Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Hour Has Come

Jesus said, 'An hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God.'
There is nothing prophetic about this saying, of course. There have always been people who believed that by killing someone else they were offering worship to God. Jesus' own enemies were motivated by religious zeal when they had him crucified.
Ironically, the persecutors of the early Christians sometimes attacked them for being atheists and denying the existence of the gods, because they refused to worship idols. And, as soon as they got their own hands on the levers of power, Christians began killing one another for believing the wrong things. They were even more enthusiastic about killing the followers of other faiths – especially Islam – whose expansion for a long time threatened the very existence of Christianity. Those who killed the Church's mortal enemies were easily persuaded that they were offering worship to God.
For most of our lives these destructive and primitive ideas seemed like ancient history, but they were still festering beneath the surface of contemporary events, waiting for a chance to break out again. In countries as far apart as America and Indonesia, Nigeria and Britain, Muslims and Christians have been killing each other again with renewed intensity since 9/11. Often, these murderous attacks have been carried out by mobs motivated by simple thoughts of revenge or by an 'us and them' mentality, but sometimes people have sincerely believed that by killing the followers of another religion, or even someone who didn't agree with them, they were worshipping God. That seems to have been the motive for the July 7 attacks on London. They were carefully planned expressions of devotion to God.
Of course, Jesus says that whenever people think that killing someone is an expression of worship, they are wrong. Those who do this, he says, 'Have not known the Father or me.'
Nevertheless, Jesus is under no illusion that both Christians and the followers of other faiths will – from time to time – convince themselves that it is not only right to kill their opponents, but that it is a way of offering worship to God. To imagine that religion is only ever a force for good is, sadly, just as misguided as imagining that it is always a force for harm.
The only safeguard against getting religion wrong is to be open to God's Spirit. Unfortunately, there have been plenty of people who claimed that it was God's Spirit which was urging them to commit murder, but that doesn't change the fact that listening to the true Spirit of God is the only way to guarantee having the right understanding of sin, righteousness and judgement.
Sin is not about being different. Fundamentalists imagine that anyone who disagrees with their harsh version of religious faith is a sinner. If you have a different point of view, or different politics, or a different lifestyle, or a different kind of faith, you deserve to die. And, in fairness, that's the view which Christian crusaders have adopted just as stridently as Muslim suicide bombers. But it's wrong! Sin is not about being different from the true followers of God. Sin is about not knowing God and, since God is love, anyone who teaches us to hate our fellow human beings does not know God and must be every bit as much of a sinner as the people they are targeting.
Righteousness is not about being better than other people – about drawing a distinction between those who deserve to die and those who do not. It's about being like Jesus, and since Jesus has gone to the Father, only the witness of the true Spirit of God can remind us what Jesus is really like. Without the advocacy of the Holy Spirit, we shall be tempted to remake Jesus in our own image and even – in extreme cases – to come up with a murderous and hateful image of Jesus, an image which seems to be encouraging us to kill other people as an act of worship. That is not the righteous Jesus. Nor is a murderous God, the righteous God of Islam.
And judgement is not about visiting God's wrath on other people, whom we happen to think deserve it. The judgement of the world is not ours to decide. It has already taken place, on the Cross, and the values of this world have already been condemned. But these ungodly values have not been judged by blowing their followers to pieces or by putting them to the sword. They have been judged by one man's innocent death to bring attention to a radical new way of living, a way of complete obedience to God's love and complete submission to God's will. Any religious movement which is triumphalist, which seeks to impose its will on other people whether they like it or not, has nothing to do with the true Spirit of God which points us to the Cross.
As we face new situations and new challenges, like global warming and the best way to control new and hazardous, but potentially beneficial, scientific discoveries, we shall have to turn increasingly to the guidance of the Spirit. The answers to every question will not be contained in the Scriptures because problems like the right way to use genetic engineering were not even on the radar screen when the Bible was written. But how will we know that we are listening to the right Spirit? The answer, says Jesus, is that the right Spirit gives glory to him – and to his way of righteousness and love.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Putting Jesus' Disciples Back Into The World

