Sabbatical Report #4 (a repost from April 27th 2007)

Note: this is another repost from my Sabbatical blog, ‘An Anabaptist Anglican‘, from five years ago. This post was originally posted on April 27th 2007.

Stuart Murray: Post-Christendom, Part 2.

This is the second half of my summary of the argument of Stuart Murray’s fine book Post-Christendom, which I have been reading on my sabbatical. I need to stress that this is just a summary, and that Stuart’s writing is not easy to summarise. I highly recommend that people read the book for themselves!

Stuart’s final chapters suggest some direction for the Christian church in the post-Christendom world. He begins by thinking about mission. ‘What approach to evangelism is appropriate in post-Christendom? How can churches pursue social transformation without exercising control? What type of political engagement is feasible for marginal churches?’ The strategies he suggests include:

  • Frankly confessing our failure to embody the gospel, and inviting others to join imperfect pilgrims, not a perfect community.
  • Renouncing imperialistic language and cultural imposition.
  • Realising that churchgoing is no longer normal, church buildings and culture are alien to most people, and many who are searching for spiritual reality do not expect to find it in churches.
  • Searching for multiple contact points with the gospel in a culture no longer dominated by guilt – employing the full range of New Testament imagery, learning to relate the Christian story to contemporary angst and yearnings.
  • Starting further back when we tell the story, not assuming that people know the basics.
  • Rediscovering the ‘go’ in the Great Commission.
  • Engaging in conversation rather than confrontation, evangelism through dialogue, listening and speaking, receiving and imparting.
  • Concentrating on low-profile contextual witness, not razzmatazz.
  • Anticipating that the journey toward Christ will take longer – process evangelism courses must assume less and last longer.
  • Speaking consciously from the margins and inviting people into a lifestyle which, properly understood, contravenes dominant social values.
  • Post-Christendom evangelism must be uncoupled from ‘inviting people to come to church’ (this relates to rediscovering the ‘go’ in the Great Commission).

On the issue of evangelism amongst people of other faiths Stuart has a few thoughts as well; I quote some of them:

  • Assuming that our country is Christian causes immense confusion; members of other faiths who equate ‘Christian’ and ‘western’ dismiss Christianity as corrupt, and see conversion to Christianity as cultural suicide.
  • European colonialism meant Christians encountered other faiths as conquerors and masters, not equals, resulting in arrogant religious superiority.
  • Inter-faith dialogue suffers from assumptions that other religions lack spiritual value, that Christians can learn nothing from dialogue, and that the conversion of either conversation partner is illegitimate.
  • Many Christians seem warier of co-operating with other faith groups than with secular agencies, more worried about spiritual contamination than subversion by secularism.
  • However, arguing that we should not evangelise other faith communities implies that we should evangelise only ‘latent Christians’ and that evangelism is unpleasant – both concepts deeply rooted in Christendom thinking!
  • Evangelism, however, is not the starting point for mission in a plural society – the first priority is to build relationships of friendship and respect. It is important to spend time learning to understand the spiritual experiences of people of other faiths.
  • There is much to learn from the mindset of marginal movements such as the English Baptists, Quakers and Anabaptists – passionate movements with strong convictions, which they eagerly shared with others, but also passionately committed to religious liberty, not because their Christian convictions were unimportant but because they were too important to be imposed.
  • We need to develop a missiology that is passionate about the Christian story, passionate about sharing it with others, passionate about defending their freedom to reject it, passionate about resisting all attempts to impose religious views, and passionate about friendship that is not jeopardized by divergent convictions. The foundation for this missiology is renewed reflection on how God in the person of Jesus operated through invitation rather than imposition.

When it comes to influencing society toward the values of the Kingdom, Stuart suggests some strategies, including the following:

  • Accepting that we cannot be involved in every issue with our limited resources.
  • Doing nothing, rather than acting in ways that contravene our values.
  • Accepting that we can no longer expect to be consulted about every issue on the basis of past status.
  • Rediscovering the prophetic minority stance and a tone of voice that befits marginal communities.
  • Offering a perspective that transcends ‘right wing’ and ‘left wing’.
  • Choosing to believe God’s mission can be effective from the bottom up rather than the top down.

Thus mission – now what about the shape of the church itself? Stuart acknowledges the yawning gap between church and contemporary culture. He investigates two forms of church – the ‘emerging’ church and the ‘inherited’ church (a term he prefers to ‘traditional’ or ‘mainstream’.

The ‘emerging church’ is hard to track, classify, or evaluate.

  • Some emerging churches are refocusing their mission – concentrating their energies.
  • Some emerging churches are reconfiguring community and focusing on relationships and groups.
  • Some emerging churches are refreshing worship, exploring treasures old and new.

The most hopeful emerging stories involve the integration of all three of these elements.

How do they look through the lens of post-Christendom?

  • Christendom meant enforced uniformity and contextual insensitivity. Emerging churches are avoiding this; may are configuring mission, community and worship specific to particular contexts.
  • Many are small, because they value human-scale community; they may be better placed to flourish in post-Christendom and nurture disciples.
  • Many share features with the dissident tradition: replacing hierarchy with egalitarian structures, exploring multi-voiced worship, using accessible venues rather than church buildings.
  • It might help them to know more history so they can learn from earlier movements; they especially need to take the demise of Christendom seriously.
  • They need to develop inter-generational strategies for passing on the faith (many are single-generation communities).
  • Are some of them more concerned with style than core values?
  • Some of them are parasitic on inherited churches, primarily recruiting dissatisfied Christians.

