Sunday, October 22, 2006

22 October 2006 - Identity in Christ

This is an "off lectionary" sermon in Two Parts for an evening service.

Part 1 - Reading:
Amos 8:1-12

Amos 8:11-12: “The time is coming when I will send famine on the land. People will be hungry, but not for bread; they will be thirsty, but not for water. They will hunger and thirst for a message from the Lord. They will look everywhere for a message from the Lord, but they will not find it.”
Israel in Amos’ Time

I believe that, in order to understand the message of the book of Amos, it really helps a lot to understand what was happening in the society in which Amos prophesised. Because I think the message of Amos is a timeless one, but maybe it is particularly significant to our situation today.
Amos prophesied about 750 to 700 BC. It was a time of prosperity for Kingdom of Israel. It was a time of peace because both of its historic enemies, Egypt and Assyria, were weak. And so Israel was left in peace to prosper as a nation.

The problem wasn’t so much that Israel was prosperous, but it was more in the manner in which the nation was prosperous. According to Rabbi Joseph Telushkin – a modern Jewish rabbi – archaeological evidence suggests that 300 years before Amos’ time, most of the houses in Israel were about equal to each other in size

But the book of Amos repeatedly describes the differences between the conditions in which the poor and the rich were living in his day. Amos 3:15 describes the wealthy living in winter and summer homes, decorated with expensive furniture. Amos 5 describes a situation where the poor are being robbed of their grain, but they are also being prevented from getting justice in court because the rich are bribing the judges. This is in violation of God’s commandment in Deuteronomy that the poor must be given sufficient for their needs But, instead, the poor are being sold into slavery when they cannot pay their debts (Amos Chapter 2)

To add insult to injury - in Amos’ Israel, it is not only the rich who are happy to keep this exploitative system the way it is, but the priestly class are also disobeying God’s law and endorsing this way of thinking which is in clear violation of God’s law.

And so, in Chapter 5, we have one of the more famous passages from the book of Amos where Amos puts the words in God’s mouth: “I hate your religious festivals; I cannot stand them!” The priests have conspired in the society’s exploitative value system because they have behaved as if proper observance of religious ritual is all that God requires.

And so, there has developed a society which is proud of its religious observance and proud of its faithfulness to God, But it’s also a society where there is great inequality and where the poor are sold into slavery. Amos is there, as God’s prophet, to tell the people of Israel that God is not pleased with their religious observance on account of the enormous injustice that is being lived out by the people.

It’s not difficult to see why Amos’ message is a timeless one. This sort of situation has appeared in almost every notable civilisation since Amos’ time. And I’m not going to insult either one of us by spending the time now drawing out the very obvious message that the book of Amos brings to our time. I think our job here this evening is to understand the root of this problem and the remedy for it.

The root of the problem is that the people are hungering and thirsting for the word of God, so that they can understand what God requires of us as human beings. They are spiritually starving because they are not eating God’s spiritual food nor drinking God’s spiritual drink. And I want to suggest that perhaps one of the reasons is because this people are leading a double life – The double life of “God and spiritual things are over here” and “The rest of my life – my REAL life, my every-day life – is over here”.

Leading a Doubt Life

Gerard Hughes is a Roman Catholic priest who has spent most of his life working for justice issues, but he has also written a small number of books on prayer and spirituality. He tells some very good and very pointed stories

One of them is about how it is human nature to want to lead this sort of double life with God on one side and “real life” on the other.

He asks you to imagine what you would do if, one evening, there were a knock on your door and, when you went to open it, there was Jesus standing there. You are stunned but Jesus is grinning from ear to ear and says “There you are! At last I’ve found you! How wonderful to see you! How much I love you!” And you smile from ear to ear and you invite Jesus into your house.

Out comes the best China, the tea and the cake and you and Jesus have a good old chin-wag – a really wonderful and refreshing evening. Now, good Christian that you are, you invite Jesus into your life and you insist that Jesus must stay with you and become part of your family.

And that’s when the trouble starts.

Before you know it, Jesus has invited the local homeless person to join in with your household. And then, as if that wasn’t bad enough, one day you come home to find that Jesus has invited into your house all the local lads who go around the neighbourhood stealing cars and destroying other people’s property.

So you decide you need to put a stop to all this, and you politely invite Jesus to step inside the cupboard under the stairs. You lock the door, and very probably you nail it shut just for good measure, You then proceed to decorate it – possibly with a cross and a candle and maybe even some sort of liturgical cloth for the appropriate time in the church year. And every time you walk past the cupboard under the stairs, you bow to it reverently and say a prayer. The net effect of this is that you’ve got Jesus, in your house, in you life – but most importantly of all – you’ve got him where he can’t cause any more trouble!!

I have to confess that I still find this story a bit painful to hear. And if it’s painful to hear, it’s even more embarrassing to be standing up here in front of you telling you the story. Because I know I’ve got my God in a cupboard. I comfort myself that possibly there are a lot of other Christians out there who do too, though that is no excuse. But I’m also ashamed because I know that it’s not the way that God calls me to live as a Christian.

The people of Amos’ time had their God in a “cupboard” (or maybe it was in a tent somewhere), the people in Jesus’ time had their God in a cupboard, and we have our God in a cupboard.

A Right Heart is a Giving Heart

Using the mouth of Amos, God tells us that he hates our worship when it is not motivated by a right heart. God tells us that when our heart is rightly motivated by the love of God – and love is what holiness in Christian discipleship is all about – then that “right heart” will be there for all to see in the way we treat our fellow human beings.

