Making a Commitment to Invitation (‘Helping My Church Grow’ series, sermon #6)

I’d like to begin this morning by telling you a couple of true stories.

The first is one that Michael Peers has often told. Michael was the primate, or presiding bishop, of the Anglican Church of Canada a few years ago. Michael was raised as a churchgoer, but like many people he quit going when he was a teenager. However, when he was a student at university a friend of his invited him to go to church with him, and Michael accepted the invitation. He must have been impressed with what he found there, because he returned to the Christian faith, and eventually was ordained as a priest. He often credited his friend for making this happen. He said, “I went back to church for the simple reason that a friend of mine invited me, and that’s how most people become involved in church”.

The second story was told by my friend Harold Percy, who used to be the rector of Trinity Church, Streetsville in Mississauga. I once heard him tell the story of a man and his son who attended Trinity for the first time one Sunday. After the service Harold was greeting people at the door; he didn’t recognize the man so he asked him if it was his first Sunday at Trinity. The man said that it was, and then he said, “I lost my wife this week; that’s why we decided to come to church today”. He was quiet for a moment, and then he went on, “You know, my wife and I talked a few times about coming to church, but somehow we never did. You know what, though? If anyone had invited us, we’d have come, no question”.

You will have guessed from these two stories that my theme today is ‘making a commitment to invitation’. In the past few weeks I’ve been preaching a series of sermons on the topic ‘Helping My Church to Grow’. We’ve been thinking about the subject of ‘growth’ in the widest possible sense: not just numerical growth, but also our own individual growth as followers of Jesus, our growth in love as a community of disciples, and our growth in influence on the world around us. I’ve been identifying some things that every single one of us can do to help this growth happen in our church. So far we’ve mentioned making a commitment to our own growth as disciples of Jesus, making a commitment to welcoming newcomers to our church as the guests of Jesus, making a commitment to ministry, and making a commitment to generosity. Today I want to go on to the fifth and final thing we can do to help our church grow: making a commitment to invitation.

Invitation is at the heart of the Gospel, and it’s a three-way thing. Sometimes the Bible talks about our invitation to Christ to come into the centre of our life, to sit on the throne of our lives and to rule there as our loving Lord and King, or to come and eat with us and we with him. But sometimes it’s the other way around; sometimes it talks about Christ’s invitation to us: Come and experience rest, come and follow Jesus. And then there’s our invitation to others: “Come and see”. Let’s think about this for a minute.

First, our invitation to Christ. In Revelation chapters two and three, John the author passes on messages from the Lord Jesus Christ to seven small churches in the western part of Turkey. In the last one, to the church in Laodicea, he rebukes them for being lukewarm; I wish you were either hot or cold, he says, but you’re not – you’re lukewarm, so I’m going to spew you out of my mouth. He then goes on to say, ‘Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me’ (Revelation 3:20).

This verse has become famous through a painting by Holman Hunt, called ‘The Light of the World’; many of you will have seen it. In this painting, Jesus is standing outside a gate in a wall; he has a crown on his head, and he’s holding a lamp in his hand. The other hand is raised, knocking at the gate, but the gate is overgrown with vines and there is no handle on the outside. Jesus, in other words, has taken the initiative to come to you and me, knock on our door, and wait for us to open to him and invite him in.

It seems a strange image when we think of who Jesus is: the Son of God, the one who has been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Surely he doesn’t need to wait for us to open the door to him? Surely all he needs to do is whistle for the heavenly SWAT team, break the door down, and take the place by force! But that’s not his way. He doesn’t violate people; he wants their love, freely given, not forced. So he knocks, and then waits for our invitation.

What does this mean in practical terms? I remember when I was a young teenager, my dad used to lend me Christian books to read. I had been raised as a churchgoer, but God was not personal for me, and I wasn’t really that interested. I wasn’t rebelling against church, but I had other priorities. But Dad used to lend me these Christian books – he knew I liked to read – and I guess he hoped that something would get my attention. And he was right; eventually something did. There were two books that I read at the time; The Cross and the Switchblade and Nine O’Clock in the Morning. Both of them were written by people who had seen the Holy Spirit at work in dramatic ways in the lives of ordinary people. The second one especially made a real impression on me; I had never imagined a God who could do the sorts of things described in that book. When I finished it, I was on a quest to find God for myself. I wouldn’t have described it in these terms at the time, but through those books, Jesus was knocking on my door, quietly and patiently, waiting for my response.

And eventually I gave a response. One night in my thirteenth year, at my dad’s prompting, I prayed a simple prayer in which I gave my life to Jesus. I didn’t feel anything spectacular or see a vision or anything like that, but looking back on it now, I know that my life was changed forever. From being on the periphery of my life, Christ moved right into the centre. Metaphorically speaking, I heard his voice and opened the door, and he came in and sat down to eat with me. As he says in John’s Gospel: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35).

