Anglican Communion futures

Well said…and let’s pray that all in attendance may come with a heart for unity, a passion for Christ, and a desire to listen, both to God and one another

Nick Baines's Blog

It was announced yesterday that the Archbishop of Canterbury has invited the Primates of the Anglican Communion to Canterbury in January 2016 to discuss the (futures) of their relationships and organisation.

Note that he has ‘invited’ them. This has been translated into media-speak as ‘summonsed’. First, he cannot summons them or demand that they come. He is not a pope. So, the translation from invitation to summons is either lazy journalese or deliberate obfuscation.

Secondly, contrary to much reporting, he has not decided on these futures, but has put everyhting on the table in order that the Primates together can discuss and decide on their future shape.

What is so hard to understand about this?

It seems to me that the Archbishop of Canterbury has shown some clear leadership here by (a) insisting that the continuing and debilitating Communion issues now be confronted and addressed and resolved, and (b) that…

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Discipleship – Calling & Following

As I was thinking and praying about this particular theme, it really struck me that in the context of discipleship there are often pairs of words that very much go together; words like “calling and following” “commissioning and sending”, and “failure and grace” – which will all feature in this series.

My hope and heartfelt prayer is that this series would stir us all up and encourage us to live more intentionally as Disciples of Christ, and give us a passion to deepen our relationship with God and along the way have some of those lightbulb moments when perhaps we may have some revelation about discipleship that we hadn’t had before.

And so our series begins today as we look at calling and following.


I wanted to begin by asking you to spend a couple of minutes thinking about what your response to the following question might be “What does being a disciple mean to you?”. You may even wish to jot your responses down on a piece of paper.

Key words that are often associated with discipleship include learning, following, emulating and obedience. Jesus didn’t simply call his disciples and then say “ok, now you have responded, on your way…get on with it.” Instead once they had responded to his call, Jesus commissioned or equipped and then sent them. Next week’s service will take a look at the nature of commissioning, and being sent.

It is interesting how the Evangelists give a realistic portrayal of good and bad traits in the disciples; Mark in particular tends to cover the many failures of the disciples, and we will be looking at that in more detail when we think about failure and grace in this series. All however also show how Jesus:

  • Taught them (Mark 4:10–12),
  • Corrected them (Matthew 16:5–12),
  • Admonished them (Matthew 17:19–20),
  • Supported them (Luke 22:31–34),
  • Comforted them (John 20:19–22) and
  • Restored them (John 21:15–19).

In turn the disciples could become examples of what Jesus desires to do for the church (Matthew 28:19–20). In becoming disciples ourselves, if our expectation is that we will enter in to that relationship with Christ and remain unchanged, then we are deluding ourselves.

When we are shaped and moulded by God it is because ALL of us are works in progress…none of us are the finished article. The paradox is, as we draw closer to a holy and awesome God and we begin to capture a vision of his holiness, we recognise our own poverty of spirit…and the enormity of his grace and love. I hope people can see that I am grace touched. I hope people might see how Christ has made a difference in my life despite me; but I hope even more that he would continue to make an even bigger difference in my life as I seek to follow him.

The difference in how we respond

If I asked you the question “Do you believe in Jesus Christ?” I would certainly hope that the response would be a unified “Yes”. And if I then asked the question “Do you follow Christ”, then again I would certainly hope that the response would be another unified “Yes”.

The thing is, our belief in Christ – our view of Christ – has a profound impact on the way that we follow him. There are some people who merely think that Jesus was a prophet, a wise and gifted person. That paints a very different picture to believing that Jesus was fully God and fully man. Depending on whether we believe the former or the latter, the way we live our faith and our very world view will be changed.

There were those who followed Jesus because they were called, and they subsequently responded and believed. But there were also those who followed Jesus because of sensationalism – the crowds. He called both the crowd and his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

The crowd in the main may have followed in the absence of belief. There were many who followed Jesus and yet not all believed and some even fell away because the price – the sacrifice they had to make – the cost of discipleship – was too great.

It is also possible to someone to believe and choose not to follow. Even Satan believes in Christ. Yet Satan does not follow Christ. Whereas the disciples followed as well as believed and the faith and belief they had in Christ, which took time to develop in each and every one of them resulted in the growth of Christianity as we know.

During Jesus’ earthly ministry his disciples were called to “follow” Jesus, and in responding they demonstrated a conscious and intentional allegiance to his person. Now, Jewish disciples would typically follow their master around, often literally imitating or emulating him. But there were some striking differences about Jesus and his disciples:

  • Jewish disciples would choose and approach the rabbi they wanted to follow and be disciples of, and if and only if the rabbi agreed could they become his disciple. In contrast, Jesus chose his disciples. He called them and invited them to respond. He does that with us too…we are all called, we are all invited to respond. And so rather than the disciple taking the initiative in choosing the master, as was characteristic among the Jews, Jesus emerges as the central figure who dominates the scene and calls his own disciples by means of his call. It isn’t likely that Jesus had had previous personal encounters with those he called to be his disciples…nor had opportunities to befriend them makes the significance of his call stand out even more along with the disciples response.

