intention to communicate something else, but I have to say that is a ‘viewer response’ reading.
Then Cooper introduced the show briefly, and I thought he said we were then going over live to worship at the church. However, that clearly wasn’t the case. We went straight into his message, which was video edited for the length of the programme.
The skeleton of his talk was fine and worthy, but I was concerned by some applications. It was a sermon about the supremacy of Christ, and although he referred to biblical passages as he went along, I didn’t hear an opening passage he was expounding. Colossians 1 would have fitted nicely. He preached about the supremacy of Christ in four areas: over the church, over creation, over wisdom, and I’m afraid I’ve forgotten the fourth point.
In supremacy over the church, he was uncontroversial but what he said needs hearing. Christ is head of the church, not the Pope, not the pastor and not the trustees.
As to supremacy over creation, this is where it all started going hyper-charismatic. He only – as I recall – illustrated this from the miraculous: the feeding of the five thousand, the translation of Philip in Acts 8 etc. He spoke of a five hour car journey taking two hours. Now I don’t have any theological problem with the miraculous, but I have a pastoral concern here about balance. I am all for expanding people’s faith – often the problem I encounter in myself and others is an insufficient level of expectation about what God can do. However, if you only accent the miraculous in talking about the supremacy of Christ over creation, you are setting up other believers for a fall, when not everything works out in the Christian paperback blockbuster way they’d hoped. Furthermore, Christ’s supremacy over creation is about ongoing issues like the upholding ogf the universe by the word of his power. I have to admit, something could have been edited out, but I was left with this concern about balance from what was shown.
When he got onto the supremacy of Christ over wisdom, I got more than concerned. Don’t misunderstand me: the basic point is both sound and important. As someone who enjoys the intellectual side of faith (but sees that as an opportunity for worship), I wholeheartedly agree that all our thinking must be submitted to Christ. Yet what we got in this section of the sermon was just some bashing of left wing stereotypes. “The feminists [they’re all the same, aren’t they?] have a problem with Ephesians,” he announced. Onto the usual stuff about headship and submission and that the male/Christ headship is based on sacrificial love. Well, yes, but what is headship? Didn’t Paul say that the great mystery he was speaking about here was about Christ and the Church, in which case he’s using an illustration from the marriage patterns of his day rather than making male headship normative? Has Cooper ever read any egalitarians? Yet he sees fit to bash them.
A little while later, he announced that “Global warming is the latest religion of the Left”. Well, apart from the sloppy language – the point is, nobody adores global warming, they are devoted to reversing climate change – I thought, oh no, he sounds like the American Christians who deny the overwhelming scientific evidence. But we shouldn’t be bothered, he said, because one day God is going to roll up this planet like a blanket. If I’d had my copy of Tom Wright‘s ‘Surprised By Hope‘ to hand, I swear I would have thrown it at the TV screen. I had hoped that British evangelical-charismatics were better informed on this one, thanks to the efforts of TEAR Fund and others, but the message isn’t getting through to some of the troops.
The service ended by cutting to brief footage of prayer ministry time at the end of the service. Cooper was praying with a man who was deaf in one ear. After prayer, the man said he could hear now in that ear. I do hope and pray that is still the case. I remain convinced that it is important we ‘show ourselves to the priests’ and offer evidence to society of healings. I do believe God heals today, but we have to think about how we present those claims.
Finally, the broadcast concluded with “Buy my CD, please!” A long commercial for Cooper’s current CD. It was no different from the adverts at the end of the Brian and Bobbie Houston or Ed Young shows, it just came with an English accent, not an Australian or American one.
What about tonight? I watched a whole Sunday service online from Saddleback in California. I was much more favourably disposed towards this, although it wasn’t without its problems. The major issue I had with it is that – like Songs Of Praise – it really didn’t contain several critical elements of worship. The order of service went as follows:
Opening worship song
Notices – these included plugs for a church classic car event and the Saddleback Comedy Connection. Huh?
