Love Wins

There’s an irony in the fact that a new book by the American preacher and church leader Rob Bell called ‘Love Wins’ should have stirred up such a bitter debate amongst evangelicals over the last month or so in America. In many ways, this has been their equivalent of the debate sparked off in the UK a couple of years ago by Steve Chalke’s book ‘The Lost Message of Jesus’.

Why the debate? Steve Chalke’s book looks at the nature of the church’s mission and challenges us to rediscover our central focus of being a loving body. Rob Bell’s book explores the nature of God, his salvation and the nature of heaven and hell with the conclusion that in the end ‘Love Wins’. I suspect most, if not all, of us with agree with those sentiments. However, in making their case, both have challenged traditional ways of understanding the nature of the Cross and salvation. This is not the place to assess their two books– for starters I have only just received my copy of Rob Bell’s book and haven’t had a chance to read it yet. I think, however, that these debates have highlighted something very important.

I have often heard the gospel described along these lines: ‘we are all sinners and Jesus died on the Cross to take God’s punishment that we deserve so that we can be forgiven and receive eternal life’. The trouble is that if we’re not careful this makes God sound like he’s angry and unloving, and fosters a selfish gospel based on the question ‘what can I do so that I can be saved’; just what the rich young ruler in Mark 10 asked Jesus. Then a conversation about the 10 commandments ensued, with the young man claiming that he’d kept the Law. In response Jesus made a searching request – go sell up everything, give it to the poor and then come follow me. The young ruler went away dejected. I wonder, was Jesus challenging this man’s view of salvation, moving him from a ME focus to an OTHERS focus?

Increasingly I’m seeing the Bible as portraying God as being the one who is striving to renew and restore the world. This doesn’t cut across the importance of personal forgiveness but changes the purpose of it. What is the Gospel message that we share?  That God is angry with our sinfulness and only his Son’s death could deflect us from that and that believing in this is what you must do to be saved, or that God so loves us and his creation that he longs to redeem us and it through Christ’s Cross and calls his restored people to play their part in this through their relationships with those around them? Whatever we may think about their books, Rob Bell and Steve Chalk are right, what we believe about the Cross matters; what we believe directly affects our picture of God and our dealings with the world around us.

Church newsletter article for Sunday 03.04.11

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A Cash Conundrum

Since coming back from Sierra Leone, I’ve found myself in a bit of a conundrum…

Not surprisingly I’ve been thinking a lot about money; how to raise it, how to give it to our friends there, and how to enable them to become more self-sufficient. One story that keeps coming to mind, however, is that of the widow giving her mite in the Temple (Mark 12:41-44). Why does Jesus single this particular woman out? As a widow in a society without the Welfare State she was vulnerable and clearly poor and yet, despite her situation, her she is giving sacrificially. The amount may be small to those around her, but to her parting with those small coins costs dearly. You could read this passage and hear Jesus’ praising her generosity, or encouraging us to tithe. But is he? I’m not so sure. If you read it in its context, a very different picture emerges. Jesus has just been criticising the religious leaders of his day for the way that they flaunt their status and live easy lives on the back of sacrifices of others (check out his stinging criticism in the previous verses, Mark 12:38-40). Having denounced them for this, he then turns around and points out the poor widow who is paying her Temple Tax although it is more than she can really afford. It doesn’t say she does it willingly. Rather it implies that she does it out of a sense of duty enforced by those who will benefit.

The New Testament promotes a very different attitude to wealth. It encourages us to give to those that have need, not because we have to, but because we want to. We are encouraged to give because God has generously given to us and so we should reflect that generosity. We give because it is an example of the Kingdom that has drawn near in Christ. We don’t give because we are told to or have to. As Paul writes, ‘Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.’ (2 Corinthians 9:7-8)

…and there is the conundrum. I want to encourage the church to give to our family in Sierra Leone, and other local causes such as Young Life, and I want to encourage you to give to the church so that we can do this, and yet by asking I run the risk of falling into the trap of the Widow’s Mite!