In this week's Gospel passage, Jesus says in his prayer: 'I am not asking you to take [my disciples] out of the world.'[1]
Far too often, the Church has not heeded that prayer. It has been more than happy to take Jesus' disciples out of the world. However, Jesus' disciples share the responsibility for this sorry state of affairs. We have not had to be browbeaten or persuaded into leaving the world behind. Many of us have been only too willing to join the headlong retreat.
Let's face it. The world can be a tough place and the Church can seem like a welcome escape. Not only that, but people who don't amount to much in the world's estimation can become very important in the Church. And that's basically a good thing, because it's a sign that the Church can turn the values of the world upside down.
The Church's openness to different ways of calculating people's worth means that it sometimes manages to recognise the talents and abilities of people who would struggle to gain proper recognition in the world outside. But this ability to nurture disciples and grow their talents turns bad when two things start to happen.
First, the Church's ability to promote and build up people who have never before had a chance to play a leadership role can be a bad thing if they simply copy some of the bad styles of leadership which they have seen played out at home, at school or at work. The Church needs to help people find a different way of leading which copies the style of the Servant King.
People who behave in church in just the same way that they have seen their boss behaving during the week can cause a lot of harm to the Church's life and mission. The current preoccupation with bullying in the life of the Church is a reminder that the Church has not paid enough attention to getting leadership right. It has taken people out of the world to be leaders, and then permitted them to bring destructive ideas of leadership with them from the world. instead of teaching them more positive and constructive ways to lead and guide the Christian community.
But second, the Church's ability to grow its own leaders becomes a bad thing when it encourages people to retreat from the world and focus their time and energies exclusively on church activities. Jesus didn't want his disciples to be taken out of the world. He wanted them to be equipped to face the world head-on and change it.
If we are helping people to discover their hidden potential to make a difference, shouldn't we be encouraging them to use their gifts to make the world a better place? Despite claims to the contrary, the Methodist Church hasn't always done a great deal deliberately to improve the lives and working conditions of ordinary people or to campaign for democracy. Instead of speaking out against injustice, its leaders in the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries fell over themselves to make protestations of loyalty to whichever Government was in power at the time. However, almost in spite of itself, the Methodist Church did change Britain for the better, because it educated and inspired generations of Trade Unionists and politicians who were not content to stay inside the Church. They used gifts nurtured in the Church to go out and take on the world.
Jesus said in his prayer: 'I am not asking you to take [my disciples] out of the world.' But the Church, like all institutions, is greedy. It needs people to feed its own life. Without an endless stream of volunteers to collect money, keep its buildings in good repair, train its ministers, circulate its news and information and formulate its rules, how could the Church keeping going? So it sucks people out of the world in order to renew itself.
This is not an entirely bad thing. The Church is the body of Christ on earth. That means, it is meant to be a sign and a foretaste of what God's Kingdom is like and to model different ways of living which demonstrate God's love in action. So people who live in religious communities, for instance, where they devote themselves to prayer, are not necessarily escaping from the world. They are releasing themselves from the overwhelming busyness of daily life in order to focus more clearly on the needs of the world and to pray for them.
When the Church remembers what it is for, when the focus of its energies is on helping its members to change the world by prayer and action, then no time spent working for the Church is ever wasted. But the Church easily gets distracted. People convince themselves that their own agenda is the same as God's agenda.
A congregation can convince itself that keeping an old Victorian building going is a vital sign to the community of God's presence, when really it is a comforting reassurance to an ageing group of people. A treasurer can become convinced that building up large reserves will secure the Church's mission for years to come, whereas – in reality – he or she may simply be starving the Church's mission of vital resources in the present.
The only way to safeguard ourselves against these mistakes is to constantly repeat the prayer of Jesus: 'I am not asking you to take [my disciples] out of the world.' It should be the motto carved above every church door.
The Kingdom of God and the Church are not the same thing. The Church is supposed to be a sign of the Kingdom, but the Kingdom has to be built in the world, for it is in the world – and not just in the Church – that God is to be found, and that is where the energy of Jesus' disciples must be channelled.
The Church is the place where we should be able to find the truth. The Church should be there to guard and protect its members from the insidious pressures and dangers of the world. The Church should remind us that the world is not enough. We belong to a higher power from whom, in the end, we take our orders and to whom we owe our allegiance. But that power, which is vested in Jesus, has also given us to the world and sends us into the world to do his will.
[1] John 17.6-19