It’s no good saying that we’ve invited Jesus into our life and then locking him in a cupboard. It’s no good observing proper religious form but being content to be part of a society that behaves immorally and unethically. It’s no good fulfilling our religious duties but engaging in an individual life-style that is immoral and unethical.

Like many other societies before us, we live in a time when people are hungering and thirsting for the real word of God of their lives.

The prophecy has come true, not because Amos could predict future events, but because of people’s behaviour. When we lock God in the cupboard, he can’t influence our life in the living room – where it really counts.

The good news is that God in Christ became incarnate in Jesus to bridge the gap between himself and human-kind. The good news is that God is always yearning to feed us, he is always yearning for us to drink from the deep waters of his love.

And so, I pray this evening that we may all grow in Christian discipleship, with our roots firmly grounded in the wellspring of God’s love and God’s word.

As we grow grounded in the Lord, I pray that our lives will bear the good fruit of deeds which are pleasing to the Lord, and deeds that further his Kingdom. I pray that we work for God’s Kingdom, not because we believe we will be saved by good works, but because we are already assured of our salvation in Christ.

Because we know God’s love for us and for the world, we cannot help but express that love in our lives. And I pray all of this in the name of Jesus, Amen

Part 2 - Reading:
Luke 10:38-42

The One Needful Thing

This short story about Mary and Martha is a story that I, personally, have always found to be a difficult one. The story tells us Martha is running around, worried and troubled over so many things, but it is Mary who has chosen the one thing that is important.

Whichever way you look at it, there is something about what Mary is doing that is being affirmed in this story over and above what Martha is doing. But exactly what is “the one needful thing” that Mary is doing? What is the “one needful thing” that she’s figured out? Where have Martha and I missed the plot here?

When I was preparing for this talk, I found one short comment that was extremely helpful. One of the resources I used said the following:

“When you preach this Gospel, please make the point ‘We’re too busy with too many things” and move on from there quickly. Leave room for the main point of the Gospel which is ‘Our identity in Christ is the one needful thing; other identities are valuable only to the extent that they deepen our maturity in Christ and empower us for Christ’s mission in the world.’

The One Needful Thing

The “one needful thing” is our identity in Christ.

What does this mean? Does it mean that Mary was doing the “right thing” by dedicating herself to her spiritual life and that Martha was doing the “wrong thing” by being active? And, if the story is saying that, how does it fit in with the lesson we just heard from Amos – where the call seems to be very much to “do the right thing”?

I don’t think that this story is trying to say that dedicating oneself to one’s spiritual life is better than doing the right thing. And here’s why: First of all the story that comes before this reading in the Gospel of Luke is the story of the Good Samaritan. Although the primary lesson of the story of the Good Samaritan is not a call to doing good works, it is nonetheless, the person who does the right thing who is affirmed in that story as the “real neighbour”.

Since the Good Samaritan story comes immediately before the story of Martha and Mary, I think that we are being told that: It is our identity in God – our identity in Christ – that is the most important thing, BUT, that it is equally important to “do the right thing”.

It’s not a case of “either/or” when these stories are set next to each other, but a case of “both/and”

An Invitation to Freedom

I have a strong suspicion that Jesus’ words to Martha weren’t so much a scolding as they were an invitation to freedom. “Martha, don’t worry about what the world says. Don’t worry that the world says that your identity is in your hospitality. In reality, your identity is in me, your identity is in being my disciple. Even though you are a woman, your identity is in me.”

These are the gracious words of Jesus to us: “My beloved, your identity is in me. Rest your soul in my presence and be at peace knowing that I accept you unconditionally. Never mind if the world says you are too sinful. Never mind if you feel dirty or guilty. I want you in my presence. Never mind if the world says you come from the wrong class, the wrong country, the wrong race, the wrong sex. Never mind if the world says you too young or too old. *I* want you in my presence. Your identity is in me.”

This is not a different message from the message that Amos proclaimed. Amos tells us that when our heart is rooted firmly in the love of God, that the fruits of our right actions will be visible in the world around us.

Luke tells us that God calls us to rest our identity in Christ and to live out that identity in the action of loving our neighbour and loving God.

And, so I pray this evening that we each remember that our real identity is as a disciple of Christ.

I pray that we may all put Christ at the centre of our lives, and that Christ becomes more and more a part of our identity – as individual Christians and as part of the world-wide church.

May we live out the church’s mission in the world to spread the message of God’s forgiveness, to proclaim God’s love in word and deed and to work for justice and peace. Amen

Saturday, October 21, 2006

15 October - All Can Know They Are Saved

Sermon: All Can Know they Are Saved (The doctrine of assurance)
Scripture Texts: 1 Corinthians 12:1-11 and Luke 11:5-13


Introduction / The Four Alls

The following is a short except from a text which is perhaps one of the most famous texts ever written by John Wesley. Many of you will very likely recognise it immediately. It is taken from Wesley’s personal Journal. The entry date is 24th May, 1738.
In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me, that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.
This experience that John Wesley had is often called his “Aldersgate experience”. I don’t believe that it was what some today might call a “conversion experience”. First of all, Wesley was already an ordained priest in the Church of England. For those who might be thinking that being ordained doesn’t necessarily guarantee that a person is a Christian, it’s my view that it’s fairly clear from Wesley’s own writings and diary that he was almost certainly a Christian.

Because of this experience being assured of his own salvation, Wesley came to believe that it is possible for a person to know that he or she is saved. This is the third of “The Four Alls”.

We have been looking at “The Four Alls” – a shorthand way of expressing what Methodists believe as Christians. “The Four Alls” help us to understand what Methodism has contributed to Christian thinking over the last three centuries. To remind you, “The Four Alls” are: All need to be saved, All can be saved, All can know they are saved, All can be saved to the uttermost.

