Life has been frantic since returning from leave at the weekend – and still is. Here, belatedly, is Sunday’s sermon.
Whenever I read Acts 3, one story always comes to mind. One of the thirteenth century Popes was showing the great Catholic thinker Thomas Aquinas around the Vatican. Having shown him many of the beautiful works of art, the ornate architecture and the lavish fittings, the Pope turned to Thomas and said, “No longer can the church say like Peter, ‘Silver and gold have I none’.”
“No,” retorted Thomas, “and neither can she say any more, ‘In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, rise up and walk’.”
So we come to this famous story, this first major episode after Pentecost and the formation of the early community of Jesus-followers. And it’s a big story. It extends beyond chapter three, which we read, into chapter four, where Peter and John are hauled before the religious authorities. Just as the opposition to Jesus begins early in the Gospels, so does opposition to the apostles and the Jesus movement in Acts. It makes for three phases in the story: the healing, Peter’s speech and the opposition.
But I’ll have to leave that final phase of this story to next week. There is more than enough to meditate upon with the first two elements of the healing itself and then the speech.
Firstly, then, the healing. Right from the start, this is a story about what discipleship means. Compare it with Luke’s first volume, his Gospel. There, Jesus’ first converts (his disciples in 5:1-11) are followed by – guess what? Jesus healing a lame man (5:17-26). For Peter and John to heal a lame man here ‘in the name of Jesus’ is a sign they are walking in his footsteps. Right from the start, this is a story, then, that points to Jesus, as indeed Peter will tell the crowd (verse 12). It’s one of those stories that remind us of that important theme: nothing we do as Christians is about drawing attention to us, it’s about pointing to Jesus. Someone once said to preachers, “You can’t make yourself out to be a great preacher and tell people how wonderful Jesus is in the same breath.” That’s true for us all, whatever our gift is. Let’s call attention to Jesus through what we do.
And what does Jesus do here through Peter and John? This is not just a miracle of healing, and if it were only that this story might be daunting or discouraging to those of us who have not seen healing. There is something Jesus does in this miracle that we can all do, whether we have a healing ministry or not. This is a miracle of inclusion.
How? The man was lame. Lameness excluded you from Temple worship under Old Testament Law. It made you ritually unclean. Healing him meant he could take his full place with the People of God at worship. While we’re not sure exactly which gate is meant by the ‘gate called Beautiful’, what is clear is that now he doesn’t need to be carried just to the gate each day. Now he can go inside the gate.
Is this not what the Gospel does? God’s grace is the miracle of inclusion. To those who believe they are unworthy, Jesus says, “Come.” To those who feel that what they have done excludes them, Jesus says, “I will make it possible for you to come inside. Here is strength for you. Here is forgiveness. Here is love. Here is a fresh start.”
Here’s a video, though, about how some people feel:
All sorts of people feel they can’t ‘come to church’. It can be about lifestyle. It can be about what culture you come from. It can be to do with your generation. Only the other day I read an article about a church where someone was preaching on the need to accept all sorts of different people in the Christian family. As it was a sunny day, the Junior Church went outside for some fun and games. But as the preacher was preaching, a man got up, went outside and told the children to shut up and stop interrupting the service. I have seen comparable incidents in my own ministry. This is, in my experience, a welcoming community. However, let’s not be complacent.
A final point about the man’s lameness. Isaiah prophesied (35:6 LXX) that the lame walking would be a sign of the age to come (along with the deaf hearing, the blind seeing, the dumb speaking and so on). It’s a scripture that Charles Wesley had in mind when he wrote ‘O for a thousand tongues’ and included the verse,
Hear him, ye deaf; his praise, ye dumb
Your loosened tongues employ;
Ye blind, behold your Saviour come;
And leap, ye lame, for joy!
Biblically, then, the healing of the lame by Jesus in the Gospels and now by his followers in Acts is a sign that God’s new age has begun. Since the coming of Jesus and especially since his Resurrection we live in overlap between the old age of death and sin and the beginning of God’s new age. Healing is one sign of the new age. More widely, as the Church we are called to be the community of the new age. All that we do and share is meant to be a sign of God’s coming kingdom. We are to be the family where those who are not OK find healing grace. We are to be characterised by love that works itself out in forgiveness and justice.