So there’s our invitation to Jesus to come and take his rightful place at the centre of our lives, as our Lord and Saviour and King. That’s what we want to see happen in the lives of the people we invite to church. It’s not just about getting more bums on chairs on Sundays; it’s not just about adding more identifiable givers so we can meet our parish budget. It’s far, far more than that. We want people to trust Jesus enough to hear his voice, open the door, and invite him into the centre of their lives, so that they can get to know him for themselves and experience him as the Bread of Life.

Then there’s Jesus’ invitation to us, the invitation to come to him and follow him as his disciples. This invitation comes right at the beginning of the gospels, as Jesus is starting out his ministry.

‘Now after John (the Baptist) was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news”. As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea – for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people”’ (Mark 1:14-17).

“Follow me” means not just “walk on the road after me” but “become my disciple”. And a disciple is a learner, a student, an apprentice. Jesus has come among us to reveal God to us and to show us how to know and love God. He’s the journeyman Christian, if you like, and we’re apprenticed to him. He’s inviting us to commit ourselves to following him as his disciples for the rest of our lives. As his disciples, each day we will make it our business to learn to see life as he sees it and to live life as he taught it.

He’s a patient and gentle teacher. In Matthew 11 he says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28). A ‘yoke’ is laid across the shoulder of two oxen so that they can pull a plough. Jesus is speaking here as if he’s the old, experienced ox who knows how this is done; you and I are the young, inexperienced oxen who need to be taught by the old-timer! “Take my yoke upon you”, he says, “and learn from me”.

Again, this is what we’re inviting people into. It’s not just about bums on chairs on Sundays and more money in the collection plate. It’s about a lifetime relationship with Jesus as his disciples, as he teaches us how to know God and love God. It’s about paying attention to his words and example, and thinking and praying each day about how we can actually put them into practice in our lives. Most people don’t realize it when they start out with Jesus, but this is the beginning of a lifetime of transformation.

But notice where this leads. In Mark, Jesus says, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people” (Mark 1:17). This is one of the things he’s teaching us to do. This is not an optional extra to be bolted onto the side of our Christian life if we like that sort of thing. One of the essential tasks of disciples is to go out and fish for more people, to pass on Jesus’ invitation to them. ‘Love is something if you give it away’ – and so is faith. So is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. So is the invitation to follow him.

So we come to the third invitation: our invitation to others. In John chapter 1 we read two or three stories of Jesus calling disciples to follow him. One of them was Philip, who was from Bethsaida, the same town where the brothers Andrew and Simon Peter lived. The first thing Philip did was to go looking for a friend to join him.

‘Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth”. Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see” (John 1:45-46).

“Come and see”. I suppose Philip could have argued with Nathanael; they could have spent hours and hours looking at what Moses and the prophets said, and Philip could have tried to persuade his friend that Jesus really was the one those old prophecies were talking about. But there’s only so much that can be achieved by argument; in the end, you have to take the plunge and find out for yourself whether God is real and Jesus is his Son. So Philip led Nathanael to Jesus and introduced them to each other, and before long, Nathanael was a member of the disciple group.

How do we do that today? We can’t just take people by the hand and introduce them to Jesus; they’re liable to accuse us of having our own private imaginary friend! So how does that “Come and see” work for us.

Well, an obvious answer to that is, “Come and see what we do in church”. That’s why we have invitation Sundays. We believe that what we do on Sundays when we gather together is important and transformational. Every Sunday, mark you – not just invitation Sundays! So we have to make sure as a community that when newcomers come among us, we are a living embodiment to them of the love and compassion of Jesus. And then we have to take the risk of inviting others to come.

Why? Many people in this congregation ask that question. Why can’t we just wait for newcomers to choose to come of their own accord? Why do we have to go and invite them, and take the risk that they’ll say no, which will hurt our feelings?

Because Jesus did not say to his disciples at the end of the Gospels “Stay in Jerusalem and wait for all nations to come to you and ask you to show them how to be my disciples”. He said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). He said, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). There’s absolutely no basis in the gospels for the idea that we should just wait for people to come to us. The good shepherd didn’t wait for the lost sheep to find its own way home; he went out to look for it.

Do we run the risk of them refusing the invitation? Of course we do. Michael Harvey, who started ‘Back to Church Sunday’, says that on average, one invitation in ten is accepted. But you won’t get to the tenth one unless you’re willing to go through the other nine! And you’re not going to do that unless you believe its important – unless you believe its part of the call Jesus has given us as his disciples, to ‘go and fish for people’.

