Sunday, November 30, 2008

Sunday 23 November 2008 - Sharing our Gospel

This is a thematic sermon based loosely around the texts of Ephesians 1:15-23 and Matthew 25:31-46.

The Gospel text deals with the 'separation of the sheep and the goats'. A number of commentaries suggested that this parable is not about the judgement of Christian believers or about the judgement of Jewish people, but about the judgement of 'the people' - those outside both the Jewish and Christian faith (or, as some suggest, those who have never heard the Gospel message). In any event, this parable should give us some pause about thinking that we can ourselves judge who will be separated out of God's Kingdom.

This is a rather gentle sermon. Some will think it's not hard-hitting enough given the Gospel reading. This particular congregation has been through a lot of loss recently, hence the approach that I've taken here. Ultimately, the Kingship of Christ and the reign of the fullness of the Kingdom of God will be Good News.


Seize the Day

Carpe Diem. The English translation of this Latin phrase is 'Seize the Day'. And my bet is that most people who know the meaning of this phrase probably know it not because they learnt Latin in school but rather because they are familiar with the film Dead Poets' Society starring Robin Williams.

For those of you who are not familiar with the film, Williams plays one of the central characters: a maverick English teacher named Mr. Keating, teaching in an elite US boys' boarding school in the 1950s. One of Mr. Keating's great personal passions is poetry. But I think that it would be fair to also say that his absolute central personal passion is this phrase 'Carpe Diem' - 'seize the day'.

The film portrays Mr. Keating as a man whose central mission is to help each one of the boys to think for himself and to discover his own unique talents and abilities. And so the scene is set in the film for the inevitable tragedy that is to follow when these boys start thinking for themselves rather than following the paths that their parents have laid out for them and which they expect the boys to follow unquestioningly.

Because once you learn what your passion is, you can never unlearn it.

Paul's Gospel / My Gospel

The Apostle Paul certainly knew what his passion was: the grace and love of God as disclosed in the life and death of Jesus Christ. Once a Jewish Pharisee passionate about God's unswerving love for the Jewish people, Paul's dramatic conversion to Jesus Christ transformed him in a person who became passionate in his conviction that God's unswerving love is for all people regardless of race, gender, or social status.

We might find it difficult to understand Paul's obsession with the Gospel, but imagine growing up being taught that you have the most fantastic treasure on earth because of the circumstances of your birth only to be told later by God himself that, actually, every single person on earth has access to the same great treasure.

Perhaps if we think of the Gospel message - God's Good News - as a treasure we can get some sense of Paul's enthusiasm and why he felt that he literally had to go to the ends of the known earth to tell everyone.

Because once you learn the Good News, you can never unlearn it.

Now, not everyone is as privileged as Paul was to have such a dramatic personal insight into the Gospel.

But I'd like to float the idea this morning that many of us will have our own ideas about what God's good news is - about what the Gospel message is. Or probably more accurately, we will all have our own different insights into the One Gospel.

For Paul, his insight seems to have been something like 'No matter who you are, where you come from, or what your lot in life, God loves you.' For Jesus, I think it was something like 'God is our Loving Father'.

For me, my version of God's Good News is something like 'Where love is, there God is'. For a friend of mine, his version of God's Good News is 'God believes in you'.

Other versions of the Good News that I've heard people talk and preach about are: 'God loves each of us as unique individuals'; 'There is no sin that is too big to forgive'; 'Never stop hoping'; and what I call the 'Footprints in the Sand' gospel: the idea that God is with us in the trials and difficulties of life.

These are all just a few examples of what I'm calling 'personal gospels'.

Each of us has our own unique Good News about God, our 'personal gospels' because we are all different. Taken together, all these billions of unique insights into God's Good News can't even begin to express the totality of who God is. But nonetheless, we try to express the entirety of God's being and his goodness. I think we try because we are human and it's human to want to communicate and share with other human beings.

Christ the King

Today is the celebration of the festival of Christ the King.

