Saturday, June 24, 2006

Servants of God

What does it mean to be a servant of God? In this week's lectionary passage [1] St Paul give us his CV and asks us to judge whether he has lived up to his calling.
As I listen to it again, I think he would have felt very much at home in the modern job market. He's not at all reticent about his achievements. Instead, he recognises the pressing need to go out and sell himself, or – as he puts it – to commend himself and his team to his readers. He wants them to know exactly what his team has done and the commitment which this has demanded. It could be called 'boasting', but St Paul calls it 'speaking frankly' and 'openly', and he urges his readers to do the same.
I think St Paul is not just describing his own work, and the work of his colleagues. He's also setting out a pattern for all kinds of Christian service. And it's not a pattern which applies only to people who are working as ministers or missionaries, I think it's a pattern for everyone who is a disciple of Jesus, because Jesus has called us all to become servants of God.
So what does it mean for us to be servants of God in the places where we live and work? St Paul says it calls for endurance.
Being a Christian is like taking part in a Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme. Young people who are working towards the various awards are asked to stretch themselves and put themselves to the test, above all in the expeditions which are the culmination of each stage of the scheme. Not long ago one of my sons took part in the silver award and – by the end of the three day expedition – another member of his team was suffering from hypothermia. They achieved the award only because they drew on their own experience and training to make the right decisions to get them safely out of danger. If they had made the wrong decision, not only would a Search and Rescue team have been scrambled to look for them but – also – one of the team members might have died. They were being put through hardships and afflictions to test their endurance.
The trouble with a great many Christians is that we tend to see our faith as an insurance policy, when we should think of it as an endurance test. We hope that God is going to save us from harm, not put us in danger, forgetting – of course – that Jesus Christ himself had to face the supreme test of being crucified for doing what he knew to be God's will. And we are servants of Jesus Christ. Can we expect life to be easier for us than it was for our master?
Not long ago I saw a TV programme in which Christians were fervently praying that the weather would be sunny at someone's wedding – and, of course, encouraged by that kind of example and by the story of the stilling of the storm, people are always jokingly asking me to ensure fine weather at events like the Beeston Festival Mela. However, Christianity is not a protection plan. It doesn't promise us that we can avoid storms and calamities. It doesn't guarantee us a life of peace and tranquillity. Instead, what we are offered is peace IN the storm. When we are in trouble, Jesus will be with us to reassure and encourage us, and to strengthen our resolve. He will give us the resources we need to endure to the end.
This doesn't mean that God will never rescue us from danger. But it does mean that we will only be rescued so that we can fight another day. Our mission as servants of God, should we choose to accept it, is to go on struggling to do what is right.
For St Paul and his companions, this meant enduring beatings and imprisonment. Even in the inner city of Leeds we would hope to avoid that fate, and we must continue to work to avoid things like riots from taking place. But we must expect sleepless nights, affliction and hardship. Those things are part of what it means to be a disciple, not just here but anywhere. They come with the territory.
St Paul goes on to describe a more attractive kind of test which we must face as disciples of Jesus. He asks if we can mirror the character of Jesus in our own behaviour and demeanour. It's just as big a test as any physical ordeal.
A story is told of an argument between John Wesley and another famous preacher, George Whitfield. Wesley was arguing that a mutual friend had attained the state of Christian perfection – which is to say that the man they were talking about was a perfect mirror of the attitudes and behaviour of Jesus himself. 'Take me to him and I'll prove he isn't perfect,' said Whitfield so Wesley took Whitefield to meet the man. But, immediately, on entering the room, Whitefield snatched up a jug of cold water and threw it in the man's face, whereupon the man responded with some choice – and most unChristlike – remarks. So much for Christian perfection!
Actually, I think the story is apocryphal. I'm sure George Whitefield would never have done anything so unkind, even to prove a point. But it's a reminder that being like Christ is a mighty test of our endurance. Night and day we are called upon to be examples of purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love and truthful speech. If we could really be those things, even for part of the time, we would be wonderfully effective servants of God.
The trouble is, of course, that whenever we lapse from the Christ-like standards which we are called to live by – whenever we are impure, ignorant, impatient, unkind, worldly, deceitful or untrue – we give powerful ammunition to anyone who would like to oppose us. They can point at us and say, 'See how these Christians actually live. See the difference between what they do and what they say!'
And, unfortunately, there ARE people who would like to oppose us. Someone wrote to me not long ago to say that, despite the good work we were doing in Beeston, he still believed that all religion is basically dangerous and misguided. And he is the son of a famous Methodist minister! People like that are only too happy to treat us as impostors, as people on the road to nowhere – leading ourselves and others to destruction rather than to salvation.
Fortunately, on the other side of the equation, we have the power of God to help us. And we have weapons of righteousness to strengthen us as we try to what is right – the Spirit of God within us, the Scriptures, the prayer and support of the Christian community, the tradition of the Church, Sunday worship and midweek fellowship. Sometimes we allow ourselves to be knocked down, but – so long as we rely on God – we can never be knocked out.
Being a servant of God can seem like a thankless task. It's not a route to material riches. It won't guarantee us a good time. But it does remind me of what one of my children once said on Christmas Day. At the foot of his bed was a little sock with a few tiny presents to open – some chocolate coins, a little toy, that kind of thing. Downstairs, another pillowcase full of gifts was also waiting for him, but he was too young to know that. Nevertheless, he turned to us after opening the contents of the stocking and said, 'I have everything I need!' If only we had known he would say that, we could have saved ourselves a lot of time and money getting ready for Christmas!
However, that's exactly what St Paul says about being a servant of God. It gives us everything we need. Even when they seem to have nothing, servants of God possess everything.
[1] 2 Corinthians 6.4—13

