Planning Ahead

July 26, 2017

When I arrived in the parish nearly 15 years ago, one of the most fundamental decisions I had to make was to consider what kind of ministry I was called to undertake. One thing about being a vicar is that there is no set job description, and it is important to prioritise from the off where you are going to invest your time and energy.

For me, the most essential part of my ministry always has been to teach and preach the Bible as the living Word of God. This isn’t to deny the very real and very practical issues that so many people in our parish face. But the danger can be that by seeking to meet all those needs all your time and energy gets focused on the immediate concerns that lie before you, and you never get round to preaching the good news. Your ministry becomes that of another voluntary agency seeking to do good, but probably with rather few resources and doing it far less well than others more qualified than yourself.

Yet what should be distinctive about the church is that it should seek to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, because ultimately the real need of every single person in our parish is for a living relationship with Jesus Christ. This does not mean we ignore the practical issues that confront us, but we make it clear that we do so in the name of Jesus Christ who died in our place for our sins. Because actually the greatest act of loving service we can offer anyone is to point them to the one who alone can bring hope and peace and forgiveness to whoever turns to Him – sometimes by words, sometimes by simple deeds of humble service.

Of course before the church can proclaim this good news, it has to know the good news for itself and see how it relates to everyday life in Devonport and Stoke. And this is where my role as a vicar comes in. My aim and my mission is to bring the words of the Bible to bear on every meeting, on every decision, on every pastoral encounter in the church. For it is only as the whole church is fed and nurtured by the living word of God that it can be confident in the message it proclaims.

That is why every so often I take time out to plan preaching programme for the next few months. I want to discern where the church is at, how it needs to be fed, and what the Lord wants to say to us. For me, putting this programme together is at the very heart of my ministry.

Recently I have put together the next preaching programme from 3 Sep to Easter Sunday, 1 April. What factors have guided my thoughts?

From September to Advent, we are moving from Mark 7 to Mark 13 and seeing how Jesus helps us answer some very important questions – everything from what it means to follow Him to why marriage is so important. For those who have recently completed Christianity Explored this will also be a further opportunity to engage with Mark’s gospel.

After Christmas until Lent, we are looking at a prophet we have never studied before, Jeremiah. The whole book of Jeremiah is very long and not particularly cheerful, but we are just taking a few passages to look at some of his warning and see how relevant they are to us today. For example, “Don’t be a Sunday Christian”, “Don’t worship idols”, “Don’t ignore God’s word”.

During Lent we are going to do something rather different. I have always been concerned that so often we rush through whole swathes of the gospel in the week leading up to Easter and never really spend the time we should looking at the arrest, trial and condemnation of Jesus. So we are going to linger in Mark 14 in particular and look again at the journey to the cross and our response.

I very much you are going to join us in our journey through Scripture. Why not use the summer to read ahead? And please would you pray that it is God’s word that is faithfully preached, and that many recognise their need of Christ? Thank you.

 

 

 

 

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Keeping it fresh

December 7, 2016

 

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Imagine for a moment each Christmas you had to pass an exam on the same few passages of Scripture. There wouldn’t be any choice about this text, and you would always know in advance what the subject would be. But there would be no way of getting out of the exam.

That’s sometimes how it feels when it comes to preparing Christmas sermons and services. One way or another you are going to have to talk about Bethlehem, the shepherds, the wise men and angels (and presumably mention Jesus along the way!). You could of course reuse old material but it’s rather like reheating leftovers. The result might be tasty enough, but you know what you are serving isn’t fresh.

So how do you set about presenting the Christian message in a way that is attractive and engages newcomers or visitors? That’s an important question to answer, because if we’re not excited about the good news, then how can we expect others to rejoice at the birth of a Saviour?

Here are a few suggestions:

Have a big picture of what’s happening in the world. The nativity stories were set in a world of occupation, of corrupt government, where the poor were oppressed and many were forced to flee their homes as refugees. That’s in many way why they still speak to us, even though our circumstances may be different. Building links between the world of the Bible and what is happening today is, I find, always a productive exercise. And after a year of great political upheaval I can there are all kinds of connections to be made.