What about ‘inherited churches’? They need to eschew nostalgia and welcome the challenges and opportunities of post-Christendom. Some inherited practices that need to be reconsidered include:

  • The clergy/laity distinction, which hinders recognition of the ministry of all God’s people, perpetuates the myth that clergy are the ‘front line’, and leads to performance-oriented front-led services. Instead Ephesians 4:1-16 needs to be central: the church is where God’s people are resourced for mission and ministry, not the place where clergy man the front line and expect the laity to resource them! An agenda for change might include appointing leaders from their own congregation, regarding bi-vocational team leadership as normal (i.e. teams of part-time leaders, rather than a single full-timer), and replacing the reductionist concept of ‘ministry of word and sacrament’ with ‘equipping God’s people for works of service’.
  • Monologue sermons, which became dominant in Christendom. But the monologue is one of the least effective means of instruction and encourages passivity in hearers. Today we can explore alternatives: open-ended presentations, posing questions rather than dispensing answers, making room for comments, challenges etc., having several speakers debating issues with congregations invited to participate, forming discussion groups during or after sermons etc. We also need to go much further in the direction of multi-voiced worship.
  • Church discipline needs to be recovered, but first congregations need to learn skills in handling conflict. Matthew 18:15-20 is the model, but it is not hierarchical (leaders are not mentioned).
  • ‘Peace church’ – a modest proposal: ‘Let the Christians of the world agree that they will not kill each other’.
  • Beyond tithing – ‘if just war thinking is inadequate for challenging western militarism, tithing cannot subvert Western consumerism’. Instead we need to learn to pursue economic justice and participate in Jesus’ mission to bring good news to the poor.

We should beware of complicating this; church is really quite simple! Simple church might mean things like:

  • Recovering friendship as our relational paradigm.
  • Eating together a lot.
  • Lots of laughter.

Re-imagining Church.

  • Imagine a community stirred by poets and storytellers (the emphasis on doctrine and morality rather than narrative in most sermons and hymns offers little help for communities to rediscover and celebrate their stories).
  • Imagine the church as a ‘monastic missionary order’ – combining prayer and social action evangelism and contemplation.
  • Imagine churches as safe places to take risks.

Stuart concludes his book by suggesting some resources to help us in post-Christendom – we can find helpful things in the pre-Christendom church, in the anti-Christendom traditions such as Anabaptism, in the extra-Christendom world beyond the west, and even some things from Christendom too.

  • He suggests learning different ways of reading the Bible (from the point of view of the underdog and the marginalized peoples), learning the texts that spoke to people in exile, rediscovering the language about ‘principalities and powers’.
  • To what extent have Christendom power-structures influenced theology? (Creeds, atonement theories, retribution and judgement, triumphalism.
  • Helpful images for post-Christendom include marginality, liminality (a threshold state), exile, pilgrimage.

Terminology we might let go of includes:

  • ‘House of God’, ‘sanctuary’, ‘church’ (for a building).
  • ‘Clergy’ and ‘laity’.
  • Ecclesiastical titles (‘reverend’ etc.)
  • Non-inclusive language.
  • ‘Home mission’, ‘foreign missions’, ‘campaigns’, ‘crusades’, ‘winning converts’, ‘taking cities’.

Above all, in post-Christendom we need to intentionally put Jesus as the centre:

  • paying attention to his life, relationships, radical teaching, and their implications for discipleship.
  • recognizing that we need to ask not only ‘why did Jesus die?’ but also ‘why did they kill him?’
  • living in the gospel narratives
  • reading scripture from a Jesus-centred perspective
  • refusing to allow systems of interpretation to muffle Jesus’ call to discipleship
  • not just worshipping Jesus, but actually following him.
  • allowing ourselves to be challenged by his Sermon on the Mount and his kingdom prayer

Sabbatical Report #3 (a repost from April 26th 2007)

Note: this is the fifth in a series of reposts from my Sabbatical blog, ‘An Anabaptist Anglican‘, from five years ago. This post was originally posted on April 26th 2007.

Stuart Murray: Post-Christendom (part one of a summary of the book).

Over the past week I have been reading Stuart Murray’s fine book ‘Post-Christendom‘.

Make no mistake: Stuart Murray thinks that Christendom was, on the whole, a bad idea. He doesn’t dispute the fact that it might have had some good side-effects, but in his view this does not change the fact that it required the Church to mutate the gospel and the shape of discipleship into something very different from the original vision of Jesus and the New Testament.

Christendom – if you aren’t familiar with the terminology – was the state of affairs that existed after Christianity became, first a tolerated religion and then the official religion of the Roman empire. Before this, the Christian church was a movement on the edges of society, a group of wild-eyed fanatics who talked about brotherhood and loving your enemies, about selling your possessions and giving to the poor and so on. In order to join them you had to go through a demanding process called the catechumenate which lasted for several years, at the end of which you went through an adult baptism. There was a strong sense of purpose in the movement, and a clear line of demarcation between those who were in it and those who were not.

This changed in the fourth century when Constantine, the Roman Empire, decided to promote Christianity as a bold new religion that could unite his empire. He not only tolerated it – he gave financial inducements for people to join it, lionized its bishops and leaders, and built it some huge churches. He presided over its theological councils, even though he himself had not been baptized and apparently saw no difference between the god of the Christians and the Unconquerable Sun, his own family god. The process of co-option of Christianity as the official religion of the empire continued under Constantine’s successors, so that over an eighty-year period the church went from being a persecuted movement to being itself a persecutor (with the help of the machinery of state). Obviously, when that happens, something radical has changed.

