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Sermon: Be Filled With The Spirit

Ephesians 5:18-21
When I arrived in my first circuit, I could tell that people wanted to ask me a question, and they were nervous about it.

“Do you drink …… tea or coffee?”

Why were they nervous to ask me that? Because my predecessor didn’t drink caffeine at all, only water. Honestly, he wasn’t a Mormon. He also – perhaps unsurprisingly – didn’t drink alcohol, and there was much amusement at a church lunch when he innocently took delight in a trifle that had the odd additional ingredient. When he asked for seconds, his wife looked furious, and he didn’t understand why.

Whatever our views on alcohol, it wouldn’t be too contentious to suggest that Paul’s words, “Do not get drunk on wine” would command our widespread assent as Christians, whether or not we are teetotal. (Although the number of Christians who seem to disregard this in practice worries me.)

My own conviction is this: the argument for being teetotal is usually based on the idea that alcohol is misused in society, and so Christians should set an example by abstaining. However, I think that is a flawed argument. The existence of misuse is not necessarily a reason for disuse, but for right use. There are many good things that are misused in our society, but imagine if we expected all Christians to abstain from all of them. I’ve never heard anyone say that because sex is misused, even married Christians should be celibate!

There is a case for some Christians abstaining from something that is abused in our society, as a witness that life is not about being given over to these things as idols. So I believe some Christians will be teetotal, some will be celibate, some will embrace voluntary poverty and so on. The issue for all Christians is whether we receive these things with thanksgiving and are not given over to them.

That, I believe, is key to what Paul says here. Are we given over to things such as wine, or to the Holy Spirit? We know what being given over to wine looks like, and it isn’t attractive.

The question for us then becomes, if we give ourselves over instead to the Holy Spirit, what will that look like? We could have a discussion about whether or not that involves ecstatic experiences – after all, some of the disciples at Pentecost were mistaken for being drunk – but the real issue for Paul is not the ecstasy. He isn’t against it, he documents his own dramatic spiritual experiences elsewhere. For him, what matters is that when we are given over to the Holy Spirit, certain changes happen in our lives.

We’ve already thought about that earlier in this sermon series when we considered ‘the fruit of the Spirit’, where Paul’s focus seems to be on what the fullness of the Spirit looks like in our character. Here, he goes on to describe what the fullness of the Spirit looks like in church life, before we ever get out into the world. In urging his readers here to be filled with the Spirit, then, he maps out what a Spirit-filled church would look like. That description comes in four verbs: speak, sing, thank and submit.

Firstly, speak:

Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. (Verse 19a)

When I became a Local Preacher in my early twenties, the chaplain at the Church of England comprehensive school I had attended heard about it and invited me back to preach at a Christmas communion service there. When I was a pupil at the school, I was uncomfortable with the high church worship and never took communion. However, when I returned to preach, I joined the queue and took the sacrament.

Afterwards, the chaplain, whom we all knew as Jim, said to me, “I’m so glad you came and made your communion.”

I thought about those words: ‘made your communion.’ ‘Made my communion?’ They’re very private and individual, aren’t they? Sometimes we see worship as a bunch of individuals all separately in the same building worshipping. We speak to one another before the service and afterwards, but speaking to one another with the ‘psalms, hymns and spiritual songs’ makes little sense to some of us.

Well, it does unless worship is a place where we are meant not only to address God but to encourage one another. A Spirit-filled church is a place of encouragement.

Hence you get someone in the New Testament like Barnabas, whose name means ‘Son of Encouragement’. He certainly was. He believed in Paul and commended him to the apostles when they were distrustful of him. He took on Mark when Paul thought he was unreliable. He was responsible for encouraging two men who between them would go on to write half of the New Testament.

Were time to allow me, I could tell you more tales than I wish about church members who were the opposite of Barnabas – who stabbed people in the back, or who had Olympian levels of bitterness. But a Spirit-filled church will be a place where we encourage each other. Specifically, we encourage one another in the faith. It is not that our speaking is limited to social pleasantries, but that it has a spiritual, Christ-centred content and goal. We can display that on Sundays, but also in home groups (which are so vital in this respect) and at other times. If our spirituality at KMC were measured by how much we speak encouragement to one another, how would we rate?

Secondly,sing:

Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord (verse 19b)

Some people read here about singing ‘in your heart’ and assume that this is something we do silently and perhaps privately. However, that would be to misunderstand the Jewish use of ‘heart’. For Jews, the heart was not the seat of the emotions (that was the bowels), but the centre of a person’s being. So to sing and make music to the Lord in your heart is to sing to the Lord from the very centre of who you are.