Have a big picture of the text. So often we treat the Christmas stories as self-contained units, as if they are stand alone stories that can simply be lifted from the Bible. But that’s not how they were written. Luke wants to show how the coming of Jesus is good news to the poor; Matthew wants to present Jesus as the expected Messiah; John wants us to wrestle with the wonder of the Word made flesh. Understanding the point and purpose of each gospel gives us so much fresh insight and when you add to the mix the Old Testament prophecies that prepared the way for Jesus, you have a rich blend of ingredients that I find is worth tucking into again and again.

Have a big picture of God. We can be so dull to the message of the angels that we fail to hear what they are saying. We have a Saviour who rescues us from our sins. We have a king to whom the nations will come. We have the presence of God Immanuel in our lives. If these truths do not move our hearts and cause us to worship and praise, what will? As I come to the end of this year, I cannot help think of the way our church has grown, and how people have come to faith. The message of the angels is still true today, and God is still able to bring about the miracle of new birth. We have a God who can do immeasurably more than we can ever ask or imagine, so how dare we try to confine and Him in the confines of a manger!

Of course I realise that some may come to our Christmas services to try and escape from the realities of this world, and often for good reason. They may want to hear the same, small stories, and they may want only to think about baby Jesus in a manger. It can be very easy to become frustrated or judgemental about such expectations. That’s why the other added ingredient in all the Christmas preparation has to be the Holy Spirit, so that our message is seasoned with the same love of Christ that we are talking about. Because at the end of the day, no matter how well anyone presents the Christmas message, it is only the Holy Spirit who will open eyes and ears to the truth of the word.

And when that happens, that is the greatest miracle of all.

 


Seven principles of the early church

August 1, 2016

River Church graciously invited me to preach at their 4 o’clock service yesterday. This is the full text of the sermon:

Right from an early age I have loved the book of Acts. On almost every page there are stories of extraordinary miracles and dramatic conversions, of new places reached for the gospel and cities won for the Lord.  It is quite simply one of the most exciting books in the whole Bible, and it has fired the imagination of countless believers over the centuries.

However I also have to say that when I read it, I find hard not to wish that the church in general was rather more like the one Luke describes in these pages. I would love this afternoon for there to be dramatic signs and wonders among us, for hundreds of people to come to faith, and for new churches and congregations to be planted.

But the reality we face is rather different. For a start, most of us are not called to work in pioneer regions. Our calling is to keep on with the good news in the same place we have always been. When we go home from this service, we will be witnessing to families, friends, neighbours, many of whom we have been already praying for such a long time, without seeing any obvious response. Our ministry seems to be less about going, than remaining faithful exactly where we are, year out, year in, quietly pointing to the reality of Jesus Christ in our lives.

Also, we can’t ignore the fact that our faith, for better or worse, has been shaped by two thousand years of church history. Whatever you or I understand the church to be, that understanding has been shaped by generations of believers who have gone before us, have written our creeds, established our denominations, set up our ministries. We can’t simply set up a new church from scratch as if any of us this doesn’t matter.

I once went with a friend to a house church in Derby. On the way in, I was proudly told that the church didn’t sing any songs which were more than five years old. The church would have been horrified if I told them they’d already established their first tradition. Yet every church has a history and a tradition, and we can’t simply wind back the clock two thousand years. Not unless we start going round wearing togas, and eating dormice, and speaking Greek and Latin – which to me sounds plain weird.

So what is the relevance of the book of Acts to us as a church? The short answer is, that whatever our history, whatever our way of worshipping the Lord, this book gives us some key principles which should form the basis for the life of any church in any place at any time. How those principles work out will vary from church to church, but that is more important is that we understand them and seek to apply them.

Here, then, are the seven key principles from the book of Acts I would like to share with you this afternoon.

First of all, the early church was a gospel-centred church.

At Pentecost Peter concluded his sermon with these words in Acts 2:38: Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. It was in response to these words that the church of Jesus Christ was founded. The church was a community of believers who turned to Christ, repented of their sins, were baptised and received the gift of the Holy Spirit.

That definition of a church sounds fairly obvious and I hope all of us agree that the church should be this same kind of community today. Yet the sad reality is, too often the church seems to lose its focus and turns into something else.

So, for some people the church is a religious institution where the primary focus is on making sure the rules are obeyed, and the right procedures followed. In effect, the church is a kind of club where all the members have to sign up to the constitution in order to gain entry.

For others the church is a voluntary organisation which seeks to do good. So it becomes some kind of charity working alongside people of all faiths and none, seeking to justify its existence by the work it carries out.