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Time to Talk of God

Do we spend too much time analysing the mission of the Church and trying to work out how to do it better? Perhaps that's inevitable in a culture where organised religion – and especially organised Christianity – is in decline. Most of us have seen mission initiatives come and go, often without any sustained impact. We are bound to start asking ourselves, 'Where are we going wrong and how can we do it right?'
The Methodist Conference report, 'Time to Talk of God' spends a whole chapter looking at how we can get back into conversation with the dominant culture of our time. It concludes that Christians need to be talking to their neighbours and colleagues about the things which really matter to them.
What then are these pressing issues that we should be prepared to talk about? They are things like: how to help people feel they belong to something or someone in an increasingly fragmented society; work / life balance; spirituality as opposed to religion; the difference between right and wrong in an age of uncertainty. All of these issues – and many more – can give us a way into conversation with people about the things of God.
So is this where we have been going wrong? Can the Church's persistent decline in the West be blamed squarely on our failure to talk to people outside the Church about the right issues, the issues that really interest them? The writers would say that, up to a point, the answer is 'Yes!' Often, Christians talk only to one another, and only about things which don't seem to matter to anyone else.
But, in fairness, the report isn't all about analysis. Like the parables in this week's lectionary[1], it also leaves room for the Spirit. Our task is to get into meaningful conversation, to go deep and get real, to make ourselves vulnerable by sharing what we honestly think and feel about some of the big issues facing us and our world. We are like the sower who goes out to sow the seed not knowing how – or even whether – it will germinate and grow, but ready to nurture it if it takes root, and to gather in the harvest.
And who can foretell how big the harvest might be if we really got into conversation with our friends and neighbours about the important things in life, and left trivialities behind? Some tiny seeds, planted in the right soil, can grow as big as a tree.
[1] Mark 4.26—34