Although discipleship was a voluntary matter and choice for typical Jewish disciples seeking to follow a Rabbi, with Jesus the initiative lay with his call (Mark 1:17; 2:14; Matthew 4:19; 9:9; cf. Luke 5:10–11, 27–28) and his choice (John 15:16) of those who would be his disciples. The response to the call involves:

  • Recognition and belief in Jesus’ identity (John 2:11; 6:68–69),
  • Obedience to his summons (Mark 1:18, 20) and
  • Counting the cost of full allegiance to him (Luke 14:25–28; Matthew 19:23–30).

Jesus’ calling is the beginning of something new. It means losing one’s old life (Mark 8:34–37; Lk 9:23–25) and finding new life in the family of God through obeying the will of the Father (Matthew 12:46–50).

  • Jewish disciples were typically the most educated – the best of the best of the best – who had demonstrated their aptitude and grasp of Torah and the Talmud. In contrast, Jesus’ disciples hadn’t necessarily reached those lofty heights of educational attainment in Jewish society and culture. Jesus’ disciples left their occupations, and James and John also left their father (1:18, 20). Discipleship meant leaving behind their way of life and former ties. The motif of the cost of discipleship intensifies throughout the Gospel.  The disciples join themselves to Jesus, to accompany him and to participate in his life (see 3:14) In responding to Jesus call, the disciples began a journey deeper in to faith and a relationship with God that continued for the rest of their life. And they had to learn some hard lessons along the way.
  • The goal of these Jewish disciples was someday to become masters, or rabbis, themselves and to have their own disciples who would follow them. In contrast, Jesus’ disciples were to remain disciples of their Master and teacher and to follow him only (cf. Matthew 23:1–12). As they grew as disciples, their life and faith pointed to Jesus and not to themselves. It was a case of “it’s all about HIM, and not it’s all about me.” The disciples of Jesus were to engage in a new vocation—to become “fishers of men” rather than students of the Law. The disciples not only accompanied Jesus but also were enabled by him them to share His ministry and eventually continue it. And so the calling of the disciples was not simply that they would learn and transmit his teaching of the law, as might followers of Rabbis – but that they might become “fishers of men”. It is astonishing that the first disciples were prepared to give up everything to follow Jesus. “immediately they left their nets and followed him.” Both being a disciple as well as making disciples is an integral part of what it means to be a Christian. In other words, for us to fully fulfil what it is to be a disciple we must seek not only to deepen our learning and relationship with God through prayer and Bible study, but also to engage in the making of other disciples. We are called with a purpose.

Response and application

Whenever we think about discipleship we can be encouraged, as well as challenged. We can’t avoid the challenges forever…

In what ways do we recognise our continuing growth as disciples? Do we ever do a spiritual “health check” – perhaps prayerfully reflecting on where we have been and where we are now? Do we follow Christ AND believe? Have we responded fully to his call or have we become complacent in our faith? Are we prepared to take up our cross? We are all called, and we all have a choice about responding – not at all, half-heartedly or whole heartedly – with body, soul, mind and strength.

In what ways in the worshipping life and ministry of this church do we make disciples? Making disciples isn’t just about people coming to faith in Christ, even if it begins with that. It is about that journey into a deeper relationship with Christ and inviting him to be Lord of our life. Discipleship fundamentally involves all of one’s being, not just the mind or intellect.

It isn’t about us taking God to people…it is about us having encounters with people and seeking to see how God is already at work and inviting them to recognise that too.

Jesus always finds people where they are, speaks in a language and context with which they were wholly familiar, but gives it an entirely different significance for them as they ultimately become apostles. Today, we all too often expect unbelievers to make all kinds of adjustments—in dress, initiation into our ways of worship, language and thought —before a proper conversation can begin. Familiarity sometimes causes us to lose sight of how visitors might perceive the encounter they have with us at church.  When visitors come, unless they are received with sensitivity and wisdom with a generous spirit of welcome when they are at their weakest and least comfortable, and most disorientated, we will fail to connect with them. In so doing we put so many obstacles between them and the simplicity of the gospel itself. We have much to learn about starting where people are. It has been good for us as a church to think about this on the “Everybody Welcome” course.

Over the course of the next few weeks, I invite you to engage in a spiritual health check and think about where you are in the journey as a disciple. May you recognise the many ways in which Jesus is calling you and may you have the wisdom and the courage to follow. Amen

Songs of Praise from Calais

Well said at all levels…

Nick Baines's Blog

So, the BBC is being hounded again as if the producers are leftie, hand-wringing imbeciles. Songs of Praise is coming from Calais, and some people don’t like it. Nothing to do with the French, of course.

Songs of Praise usually gets slagged off for being … er …Songs of Praise. Often the critique is that it is bland or anodyne. Well, not now it isn’t.

The decision to record in the Jungle of Calais, right at the heart of where migrants are trying desperately to find a new life in a place of safety, is absolutely the right one. There are two reasons for this:

  1. Christian Faith is about God in the real world, not relegated to some imaginary fairy land where it can’t do any harm or embarrass anyone. The Psalms – the hymn book Jesus used – are full of lament, question, anger, frustration and challenge: why do…

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The Good Shepherd

One of the many things I have really appreciated about coming back to live in Yorkshire is that we live on the doorstep of such beautiful countryside. It is said for example that Skipton is the Gateway to the Dales and I think that the scenery is simply breathtaking.

