Low-Key Religious Experience

1Religious experience doesn’t have to be dramatic to change your life. I know that, because my life was changed by a low-key religious experience.

I gave my life to Jesus when I was thirteen. This was part of a series of events that had been going on for some time.

I had been confirmed a year or so beforehand. Some of the confirmation candidates had stayed together as a youth group, and one of the people in that group was an older girl whose faith impressed me. Also, my dad had been lending me Christian books, and I’d read Dennis Bennett’s Nine O’Clock in the Morning, describing his early experiences in what we now call the ‘charismatic renewal’. Healings, speaking in tongues, works of knowledge and wisdom, baptism in the Holy Spirit – it was all very dramatic. And I found it very attractive (and a lot more exciting than the staid Anglican worship I was experiencing at the time).

But my night of commitment to Christ was the opposite of dramatic. At a youth group meeting, my dad (the vicar) said to me, “You’ve never given your life to Jesus, have you?” After the meeting, I went to my room, sat down on my bed and prayed a simple prayer giving my life to Jesus. That was it.

I realized as I was thinking about it this morning that I actually have no memory of that event. I think I do, because I’ve told the outline of the story so many times. But I don’t remember why I did it. I don’t remember what the thought processes were that led me from Dad’s study to sitting on my bed praying the prayer. And I don’t remember how I felt, before, during, or after.

I must have been at least considering the possibility of something dramatic happening. Think of what I had been reading at the time – the spiritual experiences of charismatic Anglican (Dennis Bennett) and Pentecostal (David Wilkerson) Christians (yes, I’d read The Cross and the Switchblade too). Those folks didn’t exactly major in low-key religious experiences! But I have no memory of anything dramatic – no powerful sense of God’s presence, no speaking in tongues, visions, or voices from heaven. No memory at all. Whatever happened, I’ve forgotten it.

However, something happened, because that day set the course of the rest of my life. Very quickly, Christ and following Christ moved into the centre of my life and became my number one priority. I was an enthusiastic Jesus-freak almost from day one! Dad taught me to pray and read the Bible and I made it a habit, a habit I’ve maintained to this day. I plunged into Christian fellowship, small group worship and study times, and I read voraciously. And four years later I enrolled in a two-year training course to become an evangelist. Later on, I was ordained a deacon and a priest.

But all this began with something so low-key that I can barely remember it!

So don’t feel second-class if your religious experience is low key. God is still at work, at a far deeper level than your emotions. As my friend Harold Percy says, God doesn’t write boring stories; all God’s stories are interesting stories. Including yours and mine.

Everyone’s story is unique. There is no template. There are no standardized conversions. Every conversion described in the Book of Acts is different, except for this one thing: they all describe a process by which person’s life is reorientated toward the God who Jesus revealed to us.

And that’s the most important issue. Not ‘Did I feel Jesus enter my heart?’ or ‘Did I see a vision of God?’ or ‘Did I pray the right prayer?’ The important issue is ‘Today, as I go into my day, is my face toward the God who Jesus revealed to us?’

Everything else is optional.

Temptation and Joy (a sermon for the first Sunday of Lent)

Our theme for today, the first Sunday of Lent, is ‘Temptation’. And we have to face up to the fact, right from the start, that this is not the sexiest theme on the planet!

Well, maybe for some people it actually is the sexiest theme on the planet. Because to some people, that’s what the word ‘temptation’ is all about – seductive music, low-cut silk dresses, that air of danger, that fiction of attempting to resist, while all the time you know you’re not going to resist for long. ‘Temptation’ and ‘sex’ are two words that go together in a lot of people’s minds.

And the other word that often goes with ‘temptation’, of course, is ‘chocolate’! It’s dark, it’s mysterious, it’s sweet, it can be bad for us in excess, but it tastes so good! Who can resist it? Not many of us – at least, not for long!

So we have a communication issue here. Something which the biblical writers – and our Christian ancestors – considered to be a very serious, and very dangerous, part of our spiritual experience, has become something funny, or even something enjoyable – a ‘sinful pleasure’, we might say. How are we going to rehabilitate this word, to the point that we take it seriously?

I think we have to start with another word that’s lost its power to communicate: the word ‘sin’. Once again, it’s not a word that’s used very often these days. It tends to be associated with moralistic preachers going on about hellfire and brimstone and trying to control people and taking all the pleasure out of their lives. Or, alternatively, it has that same comic feel to it as the word ‘temptation’. When people of our day talk about something being ‘a sinful pleasure’, they don’t usually mean that it’s a bad thing, do they? They might even use the term ‘sinfully delicious’ – not just delicious, but delicious with that extra ‘zing’ of indulging yourself in something that someone else thinks you should stay away from – which just adds to the overall deliciousness, doesn’t it? ‘Take that, you killjoys!’

