Faith in the Risen Lord (a sermon on John 20:29-31)

At some time or other, most of us have probably used the phrase ‘Get a life’. If you’re a literal thinker, that’s actually a rather strange thing to say. All the people we say it to are, in fact, already alive: their hearts are beating, the blood is coursing through their veins, and their brains are more or less in working order.

But of course, that’s not what the phrase is all about. We all know instinctively that it’s possible to be biologically alive – ‘alive’ in the medical sense – and yet not to be enjoying everything life has to offer. It’s possible to get so caught up in foolishness and deception that we’re missing out on the most important things. And so we say ‘Get a life’, meaning ‘Smarten up! Don’t sweat the small stuff! Make sure you concentrate on the best things, the most important things’. After all, as my friend Harold Percy says, no one wants to be in the situation where God writes on their tombstone the words ‘Brilliant performance, but she missed the whole point!’

This is what John is talking about in our gospel reading for today:

‘Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name’ (John 20:30-31).

John wants us to ‘get a life’, and he says the way to do that is to put your faith in Jesus as the Messiah. If we believe in him and follow him, we will experience life to the full, the way God intended when he created us in the first place.

But there was a problem with ‘believing in Jesus as the Messiah’ for the first followers of Jesus. The word ‘Messiah’ (or ‘Christ’ in Greek) meant ‘the king God promised to send to set his people free’. In popular Jewish belief in the time of Jesus, ‘Messiah’ didn’t mean ‘someone who came to die on a cross so we could be forgiven’. It meant King Arthur, or Aragorn son of Arathorn, or King David – a powerful military leader who would raise an army in the name of God, drive out the forces of evil and set up God’s kingdom on earth by force. If you were the true Messiah, God would help you do this. On the other hand, if you were defeated – if you were killed by your enemies – that was a pretty good sign that you were faking it: you weren’t the true Messiah.

That’s why the Resurrection was so vital to the faith of those early Christians. If Jesus had stayed dead, they would probably have abandoned their belief in him as God’s Messiah. The Christian movement would never have gotten started, and Jesus would have been an interesting character studied by historians, but certainly not worshipped as the Son of God by two billion people around the world today.

But the New Testament witness is that those early Christians saw Jesus again in the flesh, alive and well, after they had seen him die. All four gospels record eyewitness stories. So does Paul in 1 Corinthians. Mary Magdalene saw him. So did Peter. So did the couple who met Jesus on the road to Emmaus, and the ten disciples in the Upper Room (and probably a few more with them), and Thomas the doubter, and a group of them fishing on the lake of Galilee, and another group of five hundred of them all together at once. These are some of the eyewitness stories recorded, or alluded to, in the New Testament.

One of them especially stands out in the Gospel for today. We all love ‘doubting Thomas’, because he’s so much like us. “I’d like to believe, Lord, but I just can’t! Just let me see with my eyes – let me touch your wounds – then I’ll believe!” He’s so honest; he’s unwilling to pretend he has one ounce more faith than he actually has! And incredibly, Jesus loves him so much that he gives him what he asks for.

‘Jesus came among them and said “Peace be with you”. Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe” (vv.26b-27).

The story doesn’t record that Thomas actually did that – reached out his hands to touch Jesus. Instead he falls at his feet and exclaims “My Lord and my God!” (v.28). And then Jesus says something tremendously significant:

“Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (v.29).

That’s us, you see! Verse 20 says ‘Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord’ – but how can that verse apply to us? We’ve never seen the risen Lord. Like Thomas, we long to see him and touch him. If only he’d appear to us like he did to Paul on the road to Damascus! And so when it comes to faith we think of ourselves as second class Christians. We can’t really share the fullness of joy of those first witnesses; we can’t enjoy ‘life in his name’ in the same way they did.

Not so, says Jesus. The same blessing applies to us as to them; “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe”. As St. Paul says in one of his letters, we walk by faith, not by sight.

Which, by the way, is a perfectly reasonable thing to do – and something we all do in certain areas of our lives. For instance, I believe in the existence of a planet called Pluto. I’ve never seen it with my own eyes, and I don’t expect to either. I don’t have the time or money to undertake the astronomical study I’d need to do. But credible astronomers have told me that Pluto exists; I believe their testimony, and so when someone asks me, I say, “Yes, I believe in Pluto”.

I also believe my wife loves me. I can’t see love or quantify it, but she tells me she loves me, and her actions seem to confirm the fact.

Well, that’s self-evident, you might say. To which I reply, not necessarily so. She might just have pretended to love me, and married me so she could get rich! All right, I admit that in our case that’s unlikely – but you can see that in some cases it would be an issue. Does Kate Middleton really love Prince William – or does she just enjoy all the attention she gets as Duchess of Cambridge? You see, evidence can sometimes be read in more than one way. In Shakespeare’s play ‘Othello’ a man is persuaded to believe in the infidelity of his wife by the lies of a false friend. We, the audience, can’t believe he’s falling for it; Desdemona so obviously loves and is faithful to her husband. But Othello is persuaded to read the evidence differently, and the result is a very sad end for them both.

It’s the same with Pluto; apparently the evidence can be read more than one way. I was raised to believe that there were nine planets, but a few years ago astronomers changed their minds – no, Pluto’s not really a planet after all! And then a few years later, some of them said “Well, it depends how you define ‘planet’!” So again, the evidence can be read in more than one way. It might be persuasive, but it’s not conclusive. In the end, we make a choice about things like this.