This, then, tells us that Spirit-filled worship is not just our public praise in a Sunday service. It is something that we do ‘at all times and in all places’. It comes out of who we are, so it is not merely about completing some formalities. Spirit-filled worship is a response to the grace of God in Jesus Christ that comes from the depth of our being and co-opts every part of our lives to express the praise that is due to his name.

Yes, Sunday worship is in some sense central to that, but only if it is representative of what is going on in the rest of our lives. Unless that is true, we are guilty of hypocrisy.

Not that any one of us is perfect, and in that sense we are all hypocrites when we worship, but does our worship come because we are grateful for what the Father has done for us in Jesus Christ? Does it come because we therefore think that the only gift we can give is the entirety of our lives laid down in adoration and service? Is that at least our basic orientation?
Hence worship only begins on Sunday. As Brother Lawrence famously learned to practise the presence of God while peeling vegetables in the monastery kitchen, so we practise his presence in our conventional daily tasks, doing them as for him. Any duty can be offered in worship. Any job or profession can, too, not just the caring professions and church work.

The Spirit-filled church is not just detected on Sunday. Her worship continues from the call to worship on Sunday morning to a benediction on Saturday night.

Thirdly, thank:

always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (verse 20)

This, of course, is a continuation of what we’ve just been thinking about in the ‘singing’ of worship: true worship is about thankfulness, gratitude for what God has done. Specifically it is ‘in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ’.

I have occasionally conducted an experiment in a church service that shows whether this is the focus of a congregation’s worship or not. Here is what I have done: you can be briefed, in case I ever try this here!

At the opening prayers, I have asked people to suggest topics for praise and thanksgiving, with the idea that I will then weave their suggestions into an extempore prayer that expresses the congregation’s sense of praise. It is interesting to note what themes people suggest – and, perhaps more to the point, what they don’t mention.

Time and again people will say they want to praise God for the goodness and beauty of creation. But only rarely will they want to praise God for what he has done in Jesus.

Now granted if you’re going to nit-pick, Jesus was involved in creation. But what hardly ever comes out is someone requesting that we praise God for his redemption in Christ. Either we are too shy to mention it, or it is not central to our consciousness. Whichever alternative you take, it’s pretty devastating.

Yet as Paul reminds us that our thanksgiving to God is ‘in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ’, one thing he is surely reminding us of here is that Spirit-filled worship is Christ-centred. All sorts of people can be thankful for creation, but who can be thankful for redemption? Those who follow Jesus can.

Jesus told his disciples that when the Holy Spirit came, he would remind them of what he had said and done. In other words, the Spirit comes not to glorify his own name, but that of Jesus. (Hence the old chorus, ‘Father we love you, we worship and adore you’ is wrong in the third verse.)

So a third sign of Spirit-filled worship will be that it is Christ-centred. Specifically, it will focus on the Incarnation, Cross and Resurrection as much as on the creation. Do we regard the Cross as a tragedy, or does it make us sing? Do we shape our lives by the Cross? Because Spirit-filled worshippers will sing in gratitude for the Cross, and they will take up their own crosses of unjust suffering in devotion to the cause of God’s kingdom that Jesus is bringing in.

Fourthly and finally, submit:

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (verse 21)

There is a lot of argument as to whether this verse belongs with the section we are thinking about, or the subsequent one about relationships. I believe it belongs to both, and acts like a hinge between them. ‘Submit to one another’ is Paul’s tagline for all Christian relationships, both in the church and in the home.
In this respect, all the issues about leadership, power and authority are secondary. People with more concern about whether they are exercising power – or whether they can – are not concentrating on the main thing, which is that we submit to one another. Not only do we no longer belong to ourselves but to Christ, it is also true to say that we no longer belong to ourselves, we belong to each other. This raises issues about how we share our gifts and possessions, and how we seek to give consideration to one another, preferring others ahead of ourselves. No wonder one of the early Christian leaders, a man named Tertullian, once said,

We share everything except our wives.

That’s the kind of mutual submission that the Spirit brings. When we know what Jesus has done for us, giving up the glory of heaven for the poverty of a manger and the ignominy of the Cross, all questions of lording it over people have to be crucified.

I guess many of us have problems at one time or another in our lives with going on ego trips. Sometimes it’s self-conscious, sometimes it’s an unconscious thing, broadcasting our insecurities to the world without us even knowing we’re doing it, or perhaps even knowing we’re insecure. Either way, however, the person who goes on an ego trip is demonstrating one area of their lives where they are not filled with the Spirit.