It is also the last Sunday in the church year and the Sunday when the Church tries to express in some way or another the inexpressible perfection of God and the hope that he offers to us in Christ.

And so the Church uses the ancient images of the arrival of a perfect Kingdom and a perfect ruler. And we use the images of fair-play and justice for all: images of the poor being fed, the ill being healed, and those who have been unfairly imprisoned being at last treated fairly. And we dream that those who exploit the vulnerable and take advantage of weak will be banished from God's new reality and that justice and peace will reign. We anticipate a future where everyone will be able to 'Seize the Day' - especially those who don't have that opportunity at present because of their life circumstances.

'Christ the King' is a symbol, an image, a human attempt to express something that is essentially inexpressible: God's love, justice and goodness. As human beings, we will never fully understand these things in this life, but we can share our personal good news - our personal insights into God - with each other.

So this is my challenge to us this morning: that we share our personal gospels with each other. Not as an exercise in converting the other person to my way of thinking, but rather as an exercise in me hearing the other person's Good News. Because together, all our personal gospels form a more complete picture of who God is and they help us each to learn and grow. These are examples of treasures that we can share with each other and grow as a Christian community in the process.

Because once you learn more about the Good News, you can never unlearn it.


My prayer this morning for all of us comes from Ephesians:
I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give us a spirit of wisdom and revelation as we come to know him, so that, with the eyes of our heart enlightened, we may know what is the hope to which he has called us, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. Amen

Sunday 16 November 2008 - No Buried Treasure

This sermon is based on 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 and Matthew 25:14-30


For the last two Sundays, the subjects of our Epistle and Gospel readings have been the Second Coming of Christ (and the reign of the Kingdom of God) and our place as believers in that Kingdom (the resurrection life) Today is no exception as the assigned Scripture readings continue to look at these subjects from yet another angle.

As I said last week, Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians is an answer to the concerns of the church at Thessalonica - 'When Christ returns to earth in our lifetime and the Kingdom of God comes, what is going to happen to our brothers and sisters in Christ who have already died?' And Paul's answer to them (he's still expecting Christ to return in his generation) is 'Don't worry, they will not be second class citizens in God's Kingdom but they will also participate fully in the Kingdom life'.

The Gospel as Light of the World

Today's reading from Thessalonians is part of Paul's closing of the letter. And Paul takes the opportunity to remind them that the coming of God's Kingdom has already begun and that they are a part of it. And he uses the images of darkness and light to make his point. In 1 Thessalonians 5:4-5 (NIV) he writes: 'But you, brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all sons of the light and sons of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness.'

I suppose that many of the Thessalonians and many people in society today might want to respond incredulously 'How on earth can anyone claim that the Kingdom of God has already begun? Are you blind to all the evil that is going on in the world? Blind to the Roman occupation? Blind to the suffering in the Congo? Blind to people in Gaza who are starving? Blind to the current economic crisis?'

And I think that, theologically, the church's answer is 'No we are not blind to evil and injustice, but we also have hope for the future that God's certain intention is that evil and injustice will end and that they will be replaced by his Kingdom.' We believe that God has promised that as surely as the sunrise follows the nighttime, that evil and injustice will most certainly end. Paul makes this point a number of times in his first letter to the Thessalonians and, now at the end of his letter, he reminds us once again of the Church's glorious hope: The Gospel of Christ is the light of the world and we have been entrusted with that light.

The Gospel as a Great Treasure

In today's reading from Matthew, we have yet another image of the the Gospel message: the image of a great treasure.

How great a treasure is the Gospel? Well, it's like fifteen years' wages for a labourer (one talent). And that's just for starters because, although one of the servants in the story was given 15 years' wages, another servant was given 30 years' wages and still another 75 years'. The message of the Gospel is a huge treasure! As a child might say, the Gospel is as wonderful as a hundred million gazaillon years' wages.

And what does God want us to do with that treasure? God wants this treasure to be invested, he wants the talents to be spread around and wants the light to make the whole world glow But instead of spreading God's light all over the world, the church is often times guilty of hoarding it for ourselves, like a treasure buried for safekeeping.

