church/kingdom and church/mission

29 05 2007

i was asked to answer some questions in a methodist fresh expressions research forum. specifically on the role of church/mission and church/kingdom as concepts within methodist fresh expressions. i thought i would repeat my answer here:

hmm… i’m not sure if i’m qualified to speak on methodist fresh expressions as i’m not a methodist myself coming from the reformed tradition. however, i have read wesley’s sermons and believe you might find wisdom in wesley’s seventh sermon entitled ‘the way to the kingdom’. it makes it clear that wesley saw two legs to the kingdom of God, the first being holiness/obedience and the second being happiness/peace in the heart. the way, wesley believed or even insisted, must be repentance and belief in the gospel – indeed he wrote, ‘He [God] would set up his kingdom among men, and reign in the hearts of His people’ and also ‘Wheresoever, therefore, the gospel of Christ is preached, this His “kingdom is nigh at hand”.’ – if this then doesn’t identify church and kingdom in the thought of the wesley brothers then i am not sure what will.

i believe one of the dangers of the fresh expressions movement, and perhaps a way not left open by wesley, is to make a false and potentially devestating separation between the church and the kingdom. it seems to me that fresh expressions rides on a wave that sees evangelicals (with a passion for evangelism proclamation of the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus) and liberals (who embraced Adolf von Harnack’s emphasis upon the social message of the gospel) united in mission. equally those who might like to disrupt this holy harmony might use a radical, and unwarranted, separation between church and the kingdom as a lever to force apart evangelicals and liberals who are discovering common ground.

so to mission and the church, we agree that it is God’s mission, which the church is invited to participate in. this is in keeping with the methodist doctrine of prevenient grace but the goal is that God would reign (establish his kingdom) in the hearts of his people, the consequences of which are social holiness. without either of these, repentance or social holiness, the gospel of Jesus proclaimed by Wesley would be incomplete. i think, therefore, the church is both an agent of and result of mission in its most complete sense. the question ‘does “church do” mission or “mission do” church?’ then is answered,’yes, both, and’. but the challenge then is what shape our church should take if its task is to “make disciples” and disciples are to be both church and do mission. both of which are corporate and individual endeavours as the holy community the trinity reveals.

i suspect that we may have failed in our mandate to make disciples because we saw mission as something done by a select group within the church rather than the aim of the entire church. surely discipleship is best expressed not by cerebral creeds and formulas but by active engagement in theological mission. rather than thinking we must do mission to get people through the doors then we must do discipleship, surely we would do better to see mission as something we are calling people to whilst being engaged in ourselves? i am convinced that this is the meaning of the Christian life to meet with God and one another as we respond to God’s call to join His mission in the world.





The Foolishness of the Cross

29 03 2007

It’s April fools day and I thought I’d speak to you this morning about foolishness. We’ve all played the fool from time to time haven’t we? Playing practical jokes on our friends, misleading them, or surprising them in humorous ways. Well, I certainly have.

But there is a stupider side to foolishness isn’t there? An embarrassing side, which I’m sure we have all had our fair share of.

I can remember waiting in the cold for several hours for a young lady I’d agreed to meet unfortunately she’d left before me and wasn’t coming but instead of waiting half an hour and going my own way I waited four hours before finally catching the train home. In hindsight, I guess that was a pretty foolish thing to do. 

But, I know I’m not the only one to act in a foolish way, in Hans Christen Anderson’s fable of The Emperor’s New Clothes: A great emperor is fooled into wearing nothing as he is told that only “the worthy and intelligent” are able to see the fine robes he is wearing. Being too embarrassed to admit that he cannot see the clothes himself the emperor parades through the streets until a young boy whispers ‘the emperor’s got no clothes on’.

I’m sure you’ve heard that famous story or perhaps you can think of an equivalent story.

In the Bible foolishness is treated in a number of ways: In the Old Testament the fool is a person who denies the existence of God or who acts without moral restraint. Fools are described as being ignorant of the truth, deceitful liars, slanderers, and lazy. In the New Testament fools are those who fail to heed the warnings, they ignore Jesus words. Hence, the story of the wise and the foolish builders; the foolish builder is compared to the person who ignores Jesus’ teaching.