Why? Well, what is God doing in building his Church? He is forming us into a new community, the community of his kingdom. He is making us into the sign and foretaste of the coming age. And in the age to come, all the ugly designs on power in this world that see people belittling others, or trampling those below them while grovelling to those above them, will be gone.
To prepare ourselves for God’s kingdom, and to be a faithful witness to it now, the Spirit leads us into the counter-cultural practice of mutual submission. Our status in society doesn’t matter, nor does our level of authority in the church. What matters is that the Spirit leads us into mutual submission. As the hymn puts it, ‘Brother, sister, let me serve you, let me be as Christ to you.’ So in the early church slaves became bishops, because social status was immaterial. There was even a Bishop Onesimus – could it have been Philemon’s runaway slave whom Paul wrote about?

In conclusion, then, Paul has begun to show us what giving ourselves over to the fullness of the Spirit looks like in church life. We become a community known for speaking encouragement. Our worship comes from the heart of who we are, and permeates all of life. Our thanksgiving means our lives are focussed on and shaped by the Cross. And we joyfully submit to one another, regardless of rank and in defiance of social norms, because the power games of the world are unlike Christ and must not be allowed to infect his Church further.

All this is, of course, a work in progress. Can we see signs that God is doing these things among us? Where do we need to be more open to the Spirit?

Sermon: Love, Jesus-Style

John 13:31-35

One thing you learn early as a preacher is when to turn the lapel microphone on. In my case, I check that the sound operator will fade my microphone down during the hymns, as I wouldn’t want to add to the congregation’s agony by inflicting my singing on them. Many and legion are the stories of preachers who turned on the microphone too early, disappeared to a small room before the service, only for the entire congregation to learn where they had gone.

Sadly, our Prime Minister has not learned that lesson. This week, Gordon Brown has been The Preacher In The Loo.

I refer, of course, to what has become known as ‘Bigotgate’. I pass no comment on whether Gillian Duffy’s question about eastern European immigration was racist, nor on whether the PM was right to call her a ‘bigoted woman’. Nor do I deny that many people in all kinds of occupations let off steam about difficult individuals when they [think they] are in private.

But what I think cannot be denied is that the Prime Minister was two-faced. When talking with Mrs Duffy, he praised her to the heights, but made his disdain for her known afterwards. If he had simply maintained a level of politeness with her publicly but not told her how wonderful she was, this might have been a lesser incident, rather than a potentially defining moment in the General Election campaign. Anyone who holds a position of responsibility that depends in some way on the favour of those you are meant to lead will surely have some sympathy with Mr Brown, because you sometimes find yourself having to be polite to someone when you’d rather not be. But Gordon Brown went beyond that to the point of contempt, in my opinion.

At the same time, isn’t it frightening to reflect on all those who have been quick to criticise, as if they wouldn’t do anything of the sort? Some chance. No doubt they are correct to say that the Prime Minister is a man with a hot temper – there seem to be too many other stories confirming that. But are we to imagine he is the only politician like that?

Isn’t it something, then, that we come to a famous passage in John’s Gospel this week about love? There’s never much love lost in a General Election campaign. The handshakes at the end of the televised leaders’ debates have to rank amongst the most insincere you will ever see.

But what about us in the church? Let’s go back to those words of Jesus:

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ (Verses 34-35)

I simply want to reflect on two aspects of this teaching about love. Firstly, what is ‘new’ about this new commandment? I think that’s a fair question to ask. It’s not the first command to love in the Bible. It’s not even the only reference to it in Jesus’ teaching. Elsewhere he was asked what the greatest commandment was. He replied that it was to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength. He then sneaked in a second one: love your neighbour as yourself. So hasn’t he already made the command to love plain?

I find that comes over to me strongly in one of the Methodist communion services, where we speak of hearing the ‘commandments’ before we confess our sins. What commandments do we read? These two – to love God wholeheartedly and to love our neighbours as ourselves. Then, tacked on after them, we hear the command in today’s reading, to love one another. How in heaven and earth can Jesus add a new commandment onto the two he has given as combining to form the greatest commandment? As the great theologian Tom Jones might put it, “What’s new, pussycat?

Principally what is new here is a new standard of love. Our standard for love is the example of Jesus. ‘Just as I have loved you, so you should love one another’ (verse 34). If we want any idea of what love means, we need to look at Jesus and how he loves. It wouldn’t take us long to think about a number of ways in which the love of Jesus challenges us to deeper love.