On days off, when the weather has been kind, I have really valued an opportunity to recharge by driving into the Dales and taking in the scenery, visiting some of the quaint towns and villages and going for walks. On these outings you cannot fail to notice the vast swathes of farmland – cows and sheep for as far as the eye can see.

Springtime this year has been incredible…everywhere you looked there were sheep and new born lambs. And seeing that reminded me of that great series “One Man and His Dog” which featured various sheepdog trials.

As a child I owned a border collie, whose parents were working sheepdogs in the Dales, so it’s probably fair to say that I have a great fondness for sheepdogs and therefore I particularly enjoyed watching that series. And knowing how intelligent my dog was, it was never a surprise to me to see man and dog working together with such synchronicity, even if it was always an astonishing sight to see. What you may not also be surprised to know is that recent scientific studies have shown that sheep are far more intelligent than they have previously been given credit for! No longer should sheep be a by-word for stupidity and mindlessly following the crowd. And if you want proof of that, you only need to look to a farm in Marsden near Huddersfield where sheep taught themselves to roll 8ft (3m) across hoof-proof metal cattle grids – and raid villagers’ valley gardens. Dorothy Lindley, a former Conservative councillor in the historic textile town on the edge of the Pennine uplands in West Yorkshire, said: “They lie down on their side, or sometimes their back, and just roll over and over the grids until they are clear.”

I was reminded of all of this recently in a number of different ways…when I spoke with a family recently about baptism I invited them to choose a Bible to be presented to them in the service and they choose the Little Lamb’s Bible which invites us to cuddle up with Little Lamb and know God’s Love! Sounds like a smart little lamb to me. And then this week, I went to visit a member of one of my congregations who like me had owned a border collie for many years – and there was an incredible painting of it in her living room.

The shepherding practice in the Dales is certainly very different to shepherding practice in the Middle East. In the Dales, the sheep are driven by the sheepdog, working closely with the shepherd. Whereas in the Middle East, the sheep follow the shepherd and recognise his voice. It isn’t uncommon to see maybe 5 different flocks of sheep with their shepherds coming together at a well for the sheep to be watered. But what is incredible is that when it is time for a flock to move on, the right sheep respond to the voice of their shepherd even if all the flocks are mixed in together. The sheep follow the shepherd.

In both cases, whether in the Dales or in the Middle East, the care and attention, and the protection given by the shepherd is incredible. Shepherds will know each individual sheep – their markings and features, and even their character. Let’s be under no illusion here, shepherding is a hard, demanding and at times costly life.

In Jesus’ time, the imagery of a shepherd will have been very well known in his culture. And here in our reading today we find Jesus describing himself as the Good Shepherd. And note Jesus doesn’t simply say “I AM the Shepherd”…more than that, Jesus is the “Good Shepherd”. And what are the characteristics of a Good Shepherd? We are told the Good Shepherd:

  • Lays down his life for the sheep
  • Knows his sheep AND his sheep know him
  • Brings other sheep from outside of the pen into his care and protection
  • Has a flock of sheep that listens to his voice
  • Has a flock of sheep that follow him; they respond
  • Has one flock

And in other passages that speak of Jesus as the Good Shepherd we learn that he:

  • Leads them out to pasture
  • Seeks out the lost sheep
  • Protects his sheep from danger

Jesus is able to do this because he has the ability and the authority; we see that in the promise he makes…“I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.

I don’t know where you may be in your faith. I do know that when I heard the call of the Good Shepherd many years ago, I chose to follow him. I chose to respond. It brings me much comfort and assurance in life.

I am sure that we all have hopes and aspirations in our life. And we can choose to express those hopes and aspirations in some very important ways – one being to declare our faith through Baptism or Confirmation.  We may choose to seek to get to know Jesus, and enter into a relationship with him…to know God’s love, God’s presence and God’s protection; to know Jesus as the Good Shepherd, and to hear his voice.

I think I’ve lived long enough, and experienced enough in life to say that to know unconditional love is probably the most precious thing we may ever experience in life. And that is what God offers us. That is what God invites us into. And in that we have a choice…we can only know such love by being in relationship with the one offering it and by accepting it and responding.

People think about life choices at many key points in life…a birth, a baptism, a wedding and a funeral. In a service of baptism we are reminded of the promises that God makes and the promises that parents and godparents have made in response, let’s take a moment to examine where we find ourselves and the choices we have made. Have we heard the voice of the Good Shepherd? Do we know God’s unconditional love? If you want to know more, when we come to our prayers why not say in the silence of your heart “Jesus, I want to know you. I want to hear your voice.” Amen

The real Church of England

Nick Baines's Blog

The Church of England is investing a huge amount of time and energy into re-shaping its agenda. Not in order to bolster the institution, but in order to get us back (amid a million claims on attention) to our core vocation: to make and nurture disciples of Jesus Christ; to grow disciples who pray into ministers who evangelise; to shape churches that give themselves away in serving their communities. Not simply growing churches for the sake of having big churches, but growing churches in all our communities – even and especially where it is tough.