So why do we modern Christians, who have not seen the Risen Lord with our own eyes, choose to believe he is alive today? Let me suggest some answers to that question.

Some would say, “I believe it because that’s what I was taught when I was growing up”. And that’s undoubtedly very common and very valid. Many of us Christian parents hope that’s what will happen with our kids. Christ is very important to us – the most important part of our lives, many of us would say – and we want our kids to know and love him as well. So we pray for them, and bring them to church, and teach them the Bible story and the Christian way of life.

But lots of kids part company with things their parents teach them; it’s a natural part of growing up. As we get older, we learn to think for ourselves and make our own decisions. As adults, we decide which parts of our parents’ belief systems ring true for us, and which don’t. I’m a Christian today, but my Christian faith is not exactly the same as the faith of my parents. And that’s as it should be; otherwise it wouldn’t be my faith, it would be their faith, one step removed.

And that’s why I don’t think this can be an adequate answer in the long run. If the only reason I continue to believe in the resurrection is because that’s what my parents taught me, I think sooner or later that faith will fail. We have to go through a process of making that faith our own, and inevitably this will involve questioning and rethinking things.

Why do we believe in the resurrection today? Some would say, “I’ve examined the evidence and I find it compelling”. This was the approach of Frank Morison, a British writer who published a well-known book in 1930 called Who Moved the Stone? The first chapter was entitled, ‘The Book that Refused to be Written’. In it he described how he had been sceptical about the resurrection of Jesus and had set out to write a short paper disproving it. However, the more he read and researched and sifted through the evidence, the more he came to believe that the resurrection was well-founded. The book has been reprinted many times since then, and apparently many people have become Christians as a result of reading it.

Again, this can be very valuable, and I have to say I share Morison’s view. How do we explain the empty tomb? How do we explain the eyewitness stories? How do we explain the change in the disciples? I don’t have time to go into it this morning, but suffice it to say that many of us find the weight of evidence to be very firmly on the side of the truth of the resurrection. It’s not conclusive of course – if it was, everyone would believe – but it’s a lot more persuasive than many people think.

So some believe because that’s what their parents taught them, and some believe because they’ve examined the evidence and been convinced by it. Some, however, are impatient with all these logical arguments. They would say, “I believe because I’ve met the risen Jesus myself”. Archbishop Anthony Bloom was one of those people. He was a medical student in Paris during World War Two, and not a believer. One day, however. he went to hear a talk about the gospels given by a priest, and he was surprised and disturbed to find himself attracted by what the man said. This made him angry, but he couldn’t dismiss it. So when he went home, he sat down at his desk to read the gospel of Mark. He had only just begun to read, he said, when he became strongly aware of a presence in the room with him; he couldn’t see anyone, but he was as sure that there was someone there as he was of his own existence, and he knew instinctively that it was the risen Christ. This experience – not logical argument – was powerful enough to turn this agnostic into a Christian.

Some Christians do have experiences like that. Most of us don’t; our sense of the presence of Christ is more subtle. For me, I find that most of the time he’s there quietly in the background; I don’t tend to notice him unless I stop and pay attention, and then I realize he’s been there all the time. And I find that intriguing. Once again, I can choose to ignore him if I want, and the more I do that, the less obvious he is. But if I choose to pay attention to him, over time, my sense of him seems to grow.

But there’s one more reason for faith I’d like to share with you this morning. For me, this is the most powerful one. There’s a scene in John chapter six where disciples start leaving Jesus because they can’t make sense of what he’s saying about eating his flesh and drinking his blood; its offensive and revolting to them.

‘So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God”’ (John 6:67-69).

These verses really ring true for me. I believe in Jesus because I find his life and teaching so compelling. When he says, ‘What good is it to you to gain the whole world and lose your soul?’ my heart is shouting out a big ‘Amen!’ When he says, ‘a person’s life doesn’t consist of the abundance of their possessions’, it’s obvious to me that that’s true. When he says that the most important things in life are to love God and love your neighbour, I think, “Well, duh! Of course! Why can’t everyone see that?”

And it’s not just his words – it’s his life too. The way he reaches out to everyone, rich and poor, men and women, sinners and saints. The way he loves the people no one else loves. The way he includes women and children. The way he refuses to hate people his society tells him he should hate, like enemy soldiers or tax collectors. Hebrews tells us that Jesus is ‘the image of the invisible God’, and I believe that to be profoundly true; I just know in my heart that if there is a God, he has to be like Jesus. ‘Like Father, like Son’.

‘These (things) are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name’. Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). To put your faith in Jesus and follow him is to have life, abundant life. The disciples rejoiced when they saw the risen Lord, but we rejoice too, even though we have not seen him with our eyes, because we believe he is alive and we are doing our best to walk with him day by day.

Let me close with an invitation; two invitations, in fact.

First, let me to invite you to ask yourself, “Why do I believe in the risen Lord? Is it just because that’s what my parents taught me? Is it because I’ve thought things through, examined the evidence and been convinced by it? Is it because I’ve had an experience of his presence in my life? Is it because I find his life and teaching so compelling? Or is it some other reason?” Probably, for most of us, the answer to that question will include a story of some kind – the story of our faith journey.