It’s this total loss of horror over the evil of sin – the evil of our own sin – that makes some preachers and Christian writers avoid the word altogether. But others have taken a different approach. I mentioned a few weeks ago Francis Spufford’s brilliant little book Unapologetic, which is subtitled Why, Despite Everything, Christianity can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense. As I said last time, Spufford uses a snappy little phrase as an alternative to the word ‘sin’. His phrase uses a rather offensive swear word that I’m not going to repeat in this pulpit, but when I tell you that my slightly edited version of his phrase is ‘Our human propensity to mess things up’, I’m sure you can guess the word he used instead of ‘mess’!

But this is brilliant, isn’t it? Here’s part of what Spufford has to say about it:

‘What we’re talking about here is not just our tendency to lurch and stumble and screw up by accident, our passive role as agents of entropy. It’s our active inclination to break stuff, ‘stuff’ here including moods, promises, relationships we care about, and our own well-being and other people’s, as well as material objects whose high gloss positively seems to invite a big fat scratch’.

I think we all recognize this in ourselves, or at least, I hope we do. But we tend to be brought face to face with it in those horrible moments when we become aware of failure: a marriage ends, or a job disappears, or a relationship with an adult child becomes more and more distant until we wake up one day and realize we hardly ever see them again, or they never call. Or perhaps we realize that the extra glass of wine after supper has become two, or three, or four, and has started to have an impact on the rest of our life – a negative impact. Or the doctor tells us it’s time to start taking blood pressure pills or cholesterol medication, and we say, “I’m too young for that, aren’t I?” and she replies, “Well, some of your lifestyle choices might not have been very wise”.

Or maybe it’s none of that. Maybe we just catch ourselves one night in a reflective mood, thinking about what our life has become, and we suddenly remember all the bright dreams we had when we were in high school, and we think “What happened to all that?” and we’re consumed with regret, because none of the choices we made seemed that bad in themselves, but as we look back we can see how they’ve led inexorably to the person we’ve become.

Okay, so this is what we mean by ‘sin’. We have a life, one precious life, entrusted to us by a God who loves us and wants nothing but good for us. But he’s given us free will, which means that we can make real choices that have real consequences. And all of us, without exception, have this mysterious propensity to make bad choices. When we’re faced with that bright shiny thing that looks so good, or that choice between short term pleasure and long term good, over and over again we make the wrong choice. I do it. You do it. Everybody does it. And because we all live in a network of relationships, it doesn’t just effect us. The person I’m becoming effects the people I love, and the people I work with, and the barista I snap at when I buy my morning coffee, and so on, and so on, reaching out to the people in South Sudan who are currently heading inexorably toward a deadly famine caused entirely, so the experts say, by civil war. We are communal beings, and we sin as communal beings.

What do we have to say about this as Christians?

First, we’re in this together. None of us has the right to look down on someone else and judge them, because we’ve all been infected with the same disease. In A.A. everyone says “Hi, I’m Jack, and I’m an alcoholic”. Well, I’m Tim, and I’m a sinner. I mess things up. I break things and people that are precious to me. I have a lot of regrets. Every sane person does. We’re all in this together.

That’s why our Old Testament reading from Genesis is so important. It’s not about something that happened a long long time ago in a mythical time when snakes could talk. It’s about a fundamental characteristic of human beings, something that was as obvious to the original authors as it is to us today.

God creates us out of love and puts us in a beautiful garden where we have everything we could possibly want and more besides. We know God instinctively, as many children do even today, and we walk consciously with God. And we’re glad to follow God’s wise guidance, because we know from experience that things do tend to work out better for us when we do.

But then something catches our attention, something so beautiful that it takes our breath away. Immediately everything else fades from view and we find ourselves consumed with longing for this thing, this forbidden fruit. We know it’s forbidden, but we find ourselves doubting the wisdom of that command. ‘What would be wrong with it?’ we ask ourselves.

And then we hear the voice. “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?’” (Genesis 3:1). Of course not, but the voice is a cunning one; it wants us to think that God’s out to spoil our fun. It wants us to resent God. And so it makes out God’s commands to be a lot more burdensome than they actually are. “You could have so much fun; there are so many wonderful things you could enjoy if it wasn’t for these silly, puritanical commandments. Why do you put up with them? You’re not really going to enjoy life to the full unless you ignore God on this point, and do what your instincts tell you to do”.

And so we give in, and we know right away that things have gone dreadfully wrong. The thought of God isn’t a delight any more; in fact, we’re scared of him, and we hide from him. We try to avoid thinking about him, because the thought of him and the thought of what we’ve done just can’t fit together in our minds.