I am working with lay and ordained Anglican disciples to shape a diocese that places worship, evangelism, nurture and service at the heart of our life. This will shape our priorities, how we raise and allocate our resources (of people, money and ‘stuff’), and how we shape and work our structures. We are attending seriously…

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The account of Abraham and Sarah at the oaks of Mamre being visited by the three men is a well-known and oft quoted passage that speaks to us so clearly about the abundant and generous spirit of welcome and hospitality that was common nomadic practice.   We see echoes of it in the Book of Hebrews “1 Let mutual love continue. 2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:1-2)

We know that it was God who Abraham entertained or received through his welcome, and there are some specific points I wanted to make about the passage:

  • God might be present or appear amongst us when we least expect it. Abraham was sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day when the LORD appeared. God was ‘embodied’ and accompanied by 2 angels (who later left for Sodom).
  • Our hospitality should not be dependent on who the stranger is that we entertain. At first, Abraham didn’t recognise that he was being visited by God and yet his greeting was not lessened in any way. He ran from the tent entrance to meet them rather than simply rising to greet them, and bowed down to the ground – the kind of greeting that exceeds that given to a mere stranger. We should greet strangers and show an unreserved, unrestrained and generous hospitality irrespective of who they are and with no expectation of reward or return which isn’t to say we shouldn’t have ANY expectation as we shall see later.
  • Real hospitality is sacrificial and costly. Abraham offered costly gifts in the desert. He offered water to wash the feet, choice flour for cakes, a “tender and good” calf, and curds and milk. Abraham gave of the best that he had. Again we see echoes of this in Jesus converting the water into the best of wine.

We cannot show hospitality if our hearts are in the wrong place or if we don’t seek the mind of Christ. If we don’t look after ourselves properly – we are tired, grumpy, burned out physically and spiritually and trying to do things in our own strength then at best our attempt to be hospitable will come across as being uncharitable or reluctant. We see something of the place our hearts should be in our reading from 1 Peter. 9 Be hospitable to one another without complaining. 10 Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. 11 Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ.” To be in this place frequently involves dying to self and not allowing our ego and selfish desires and expectations to dominate. It involves getting rid of a critical spirit. We’ve all come across it before “He should be doing this…she should be doing that” etc. And we are to serve with whatever gift we have received from God – whatever that gift might be…and I know some people who are truly blessed with such an incredible gift of welcome and hospitality. We are to be constant and unswerving in our love for one another and the stranger.

One of my favourite authors who wrote at length about hospitality is Henri Nouwen. He speaks of listening as a form of spiritual hospitality which is not only very challenging but also gives us much food for thought:

To listen is very hard, because it asks of us so much interior stability that we no longer need to prove ourselves by speeches, arguments, statements or declarations. True listeners no longer have an inner need to make their presence known. They are free to receive, welcome, to accept.”

Listening is much more than allowing another to talk while waiting for a chance to respond. Listening is paying full attention to others and welcoming them into our very beings. The beauty of listening is that those who are listened to start feeling accepted, start taking our words more seriously and discovering their true selves. Listening is a form of spiritual hospitality by which you invite strangers to become friends, to get to know their inner selves more fully, and even to dare to be silent with you.

In his book, Reaching Out, Nouwen paints the spiritual progression from hostility to hospitality as an essential reflex and result of the spiritual life. Nouwen sees hospitality as being characterised by a great expectation for the presence of God in all his relational encounters. For Nouwen, hospitality is a combination of receptivity, openness to others, and honesty. He writes “Hospitality wants to offer friendship without binding the guest [receptivity] and freedom without leaving him alone [honesty].” Elaborating on this simple definition, Nouwen writes:

Hospitality, therefore, means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines. It is not to lead our neighbor into a corner where there are no alternatives left, but to open a wide spectrum of options for choice and commitment…The paradox of hospitality is that it wants to create emptiness, not a fearful emptiness, but a friendly emptiness where strangers can enter and discover themselves as created free; free to sing their own songs, speak their own languages, dance their own dances, free also to leave and follow their own vocations. Hospitality is not a subtle invitation to adopt the lifestyle of the host, but the gift of a chance for the guest to find his own. Reaching out to others without being receptive to them is more harmful than helpful and easily leads to manipulation and even violence, violence in thoughts, words and actions.

Note though, in Nouwen’s commentary there is an implicit expectation of change…the creation of a space where change can and will take place. Whenever Christ had an encounter with someone who was receptive, they never remained unchanged. All too often the wider church fails to acknowledge this really key point. When we practice hospitality there should be an expectation of change, even if there has to be and a humble recognition and acknowledgement that that change might begin and end with us and us alone. It is God who transforms lives and changes hearts; we are called to be holy because he is holy. But we must also have a hope that the one receiving hospitality might be receptive to Christ in and through us too.

To practice receptivity of this magnitude requires tremendous courage, honesty and candour – speaking the truth in love. Nouwen continues:

Real receptivity asks for confrontation because space can only be a welcoming space when there are clear boundaries, and boundaries are limits between which we define our own position…We are not hospitable when we leave our house to strangers and let them use it any way they want…When we want to be really hospitable we not only have to receive strangers but also to confront them by an unambiguous presence, not hiding ourselves behind neutrality but showing our ideas, opinions and life style clearly and distinctly. No real dialogue is possible between somebody and nobody. We can enter into communication with the other only when our life choices, attitudes and viewpoints offer the boundaries that challenge strangers to become aware of their own position and to explore it critically.

At the heart of our meeting has to be grace and love – with each other and especially with our enemies. Receptivity is by no means passive.  It is dynamic and active and is a catalyst for change and growth tempered by love.