And remember Harold Percy’s story. That man and his wife had talked from time to time about coming to church, but they never did. Perhaps they’d never gone, and it was a scary idea for them to just walk across the threshold. Perhaps they’d done things they weren’t proud of and they thought people in the church would somehow be able to tell. You may think that’s far-fetched, but not long ago a young man who dropped in on this church told me that was exactly what he was afraid of!

But maybe its not a Sunday service they’re ready for yet. Maybe you need to start further back. Maybe you’ve had conversations about faith with your friend from time to time, and there have been questions raised that you don’t have the answers for. Maybe the next step is “Come with me to a Christian Basics course and see”. We used to run Christian Basics courses in this congregation two or three times a year; they were a simple way of introducing people to entry-level Christianity. In recent years its been harder to get groups together to run them. I’ve often said, “Maybe there’s someone in your life who you know would benefit from a course like this. Why don’t you invite them to come along with you?” Of course that requires a commitment from you, too, but again, do we think it’s important or not? Do we think God wants people to come to faith in Jesus or not? If we do, then surely its worth us taking some trouble to help them find their way to him?

If we look around Canada today the picture is actually clear: churches that have a culture of invitation grow more than those that don’t. It’s not enough to be a welcoming church; if no one new comes, you won’t have anyone to welcome! We also have to be an inviting church. It’s not just me saying this because, you know, ‘it’s one of Tim’s pet projects and he’s always going on about it!’ It’s about faithfulness to Jesus who says “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people”.

So: out next invitation Sunday is the Sunday before Christmas. We’ll be having lessons and carols at the 10.30 service, and I’ll do a short explanation of the Christmas message at the end. And later on in January we’ll schedule a Christian Basics weekend, in case any of our Christmas visitors are interested in learning more. Now: over to you! Are you ready to pray and ask God the Holy Spirit to guide you about who to invite? Are you ready to take the risk of having people say ‘no’, because you know that sooner or later you’ll get to the ‘yes’? And more importantly: are you ready for the joy of becoming part of the process by which someone in your life falls in love with Jesus and starts to follow him?

‘To Care for What We Know…’ (a poem by Wendell Berry)

To care for what we know requires
care for what we don’t, the world’s lives
dark in the soil, dark in the dark.

Forbearance is the first care we give
to what we do not know. We live
by lives we don’t intend, lives
that exceed our thoughts and needs, outlast
our designs, staying by passing through,
surviving again and again the risky passages
from ice to warmth, dark to light.

Rightness of scale is our second care:
the willingness to think and work
within the limits of our competence
to do no permanent wrong to anything
of permanent worth to the earth’s life,
known or unknown, now or ever, never
destroying by knowledge, unknowingly,
what we do not know, so that the world
in its mystery, the known unknown world
will live and thrive while we live.

. . .

And our competence to do no
permanent wrong to the land
is limited by the land’s competence
to suffer our ignorance, our errors,
and – provided the scale
is right – to recover, to be made whole.

(Wendell Berry: A Small Porch, Part I, VIII, 9, p.24)

I know that this is the sustainability creed that Wendell Berry lives by. I feel in my bones that it is the wisest way to live. I don’t live by it myself, but I know I need to work hard at coming closer to it.

The problem is, this way of life is not compatible with the modern economy of Canada, especially of Alberta. Whether the governments are right-wing or left-wing or centrist, they all seem to take for granted that doing violence to the earth is an inevitable part of modern life, and they all close their eyes and ears to the consequences.

It seems to me that if we think in the long term, our refusal to live by the philosophy Wendell Berry outlines in this poem leaves us with a limited number of choices:

Choice #1: As the planet becomes unliveable due to overpopulation and environmental destruction, the human species becomes extinct.

Choice #2: We hope like hell that before we arrive at Choice #1, we’ve found the means to leave the planet so we can go find another one to rape and destroy.

Some Christians would add Choice #3: Before we reach Choice #1, Jesus will come again and rescue us from the consequences of our own stupidity. But since he has taken a lot longer to come again than most people thought he would, and, moreover, since he has had lots of opportunities to rescue us from the consequences of our own stupidity before now, but hasn’t done so, I wouldn’t bet the farm on that one.

 

Making a Commitment to Generosity (‘Helping My Church to Grow’ sermon #5)

In the past few weeks I’ve been preaching a series of sermons on the topic ‘Helping My Church to Grow’. We’ve been thinking about the subject of ‘growth’ in the widest possible sense: not just numerical growth – although that’s important too – but also our own individual growth as followers of Jesus, our growth in love as a community of disciples, and our growth in influence on the world around us. I’ve been identifying some things that every single one of us can do to help this growth happen in our church. So far we’ve mentioned making a commitment to our own growth as disciples of Jesus, making a commitment to welcoming newcomers to our church as if they were the guests of Jesus – which they are – and making a commitment to ministry. Today I want to go on to the fourth thing we can do to help our church grow: making a commitment to generosity.