Two more worship songs
Rick Warren‘s sermon
Mention of where resources were available to help with follow-up to sermon
Closing song, which didn’t seem to be for congregational participation.
What’s missing? Plenty. Let’s start with prayer. No adoration – well, you could say that was included in the songs. But no confession and assurance of forgiveness – I think that’s pastorally essential. How many people are coming to worship with burdens and need that assurance? Also, no intercession, so the church didn’t function in her priestly rôle. Finally, no Bible reading before the sermon. There were plenty of individual verses in the sermon. It was a topical sermon, rather than an expository one.
The worship songs were mainstream typical ones from the likes of Tim Hughes and Joel Houston. It was a bit liked watching a truncated version of Spring Harvest big top worship. Charismatic songs without the display of charismatic gifts.
What about the sermon? I was much more comfortable here, even if I disagreed with the occasional comment and it was too long, around seventy-plus minutes. Worshippers get a sermon outline and it was available on the website, so that helped in following what Warren had to say. He is an engaging, warm speaker with a genuine pastoral heart. The issue was less with the seventy minutes than the seven (or eight, if you count the conclusion) points he made. There was too much to take in. Yes, again you could take it away with you, but it was a lot to work on. It was the third in a series called ‘The Jesus Model’ (what kind of model, I don’t know). This one focussed on Jesus as a model for stress management, making for a timely and relevant subject. Some will talk about ‘the curse of relevance’, but I think Warren wanted the people to apply their faith to life for it to make a difference. I took some notes ready for this blog post (and for my own personal benefit, I’d like to think), and so what follows is a summary of the thoughts that struck me from the sermon.
Warren began by referring to the new film ‘Terminator Salvation‘. The synopsis says that the grown-up John Connor. in fighting the machines as part of the resistance, has a ‘purpose-driven life’ (yes, really!) and has the weight of the world on his shoulders. However, said Warren, only one person has ever truly had the weight of the entire world on his shoulders, and that was Jesus on the cross. (Brilliant illustration! If only my people knew what Terminator was!) Because of that, he above all knows how to help us with stress.
1. Identification – know who you are. If you don’t know who you are, then society will try to label you. Don’t take your identity from brand names. (Warren meets Naomi Klein?) Don’t fall into the twin traps of either copying or comparing. He could have said a little more about our identity being in Christ as beloved children, I guess, but great start.
2. Motivation – know who you are living for. You’ll always disappoint someone. Whoever you’re dependent upon for your happiness is your god. ‘Nobody can pressure me without my permission,’ he said – not quite sure that’s right, although I can see what he’s getting at.
3. Vocation – know your calling. He used the familiar Saddleback SHAPE analysis to emphasise that everyone has a calling to ministry of one form or another. If you don’t clarify your calling, you’ll fall victim to the tyranny of the urgent, rather than getting on with the important.
4. Concentration – focus on what matters most. If Satan can’t make you bad, he’ll make you busy. ‘You can fill your life with good things, or you can waste your life on good things.’ ‘This one thing I do, or these forty things I dabble in?’ ‘Is what I’m doing right now fulfilling my calling?’
5. Meditation – listen to God. A quiet time, yes, but more. Warren stresed the importance of extended silence. We have to strip away to give God a chance to speak to us. He talked about meditation as being like a worrying away at a biblical text.
6. Collaboration – join a small group. You were never intended to handle stress by yourself. To say you don’t need a small group is either arrogance or fear. Jesus needed a small group, and he was perfect!
7. Recreation – take time to recharge. Sabbath-keeping is in the Ten Commandments for a reason, and remember Jesus said the Sabbath was made for humans, not the other way around. When Psalm 23 says ‘He makes me lie down in green pastures’, remember that if you don’t take sabbaths, God may well make you lie down for your own good, but it mgiht take something serious like an illness to slow you down to do it.
His conclusion was about salvation in terms of Jesus’ invitation to take hiseasy yoke upon us and discover that his burden is light.