A community commitment to the receptivity and honesty that Nouwen bundles into his invitation to hospitality would catalyse an enormous transformation in the authenticity, accessibility, and mission of the church.

Someone who is filled with ideas, concepts, opinions and convictions cannot be a good host. There is no inner space to listen, no openness to discover the gift of the other. It is not difficult to see how those ‘who know it all’ can kill a conversation and prevent an interchange of ideas. [also] When our heart is filled with prejudices, worries, jealousies, there is little room for a stranger. In a fearful environment it is not easy to keep our heart open to the wide range of human experiences.

There is a paradigm for hospitality which is illustrated well in the Book of Romans and I would have these words etched into the very fabric of the existence of the church:

9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. 14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:9-21)

We as always, have a choice about how we may facilitate that – how we might help it to happen. One choice might be to covenant ourselves to God.

To be a Christian means belonging to a diverse and varied community. It means sharing my life with people who have very different views to mine; and that’s hard! It means learning to differ in Christian love, respecting opinions other than mine and always seeking to understand the experiences of faith and life that lead people to the convictions that shape their discipleship. Realistically I will therefore experience the church as a place of joyful unity and painful conflict. It isn’t something I find easy. I don’t think it is something that anyone finds easy. We often have such huge and unrealistic expectations of each other. We need to be prepared to repent and ask for forgiveness. We need to be prepared to make peace with God, with each other and with ourselves. This will be so because it is a community of forgiven sinners not finished saints, and because the questions matter deeply and passionately, and because we will always ‘see dimly’ in this life.

Let’s enter into that covenant with God and each other now. I invite you to stand and say with me the Methodist Covenant Prayer:

I am no longer my own but yours.

Put me to what you will,

rank me with whom you will;

put me to doing,

put me to suffering;

let me be employed for you,

or laid aside for you,

exalted for you,

or brought low for you;

let me be full,

let me be empty,

let me have all things,

let me have nothing:

I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things

to your pleasure and disposal.

And now, glorious and blessed God,

Father, Son and Holy Spirit,

you are mine and I am yours. So be it.

And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.” Amen

Bible Sunday

Remember that ever since you were a child, you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.” 2 Timothy 3.15 (GNB)

Today is Bible Sunday and we will be looking at the Word of God together in this sermon. One of the sessions that we cover on the Alpha course is about why and how we should read the Bible and we will be touching upon some of the material used in that session in this sermon.

But to begin with, I would like to ask you to do something…grab a piece of paper and a pen and in a couple of minutes write down all the reasons you can think of for why we should read the Bible.  Once you have your list, take another piece of paper and now write down all the reasons you can think of for what makes reading the Bible difficult or challenging.

Ghandi said to the Christians of his day: ‘You look after a document containing enough dynamite to blow all civilisation to pieces, turn the world upside down and bring peace to a battle torn planet. But you treat it as though it were nothing more than a piece of literature.

The Psalmist says “The words of God are more precious than gold.” (Psalm 19:10) At her coronation the Queen was handed a Bible by the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, with these words: “We present you with this book, the most valuable thing that this world affords.

During their ordination, priests within the Church of England are presented with a Bible “Receive this book, as a sign of the authority which God has given you this day to preach the gospel of Christ and to minister his holy sacraments.

Christians when giving evidence in court take an oath on the Bible.  As their hand is placed on the Bible they say “I swear by almighty God that the evidence I shall give shall be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

The question is why?

Jesus said “People do not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:4) The tense used makes it clear that God’s word is continually being spoken.

There is a great saying – “The Bible is meant to be bread for daily use, not cake for special occasions.”  We get a sense of that in the Lord’s Prayer.

The Psalms paint some wonderful pictures of the Word of God. The extract from Psalm 119 in our reading today is no exception. The Word of God, we are told, is:

  • Like purifying and cleansing water (v.9)
  • A treasure (vv.14, 72, 127, 162)
  • A companion and a counsellor (v.24)
  • A song (v.54)
  • Like honey (v.103)
  • A light (vv.105, 130) and
  • A heritage (v.111)

What on earth would life be like without these things?

The psalmist goes on to suggest why we should value the Word of God. The reasons all relate to what it does:

  • It brings happiness (vv.1-2). It has been said that “key to happiness is to live in God’s Word and to let his Word live in us.” If we walk according to God’s Word we will be blessed and know happiness.
  • It produces cleansing and purity (vv.9, 11). “The agent the Spirit of God used to regenerate the hearts of all of us who are saved.” We get a sense of this cleansing, and washing in the word in Ephesians (Ephesians 5:25-27)
  • It gives liberty and freedom (v.45). Sin always promises to bring freedom, but it only creates bondage and causes us to become slaves to depravity (2 Peter 2:19). It is the truth of God that brings true and lasting freedom (John 8:32).
  • It provides direction (v.105). The Word of God provides the direction we need, a lamp to out feet and a light for our path. It is like a light shining in a dark place (2 Peter 1:19).
  • It produces understanding (v.130). Our walking and understanding are inseparably linked. In addition to shedding light on our path, the Word of God enlightens our minds (the ‘eyes of our heart’ become enlightened) so we can discern what we ought to do.