Today, we are concentrating on the third point: “All can know they are saved”. This is also called the doctrine of assurance.

The History of Assurance

I think it’s very helpful to know a little bit about the history behind the idea of assurance of salvation.

In John Wesley’s time, there was one point of view that insisted that no-one could actually be certain that they were saved. Furthermore, those who held this view went on to say that anyone who thought that they were saved probably wasn’t. They thought that believing yourself to be saved was actually the sin of pride.

But there was also another group of people who believed that a person could know that they were saved. This was the group that Wesley was with on the night he had his Aldersgate Experience.

So, imagine for just one moment that you are John Wesley and that you have just had this powerful experience of being assured of your salvation. And then you go back to your preaching and your evangelism and other clergymen start saying: “Ah! This is actually evidence of your sin of pride! You are not saved!” A lot of John Wesley’s writing on the topic of “assurance” is actually a reaction to this negative point of view.

So, I confess to you that what I’m going to tell you this evening is not so much John Wesley’s views on the assurance of salvation, but rather my own reading of the bible. But my thoughts do have one big thing in common with John Wesley’s – and that is the concern that one does not take an extreme view on one side of the question or the other.

It is not correct to say that no-one can know they are saved nor is it correct to say that believing oneself to be saved and loved by God is always the sin of pride. But it is also not the case that a person must *feel* themselves to be saved, or that they must always feel God’s presence in their lives in order to *be* saved. Our salvation does not and never will rest upon our feelings. Our salvation is the consequence of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. There are many Christians in this world who do not have a great felt experience of God’s presence, but they can and do rest on God’s promise that all who repent and believe in Christ will be saved.

Assurance is a Spiritual Gift

My own view is that having the assurance of one’s own salvation is a spiritual gift. I think that it’s a spiritual gift similar to other sorts of spiritual gifts

In fact, in 1 Corinthians chapter 12, St. Paul talks about the “gift of faith” as being one of the spiritual gifts, Paul says that one person may have the gift of faith, another the gift of healing, another the gift of prophecy, and so forth.

My own interpretation of John Wesley’s Aldersgate Experience is that God gave him the spiritual gift of assurance that night – what Paul termed the “gift of faith”. I think that to have the spiritual gift of assurance is to have the sort of faith where one is empowered and impassioned by God’s overwhelming love, grace and mercy. I think it’s about being so empowered by God’s love that you can’t help but want to go out and tell the world about it – perhaps in preaching, in teaching in evangelism or in works of kindness and mercy. This is certainly consistent with John Wesley’s life. Although he had been a priest and a preacher before this experience, it was only after the experience that his preaching and ministry really took off.

But there is also something else that is interesting about John Wesley’s spiritual life. If you read about his life after this experience, Wesley did not live the rest of his Christian life in a triumphalist way. In fact, there were many times in his life – even after his Aldersgate Experience – when he did not sense the presence of God in his life and when he agonised about his own perceived absence of God. Even having received the “spiritual gift” of assurance, Wesley sometimes had a hard time feeling the presence of God in his life.

John Wesley experienced what many great Christian saints have experienced down through the ages: the perception of God’s absence. However, at no time did Wesley ever retract his views about God having shown his love to humanity by sending Jesus to live, die and rise so that human beings might be saved. If Wesley and many other famous Christians experienced the darkness of God’s absence, then it is OK for us common garden-variety Christians to have that experience as well.

Just as it is incorrect to say that a person must never feel the assurance of God’s salvation, so also is it incorrect to say that a person *must* feel the assurance of salvation in order to be saved or in order to be a “real Christian”. I fear that sometimes this attitude can creep into our way of thinking without us realising it.

It is wonderful to hear when individuals have extraordinary experiences of conversion – and, as I’ve been studying for the ministry, I’ve heard a few quite extraordinary stories about God’s working in peoples’ lives. But there are many people who grow up in the church and who, somewhere along the way, make a decision for Christ without a lot of fanfare. These people cannot “name the date and the time” and they may not have had any sort of extraordinary felt experience, but they have nonetheless accepted the salvation that God has generously offered to them.

Just as there are many people in the church who are not given the gift of speaking in tongues or the gift of preaching, so there are many people who are not given the gift of assurance. But all of these people are Christians nonetheless.

Salvation through Christ

Our salvation does not rest on how we feel about God. Our salvation rests on what Christ has done for us in dying and rising. Again, Paul says in the first letter to the Corinthians: “if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Very simply put, all that is required from us is to say that “Jesus is Lord”. How do we do that? By repenting and accepting the forgiveness that Jesus brought into the world and that he offers us.

“Repentance” simply means “to turn around”. So a very simple picture of repentance is to turn around and walk in God’s direction and declare Jesus as Lord. To physically change the direction of one’s journey does not require any sort of feeling. In the same way, repentance does not require any sort of great feeling. Repentance is simply an act of will; it is something that we do. It is a trust in the *fact* of Jesus’ gift of salvation. This is the core of what it means to be a Christian.

But for those who have been given the gift of assurance, it is your responsibility to use it for the common good of the Church. This is true for all spiritual gifts – whatever those gifts may be. Paul tells us in the 1 Corinthians 12:7 that “The Spirit’s presence is shown in some way to each person for the good of all”. True spiritual gifts are used to build up the Body of Christ rather than for personal gain.

Together all of us are the Body of Christ. As Paul says, some are feet and some are ears and some are eyes. But all are equally part of the body. And all parts of the body are needed in order to make the body function correctly.


So come to the Lord’s Table this evening as the Body of Christ and be fed together as one body. Trust that although God has given us each different gifts that each Christian is part of the body. Hold on to God’s promise that our salvation comes from Jesus and that all who turn to him will be saved.