At Home or Away

Perhaps because the country is currently in the grip of World Cup fever, one phrase stood out from the passage in St Paul's second letter to Corinth that is included in this week's lectionary.[2] 'Whether we are at home or away,' says St Paul, 'We make it our aim to please the Lord.'
It makes a big difference to football teams whether they are at home or away, and no one seems to know quite why. Occasionally, when non-League sides are competing in the FA Cup, it's because they know about – and can exploit – some of the idiosyncrasies of their pitch, things like slopes, bumps and hidden depressions in the surface. Professional sportsmen shouldn't be affected, of course, by the roar of the crowd. They should be able to blot it out and concentrate on the game. And so should referees. However, a statistician recently analysed Premiership matches and found that referees consistently award more free kicks to the home side than to the away side. He thought that, sub-consciously, referees might be responding to the partisanship of the crowd.
Whatever the explanation, there certainly is a home advantage in the World Cup. The home nation has won on several occasions since the competition resumed after Word War II, including – mostly famously – when England won in 1966.
In the lectionary passage, St Paul talks about the advantages, and disadvantages, of being at home or away. Being at home in the body may be a comfortable sensation because, after all, most of us have never had an 'out of body' experience, but it means that we are away from the Lord. St Paul would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.
I wonder if this is a false distinction. Do we really have to wait until we are away form the body to be with him? Isn't the Lord with us now?
St Paul has an answer to those questions. Yes, the Lord is with us now – but only if we have faith. We cannot actually see him face to face and, however confident we may be that he really is with us, wouldn't it be even better if we could?
Does this mean that we will have to wait until we have died before we can really know Jesus as his first disciples did? The logic of St Paul's argument so far suggests that we will. But then he has second thoughts. If we surrender our lives entirely to Jesus, and begin a new way of living, because we have put our whole trust in the love he showed for us when he died on the cross, we have in a sense already died and gone to heaven. We have left behind the attitudes and appetites which used to shape us; we are dead to our old way of living since we no longer live for ourselves. We live for him! So that means we can know him – perhaps not in the old human way, face to face, but in spirit and in truth.
[2] 2 Corinthians 5.6-10, 4-17

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Looking at God

Some people look at God and see mystery, and often they look no further. They assume that the mystery is unfathomable, that it will never be possible to know for sure what God is like.
Some people look at God and see the universe and everything in it, and assume that they are one and the same. They see that God is in everything that exists, and in everyone they meet, and they imagine there is no more to God than that. They don't see how God could also be above and beyond the universe.
Some people look at God and see Jesus – a God who is one of us, who laughs with us and cries with us, and shares our pleasure and pain. But all they see when they look at God is Jesus.
And some people look at God and see someone who is a constant source of power and inspiration. Theirs is a God who guides their everyday thoughts and decisions and gives them strength when they feel weak.
And all of these ways of seeing God are more or less right. God is a mystery too deep for us to fathom. But God is also in everything and everyone that exists, as well as being greater than the sum of all things. God meets us in Jesus, and he is with us all of the time to guide and empower us. God is all of these things. No one way of looking at God can tell the whole story.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

The God of Storm, and Peace and Blessing

Psalm 29 is a song which people sang or chanted during worship in the Temple dedicated to God in Jerusalem almost three thousand years ago.
Its subject matter is very daring, for it takes the characteristics of the pagan storm god, Baal, and reassigns them to the one true God.
The psalm is addressed not to other people on earth, but to the beings in heaven. They are asked to praise God using a description which pagan worshippers had probably used when praising Baal.
Baal was supposed to be the god who spoke in thunder and torrential rain. But now his worshippers declare that it is really the one true God who speaks with a voice like thunder.
Baal was supposed to be the god whose powerful storms lashed the trees and sometimes split them in half. But now his worshippers declare that it is really the one true God who sends the violent winds and shakes the earth.
Baal was supposed to be the god who sent bolts of lightning. But now his worshippers declare that it is the one true God who does this.
Baal was supposed to be the god who presided over the life-giving floods which brought fertility to the parched earth after the winter. But now his worshippers declare that it is the one true God who sits enthroned over the flood waters.
Baal is revealed as a fraud. People had imagined him to be responsible for storm and flood, but now we are told that the power of the one true God was really behind these things all of the time. He is the true storm God. But, unlike Baal, he is also more than a storm God.
He isn't a one dimensional being, someone who just cares about the weather and the seasons. Nor is the one true God really a 'he'. The one true God is a spirit reigning over the whole universe, giving strength to creation and blessing us with peace.
But Christians would go further than the Psalmist and say that the one true God is also a spirit which fills the universe and is present within everything that exists – including you and I.
Finally, Christians would also say that the one true God came and lived among us, and died for us on the cross, so that we might realise just how deeply God loves and cares for us. And the person in whom God lived like this was Jesus, who showed how much he was in harmony with God not just when he stilled a storm and took control of the winds, but when he gave up his life as a ransom for many.