Church Newsletter Article for Sunday 6th February

The Heart of the Problem

Notes from a sermon on Mark 7:1-23 preached at Wormley Free Church on 27.02.11

Out, damned spot! out, I say!

So cries Lady Macbeth as she scrubs away at the blood she imagines staining her hand after the murder of King Duncan and Banquo, Macbeth’s former friend. But alas, in her fevered imagination, the mark will not go, and brands her as guilty of their deaths to all.

Every English school child has to study a Shakespeare play. For me it was Macbeth, and I loved it. It was the intrigue, the strange otherworldness and the darkness that appealed to me. Various scenes stuck in the mind, and this was one of them, the Lady Macbeth, having succeeded in her machinations, becomes haunted by what she has done to get her husband on the throne, and starts sleep walking, guiltily declaring through her frenzied hand washing what she has done to any who would take note.

There is sometimes the suggestion that we live in a free era where we no longer follow traditions or rituals. There is certainly no doubt that our society today is less formal than it used to be – my friends in Sierra Leone can’t get over the fact that we don’t use titles and ceremonies and procedures anywhere near as much as they do – but I have a sneaky suspicion that just because we’re less formal, doesn’t mean that we don’t have traditions and rituals. A great example is the one that today’s passage is all about, hand washing.

Think about it, wherever you turn in a hospital, you’re asked to wash your hands – or at least use an anti-bacterial spray. Our children have it drummed into them from an early age that they must wash their hands after going to the toilet or before eating. The pressure to conform to such rituals is enforced by TV advertising pushing various sprays, foams and wipes that kill all known bugs and nasties with one simple application. These rituals are of course important. If we don’t wash, then there is a fair chance that not only will we begin to smell, but our health will suffer. In hospitals this becomes more stark, if we don’t wash our hands then germs can be transferred from one person to another, spreading superbugs and other nasties.

I remember when we first got our Dyson vacuum cleaner. It has a transparent body so that you can see exactly what dirt and dust is being sucked from the carpet as you go. It was a scary thing the first time we used it, horrifying to see how much muck it was able to extract from what we had previously thought were clean floors! For a little while we took to vacuuming more frequently, religiously if you like – although I must confess, it didn’t last long!

There has been a growing trend to look for deeper cleansing if we are going to look and feel clean and healthy. We should adopt certain rituals such as regular exercise. We can call upon all sorts of potions and chemicals to deep clean our pores, and medical procedures to cleanse us inside as well as out! The link to diet is also raised. To be healthy and ‘clean’ you also need the right sort of diet – eat your five portions of fruit and veg each day, take certain yoghurts to promote good bacteria in your gut, and avoid fatty, greasy food which can clog up not just your pores, but also your arteries! After the Christmas binge comes the ritual of New Year’s exercise.

Strange how having gone through that list I am now feeling rather unhealthy and queasy…

Religion has also picked up upon the importance of cleanliness for healthy living. This goes with the instinctive feeling that we have that being clean requires more than simply washing. Many religions have rituals that involve washing – not just First Century Judaism as in today’s passage. Hand washing is also a feature of the Bahá’í Faith, Hinduism, Isalm, Shintō and Christianity (eg. Priests washing their hands as part of a eucharist service in more liturgical churches and of course baptism and christenings), and this is what Jesus got into a debate about with the religious leaders of his day in today’s passage.

In the Old Testament, there are various laws given for ceremonial washing which had become and been developed as part of everyday Jewish life. One of these was handwashing before eating. I remember when I stayed visited Israel and stayed at a Jewish hotel for a week that there was a special basin in the restaurant for visitors to use to wash their hands to fulfil this. On one particular occasion, Jesus’ disciples were caught eating without having washed their hands in this way, and Jesus was picked up on this. ‘Why do you let your disciples eat with defiled hands?’ The implication is that if they eat with defiled hands, that they become defiled, dirty.