To begin with, take the way in which he took on human flesh and lived among us to bring God’s redeeming love to us. ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1:14) or in Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, ‘The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood’.

When I was serving in my first circuit, there was a painful split at the local United Reformed Church. Some had good and necessary reasons for leaving a damaging situation. Others left, they said, to set up a new church on a poor housing estate where there was no church building. They began to hire the St John’s Ambulance hall and hold services on a Sunday afternoon. However, they made little impact on that community.

It wasn’t hard to see why. None of these Christians moved onto the estate. They commuted in from their more comfortable estates every week. They weren’t prepared to pay the price of love that Jesus paid in becoming flesh and dwelling among the very people he wanted to love.

Because that is what love looks like, according to Jesus. You can’t love from a distance. Jesus loved close-up. It’s why I say we can’t expect to spread the love of God in this community unless we are taking that love into the community, rather than simply putting on attractive programmes here and expecting people to flock to our doors. Love Jesus-style doesn’t work like that.

It’s the same in terms of love for any person in need. In another previous church, we once had a mission team visit us for a few days. They partnered some of our members in visiting local houses and pubs, looking for opportunities to share the Gospel.

At the end of the time, we held a service, and afterwards I was sitting down, talking with a young mum who had just joined the congregation, along with her husband, daughter and son. She was telling me how she had lived in fear for the previous six months, because she had found a lump in her breast. Worse, by profession she was a radiographer and she was sure she knew what it was.

Sitting in the row in front was one of the mission team. He overheard this and swooped in with all sorts of platitudes about how she was failing to trust in God. Today, eleven years later, the memory of that incident still makes me mad. That mission team member made no attempt to get alongside Carolyn in her pain and fear. He just launched sentiments and Bible verses like missiles. He didn’t ‘dwell with’ Carolyn, as Jesus would have done. But that’s love ‘as he has loved us’. Hands get dirty. Time and energy are spent. Money and possessions are deployed for others. Because we move into the neighbourhood of those who need love.

Which means also that Jesus-style love is sacrificial. For, as we know, ultimately he loved us by laying down his life for the world. Love is a lot more than dewy-eyed teenagers looking forward to another romantic liaison. Love comes with a cost. It cost Jesus everything. It is hardly likely to cost us any less.

We know how seriously the early church took this. Famously one Christian from around the end of the second century to beginning of the third called Tertullian said, “We share everything except our wives.”

Another early story is of the Christian craftsman who, in order to make ends meet, had accepted a job to make idols for a pagan temple. When challenged about this by a church leader he replied, “But I must live!” The leader replied: “Must you?”

We could find countless examples from other places and times of Christians who knew that real love meant a willingness to sacrifice, even to lay down one’s life – because that is what Jesus had done in love for the world.

And that is why the second aspect of Jesus’ teaching in this passage is about the outcomes of love. Loving one another according to the pattern of Jesus isn’t just a new standard of love, it’s about a new order. The outcome is described in verse 35:

‘By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’

The mark of the Christian community, according to Jesus, is love. It is what distinguishes us. Just as Jesus and the Father were so united with each other, so the Christian church is to be bound up as one with each other in mutual love. As the pagans looked at the early Christians and wondered, “See how these Christians love one another!” so that is not meant to have changed.

Some of you have told me examples of when such sticking-together, sacrificial love has been the gift of this church to you in times of need. Most notably I have heard people speak about such love here in bereavement or in chronic illness.

Nevertheless, it’s always good to be challenged and stretched. As Christians we cannot be complacent and opt for the kind of faith that is merely comfortable and just looks all the time to be patted on the back and sent on our way rejoicing. Given the importance Jesus places here on the world being able to tell that we are his disciples by our love for one another, it seems apt to raise a few simple challenges about our love for one another.

Let’s name a few, then. If Jesus and his Father were and are so at one in their love for one another, isn’t it time to drop all the talk about whether we are ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ a particular person?

Or – if we see how wrong Gordon Brown’s behaviour was towards Gillian Duffy, is it worthy of us to tell people to their faces how wonderful they are, all the while behind their back running a campaign against them?

Similarly, if we truly believe in love like Jesus did, can we treat people as objects, or as means to an end, or even just as bait to attract others?

And if love unites us, can we entertain the idea of cliques in a church?

Oh – and by the way, if these examples shock or surprise you, I have based every one of them on incidents or attitudes I have witnessed in Methodist churches.