Christ in his grace invites all people to come and dine at his table. All are invited to his feast of life. You do not have to feel hungry, you do not have to feel thirsty, you do not have to feel anything. All you have to do is come and you will be fed – this is the promise of God.

15 October 2006 - The Topic IS Money

Sermon for Sunday morning, 15 October 2006
Scripture Readings: Hebrews 4:12-16 and Mark 10:17-31


The Topic IS Money

Ladies and Gentlemen, I hope that you are seated comfortably. Please make sure your seatbelts are fastened. Keep your hands inside the carriage at all times. And please keep your seatbelts fastened for the duration of the sermon. It’s going to be a bumpy ride and we wouldn’t want anyone to get hurt.

There is no way around it, the two passages we heard this morning make for some uncomfortable reading. The only hint of comfort or Good News that we get this week comes from the second half of the reading from the Letter to the Hebrews. Up until that point, both readings are quite a challenge.

We could take our Gospel reading – often called the parable of the Rich Young Man – and spiritualise it. “Well, money doesn’t stand in the way of me being God-follower, so let’s say that the money in this story represents ‘all those earthly things that keep us from God’.”

And, actually, that would be a true statement. There are many things besides money that human beings turn into idols. For some people it might be drink or drugs, for others it might be reputation or one’s good name, for others it might be a spouse or a family member, for yet others, it might be being seen as a responsible or productive person.

But in this passage, I think that Mark’s Jesus is warning us from moving our attention away from money too quickly. Jesus goes on to elaborate on the consequences of having money. And he illustrates his point with hyperbole: The rich man has got absolutely no chance whatsoever of entering heaven, …but the people who will be blessed are those who give up everything to follow Jesus.

Now I do think that it’s fair to say that this illustration is hyperbole and that Jesus is not saying that his followers must go out and sell everything that they own in order to be Christians. But I think that it’s also fair to say that this passage is asking all of its listeners to consider “the idolatry of money”. I think that Mark’s Jesus is saying that the only people who are exempt from considering their relationship with money are those who have left absolutely everything they ever had behind to follow Him.

So probably no-one here is exempt from the message – including the preacher! And I doubt many of Mark’s listeners were exempt either. Money is a universal issue that transcends cultures and transcends generations. As I said, meditating on today’s Gospel message is going to be a bumpy ride.

What is Money?

What is money and how does it function in our lives?

First of all, money is a medium of exchange. In this role, money acts as a sort of go-between. Money allows me to take my 500 loaves of freshly-baked bread and ultimately exchange them for milk from the diary, vegetables from the farm and fabric from the mill.

Because of money, individuals are no longer limited to trading with their immediate neighbours. Even in the 18th century, money made it possible for British colonists in America to purchase and transport goods from Europe and Asia that they would not have otherwise found in their comparatively primitive surroundings.

So, first of all, money is a medium of exchange.

Secondly, money is an asset. It’s a store of value. The New Oxford Dictionary informs us that the origin of the word “asset” comes from the French word “asez” – “enough”.

Now there is an interesting word: “enough”. How much money is “enough”? If money is a store of value, how much of it do you need to store before you have “enough”? I suspect that we’re starting to get to the nub of our spiritual problem. “Enough for what?” Because money seems to have this insidious way of demanding more and more of our attention.

Everyone wants to have enough money to survive. That ambition is a good one. And indeed, the prophets tell those of us with money that God is most displeased when our economic practices force others to live in poverty and destitution. Undoubtedly, God wants everyone to have enough money to be able to eat, to drink, and to have enough to wear.

But I think that you can see how this concept of “enough” can easily go on and on and on until we never have enough. It is by no means a simple task to say at what quantitative point money stops being constructive and starts being a problem. It does often seem to be the case that what I think is “enough” for someone else isn’t actually enough for me And there are probably as many different ways to idolise money as there are individual human beings on earth.

Money Demands our Attention

If we are not careful, money seems to have an ability to generate its own set of moral and ethical values. Our primary purpose in life can become the acquisition of money – whether the purpose be to spend it all today or to save it for a rainy day.

We can begin to define ourselves in relation to it. In more ways than the monetary, money can become our personal “store of value”. I suspect that this is the reason the Evangelist is so insistent that we take a moment to hear the story of the Rich Young Man, to squirm a bit in our seats, and to consider the role of money in our lives.

Jesus affirms over and over that that the focus of human life is to love God and to love other people as oneself. This love – God first and others second – is to be the main focus of all that we do and all that our lives are about. Money is a universal entity that transcends cultures and transcends generations. In every culture and in every generation, money has proven its ability to capture the imagination of men and women and to become the central focus of their lives. Money has proven its ability to demand and to capture our attention.

Must all believers – rich and poor alike – fanatically and scrupulously dispose of everything they own or suffer God’s displeasure? As I said, I don’t believe that’s the purpose of this parable. I do, however, believe that the purpose of this parable is to warn us about the powerful seductiveness of money.

Some claim that we are a sex-obsessed culture, but most people would be shocked to hear of an individual who made sexual activity the primary focus of their life. The fact that we are not morally and ethically shocked in the same way when we learn that so-and-so devotes all their energy to making and saving money indicates that this is one of our society’s genuine obsessions. I suspect that money always was and always will be a human obsession and this is why Jesus is telling us such a shocking story about it.

Some Good News

So, where can we find some Good News for those who would be followers of Christ? I think that we can find our Good News in today’s reading from the letter of Hebrews.

This morning, we have seen that God’s desire for our lives – God’s word – is indeed penetrating and sharp and that it judges the thoughts and attitudes of our hearts.