But when he breaks through all that fog – when the stab of conscience succeeds in hitting us – we look around for someone to blame. “The woman – whom you gave to be with me – she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate”. It’s her fault – I wouldn’t have done it if she hadn’t provoked me – and where did she come from, anyway? Wasn’t she your idea in the first place?” Or, “the serpent tricked me, and I ate” (in other words, “the devil made me do it!”).

We hide from God, and we blame others instead of accepting our own responsibility. And the result is that paradise is lost to us – we have to leave our beautiful home. We feel ashamed of ourselves, so we make clothes – in other words, we hide from each other, we wear masks with each other, because we’re afraid that if other people knew us as we really are, as we really know ourselves to be, they wouldn’t love us, or even like us. So we perform for each other, playing a role instead of being ourselves, out of fear of rejection. And the sad story goes on. In the next chapter of the book of Genesis, brother murders brother and then tries to hide the deed.

This is us; this is what we do. And we have to take it seriously. Christianity is against that facile view of human nature that says we’re all basically good people. That doesn’t make sense of all the despicable things we do to each other. Yes, we’re made as good people by a good God, but we’ve somehow gotten infected with this disease of selfishness and self-centredness – this human propensity to mess things up. And when we admit that, we can be patient with one another, because we know that we’re in the same struggle together.

And there is forgiveness. That’s the next thing Christianity has to say. Our fear of God turns out to be not the whole story. Yes, he’s angry, because he loves us and hates to see us putting ourselves through so much pain. But he’s not our enemy. And so in our psalm today we come across this incredible surprise; we can almost hear the astonishment in the author’s voice:

‘Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin’ (Psalm 32:5).

‘You forgave the guilt of my sin’. What an amazing thing! We sin against love, we turn away from the love that made us, and when he comes among us and tries to win us back, we nail him to a cross and string him up to die. And what does he do? He says, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing”. We may be his enemies, but he appears to be in the habit of loving his enemies! And so we’re encouraged to come clean, not to ‘hide our iniquity’, but to turn to God and confess it. He knows about it anyway, so why should we pretend? “This is me, God; this is what I’ve done. No denials, no excuses. Will you forgive me, please?” And the reply? “My son, my daughter, your sins are forgiven. And by the way, I’m so glad you’re back, so we’re going to kill the fatted calf and have a feast!”

That’s the wonder of the Gospel. Do you believe it? If you do, you’ll go out of this church today with a new light in your eyes and a new joy in your heart. You looked into the face of your judge, and to your amazement you discovered a Saviour. And now you just can’t get over it!

But there’s more. We’re not condemned to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. Yes, we won’t get entirely free of the infection, not while we live in this frail mortal flesh. Sin still weaves a tangled web, and even the holiest and most mature Christian gets caught in it sometimes. But salvation is possible. Progress in holiness is possible. And someone has walked that path before us.

That’s why the story of Jesus’ temptations is our gospel reading for today. This was not just play acting. Some people say, “Ah, but he was God, so he was never really going to fall to temptation, was he?” But that’s not taking the Incarnation seriously. “He was God” is not a completely exhaustive statement about Jesus. He was also a human being, subject to the same fears and doubts and tests and desires as us. Specifically, the desire to avoid the Cross. That’s what the devil was tempting him to do, wasn’t it? ‘You don’t have to walk this path of the cross. You can give them all free bread, or you can do some amazing miracle that makes it plain to them who you really are – that’ll impress them, won’t it? Or you can worship me, and then I’ll give them all to you as a gift’. No need for the nails, the spear, the crown of thorns. You can have it all for free.

Why did Jesus say ‘no’? This is really important; we need to know this. My own experience is that fighting against temptation is never a very effective way of fighting against temptation! Do you know what I mean? I’m tempted to buy something I don’t really need and I know I can’t really afford, but the temptation won’t go away, so each time it comes around I struggle against it. But when I’m struggling against it I’m still thinking about it, aren’t I? So this deliciously sinful thing gets bigger and bigger in my mind even as I’m fighting against it, and eventually, inevitably, I give in.

There’s a very significant verse in the letter to the Hebrews that offers us a different strategy. Let me read it to you:

‘Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God’ (Hebrews 12:1-2).

‘The joy that was set before him’. That’s what Jesus was focussing on when he was tempted. He wasn’t focussing on avoiding the sin. He was focussing on gaining the joy. He refused to let the temptation grow in his mind, so he turned his attention away from it, to something completely different.