Stuart tells the story of the Christendom shift and the changes it brought to the church. The story includes:

  • The adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the city, state, or empire.
  • Movement of the church from the margins to the centre of society.
  • The creation and progressive development of a Christian culture or civilization.
  • The assumption that all citizens (except Jews) were Christians by birth.
  • The definition of ‘orthodoxy’ as the belief all shared, determined by powerful church leaders with state support.
  • Imposition, by legislation and custom, of a supposedly Christian morality on the entire society (although it was normally Old Testament morality that was applied, not the teaching of Jesus).
  • Infant baptism as the symbol of obligatory incorporation into Christian society.
  • The defence of Christianity by legal sanctions to restrain heresy, immorality and schism.
  • A hierarchical church system based on a diocesan and parish arrangement, analogous to the state hierarchy and buttressed by state support.
  • A sharp distinction between clergy and laity, and the relegation of the laity to a largely passive role.
  • Sunday as an official holiday.
  • The requirement of oaths of allegiance and oaths in law courts to encourage truth telling.
  • The construction of massive and ornate church buildings and the formation of huge congregations.
  • Increased wealth for the church and obligatory tithes to fund the system.
  • Division of the world into ‘Christendom’ and ‘heathendom’ and wars waged in the name of Christ and the church.
  • Use of political and military force to impose Christianity, regardless of personal conviction.
  • Enemy-loving and peacemaking replaced by the formation of a Christian army and the ‘just war’ theory or ‘holy war’ ideology.
  • Reliance on the Old Testament, rather than the new, to justify these changes.

He makes the further telling point that in order for the church to be brought in from the margins to the centre of society, Jesus had to be banished from the centre to the margins of the church, in the sense that his example and teaching no longer held centre sway – a Master who taught love for enemies, simplicity of life and caring for the poor would have been a little awkward for a rich and powerful empire! So in Christendom the worship of Jesus was emphasized at the expense of actually following his teaching and example. This can be seen most strikingly in the creeds, which date from this period of time. They jump straight from the birth of Jesus to his death and resurrection, but say nothing about his life, his miracles, his relationships, his teachings, or his subversive lifestyle at all!

From time to time dissenting voices emerged, challenging the Christendom system and calling the church back to a model more consistent with Jesus and his way. But the beginnings of the disintegration of Christendom might be traced to the reformation of the 16th century, even though most of its features remained for centuries afterwards. The Protestant Reformers did not oppose the Christendom system, but their activities led to the fragmentation of Christendom into competing, and eventually warring, mini-Christendoms – Lutheran Christendom in Germany, Zwinglian Christendom in Zurich, Calvinist Christendom in Geneva, and Anglican Christendom in England. And in 1525 a little group of Christians gathered in a house in Zurich took the radical step of baptizing each other as adults in obedience to the command of Jesus and in rebellion against the infant baptism system; the Anabaptist movement had begun. Anabaptists were significant because they alone, at the time of the 16th century, questioned the whole structure of Christendom; they had gone back to the New Testament and discovered there that the church was meant to be a voluntary community of people who had freely chosen to follow Jesus, not something you automatically belonged to by virtue of being born in a so-called ‘Christian country’. For this (despite the fact that they were mostly pacifists) they were seen as dangerous subversives and were viciously persecuted by Catholics and Protestants alike.

The undermining of Christendom continued quietly in the centuries that followed. Stuart identifies the following as some of the causes of it:

  • Disillusionment with religion resulting from incessant warfare between supposedly Christian nations.
  • The reliance of philosophers and scientists on reason and experimentation rather than revelation.
  • The impact of industrialization and urbanization on traditional beliefs and structures.
  • Postmodernism, pluralism, and fragmentation.
  • The persistence of dissent, and the emergence of the ‘free church’ tradition.
  • The globalization of the church and its mission.

All of these have contributed to the post-Christendom situation we face today – which, in Stuart’s view, is not a disaster, since the Christendom system was not what Jesus had in mind anyway!

However, he points out that there are still many vestiges of Christendom in the popular mindset. He writes in an English context and some of the examples he gives are particular to Britain. However, some of the more general ones include:

  • Many church buildings contain military paraphernalia, and most denominations endorse the ‘just war’ theory.
  • Many denominations and agencies maintain structures that perpetuate outdated ‘sending nations’ and ‘mission fields’ concepts.
  • Infant baptism is still widely practiced, but there are concerns with indiscriminate christening where there is no evidence of Christian commitment.
  • The popularity of tithing in newer churches is encouraging Anglicans and Catholics to return to a Christendom practice.
  • Church discipline is not taught in seminaries, congregations are not equipped to practice it, and attempts to exercise discipline are frequently ineffective and authoritarian.
  • Inherited or chosen architectural styles of church buildings maintain aspects of Christendom church thinking. Many resemble lecture halls or theatres, disabling multi-voiced worship.
  • Special clothes continue to designate a clergy caste with special powers and privileges.
  • Churches enjoy the presumption that their activities are charitable and so receive tax privileges.
  • Holidays are planned around Christian religious festivals.

Other continuing issues include:

  • Overemphasising internal church issues at the expense of God’s mission and kingdom.
  • Confusion about the relationship between patriotism and ultimate loyalty to God’s kingdom and the transnational Christian community.
  • Predilection for large congregations that support a ‘professional’ standard of ministry…
  • Approaches to evangelism based on the assumption that people will come to us (being a welcoming church), rather than on our responsibility to go to them (being a missionary church).
  • Thinking the Christian story is still known, understood, and widely believed within society.
  • Reluctance to concede that Christendom inoculates people against real Christianity rather than evangelizing them.
  • Assuming that churchgoing is normal and that people feel comfortable inside church buildings.
  • Attitudes to church buildings that assume that they are ‘God’s houses’.
  • Attitudes toward other faith communities that assume that because we are a ‘Christian country’ Christianity should be given special preference.