It is worth noting before we get too far, that something new is happening here. Those who picked Jesus up on this were from Jerusalem. Up until this point, Jesus’ sphere of influence was restricted to Galilee and the surrounding areas, a country boy speaking to country people. Now, however, this has changed. In chapter 6 we read that King Herod had heard about him, and here his actions are causing others in the capital city to sit up and take note. There’s more at stake here than just showing that he was impacting both town and country. Jerusalem in Mark’s Gospel is identified with the centre of opposition to Jesus – this is why Jesus spends the first part of the Gospel hiding away in the country and telling people to keep what he is doing a secret – if word gets to the city too soon they will prevent him from achieving all he wants to achieve. This is where the plots to kill him are hatched. This is the place of his execution.

So how does Jesus respond to their accusations?

To begin with, he doesn’t try to deny them, or apologise for them, or make excuses. I wonder if maybe sometimes there is something that we can learn from this about our response when questions are raised about our beliefs and practises as Christians today.

But what he does do, however, is turn the argument against his opponents. To do this he uses another ritual to make the point. The Law says that you should honour your Father and Mother – they would agree with him on that one. However, there was a tradition of ‘Corban’ – if you dedicated something to God, it was exempt from other calls on it. This is a tradition meant to uphold the importance of sacrifice to God, of putting him first. Again, both Jesus and those opposing him would have been happy with that principle. There was a practise, however, of turning this into a loophole, and declaring things Corban, dedicated to God, that would otherwise be regarded as needing to be given to parents. This was seen as a legitimate way of holding it back from them, or rather holding onto things you’d otherwise have to give away. This Jesus, declared, is hypocrisy.

You say you’re seeking to honour God, and yet it is God who has said that you should honour your parents, and you’re disobeying his command on the basis of human tradition! Human tradition and practise, Jesus was implying, should be shaped by Scripture, not the other way around.

The same thing, he implies, is happening here with ritual washing – this is a practise set up by the Elders, i.e. it is human tradition – and so rather than honouring God is actually bringing him into disrepute by using him as an excuse to not honour parents!

Makes me wonder if we do similar things without realising it – how often do we read the Bible in terms of what we think it ought to say, reading it through the eyes of our prejudices, culture or misunderstandings, without letting it speak for itself.

The other side to his rebuttal is that of questioning the whole point of the hand washing rituals and the laws that inspired them in the Old Testament. What were they there for? Does washing your hands really make you clean and healthy? For that matter, looking at the food regulations, do they make you clean and healthy? As Lady Macbeth found out, there are some stains you can’t remove by washing. No these were simply signposts pointing towards the real agent of thorough cleansing…

Jesus speaks about these very things – sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All of these things come from within us and defile us. No soap will cleanse these, no ritual will take away the shame and guilt of having thought or done these things. There’s an even deeper level that just the effect of these things too. The very fact that we act in this way, or think in this way, is symptomatic of a basic fault in our making – something is broken inside humanity that causes or allows us to be like this – this is not how we were made to be. Will washing our hands deal with this?

No. The rituals are simply signposts, flagging up the problem and pointing towards a solution. God didn’t give an arbitrary set of laws to his people, they were there for a reason, to achieve something. If they don’t in and of themselves make a difference, they must lead the way to something that does.

Jesus doesn’t, however, reveal what the answer is here, and yet allows his disciples to eat without washing, without following the rituals.

Does this act of what the religious leaders see as tradition breaking, of defilement, actually act as another signpost? Is it pointing to the answer? Reminds me of the time when Jesus was brought up over his followers not fasting. His answer was blunt and to the point,

Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them” Mark 2:17

Rather than asking what is the answer, perhaps Jesus is forcing us to ask, who is the answer…

Take Nothing for the Journey

Notes from a sermon preached at Wormley Free Church, 20.02.11

Do you think you could be a missionary? Do you think you have what it takes to make a difference for God – if not upping sticks and travelling to some foreign country, maybe here in Wormley?  I don’t know about you, but there are times when I wonder if I know the right things. Can I afford to do it? Do I have the right background? I recently discovered the story of a local woman, Gladys Aylward from Edmonton, whose story of putting faith into action is quite inspirational, and casts my fears in a different light.