We can do that too. What is ‘the joy that is set before us’? It’s the joy of knowing God better and better every day. Isn’t that an amazing thought – that we can know the creator of the universe, because he wants to know us? It’s the joy of having a clear conscience, or waking up in the morning without that heavy weight of guilt pressing on our hearts. It’s the joy of knowing that God has a dream for us and we’re making steady progress toward it. It’s the joy of working toward reconciliation and building better, more lasting relationships: good marriages, strong families, positive friendships, and even, as much as it lies within us, being at peace with those who don’t especially like us. It’s the joy of living in harmony with the person God created us to be.

That’s what we need to focus on this Lent: the joy that is set before us.

So yes – we have this human tendency to mess things up. We’re all infected by it, and it can lead us to do some awful, despicable things – things that hurt us, and that hurt the people around us. We all struggle with this, so none of us can sit in judgement on each other. We’re in this together.

And God’s in it together with us. He’s not itching to damn us to hell for it. He wants to forgive us, because that’s his nature: he’s a God of grace, a God who loves his enemies and blesses those who hate him.

He’s in it so much, in fact, that he came among us and walked the earth as one of us, to show us what he’s like, and to show us the way. And now he comes and lives among us again, living in us, in fact, by his Holy Spirit. We’ve all been infected by sin, but he’s spreading a good infection – the love of God. As we walk with him each day, that good infection grows stronger, helping us to defeat our human propensity to mess things up.

And we do this by focussing on the joy set before us. To know God is to know joy. That joy is the whole purpose of Lent. So don’t just focus on giving stuff up. Focus on knowing God and walking with God. In the end, that’s what Lent is all about.

Into the Desert with God (a sermon for Ash Wednesday on Matthew 6:1-21)

A couple of weeks ago I read these words in a book called Making New Disciples, by Mark Ireland and Mike Booker; I’m not sure whether the ‘I’ in this story is Mark or Mike, but this is what he says:

A few years ago I spent a week trekking and camping in the Sinai Desert. Reading the Bible in that austere landscape I realized afresh that, as David Runcorn says, “the Scriptures teach us that there is no path to God that does not pass through the wilderness. The God of the Bible is the God of the desert”. I was leading daily Bible studies on the life of Moses, but I could have chosen any one of the many figures whose faith was shaped in the desert – Abraham, Jacob, Elijah, John the Baptist, St. Paul, and, of course, Jesus. The time of greatest spiritual growth is not when all is going well and flourishing, but when everything is stripped away and we are left with God alone. There is something about the unforgiving landscape of the desert, where danger is never far away, that forces us to do serious business with God. In Scripture and in life, the school for discipleship is the desert rather than the oasis.

I was really struck by that phrase, ‘The time of greatest spiritual growth is not when all is going well and flourishing, but when everything is stripped away and we are left with God alone’. That’s what Lent is all about! At the end of the day, giving stuff up isn’t an end in itself. What we’re beginning tonight is a journey into the desert where all our distractions are stripped away, so that we’ve got nothing to rely on but God. We strip our life down to the bare minimum, to the essentials, to the things that are really important, and then we use a few, basic spiritual disciplines to draw us closer to God in love, and closer to our fellow human beings in love as well. That’s the point of Lent.

What are those basic spiritual disciplines? Jesus names them in our gospel reading for tonight. There are three of them, and they’re very familiar to all of us: generosity, prayer, and fasting. Everyone understood in the time of Jesus that if you wanted to live a godly life, these three disciplines were essential; no one would even think about trying to live in God’s way without including them. So as we begin Lent, it’s a good idea for us to revisit these disciplines.

So let’s start with generosity, or ‘almsgiving’, to use the older word that the NRSV uses. In verse 2 Jesus introduces the subject: “So whenever you give alms…”. Growing as a disciple of Jesus includes growing from a selfish, self-centred person into a loving and caring person. Generosity – especially generosity to the poor – is a vital part of this. The Gospels are full of examples of Jesus encouraging us to do this; in one place he even says that when we care for the needy it is really him that we’re caring for.

In Isaiah chapter 58 the prophet warns the people of his time that God isn’t impressed with fasting and liturgical worship if it doesn’t lead to a change in the way we treat the poor. He encourages the people to loose the bonds of injustice, to share their bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless into their homes, and to stop pointing fingers and speaking evil of other people.

Now of course there are obvious ways in which we obey this commandment, and I don’t need to give people in this congregation any lessons in it.  But let me just take this a little further and remind you that one of the purposes of giving is to knock selfishness on the head. We don’t just give for the sake of the people to whom we give; we give for our own sake, too. Paul tells us in his first letter to Timothy that godliness with contentment brings great gain. I don’t know about you, but I’m not a very content sort of person. I live in a culture where I’m constantly bombarded with ads for all sorts of gadgets I don’t really need. Giving, in this context, is a counter-cultural act; it helps me to focus not on my own imagined needs, but the needs of others. As I grow in holiness, the idea is that I will grow not just in generosity, but in my enjoyment of generosity. And that’s a real work of God!