How have churches responded to the end of Christendom?

  • Denying – some refuse to concede that it has happened and go on as if nothing has changed.
  • Defending – some see the end of Christendom as a disaster and are determined to fight against it tooth and nail.
  • Dissociating – newer churches sometimes suggest that the end of Christendom has nothing to do with them.
  • Demonising – completely dismissing Christendom as having no good features at all.
  • Disavowing – repenting of the sins of Christendom and facing resolutely forward into the new era.
  • Disentangling ourselves from the machinery of Christendom, deconstructing the old structures that are no longer appropriate, disembarking from the Christendom ship.

The final chapters of Stuart’s book suggest strategies for doing mission and being church in post-Christendom, and suggest some resources to help churches in this new world we find ourselves in. But this article is already too long, so more about that later!

‘Understanded of the people…’

If I was in London in May, I’d definitely want to see this, as I am a fan of the Book of Common Prayer (although I prefer the 1962 Canadian revision to the 1662 version):

Journalists, politicians, church leaders and writers are amongst people from all walks of life who have contributed to an exhibition celebrating the Book of Common Prayer.

2012 marks the 350thanniversary of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer (BCP) and to celebrate that milestone, St Paul’s, in conjunction with the Church Times, will display a host of prayer books, old and new.

Titled ‘Understanded of the People: The People’s Prayer Book 1662-2012’, the exhibition will run at St Paul’s throughout May and coincides with a special service of choral evensong on Wednesday 2 May at 5pm, attended by the Prayer Book Society, at which the Bishop of London will preach and the Archbishop of Canterbury will give the blessing.

The BCP remains the classic worship book of the Church of England. Although contemporary prayer books have been introduced, many churches and most cathedrals still use the BCP alongside these modern forms. The 1662 version still has a strong hold on people’s affections and even people with little faith still see merit in its venerable language and historical associations.

The exhibition will include prayer books from the First World War, a prayer book carried by a bride at her wedding instead of flowers, the gift of a brother to his sister as he left for active service in World War II, and prayer books special to people like PD James, Terry Waite, Frank Field and many others. Readers of the Church Times were also invited to submit their prayer book stories and some of these readers will have their books on display.

The Reverend Canon Michael Hampel, Precentor of St Paul’s, said: “The language of the Book of Common Prayer runs like a golden thread through the history of the English language. For many of the contributors to this exhibition, it shaped who they are and it’s a privilege for St Paul’s to be able to share personal stories alongside people’s prayer books.”

The exhibition will be on display in the North Quire Aisle of St Paul’s Cathedral from Tuesday 1 to Thursday 31 May from 8.30am to 4pm. Please see the website for visitor information.

h/t to the St. Paul’s Cathedral website.

Sabbatical Report #2 (a repost from April 23rd 2007)

Note: this is the fourth in a series of reposts from my Sabbatical blog, ‘An Anabaptist Anglican‘, from five years ago. This post was originally posted on April 23rd 2007.

My first week of sabbatical has flown by quickly and it seems I haven’t got in anything like as much study as I had hoped. But I’m trying not to get too discouraged about that. I had to get here, get established, get over jet lag, get Nick off to Manchester, get my cell phone set up etc. etc. Not surprising that life was busy.

At present I’m still working on two books: Arnold Snyder’s Anabaptist History and Theology in the mornings, and Stuart Murray’s Post-Christendom at some other time during the day. Snyder’s book is a superb historical study of Anabaptism and gives a good summary of the stories and ideas of all the early people in the movement. It’s also good in that it flags worthwhile books for further reading. I’m about half way through it now (it’s about 400 pages), but when I’m done I’ll need to go back and make some notes.

Snyder has been particularly good in identifying the historical and sociological background of early Anabaptism. He notes how in the sixteenth century in Europe there was a huge amount of discontent amongst the peasant classes, and how the established churches were seen as being in league with the ruling classes and landowners. Two common church-related themes emerge at the time: the lower classes wanted the right to appoint their own clergy (and thus have some control over the morality of their pastors, which apparently was very lax), and they wanted the right to keep their tithes in their own communities and use them to help the local poor rather than having to send them off to pay some canon in a distant cathedral.

Some of you probably know that in the 1520s there was a peasant uprising in south Germany and Austria, the ‘Peasants’ War’. At this time not all of the early Anabaptists were pacifists, and several of them supported the peasants and fought in their army. The mainline denominations, however, overwhelmingly supported the landed gentry and aristocracy. Snyder believes that much of the appeal of early Anabaptism lay in the fact that it was seen as a people’s movement. Something for us to learn there, I think.

Stuart Murray’s book is covering a lot of ground I’m familiar with, but he has a good way of summing things up and fitting them together into a coherent whole. His theme is ‘Post-Christendom’, and he defines the shift from Christendom to Post-Christendom as follows:

  • From the centre to the margins: in Christendom the Christian story and the churches were central, but in post-Christendom these are marginal.
  • From majority to minority: in Christendom Christians comprised the (often overwhelming) majority, but in post-Chrisendom we are a minority.
  • From settlers to sojourners: in Christendom Christans felt at home in a culture shaped by their story, but in post-Christendom we are aiens, exiles and pilgrims in a culture where we no longer feel at home.
  • From privilege to plurality: in Christendom Christians enjoyed many privileges, but in post-Christendom we are one community among many in a plural society.
  • From control to witness: in Christendom churches could exert control over society, but in post-Christendom we exercise influence only through witnessing to our story and its implications.
  • From maintenance to mission: in Christendom the emphasis was on maintaining a supposedly Christian status quo, but in post-Christendom it is on mission within a contested environment.
  • From institution to movement: in Christendom churches operated mainly in institutional mode, but in post-Christendom we must again become a Christian movement.