Friends, this is more possible than we think. Let me introduce you to Joel. He is six years old and lives in Reigate. He became deeply affected by what he heard at church and at school about world poverty. After seeing a TEAR Fund video at church, he knew he had to do something. He took an empty Frubes box, labelled it the ‘Poor Box’ and started collecting donations. He then decided to do a sponsored run with his mum. His Dad Martin set up a donations page on Virgin Money Giving, and wrote about it on his blog. Joel aimed to raise £60. But the word spread. So far, he has raised over £5000.
Joel could easily have said, ‘Silver and gold have I none.’ The difference is, he went on to say, in his own way, ‘But what I do have I give you.’ It’s time to stop looking at what we don’t have and offering what we do have for the healing of people – and indeed for the healing of the nations.
Secondly, let’s think about Peter’s speech. I say ‘speech’, because that’s what it becomes, but it’s not initially your conventional speech. Mostly you know when you’re going to give a speech. They are scheduled, they are by arrangement. But not in this case. it’s a spontaneous reaction. Peter and John have invoked the authority of Jesus to heal the lame man, and then there is something of an accidental ambush. Word gets out, and the crowd finds the man, and yes, he has been healed.
Peter has to respond. He is in Solomon’s Colonnade, a place where Jesus himself had taught, and like his Master, this is his opportunity for some courageous teaching – again, like Jesus.
Not only that, he makes Jesus the subject of what he says. If he is relying on the Holy Spirit to give him the words to say in a crisis as Jesus promised, then it is no surprise, since the work of the Spirit is to point to Jesus, if he is the theme of what Peter says. As I said, the miracle, by being a great act of mercy and social inclusion for the man, points to Jesus. Peter makes no mistake.
And this may be an encouragement for us. When we are in the world, we can get bogged down in all sorts of minutiae in what we talk about when the topic turns to religion. But one subject will always get us a hearing. One subject will always be fascinating. That subject is Jesus. I recently read a book by a Christian called Carl Medearis. He tends to spend his time in places and with people whom you would not expect to be sympathetic to Jesus. He has spent years in the Middle East, working among Muslims. Back in his native America, he befriended the gay owner of a liberal coffee shop. But Carl, rather than going for conventional evangelistic methods that put people off, simply talks about Jesus. He gets a hearing. His book ‘Speaking of Jesus: The Art of (Not) Evangelism’ is an easy and inspiring read.
But of course to speak about Jesus to this audience has different implications from those we have. Peter is dealing with people who may have been involved in the events of only some weeks earlier. His speech is similar to the one he gives at Pentecost in that he starts with defending what has happened, and then moves onto the offensive. There is more than irony here that people who longed for the fulfilment of Israel’s hopes are faced with the One in whom God would indeed fulfil their aspirations, but they conspired to have him killed. Peter has to go from showing how God has vindicated Jesus and how Jesus is behind the wonderful miracle they have witnessed to confronting his hearers with their guilt, and calling them to repentance as the only way to the blessings of God they so greatly desire. And of course, that criticism will soon lead to conflict.
What about us? When our Christian lives lead to the need for an explanation – and if they don’t, then why not – what happens when we speak of Jesus? As I said a moment ago, there is something deeply attractive about Jesus, even in a society where the church is either boring, irrelevant or negative. But also, to talk about Jesus, his Cross and Resurrection will be such that people will need to make a response. As Peter says, once Jesus is in the frame God no longer overlooks ignorance, and that means people need to make a decision about him. That can go strongly one way or the other. It may be the kind of welcome because people find Jesus attractive, or it can be the kind of hostility that is seen in different ways – from the outright violent persecution that Christian suffer in some lands to the more subtle attempts to keep faith out of the public square that sometimes happen in the West.
So, for example, the question of facing people with the claims of Jesus has been n the national news in Canada recently. A nineteen-year-old Christian student called William Swinimer wore a t-shirt to school with the slogan ‘Life is wasted without Jesus’. Some students complained they found it offensive. The vice-principal asked him not to wear it. He refused on principle, and thus began a series of suspensions which led to five days at home. Eventually the school relented, but not before Swinimer had been told he could support his religion provided he did not offend others, and the vice-principal accused him of ‘hate talk’.
Now you can listen to that as an older and potentially wiser Christian and wonder whether this young man was naïve, but just as Peter was courageous so William Swinimer was willing to risk not graduating, rather like a promising British student risking missing A-Levels and hence university.
In conclusion, you might think then that blessing others in the world in the name of Jesus is a risky business. There is no dodging that fact: it is. But what is the alternative? If we don’t, then think of the many people who won’t be blessed. And let us think of our own faith, wasting like an unused muscle.