If we ask, “How much should I give?” I always remember C.S. Lewis’ rule: if my giving isn’t making a difference to my standard of living, I’m probably not giving enough. There should be things I’d like to do that I can’t do because of my commitment to Christian generosity.

And of course, generosity isn’t just a matter of money. It’s also about my time and talents. How do I love my family, my friends and neighbours, and the people I don’t even like? This is all included as we think about our relationships with our neighbours.

The next thing Jesus deals with in this gospel is prayer. Prayer is one of the ways we love God with all our heart. If we love someone, we want to spend time with them; after all, the greatest compliment you can ever pay a person is to spend time with them! When you do that, you’ve given them a priceless gift; you’re never going to get that time back. That’s why we call it ‘spending’ time.

When it comes to prayer, Jesus gives us some very simple guidelines in this passage. He assumes that his followers will pray regularly. Everyone has to find the best way of doing that – that is to say, the time of day and the place of prayer that works best for you. Some are night people and find that praying last thing at night is good for them. Others like to get up early. Some pray at work, and some pray at home. Some pray out of doors, and some indoors. Some pray mainly by themselves, and some pray mainly with their spouse or their family. It doesn’t really matter; what matters is that we pray regularly.

Jesus also tells us to pray sincerely. In the bit we didn’t read, he talks about how some people like to ‘heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard because of their many words’ (6:7). It isn’t especially important what words we use, or even how long we pray; the important thing is that we mean what we say!

In Philip Yancey’s book ‘Prayer: Does it Make Any Difference?’ he tells a story about a man who worked in a downtown rescue mission. At the mission they had prayer meetings, and some of the street people prayed rather direct prayers. One day one old guy prayed, “Thank you, God, for Metamucil”, and someone else chimed in, “That’s a 10/4, God!” Perhaps we could learn something from the simple directness of this man of the street, who prayed out of the honesty of his heart.

A third thing I learn from the Lord’s Prayer is to pray simply. This is not an elaborate prayer; it approaches God simply as Father, and prays first of all about his concerns – his name, his kingdom, his will being done – and then about the necessities of life – forgiveness, daily food, deliverance from evil. And it’s short, too – there’s nothing particularly virtuous about long prayers.

These are some of the guidelines Jesus gives us about prayer – pray regularly, sincerely, and simply. And in all our praying let’s remember the fundamental goal – to grow in our relationship with God.

The third discipline Jesus mentions is fasting. What’s fasting all about? Well, as I said at the beginning, we need to have our distractions stripped away, so we can focus on God and growing closer to God. Fasting is the discipline of turning away from things that distract us so that we can give our best attention to God and God’s call on our lives. It might be a fast from TV or the internet. It might be a fast from buying books. I know of one person who fasted from electronic screens one Lent; that would be a very difficult fast for many of us, but she claimed it was a huge benefit to her life.

The classic fast, of course, is a fast from food. This is something we aren’t very good at in our culture, and I must confess that I really only do it during Lent. Last year I made it a habit of doing a twenty-three hour fast once a week. In other words, I missed two meals, breakfast and lunch, so I didn’t eat from after supper Tuesday night until just before supper Wednesday night. I spent those mealtimes in extra prayer and spiritual reading, and when I felt hungry during the day, I tried to remind myself of my hunger for God, and turned to God in my heart in prayer, wherever I happened to be at the time. I have to say, I found it a very beneficial discipline. Not everyone can fast in this way – some have health issues that preclude it – but I suspect that there are many of us who could benefit from it.

So we have these three basic disciplines of godly living, disciplines that Jesus assumed his disciples would take on: prayer, fasting, and giving to the poor. Let’s finish by reminding ourselves that Jesus is very concerned about the spirit in which we practice these disciplines.

When you give, he says, don’t insist on having your name on the plaque on the wall. Don’t even let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Keep it secret, so only God will know, and God will reward you. Don’t do it to impress others; do it because you love God.

And when you pray, don’t do it ostentatiously. Find a secret place where no one will catch you doing it. Jesus isn’t telling us we should never pray with others (he prayed in public himself several times). He’s getting at our motivation: don’t pray to impress others, pray because you love God.

And when you fast, don’t make a big noise about it. Don’t fast to impress other people; fast out of love for God.