In the first half of the book Stuart is telling the story of Christendom (it has several tie-ins with Snyder’s work, actually). One very telling point he makes is that when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire it changed dramatically, and one of the changes was (as he puts it), that ‘in order for the church to come in from the margins to the centre, it had to banish Jesus from the centre to the margins’. What he means by that is that Jesus said some things that were very uncomfortable for a church in league with an empire – things about loving your enemies, about selling your goods and giving to the poor and so on. This didn’t sit well with a church newly allied to power and prestige. He points out that in the early years of Christianity, ethical instruction of converts was almost always based on the teachings of Jesus, but after the Christendom shift Old Testament norms like the Ten Commandments became more prominent.

Lots to think about, and I’m really looking forward to getting into these books again today.

I had a weekend that was mainly fun, though. On Friday I went out to Maidenhead, west of London, to spend the weekend with my old high school friend Steve Palmer and his family. Steve and I played music together when we were teenagers and have been best friends for thirty years. On Saturday we took his kids to an open day at the Berkshire College of Agriculture (donkeys, parrots, tractor rides, bricklaying, sheepdog shows etc. etc.). On Sunday I went to church with them at St. Mary’s Maidenhead, an evangelical Anglican church that is wonderfully free from tradition (!). Steve drove me back to London Mennonite Centre at lunch time, and in the afternoon I joined in the worship of Wood Green Mennonite Church. More about these two worship experiences in a day or so – they were both very enjoyable in different ways and I want to reflect on them a bit. Afterwards some of the folks from WGMC came back here to the Centre for wine and snacks on the patio. There was another folk-singing guitarist here, and they asked the two of us to play. We ended up trading songs back and forth for a couple of hours while it got dark – very enjoyable.

That’s it from me at the London Mennonite Centre. Talk to you all again soon.


An Easter Hymn from Charles Wesley

All ye that seek the Lord who died,
Your God for sinners crucified,
Now, now let all your grief be o’er!
Believe, and ye shall weep no more.

The Lord of life is risen indeed,
To death delivered in your stead;
His rise proclaims your sins forgiven,
And shows the living way to heaven.

Haste then, ye souls that first believe,
Who dare the gospel word receive,
Your faith with joyful hearts confess,
Be bold, be Jesus’ witnesses.

Go, tell the followers of your Lord
Their Jesus is to life restored;
He lives, that they his life may find;
He lives to quicken all mankind.

Charles Wesley

h/t Richard

Another Encounter with the Risen Jesus (a sermon on Luke 24:36-49)

An ancient Christian writer once said, ‘We are an Easter people, and Alleluia is our song!’ I think these words are profoundly true. As I said last week, the resurrection stories are at the end of the gospels, but they are truly the beginning of the Gospel. The good news that love is stronger than death, that Jesus is truly the Lord of all, that God’s purposes for his creation will one day become the ultimate reality – all of that is proclaimed loud and clear in the story of Jesus’ resurrection. And so in these weeks after Easter we’re staying with the resurrection story and exploring more of its implications for us, as individuals and as the people of God, the Church of Jesus Christ.

Today we heard again the story of the visit of Jesus to the Upper Room on the evening of Easter Sunday. As Luke tells this story, it happens after the Emmaus Road encounter. Two followers of Jesus had been walking out to the village of Emmaus, but on the way they were joined by a third, a stranger who they didn’t recognize. They talked with him about the death of Jesus, and he explained to them the prophecies from the Old Testament and how Jesus had fulfilled them all. They said afterwards that their hearts ‘burned within them’ when they talked with him on the road, but it wasn’t until he joined them for supper – when he took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to them – that their eyes were opened and they saw it was Jesus. He vanished from their sight, but they hurried back to Jerusalem to tell the other disciples. They found them in the Upper Room, and they told them what had happened. The others said, “Yes, the Lord is risen indeed – we know, because he’s appeared to Peter!”

Then comes today’s story. ‘While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you”’ (v.36). ‘They were startled and terrified’, Luke says, and no wonder – I expect you and I would be too, if we saw a man we knew to be dead standing among us and talking to us. We’d think ‘Is this a ghost, or a hallucination, or have we all gone mad?’ But Jesus encourages them to verify for themselves that he is real; he invites them to look at his hands and feet, and to touch him and experience his physical presence – not just a hallucination, but a real risen body. And then, amazingly, he asks them ‘Have you got anything to eat’; they give him a piece of fish, and he eats it in their presence.

Then he reminds them of what he had told them earlier, about how everything in the scriptures must be fulfilled – that the Messiah must suffer and rise from the dead. Those prophecies have been fulfilled, as they have all seen. But there’s another part of the biblical vision that has yet to be fulfilled: that is, that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be preached in the name of the Messiah to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem. They are called to be his witnesses. But they mustn’t rush right off and get started, because they need the power of God to help them, so they are to wait in the city until they have been equipped with power from on high – the gift of the Holy Spirit.

This is the story as Luke tells it. Now, what is he stressing for us in the way he tells the story and the things he chooses to recall for us? Let me point out four things for you.

First, Luke stresses the reality of the resurrection. Not just the reality of life after death – let’s be clear about that. The disciples didn’t meet a vision of Jesus living in heaven as a disembodied soul; they met a real, embodied person, a resurrected body, a person who they could not only see with their eyes but also touch with their hands, a person who could eat a piece of broiled fish in front of them. ‘They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence’ (v.42). The words ‘in their presence’ indicate that Jesus did this for their benefit; he was showing them that he was not a ghost, but a real resurrected body.