Let me start by pointing out to you three aspects of our call as Christians.

First, I believe that God is calling us to the joy of stewardship. What is stewardship? Stewardship is the idea that we don’t own anything; everything that exists belongs to God, and he has entrusted it to us to use according to his will. Psalm 24 says,

‘The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it, the world, and all who live in it; for he has founded it upon the seas, and established it on the rivers’ (Psalm 24:1-2).

That seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it? If I make something on my own time, using my own materials, it belongs to me unless I sell it or give it away. God made the earth and everything in it – including me, my body, my gifts and talents, and every second of my life. He hasn’t sold it or given it away, so it all belongs to him.

This principle runs counter to the way most of us see money and possessions, or even our time and talents. I tend to think of my life and everything in it as belonging to me. It’s mine to do with as I choose. But that’s the creed of a rebel, not a worshipper of the one Creator God. My house, my books, my guitars, my life and everything in it – it all belongs to God. I’m not an owner; I’m a steward.

Stewards manage resources for the true owners. In medieval Europe, when the lord of a manor went away on a journey, he would commit the care of his estate to his steward. The steward would be charged with running everything in his master’s absence, and when the master returned, the steward would be asked to give account for his stewardship. In the same way, God has entrusted his possessions to our care, and one day we will be asked to give account for our stewardship. Christians know this. More than that: Christians rejoice in this. We have been called by God into partnership; we’ve been called to use God’s possessions to do God’s good will in the world. That’s an awesome privilege, and an awesome responsibility.

So we’re called to the joy of stewardship. Secondly, we’re called to the joy of contentment. In 1 Timothy 6 Paul says,

‘Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it, but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction’ (1 Timothy 6:6-9).

Again, Paul’s words here run counter to the way our society teaches us to live: never to be content with what we have, but always wanting ‘more’. But if we stop for a moment, most of us will have to admit that the ‘more’ we’ve gained so far hasn’t taken away the itch we feel to get even more ‘more’ in the future. There’s this empty hole inside, and all the possessions in the world don’t seem to be able to fill it.

Jesus loves us, and so he calls us to kick this addiction to ‘more’. He knows that contentment is the way of true joy. So he tells us ‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’ (Matthew 6:19-21).

Do we believe him? After all, we call ourselves Christians, and we think of Jesus as our Lord. Well, our Lord tells us that the way of joy is not the way of acquiring more and bigger and better; it’s the way of having only a little, and being content with what we have. Are we willing to trust that he knows what he’s talking about?

So we’re called to the joy of stewardship, and the joy of contentment. Thirdly, we’re called to the joy of generosity. Listen to the words of Paul in 2 Corinthians 8:9:

‘For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich’.

Jesus’ whole life was a life of generosity. He was probably the one person in the world who had the right to say “mine” about anything at all, and yet he was willing to leave his glory behind, to become a human being, to serve those in need, and to give himself to death, even death on a Cross, as a free gift for us. Jesus’ whole life was an act of generosity. And what does this tell us about the nature of God? It tells us that God loves to give. God knows that selfishness destroys life, but generosity is life-giving.

So we’re told in the Bible over and over again to give generously, because that is the way of true joy. Psalm 37:21 says, ‘The wicked borrow, and do not pay back, but the righteous are generous and keep giving’. Jesus says, “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get” (Luke 6:38). I don’t think we should understand Jesus to mean literally that if we give a hundred dollars we’ll get a thousand back. He means that the true treasure in heaven – the joy of discovering the life we were designed for – will be ours, and it will be more than enough for us.

I think that when we’re talking about generosity we really need to focus on this joy. Sometimes we’re told ‘Give until it hurts’, but I don’t think that’s true Christian giving. If it is true that all we can feel when we give is pain, then our hands may be giving but our hearts aren’t really in it yet. We need to pray for an inner transformation as well – a growth to the point where the greatest joy of our lives is to be generous, to bring blessing to others. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians, ‘Each of you must give as you have made up your own mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver’ (2 Corinthians 9:7). And of course I know that in this congregation many of you have experienced this for yourselves; you’ve demonstrated over and over again that you are well aware of the joy of true generosity.

So here are three aspects of our call as Christian disciples: we’re called to the joy of stewardship, the joy of contentment, and the joy of generosity. This is a big part of the journey that we’re on as followers of Jesus.

Alright, you say, I accept that I’m called to conversion from a life of selfishness to a life of generosity. But what should I be generous to? What should be the direction of my giving? Does the Bible give us any guidance about this? Yes, it does. It encourages us to give in two directions: to care for the poor and needy, and to support the work of the Church.