But using images of the Jewish Temple, the letter to the Hebrews reminds us that, in Christ, we have a great high Priest in heaven. Jesus, the human being who knows and understands our weakness, has ascended into heaven. We do not save ourselves by our good works; rather Jesus Christ is our redeemer. The second person of the Trinity who affected our salvation. God has ensured that salvation and resurrection are part of the very fabric of creation.

We are forgiven, and so we have the possibility of embracing that forgiveness. We can begin again, from where we are, to live lives that show love to our fellow human beings, to live lives that give glory to God and that put God’s values at the centre. We can use our money as a tool, to show God’s love for his world, rather than regarding the accumulation of money as an end in itself.


In a few minutes, we will come together to the Lord’s Table as the Body of Christ. I pray that there we may humbly and thankfully embrace the forgiveness that is offered to us. May we be strengthened as we share this meal with our crucified and risen Lord. And, knowing that we are forgiven, loved and free, may we go into the world to live and work to God’s praise and glory, putting him at the centre of our lives. Amen

Monday, October 09, 2006

8 October 2006 - Faith and a Thankful Heart

Texts: Matthew 6:24-33 and Deuteronomy 26:1-11

I can give short sermons!!! This is a short sermon for Harvest Festival. I used two variations of this in two different congregations. In one congregation, a family worship service also included a skit about "trying to serve two masters". The other congregation had a free-form discussion on the bible passages and then I offered this as a "thought for the day". Both services included Holy Communion.

Faith and a Thankful Heart

We have come together today, as a church family – like the ancient Israelites – to celebrate the harvest and to give thanks for all the blessings that God has given us over this past year.

The passage that we just heard from Deuteronomy is the set reading for the Jewish people as they celebrate their Spring Harvest, which is the harvest of grain. I asked you to listen to the words that the people say as the priest takes the basket of grain from them to offer at the altar. It may seem like a strange thing to say at a harvest festival: to recite the story of the Jewish fathers.

The Jewish religion says that this text is actually a creed of faith. How interesting! It’s very different from our own apostles’ or Nicene creeds, where we recite the doctrines that we believe about our faith.

This creed is actually a statement about what God has done for the Jewish people. God brought them out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and led them to the land of milk and honey. This is a creed which proclaims the goodness of God and the generosity of God. Everyone in the land from the priest to the foreigner is invited to come and take part in the celebration and to celebrate the fact that God is good!

When you think about it, if anyone has a right to complain to God and to think of God as unjust and unloving, it is the Jewish people. This is the people who were enslaved in Egypt. The people who were scape-goated during the Inquisition. The people who were slaughtered in the Pogroms. The people who were gassed in the concentration camps. The people of whom many mis-informed Christians today are happy to say “killed Jesus”.

This is the people who every year recite as their creed that God is good to them and that God blesses them.

Rather than reciting their history from the point of view of “God has been good to us and blessed us”, they could recite their history from a “glass half empty” perspective: That story might go like this: A self-important leader named Moses who thought he was God’s gift to Israel, led us out of Egypt into the wilderness where we were homeless and starving. Our people were almost wiped off the face of the earth.

For a Jew to stand in the synagogue and to recite that God has done nothing but good for the Jewish people requires an act of genuine faith. To stand in the church as a Christian and to recite that God cares for every human being and that he takes care of the birds of the air and the lilies of the field also requires an act of genuine faith.

Don’t tell any church leader, but I actually think that this is a greater act of faith than reciting a list of doctrines about the Trinity.

Without faith, it is easy to see life from the perspective of the glass that is half-empty. There are many people in this world who will tell you that they don’t believe in God because, if God really existed, there wouldn’t be wars and famines and drought. Without faith, it is easy to look at all that we have and to be profoundly unthankful for these things.

In the Deuteronomy passage, the focus of the harvest festival is giving thanks to God. The focus is God himself, not the worldly concerns of accumulating grain for the store-room.

In the Matthew reading, the long and poetic creed about the God who cares for the birds of the air and the lilies of the fields is preceded by the statement that no-one can serve two masters. We cannot serve God and “money” – or any other things of the world. Either God in Christ is the focus of our lives or worldly concerns are the focus of our lives.

As we come together in this Holy Communion to celebrate our harvest thanksgiving, I would like to encourage you to remember that thanksgiving is at the heart of worship. In order to put God at the centre of our lives, we must continue to always and everywhere give him thanks.

In a few minutes, we will share together in the Lord’s Supper, in the Communion meal. Communion is the great celebration of Christ in the centre of human community. It is a sacrament where we recognise that we, as the church community, are the body of Christ. But it is also a sacrament where Christ is here, among us, feeding us with his very presence and giving us strength for our journey.

In many traditions, it is customary, as part of the offering, for members of the congregation to offer bread and wine and to physically bring them to the communion table. This bread and this wine, along with our offerings of money, are our offering back to God from the fruits of his creation, We bring the bread and the wine with a joyful heart in a context of thanksgiving and worship to be transformed into our spiritual food as we celebrate Christ’s commandment to do this in memory of him.

So, as you prepare your hearts to receive the feast of life at the Lord’s Table, bring to the Lord your offerings of praise and worship. Bring your offerings in faith. Bring your offerings with joy. Bring your offerings with thanksgiving.

1 October 2006 - All Can Be Saved

Texts: Luke 23:44-47 and Genesis 17:1-6

This is the second in a series on "The Four Alls" of Methodism

The Messiah a Loser?

“Now when the centurion saw what was done, he glorified God, saying, Certainly this was a righteous man” – Luke 23:47

What’s the significance of this verse and why did Luke put it in his gospel? This is actually quite an important verse and it’s not just Luke reporting a matter of observant detail like someone involved in sociological research.