Sometimes when talking to children about the resurrection of Jesus, we’ll use phrases like ‘Jesus came back to life again’. That phrase can be misleading, because it suggests that what Jesus ‘came back to’ was a life exactly like the one before he died. But this is not true to the amazing story the gospel writers tell. Yes, there were some continuities. They could see his scars and even touch them, and – at least some of the time – they recognized him. But there were also discontinuities; his new body did not appear to be restricted by time and space, locked doors couldn’t keep him out, and at times people didn’t recognize him right away.

How do we explain these continuities and discontinuities? In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul – no doubt struggling for language – explains it as being like a seed being planted in the ground and then springing up: there’s continuity between the seed and the plant, he says, but they aren’t exactly the same. Listen to his memorable words:

‘So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body’. (1 Corinthians 15:42-44).

This is what the followers of Jesus encountered in those days and weeks after the resurrection of Jesus. And it wasn’t an entirely comfortable experience for them!  Here’s a list of the reactions provoked by the resurrection of Jesus in Luke chapter 24: the disciples were ‘perplexed’, ‘terrified’, ‘unbelieving’, ‘amazed’, ‘foolish and slow of heart’, ‘startled and terrified’, ‘frightened’, ‘doubtful’, ‘disbelieving and wondering’, ‘worshipping’, and ‘blessing God’. I don’t think it felt at all like a cozy fireside chat with ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’. It was a cataclysmic experience, and it shook them, and changed the course of their entire lives.

Good Friday, however, is not erased or forgotten; indeed, in the light of the resurrection, it is seen for what it really was. And this is the second thing that Luke is emphasizing for us: not just the reality of the resurrection, but also the necessity of the cross.  Look again at verses 46-47; Jesus is speaking:

“Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem”.

We know that when the early Christians talked about the death of Jesus, they often turned to Isaiah chapter 53 to explain it, and this is so common that we can only conclude that Jesus was the one who had given them this line of interpretation. In Isaiah 53 the prophet talks about how the servant of the Lord will suffer, not for his own sins, but for the sins of the people. In Isaiah’s memorable words,

‘Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all’ (Isaiah 53:4-6).

There is a kind of exchange here: we are the ones who are guilty, but we do not suffer for our own sins. Instead, God lays our sins on the shoulders of his servant, and the servant suffers on our behalf. The result is forgiveness and healing for us and for all God’s people, rather than suffering and judgement.

We see that forgiveness and healing in the way that Luke tells the story of the cross. Luke is the gospel writer who tells us that, when the soldiers were crucifying Jesus, he prayed for them: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (23:34). Later in the story we read about the two bandits who were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. The one mocks Jesus, but the other rebukes his comrade: ‘Don’t you know that we’re just getting what we deserve?’ he says, ‘but this man has done nothing wrong’. Then he turns to Jesus and says, ‘”Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”. Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (23:39-43).

Luke doesn’t give us a theological theory of how the cross works, but his story makes it clear that it is here, at the cross, that we sinful human beings can receive the forgiveness that we so desperately need. We are the guilty ones, but God in his mercy came among us in the person of his Son and bore our guilt and shame, so that we could receive forgiveness and healing. And that message needs to be proclaimed loud and clear to a broken world, so that people can come to the cross for themselves and receive God’s forgiveness.

That leads us to the third thing that Luke stresses for us: not just the reality of the resurrection, not just the necessity of the cross, but also the urgency of the task ahead. Look again at verses 46-48, where Jesus is speaking:

“Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things”.

This commission is given by Jesus in all four gospels and in the book of Acts, in various forms. Jesus did not intend for his followers to stay in Jerusalem and keep the message to themselves. Jesus did not think that all religions and philosophies were basically equal and that all that was necessary was tolerance and respect, important though they are. And so in all of the records we have, he sends his followers out – to proclaim his message to others, to challenge them to turn to him in repentance and faith, and to receive forgiveness and the gift of the Holy Spirit. A Jesus who is content for his disciples to stay at home and just ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’ is an imaginary Jesus; he’s not the Jesus of the gospels. The Jesus of the gospels is a missionary Jesus – the word means ‘one who has been sent’ – and he commissions his followers to be missionaries too. The message has been entrusted to us as stewards, and our responsibility is to pass it on.

Of course, you’ve been hearing a lot about this lately, as we had a sermon series through Lent on sharing our faith; Bishop Jane stressed it at Easter as well, and I was glad to see some of you taking it to heart! As I was checking Facebook on Easter Sunday afternoon, I was really pleased to see that some of you had posted little status updates about your faith in Jesus and his resurrection. I don’t remember noticing this before, although possibly I just missed it. But even a little thing like that is a word of witness, and all of us have opportunities to put in words like that. It’s in ways like this that the good news of Jesus spreads.

And this is how Christ wants our church to grow. Yes, we’re looking forward to the possibility of a new building and we hope we can use it to run programs and build bridges into our community. But the YMCA and the Scouts and the Lions Club can run programs to benefit their communities, too, and in the end, if that’s all we do, we won’t be fulfilling the commission that Jesus gave us. Jesus wants to change the world one heart at a time, as people become his followers and receive God’s forgiveness for their sins, and the power of the Holy Spirit. That’s why our words of witness are essential.