Caring for the poor and needy is a theme which runs throughout the Bible, as we’ve already seen. Today, of course, the needs are very great, and there are many avenues for generous giving. In terms of international aid there are organizations like the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund, World Vision, Doctors without Borders and so on. There are also local organizations like the Mustard Seed, Hope Mission, the Bissell Centre, and Habitat for Humanity. All of these organizations have a good reputation for using money well to meet the needs of the people they serve. Many of them need our practical help too; they couldn’t do their work without legions of committed volunteers who give selflessly of their time and talents to be a blessing to others. So it’s up to us to do our research, find an organization we can believe in, and then do all we can to get behind it.

The second avenue for our generosity is supporting the work of the church. Of course, the earliest Christians in New Testament times had no church buildings, so their expenses in that way were very low. There was also considerable variety in how their pastors and workers were supported. But Paul’s instruction on the subject is clear; in 1 Corinthians 9:14 he says ‘In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel’.

 

If the work of the Church is to continue it needs to be financed. Whether we are talking about paying staff, upkeep of buildings, or support for programs, the need is always there. And this is true not just at the local level; the Church is a family, and in that family the richer parts ought to help the poorer. When I was the pastor of a small church in the far north I was very grateful that I was part of the Anglican Church of Canada, in which money given by people in larger and wealthier churches down south could be used to help support our ministry. If it had not been for that support our church could not have survived financially. It’s tempting to think only of the needs of our own congregation, but we should resist that temptation.

We’ve talked about our call to the joy of stewardship, the joy of contentment, and the joy of generosity. We’ve talked about two possible avenues for our generosity: the care of the poor and needy, and the support of the work of the Church. Now, lastly, let’s think about the steps that most people go through as they learn to embrace a life of Christian generosity.

Years ago a friend of mine who had recently become a churchgoer told me that on the first Sunday he came to church, he was alarmed because his wife put a two-dollar bill in the offering plate (in those days we still had two-dollar bills!). To him, that was extravagant giving! After he had been a member for a while he gained a greater understanding of the needs of the congregation and the way it was financed, and then his giving became more realistic. Eventually, he got to the point of adopting the Old Testament standard for his giving: ten percent of his income.

When it comes to giving, sometimes dollar amounts can be misleading. In the Gospels Jesus watched a poor widow putting two silver coins into the collection boxes in the Temple. He told his followers that she had given more than all the rich people who threw in enormous amounts of money, because they had only given their leftovers, but she had given all she had to live on. You might say that the message of that story is that the amount we give isn’t as significant to God as the amount we keep for ourselves.

I think there are three steps we tend to go through as we grow in our understanding of giving. We start with casual giving, like my friend who thought that two dollars was generous. Let’s be frank; when we start out in the Christian life, giving in church is rather like tipping the waiter in a restaurant. If the service has been good, we might leave a more generous tip, but it’s never going to amount to much.

If we start to get involved in the congregation, eventually we get a better understanding of its finances, its income and its expenses. We look around us on a Sunday, get some idea of how many people attend church, do a bit of math in our heads and figure out what a reasonable offering on our part might be. I call this kind of approach responsible giving; I’m trying to do my bit as a responsible member of the church. Responsible giving is a big improvement over ‘Jesus tipping’, but it still falls short of the Christian ideal in one thing: it’s based on the need of the church to receive so that it can survive, rather than on my need to give in order that I can grow into a loving and generous person.

The third step is called proportionate giving. At this stage, the amount I give has nothing to do with the needs of the organization; it has to do with my level of income. I don’t care what percentage you choose – five, ten, fifteen – proportionate givers choose a level and build their budget around it.

How do I choose my level of giving? That’s something each of us has to decide for ourselves. But let me warn you against one thing. Some Christians say “Right now my income is low and my expenses are high, so I can’t give very much, but once things get under control I’ll be able to give more”. I tell you honestly: that’s a myth. What happens in practice is that the more my income increases, the more my lifestyle expands, and I still won’t have enough. If I wait to give until I think I can can afford it, I’m never going to start. What’s happening is that the false god of wealth is quietly wrapping his chains around my heart, and the richer I get, the more surely I’m going to be hooked.

The truth is that if I don’t give generously when I’m poor, I won’t give generously when I’m rich either. Jesus said, “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much” (Luke 16:10). So the time to learn generosity is always now.

Let me finish by coming back to our starting point. We’re talking about things that all of us can do to help our church grow in the widest possible sense. This topic of generosity is very relevant here. If we’re thinking of our own individual growth as disciples of Jesus, then this transformation from selfishness to generosity is a central part of that. The long and the short of it is that we’re going to be happier and holier disciples of Jesus as we learn the joy of generosity.