Second, let me invite you to make a fresh commitment of faith today. In a few minutes we’re going to join with the parents and godparents of Sloane, Steven and Kai as they make the baptismal covenant with God on behalf of their kids. I will ask them, “Do you believe in God…in Jesus…in the Holy Spirit” and ‘will you commit yourself to the Christian way of life as a member of the Church of Christ?’  Those promises can basically be summed up in the words “Jesus is my Lord, and I will follow him along with my fellow Christians”.

So make that commitment of faith again today. Say the words along with the parents and godparents. And then when we come to communion, dip your fingers in the water of the baptismal font and make the sign of the cross as a symbol of your faith and commitment to Jesus. And then, when our service is over, you can leave this place with joy, knowing that Jesus is alive, that he is Lord of all, and that your life is in his hands.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

How to Amaze Jesus (a sermon on Luke 7:1-10)

I don’t know about you, but I think it would be pretty hard to amaze Jesus. I get the sense from the gospels that he’s usually got a pretty good grasp of any situation he’s in. He seems to find it easy to see through people; he knows their motivations, he knows when they’re being sincere and when they’re trying to trick him. John’s Gospel says of him that ‘Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone’ (John 2:24-25).

Nevertheless, there are one or two occasions in the gospels when Jesus seems to have been genuinely surprised, and one of them is in our gospel reading for today. This reading comes from a chapter which is full of stories of Jesus reaching out to outsiders, to marginalized people, to widows and orphans, and to notorious sinners who are meant to be beyond the pale, beyond the reach of God’s love. And it’s one of these outsiders – a Roman army officer – who astonishes Jesus by the strength of his faith.

Let’s explore the story for a minute. Jesus has just returned to the Galilean fishing town of Capernaum on the western shore of the Lake of Galilee. It’s a town where he is well known, and it’s the most natural thing in the world that a Roman soldier, a member of the occupying army, has heard of him. What isn’t so natural is that this soldier should reach out to a Jewish man and ask for help. Imagine a German officer in World War Two asking for help from a Jewish rabbi! That’s the sort of thing we’re talking about here.

Centurions were the non-commissioned officers of the Roman Army; they led a ‘century’, which was a unit of approximately one hundred soldiers. They were the professional soldiers, the backbone of the Roman army. Interestingly enough, there are no bad stories about centurions in the New Testament. Every time a centurion appears, he’s seen in a good light, and this man is no exception.

What do we know about him? The Jewish elders come to Jesus and ask him to help this man, saying ‘He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us’ (v.5). This is unusual: a Roman soldier who took an interest in the people of Israel and went so far as to finance the building of a local synagogue out of his own pocket. Why would he do that? We’re not told, but it seems reasonable to believe that he was one of those in the ancient world who had gotten tired of the stories of the Greek and Roman gods and had been attracted to the idea of one true creator God – a God who called his people to follow him by obeying the strict ethical standards of the ten commandments.

It’s also noticeable that he takes an interest in the welfare of his slaves. Of course, the institution of slavery was taken for granted in the ancient world, and there’s no hint of reproach in Luke’s mention of the fact that this man owned slaves, but it is noticeable that, to him, this slave is not just a tool to be discarded when he gets worn out. A lot of people in the ancient world would have seen a slave in that way, but not this centurion. He values this slave highly, and so he’s willing to take the unusual step of humbling himself before Jesus in order to ask him for a healing.

Note that at first the centurion does not presume to talk to Jesus himself; he sends the Jewish elders to speak on his behalf. He’s well aware of his position as an outsider in Judaism: he’s a foreigner, a Gentile, an enemy soldier, and he thinks it’s very likely that Jesus will rebuff him. In the normal run of things, this centurion has all the power, but in this situation the roles are reversed, and he needs some intercessors to plead his case, so he sends the local elders. They, of course, are very gratified that this soldier has taken an interest in their synagogue; he’s a good donor to the local church and they want to stay on good terms with him, so they’re more than happy to go and speak to Jesus on his behalf!

To their surprise – and, probably, to the centurion’s surprise too – Jesus not only agrees to heal the slave, but immediately sets out to visit the centurion in his house! This is completely against Jewish law and tradition: he will be going into a Gentile house, where protocol will require that his host give him a meal, so he will be eating non-kosher food in fellowship with a soldier of the occupying army. This is far beyond anything that the centurion was expecting! When he hears that Jesus is on the way, he quickly sends more messengers – this time not Jewish elders, but personal friends. “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word and let my servant be healed” (v.7). It’s interesting, isn’t it, that the centurion has a completely different view of himself than the synagogue elders? They said, “he is worthy”, but the centurion says, “I am not worthy”. We’ll explore that a little more in a minute.

But then comes the money quote, where the centurion explains the ground of his faith.

“For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go’, and he goes, and to another, ‘Come’, and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this’, and the slave does it” (v.8).

Jesus is astounded at the strength of this man’s faith.

‘When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith”. When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health’ (vv.9-10).

What has this story got to say to us today? Well, I think we all know that we could use a little help with our faith. All too often we feel like that other man in the gospels, who in a moment of honesty said to Jesus, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). We’d like our faith to be stronger, but we know that it often isn’t. Is there anything we can learn from this man who amazed Jesus by the strength of his faith? Let me point out two things to you.