I believe that we all filter our perception of life through a number of various different “screens”. Things like language, education, or even gender cause us to perceive and interpret events in different ways. But one very big screen is one I call “What reality is like”.

The book of Job gives us a glimpse into the way that many ancient people perceived “What reality is like”. Reality was like this: If someone was healthy, wealthy, successful and had lots of children, you could be sure that God had blessed them and that they were good people. If someone was poor, unsuccessful, ill or barren, you could be sure that they had sinned in some way and that God had cursed them.

Success was absolute evidence of God’s blessing. Failure was absolute evidence of God’s curse. Thus Job’s friends tell him that he must have done something wrong to have so many difficulties suddenly befall him. Thus Jesus’ disciples wanted to know – how can a man be born blind? Things like that don’t just happen – someone must have sinned in order for him to be born blind.

So, in the world which believed that success was evidence of God’s blessing and failure was evidence of God’s curse, the execution of a young man in the prime of his life by the most humiliating means possible is absolute proof that he has been cursed by God. In the story of “The Jewish Messiah versus Rome”, the crucifixion is proof positive that the gods are on the side of Rome. Because no-one rises from the dead, of course.

The Gentile Proclaims Jesus Righteous

And so, as this “Jesus versus Rome” story ends, the Jewish crowd who witnessed Jesus’ death went home beating their breasts. The response of the Roman solider, however, was to say: “Certainly this man was righteous”

Now by Jewish standards, of course, the Roman soldier is an outsider.

By his own “worldly” standards, he should be proclaiming that Jesus is unrighteous, that Jesus is a failure.

Instead, the way Luke tells the story, a non-Jewish person is the first person to hint at the victory to come. It is a member of “the current evil generation” rather than a Jew who proclaims the righteousness of Jesus at the foot of the cross. Perhaps God’s saving purposes are not intended simply for Israel but for all of humankind.

In Genesis 17:5, God promises Abraham that he will be “the ancestor of many nations”. Luke is making clear to his Jewish readers and to us that, in Jesus, this promise has been fulfilled.

Through Jesus, God has made clear that his salvation is open to all people, not just the Jews. I believe that God’s salvation was made real by the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But I also believe that Jesus made clear in his teachings and his actions that God is the God of all people and that salvation is intended for all people.

All Can be Saved

If you attended the evening service two weeks ago, you may recall that I said that for the next four evenings that I preached, I was going to preach on the basic beliefs of Methodism.

You will recall that these are summarised in a statement called “The Four Alls”:
- All need to be saved
- All can be saved
- All can know they are saved
- All can be saved to the uttermost

In case I’ve confused you with a rather long introduction, today we are concentrating on the concept: “All can be saved”. “All can be saved”, as in “All are able to be saved”.

Again, if you were here two weeks ago, you might recall that I said that it’s my belief that Methodism has been so successful in putting its message across that it risks being mistaken for some kind of generic Protestantism that has no particularly distinctive doctrines.

And I think that it’s on this point that Methodism was most successful: “All can be saved”. This statement has got to be the hallmark of evangelical Protestantism. Why else do we proclaim the good news of God’s love and Christ’s salvation to anyone who will listen? Why else do we tell people that they can benefit from God’s love if they will only accept it?

Well, during Wesley’s lifetime, the idea that “all can be saved” was by no means a point of doctrine that all Protestants agreed upon. One of the big emphases in Protestant theology at the time was an emphasis on God’s sovereignty and on giving glory to God.

Many people believed that, because God is sovereign, he keeps a tight control over everything that happens in the world and in eternity. Thus, these people believed that if a person repents and turns to God and is saved, he or she is saved only because God had already decided that this should be so. And, in Wesley’s time, the people who believed this also believed – like the ancients – that being poor was a sign that God had assigned a person to be damned.

John Wesley was quite clear that God desires for all people to be saved and he preached this view of God passionately.

Good News for the Poor

It’s hard for us today to understand how revolutionary an idea this was at the time because the idea that God wants everyone to be saved has become a bread-and-butter idea for most Christians in the UK today.

But maybe we can get an idea of how exciting an idea this was in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Imagine that it is 1820 and you are a poor miner. Everything that you have learned about Christianity – which is not much – is that, if God had intended for you to be saved, you wouldn’t be a poor man.

You and your family are frequently hungry and none of you have two complete sets of clothing. You can’t go to church because a person has to wear “Sunday best” to church, even to sit in the free seats, and you can’t even afford to hire a set of “Sunday best” every now and then like some people you know.

And then these Methodist Preachers come along to the mines and they preach to you in the pits during your short meal break. They tell you that God loves you and that God sent his Son to die for you.

They tell you that God’s love is meant for poor people as well as those who have enough to eat. And, they keep coming to the pits so that you can worship even though you can’t go to church.

All can be saved! Wow! What a revolutionary concept! That’s genuinely Good News!

That might give you a flavour of what it meant to poor people in the UK in the 18th and 19th centuries to hear the message that “All can be saved”. You might realise that the message itself was exciting and the message itself was probably one of the big reasons why Methodism grew so rapidly.

But this message that “all can be saved” – that God’s intention is for everyone to be saved – sounds rather old hat to us today. “Ho hum. Of course. Weren’t those people ignorant and silly 200 years ago?”

A Refutation of some 18th Century Calvinists

But I think that this view of God and God’s character still has a lot of implications for Christians today. I don’t know about you, but to me, it is incredibly important that God is a God who wants to draw all things into the light.

It is important to me that God is creative and not destructive.