Paul said “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

Reading the Bible helps us:

  • Become like Jesus, as we are ‘transformed into his likeness’ (2 Corinthians 3:18)
  • Know the presence of God, joy and peace in the midst of life’s storms (Psalm 23:5)
  • Find guidance (Psalm 119:105)
  • Know life in all fullness, health and healing (Proverbs 4:20-22)
  • Be defended against spiritual attack (Matthew 4:1-11)
  • Experience God’s power…it can convict us deep in our hearts, challenge us, affirm us, and build us up (Hebrews 4:12)
  • Cleanse our minds (John 15:3)

Living according to God’s word then helps us:

  1. Keep our ways pure
  2. Not to sin
  3. Teach and admonish one another with wisdom. I think that Christian are often very poor at speaking the truth in love because they don’t have the Word of God written on the tablets of their heart and they don’t recognize their own poverty of spirit
  4. Develop an attitude of gratitude in our hearts

We do this by:

  1. Studying it. God’s purpose in giving his Word was to point us to himself. We are, therefore, to seek him through his Word (v. 2), and this seeking is to be done wholeheartedly (vv. 2–10). We are to ‘look’ into his Word (v. 6) and to learn its judgements (v. 7). It really helps if we do this together and here we have several in your church you may have several opportunities to dig deeper into God’s word – perhaps in Housegroups, or nurture Groups. There are also some really great Daily Bible Reading Notes you can buy that aren’t too expensive – and readily available at Christian bookshops.
  2. Obeying it. The duty of obedience is set forth in these verses in several ways: walking in the law of the Lord and in his ways (vv. 1, 3), keeping his testimonies (vv. 2, 129), and taking heed to our ways to make sure they correspond to the teachings of God’s Word (v. 9). We need to encourage one another in this…it isn’t easy, but God gives us strength to prevail and grace and mercy when we fail.
  3. Storing it. We hide it in our hearts – the centre of our being. We get a sense of this in Proverbs 7:1-3: “My son, keep my words and store up my commands within you. Keep my commands and you will live; guard my teachings as the apple of your eye. Bind them on your fingers; write them on the tablet of your heart.
  4. Declaring it (v.13). Studying the Word of God will cause our hearts to burn within us, just as they did with the disciples on the Emmaus road when Jesus explained the scriptures to them (Luke 24:32) in such a way that we won’t be able to keep it to ourselves. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.
  5. Rejoicing over it (vv.14-16).   The rejoicing of verse 14 and the delighting of verse 16 are connected by the meditating of verse 15. As we reflect on what the Word of God is and what it does, we will find the rejoicing and delighting to be inescapable.

Reading the Word of God has an effect and an impact on us. It leads to transformation and it draws us closer to Christ. We are told:

Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:2)

Reading the Word of God is an intentional or purposeful act, just like putting clothes on.   In the first part of the passage from Colossians (3.12-14), Paul uses the metaphor of putting on new clothing to describe the transformation of God’s chosen people. When we make that choice to follow Jesus, we leave behind the rags of our old lives and ‘put on’ the glorious robes of our new lives. It is only when we begin to leave behind our old selfish selves and move forward with Christ’s love in our hearts that we can attain the perfect unity expressed most wonderfully as Christ’s body here on earth, the church.

These signs of a transformed and re-formed believer are the outward ‘clothing’ of a transformed heart, one that is at peace with God, oneself, and others (3.15). We the evidence of that in the use of the gifts of the Spirit and the Fruit of the Spirit. This must form the basis of the missional heart of the church, in which the primary reason for our existence is to worship and glorify God.  And as we give thanks for God’s goodness and grace, we can’t help but express our gratitude in acts of service to others both inside and outside the church in thought, word and deed (3.15-17). We recognise or own poverty of spirit and capture a glimpse of the length and breadth and depth of the love of God.

The message of Christ, that we are justified not by our own efforts but by faith, and saved, not by our works but by God’s grace, is expressed in a heart for mission, rigorous teaching, exuberant worship and heartfelt thanksgiving to God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit (3.16-17).

If you want to know more of Jesus, and feel held back and in a dry place – why not ask for prayer ministry?

As together we read the Word of the Lord… let’s remember the Words of Jesus who said “Everyone who hears these words of mine puts them into practice…(Matthew 7:24)

Let’s close with this silent prayer….

Lord Jesus Christ, help us to live according to your Word.  May we be clothed in your truth; with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience and over all of these, love.  May your kingdom come, your will be done and your church shine with your light.  Amen

The Wedding Banquet

Whether we like it or not, I think everyone tends to have their own standards of right and wrong and of justice. What is right for one person may be very wrong for another and there is often commentary and debate in the media regarding whether a criminal got a fair or just sentence, or got ‘what was coming to them.’

The thing is though, in this country and on this side of heaven we uphold the ‘rule of law’ and the British judicial system and as such we entrust right, fair and just sentences to be given out by a judge who is far more aware of both the bigger picture and the context and detail than we are, even if there are times when just like the rest of us, they are very human.

There is a problem though in that the media sometimes comes across as being like a ‘final arbitrator’ as if they have the right to take justice into their own hands and this at times leads to people becoming very sceptical of authority and very sceptical of the fairness of the judicial system. It somehow diminishes and undermines authority and we only need to look around the world and see the consequences in countries where the rule of law is absent. It is all too easy to take a stand against something without ever having the courage or wisdom to stand for something.