What Jesus is talking about here is the question of who we’re living our life for. We’ve all got an audience, if we want it: family, friends, co-workers, fellow church members. But we’re not to live our lives to impress this audience. Rather, we’re to live our lives for an audience of one – God – and ‘Your Father who sees in secret will reward you’. What will the reward be? A deeper sense of closeness to God, a greater joy in loving others, and in turning away from the things that distract us so that we can give our best attention to the God who loves us. That’s what Lent is all about, so let’s pray that God will help all of us to embrace the call to a holy Lent. Amen.

What Does Discipleship Look Like?

follow%20jesus2‘Follow me’, says Jesus. In the ancient world, that didn’t just mean ‘walk after me down the road’. It meant ‘Become my disciple’. To Jesus, a disciple was an apprentice in the art of living in right relationship with God and others. It was not just about having a good time going to church, singing songs and saying prayers. It was about changing your way of life, turning away from evil and learning to do good.

What does this look like in practice? I keep asking myself that question, thinking of some of the specific things Jesus taught. Here are a few that come to mind.

Disciples have been captivated by the vision of the Kingdom of God. They believe that God is at work putting the world to rights, and that there’s a place in that plan for them. They believe that the loving rule of God is the highest possible good for the world, and so they seek first the Kingdom of God and God’s righteousness as their greatest treasure.

Disciples are the glad recipients of grace – God’s unconditional love. They know they have been forgiven and accepted by God, not because they are lovable but because God is love. They are secure in that.

Disciples are people of prayer. They have apprenticed themselves to Jesus and they say, “Lord, teach us to pray”. They have read about how their Master made prayer a daily habit; they long to go deeper in prayer and draw closer to God in this way.

Disciples are being formed by the story of God. They are growing in familiarity with the big sweep of the Bible story – creation, rebellion, Israel, Jesus and his Church, and the future fulfilment of the promise of shalom. As they read the Bible each day they are learning to see themselves as part of this story.

Disciples are people of love. Their Master teaches them that the two greatest commandments are to love God with your whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbour as you love yourself. They are well aware of how far they fall short in this, but each day they are trying to grow in this life of love. And this love is unconditional, reaching out even to enemies and those who hate us.

Disciples are people of simplicity and generosity. They have been taught by their Master not to store up for themselves treasures on earth, and so they are content with few possessions and are learning to find joy in giving to others, especially those who are in the direst need.

Disciples are people of their word. It is unnecessary to ask them to take an oath to tell the truth, because everyone knows that they always tell the truth. And this includes being honest about themselves. They don’t try to pretend they are better or more impressive than they actually are; they are content to be known as ordinary sinners saved by grace.

Disciples are people of faithfulness. They are doing their best each day to be faithful to the promises they have made: baptismal and confirmation promises, marriage vows, promises to care for their children and elders, and in some cases ordination vows. They are members of a local congregation which is their primary spiritual home and they are faithful to that congregation.

Disciples are people who bear witness to Jesus and his love. They have been taught by their Master that it is part of their responsibility to share with others what they have learned of the Gospel of God. So they look for opportunities to share their story, and the story of Jesus, with integrity and respect.

Disciples are people who seek to bless the world around them. They live each day with the resolve to add to the sum total of love and goodness in the world, rather than adding to the sum total of hatred, greed, anger and selfishness.

Disciples are people of hope. Because they believe in a God who never gives up on the world and the people in it, they also can never give up. They believe the promise of the Gospel that one day the Kingdom will be revealed in all its fulness, and so they continue to work toward that day. They are, in fact, quite stubborn about faith, hope, and love.

Disciples are people of joy. They are growing closer to God each day, and are finding in God a joy that nothing else can touch. This doesn’t mean that they don’t ‘weep with those who weep’; neither does it mean they never weep about the struggles and failures of their own lives too. But underneath the sadness, there is still the joy of knowing God and being loved by God.

These are the initial thoughts that come to me. What do you think?

 

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.

Religion or Relationship?

We’re often told these days that ‘Christianity isn’t about religion, it’s about relationship’.

I know what people mean by that, but ‘relationship’ is actually a very modern word. It only appears once in the NRSV translation of the Bible, and that’s in the Apocrypha (4 Maccabees 2:13)! But here’s what I found when I searched for ‘religion’:

‘Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.’ (James 1:27).

Three cheers for that kind of religion!

 

Living in God’s Kingdom Now (a sermon on Luke 10:25-37)

One Sunday afternoon in winter in the early 1980’s I was driving on a gravel road toward a small First Nations reserve where I was going to lead a service. On the way into the reserve I saw a car in the ditch, with a couple of people trying to push it out again. I was already late for the service, and I knew that if I stopped I would be even later. I was about to go on by when I remembered the story of the Good Samaritan! Was I going to be yet another example of the priest and the Levite who ‘passed by on the other side’? I quickly pulled over, snarling a bit about God’s sense of humour, and helped the people to push their car out of the ditch. I was twenty minutes late for the service, but the people seemed to understand when I told them what I’d been doing!