I don’t want to criticise Calvinism – which is the name of the theology that John Wesley opposed.

First of all, Wesley himself made it a point to embrace Calvinist preachers into his movement – he didn’t see Calvinism as a threat to the Gospel and he believed that it was important for Christians with different opinions to nonetheless work together to spread the Gospel.

Secondly, Calvinism today has changed enormously since the time of Wesley. There are very few Calvinists today who believe that God predestines people to salvation – although there is still an admirable emphasise on God’s sovereignty and on giving God glory.

Thirdly, I have to confess that I don’t really “get” Calvinism in my gut. I can’t really understand why people would prefer it to Arminianism – the name given to the theology that proclaims “all can be saved”. And, I think that if a person really wants to learn about a subject, that the subject needs to be learned from someone who understands it in their gut. So if you want to learn about what modern-day Calvinists believe, I think that we should invite someone who is a Calvinist to tell us about it from the inside perspective.

Why I am an Arminian

What I can tell you is why I am an Arminian. I can tell you why I believe that “all people can be saved”.

Mainly, I think that the message of the bible is quite clearly that God wants to draw all people into his kingdom.

The problem is, that there are no “killer proof-texts” for either the view that “all can be saved” nor for the view that “Only some will be saved, according to God’s predestination”. In the history of this debate, both sides have chosen a handful of proof-texts, but quite frankly, I find the search for proof-texts unsatisfactory on both sides.

I believe that the overall witness of the New Testament – in the teaching of both Jesus as well as in the teaching of Paul – is quite clearly that God wants to draw all people into the Kingdom of God. Not just the Jews, not just God’s chosen people but gentiles as well.

And this isn’t just a New Testament message. Modern Jewish theologians read Isaiah – the same passages that we read as referring to Jesus – and they conclude that it is God’s intention that the Jewish people are to bring the message of salvation to the world by bringing the light of God’s Law to the world. Reading a “universal message” into the Old Testament isn’t just something that Christians do – Jewish theologians do it as well.

If God’s intention is to make his Kingdom available to all people of all tribes and skin colours, it makes no sense to me that God would choose certain individuals from each of those races to be constitutionally unable to accept his forgiveness and his love.

I am an Arminian because I believe that God’s intention was to build the possibility of salvation into the very being of the universe.

“In the beginning was the Word” – John 1:1

I believe in the Abrahamic covenant – the idea that God promised Abraham that salvation would extend beyond Abraham’s direct descendents to many nations.

I believe, with Isaiah, that the nation of Israel were to be the bearers of God’s salvation to all the peoples of the world.
I believe that Jesus believed that salvation was to be for all people. He gave a drink to the Samaritan woman at the well, he healed the centurion’s servant, he healed the daughter of the Greek woman, he associated with Jews who were outcasts in their own community.

I believe – as does most of the Christian world today – that God’s offer of salvation is extended to every single individual who is ever born or who will ever be born.

I believe that God wants everyone to be part of his Kingdom. I believe that Christians are called to be the bearers of this message in both our words and our actions.

And I pray that God will help us all to grow in the knowledge of the salvation of Christ so that we can: witness to his love, make his justice and his care known by our actions, and bring glory to his name. Amen

1 October 2006 - Thanksgiving as an act of Faith

A Sermon for Harvest Thanksgiving Festival

Texts: Matthew 6:24-33 and Deuteronomy 26:1-11

Don’t Worry???

In Matthew, Chapter 6, we read: "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear….Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.”

OK, I’m going to say it. I know some of you are thinking it: was Jesus living in cloud-coo coo land when he said that? “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or about what you will wear???” Surely this is a recipe for disaster and irresponsibility?

The advice of the writer of 2 Thessalonians 3 sounds much more down to earth: “In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers, to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teaching you received from us….For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: ‘If a man will not work, he shall not eat.’" Some commentators think that perhaps those Christian brothers and sisters needed to be told these things because they were taking Jesus’ words about the birds of the air just a tad too literally.

And, what if I walked up to a client of the Birmingham City Mission and told her “Do not worry about your life because God feeds the lilies of the fields”? I can imagine the sort of response I might get. Not the exact words, but the tone of the response. And that might very well be an understandable reaction. Don’t worry? Where was God when I asked Him for help but instead ended up destitute?

OK, to be honest, I find this passage to be very challenging. Taken too literally it can condone idleness on the one hand. Or it can fly in the face of bitter experience on the other hand.

I can’t stand here in all good conscience as a preacher and as a minister and tell you: “Don’t worry, everything in life will work out if you believe in God.” At best, the real-life experience of many, many devout Christians testifies to the fact that this sort of statement is simply not true, no matter how piously many other devout Christians have espoused just such a point of view over the last 2000 years.

At worst, such a belief can do a lot of damage either to oneself or to others. It is simply not true to say that a person will be happy, healthy or well-fed if only they have enough faith.

Not a Prosperity Gospel

So what sort of meaning might we be able to make from these words of Jesus? I’m going to propose that the best perspective from which to regard this passage is not from the perspective of an instruction from Jesus but from the perspective of a hymn or a poem of faith.

But first, I want to change gears a bit and have a pause and step into another world. The world we are going to step into is the world of the Greek philosopher. Don’t worry, I’m going to keep it simple and I think you might recognise a lot of it anyway

In the world of the Greek Philosopher, the definition of “God” is that God’s essence is that of “unknowable Spirit”. The “spiritual world” rules. This is the place where – according to them – God can be found. Spirit is Good with a capital G and anything to do with the body, or even the mind, is inferior to the spirit. In very simple terms – Spirit Good, Mind and Body Bad.