Today’s inauguration of Barack Obama as the forty-fourth (what’s the obsession with numbers?) President of the USA was the first one I have watched on the Internet. Thank you, BBC. I guess it was appropriate, given the way Obama leveraged the web in his campaign.
Actually, I can’t remember the last one I watched on the small screen. Watching on the web was a pragmatic decision, knowing that if I put it on the television, the children would cry out for Nick Junior.
I didn’t catch the whole shebang, since I was dashing in and out of the study from the kitchen where I was cooking the family meal. What I saw of Obama impressed me. Yes, the words of his speech were very general, but I don’t see how they could be otherwise. I felt he communicated honesty and realism with his evident oratorical gifts. As everyone says, the real test will be in the days to come. Well, no surprise there.
I caught a fair bit of Rick Warren’s prayer, but again not all of it. The whole of it was inevitably up on YouTube rather quickly:
If I thought about it, there would probably be parts with which I would quibble. However, it seemed to me that the tone of Warren’s prayer was one of evangelical conviction combined with a reaching out rather than a tone of condemnation. You may feel differently – do say below.
I found quite a contrast with Gene Robinson’s prayer earlier in the week, also available on YouTube:
Now I admit openly that theologically I am far more likely to be close to Warren than Robinson. I also left a barbed comment on a friend’s Facebook page when she rejoiced that Obama had invited Robinson and that the bishop had promised not to be overtly Christian in reaching out to people of other faiths.
But having said that, I felt I owed the man a fair hearing in case I had been wrong in the heat of the moment. So tonight I watched the clip above.
And I’m still disappointed. I don’t want to get into the pro- or anti-gay issues here, there are larger questions about the theology and tone of the prayer. There are things in it with which I can happily agree, especially the importance of remembering the poor in the world rather than being triumphalistic. However, my concern about the tone is that it all sounds rather hectoring. It seems to fall into the category of prayer as ‘preaching with eyes closed’. Am I being unfair? I realise this is a rather subjective judgment. It may be his accent!
The theology is of rather more concern. His opening phrase is the one that sets up the idea of reaching out without being specifically Christian: ‘O God of our many understandings …’ You will not be surprised to know that someone of moderately conservative theological persuasions has difficulties with this. Is belief in God a matter merely of human understanding? If so, where does the Christian belief in Jesus fit in? Granted, the doctrine of revelation has its problems, especially when some people claim a near-infallible understanding of the whole counsel of God, but I’m just not prepared to trade in the uniqueness and supremacy of Christ, especially focussed in his incarnation, his exemplary life, his atoning death and resurrection, and his reign at the Father’s right hand. Has Robinson merely baptised secular inclusivism with God-words?
I’d be interested in your opinions. I just ask that since Warren and Robinson are both the subject of passionate views for and against, that we keep our tone as civil and loving as possible, without compromising our convictions.
What do you do when no-one’s looking? That is a test of our character, isn’t it?
One American minister whose blog I read wrote about it this last week. He gave a few examples of what this might mean for Christians. How do we react when someone cuts us up on the road? How do I choose between two options when I am sure I know my spouse would prefer one of them? How do I behave around members of the opposite sex when my spouse isn’t around? Do I speak the same way about others in their presence as I would when they are absent? Do I pay my bills on time? Do I exaggerate my achievements on a CV, or generally boast unduly about my abilities?
Similarly, a few days before the Presidential election in the USA, the well-known church leader Rick Warren wrote a piece about the kind of leadership he believed America needed. He talked about the need for leaders to demonstrate integrity, humility and generosity. With regard to integrity, he said this:
Some people say that it doesn’t really matter what a leader does in his private life. It matters if you want God’s blessing. What you do in your private life always affects your public life. In fact, that’s the definition of integrity – your public and private life is the same.
Again, it’s a question of what you do when no-one’s looking.