As we heard in our gospel reading, the parable of the Good Samaritan is part of Jesus’ answer to a series of questions put to him by a lawyer. We find those questions in Luke 10:25-28:

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher”, he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself”. And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live”.

As we begin to think about this text, the first thing we have to be clear about is the question that the lawyer was asking Jesus. When the lawyer said to Jesus “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”, what did he mean? What is eternal life?’ Older translations of the Bible used the phrase ‘everlasting life’, and so generations of Christians have grown up thinking that the main characteristic of eternal life is simply that it never ends – like Super Mario, only worse! So ‘eternal life becomes chiefly a matter of going to heaven when you die and living there forever. In fact, to some Christians, that’s the main thing salvation does for you: it assures you that you’ll live forever in heaven when you die.

But in the original language of the New Testament, Jesus says nothing at all about the duration of life and nothing at all about heaven. The phrase he uses in the original language can be translated literally ‘the life of the age’, and the word ‘age’ means the new age, the age of the kingdom of God. Let’s explore this idea for a minute.

In the time of Jesus, Jewish people believed that the world’s rebellion against its creator would not last forever. God would intervene; God would send the Messiah to end injustice and oppression and bring in peace and prosperity. God would reward his faithful people and punish the wicked – not in some future, non-physical existence, but in the physical world of time and space.

But some people asked “What about those who were faithful to God and died without seeing this happen? Have they missed out on their chance to participate in the kingdom of God when it finally comes?” “Not at all”, was the reply; “they will be raised to life again so that they too can share the joy of God’s kingdom”.

The next question, obviously, was “How can I be sure I’m going to be one of those who participate in the new age to come, the age of God’s kingdom?” The usual Jewish answer in Jesus’ time was “By faithfully observing God’s laws, including keeping the Sabbath, avoiding unclean foods, offering right sacrifices and so on”.

We can tell from the things Jesus said that he firmly believed in the idea of the coming of the kingdom of God, but he modified it in a couple of ways. Firstly, most people in his day believed there would be a clean break; the old age would end and the new age would begin. But Jesus acted on the assumption that there would be an overlap period; the new age of the kingdom of God began with his life, death and resurrection, but the old age of evil is continuing in parallel with it until he returns and his kingdom is finally established forever; as we say in the Nicene Creed, ‘He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end’.

The second difference is that most of Jesus’ contemporaries saw the new age of the kingdom of God being established by military force. In contrast, Jesus told parables about yeast gradually working its way through the whole loaf, and about a tiny mustard seed growing into the largest of plants. To him, the kingdom would be spread by the power of God working through disciples who lived the lifestyle of the kingdom in their daily lives. And what are the characteristics of that lifestyle? Love for God, and love for one’s neighbour.

So you see the difference between Jesus and the lawyer who questioned him. To the lawyer, ‘eternal life’ is future, and the question he’s asking is “What’s the pass mark? What do I have to do to get in?” He understands the two commandments – loving God and loving your neighbour – as qualifications he has to have in order to enter the kingdom and receive eternal life. But to Jesus eternal life is already present, and the two great commandments are not qualifications for eternal life; they are eternal life. It’s not “Do this, and you will receive eternal life as a reward”, but rather “Do this, because this is what eternal life looks like”.

There are two things we modern Christians need to notice here.

The first is that these two great commandments are not the price of entry into the kingdom of God. If they were we’d be in trouble, because they’re way out of our reach. Can you love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength – wholeheartedly, with no reservations, with every fibre of your being given to God and nothing given to evil at all? Can you love your neighbour as yourself every moment of the day? I know I can’t do it. If this is the entrance exam for the kingdom, I fail every day. But the good news is that God reaches out to people who fail and accepts them by his grace. So the first step into the kingdom of God is to put our faith in Jesus and accept his love as a free gift of grace.

The second thing we modern Christians need to remember is that once we’ve received the gift of the life of the kingdom of God, we will spend the rest of our lives learning to live out these two commandments. Everything else is just clarification. All the services we attend, all the Bible studies in which we participate, all the sacraments we receive – all these things are just resources to help us become people who love God with our whole heart and love our neighbour as ourselves. According to God, that’s the meaning of life; everything else is window-dressing.

So eternal life is not so much about how long we live but how well we live. It’s about the power of the Holy Spirit living in us now, so that we can become the kind of people who love to live by these two great commandments of Jesus.

But what does this mean in our daily lives? Like a good member of parliament, the lawyer asks a supplementary question, and we could understand it as asking ‘What does eternal life look like on a daily basis?