In order to commune with the God-who-is-Spirit, things of the body and the mind must be set aside. A person has to become purely spiritual – a state of being that even the Greek Philosophers believed was very rare indeed.

But doesn’t that all sound a bit familiar? On the one hand, reaching a spiritual place beyond mind and body might seem a bit “New-Agey”, but on the other hand, this “body bad / spirit good” stuff absolutely permeates our culture.

How would the Greek Philosopher regard the birds of the air and the lilies of the field? The Greek Philosopher would say: “Never mind the birds of the air and the lilies of the fields. They are not important in the grand scheme of eternity, they do not have spirits.” “They belong to corrupt matter. God does not care about them.”

But the Matthew reading tells us most explicitly that God does care about the birds and the lilies. God does care about creation. And if God cares about such things as birds and lilies, how much more does God care about human beings.

Regarded poetically, the birds and the lilies are symbols of God’s providential care for Creation. This is not a model to be followed by human beings – it’s not a list of instructions. This is a poem. This is hymn. This is song of praise sung by people of faith to the God who cares about every single part of creation.

Counting Your Blessings Requires Faith

To be a person of faith is, in some sense, to see the proverbial glass as being half full. It’s easy to see the glass as half full when it was just empty and someone has poured water into it. It’s harder to see the glass as half full when we feel that the glass “really ought” to be full and that God is cheating us out of something if it is not.

The passage we read this morning from Deuteronomy is the passage that is read at the Jewish spring harvest – the harvest of grain. Before the passage was read, I asked you to listen for what the people say after they have given their basket of grain to the priest in the tabernacle. This is actually a creed of faith. It is a creed to be recited during the harvest festival: “Our people became a great people whilst we were living in Egypt, but the Egyptians made us suffer. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with great terror and with miraculous signs and wonders and gave us a land flowing with milk and honey.”

The alternative version to that creed – the “glass half empty” version of it might read – “A megalomaniacal leader named Moses who thought he was God’s gift to Israel, led us out of Egypt into the wilderness where we were homeless and starving. Our people were almost wiped off the face of the earth.”

The Jewish liturgy asks its people every year to recite this creed of faith that God is good and brings them to the land of milk and honey. In the Jewish liturgy, this is as much a statement of faith for today as it is a recitation of history. This is the people who were enslaved in Egypt. The people who were scape-goated during the Inquisition. The people who were slaughtered in the Pogroms. The people who were gassed in the concentration camps. The people of whom many mis-informed Christians today are happy to say “killed Jesus”.

This is the people who every year recite as their creed that God is good to them and that God blesses them.

Don’t tell any church official, but for me this sort of statement of faith is more of a genuine statement of faith than reciting a list of doctrines.

It takes faith to see the proverbial glass as half full when it could so easily be seen as half empty. It takes faith to see the few drops of water in the glass as a blessing when previously the glass was full.

Harvest and a Thankful Heart

We live in a society where most of the things that town-dwellers need for our every-day well-being – like our food and our clothing – are things that we acquire “second hand”.

I’d venture a guess that none of us here live primarily off the land and we’ve acknowledged that as a congregation by saying that it makes more sense for us to celebrate the Harvest Thanksgiving by taking a donation for Birmingham City Mission than it does to bring gifts from our gardens

Speaking personally, this lack of primary contact with nature and with the land can mean that I lack appreciation for nature and for the providence of God. In my case, the Methodist Church pays me a stipend and then the necessities of life – like milk and vegetables – seem to magically appear in the supermarket where I buy them and consume them.

When I remember to think about it, I am aware, for instance, that British dairy farmers are in crisis because of the recent drought as well as because the big supermarket chains are forcing them to sell milk at a price below their cost of production.

These farmers will be well aware of two theological issues: God’s hand in nature and human greed.

Whereas, as a town-dweller, I have a false sense of being “in control” of my life, the dairy farmer knows he or she has no control over the weather, the rain and the grass supply to feed the cows. As a town dweller, I suspect that I proclaim that “God is good” with a false understanding of how dependent I am on God. But the Christian farmer is asked to proclaim “God is good” even in a year of drought.

The farmer also experiences first-hand the effect that the growth of the large supermarket chains have on the price that the farmer can get for the milk. In order to make more profits for themselves, the large supermarkets are in a position to say “We will only pay you X pence per gallon less than your cost of production”. And as long as consumers are complacent about this state of affairs, British farmers are at a very real risk of being driven out of business – as is happening at the moment.

We can’t do anything about the weather, but if we’re going to claim to be Christians and proclaim that “God is Good”, then I believe that we are obliged to take action for justice when and where we can. To paraphrase a medieval Jewish rabbi: God does not require us to change the world single-handedly, but he does require us to contribute to the building of God’s Kingdom.

Harvest and Faithful Discipleship

Harvest is a metaphor, perhaps, for a life of faithful discipleship. There are many things in our lives over which we have absolutely no control, yet it is an act of real faith to declare that God cares about God’s creation and that God’s purposes for all of creation are good.

Faithful Jews declare even today that God continually brings their people to the [gesture] “land of milk and honey” Faithful Christians declare that the God who cares for the lilies of the fields and the birds of air cares even more for human beings.

And, as faithful people, we acknowledge God’s sovereignty and God’s good purposes by coming to the tabernacle with our harvest offerings to present them to God in thanksgiving. When it comes to offering back to God a portion of what he has given us, we do have a choice.

We can refuse God our acts of thanksgiving so if we so choose. We can refuse to do justice if we so choose.

To give our thanks and to pledge to live justly is an act of faith. To offer back to God our harvest, our resources, our time, our talents and our money is an act of faith that we can participate in the coming of the Kingdom of God and God’s Righteousness.