What have these examples to do with the Parable of the Talents? Simply this: the parable is couched in terms of an absent master. He gives the talents to his slaves and then goes away for a long time.
You could say we live in the absence of Jesus. That sounds shocking. Quickly we object that he promised to be with us always, and that he promised to send his Spirit. Absolutely. Christ is present by his Spirit. But that presence is not always tangible, and certainly we often live as if he were absent. How we conduct ourselves when he is not physically present is a Gospel issue for his disciples, and the various servants in the parable show different responses to that situation.
It is the dream of many Christians to hear Christ address us on Judgment Day with the words the master uses to the trustworthy slaves here: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant’, followed by the invitation to enter into the Master’s joy. But what draws a delighted verdict of ‘Well done’ from Christ to his servants? How exactly have they been so faithful in small things that Jesus will now put them in charge of many things?
Well, clearly it’s an act of faith. But we need to be careful how we define faithfulness. For faithfulness is much more than simply doing things regularly. We say someone is faithful if they show up every week. There is a certain truth to that, which we ought to observe. Faithfulness involves endurance. It means sticking at things through thick and thin.
But I believe Jesus means much more than that in commending the faithfulness of the trustworthy servants in this parable. They take the money they have been given (remember, a talent here is currency, not a gift or ability) and speculate with it. Faithfulness here is much more than regular habits of spiritual commitment, important as they are.
I think it was best put by the late John Wimber, in one of my favourite sayings of his. He observed that the word ‘faith’ is spelt R-I-S-K. If faith is about radical trust and obedience to Christ, then it is going to involve risk.
Perhaps the classic story in the Gospels is where Jesus walks on the water and Simon Peter says, ‘Lord, if it’s you, call me.’ So Jesus does call him and Peter gets out of the boat. For a while, he walks on the water, too. But then when he gets more concerned with the waves at his feet, he sinks.
What does Jesus do? He lifts him up. Contrary to some of our assumptions, Jesus does not condemn Peter for the moment when he takes his eyes off him and onto the circumstances. I believe that the balance of the situation is that Jesus commends Peter for his risky act of faith.
You will notice if you read the story that Jesus has no word at all for the disciples who remain in the boat. All his words and actions are directed towards risk-taking, faithful Peter. Don’t put this one down to the impetuous, blustering Peter. Here he takes risks of faith. In doing so, he shines much brighter than the other disciples.
So, the question is for us: are we the types who practise risk-taking faith? We need to cultivate an approach which is willing to try one thing after another, and not be discouraged if something doesn’t work out. If like Peter we begin to sink, then Christ will stretch his hands out to lift us up and encourage us to keep going.
I may have told you before that one of the most liberating things I ever read about ministry was the comment of an American pastor who said he didn’t mind if he tried ten different things in church, only for nine of them to fail, if it meant he found the one thing it was right for him to do. I believe that minister had an insight into risk-taking faith, the sort of faith that Jesus commends and rewards.
For Hatfield Peverel, this challenge comes as we approach the final session of the first Alpha Course we have specifically conducted as an outreach. Will people be converted? Will anyone join this church, or another one? If so, will it happen now or later? None of us knows. Suppose we see no obvious fruit: should we give up? No. Way. We should either continue to run Alpha Courses or something else. That is what risk-taking faithful servants do.
There is a ‘secular’ proverb that makes for good spiritual application here: failure is not falling down. The only failure is when we do not get up again after a fall. Those who practise risky faith are bruised from many falls. But they keep going. As a result, they bear fruit. And one day, they will be rewarded.
So onto the shocking part of the parable. I refer to the unfaithful servant, but the language of the master is much stronger. He calls him ‘wicked and lazy’. That’s a bit strong, isn’t it? Worse, this slave says he knows the master is ‘harsh’, and he seems to act in exactly that way in his anger. He has the one talent taken from this man and given to the servant with ten talents. Then he has him thrown into outer darkness. What are we to make of this horrifying and violent conclusion?
