Again, there has been a long gap since the last blog post. I had a week off, then had two consecutive Sundays where I led all age services and the material wasn’t suitable for posting here. Also, the situation with my parents’ health remains stressful and time-consuming. However, I am back to regular preaching today, and here is the sermon.
Yesterday, Debbie took Rebekah to the cinema to see the recent film about her (Becky’s, that is) favourite pop group, One Direction. When I was titling the sermons in this series after songs, I thought I would please my daughter by picking the title of a One Direction song for this week: ‘What makes you beautiful.’
In these verses, Paul is telling the Philippians about some attitudes of heart that will make them beautiful in the sight of God and of other people. He seems to have a ragbag collection of thoughts for a motley crew of Christians in Philippi, but the common thought is about the attitudes that make for spiritual beauty.
Firstly, unity makes you beautiful.
I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. 3 Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. (Verses 2-3)
We don’t know why Euodia and Syntyche had fallen out, but all the various theories about who they are and what they might have argued about assume that they were leading members of the congregation, and that their disagreement was serious. Paul calls them ‘to be of the same mind in the Lord’, which implies that they are to share the same broad Christian aims. Somewhere they had taken their eyes off the ball. They had stopped ‘making the main thing the main thing’.
So here’s the thing for us. We know that in our society when the church fights over something (let’s say, the Anglican agonies over women bishops), it doesn’t look beautiful to the watching world, it looks ugly. There are bound to be certain things where we disagree, but if we are to break fellowship with each other it really only ought to be over something pretty fundamental. If the church stops preaching the Gospel, then divide. If the church denies the historic orthodox teachings about Jesus Christ, then divide. If the church starts calling sin righteousness or vice-versa, then yes, I think it is permissible to split.
But other things – lesser things – are not permissible grounds for schism. When people tried to divide one of my previous churches over styles of music, that was unacceptable in the light of God, I believe. When people don’t get their own way, pick up their ball and stop the game, that’s not on for Christians. Believe me, if I as a minister were to go off in a huff every time a congregation didn’t accept something I passionately believed in, I’d be half way to Antarctica by now.
No – if we are to look beautiful to the world and to God then we need to be committed to holding together on the fundamentals about God and the Gospel. We may need outside help to get beyond our divisions, just as Paul asked his ‘true companion’ to ‘help these women’, but it is a priority for our witness.
Secondly, rejoicing makes you beautiful.
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice! (Verse 4)
Let me say right away that we should not use this famous verse to promote a certain brand of Christianity that seems to expect the followers of Jesus to engage in pretending to be happy when they are downcast, because on that view the Christian who is not full of joy is a sub-standard believer. This is not about playing games of pretend. This is not about putting on a mask when we are struggling.
But Paul does urge us to rejoice in the Lord. Just as Euodia and Syntyche were to agree ‘in the Lord’, so are we all exhorted to rejoice ‘in the Lord’. What does that mean? I believe it is an encouragement for us when we are down in the dumps. Perhaps the Philippian church was in some way discouraged. I do not believe that Paul would have wanted them to be hypocrites: in other places, he is only too frank about his own experiences of suffering and the struggles that accompanied them.
So I take the view that Paul is giving us a way to find joy even in our darkest hours. We rejoice ‘in the Lord’. When we dwell on who he is and what he has done, then even if the dark clouds remain in our lives, the light of God’s Son shines through and reminds us of his great love for us, the world and all creation. That will give us heart when we are lingering in the shadows.
But this is not just for us in our troubles. The fact that we can have some joy when life is hard is beautiful to others. If you ever get the chance to see or read the testimony of the Australian Nick Vujicic, do so. He was born without any limbs and attempted suicide at the age of eight. He told God he would only come to him when he had an answer to the question, why was he born this way. God’s only reply was a request to trust him.
Yet if you see, hear or read Nick Vujicic you will encounter someone who is full of joy. Why? Because that joy is what Paul here calls ‘in the Lord’. It comes from realising that God has forgiven him, and that he has a purpose for his life. It does not ease his physical difficulties, still less heal him, but Vujicic has learned that true joy is in the Lord and that is what makes him a powerful witness.
Thirdly, gentleness makes you beautiful.
Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. (Verse 5)
I expect you can see immediately that for Christians to display gentleness in an aggressive world is an act of counter-cultural beauty. Yet what we are dealing with here is all that and much more. The word translated ‘gentleness’ in the NIV is a word that carries with it ideas of magnanimity and of sweet reason. It is, if you like, about gentleness in a specific context, when someone can
remain reasonable and unperturbed when confronted by difficult people and to treat them calmly and fairly … it is the opposite of a quarrelsome nature; instead of being irritated by other people, the Christians are to treat difficult people with sweet reasonableness.
Now can you imagine if this is what the world experienced when it encountered Christians? What if the Christians, by virtue of this kind of gentleness, were the ones who were known for their peaceable characteristics and who could be called upon when there was tension to help effect reconciliation? Imagine if the Christians were the ones who could defuse the tensions that arise in a workplace from time to time.
Or more than that: what would we look like to outsiders if this were the attitude we brought every time someone attacked the church or Christian values or beliefs (as happens more these days)? Would we not be thought of more positively than we often are – perhaps even as beautiful?
This kind of gentleness requires walking the way of the Cross as we absorb hatred and anger directed at us and at others. But if we are followers of Jesus Christ, then it must be possible.
Fourthly, prayer makes you beautiful.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Verses 6-7)
We have an epidemic of stress and worry in our society. It affects relationships, the ability to work, the NHS drug budget and many other things. We speak about the invention of labour-saving devices, but all that happens is that we cram more into our lives and wonder when we are going to schedule sleep.
We Christians are not immune to events and circumstances that have the potential to put strain on our lives, either – and I speak as one who inherited a family predisposition towards high blood pressure.
So what if there were a way for Christians to be attractive in such a climate? The answer comes in prayer. But of course many in our culture pray, especially when the pressure is on.
Yet Paul here commends Christian prayer that taps into other values. Prayer can reduce our anxiety, because our lives are in the hands of God and he has good plans for us. That is why we can bring our requests not only with peace (that again!) but also with thanksgiving. We pray from a perspective of gratitude to God. We pray, knowing that he has answered in the past, and that brings a positive attitude to our prayers, even when the petitions we bring are those which have every reason to increase our worries. We do not only pray when we are at panic stations: we pray at all times, and this tunes us in more closely to God’s wavelength. This gives us more of his perspective, and that enables us to find a greater serenity than if we only turn to God when a crisis hits us. It is, perhaps, this on-going commitment to prayer that makes us beautiful.
Fifthly and finally, thinking makes you beautiful.
Did you hear me aright? Yes, thinking makes you beautiful. But don’t some thinkers just become annoying, smug clever clogs? Yes, they do. But according to Paul, thinking makes you beautiful if you direct your thinking appropriately:
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. (Verses 8-9)
The challenge Paul gives us is in how to focus our minds. This is not about being an intellectual, it is about a positive way of conquering sin and becoming more Christ-like. We may not all be academics, but we all have a mind and we can all use our minds for good or for sin. The trick, says Paul, is not to leave your mind vacant. One of the objections I have to the meditation techniques of eastern religions (sometimes found in practices such as yoga) is the tendency to empty your mind. Paul knows that an empty mind is one that is vulnerable to invasion. So instead he urges us to fill our minds, by concentrating them on ‘whatever is true … noble … right … pure … lovely … admirable … excellent or praiseworthy’.
But it isn’t just a problem for those who might be seduced by the unhelpful elements of other religions. It’s a difficulty for us when we choose to fill our minds with trash. While it’s important for us to engage with our culture and understand it – Paul isn’t assuming here that we can exist in a safe Christian bubble where, in the words of one satirical singer, ‘You’ll only drink milk from a Christian cow’ – it is only to easy for us to entertain ourselves with the trivial and the trashy. The late Martyn Lloyd-Jones used to counsel preachers about their reading that they didn’t have time to read good books, they only had time to read the best, and I think the same advice could be passed on to all Christians. By all means read the best literature and engage with the best art and entertainment, but don’t swim with the flotsam and jetsam that our culture offers.
And as well as that, make sure you engage with the best reading that the world of Christian literature can offer you. How can we expect to radiate Christ unless we fill ourselves with his wisdom? It is this that can help us put into practice good Christian living and fill us with the peace of God.