Don't Bury Your Treasure

So if we are share our treasure better, what might this mean for church-going Christians at a practical level?

First of all, you might be glad to hear that I'm not trying to say that I think we should be out knocking on doors asking people if they've accepted Jesus into their hearts. Personally speaking, I actually think that this form of witnessing comes under the category of the third servant: it's an activity that meets our needs rather than the needs of others. As someone put it, it comes under the category of 'Because I need to tell you this, therefore you need to hear it.' Which is exactly the sort thing that this parable is warning against, I think.

But hold on to your pews because this parable is certainly not meant to make us comfortable or complacent. Rather this parable is a call to believing that the Kingdom of God will come on earth as it is in heaven not by things staying the same but rather by things changing. If the church doing things the way we've always done them were the key to the Kingdom of God, then the Kingdom would have come along time ago.

Now, I have to confess that I don't have any easy answers at a practical level about how to magically turn 10 portions of the Gospel into a great harvest. But I do have a few observations from the text.

First of all, the third servant was following the traditions and customs of his time: valuable treasures were to be buried. It was actually the first and second servants who we acting in a way that the prevailing culture would have called irresponsible.

The third servant was behaving as if God was that 'better safe than sorry' God who I talk about sometimes: He thought that God's main demands on his disciples is that we shouldn't break rules. When, in fact, God's main concern is that we spread his treasures about with abandon.

Church Idols?

But worse than that, the third servant seems to think that the religious customs of his time are not human-made customs, but that they actually are the will of God. I think that perhaps this is a lesson to the church: 'Which of our human customs do we confuse with God's calling? Which of our human customs do we idolise?

I honestly don't think that God cares if we have pews or chairs (although the Methodist Property office certainly does!) I don't think that God cares if we sing traditional hymns or Matt Redman worship songs. I don't think that God even cares if we stop worshipping on Sunday mornings and have a meal and a worship mid-week instead.

Thinking about some of these changes might make us nervous but I think this parable is asking us to stop and consider what it is that we might be doing simply as human custom that hinders the working of the Holy Spirit in us to spread the treasure of the Gospel.

Before I end, I want to say that I don't have a hidden agenda and I'm not to drop a bombshell on you. I'm simply trying to reflect on this passage.

This year, our circuit did a circuit review and, along with other churches in the circuit, we've seen the positive benefits of that exercise. I think it's important that we don't think of review and change as a one-off but rather as something that we must do on an on-going basis as part of our discipleship.

But in the middle of all this remains God's Good News: the coming of the Kingdom has begun and the Kingdom will reign on earth as it does in heaven. If the early church could profess this Good News whilst living in the middle of an occupation army, then we too can profess it in our own circumstances. Our God is a God of freedom and not of fear. His Spirit is there to guide us through the challenge of change. Spirit-led change is an adventure and not a threat.

My prayer this morning is that we will always continue on a journey of trying to discern how we can share the Gospel in a way that serves the needs of others rather than in a way that serves the needs of the Church. And I also pray that we can live joyfully in the freedom of the Holy Spirit so that we are not afraid of change. Amen

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Sunday 9 November 2008 - Christ will Come Again

This sermon is based on 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 with a reference to the day's gospel reading Matthew 25:1-13. It was delivered at a service for Remembrance Sunday.


Pity the poor preacher this morning, please.

Our texts for today deal with the subjects of the Second Coming of Christ and the future resurrection of believers who have died in Christ. If you want the very short version of what these texts are about, that's basically it. You can go home now, if you like.

Now, these two doctrines are not quite the hottest of hot topics in the Christian world, but if I'm not mistaken, I think that there are two broad schools of thought about them.

The first school of thought is the literal one: the body that Jesus had in his life was resuscitated and came back to life. And at the second coming our bodies will be resuscitated and come back to life. At the opposite end of this spectrum is the school of thought which seems to see both the Second Coming of Christ and his and our Resurrection as some great metaphor of meaning. These things are not something that thoughtful modern people actually believe in (says the second school of thought), but rather we see them as powerful tools or symbols in the Great Human Search for Meaning.