The first one is humility. I read a story this week about a Christian writer called Dallas Willard who died a year or two ago. Dallas was being interviewed for a Christian magazine, and he was asked, ‘Do you believe in the total depravity of human beings?’ Dallas replied, ‘I believe in sufficient depravity’. ‘What does that mean?’ ‘I believe that every human being is sufficiently depraved that, when we get to heaven, no one will be able to say, “I deserve this”’.

Interestingly enough, the Jewish elders have a different take on this than the centurion. The elders say to Jesus, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us” (vv.4-5). But when the centurion himself sends a message to Jesus, he says, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof” – a remarkable thing for a soldier of the occupying army to say to one of the people under his power.

Why this difference? Well, I would suggest to you that we know all about this in our personal lives. How many times have we heard people being described by their family and friends as ‘good’ or ‘kind’ or ‘respectable’, but when we hear them talk about themselves, they’re all too aware of how much they fall short of what they’d like to be. I think that’s true for most of us; we’re very aware of our personal failings. We know all about our skeletons in the closet.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, once sent postcards to ten prominent British politicians; on each card he simply printed the words, “All is discovered; flee immediately!” He selected the politicians at random – he had no inside information about their sins and failings – but within twenty-four hours, all ten of them had fled the country!

Well, it’s easy to point a finger at politicians, but what about me? What about you? I know I would be totally mortified if information about the things I feel most guilty about was posted online, or spread on a screen in front of everyone in church today! Am I the only one who feels that way? I doubt it. Christian writer Adrian Plass used to be a heavy smoker; one day someone came up to him outside a church where he was speaking and said, “I see you’re still indulging in that dirty habit”. Adrian didn’t know the man, but he quickly replied, “It’s a lot better than your dirty habit!” The man’s face went white, and he quickly turned away.

So yes, we’re all familiar with the difference between the way others see us and the way we see ourselves; we’re all too aware of our sins and failings. We may even see them as a barrier keeping us away from God. But this man shows us that they aren’t a barrier, and that the way to get to God is to be honest about them. “Lord, I’m not worthy…” No, of course you’re not – neither am I – neither is anyone. According to St. Paul, the good news is that ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’ (1 Timothy 1:15). Are you a sinner? Then apparently you qualify! As the Apostle John says in his first letter, ‘If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness’ (1 John 1:8-9).

So that’s the first thing we learn from this man. Apparently it’s a really important part of faith not to be too puffed up about ourselves, not to be under the illusion that the whole show is being arranged for our benefit. Apparently it’s vital for us to be well aware of our own limitations. The first of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous says, ‘We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable’. In other words, we admitted our desperation; we turned from the illusion that we are worthy and capable, and admitted instead that in a host of ways we are unworthy and powerless.

Desperation, a strong sense of our own helplessness, is an indispensable part of faith. The Norwegian writer Ole Hallesby once wrote, ‘Prayer and helplessness are inseparable. Only those who are helpless can truly pray…Your helplessness is your best prayer. It calls from your heart to the heart of God with greater effect than all your uttered pleas…Prayer therefore consists simply in telling God day by day in what ways we feel that we are helpless’.

So here is the first thing we can learn from our centurion: we can learn to be honest with God about our own helplessness. Do you think you can do that?

Secondly, let’s think about the nature of this centurion’s faith. What is faith, according to this story? Faith is a proper understanding of how the authority structure of the universe works. This man was a soldier and so he understood all about authority:

“For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go’, and he goes, and to another, ‘Come’, and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this’, and the slave does it” (v.8).

The way the centurion saw it, God is the ruler of the entire universe, and Jesus was obviously in a special relationship with God, because he had been able to heal all sorts of diseases in Capernaum; the centurion had heard the stories about him, and may even have seen some of his healings himself. It was clear to him that Jesus spoke and acted with the authority of God. The slave’s illness was a serious problem, but the problem was not bigger than the authority of Jesus.

At this point we might feel a little wistful. We might think, “Well, that’s all very well for the centurion, but I’ve never seen Jesus do a miracle. I’ve never seen him lay his hands on someone and do a dramatic healing, and often when I ask him for things, I don’t seem to get them”.

This is true and I don’t want to deny it. But at the same time I want to point out to you that Luke might have had people like us in mind when he wrote this story. Matthew tells this story in his gospel too, but he tells it slightly differently; he gives the impression that the centurion came himself and spoke to Jesus. Very likely he’s just trying to make a long story short and so omits the details about the messengers who went between Jesus and the centurion.

But to Luke it’s very important to include those messengers in the story. It’s very important to include the detail that the centurion himself never actually saw Jesus, because most of Luke’s first readers would not have seen Jesus either! They would have heard the stories about Jesus, and perhaps sensed the touch of the Holy Spirit in their hearts, but they were not themselves eyewitnesses. Luke wanted to make it clear to them that this was not a disadvantage for them. They did not need to be able to see Jesus for Jesus to be able to help them. His authoritative word could still be spoken and could still bring them help and healing.

So Jesus reached out to this humble and honest centurion, and he’s reaching out to us too with the touch of God’s love. He calls us to come to him in humility, acknowledging our shortcomings and limitations and not trying to hide them, but coming to him nonetheless. In the same book I quoted from earlier, Ole Hallesby says that ‘The essence of faith is to come to Christ. Such a faith as this sees its own need, acknowledges its own helplessness, goes to Jesus, tells him just how bad things are and leaves everything with him… You and I can now tell how much faith we need in order to pray. We have faith enough when we in our helplessness turn to Jesus’.