I want to begin by saying that while the parables of Jesus have allegorical features, not every detail is meant to have its allegory. So we should be careful about applying every last detail of a parable by looking for an exact parallel.
But in saying that, I do not want to dilute the challenge here. Often, Jesus includes a shock element in a parable: think about the scandal of the father welcoming home the prodigal son, for example. The shock is meant to guide us into the core of what Jesus is teaching us. So we should listen carefully to the condemnation of the one-talent servant. What might Jesus be saying to us here?
Let me approach that by way of an illustration. On Tuesday evening, the circuit ministers, circuit stewards and a few other circuit officers gathered to discuss the findings of our recent Circuit Review. Inevitably, we got onto the subject of change. Someone observed that one reason for resistance to change in our churches is this: the world is changing rapidly, and some of our folk find this bewildering and even frightening. They look for a place where they can find security in the familiar things they have known for years not changing. That place is the church.
I do not believe in advocating change for the sake of change. However, at the risk of sounding callous, can I suggest that such reasons for resisting change in the church and keeping things ‘as it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be’ betray the mentality of the one-talent servant? Our security is not meant to be with familiar practices, buildings and hymns. Christian security is found in Jesus Christ and God’s enduring love. Anything less is idolatry.
I have told the story how in my teens I took a poll of people’s favourite hymns in my home church. The top choice was a surprise. It wasn’t ‘And can it be’. Nor was it ‘O for a thousand tongues’ or ‘Love divine’. It was ‘In heavenly love abiding’. I was always convinced the reason that hymn got the most votes was for the line, ‘For nothing changes here’!
The one-talent servant would not engage in risk-taking faith. He wanted to keep everything the same. Change was a threat to him. He had an inkling the master would be angry, and he was right. Christ, too, will be displeased with us if we take the safe option. He called his disciples to leave everything and follow him. Might it be that he calls us to leave much that is familiar to us in order to go on a journey of risky faithfulness as his disciples? I believe he might well. Remember, he had no words of encouragement for those disciples who stayed in the boat while Peter attempted to walk on the water.
Maybe the problem for those of us who like to play it safe is the one with which I opened the sermon. We act as if Jesus were not present. He is not very real to us. If we had a sense of his close presence, how could we not take great risks of faith? Yes, we wonder whether we know his will at times. But wouldn’t he rather we took a chance on seeing whether something was his will and have a stab at it, rather than sit around with it buried out of doubt or fear?
On my daily exercise walks, I have taken to listening to podcasts, which are like radio programmes you can download from the Internet. I listen to them on earphones in the same way others listen to music. On Friday, I listened to a talk given at a conference in Southampton by the Australian missionary thinker Mike Frost. One thing he said that struck me was this. You can name all the signs you like that you think prove the Holy Spirit is at work in your life. But if you are not getting on with the risky subject of Christian mission, then how much can you say you are like the God who is always sending and who in his Son is not only sending but sent?
Playing safe just doesn’t fit with God. That’s why the master is angry.
The challenge of this parable is very personal for me. As some of you know, I resisted a call to the ministry for a long time, because I thought my personality didn’t fit what most congregations wanted from a minister. Sixteen years into circuit ministry, I still think that!
Not only that, although the great majority of people I have met through ministry have been lovely Christians, I have seen enough of Christianity’s dark underbelly to have had more than the occasional thought of quitting.
In my darker moments, I don’t always have the most worthy of reasons for staying in the ministry. I wonder what else I would do. I think about financially providing for my family. These are hardly heroic reasons.
Yet remaining as a minister is nevertheless a risk-taking act of faith for me. I still can’t fathom why God called me this way. All I know is that – to my sometimes incredulous surprise – he does something beautiful, because I’ve hung around in what is often an uncomfortable environment for me. This calling is where I exercise risky faith, just by following it. Were I to follow my natural inclinations as they tempt me when ministry is dry or discouraging, I would be playing it safe. I would be a one-talent servant.