It’s also relevant to our church’s growth in numbers, and in influence on the world around us. Churches full of generous Christians are churches that can make an incredible difference. It’s not just they can support paid staff who can do more outreach work in the community. It’s not even just that they can partner with organizations like World Vision to save lives around the world. Both of these statements are true, but beyond that, churches full of generous Christians have a joy and optimism about them. They don’t feel drab and dark and stingy; they feel like fun places to be around! There’s an excitement, a ‘can-do’ attitude, and a sense of expectancy about what God is going to do among the people of this congregation. There’s a buzz in the air, and it’s tremendously attractive to people who are looking for a church home to belong to!

Paul said, ‘For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich’ (2 Corinthians 8:9). May you and I follow in the footsteps of our Lord Jesus Christ and continue to grow in the joy of true generosity. In the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit; Amen.

Jim Moray: ‘Lord Douglas’

This is Jim Moray’s take on the old folk song ‘Earl Brand’. He has combined elements from several versions of the song and added some verses of his own as well. I think it’s a brilliant piece of music and a wonderful example of how to take an old song and use it as the basis for something new.

More information about the song is at ‘Mainly Norfolk‘, ‘Wikipedia‘, and ‘Contemplator‘.

This song is taken from Jim Moray’s album ‘Skulk‘. Jim’s website is here.

Making a Commitment to Ministry

I want to begin today by saying something that might sound crazy, or provocative, or both: in the total ministry of the Church of Jesus Christ, the role of ordained clergy like me is secondary. You people are the primary ministers.

I believe this is a fundamental truth: front-line Christian ministry takes place seven days a week in the lives of ordinary followers of Jesus. It happens in a Christian home as members of the family learn to set their natural selfishness aside and serve one another in the name of Jesus. It happens in an office as a Christian businessperson struggles with the issue of what it means to be a follower of Jesus in an atmosphere dedicated to the creation of worldly wealth. It happens in a convenience store as a Christian behind the counter tries hard to treat her customers as human beings loved by God. It happens day by day as followers of Jesus learn to love their enemies and pray for those who hate them, to care for the poor and suffering, and to share the good news of Jesus with others.

Why am I talking about this today? Because we’re doing a series called ‘Helping My Church to Grow’, and we’re trying to identify things that each one of us can do to help our church grow with integrity. We’ve talked about making a commitment to our own spiritual growth as disciples of Jesus, and making a commitment to welcoming newcomers and visitors to our church as if they were the guests of Jesus – which they are. Today I want to go on to the next thing we can do: making a commitment to ministry. And I want to say very clearly that ‘ministry’ isn’t just something done by people wearing clerical collars. The word ‘minister’ just means ‘servant’. Are you a servant of Jesus Christ? If you are a Christian, the answer is ‘Of course you are!’ We’re all called to serve God as followers of Jesus, and God has given each of us gifts to enable us to do that.

But ministry isn’t just about what we do in church. Ministry is about what God is doing in the world, and how we can take part in that work. The Bible tells us that God is committed to the transformation of the world from a place of evil and hate into a place of love and compassion. And that means success isn’t just more people coming to church on Sunday. Success means that on Monday morning, when you folks get into your cars to go to work, you see yourselves first of all as disciples of Jesus and partners in God’s work to change the world. That means that you don’t just go to work to make a living; you go to make a difference in the world for the Kingdom of God. And of course, this also applies to those who go to school, or those who dedicate their lives to making the home a place of love and nurture for those who live there. Wherever they go, Christians are ministers of Jesus Christ.

So Christian ministry is about the entire Christian community working for God in the world. It’s a team thing! Every member of the team is important, and every member of the team has gifts from God that are necessary to the whole team.

God’s team is a team with a vision. In the seventeenth century a great fire burned down a huge portion of the city of London, including many churches. Sir Christopher Wren was a great architect who designed many of the new churches and other buildings, including the present St. Paul’s Cathedral with its distinctive dome. The story is told that one day a team of visitors was walking around the construction site of St. Paul’s. They knew very little about building, and so they kept stopping and asking the various workers what they were doing. When they asked one man, he replied “I’m digging a hole, can’t you see?” Another one said “I’m hauling stones, obviously”. But the third looked at them with a smile and said proudly “I’m helping Sir Christopher Wren build a great cathedral!”

That man had a sense of vision, and because he saw the big picture he understood how important his little job was. In the same way, we Christians are members of the construction team of the Architect of the Universe, and we are helping to rebuild a ruined world. In this work, what we need more than anything else is a sense of where our work fits into the whole plan.

What is the whole plan? In the Lord’s Prayer we pray “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven”. This is parallelism, a form of Hebrew poetry in which the second line repeats the first, only in a slightly different way. So if we ask “What does it mean for God’s kingdom to come?” the reply is “It means that God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven”. At the moment, of course, this is not the case; the reason there is so much suffering and misery in the world is that God’s will is not being done on earth as in heaven. But as God’s kingdom advances in the world, as God’s loving will is done, then our broken world will be healed. And this is what we are doing as Christians: we’re living to heal the world.