What should we do? If we have hurt someone else and they know that it was us, then we need to ask their forgiveness. The sharing of The Peace in a few minutes’ time could be a time for that. If the boot is on the other foot, and we are the wronged party and the other person knows they have hurt us, then in love we need to offer forgiveness. Again, The Peace would be a good time to do this.

Naturally, if one party does not know about the hurt, that might not be advisable. If the other party is not present today, loving offers of reconciliation in repentance or forgiveness need to be offered outside this service.

If one party does not know about the hurt, then perhaps it is best simply to settle this privately with God, unless he directs us otherwise.

But however God leads us, let us remember this. It is not by our beautiful buildings that the world will know we are Jesus’ disciples. It is not by our attractive programme of events that the world will know we follow Jesus. It is by the quality of our love that the world will see our devotion to Jesus.

Nothing could be more important.

The Starfish And The Spider, Part 3: How Do You Tell A Starfish From A Spider?

OK, here’s part three of my summary. As before, my comments are in red.

1. Is there a person in charge? Yes = spider and classic traditional church approach. There is more to come later in the book about ‘catalysts’ and ‘champions’ in starfish organisations. Later I shall offer some thoughts as to how consonant such people are with biblical faith.

2. Are there headquarters? Yes = spider and classic traditional church approach. Definitely consistent with Old Testament faith, less so with New Testament, notwithstanding the rôle of Jerusalem in Acts 15.

3. If you thump it on the head, will it die? Yes = spider and although this would be true of centralised churches, especially where there is also a high dependency upon the leaders (including the local ones), you might argue this wouldn’t have happened in the apostolic churches, and hasn’t happened in persecuted churches in recent decades. Not that too romantic a picture should be painted, even of more decentralised churches, given Paul’s statement in Galatians that before his conversion ‘I was destroying the churches’ (softened to ‘I was trying to destroy‘ in some versions). But Jesus saw the church as indestructible.

4. Is there a clear division of rôles? Yes = spider. Does that make churches which practise clear delineations on talents, offices and spiritual gifts spider churches? However, the priesthood of all believers is most definitely starfish on this basis. It depends whether we are stressing equality or diversity.

5. If you take out a unit, is the organisation harmed? Yes = spider. How does this relate to Paul saying, if one part of the body suffers, all suffer? We feel the pain, but are we harmed? ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,’ said Tertullian – was he expounding a starfish church?

6. Are knowledge and power concentrated or distributed? Concentrated = spider, distributed = starfish. Most churches concentrate it in specialists like me. However, there is sometimes a co-dependent conspiracy on this one. Not only do we ‘specialists’ like to be the ‘experts’, congregations sometimes like us to be also, even when we passionately want to distribute knowledge.

7. Is the organisation flexible or rigid? Flexible = starfish, rigid = spider. Most of the church is the latter. This expresses a lot of the tensions commonly felt at ‘grassroots’ in the church, in contrast to the hierarchies. I’ve come across it in ecumenical churches where there is huge frustration that failure to agree by ‘the top brass’ (revealing description) hinders local work. It’s the same with Fresh Expressions.

8. Can you count the employees or participants? Yes=spider. Methodism is particularly obsessed by this, with the ‘October Count’, now renamed ‘Statistics for Mission‘. You can’t help wondering about that newer name: it is a form of branding to give it a respectable label, given the dislike of many ministers for the process? Counting numbers of people has positive and negative examples in Scripture: King David holds a census out of pride and a curse falls on the people, but on the other hand the Acts of the Apostles seems very interested in numerical growth. Note comments about ‘measurement’ happening in a different way in the final post of this series.

9. Are working groups funded by the organisation, or are they self-funding? Former = spider, latter = starfish. I find churches to be a mixture of both. Most stuff is self-funded at a local level, making us a bit more starfish-like, except that with anything major we have to jump through various hoops set up by the hierarchy. Particularly large projects will include applications for grant funding, and that increases the spider content. One interesting factor in Methodism is the issue of trustees. The local Church Council members are but the ‘managing trustees‘ of the property for wider Methodism who technically own the building, yet the primary responsibility for maintenance rests with them.

10. Do working groups communicate directly or through intermediaries? Former = starfish, latter = spider. This is a difficult one in church life. Formally, we tend to be spiders, with different committees reporting to the Church Council, with churches reporting to the Circuit, and so on. However, when we get down to a small scale, especially with church decline, we can be more direct in our communication, because we have become more informal and closer in proximity to each other.