That’s what the centurion did. It was a simple act, and perhaps it was its very simplicity that Jesus found so amazing. There’s a lovely old prayer that’s spoken in the Roman Catholic liturgy at the time of communion: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only speak the word, and my soul will be healed”. I find this a very moving prayer – not just when I’m about to receive communion, but at all times when I realize my need of the help of Jesus. So can I suggest we end with this prayer today?

Let us pray together: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only speak the word, and my soul will be healed. Amen”.

 

‘Finding Your Way Back to God’ (book review)

51bca9zR2xL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_An excellent book for the most part. Dave and Jon Ferguson focus on the parable of the Prodigal Son under five headings or ‘awakenings’ – the Awakening to Longing, to Regret, to Help, to Love, and to Life. Also running through the book is the idea of the Thirty Day Wager: the daily prayer ‘God, if you are real, make yourself real to me’.

The five sections of the book each include several chapters built around the theme of the five awakenings. But there are also daily resources – a question to ponder, guidelines for journaling, and a prayer based on variations on the wager. I understand there are also DVD resources available.

The book is enriched by many stories of people who have experienced God’s help in their lives. Refreshingly, not all of the stories have happy endings (a couple of the cancer patients died, for example). The book is also permeated throughout by a sense of God’s grace – reaching out to people in their brokenness and failure with the opportunity for a fresh start.

I think this would make a fine resource for people who are not yet believers, and also for Christians who long for a deeper sense of God’s presence in their lives.

‘Finding Your Way Back to God’ on Amazon.ca.

‘Finding Your Way Back to God’ web page.

Still Happy to be an Evangelical Christian (repost)

I’m reposting this piece from November 2013, because I have recently been told by a good friend (who is not an evangelical) that we ‘nuanced, tolerant evangelicals’ (her phrase) need to keep explaining our brand of being evangelical. OK, here’s my explanation!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn the Anglican circles I move in, it’s not uncommon to hear people make snide comments about Holy Trinity Brompton (home of the Alpha Course) or All Soul’s, Langham Place (where John Stott was rector for many years) being ‘only barely Anglican’. This, of course, is because these churches are part of the evangelical tribe, and their worship and theology doesn’t pass the particular litmus test that the joker (usually a person of the ‘liberal catholic‘ tribe of Anglicanism) sees as essential to being ‘mainstream Anglican’.

I find this sad. You see, I grew up in the evangelical tribe of Anglicanism, and I found Christ there.

My Dad was an evangelical priest. His ministry was centred on preaching the gospel of Christ and helping people commit their lives to Christ, and there are many people in different parts of England (and even Edmonton!) today who are Christians because of his ministry. He taught people how to have daily ‘quiet times’ for prayer, he led small group Bible studies, he visited people and had personal conversations with them about their faith. His preferred style of worship was low church (although he had sung in a church choir and could sing Evensong better than most high church clergy I hear today), without a lot of extra bells and whistles. He was about Jesus, the Bible, conversion, faith,  commitment, the work of the Holy Spirit, and community.

But he was never anything other than Anglican. He believed the doctrines taught in the Book of Common Prayer, he celebrated the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion, he wore his clerical collar during the week (far more than I do!) and his robes on Sundays. To suggest that somehow my Dad was less than Anglican because he was an evangelical would have been insulting in the extreme.

It seems to me, from some of the conversations I see on the Internet, that a lot of people who make loud noises about Anglicanism being a ‘big tent church’, with lots of room for different points of view, are a little shy to acknowledge that evangelical Anglicans are an integral part of that big tent. In this they are very different from a previous generation of Anglo-Catholics. My bishop in my Saskatchewan days, Vicars Short (of blessed memory), as high an Anglo-Catholic as they come, was once having a conversation with me about a particular subject (I forget what). I ventured an opinion (he was very brainy, so this was always a little scary) and then said “But of course, I would take that point of view, being an evangelical”. Bishop Short replied “You don’t need to apologize for that; that’s a perfectly respectable Anglican position”. A very long way from the snide, dismissive talk about ‘Con/Evos’ that is so common in the blogosphere today.

I’d say these days that ‘evangelical’ isn’t the whole truth about my Christianity, but it’s still the tribe I belong to, and I’m still happy to do so. Why do I say that?

First, because I still love the Bible, although I find it difficult to subscribe to the belief of many evangelicals that it is inerrant, and I acknowledge that most of us are selectively literalist in interpreting it. Nonetheless, I believe that in sum total these books are smarter than I’ll ever be, so I read and study them daily and find that as I do so they lead me to Christ over and over again. And I particularly enjoy making their prayers my own.

Second, because I still rejoice in the evangelical teaching of ‘justification by grace through faith’ – in other words, the gospel idea that I don’t have to wait until I’ve achieved fifty percent plus one in the holiness exam before I can come to God. On the cross, Jesus stretched out his arms and forgave sinners, and that includes me. So God’s love embraces me wherever I am and whatever I’ve done, and accepts me and welcomes me into God’s presence.