So what does a thoughtful, modern preacher make of these doctrines? (Well, I strive to be thoughtful, anyway!)

The Thessalonians

First I want to begin by pointing out that the purpose of Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians isn't to give them a description of the Second Coming of Christ but rather to encourage them that those who have died prior to Christ's Second Coming aren't going to miss out on any of God's blessings in the coming Kingdom of God.

In this, his earliest letter, it seems that Paul expects to be alive when Christ returns. And I think it's also probable that Matthew also thought that the Second Coming would be something that their generation would see in their own lifetime.  So, although other allegorical interpretations of the parable of the wise and foolish virgins might inspire us and are also perfectly legitimate, I believe that it means what it seems to imply: be on your guard so that you will be ready when Christ returns to earth again as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

The only problem is that, with the benefit of over 2000 years of hindsight, we know that Christ did not return to earth during the generation of his peers. And we, like every generation since then, have had to grapple with the fact that Scripture seems to believe that Jesus would return in the lifetime of his own generation. So how can we make some sense of these things: of the Second Coming and the future Resurrection of believers?

Describing Colour to a Blind Person

Tom Wright, currently the Bishop of Durham and an internationally-respected bible scholar, provides a helpful framework, I think.

He asks a very interesting question: How would you describe different colours to a person who was born blind with no residual sight?

You might say that Red is a hot, hard colour. You might say that Green is a cool, soft colour. And you might say that Yellow is a dissonant, prickly colour. In describing these colours to your blind friend, both of you would be absolutely aware that these descriptions are extremely inadequate. But we might agree that, as inadequate as the are, the descriptions provide some way of trying to describe the indescribable.

So, just as it would be incorrect for a blind person to insist that yellow does not exist because they can't see it, so too it would be equally incorrect to insist that yellow is 'literally' prickly or dissonant. Yellow exists but cannot be described to a person without sight, nor can that person grasp the fullness of the colour yellow.

Resurrection and the Second Coming

I think that this way of thinking is a helpful tool to use when trying to imagine the resurrection and the Second Coming of Christ.

Because the assurance of resurrection into the Kingdom of God of all who have trusted in Christ is a key doctrine for our faith, so I want to try to grapple with it. It is a key narrative of the Christian faith that when the Kingdom of God finally comes, then God will put all wrongs to rights and grief will turn to joy. But I can't tell you exactly what either of these things mean any more than a blind person can explain the fullness of the colour yellow.

Nevertheless, I have a belief, trust and hope in God that we will some how be transformed into the fullness of what we were meant to be from before the beginning of time. (Resurrection) And with that same belief and trust and faith, I believe that God will bring all creation into the fullness of what it was meant to be (The Second Coming of Christ, The Kingdom of God)

To use the classic symbols, our future resurrection life will be lived in the Kingdom of God.

How God will work his purposes out, I don't know. And I don't think that the apostle Paul knew either - that's why we are disciples of the Christian Faith and not disciples of the Christian Explanation.


Today's scripture readings weren't actually meant specifically for Remembrance Day because they are the internationally-agreed readings for this Sunday.

Yet, I think that there is a connection between these readings and Remembrance Sunday. Whatever we believe about the necessity of war in this world, I believe that the bible tells us that there will be no war in the coming Kingdom.

The bible also most certainly tells us that war and death are not part of who God is.

There are people and regimes in the history of humankind that are willing to use war and murder as tools to gain an advantage over other human beings. They think that it is their willingness to kill and to murder that sets them apart and gives them real power. But, through Christ, God has said that there is actually no power in death because all things will be raised to new life in his Kingdom.

For Christians who watch and wait, this is our joyful hope.

For the forces of evil and those who rely on the power of death to define who they are, the coming Kingdom of God is their ultimate demise.

My prayer this morning is that, as Christians, we are encouraged by the hope that God is a God of life. May we pray for peace, work for peace, and look forward to the coming Kingdom of God. Amen