Has God called you to an uncomfortable place, too? Do you think that like Peter you might sink? Hang around there. Don’t quit. Let Jesus pick you up when things go wrong. In due course you will bear fruit for the kingdom of God.
And let’s take risks as a church, too.
‘God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ (verse 24)
That’s an obvious verse to pick for this circuit service on the theme of worship. But sometimes, however much I like to be obscure, obvious is OK!
There are several valid ways you can read this verse. Worshipping in spirit and truth can be about the fact that you can worship God anywhere. That’s true, and in the context, the woman has just raised the question of physical locations for worship.
You can also read the ‘spirit’ aspect as being about the need for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in order to worship. That has some merit, too, because there is much in John’s Gospel about the ministry of the Spirit.
Worshipping in ‘truth’ can be about the importance of basing our worship on the truth of God, rather than our own preferences or fantasies. That, too, would be valid.
But I want to offer a different – if complementary – approach to Jesus’ teaching that we are to worship in spirit and in truth. I think it also means our worship is to be Christ-centred. Why? The work of the Spirit in John’s Gospel is to point to Christ. And Jesus himself is the way, the truth and the life in John. Spirit and truth both focus on Christ. I’m going to use Christ as our framework for worship.
My sister is an Occupational Therapist. At the end of her college training in 1988, she had to take a final elective placement. With the support of her college Christian Union, she went out with a missionary society to Gahini Hospital in Rwanda.
One of her most interesting cultural experiences (apart from African driving!) was Sunday morning worship in the hospital’s Anglican church. People were not called to worship by the ringing of bells, but by drums. All well and good.
But when worship began, it was the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. Seventeenth century England, transposed to twentieth century Africa. Crazy.
Why is that crazy? Jesus is the Word made flesh, who dwelt among us. He took on human flesh, and lived in his context as a first century Jew. Might it be that when it comes to worship, our worship has to live in the cultural forms in which we live, and of the people we desire to reach with the Gospel?
Can I bring that insight to the worship wars that often rip apart our churches? We need to drop the nonsense talk that hymns and choral music are somehow morally superior. And those who argue for contemporary music need to quit the notion that others are fuddy-duddies. The issue is this: who has God called us to reach?
The American pastor Rick Warren, who planted Saddleback Church in California, has a useful approach to this. He says that if you are going to plant a church, then the way you decide the musical style of the worship is this: find out what the most popular radio station in the area is, and model the musical aspect of your worship on that style of music.
So never mind what we like: incarnation demands we live in the culture of the people where God has placed us on mission. And that will shape our worship – from music to other elements, too.
In my last appointment, I was part of a team that put on a weekly Wednesday lunch-time prayer and worship event entitled Medway Celebrate. At one team meeting, I remember the founder of the event say he had asked all visiting worship leaders to put a particular emphasis on ‘celebration’ in the tone they set.
Inwardly, I winced. What about people suffering pain or troubles? How would they cope with relentless joy and happiness? And at first glance, anchoring our worship to the Cross of Christ would support my reaction. In worship, the Cross leads us to confession of sin. It puts us in touch with the pain of the world, and so it also informs our intercession. And the central act of Christian worship, Holy Communion, is directly linked to the Cross: ‘This is my body … this is my blood.’
Not only that, something like one third of Israel’s hymn book, the Psalms, are the so-called ‘Psalms of Lament’, where the psalmists bring their pain and complaints to God in worship. So surely it’s right that worship is not persistently happy-clappy.
There must be room in worship to express pain. But – it’s only half the story. Even when the Cross shows us our need to confess, we don’t stop there: we receive forgiveness. When we intercede about the pain of the world, we do so expecting that God will answer. When by faith we take the tokens of Christ’s body and blood in the sacrament, we are renewed.