This is what ‘ministry’ is: using your God-given gifts and talents to help God’s plan for the world become a reality.  Every legitimate human occupation can be a means of doing this. A teacher who devotes herself to the shaping of young minds, or a policeman who gives himself to the protection of vulnerable people – these folks are fulfilling God’s plan every bit as much as the pastor who preaches on Sunday morning. And this means that as Christians we can’t build firewalls and keep God out of our work. Jesus wants to be your Lord at work as well as at church! Sometimes this means wrestling with hard issues. What does it mean for a Christian in business to be part of a corporation which uses cheap labour in Third World countries? Questions like this are tough, but wrestling with them is part of our responsibility as Christians committed to following Jesus as Lord at work as well as at church.

So this is the vision: God wants to heal the world, and the job of the Church is to help that happen. That means we go out into the world to share the love of God in both words and actions. In words, we share the Good News of Jesus and invite people to become his followers. In actions, we do all we can to alleviate human suffering and make the world the kind of place God wants it to be. Keep this vision in mind as we continue to talk about Christian ministry.

We’ve said that God’s team is a team with a vision. God’s team is also a team with no passengers.

Imagine that the Saskatchewan Roughriders are coming to Edmonton to play the Eskimos. The game starts; the Roughriders move out onto the gridiron and take their places. Then, to everyone’s amazement, out to face them on the other side comes the Edmonton Eskimos’ coach. You know what the result would be in this situation! And if the Eskimos continue to ask their coach to be the sole player in every game, two things are going to happen. First, the coach is going to get crucified. Second, the players are going to lose their skills because they won’t have opportunities to use them. So this situation is not only bad for the coach; it’s bad for the team as well.

This is the situation in many churches; the people think that the coach should be the one to do all the ministry. They think that they haven’t really been prayed for unless the pastor prays for them. They haven’t really been visited unless the pastor visits them. They haven’t really been taught unless the pastor teaches them. What’s the result of this? The pastor gets crucified and the church members don’t grow in their ability to use the gifts God has given them.

The reason we have this problem is that we’re working with the wrong model of church life. I’ve been using the model of a team and its coach, but many church members are working with an entirely different model. Their model is a bus and its driver. In this model, the pastor is the bus driver and the congregation are the passengers. This is why they get annoyed when the pastor suggests that they ought to do some of the ministry in the congregation. It’s as if they’d paid for their bus ticket, only to discover an hour into the trip that they were expected to do some of the driving. “Why are you asking me to drive? That’s what I pay you to do?”

But this model of a bus and its driver is completely unbiblical. Every image of the church used in the New Testament stresses the team concept. The Apostle Paul says that the church is like a body with many parts, and he points out that every part has a vital role to play if the body is going to be healthy.

So the proper model for church life is a team with a coach. The purpose of the church is to help Christians grow so that they can do God’s work in the world. The role of pastors is to train Christians in order for them to be able to do that work. Paul says, ‘The gifts (Christ) gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ’ (Ephesians 4:11-12).

The Church is not a bus. Healthy churches don’t carry passengers. They may sometimes carry injured players who need time to rest and heal up from their wounds. But this is not intended to be a permanent situation. As soon as they are well again, the injured players will be redeployed on God’s team so that God’s work in the world will go forward.

So God’s team is a team with a vision, and a team with no passengers. Thirdly, it’s a team with God’s gifts.

Pastors and preachers sometimes use the phrase ‘spiritual gifts’. What that means is simply this: if God calls you to do a job for him, the Holy Spirit will give you the gifts and talents you need to do the job and do it well. When my friend Joe Walker began to work as a university chaplain, I heard someone say that he had the spiritual gift of ‘hanging out’ with students! That simply meant that God had given Joe a talent for going where students where, doing things with them, and striking up significant conversations.

In the lists of spiritual gifts in the Bible, there’s often this wonderful combination of natural and supernatural abilities. The supernatural gifts tend to get our attention, but the natural abilities are just as important. For instance, one of the characters in the book of Acts is named Joseph, but the apostles gave him a new name: ‘Barnabas’, which means ‘Son of Encouragement’. Why do you think they gave him that name? I can just imagine the coffee row discussion after church one day in Antioch: “That Joseph! No matter how bad you’re feeling, all you need to do is talk to him and he lifts you up!” Or the two young preachers in training comparing notes, and one of them saying “I thought I’d made a real mess of that sermon, but old Joseph came over and pointed out two or three things that he really liked about it, and I felt so much better”. Joseph had the gift of encouraging people, and that’s why they nicknamed him ‘Barnabas’.