The actual question the lawyer asks is in verse 29: ‘And who is my neighbour?’ The thing I want you to notice is that nowhere in this parable does Jesus answer that question; rather, he tells us how to be a neighbour to those in need.

Why doesn’t he answer the question? Because it’s the wrong question to be asking. The lawyer still hasn’t understood. He still thinks of the two great commandments as the entrance exam into the kingdom. “Who is my neighbour?” really means “What’s the least I can get away with? Exactly who do I have to love? After all, if I live in a village of fifty people and only twenty-five of them turn out to be my neighbours, why would I want to waste time loving the ones who won’t bring me eternal life?” This is the lawyer’s attitude. Jesus’ story of the good Samaritan, on the other hand, shows that the life of the kingdom of God is all about showing mercy to those who are in need, whether we get rewarded or not.

In his story, Jesus doesn’t spell out exactly why the priest and Levite didn’t help the man; the point is simply that they saw a need and did nothing. Perhaps they didn’t even really see him. In the 1999 movie At First Sight, a blind man whose sight has been restored by surgery discovers that sighted people don’t see everything. He and his girlfriend walk past a beggar on the street and she doesn’t even notice. Perhaps the priest and the Levite were in that kind of space.

What about the Samaritans? Who were they? They were the descendants of foreign nations brought in by the King of Assyria when he destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel in the 8th century B.C. They had adopted some aspects of the worship of the God of Israel, but the Jews considered them to be heretics who had perverted the true faith, and they would have little to do with them. The irony in Jesus’ story is that the priest and the Levite knew the law of God but didn’t practice it; the Samaritan’s beliefs may have been questionable, but he was the one who actually practised the law of God!

Of course, the Samaritan could have used all kinds of excuses for not helping the man. He could have said “Maybe the bandits are still around, waiting for me to stop and help so they can rob me too”. He could have said “It’s his own fault” or “It’s not my responsibility to help the needy – the government should do it”. He could have said “I can’t afford two days’ wages to pay for his medical treatment” or “I’m too busy with my business to take the time to help this man properly”. He could even have said “I think the church should help people like this; I’m going to call Rabbi Jacob and get him down here as fast as possible!” But he made none of these excuses. He saw the need and he responded with the love of God. He loved his neighbour as himself.

Let me make two observations in how we might apply this story to our own lives.

First, this story shows us that Christian living is not out of our reach. You don’t have to go to the ends of the earth to serve people. All you have to do is move through your normal day with your eyes open. Back in the 1960s a Texas oilman named Keith Miller was learning to live as a new Christian in an oil company office. He made a decision that every time he went for a drink from the water fountain he would pray for the other people in his office. However, he found that he didn’t know enough about them to pray for them. So he started inviting them out for coffee and listening to them, and gradually as they got to know and trust him they opened up to him about their lives and their struggles. He soon discovered that there was a Christian mission field right there in his oil company office!

The chances are that in your office, or on your block, there is someone whose marriage is ending, or someone who is struggling to make ends meet, or someone who has an illness that causes them a lot of trouble, or someone with an addiction problem of some kind. Living the life of the kingdom of God simply means noticing these things, and doing what we can to help. That’s what the Samaritan did.

But I also need to point out to you that this picture is incomplete. Luke chapter ten has five more verses, which we will read next week! In them we will read about two sisters, Martha and Mary. Martha was busy preparing supper and organising things for Jesus, and scolded her sister Mary who simply sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to him. But Jesus defended Mary, saying that ‘Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her’ (v.42). In other words, in order to keep a proper balance in our Christian lives there are times when we need to stop working and simply sit in God’s presence, listening for the word of Christ.

There’s one more thing I need to say before I’m through. Sometimes when you’re in a really deep sleep and are dreaming hard, you think you’ve woken up, but eventually you discover that it’s just part of your dream. Something like that can too easily happen to us as Christians. It’s easy for us to fall into the trap of thinking that because we’ve talked about something we’ve actually done it. We think we’ve woken up to the Word of Christ, but in fact we’re still dreaming.

In John 5:39-40 Jesus gives us a warning: “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life…yet you refuse to come to me to have life”. That’s what the lawyer was doing. He asked about the commandments, but in fact he already knew the answers to his questions. His problem wasn’t lack of information; his problem was that he wasn’t practising what he already knew. And so often that’s true of us too. We know what Jesus is calling us to do. We’re well aware of these two great commandments. All that remains is for us to ask for the help of the Holy Spirit and then go about our day with our eyes wide open to human need and our hearts full of the love of Jesus, taking every opportunity we can to make a difference. Talking is good, but if talking doesn’t lead to doing, it’s just so much hot air. As Jesus said to his disciples in another context: “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them” (John 13:17).