And wouldn’t that above all make us beautiful?
The Feast of Epiphany, when Christ was revealed to the Gentiles in the visit of the Magi, is one that sometimes gets overlooked in Methodist churches, because it frequently clashes with the annual Covenant Service. Today, I thought I would try combining the two. The Covenant Service is the time when we renew our commitment to Christ, and the Magi are a great example of that. They arrive in Jerusalem saying they have come to pay homage to the child born to be king of the Jews (verse 2) and when they finally get to the house where the child is, they get down on their knees and do exactly that (verse 11). This morning I want to highlight some of the elements in this story that make them into true worshippers that we can emulate in our way in our day.
Firstly, they were listeners. They were more attuned than anyone else in the story to what God was saying and doing. They are the least likely candidates for that, yet that is true of them. They are pagans, they are Gentiles. They are astrologers, following a practice condemned in the Old Testament in the prophecies of Isaiah. They come to the land of God’s chosen people, yet they are the ones who are keen to know the purposes of God and act on them. You might think that Herod would know the Scriptures, but he hasn’t a clue and he has to call in the experts. You might think that those experts, the chief priests and scribes of the people (verse 4), would know their Scriptures. Well, they do, and they quote them. But they do nothing about them.
In this respect, it is sad to say that too many of us in the church are like either Herod or the experts. Either we don’t know our Scriptures at all, or we know them but we don’t put them into practice. It is a scandal that many professing Christians only engage with the Bible in a Sunday morning service. They listen to it being read but never pick it off the shelf in the week. And even among those who do read the Bible frequently, it is too common an attitude to read it and forget it.
In other words, we are shamed by people with less knowledge about the faith than we ourselves have.
In my youth and early adulthood, a relative we used to visit often as a family was a woman we called ‘Auntie Rene’. She wasn’t really an auntie, but she was a relative: she was my Mum’s cousin. But rather than get into complicated discussions about what kind of a cousin that made her to my sister and me, we called her ‘Auntie’.
She had poor health. In 1969 she was given six months to live, but – despite smoking – she stretched that six months out to eighteen years, and she finally passed away in the Spring of 1987. Sometimes we wondered about where she stood on matters of faith, but when she died, someone (I think it might have been my sister) discovered that by her bedside was a Bible. She had been reading Jeremiah.
As we talked about this, we came to the conclusion that in her life Auntie Rene had responded to as much light as she had come across, whether that was the full Gospel of Jesus Christ or not.
I suggest to you that the Magi are a group of people who respond to as much light from God as they find. It starts with following the star, it continues with going to Bethlehem when they hear about Micah’s prophecy and it ends with their obedience to the dream that leads to them avoiding Herod on their way home.
Now if that’s the case, what excuse do we have – we who have had decades of Christian experience? Maybe we feel we don’t know much about our faith – well if that’s the case, can we like the Magi start by responding to what light we already do have?
And if we do have some Bible knowledge, then will we start putting it into practice, unlike the chief priests and scribes? Christian teaching and learning is not simply about filling our heads with knowledge, it’s about assimilating what God wants us to do and then getting on with it.
Now that leads to the second element I want us to consider about the Magi: they were pilgrims. In other words, they went on a journey, a spiritual journey. Based on what light they had received from observing the star, they left their homeland. Based on what light they received when they heard Micah’s ancient prophecy, they travelled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Based on what light they received in their dream, they took a different route home. We would never have heard of them unless they had been willing to travel on a journey – that is, to be pilgrims.
Now surely the point about a pilgrim is that you travel somewhere with spiritual intentions, but in doing so you leave behind the familiarity of your home in order to arrive at somewhere unknown and in the process to encounter God. To go further in the spiritual life as a pilgrim requires getting off our familiar home territory to go to new places.
And that’s the challenge. How many of us are willing to move away from the places where we feel safe and comfortable in order to draw closer to Jesus Christ? Isn’t one of the problems with the church the fact that too many of us just want to keep everything familiar and cosy? Jesus calls us to an adventure. He calls us to what the Methodist Church called a few years ago ‘Holiness and Risk’.
There are so many areas where our unwillingness to be pilgrims onto new, uncharted ground means that the church withers. It can be in the area of evangelism, where any small efforts we make are all based on the assumption that people want to come to where we feel comfortable, in a church service, rather than us being willing to go to where they feel safe.