The first thing that struck me when reading her story was the realisation that there was in many ways nothing special about her. She wasn’t from a special background, but was a child from a working class background. She wasn’t affluent, working as a parlour maid from the age of 14, nor was she particularly bright or academically trained – her education described as being ‘adequate’.

When she was 18, she attended a church event where she heard a speaker talking about giving your life to the Lord’s service. This stirred something inside her. Later she heard about China, and a vision to go to work there for God began to grow.

She received various knockbacks to her vision, but in the end got a job as an assistant for an aging missionary there. Unfortunately she couldn’t afford the cost of the fare to sail there, the preferred method travel. She didn’t let this put her off. Instead she put her affairs in order and with only her passport, her Bible, her tickets, and two pounds ninepence, set off for a perilous, overland journey to the inland city of Yangchen, in the mountainous province of Shansi, a little south of Peking. An area where few Europeans visited and the people didn’t trust foreigners.

When she arrived she dedicated herself to learning the language, slowly mastering it, and living amongst the people. This was a time of war between Japan and China, and she devoted herself to caring for orphans and wounded soldiers, sharing stories of Jesus as she did so. At one point she was forced to trek 100 miles with the children in her care to avoid capture by the Japanese, ending up seriously ill. This did not stop her. Before long she had set up a church and was continuing to tell others about Jesus, and demonstrating his love for them. She was known as ‘Ai-weh-deh‘, (Virtuous One) by the Chinese who grew to love this foreigner they initially distrusted.

If God can use her, then he can use anyone! And so it is in today’s passage. Jesus has been up into the mountains to elect the troops who will lead his revolution with him, a rag-tag bunch, and now he sends them out to work in a manner very similar to Gladys Alward’s journey to China:

Then Jesus went around teaching from village to village. 7 Calling the Twelve to him, he began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over impure spirits.

8 These were his instructions: “Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. 9 Wear sandals but not an extra shirt. 10 Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town. 11 And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.”

12 They went out and preached that people should repent. 13 They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.

Go, do the same work that I’ve been doing! Take nothing! Heal, preach and cast out demons!

This is one of those passages that at times has inspired and terrified me. The demands Jesus makes of his followers can seem challenging to say the least. Go out to potentially hostile audiences to tell them about me and to demonstrate my power, and take nothing with you other than a staff and the clothes you’re wearing! Sounds a far cry from the comfortable work that we sometimes put on…

So what does this passage have to say about our work today? The first thing to say is that these are specific instructions rather than a general manual as to how to do mission. Just because Jesus sent out his first followers in this way, doesn’t mean that it is the blueprint for all work to come. This is for specific people in a specific context at a specific time to do specific work amongst a specific audience. That said, in a general way, we are called to demonstrate and declare the coming Kingdom, its power and God’s love as well. That endgame has never changed, even if the context has.

So what can we learn from this?

Many have read this passage and taken it to say that in mission work we should go out in complete dependence upon God, that he will meet our needs if we’re doing his will. There is something scary about this. Do we have the guts to say that we believe that God is calling us to do something, and then go and do it even if the resources we need don’t seem to be there? We touched upon this with the story of Gladys Aylward who had neither the obvious qualifications for the work, nor the resources – she didn’t have the money, couldn’t speak the language and so on – and yet in faith she went.

There are many other stories of Christians who have gone relying purely it would seem on God’s provision to be able to do what he is calling them to do. I’m sure many of our friends at All Nations could tell us stories of living on faith. I can remember times when at university I went on missions not really knowing how I would manage financially, and yet time and time again God provided the way. Catch is, as you grow older, this gets harder to do as you gain responsibilities – work, family, dependents and so on. When you club a number of us together in a group such as the church, it is too easy to add all of these reasons for not stepping out together. Risk is a great inhibitor of action, but risk-taking is also a hallmark of Christian living. Perhaps sometimes we need to embrace the joyful abandon of simply trusting in God when we seek to do his will, and discover the freedom that comes from his provision again. After all, isn’t that what he promises in Matthew 6:25-33;

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?… 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

Going to Sierra Leone, however, has given me another dimension to this story – and many others – having been exposed to a way of living that is perhaps nearer to that of the people we find in the Gospel stories.