So a church member says to me, “The church needs leadership. We’ve had it up to here with namby-pamby enabling.”
And I think, I don’t think he’s saying I’m namby-pamby. But – since I’m going to think a bit about our understanding of ordained ministry and its relationship to missional Christianity and Fresh Expressions during my sabbatical – maybe this helps set some direction as I boil down my reading list.
Wait – because before I can think down any tangents, he dismisses Fresh Expressions. Since none of the examples on the (first) DVD were outright revival and because the Holy Spirit is the same today as in Wesley’s day, it’s a dead end. Fresh Expressions are clearly both namby and pamby. And furthermore, I’m fairly sympathetic to them.
And I make some connections with a brief conversation I had earlier that day with my friend Nigel, whose church has been growing numerically in recent years. We were talking about books on leadership. “Spend two days with Bill Hybels‘ ‘Courageous Leadership‘,” he advises. “You won’t regret it.”
Looking up the book on Amazon (see the link above) leads me to the solitary review of it there. The reviewer quite likes it, but there are a few caveats. One: can it be translated from American to British culture? Two: Hybels, as senior pastor of a megachurch, has the privilege of recruiting staff from a huge pool, within and without the congregation. Three: he quotes a senior churchman who says it’s a management book with a bit of Christianity bolted on. Hold that last thought.
Saturday comes, and my wife Debbie visits the local library, because the previous evening an automated phone message informs her that two books she had reserved were in for her. When she returns, I’m pleased to see that one of them is a book I’d decided to read during the sabbatical, but had saved money by ordering it on her library card. It’s one that is popular in missional and emerging church circles. It’s not a Christian book, but – guess what? – a business book. ‘The Starfish and the Spider‘ by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom. Subtitle? ‘The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations’. Leaderless. That’s right.
So here’s the contrast, and it’s familiar to many. Megachurches have a business approach to leadership. The senior pastor is the CEO. Emerging and missional churches like to be leaderless and resist the ‘head honcho’ approach.
But … missional Christians are just as much taking their ideas from business books as megachurches.
Both would claim biblical support for their approaches. Megachurches would find some support for a directive approach. Missional churches can find enough evidence for a servant style (if servant leadership isn’t an oxymoron, but that’s a debating point).
Therefore, what makes one choose a particular school of business thought? Is it about theology or culture or both? Is it about what fits Scripture or what fits preconceived ideas – or both? And do we then try to fit this stuff to us, like Cinderella’s ugly sisters trying to wear the glass slipper?
And haven’t we been this way before? Theologians have often overtly adapted a particular philosophical school and done their theology within it. Thomas Aquinas framed his work within Aristotle. Rudolf Bultmann and John Macquarrie saw everything through the lens of existentialism. The difference this time is the unknowing adoption of secular philosophies. Earlier iterations of this debate about leadership led to concepts of clergy professionalisation that have become debatable and divisive.
Maybe missional Christianity needs to keep an eye out for when it is unknowingly adopting cultural preferences.
Meanwhile, the approach to leadership remains unresolved.
Last year, I made a series of posts about an alleged controversy regarding whether the Royal Mail was willing to sell religious Christmas stamps:
I have now received an email from a friend, telling the same story. The main Christmas stamps this year are on a pantomime theme, but you can get Madonna and Child stamps as an alternative. He says he went to buy Christmas stamps and was only given the ‘secular’ stamps. Checking the Royal Mail site shows the panto stamps are the main ones, but the Madonna and Child ones are available for those who want a more ‘traditional’ image – see here. What is unclear from the Royal Mail is whether it is compulsory for their staff to offer customers a choice. It may be that if they offer a choice, that makes both designs equal in importance. That would contradict their policy of alternating between a religious and a ‘secular’ theme for the stamps. However, the other side is that you have to be ‘in the know’ to ask for the explicitly Christian stamps.
My friend who emailed me today entitled his message ‘Keeping Christ in Christmas’, and that is a wider issue than stamps, although I can see why they are part of the concern. The danger is the continued relegation of Christianity to the private sphere, away from the arena of public truth. That trend has been continuing for centuries: since the Enlightenment, if you believe the late Lesslie Newbigin, and since Thomas Aquinas separated grace and nature, if you believe the late Francis Schaeffer.