However, in our verses today Paul writes about the foolishness of preaching the cross and picks out three groups (the Jews, the Greeks, and the Christian community) he argues that the weakness of God is stronger than the strength of great people and that the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of great people.

1.      Paul argues that the cross is nothing but weakness to the Jews, for they demanded signs but they saw the messiah hung upon a cross. Our first reading this morning told of Jesus triumphant procession into Jerusalem; expectations must have been high the Jews must have felt that Jesus had come to overthrow their Gentile rulers but their expectations were dashed upon the rocks of reality.

It is interesting to note all the excitement surrounding Jeffrey Archer’s The Gospel According to Judas. In this story, Judas is portrayed as being a faithful follower of Jesus. Speculating about Judas’ motives for betraying Jesus it suggests that Judas is acting upon Jesus command. However, the orthodox interpretation raises a more interesting possibility. Judas betrayed Jesus not simply for thirty pieces of silver but to engineer a showdown between Jesus and the civil authorities.

In Jesus day, people were awaiting the coming of a king who would overthrow the Roman Empire and Judas Iscariot was no different. In fact, Judas was probably a zealot, committed to overthrowing the Roman Empire. Judas’ surname Iscariot may be a form ‘Sicarii’ meaning ‘dagger-man’. However, when Judas realised that his plan had failed and Jesus had been nailed to the cross he was overcome with remorse and the gospels tell us that Judas took his own life.

But, “what does all this stuff about Judas have to do with the weakness of the cross?” you may be asking. Well, if the Jews and Judas expected Jesus to triumph over the Roman Empire the cross must have seemed like an abomination!

Today, there are those for whom the way of cross and self-sacrifice seems awful. For example, there are conservative bible-believing Christians who have been utterly behind the war in Iraq. I suspect that some of these Christians much like the Jews of Jesus’ day would feel more comfortable with a conquering hero than the crucified Lord. And although they would hardly admit it the suffering of the cross is a rebuke to their imperialistic Christianity.

Likewise, there are those who consider Christianity to be a religion of weakness and who reject the gospel on the grounds that Christ’s patience, unconditional love, free grace, and humility are weaknesses in a world that praises the ambitious, socially successful, powerful and admired icons of pop culture.

In all of this, with Paul, I affirm, “the weakness of God is stronger than human strength”.

So we know why the cross was a stumbling block to the Jews, but what about the Greeks? Why does Paul suggest that suggest that the cross is foolishness to the Greeks?

2.      It is easy to see that faced with the philosophy of Socrates and Plato; the teaching of illiterate fishermen must have seemed little more than foolishness. Indeed Aristotle, whose statue stands today in the great City of Thessalonica, was the tutor of Alexander the Great. Compared with him, the wisdom of an itinerant teacher from Israel, a vassal state within the Roman Empire, must have seemed ridiculous.

But there is a further problem, whilst Jesus held little esteem when compared to the Greek philosophers, the Old Testament prophecies and scriptures held even less interest for the Greeks. In fact, the entire Jewish faith with its forms of reasoning, ideas, symbols, and witticisms was like a foreign language to the Greeks. Hence, when Paul is speaking in Athens people dismiss him as preaching foreign gods.

It should come as no surprise that it is possible to draw a comparison between the situation that has arisen today and the context the apostle was writing into. We like the Greeks have our contemporary philosophers; people like Richard Dawkins, who chant the mantra “faith is the absence of reason”.  And despite our best efforts to argue: 

a.       with the explorer William Adams that “faith is the continuation of reason”

b.      or with the theologian St Augustine that “faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe” All our attempts fall on deaf ears because to Richard Dawkins these ideas are completely alien to his pattern of thinking.

And so like Paul we also end up affirming that, “the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom”.

3.      Finally, we come to the message of the apostle to the Christian community in Corinth.

“Brothers and Sisters think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many of you were influential; not many of you were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.