We stayed not in the isolated and Westerner ‘enclave’ of Aberdeen to the West of Freetown, but to the East in a small African village called Jui in a missionary organisations head quarters. Walking through Jui, I felt very conspicuous, although safe (different story on the ferry or in Freetown!) In small communities such as this, visitors and strangers stick out; you would be instantly noticed. So it would be for these disciples as they travelled through the towns and villages. I soon opted to leave behind everything except perhaps my passport for ID reasons. If I had no wealth on me, no important items, there was no chance of them being stolen or lost. Made me wonder as I read this passage there, is Jesus giving these instructions for similar reasons? Is he protecting his disciples from generating unwelcome interest? A staff could be used to help walking but also as a deterrent to attack. A bag, money, food etc. could be items bandits could become interested in (don’t forget the story of the Good Samaritan).

This idea is supported by the sections around it in Mark which tell of Jesus being a prophet without honour in his own town, and the beheading of John the Baptist. Not everything is plain sailing. The sense of opposition is growing. There is a clash of kingdoms and philosophies.

This picture of Jesus contrasts with many of Jesus where he is painted as super-spiritual and not down to earth. Here Jesus is shown as being concerned for the well-being of his followers, streetwise, aware of what might happen to them and the practical steps to reduce the risk as much as possible. Is Jesus calling us to be streetwise rather than naïve, to be aware of the culture around us and to work accordingly – embracing what is good to be embraced, adopting what is necessary for communication, but being wary of that which stands against the Kingdom?

We are living in the in between age, God’s Kingdom is coming, but isn’t fully here yet. To succeed we need to be alert to both worlds. This is not to say that we don’t trust God, as Jesus himself said:

“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” Matthew 10:16

To finish, there is one other element to this story. As was writing this I was very aware of the deadline of getting it done before the weekend came, and typed more urgently as time went on.  Equally, preaching it I am now aware of the urgency of getting the job done before time runs out! As time passes, it’s a case of abandoning the unnecessary detail and focussing on the essential. Like oversleeping and waking up late. Do you stop and have a full English and a shower before leaving? Do you sit down to read the morning paper? No! You throw on your clothes, down a quick coffee and dash for it.

So it is here. The Kingdom is coming, and the Disciples are sent out as forerunners. Time is short. They’ve got to get the word out to as many as possible. No time for packing, no time for goodbyes – out and on with it. Are people interested in hearing? Good, stay and talk. Are they not? Don’t stop to argue with them – no time – leave straight away and find someone who does, shaking the sand from your sandals as you go.

The Kingdom is coming! Time is short! Mission has got to be our focus, there’s no time for distractions. Are we seizing every opportunity to declare it in word and deed?

The Kingdom is coming, let us path the way with faith, pragmatism and urgency.

 

Confession Time

Three ministers were on a train returning from a conference they been to together. The closing session had been about the dangers of temptation, and so in the spirit of mutual support they decided to share their weaknesses with each other so that they could become mutually accountable. They all agreed that it was a good idea, but who should go first? There was a moment of awkward silence, until flushed with embarrassment, one of them blurted out, ‘I have a problem with alcohol, and when things become stressful in secret I drink far more than I ought…’ The tension broken, the second spoke up, ‘I haven’t told this to anyone before, but I struggle with wrong thoughts about women, especially the pretty ones in the congregation. If they knew what I was really thinking as I preached!…’ Both turned to the third to see what he would say. Looking at them with a guilty smile on his face, their colleague confessed, ‘I have a problem with gossip…’

Last night in housegroup we looked at the stories of Jarius rushing to Jesus to get help for his dying daughter and an anonymous woman who has struggled with bleeding for twelve years, and has been unable to find anyone who could stop it (this story can be found in Mark 5:21-43, I say story not stories as they are interwoven by Mark as they illuminate each other). These are two gut wrenching tales of people caught in unbearable situations, worth taking time to meditate on.