Of course, Anabaptist friends have challenged me to include discipleship in my understanding of grace: the idea that although God loves us so much he accepts us just as we are, he loves us too much to leave us there! The call of Jesus is to follow him and to put his teaching and example into practice in our daily lives. But still, when we fail (as we always do) the rock on which we stand is not our shaky and imperfect obedience, but Christ’s infinite and unconditional love for us.

Third, because I still believe that a simple liturgy, without a lot of ceremonial additions, is the best and most biblically faithful way to worship God. And although I have appreciated the challenge of catholic-minded Christians to put the service of Holy Communion at the centre of my worship, I do not buy the argument that it needs to be the main service every Sunday (although it certainly should be available every Sunday). The simple reason for this is that we are still expecting Sunday worship, rightly or wrongly, to be the front door through which unchurched people will come within sound of the gospel and come to know Christ. Is a service at which we talk about eating someone’s body and drinking his blood – and then proceed to exclude those who are not baptized – the best way to communicate the gospel to unchurched people? Not always. So I appreciate the old Anglican tradition of services of Morning Prayer, centred on the word and on music, that give the unchurched and the seeker and the questioner a way in to Christian worship without asking them to participate in a blood feast they don’t yet understand (which many of them instinctively know demands from them a commitment they can’t yet reasonably accept).

Please note once again: I fully accept that at least once on a Sunday we ought to celebrate the Holy Communion and that at least half of the time it ought to be our main service. Also please note, I do not advocate the abandoning of liturgy at non-Eucharistic services either. We Anglicans have a great tradition of excellent non-sacramental liturgies, and I don’t think we should join the wholesale rush to abandon them.

Fourth, I’m still an evangelical because I appreciate the call to personal holiness I find in my tribe. Historic Anglican evangelicalism includes not only a call to be sexually pure (which people tend to be rather obsessed with today – either for it or against it), but also to live a simple life and to beware of the lure or wealth, to avoid worldliness, to be either moderate or abstemious when it comes to potential addictions, and to love Christ and draw close to him in prayer and Christian service. Granted, I question some aspects of this today (how does it work for gay people, for instance?) and I think that it tends to be overly individualistic (what about structural evil in society, and how we as Christians react to it? And what about the issue of war and peace, on which Jesus and the early church appear to have been largely pacifistic?). Nonetheless, I appreciate the fact that in a Christian world that has largely abandoned talk of holiness because it’s seen as too negative, evangelical Christianity has continued to call for us to repent of our sins and learn to live a holy life.

Fifthly, I’m still an evangelical because I believe that the gospel needs to be shared and people need to be called to conversion. All four of the New Testament gospels end with a version of the tradition in which Jesus sends out his disciples as missionaries to spread the good news and to call people who are not yet Christians to become his followers. The entire New Testament assumes that this matters supremely: God has not sent his Son into the world so that the world can ignore him, or see him as one possible option among many. I am a Christian today because a Christian evangelist (my father) shared the gospel with me and challenged me to give my life to Christ. I do not believe that i would have picked this up by osmosis, even though I was taken to church every Sunday by my parents. My institutional relationship with the church needed to become a personal commitment to Christ, and that happened because of someone’s personal witness. My greatest joy as a Christian is to pass that on.

As I said, ‘evangelical’ is not the whole truth about my life as an Anglican Christian, nor should it be. From the writings of C.S. Lewis I learned a broader approach to Christianity, a strong natural theology, and a common-sense approach to personal devotion that has been vitally important in my Christian living. From Anglo-Catholic friends I learned to appreciate the place of the body in Christianity, and the rich history of spirituality found in the various monastic traditions, especially the Benedictines and the Franciscans. And from Anabaptist friends I heard the call to a more faithful practice of the teaching of Jesus, especially simplicity of life, truthfulness, nonviolence and love for enemies.

So I’ve picked up good things from these other traditions, but they have modified my evangelicalism, not replaced it. To use another illustration, I’ve enjoyed the hospitality of other Christian homes, and have brought some of their traditions back to my home, but I haven’t moved house. I might get angry with evangelicals sometimes, and some of them might look askance at me from time to time and ask if I’m really still one of them, but the evangelical tradition is still my spiritual home; it’s where I was first nurtured in Christ, and it continues to feed me, challenge me, inspire me, annoy me, and provoke me to love and good deeds (Hebrews 10:24). And for that, I am thankful.

Pink is the New Black

81DRGrhffKLOver the past few years I’ve accompanied quite a few people – friends, relatives and parishioners – on the journey of cancer. My observation is that although some have survived it and some have succumbed to it, none have emerged from it unchanged. I’ve actually become quite interested in the stories of people who have taken the cancer journey, and when I see a book about it, I tend to pick it up.

I was recently pointed in the direction of Sarah McLean’s book ‘Pink is the New Black: Healing the Hidden Scars of Breast Cancer – a Journey from Grief to Grace‘. I started it last night, and I found it so compelling that I read it in one go, from nine until about twelve forty five.

In brief, Sarah’s story (you can read part of it here) is that she was in her mid-twenties and only recently married when she discovered that she had breast cancer. A preliminary lumpectomy proved inadequate, and was followed very quickly by a very invasive double mastectomy. In the book she deals very honestly with her reaction to this, the effect it had on her marriage to her husband Steve, and her gradual journey through counselling to a point where she was able to accept what was happening to her and grow through it.