Where Christ fits into society’s Christmas (if that is even a valid question) is one symptom of the wider problem: what is the public rôle, if any, of faith? A classic Anglican view, especially in the UK where it would often be linked with established status, would see secular stamps as a threat. It would be about taking the spiritual out of the public sphere. I recall that some years ago George Carey argued against disestablishment on the grounds that it would be a further privatisation of faith. Whether he was right is another matter, but that would be a typical Anglican approach.
A more Radical Reformation (e.g., Mennonite?) view might be rather more ambivalent. Let the state and public sphere do what it will, Christians must get on with being faithful, even if there is opposition, hostility or apathy. We are the ones who keep Christ in Christmas. As we do so, it is part of our witness. Personally, I suspect this approach is more suited to the times we are in, where Christianity is largely out of favour in our society. We are being pushed to the margins. However, that is a potential advantage in the long term should generally postmodern conditions prevail for a long time. Postmodernity often welcomes the idea of truth coming not from powerful places but the margins. This is not the same as the privatisation of faith; it is about recognising that we are exiles in Babylon, a model that is increasingly important to many of us.
A third view might be that of the Revivalist. In a desire to see the Gospel command hearts and minds much more (or ‘as it used to’), there would be fierce protests against the secularisation of Christmas. This is one step on from the establishment view that ‘we are a Christian country’: it sees the issue as one of sin. I long to see a ‘revival’, but find this style unhelpful. Militant Christian protests backed by fervent intercession couched in terms of ‘praying against people’ will not help our cause.
There are other views we could explore, but it’s late in the evening and I need to finish this. I suggest there is no harm in us asking nicely about the stamps, but we must be careful about our tone and we should not make this a crusade or act as if some terrible injustice has been done to us. The majority non-Christian culture just won’t understand.
Those are my initial thoughts. What do you think?
Our hairdresser is a family friend. We go together to her house for haircuts. Earlier this year, we were at Gemma’s and we noticed some fabulous new photos of her daughter.
‘Where did you get those done?’
She replied that she had used a new photographer in town. We had a 20″ x 16″ portrait of the children in the dining room, but it was two years old. At the age of our small children, that’s a long time in which they had changed.
So we booked a session with Melanie, who was wonderful, and Debbie asked that one of the shots be a new 20″ x 16″ as a birthday present for her. Mark was impeccable during the shoot, and Rebekah started out well before switching into full drama queen mode.
A little while later, Melanie gave us a CD of the best shots, and we spent an evening narrowing down our choices. Eventually, we placed the order and last week I collected them. They are fabulous. The new big portrait is up. Mark’s cheeky smile radiates across the room, and in Rebekah’s case you can see glimpses of the beautiful young woman she will become. It’s stunning.
So the first purpose of this post is an unsolicited plug for Melanie’s work. I’m not posting copies of the photos here for two reasons: firstly, I would be breaching her copyright, and secondly I don’t in any case put photos of our children in the most public parts of the web. I only use parts of my Facebook profile and Flickr that friends can see.
But the extended purpose of this post is to meditate on change and continuity. It’s there in the different photos of our children, separated by two years. It’s even more obvious when you go to the church social and the ice-breaker game is stuck on the walls: ‘Guess which church member this is as a baby.’
This struck me even more on Friday night, when Debbie and I sat down to watch Friday Night With Jonathan Ross. The main guest was one of my musical heroes from the 1970s, Stevie Wonder. His run of albums from ‘Music Of My Mind’ to ‘Hotter Than July’ (excepting ‘Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants’!) has to be one of the most sustained streaks of brilliance in popular music. I don’t care for much of his music since – indeed if ‘I Just Called To Say I Love You’ could be permanently deleted from the world’s memory, I’d be happy.
But I love his Seventies music as much today in my forties as in my teens. ‘Living For The City’ still has to be one of the great social justice songs. So am I behaving as an overgrown teenager when I put his music on, or am I still genuinely appreciating his music, despite the fact that I have grown – and hopefully matured?
One thing I did was ponder the roots of my musical taste. My love of some black music clearly comes from growing up in multi-racial north London. My best friend’s brother introduced me to Otis Redding and Stax.
But my taste is – well, the polite word is ‘eclectic’. Singer-songwriters feature prominently. Some of that comes from being a child in church during the Sixties when folk and protest music was acceptable in the mainline denominations. It was more respectable than that pop racket. Also, I’m quite an introspective person, so the Seventies singer-songwriters were an obvious touchstone for me – Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell and so on.