I was once at a Good Friday united service at the Baptist Church in my home town. Our own minister was preaching. He had chosen a song that was popular at the time: ‘I get so excited, Lord, every time I realise I’m forgiven‘. As a congregation, we sang it in the most drab way. Michael stopped us and berated us. How could we not be excited that God had forgiven us in Christ?
As we come to the foot of the Cross in worship, yes we bring our pain at the sin that put Christ there. We also bring the pain of the world. But we come for healing and restoration. Making the Cross central to worship is a matter of joy as well as pain.
I referred to Holy Communion a moment ago when talking about the Cross and worship. But it’s the Resurrection that makes sense of the sacrament.
‘What? Isn’t the Lord’s Supper about the death of Christ?’ you may object.
Yes, but it’s OK to stop there if you only believe communion is a symbolic memorial of a past event. If it’s remotely more than that, you need the Resurrection to explain it. How many memorial services have you attended where the deceased was present? How many funeral wakes have you been to where the one you were remembering served you the food? Jesus is alive! And our worship is filled with hope. Whatever discourages or depresses us, Jesus is risen from the dead and there is a new world coming.
So my friend who wanted celebratory worship had a point. Just so long as it wasn’t escapism, celebration is the proper tone for those who know the Christian hope. We experience suffering and we witness suffering, but in the Resurrection we know it won’t have the final word and our worship is an act of defiance based on Christian hope. In the words of Steve Winwood, we’re ‘talking back to the night‘. But we talk back to the night because the dawn is coming.
And when the dawn comes, God will no longer feel distant or remote. God will always be close. Thus if Resurrection characterises worship in spirit and truth, our worship will have a sense of intimacy with God. We cannot use hymns about the majesty of God to make him distant, even if we also avoid songs that make Jesus sound like a boyfriend.
If there’s one curse in all the worship wars that occur in church, it’s the way we use sophisticated arguments to hide the fact that what we’re really campaigning for is ‘what we like’. The Ascension of Jesus puts paid to that.
Why? Because the Ascension is the enthronement of Jesus at the right hand of God. It is the confirmation that Jesus is King over all creation, including the Church. When we treat worship as what pleases us, worship becomes idolatry, for we worship ourselves. When we recognise the kingship of the ascended Christ, I cannot ask what pleases me. I can only ask, what pleases you, Lord?
It also means we must stop treating worship as spiritual escapism. When a steward prays in the vestry before the service about us ‘turning aside from the world for an hour’, I cringe. When we sing an old chorus like ‘Turn your eyes upon Jesus‘ with its line about ‘The things of earth will grow strangely dim’, I wonder what some people are thinking when they sing those words.
If worship is in spirit and in truth – if that means it’s Christ-centred – and if that includes the Ascension – then worship cannot be used to escape from the world. It can only be used in preparation to face the world. For the king of the Church is on the throne of creation.
There is a church building in Germany, which has over the exit doors these words: ‘Servants’ Entrance’. Worshipping the ascended Christ thrusts us into the world. It’s why the Roman Catholic Mass is called the Mass – after the Latin ‘Eta misse est’: ‘Get out!’ Our feeble version is, ‘Go in peace to love and serve the Lord’: perhaps that should be ‘Go in boldness to love and serve the Lord’! The test of worship isn’t Hymns And Psalms versus Mission Praise versus Songs Of Fellowship. It’s whether we continue to worship by our lifestyles in the world where Christ reigns.
Archbishop William Temple wrote a classic devotional commentary on John’s Gospel. I can do no better in concluding this sermon than quoting some of his most potent words on this very verse:
For worship is the submission of all our nature to God. It is the quickening of conscience by His holiness; the nourishment of mind with His truth; the purifying of imagination by His beauty; the opening of the heart to His love; the surrender of will to HIs purpose – and all of this gathered up in adoration, the most selfless emotion of which our nature is capable and therefore the chief remedy for that self-centredness which is our original sin and the source of all actual sin. Yes – worship in spirit and truth is the way to the solution of perplexity and to the liberation from sin. [p 65]
May we worship like that.