In this Paul is reminding us that the God who has chosen to display His infinite wisdom in the form of foolishness and weakness has chosen us and called us in our foolishness and weakness to shame the wise and the strong. Pastor John Piper puts it like this: “the infinitely wise way of salvation in the death of Christ is rooted in an infinitely wise way of choosing sinners before the cross, and an infinitely wise way of calling sinners after the cross.” And why has God done it in this way? So, that “the one who boasts may boast only in the Lord”. In other words, everything that is involved in our salvation: the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ; our calling, response, and sanctification has been brought about so that we might not boast in ourselves but praise our Father in Heaven!

Well, I began this morning by talking about the emperors new clothes and the reception he was given as he was paraded through the streets, today we celebrate another emperor who was paraded through the streets, beaten, abused, taunted, tortured, murdered and the challenge is do you see the wisdom of the cross?

my sermon for Palm Sunday – some changes have been made- this is the more radical version)





Those Days and These Days

11 03 2007

I still have those days:

when the it feels as if Church has abandoned me,

when the World seems to close in around me,

when my vision of the Kingdom of Heaven fails,

and when the call of God grows faint.  

I still have those days:

when I’m not sure what I’m doing,

or why I’m doing it.

when I don’t know if I can do it,

or if I’m worthy of such a calling.

when I search for an excuse to say,

“Lord call another, God send another”   

I still have those days… and then I have these days:

when the Christians gives me reason to hope,

when Creation seems to be singing God’s love,

when the Spirit directs my thoughts and actions,

when Jesus’ ‘follow me’ rings loudly in my mind.    

I have these days:

when the next step is all that matters, 

and obedience is all that counts.  

when in my weakness I know God’s strength,

and when Christ’s grace is sufficient.

when I believe with total conviction,

without time to doubt the call.   





thoughts on prayer

8 03 2007

Some thoughts on prayer provoked by Maria Toth’s recent post Stubborn 4 Christ!

Prayer is not just about persevering when you want something; it’s about being present when your world seems to be falling apart. During three years I spent at Cliff College I came to appreciate the practice of morning prayers and opposed people who wished to make morning prayers an optional part of life in the community.  

Structured prayer can contribute to a dualistic way of seeing the world- and the “prayer is what we do in chapel at six o’clock in the morning” attitude isn’t helpful. But setting aside a specific time for prayer can be a powerful practice, it holds you in times of doubt and it strengthens you in times of challenge.  

The monastic practice of morning (matins) and evening (compline) prayer is not a dualistic practice, but rather serves to remind Christians that God is with them throughout the day and watches over them at night. When it comes to the discipline of prayer I have found two things helpful:  

  1. Praying with others makes us accountable to them and serves as a good reminder that prayer is not about “us and God”, it is about “us, the world, and God”
  2. Praying the Daily Office is also helpful as it gives our prayer life structure and when we struggling to pray it gives us words.




Speaking Truthfully- thoughts on ‘salvation even in sin’

25 01 2007

Yesterday, I was reading an essay by Stanley Hauerwas entitled ‘salvation even in sin’ within this essay Hauerwas reflects upon Ephesians 4:25-5:2 and draws links between our ability to speak truthfully about our lives and our understanding of sin and grace.

The same day, I had the great privilege to be given a preview of the next fresh expressions DVD, which features talking heads with Graham Horsley, Graham Carter, and Martyn Atkins. I was struck by something Martyn said about our failure to effectively disciple people over past hundred years. ‘How is it’, he remonstrated, ‘that people can go to church their entire lives and the something happens and fifty years of discipleship goes out the window?’

I suspect we find part of the answer in Ephesians 4:25 – 5:2. Sadly, the church has become a place where people put up the barriers. Instead of being real about the struggles we have faced, we smile and say things like ‘I’m great thanks’ even when things have not been good at all. I guess sometimes this is because we are scared of being honest about our struggles; we are afraid of speaking truthfully about our lives, and when somebody does, very often they receive condemnation rather than grace.

I believe in holistic small groups not because small group discipleship is the flavour of the week but because it seems to be the starting place for learning to speak truthfully to one another, to radiate grace. Not the otherworldly grace, which knows no sin, but the real gritty grace illustrated most eloquently in the cross of Christ.