In the book of Romans we are told “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.” (Romans 13:1-2)

I think it is balanced to read this in the light and context of 1 Timothy 2 which says “I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Saviour, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men—the testimony given in its proper time.” (1 Timothy 2:1-6)

We are to submit to governing authorities BUT we are also to pray for governing authorities and specifically that they may allow us to live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. When I wonder was the last time we prayed for governing authorities in our personal prayer lives?

The scepticism of earthly authority though can escalate into a scepticism of heavenly authority and also a complacency. We sometimes see the church becoming like the media – giving a clear message of what it is against rather than a clear message of what it is for. It’s all too easy for the church to formulate its own view of what is right, fair and just. Yes the church has an authority but it also has a responsibility and accountability to God…it is HIS church after all.

In our reading today, we are told of the great wedding banquet. And it is to this banquet that specific guests were invited. And we are told very plainly that “they refused to come.” We have all heard the saying “you can lead a horse to water…but you can’t make it drink.”

In what way is their refusal honouring and respecting the authority and sovereignty of the King? On hearing of their refusal the King was both gracious and magnanimous and once again issued the invitation with a plea…“ I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.

It is quite astonishing then that some paid no attention and went off, and still worse others seized his servants, treated them shamefully and killed them. Such action is an act or declaration of war. No wonder then that the King was enraged and the murderers destroyed.

As a result of this all were invited to the wedding banquet – people from the highways and byways and the street corners – both the good and the bad. In this we are reminded of what Jesus had said earlier, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” (Matthew 21:31) We are told that the wedding banquet was filled.

Like so many parables and prophecies this is something that spoke clearly into the context in which it was first shared – but also into the context we find ourselves in today. At the time it would have spoken very harshly to the people of God who should have known better – and how the Jewish people rejected the invitation of the heavenly King, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and ultimately the ‘unrighteous’ gentiles were to receive the invitation. And today it perhaps speaks into the scepticism of authority and complacency we sometimes see in the church.

The wedding garments that we might wear come from us seeking to have the mind of Christ and be clothed in Christ and his righteousness; and the only way we can do that is to submit to Christ. The garment is a metaphor for righteousness, reminding us of where it says in Revelation ““Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.” (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints.)” (Revelation 19:7-8)

All are invited, but all are to be clothed in Christ who is “the way and the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through him.” (John 14:6) We cannot get into heaven in our own merit; we are called into righteousness and that righteousness can only come from Christ and Christ alone. For the person to seek to enter into the wedding banquet in their own clothes is to scorn the host’s provision of wedding garments thus insulting the host and showed a lack of respect and a terrible complacency. There are overtones of Isaiah here. “All our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” (Isaiah 64:6) That is the human predicament: we are literally not fit to be seen before God, let alone to enjoy the feast of his kingdom.

We have such a privilege – we can’t make an excuse that we didn’t know any better – we are children of God and ambassadors of Christ. Do we refuse to respond to the call of the heavenly King? Do we treat shamefully those who seek to spur us on in our faith? Do we take the law into our own hands? Do we “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33)? Divine election is a mystery…and we should not seek to question our heavenly judge “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due to him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” (2 Corinthians 5:10)

But as I have said before that there will be three surprises in heaven:

  1. The people who aren’t there
  2. The people who are there
  3. That in God’s grace we too might be there

But this sense of election works together with, rather than against, the reality of human responsibility, free will and the choice that we have just like the people initially invited to the wedding. God will not force people against their free will and individual responsibility. We can accept the invitation or we can refuse the invitation and treat those giving us the invitation shamefully. Not everyone is receptive to Jesus and his message and not all respond appropriately with a discipleship that brings forth the righteousness of the Kingdom. All are called; not everyone is elect.

The wedding banquet is ready; let’s pray that we might be clothed in the righteousness of Christ and seek first his Kingdom and His righteousness.


Coming home to harvest

There are times for all of us when we want to do our own thing, or when we want to go our own way. Times when perhaps we lose sight of the bigger picture or the wider context. We all know the song “My Way”. It says it all really. Even though penned in the 20th century, in the 21st century that song speaks into our own sense of independence and I understand it is the most popular song at funeral services today.

It isn’t wrong to be independent – if we have a dependency on others it isn’t necessarily always healthy – although granted at times something like illness can force us to become dependent on others – but that is only because during those times we simply have no other choice. But apart from those times when we need to receive care and assistance, to become overly dependent on someone can cause us to lose sight of our humanity.

As children grow up they certainly become more and more independent; it is no longer cool to hang out with mum and dad (or so my eldest son and daughter keep telling me). We wouldn’t want it any other way would we? You know when you drop your child off at the school gates for the very first time, when you are more nervous than they are and you wonder who is more upset? And as you walk away you shed tears of pride but also loss? It is great to learn to be strong and independent; but there is a huge difference between independence and rebellion, between independence and going off the rails and living a wild life – loose living. There is a huge difference between independence and interdependence. We cannot exist in a vacuum apart from each other. And we see that all the time so clearly in church and communities that thrive. At one extreme, independence forces us to descend into that vacuum of isolation and the risk and consequence is that we go so far down that road that we no longer recognise relationship – relationship with each other and relationship with God.