But there’s a fourth thing as well, and it’s vital that we not lose sight of it. We’ve said that Luke stresses the reality of the resurrection, the necessity of the cross, and the urgency of the task. The fourth thing is the secret of power. A brand new building may be able to impress people aesthetically, but it won’t change their hearts. A mission action plan may be helpful, but if it’s only about human action, then people’s lives won’t be touched. And if a clever argument can make a person a Christian, then an even cleverer one can unmake them.

No, this is a spiritual struggle, and we need spiritual strength for it. And so our passage ends in verse 49 where Jesus says,

“And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high”.

If the first reality that shaped the early Church was the glorious resurrection of Jesus, the second one was the experience described by Luke as ‘the baptism in the Holy Spirit’. He’s not talking about water baptism here; he’s using the Greek word ‘baptizo’ in its literal sense: to sink, to immerse, to fill and surround with water.  Just as a person being baptized by immersion is plunged into the water, so we are promised that we can be plunged and immersed and filled to overflowing with the Holy Spirit of God. This is what happened to the disciples on the day of Pentecost, and although our experience may not be an exact duplicate of theirs, we are all promised the living reality of the Spirit. On the day of Pentecost Peter quotes the words of the prophet Joel:

‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,
and your sons and daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy’ (Acts 2:17-18).

In the Old Testament the Spirit of God came upon special individuals – kings, prophets – but Joel promises that in the last days this gift will be available to all people. This, says Peter, has been fulfilled on the day of Pentecost, and it is still being fulfilled today. There is absolutely no doubt in the Book of Acts that this was a living reality to the early Christians; take away the Holy Spirit and their life would have collapsed.

So this is where I want to leave you today, because this is the thing that makes everything else we’ve been talking about real to us. The resurrection is real, but most of us today don’t see the risen Jesus with our own eyes and touch him with our hands and watch him eat a piece of fish in front of us, though we’re grateful for the stories of those who did experience him in that way. Our way of experiencing him, though, is to be filled with the Holy Spirit, because the Spirit is the one who connects us to Jesus. The Spirit is the one who assures us that our sins are forgiven because, on the cross, the Lamb of God has taken away the sins of the world. And the Spirit is the one who gives us the words and the courage to speak to others about the Lord Jesus and to invite them to become his disciples; the Spirit is the one who works in their hearts too, drawing them to faith in Christ. So let us pray to God daily that we too may be baptized in the Holy Spirit, so that we may know Christ for ourselves, and make him known to others. Amen.

Note: the outline for this sermon (but not the actual content) is based on William Barclay’s commentary on Luke 24:36-49 in the Daily Study Bible.

Anabaptist Network Core Convictions

Note: this is the third in a series of reposts from my Sabbatical blog, ‘An Anabaptist Anglican‘, from five years ago. This post was originally posted on February 15th 2007.

In my last couple of posts I talked a bit about Anabaptist history. History is interesting to me, but I’m sure it doesn’t turn everyone’s crank, and the generous souls who are funding my sabbatical would be right to ask about its relevance to our vastly different contemporary situation. So let me bring these discussions to the present day.

One of the main reasons I am planning to journey to England for my sabbatical is because of the existence of the Anabaptist Network. The AN is made up of people from all sorts of denominations who are finding inspiration for their Christian lives in the Anabaptist understanding of discipleship. Under the ‘drawn to Anabaptism’ section on their website you will find articles by a Baptist, a United Reformed Church member, a Pentecostal, a Quaker, a ‘new church’ leader, an Anglican, a Methodist, and a leader in the ‘Jesus Army’, all telling their stories about how, while continuing to be members of their various churches, they have found a spiritual home in Anabaptism. Many more of these stories are told in the book ‘Coming Home’.

The Anabaptist Network has adopted the following seven ‘Core Convictions’, and it was these convictions, more than anything else, that cemented my interest in the Anabaptist way.

  1. Jesus is our example, teacher, friend, redeemer and Lord. He is the source of our life, the central reference point for our faith and lifestyle, for our understanding of church and our engagement with society. We are committed to following Jesus as well as worshipping him.
  2. Jesus is the focal point of God’s revelation. We are committed to a Jesus-centred approach to the Bible, and to the community of faith as the primary context in which we read the Bible and discern and apply its implications for discipleship.
  3. Western culture is slowly emerging from the Christendom era when church and state jointly presided over a society in which almost all were assumed to be Christian. Whatever its positive contributions on values and institutions, Christendom seriously distorted the gospel, marginalised Jesus, and has left the churches ill-equipped for mission in a post-Christendom culture. As we reflect on this, we are committed to learning from the experience and perspectives of movements such as Anabaptism that rejected standard Christendom assumptions and pursued alternative ways of thinking and behaving.
  4. The frequent association of the church with status, wealth and force is inappropriate for followers of Jesus and damages our witness. We are committed to exploring ways of being good news to the poor, powerless and persecuted, aware that such discipleship may attract opposition, resulting in suffering and sometimes ultimately martyrdom.
  5. Churches are called to be committed communities of discipleship and mission, places of friendship, mutual accountability and multi-voiced worship. As we eat together, sharing bread and wine, we sustain hope as we seek God’s kingdom together. We are committed to nurturing and developing such churches, in which young and old are valued, leadership is consultative, roles are related to gifts rather than gender and baptism is for believers.
  6. Spirituality and economics are inter-connected. In an individualist and consumerist culture and in a world where economic injustice is rife, we are committed to finding ways of living simply, sharing generously, caring for creation, and working for justice.
  7. Peace is at the heart of the gospel. As followers of Jesus in a divided and violent world, we are committed to finding non-violent alternatives and to learning how to make peace between individuals, within and among churches, in society, and between nations.