Heavenly Father,
Help us to speak more truthfully about ourselves,
And enable us to listen to one another with grace.
Let us be slow to anger but quick to forgive,
And surround us with your love.
Be with us now,
In the coming minutes,
And help us to know your will.
We ask this in the power of the Holy Spirit,
And trusting in the love of Christ,
Your Son, our Saviour.
Amen

* In work at the moment I’m organising a conference entitled, ‘Creating Effective Disciples; through small groups’ it is designed to resource and encourage churches and leaders with small group ministries. It will be run at High Leigh in Hertfordshire on the 13th and 14th March, for more information, send me an email by clicking here.
Thanks.
James





Our Victory!!

22 01 2007

I was considering the significance of eschatology for Christian discipleship in the midst of a hostile secular society and I came across this story on the Ekklesia Project website:Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa was preaching in the cathedral in Capetown during the days of apartheid. Police and paramilitary lined the walls of the packed sanctuary, intimidating the congregation and recording everything that was said. Tutu preached prophetically of the coming day when the walls of apartheid would fall, and even though the armed might of the state was powerful, it was not God. “Indeed,” Tutu said to the police, “You have already lost.” He paused, flashed his famous smile, “So why don’t you join the winning side?” The crowd roared and everyone got up dancing.

I thank God that I was not born amidst racial hatred or communist dictatorships, that I know Christ and that I am free to worship Him without fear of persecution. I thank God that the victory is in Christ. I only ask that I would know more fully, through the power of the Holy Spirit, the implications of Christ’s victory for my life in Christian discipleship.Lord God teach me:
to turn the other cheek,
to act with meekness,
to renounce violence,
to forgive as you have forgiven,
to offer mercy,
to avoid retaliation,
to resist accommodation,
to live with integrity,
to honour You,
to the glory of Jesus Christ,
Amen





A Christian’s Job

11 10 2006

I was recently asked what my role as Christian was and here is my reply-

I think the best place to start is to explain a bit about myself and my perspectives on life. I am an evangelical Christian but I live in the United Kingdom and like most British people I am bemused by much that passes for evangelical American Christianity.

1. because it presumes that the proper subject of Christian ethics is America rather than the Church.

2. because it strikes me that a truly evangelical Christian faith has more to say about the poor and the oppressed than human sexuality.

I suspect that much of the conservative wing of the church is captive to a politically partisan and non-Christian ideology. I could be described as ‘postmodern’ in some circles as I do not place much stock in universal foundations for knowledge- for example during the Tsunami villages who saw the sea retract in Indonesia fled to the mountains because ancient stories suggested this was a sign of impending disaster- in many contexts we would laugh at their superstitions but how true do we know those myths to be now.

In terms of ethical decisions I am not convinced that what is possible and permissable (scientifically or democratically) is necessarily what is best theologically. However, I do not believe that forcing others to live by theological convictions that they do not share with Christians is helpful or justifiable.

So what do I think the way ahead must be- well it involves freedom of religious conviction (not pluralism nor deism or atheistic civil religion, rather plurality). In the education system this may either involve more independent religious schools (Muslim, Hindu, Christian etc.) or freedom of religion within institutional schools.

I think that banning expressions of worship for fear that it offends others represents an infringement upon civil liberties. I am not saying that such people should be forced to pray or join in but nor do I think people should be stopped from expressing their faith. I am convinced that not having faith in the spiritual or in a personal creator God is not a default or neutral position and the continuing growth of Christianity worldwide seems to testify to this fact.

In a sense I am saying that it is not my job to submit my faith to your measurement of truthfulness. Instead, it is my job to live by my faith in such a way that people commend me for integrity of character and sincerity of conviction. My job far from being to justify my own lifestyle choices is to resist justifying them to accept that they are different from others around me and to resist conforming to a monocultural (atheistic or pluralistic) understanding of life.

In this way I hope to commend my faith to others. The Amish community’s recent reaction to the Carl Robert’s murders is a good example of this faith in action. It is my belief that there exists a most excellent way and I am attempting to walk it.