The story of the woman particularly struck me as we talked. She is desperate for help, not only is her condition a medical problem, but it is also a social one; such bleeding made her ‘ritually unclean’ in Jewish eyes. She would have been shunned, avoided, and no doubt spent her life trying to be unseen to avoid public shame. And so she comes to Jesus, not looking for a meeting, or to ask him for help, but simply to sneak up to him, trying to remain invisible in the crowd, and touch his cloak, hoping that this would help her. And it does, her faith in him makes her well.

But the story does not end there. Jesus realises what has happened. He could have let the incident pass, but he doesn’t. He forces her to unveil herself, ‘who touched me?’

This is not an act of retribution, but recognition that for our faith to be complete it has to be public. Our sins, weakness and doubts if kept private can isolate us from each other and God, causing us to hold back. If we bring them into the open, not only are we open to Jesus’ mercy and healing, but also we are allowing the church to help, offering support when needed, and bringing those who have separated themselves from them back into the family.

Article for church newsletter, 20.02.11

Re-imagining Relationships

At church we’re working through Mark’s Gospel on Sunday mornings between Christmas and Easter, and I’ve decided to read it as my devotional reading each day as well during this time. Reading it again, I’ve been struck by many things, and I’m only a few chapters in! It paints a picture of Jesus far from the nice sandal wearing wimp that he is sometimes portrayed as. Here is a man who acts with determination and authority, not caring what others think of his deeds or teaching, but with a clear vision of what the world could be or should be, and living out that life and pushing for that life now.

One of the key themes that has hit me so far is his desire to overturn the inclination we have to exclude those who are different to us. In the first few chapters these are the people he goes out of his way to include, challenging the prejudices of the culture around him.

In chapter one he drives out an evil spirit from a man in a synagogue, heals Simon Peter’s mother-in-law from a fever and ‘cleanses’ a man with leprosy. In chapter two he heals a paralytic and dines with ‘many tax collectors and “sinners”. The list continues. Each of these is in some way excluded from society around them. When you dig a little deeper, often this exclusion has a religious aspect to it. In some cases this is clear – for example the demon possessed man, but in others to us less clear. Take the Sunday School favourite, the paralytic lowered through the roof by his friends. The root concern of this story is not his condition, but the religious belief that he was blighted with his disability because of serious sin in his family – it was a punishment from God. Jesus cuts straight through this by declaring his sins forgiven – and so restoring his place in the community (and heals him to boot!) Or the man with leprosy, he would have been excluded, considered as ritually unclean, and defiling of others who came into contact with him. Again Jesus heals him, cleansing him (the text pointedly stresses that ritualistic religious word, not ‘healing’) so he can be part of the community again. Just to make sure, Jesus sends him to the priest so that his cleansing can be ‘officially’ sanctioned, so that he could be ‘officially’ included once again. This was a risky act; coming into contact with someone with leprosy would have caused him to have been considered unclean too. As the man failed to follow this last instruction, perhaps this was a turning point in Jesus’ work – maybe he was now seen as tainted in some way. If he wasn’t then, he certainly was after his meal at Levi’s house with the tax collectors and sinners – those excluded from polite society because of their anti-Jewish collusion with the pagan Roman establishment, and those rejected because of their lifestyles were deemed to be unacceptable by the leaders of the faith.

Reading these passages has challenged me to take a long hard look at my attitude to others. In what ways do I unconsciously exclude others because of how society or indeed religious attitudes around me see them? In what ways do I not see people, or actively avoid them? Who does my church exclude? Who are the excluded in my community? Who in my life ought I be actively trying to bring back into the community – and do I have the guts to do it even if this means being ‘tainted’ as Christ was?