Friday, May 12, 2006

Sharing the Good News With People of Other Faiths

Together with other local Christians, clergy and lay people, I find myself – from time to time – giving thought to how we share our Christian faith with people from other religious backgrounds. It is a ticklish issue, because converting from one faith to another is a huge decision to make and it may not be appropriate for everyone. Becoming a Christian is always a life changing event, but for someone from another faith background it can sometimes cause immense dislocation and hardship, including estrangement from family members and friends who cannot accept their decision. It may even cut a person off from their entire cultural heritage, so it is not something that we can expect people to enter into lightly or thoughtlessly. Nor is it likely to be easy for them to make a gradual progression or pilgrimage to Christian faith. At some point they may have to choose whether or not to make a radical break with their past, unless they decide to be secret or closet believers. And they may decide to remain within their own faith tradition, while being open to new insights and truths from our Christian heritage. That is up to them. It is not for us to decide.
Does the story of Philip's encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch [1] shed light on this dilemma? I think it may.
First, Philip is not set on pursuing an automatic collision course with people of other faiths. At this stage in Christian history there was still much debate about whether or not Gentiles, as well as Jewish people, could actually become followers of Jesus. Philip only approaches the Ethiopian because he is guided by the Spirit. Is this a reminder of the need for sensitivity when we encounter people from other faiths? I think it is.
Second, Philip is only inspired by the Spirit to join the eunuch because the man has already embarked on a spiritual journey of discovery. He is open to new ideas and, in fact, he is actively seeking them out. He has begun to wonder whether the Jewish faith has more to offer him than his own inherited faith and culture, and so he is reading the Jewish scriptures.
To have obtained a copy of the Prophecy of Isaiah was a huge step to take, even for a wealthy person. It must have been handwritten, and therefore very expensive and difficult to obtain. And the eunuch must have been reading it in Greek, which is unlikely to have been his native language. Here was someone who was thinking very seriously about his relationship to God and whether he needed to go in a different spiritual direction to be put right with God.
He must have been introduced already to some Jewish ideas, but this passage – which was probably written about the faithful remnant of believers exiled to Babylon after the destruction of Jerusalem – had not yet been explained to him. Philip is able to give it a new spin, because it doesn't take much imagination to see that it could be a very powerful and emotive description of the way Jesus' life had ended.
The eunuch is so impressed by the Gospel message that he insists on being baptised immediately. Was Philip right to agree to this sudden demand without any further preparation? We have already seen that the man must have been thinking deeply about his spiritual journey, so in a sense this is no flash in the pan. It was the right thing to do given the stage which the eunuch had reached.
People often ask for baptism, and it is tempting to play God and try to make a judgement as to whether or not they are ready. Obviously, it would be wrong to baptise someone without any preparation, especially if they are converting from another faith, but it would also be wrong to impose too many conditions on them. Sometimes baptism is a stage on their journey, and a powerful way for God to continue working in their life and influencing their spiritual growth, rather than a final destination.
So it was with the Ethiopian eunuch. He continued on his way rejoicing, but without Philip – who was snatched away by the Spirit and commanded to go to the nearby city of Ashkelon or Azotus, which is its Greek name.
It would have been tempting for Philip to continue with the eunuch, perhaps all the way to Ethiopia, there to found the Ethiopian Church. Instead he gives the official space to assimilate the progress he has made and decide for himself the pace and scope of any further changes in his life. No doubt, if he had wanted to, the man could have sent for Christian missionaries to come and help him later in his spiritual journey. Perhaps that is what he did. Or perhaps he decided to become a secret Christian. Or perhaps he slid back into his inherited faith and beliefs when he returned home.
It is not our task to decide how other people will come to God. Our task is to be ready to respond to the promptings of the Spirit, and to the clues that people give us, so that we may share our faith with them at the right time and in the right way.
[1] Acts 8.26—40