It affects our general profile in the community. Only the other day I was having to explain why the regular ecumenical lunch time meeting of the Knaphill ministers happens in a pub, rather than in the Christian coffee shop in the village. We feel it’s important to be off home territory and visible in the wider world. But some Christians think that anything other than doing things with overtly Christian tools is somehow wrong. Back in the 1980s, the Christian musician Steve Taylor satirised this in a song called ‘Guilty by Association’ with lines such as, ‘You’ll only drink milk from a Christian cow.’
More generally, our unwillingness to get away from the safe and the predictable afflicts any possibility whatsoever that the church might innovate in a creative way. Perhaps you’ve been told what the seven last words of a dying church are? ‘But we’ve always done it this way.’
Real disciples of Jesus are willing to go on pilgrimage. They will leave home territory behind to venture somewhere new as part of their longer journey to the New Jerusalem. It goes right back in our heritage to Abram, when he was called to leave his homeland. It is there in the incarnation of Jesus, who left the glory of heaven. We see it here in the account of the Magi. Why, then, do we not see it much in the life of today’s church? Might the New Year and our renewal of the Covenant be the time when we finally take this part of our Christian inheritance seriously?
Thirdly and finally, the Magi were givers. We had a bit of fun with this at Knaphill during the Christingle service on Christmas Eve. Following a throwaway comment, we based the whole service on the theme of ‘Elf and Safety’. We retold the Christmas story in dramatic form, but every now and again an elf would appear and object that something broke ‘elf and safety’ rules. For example, the donkey should not have been allowed to cover so many miles in such a short time, and it should have had a tag on its ear.
When it came to the arrival of the Magi, another elf sprang out when they produced the gold, frankincense and myrrh. He wanted to know whether they had an import licence for these goods.
I think some of us have trouble with the gifts of the Magi. They are so expensive and extravagant. Surely they are beyond us? Or maybe we don’t want to be challenged. So we resort to ancient explanations that the gold symbolises Jesus’ kingship, the frankincense his priestly role and the myrrh his death. We do so, despite Matthew never claiming that meaning in the text and despite none of the major commentaries seriously entertaining that interpretation.
But perhaps the key to understanding this example of devotion is not the contents but the container, not the gifts but the treasure box. The Magi ‘[opened] their treasure-chests’ (verse 11), and I think that is the call to us. What are our treasure chests? What are the things we treasure – which might be money, possessions, talents or a whole lot of other things? Our treasures may well not be gold, frankincense or myrrh, but there are aspects of our lives that are inordinately precious to us, and the Christian disciple lays them down before Jesus as an act of worship and commitment.
I believe that is something well worth thinking about as we make our solemn vows again this year in the traditional words of the Covenant Prayer. Our treasures may not be just money, talents or possessions. They may be people, ambitions or dreams we have had for our lives. All these we bring to the feet of Christ and say, “Here is all that is most precious to me. I offer it to you. Use it as you will.”
That was what made the Magi different. Herod was desperate to clutch tightly onto what he considered to be rightly his. The chief priests and scribes had great intellectual gifts, but those talents were not offered to the true King of the Jews. They were just intellectual dilettantes, not servants of God’s kingdom.
There may be ways in which our churches are mixtures of mini-Herods, priests and scribes and Magi. We have little Herods who secretly find Jesus a threat to their whole way of life. We have priests and scribes who are full of religious knowledge but empty when it comes to practical obedience. But we also have Magi, people who may not be the likely suspects but who actually are more committed to Jesus Christ than anyone else in the neighbourhood.
But in truth, each one of us may be a mixture of the three. Sometimes we are antagonistic towards what Jesus wants of us. Sometimes we are apathetic. And sometimes – thankfully – we are as passionate for Christ as the Magi were.
Let us identify these different aspects of ourselves this morning, so that we may put aside our Herod tendencies and our priestly and scribal complacency, in order that we may renew our to listen for God’s will and obey it the best way we know how; to strike out on the pilgrim way, even if that means going far from what we would call home; and to offer our treasures in devotion at the feet of Christ.