And I’ve always had a thing about lyrics. I’m keen on meaning, so those people who say that lyrics don’t matter have little sympathy from me. Not only that, I tried writing songs with my best friend. Given that he was and is a musician and I never have been, the words were my department. Don’t worry, none of them has ever been released. You are safe. But it gave me a deeper appreciation of lyrics.
The serious side of me also went for prog rock – notably Genesis and Yes. (Genesis went down the pan when they became a pop band.) My love of the serious and the complex kept my loyalty to this kind of music in the punk wars. The late Alan Freeman once held a vote on his Saturday afternoon Radio 1 show. Punk yes or no? No won 51% to 49%. I was in the 51.
You can still trace a lot of these influences in music I enjoy thirty years later. Boo Hewerdine, John Hiatt and Aimee Mann are all currently trapped in my car CD player, strongly representing the singer-songwriter camp. I recently bought Stomu Yamashta‘s Complete Go Sessions on eBay on the prog front. And Stevie Wonder on the TV probably has me digging out some of those classic albums.
At the same time, however, there are aspects of my teenage record buying habits that I wouldn’t want people to know about. There are some singles I was glad disappeared when I finally and reluctantly said goodbye to vinyl. I’m too embarrassed to name them here, so I’ll just leave you to guess. Some of them should only have been bought by teenage girls, that’s all I’m saying. It’s change and continuity again.
All this is an extended introduction to say that holding together continuity and change is an important spiritual and theological issue. I’m not even referring to the management of change in a congregation, although there is plenty that could be said about that. At this point, I’m confining myself to the personal aspects.
The Reformation enshrined this when it said that people were simul justus et peccator, both justified and yet still sinners. Justification brings redemption and leads to sanctification, that is, change, yet we are still what we always were: sinners.
Or to put it another way: our past and our present go a long way to explaining us, and hope draws us on into God’s New Creation.
And in that respect, Tom Wright’s great sign of the New Creation to come is the Resurrection of Jesus, itself am expression of continuity and change in the nature of Christ’s resurrection body. There was continuity: once the disciples had got past their considerable intellectual barriers to resurrection happening in the middle of history, Jesus was recognisable. He was ‘known by the scars’, to take Michael Card‘s old phrase. But there was also change: whatever miracles Jesus did before the crucifixion, he never suddenly appeared in the middle of a locked room, as is recorded twice in John 20. In the Resurrection, Jesus is endowed with the ‘spiritual body’ of which Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 15, and which my MPhil mentor Richard Bauckham used to say means, ‘a body animated by the Holy Spirit’.
So it isn’t necessarily a mark of immaturity if certain things remain from my youth. They may be part of an acceptable continuity that will travel with and in me throughout life in this age and the age to come.
Indeed, if the theory behind the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is correct that we have the same personality type for life, then that is an expression of this. You’ll see from the description I gave about the roots of some of my musical taste that a fair bit has to do with personality. No personality type is perfect: all have weaknesses. However, this is not necessarily about moral failure or weakness. God made humans to be interdependent, and in the Church God made us to be the Body of Christ, with complementary gifts.
But other things will fall away and be replaced or renewed. And that’s OK, too. That’s where the issues of holiness come in. So for example years ago I read an article in Third Way magazine about one of my musical heroes, Van Morrison. The author (Martin Wroe?) acknowledged that Morrison was not so much a practitioner of faith as a student of religions. He also acknowledged the commonly known fact about Morrison’s personality, namely that he is a notorious curmudgeon. Rock’s Mister Grumpy, indeed. However, he expressed a hope that there would be a place for him in the kingdom of God.
If there is, then it will be by the grace of God, just as it is for all of us. However, the question will arise for him, as it does for everyone, of change. How will he and we be made ‘fit for heaven’ (or the New Creation)? Transformation begins in this life by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, but is it complete at death?
The classical Catholic answer to this has been in terms of Purgatory. Tom Wright makes a good response to this in ‘Surprised By Hope‘. He describes it as a medieval metaphor and myth, without biblical support, having more to do with Aquinas and Dante. He quotes the current Pope, who appeals to 1 Corinthians 3, where the Lord himself is the fire in judgment who purifies us. Purgatory is unnecessary. God will see to it that we are fit for heaven and the New Creation.
And when he does, in that favourite verse of babysitters, ‘We shall not all sleep but we shall all be changed.’ By the grace of God, he will make us worthy of his presence. And there will be a degree of recognition due to continuity, although exactly what that is becomes another difficult question. Suffice to say it must be about more than physical likeness.
Who knows, maybe even some of my music collection will survive!