Listen to what Paul says in Romans (I’m quoting from the New Living Translation):

‘In his grace, God has given us different gifts for doing certain things well. So if God has given you the ability to prophesy, speak out with as much faith as God has given you. If your gift is serving others, serve them well. If you are a teacher, teach well. If your gift is to encourage others, be encouraging. If it is giving, give generously. If God has given you leadership ability, take the responsibility seriously. And if you have a gift for showing kindness to others, do it gladly’ (Romans 12:5-8).

This list has that same combination of the unusual and the ordinary. Some people have the gift of prophecy; they’re able to hear God speaking to them with a message to pass on to others. You might think that’s a pretty high-calibre gift and not one an ordinary Christian like you or me could aspire to. But at the end of the list we see the gift of kindness: some people are really good at feeling other people’s pain and reaching out to them with just the help they need.

Think about all the gifts a church needs in order to fulfil its mission for God. We need parents with the skills to bring up children in an atmosphere of love and nurture so that they grow into mature disciples of Jesus. We need businesspeople who can think through the ethical issues of being in business today and run their companies in such a way that God’s will is done. We need teachers who understand that all truth is God’s truth and who understand that the forming of young minds is a sacred trust from God. We need politicians, judges and lawyers who will put doing the will of God ahead of narrower concerns in their daily work.

And in the daily life of a congregation we need musicians who can lead us in worship; people with financial skill to handle our books; administrators to make sure everything is run efficiently. We need compassionate people who will give their time to listening and being there for others who are in pain, and gifted evangelists who can share the good news with non-Christians. We need people with skill in maintenance to look after our buildings, and good teachers for our Sunday School. And I haven’t even begun to talk about the ministry of pastors yet!

There is hardly a human skill in the world which God does not need for the extension of his kingdom. Or looking at it the other way around: if God asks us to do a job, you can be sure that he will give us the gifts we need in order to complete it.

So we’ve seen that ministry is a team thing: God’s team doing God’s work in the world. It’s a team with a vision: ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven’. It’s a team with no passengers; everyone works together to achieve God’s purposes. And it’s a team with God’s gifts: God will give us the talents and gifts we need to accomplish the work he’s given us to do.

What’s your place in that work? What ministry has God called you to do for him? Let me close by asking you four questions.

First, what do you enjoy doing? What excites you, what gives you a sense of pleasure when you think about doing it? What gives you the sense of ‘This is what I was made to do?’

Second, what do other people tell you you’re good at doing? Sometimes there are things we think we’re good at doing, but other people know better! And conversely, sometimes there are gifts we don’t know we have, but other people notice them right away! So we need to ask other people ‘What do you think my spiritual gifts are?’

Third, what bothers you when it’s not done well? Sometimes this is a good indicator to us of an area God has gifted us in! When I’m in a different church and the sermon really isn’t very good, it bugs me! And I know that’s because one of my spiritual gifts is preaching. For you it might be shoddy bookkeeping, or grounds that don’t look well cared for. Again, that’s often a good indicator that God has called you to minister in a certain way.

Fourth, what need has God put on your heart? If you are in the habit of praying and listening to God, you know what I mean. Sometimes you’ll just get the sense that God is putting a burden on your heart for a particular piece of work. It might be a surprise to you; you might never have felt any interest in this sort of thing before. But the Holy Spirit is guiding you, and so you do your best to listen, and then you check it out with someone else and say, ‘What do you think? Do you think God might be calling me to do something about this?’

Churches that grow, grow because each member is discovering their spiritual gifts and using them to minister – to serve God as a member of the Body of Christ. You are part of God’s ministry team. So am I. So let’s pray that the Holy Spirit will help us discover our own spiritual gifts, so we can all work together to be part of the answer to Jesus’ prayer: ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven’.

Random Discipleship Thought for October 15th 2016

The context for discipleship is Jesus’ announcement that the Kingdom of God is at hand. The Kingdom of God isn’t about dying and going to heaven. Jesus taught us to pray ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven’. So God’s kingdom is about God’s will being done on earth. It is about God healing the world from evil and sin and transforming it into a place of compassion, justice, and peace.

How does this happen? In Jesus’ teaching it is not by political or military means. Coercion (legal or military) will not change the hearts and minds of ordinary people. Jesus’ strategy is to call disciples, teach them the way of life of the Kingdom, and then send them out to share his message with others. All who believe and are baptized are called to be his followers, his disciples, and their daily agenda is to learn to put his teaching and example into practice in their lives. In this way the disciple community becomes a signpost for the world of what the Kingdom of God is all about.

Fellow-disciples of Jesus, we’ve got a high calling! Heavenly Father, help us today to follow the way of Jesus and, by doing so, to further the work of God’s Kingdom in the world.