Eight years later, despite having had a double mastectomy, her cancer returned and she had to go through not only surgery but also weeks of radiation therapy. She also experienced a problem with one of her breast implants that led to more painful surgery.

Sarah writes as a devout Christian of the evangelical persuasion, and her relationship with God is right at the heart of her response to cancer – whether it be questioning, ranting, crying out for help, learning to trust, or receiving comfort and strength. Her approach to the suffering is very much like that of C.S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain (although she doesn’t mention the book or give any indication of having read it) – faith in the sovereignty of God, and a consequent belief that God had a purpose in allowing her to go through it. Not every Christian can follow her in that approach, and I personally have some problems with it, but there is no doubt that it has enabled her to come to terms with the painful reality of her cancer and find a way through it, to the point that she now runs a ministry called Project31 which reaches out to others who have made, or are making, the breast cancer journey.

Some people who write stories like this or run ministries like Sarah’s come across as saying ‘I used to really struggle with this, but I’ve come through it now, and I want to help you do the same’. That’s not Sarah’s approach. She acknowledges that she is still very much a work in progress, and if she can help others, she does it by coming alongside them, not by trying to lead them to a place she’s already reached.

I found this book inspiring and challenging, and would recommend it to anyone who wants to find out more about what it is like to go through breast cancer. I’m obviously not a breast cancer survivor myself, so can’t say with any certainty whether or not a survivor would find it helpful, but my guess is that they would.

Joy, Trust, and Focus (a sermon for Thanksgiving on Matthew 6:25-34)

In our Gospel for today there’s one word that gets repeated over and over again: the word ‘Worry’. Not that worry is something that Jesus is recommending! Rather, it’s something that he’s warning us against. He says in verse 25, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear”. And again in verses 27-28: “And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothes?” And again in verse 31, “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’” And finally in verse 34, “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today”.

Now if you’re at all like me, you might find this a little hard to take. C.S. Lewis, the author of the Narnia stories, was a devout Christian, but he admitted that for his whole life long he struggled against a tendency to be a worrier. Commenting on this passage, he said, “If God wanted us to live like the birds of the air, it would have been nice for him to have given us a constitution that was more like theirs!” I’m sure that you can sympathise with Lewis; I know I can. Like him, I tend to be a worrier. “Don’t worry – be happy” sounds great in theory, but how do you actually put it into practice?

I think we need to begin by recognising that Jesus practiced what he preached. So far as we can tell, he doesn’t seem to have been a person who worried a great deal; he lived his life on the principle of trusting his heavenly Father, and he tried to teach his followers to do the same. So, as we read a passage like today’s gospel, we should see that it flows straight out of Jesus’ own experience of life. And I’d like to suggest to you this morning that there are three basic attitudes that are at the heart of Jesus’ experience of life, three attitudes that are reflected in this passage: joy, trust, and focus.

First, joy, joy in the good things that his heavenly Father had created. I’m an occasional bird watcher myself, so I’m delighted to find Jesus recommending this as a good hobby; he says in verse 26, ‘Look at the birds of the air’! We have no reason to believe that Jesus hadn’t taken his own advice; he must have spent hours watching the birds diving and swooping on the wind currents above the Galilean hills, simply enjoying being alive.

I’m reminded of something Marci and I saw a few years ago outside the rest stop at Innisfree, on the way to Lloydminster. Those of you who have stopped there will know that the restaurant and gas station are up on a hill, and the prairie winds are strong around there. We were in the restaurant having a meal and we saw a raven playing in the wind. It would flap its wings and work hard to climb, up, and up, higher and higher, and then when it reached a certain height it would just let itself go, and it would dive and swoop around until it came back to ground level. Then it would go through the whole process all over again; we watched it doing this several times while we were eating. As far as we could tell, all this activity had no useful purpose; the raven wasn’t on the lookout for field mice or other prey like a hawk would have been. It was simply enjoying itself, riding the currents of air just as God had created it to do.

I’m sure that Jesus had watched birds do this sort of thing many times, and he had figured out that they never seemed to weary themselves doing the kind of work that humans do, and yet they somehow managed to stay alive and well. And Jesus had seen all the flowers, thousands of different species – the word translated ‘lilies of the field’ here actually refers to several different plants – and had been moved by their fragile beauty. One moment they could be standing in the field, the next they could be trampled under foot by horses or cut down by a scythe. Where did all this beauty come from? The flowers didn’t spend thousands of dollars on clothes, nor did they spend several hours a week in a tanning studio getting a good tan, or in front of a mirror putting on makeup. They were just themselves – beautiful, God-given, and free.

Jesus looked around and saw all this, but he saw more than this: he didn’t only see the creation, he also saw through it to its Creator. It’s like the old hymn says:

This is my Father’s world, and to my listening ears
all nature sings, and round me rings the music of the spheres.
This is my Father’s world; I rest me in the thought
of rocks and trees, of skies and seas, his hand the wonders wrought.

This is my Father’s world: the birds their carols raise;
the morning light, the lily white, declare their Maker’s praise.
This is my Father’s world: he shines in all that’s fair;
in the rustling grass I hear him pass, he speaks to me everywhere.