May that be the attitude of our hearts in a few minutes’ time, when we come to recite again the – truly – awesome words of the Covenant Prayer.
I wrote several posts a few months ago about Todd Bentley. We arrived home from holiday to discover he was leaving the Lakeland ‘Revival’ and separating from his wife. Three days later his ministry admitted he was in an unhealthy relationship with another woman. Many bloggers have waded in. Dan Edelen has a lot of wisdom borne of pain in several posts. Bill Kinnon is more fiery, especially on the backtracking by C Peter Wagner. There are numerous others.
Whatever my criticisms of Bentley, I take no pleasure in these events. Here are some thoughts.
Losers According to Bill Kinnon, C Peter Wagner has described Todd Bentley as a loser. Crudely, that seems to mean Wagner didn’t back a winner, so he inflicts this description on Bentley. Whatever I think of Bentley’s ministry, especially the violence, if you write people off as losers you dismiss the Gospel. In the words of an old Steve Taylor song, ‘Jesus is for losers’. Watch the video for the song here:
No, if Wagner talks like this, what Gospel does he believe and preach? Where does the Cross fit in? Dan Edelen talks much about charismatics needing to recover the Cross: here is a prime reason why.
This isn’t a time for casting stones, it’s a time for prayer and grace as well as church discipline (which after all according to Jesus was meant to be restorative).
Scott and I knew about Bentley’s immorality two months ago, but couldn’t find anyone willing to go on the record.
It’s in the nature of wrongly relating to someone other than yourself that there will be deceit, but this implies that appropriate accountability structures were abused. Yes, it’s good that Bentley stepped down, but that seems to have been for the sin of having been found out. Why were others culpable in the cover-up? Was it conspiracy or fear? We may never know.
But there is not only the accountability to his organisation Fresh Fire and the wider church, there is also the question of accountability in marriage. In what I am about to write I am aware that ‘there but for the grace of God go I’, but – it seems one of the problems seemed to be Bentley’s protracted absence in Lakeland. Like many ministry marriages, Debbie and I have it built into our relationship that if a question arises of my being absent overnight or longer, we discuss it before agreeing. We have done so with respect to my forthcoming sabbatical early next year.
It must have been very tempting (and yes, I probably do mean ‘tempting’) for Bentley to stay in Florida rather than Canada, given what was happening. It must have been exciting for him. The emotional pressure on Shonnah to agree must have been huge. But the fatal flaw in the logic is the idea that the revival depended on him. I suspect that when I take my sabbatical next year, my churches (which have never had a minister on study leave before) will discover just how unnecessary I am! It is a salutary lesson.
Prophecy Clearly, Wagner’s ‘prophecy’ in June that Bentley would increase in this, that and everything looks pretty sorry now. While I am not one of those who believes modern-day prophecies have to be 100% accurate (as per Old Testament standards) because they’re not adding to Scripture, it does strike me that the prophecy concerned is just altogether too typical of the prophetic drivel that sometimes infects charismatic Christianity. It is the sort once characterised by a friend of mine as ‘Thus says the Lord, I love you O my children’. It’s all about how wonderful the recipient is. While I’m neither for the sort of word that reduces everyone to worm status, I thought the only person we were meant to big up like this was Christ. This stuff needs serious questioning. It’s linked to my next observation.
Personality Whatever happened to all those prophecies around the 1990s that ‘the coming revival’ would be ‘a nameless, faceless’ one? Rather than that, we still promote our personalities, and then (like the secular press) exclaim with horror when they fall. The personality cult is one of the most insidiously worldly aspects of evangelical and charismatic Christianity. Bentley often said on the stage at Lakeland that it wasn’t about him but Jesus. Nevertheless, others promoted him and he allowed it. He could have stepped out of the way more for his associates or others. He rarely did. This may have been a tactical error rather than malicious, but any of us called to a public rôle in Christianity need to learn and accept the hard lesson that it’s not about us, it’s about Christ, and our actions need to match up. That’s not easy, and it requires some holy ruthlessness on our part. Often we’re not willing. The attention or acclaim is too attractive.
So may God have mercy on Todd and Shonnah Bentley and the anonymous female staff member. May God have mercy on C Peter Wagner. May God have mercy on us all. We who are without exception sinners need grace – the kindness of God that leads us to repentance.