Obviously, at a couple of points these core convictions stand in tension with historic Anglican church polity (eg. ‘baptism is for believers’ contradicts our traditional practice of infant baptism). But for the most part, these convictions are compatible with membership in the Anglican Church, and they serve to sum up a way of living the Christian life that I find tremendously attractive. In my next few posts I will reflect on each of these convictions in turn, and detail some of the related questions I hope to take on my sabbatical with me.

More about the beliefs of the sixteenth century Anabaptists

Note: this is the second in a series of reposts from my Sabbatical blog, ‘An Anabaptist Anglican‘, from five years ago.

Anabaptism in the sixteenth century was a diverse movement; it didn’t have any strong central authority (unlike the Anglican reformation in England, which was entirely under the control of the King). But most Anabaptists would have shared the following convictions:

The Bible. Anabaptists agreed with the 16th Century Protestant Reformers that, under Christ, the Bible (not Church Tradition) has supreme authority in the life of the Church. However, they disagreed strongly with them about its interpretation and application. They focused on the New Testament and especially on the life and teachings of Jesus – a ‘Christocentric’ interpretation – and this radically affected the way they understood the Bible. They started from Jesus and interpreted everything else from him, and they suspected that the Reformers started from the doctrinal passages and tried to fit Jesus into them.

So, for instance, Catholics and Protestants justified their belief in the ‘just war’ theory by appealing to Old Testament passages in which God seems to command his people to go to war. Anabaptists saw this interpretation as contradicting the teaching of Jesus to ‘love your enemies and do good to those who hate you’, and so they used Jesus to interpret the rest of the Bible, rather than the other way around.

Salvation. The Protestant Reformers emphasized justification by faith (which they understood to mean that we are declared righteous by God because of Jesus’ death, not our own good works, and that we receive this as a free gift, by faith) and forgiveness of past sins. Anabaptists did not necessarily disagree. but their main emphasis was on new birth and the power to live as Jesus’ disciples. They stressed the work of the Holy Spirit in believers, and taught that Jesus was to be followed and obeyed, as well as trusted; he was not only Saviour but also Leader and Lord. So Dirk Philips (1504-1568) wrote: “Jesus with his doctrine, life and example is our teacher, leader and guide. Him we must hear and follow.” Hans Denck (1495-1527) insisted that faith and discipleship were inter-connected: “no one can truly know Christ unless he follows him in life, and no one may follow him unless he has first known him.”

The Church. Anabaptists formed churches made up of committed disciples and denied that all citizens should automatically be regarded as church members (as Catholics and Protestants assumed). They insisted on differentiating believers from unbelievers, so that church membership could be voluntary and meaningful, and they resisted state control in their churches. They rejected infant baptism as unbiblical, forcibly imposed on children, and a hindrance to developing believers’ churches. They challenged the way clergy dominated the life of traditional churches and also the lack of church discipline. Their gatherings were informal and unstructured, concentrating on Bible study and singing. Some of them encouraged women to participate much more actively than was normal in church and society in their day. One of their early documents, A Congregational Order (1527), says, “when the brothers and sisters are together, they shall take up something to read together. The one to whom God has given the best understanding shall explain it…when a brother sees his brother erring, he shall warn him according to the command of Christ, and shall admonish him in a Christian and brotherly way.”

Evangelism. Catholics and Protestants did not normally practice evangelism. When they had state support they relied on legal sanctions to enforce church attendance. They assumed that church and society were the same, so their policy was to pastor people through the parish system, rather than seeing them as unbelievers and evangelizing them. The Anabaptists rejected this interpretation of church and society, and so they embarked on a missionary venture to evangelise Europe. Evangelists like Hans Hut (1490-1527) traveled widely, preached in homes and fields, interrupted state church services, baptised converts and planted churches. Such evangelism, ignoring national and parish boundaries, and carried out by untrained men and women, was regarded as outrageous by the state churches.

Ethics. Anabaptists departed from the accepted norms of their society and lived in anticipation of the Kingdom of God.

They questioned the validity of private property. One group, the Hutterites, lived in communities and held their possessions in common. Most Anabaptists retained personal ownership, but all taught that their possessions were not their own but were available to those in need. The 1527 Congregational Order urged: “Of all the brothers and sisters of this congregation, none shall have anything of his own, but rather, as the Christians in the time of the apostles held all in common, and especially stored up a common fund, from which aid can be given to the poor, according as each will have need, and as in the apostles’ time permit no brother to be in need.” When they shared communion they confirmed this mutual commitment.

They rejected the use of violence, refusing to defend themselves by force. Conrad Grebel (1498-1526) described his congregation: “Neither do they use worldly sword or war, since all killing has ceased with them.” They urged love for enemies and respect for human life. Anabaptists accepted that governments would use force but regarded this as inappropriate for Christians. Felix Mantz (c1498-1527) concluded: “no Christian could be a magistrate, nor could he use the sword to punish or kill anyone.” They aimed to build an alternative community, changing society from the bottom up.

Many refused to swear oaths. Oaths were very important in sixteenth-century Europe, encouraging truth-telling in court and loyalty to the state. Anabaptists often rejected these, citing Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5 and arguing that they should always be truthful, not just under oath. Nor would they swear loyalty to any secular authority.

Suffering. Anabaptists were not surprised by persecution. They knew they would be seen as revolutionaries, despite their commitment to non-violence; as heretics, despite their commitment to the Bible; and as disturbers of the status quo. They regarded suffering for obedience to Christ as unavoidable and biblical: suffering was a mark of the true church, as Jesus had taught in the Sermon on the Mount. Their very persecution of Anabaptists showed that the reformers themselves were not building a biblical church.

Note: this post is adapted from this article on the Anabaptist Network website.