Jesus lived a life of joy because he not only enjoyed the creation around him; he also received it as a gift from its Creator, the Father of all. And none of this was about ownership. Jesus didn’t have to own the birds in order to enjoy watching them, and he didn’t have to own a field in order to enjoy the beauty of its flowers. He could simply receive it all as a free gift from his Father.

And this leads us to the second attitude that is at the heart of Jesus’ experience of life: the attitude of trust in his heavenly Father.

I was blessed with a good father. When my brother Mike and I were little boys, my Dad worked hard to put food on the table for us – first as a commercial artist in the advertising business, and later as a priest. When my Dad stopped work for two years to go to seminary, my Mum took her turn in the workforce. Between them they always provided what we needed, and I don’t ever remember worrying about not having food to eat or clothes to wear. That didn’t mean that our parents let us sit around and do nothing, of course; they required us to do our chores, help with the dishes and all that kind of thing. But because we knew that they loved us, we could be secure; we knew that, if need be, they would sacrifice their own comfort to make sure we had the necessities of life.

Jesus had that sort of trust in his heavenly Father; he had a strong and lively sense of the goodness of God. To him, the goodness of the created world was a sign of the goodness of the one who had made it. And his teaching grew out of his own experience. When he told his followers not to worry about tomorrow, we can assume that he had learned this attitude by putting it into practice himself. He knew from his own experience that the creator of all this beauty was not a stern and stingy killjoy but a loving and utterly dependable Father. And because of his relationship with his Father, Jesus was able to break free from the tyranny of worry and focus his life on the things that really mattered.

So, even though Jesus seems to have known all along that the cross was ahead for him, I don’t get the sense that he was always looking ahead anxiously, worrying about what was coming next. Rather, he seems to have been able to live entirely in the present moment, giving attention to the present task, celebrating the goodness of God here and now. And he wanted his followers to do the same.

It’s important to recognise that when Jesus tells us not to worry about food and drink and clothing, he’s not saying that these things don’t matter. He doesn’t mean that we should live an ascetic life, eating and drinking as little as possible and wearing only the most ragged and moth-eaten clothes. No – Jesus himself enjoyed the good things of life, and he wasn’t telling us that they aren’t important. Rather, he was telling us that we are the children of a loving Father who wants to give good gifts to his children. We can trust our Father to provide for us, just as he provides for the rest of his creation.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t plant seeds and reap the harvest, or that we shouldn’t work at weaving and spinning to make clothes – or that we shouldn’t work at our own jobs and earn money to pay others for these things, as most of us probably do in this church today. Rather, we should do these things with joy, because God is not a mean tyrant who is out to get us and make life difficult for us, but our loving Father who wants to take care of us and gives us the fruits of the earth as a gift.

So Jesus would counsel us to get close to the creation and learn to take joy in all that God has made there, and he would counsel us to learn to know and trust God as our heavenly Father; the more we cultivate our relationship with this God, the easier it will be for us to live our lives on the basis of simple trust in him. And finally, Jesus would counsel us to choose our focus wisely. In the passage immediately before today’s gospel, Jesus advises 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” (vv.19-21).

He goes on to warn us:

“No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (v.24)

And at the end of today’s gospel he says,

“Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (vv.31-33).

Here we are getting to the heart of the matter. The reason Jesus was able to live in joyful trust in his heavenly Father was that he had made his heavenly Father’s priorities his own. And he challenges us to do the same. Seek the Kingdom of God, make it the number one value of your life, and God will respond by providing for you what you need to live. And what is the kingdom of God? The kingdom of God means God’s power and love at work through Jesus to heal the world and restore it to his original intention and plan. One day this plan will come to completion; every knee will bow to Jesus, and God’s reign of compassion and justice and peace will be established and will last forever. Jesus challenges us to focus on that vision, to work toward it even now, and to make it the number one value of our lives.

The nineteenth century missionary Amy Carmichael once wrote these words: ‘Only one life, ‘twill soon be past; only what’s done for God will last’. Of course, ‘done for God’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘done for the institutional church’. God’s purposes for his world are far wider than the institutional church; they include building happy marriages and strong families and nurturing caring communities. They include working toward a world where everyone has enough and no one has too much, and a world in which future generations will still be able to enjoy the birds of the air and the lilies of the field as we do today. And they include the spread of the good news of Jesus with a call to everyone to become his disciples.

So these are three attitudes that Jesus lived by himself, and that he tried to pass on to his followers: joy in God and in all the good things that God had made, trust in the goodness of his heavenly Father and in his daily provision for our needs, and focus above all, not on accumulating wealth for ourselves, but on doing God’s will and cooperating with him in the work of healing the world.

Does that sound good to you? Does that sound attractive? Does that sound better than living by the principle of ‘the one who dies with the most toys wins’? Does it sound better than accumulating mountains of luxuries and then spending our days worrying that someone is going to steal them from us? Which would you rather do: walk through what the old Prayer Book called ‘the changes and chances of this mortal life’ with only your own skill and strength to depend on, or walk through life with your hand in your Father’s hand, focussing on the things he tells you to focus on, and trusting him to provide the necessities of life for you?

I know which alternative I’d rather go for. I’m not there yet, not by a long shot, but I’m going to pray that Jesus will teach me day by day to find joy in God’s creation, to trust in the goodness of my heavenly Father, and to focus my attention on seeking God’s kingdom and doing God’s will. Would you like to join me in that prayer?