Friday, May 05, 2006

The Four Abiding Truths of Methodism

The heart of the Christian message is contained in just three sentences from the first letter of John. John says, 'We should believe in the name of [God's] Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.'[1]
John Wesley's message became distinctive, in his lifetime, because of his repeated emphasis on four things: everyone needs to abide in Jesus; everyone can abide in Jesus; everyone can know that they abide in Jesus; and everyone can abide in him completely. This is not quite how Wesley put it, but it's what he might have said if he had published a sermon on this particular passage. They are the four 'abiding truths' of Methodism.
In his 'Notes on the New Testament', Wesley says, 'This [passage contains] the greatest and most important command that ever issued from the throne of glory. If this [command] be neglected, no other can be kept: if this be observed, all others are easy.'
What does it mean, then, to 'believe in the name of Jesus Christ'? I think it means to put our trust in everything which Jesus stands for or represents. In particular, John says that Christians believe Jesus' life and death define the true meaning of love.
Older people will remember the 'Love is...' cartoons. At one time you could get them on postcards, tea towels and aprons. They always depicted a naked, but totally innocent looking, man and woman. Beneath them would be a caption like, 'Love is... never having to say you're sorry.'
In his letter, John gives us the Christian version of that slogan. 'We know love by this, that Jesus Christ laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.' The unique thing about Jesus' death is not the horrid way he died, nor his innocence of the crimes he stood accused of committing. The unique thing is that – by dying in this way – he claimed to be speaking for God, and showing us what God is really like. God is ready to make the ultimate sacrifice for us, and – indeed – has already done so in Jesus. This is what we are asked to believe.
But trusting in Jesus, abiding in him, is not just a matter of intellectual commitment. We also have to walk the talk. John says, 'Let us not love in word and speech, but in truth and action.' And just in case we don't know what that means, he gives us a concrete example: 'How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?' In other words, whenever we've got something to spare – even if it be only a tiny amount – we are not abiding in Jesus if we refuse to share it with a brother or sister in need; and that applies not only to our personal lives – to the way we spend our own time and money, but also to the way we run our churches and our communities.
If abiding in love involves this kind of commitment, we might well ask ourselves, 'Who, then, can be saved?' Knowing how selfish and self-absorbed human beings can be, it sounds like a tremendous challenge. But Methodist tradition has always insisted that it is not impossible. It can be done! Everyone can abide in Jesus. Everyone can love in truth and action. Everyone can walk the talk if they really want to.
Not only that, but everyone can know they abide in Jesus. John says that even the best of people, who have totally committed themselves to laying down their lives for brothers and sisters in need, will still have doubts. They will wonder, in their heart of hearts, 'Am I really good enough?' But, says John, God knows us better than we know ourselves, and the truth of our actions will speak for us even when we ourselves remain unconvinced.
He goes on to give us three signs to look out for, which will prove beyond doubt that we really do abide in Jesus. First, our personal prayers will begin to be answered, because we won't be making selfish or unloving requests any more. We shall find that we are only asking for what pleases God. Above all, that means we shall be asking how we may lay down our lives in his service.
Second, if we abide in Jesus – if we trust in him and commit ourselves to living in his way – he will also abide in us. We shall begin to feel that he is with us.
And, finally, he will give us the power to do those things which would otherwise be impossible for us to do by ourselves – to actually let go of self, trust in him and commit ourselves to the way of total love. And the power to do all these things will come 'from the Spirit that he has given us.' In other words, we shall know that we abide in Jesus because we shall find ourselves able to abide in him more completely, until there is no room left for doubt.
Abiding in Jesus can be a sudden transformation, sparked by a realisation that it's all or nothing, now or never. It can be triggered by a crisis, by the need to make a decision one way or the other. But it can also be a more gradual process – a journey of discovery, a journey deeper into what it means to trust in Jesus Christ.
[1] 1 John 3.16—24