The story of the wayward or prodigal son which we heard today is a story about a son who went off the rails in a big way. I wonder sometimes if the story should be called the story of the forgiving dad because it also tells us about God’s great love for those who are distant, those who are far off, and the forgiveness, welcome and celebration they can experience when they come home. It is a time when the blind see, the lame walk, the mute speak and the deaf hear – it is a time when people at last begin to recognise their very identity in God. It is a time when harvest time comes early!

I wonder this morning as we think about the story if we can see ourselves in any of the characters? Who might we identify with the closest? Who are the players in the scene? We have:

  • We begin by looking at the youngest son who lost his way and wanted to do things his way and nearly ended up losing everything.We can see the desire for independence and rebellion, the desire of the son to do things his own way. “‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’” And as we know he pursued a road to ruin and in a distant country “squandered his property in dissolute living.” When we are in rebellion against God we so easily squander the many blessings He has given us and we do that because we have taken our eyes off him. We must life up our eyes to the mountains though.   “I lift up my eyes to the mountains— where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.” (Psalm 121) When we do that there is only ever one outcome – it is ironic that in our pursuit of independence we often find that we end up in a place of need and dependence! And as we know the youngest son “began to be in need” and he lost sight of his dignity and working as a swineherd. Sometimes in life we have to have hard knocks – where we lose something of that vain pride and arrogance and come to a place of knowing and grace. St Augustine wrote “Great are You, O Lord, and greatly to be praised; great is Your power, and of Your wisdom there is no end. And man, being a part of Your creation, desires to praise You, man, who bears about with him his mortality, the witness of his sin, even the witness that You “resist the proud,” — yet man, this part of Your creation, desires to praise You. You move us to delight in praising You; for You have formed us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in You.”The youngest son did indeed come to that place of knowing and grace. In returning home he said to his father “I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” That is the truth. And likewise, there is nothing in us that can commend us to God.
  • And then we turn to the eldest son who at first glance appeared to be doing everything right – or was he?We can sometimes get so caught up in the task that we lose sight of why we are doing that task in the first place. For us at church, we must never ever lose sight of why we are here. We are here first and foremost to worship and be in relationship with God – that is the primary reason for existence. But a direct consequence of that is how we then are with each other and how we are with people in our community. “We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19) The eldest son was so caught up with himself and his own narrow sense of pride, justice and righteousness that he had lost sight of the blessings he already had, the benefits of being his father’s son and the inheritance he was called into. All that his father had was his. All he had to do was ask. He could have had a celebration every night! His brother returned and received all the blessings a son could ever desire. The eldest son could have experienced the very same thing, but he really didn’t know all that his father would do for him. Sometimes we also miss all the blessings that are around us – the food on our tables, the clothes we wear, our family, and friends. God has blessed us with so much, and we don’t always recognise it. The eldest son became angry and refused to enter in to fellowship and it seems that for years he had fostered resentment in his heart – it was eating away at him. The elder son said “‘For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with loose living, you killed the fatted calf for him!’” It is very aggressive language isn’t it? I worked like a “slave for you”, “you have never given me even a young goat”, “this son of yours” – he has pushed himself so far out of fellowship and relationship that he loses sight of the love his father has for him, the many blessings that he was given and taken for granted, and he loses sight of his brother.If things don’t always go how we want or expect, do we respond like the elder son? Do we become angry and refuse to participate and take ourselves out of that place of blessing and out of fellowship? Yet we are told to “seek first his Kingdom AND his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33) – we have to recognise that righteousness cannot come from us.We are not told how the eldest son subsequently responds…the question is left hanging in the air. It almost beckons us to ask ourselves how might we respond? It is a gentle challenge.
  • And we conclude with the father who was overjoyed to see his precious son return home.The father has the toughest of all the jobs. Who deserted the father – the youngest son or the eldest son? They both did! The father must have felt so hurt, so let down and disappointed. And yet the father is the one who is the seeker and responder, the one who is calm and in control, the one who is filled with grace, mercy, truth and righteousness. The father’s response to his eldest son was “‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’” You are always with me – nothing will ever stop me from loving you – all that is mine is yours – and see how the father’s heart is that his eldest son might capture such a vision of grace and mercy and forgiveness and love.And when we consider the gracious and compassionate response of the father to his youngest son, we are told “while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him” and then “…let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.”And we know God is our heavenly father and shows us mercy that triumphs over judgement and rejoices whenever we come home to be back in fellowship and relationship with him.

I share these thoughts with you because today we celebrate Harvest time. What might the harvest have looked like for each of the players in our story?

For the youngest son and the father…the Bible tells us “Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy.” (Psalm 126:5) The youngest son and the father both sowed with tears and journeyed through a breakdown of relationship to a place of restoration and reconciliation – a place of joy.

Harvest time is such a great time to express thanks for all the blessings we have – all good gifts around us – the food we eat, the clothes we wear, our homes, our jobs, our families and friends. It is a good time to remember that whoever we connect with closest in that story, we are always welcome just as we are.

Always remember that God, like the father in our story, has the very best planned for us even if we have a tough journey to get there. Even if we feel far off and distant He will make the effort to come to right where we are and invite us home for the harvest celebration. Home is a place of forgiveness, a place of safety, a place of growth, a place of acceptance, a place where all the family should be able to come as they are, a place of celebration where all can gather. Let’s give thanks to God for the many blessings he has given us and ask that we might welcome people into our hearts and our spiritual home and pray that the harvest might come.