And then there are some who use the church as a kind of spiritual self-help group. The focus here is on teaching how Jesus can fulfil your every need, and realise the potential you have already in you.

Now there is no doubt that a church needs to have proper procedures. It should of course aim to serve others, and it should show how Jesus can make a difference to real lives. But if there is no understanding of the need for repentance, no acknowledgement of Jesus as Lord, no openness to the Holy Spirit, then the church has lost its reason for existence.

That may sound all very obvious, but in my experience the church can so easily lose its focus on the good news of Jesus Christ. Yes, we may preach the cross, and we might invite people to respond to the gospel, but I am not always sure we continue to teach the ongoing relevance of the cross to every aspect of our lives.

Listen to these words from Colossians 3:13:

Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.

0r again from Ephesians 5:25:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her

Or from Galatians 2:20:

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

In other words, our relationships, our marriages, even our deepest goals and ambitions have to be shaped day by day, hour by hour, by the fact Jesus died in my place for my sins. My calling as a follower of Christ is to respond by offering all that I am and all that I have as a living sacrifice so that my words and my actions speak of the undeserved and indescribable love of Jesus to all I meet.

This is why, secondly, the church is also called be a grace-filled church.

Let’s read on to Acts 2:42-44:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common.

 Now you may wonder who is this rather strange chap in a dog collar who is standing here in front of you this afternoon. Well, whisper it quietly, I was born and brought up in the other place, even though I am now a paid up member of the Green Army. My whole family went to St Leonard’s in Exeter and I heard the gospel at an early age.

When I was twelve I went on a weekend away with my Sunday School. I understood for the first time the message that Jesus died in my place for my sins. I took away a booklet called Journey into Life and I read the prayer of commitment at the end. And nothing happened. I hadn’t yet grasped what I was reading was not an interesting theory but rather an act of committing my life to the Lord.

Six months later I went on holiday to a Christian holiday centre in Yorkshire called Scargill House. I don’t remember anything I was taught in the youth programme during that fortnight. But what I do remember is the love shown to a precocious and rather confused boy who was almost a teenager. It was that love which made me understand the reality of what Jesus had done for me on a cross. So when I got back from holiday, I took that booklet out of the drawer and this time actually prayed that prayer of commitment.

Since then, I have always understood that the gospel is not just about coming into a new relationship with Jesus Christ. It is also about coming into new relationship with your brothers and sisters in Christ and together forming a new family in the Lord called the church. And that is exactly what happened at that first Pentecost as men and women, young and old responded to the good news Peter preached. Up until that point most of the people who heard Peter speak had been strangers to each other. They just happened to be in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit came in power, and they came from many different nations, backgrounds and social classes. Yet when they heard the good news, they became as one in Christ. The first and most immediate outcome of Pentecost, in other words, is that the church was born.

This meant that for a start in this early church there were no insiders or outsiders – everyone had been part of the church for the same length of time! Nor there were any cliques where some were included and others excluded. Rather there was a deep, deep love which flowed into practical acts of generosity and service. Goods and possessions were seen as blessings to be shared; talents and gifts were seen as reasons to help one another. It’s little wonder then that the early church grew so fast. Because ultimately whatever we may say about the good news, it is the quality of our relationships one with another which bears out the truths we claim about Jesus Christ. And if we are serious about growing the church we need to watch our relationships one with another and strive for that same Spirit-filled unity in and amongst us.

And as these verses show, the early church was a church devoted to prayer.

 It may sound obvious but it’s worth stating that whenever the first believers faced a new situation or an unexpected danger, they prayed. That does not mean each of them went away and prayed on their own. Rather as Acts 4:24 puts it: they raised their voices together in prayer to God.

 Now culturally I think many of us have problems with this idea of praying together. We have this individualistic worldview where the heart of our prayer life is our own personal walk with Lord. The church prayer meeting is seen as an optional extra, something that we might attend if we have the time, and possibly even then only to support the faithful few who turn out so regularly. I need to say right off that this worldview is wrong. If you look at Scripture, there is no either/or between individual and corporate prayer. There is only a both/and. We pray both on our own and with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Both ways of praying are an expression of our living relationship with our Lord and Saviour.

And I would suggest one reason why the church in this country so often appears so weak is that too few of us quite simply get together and pray as if this was the most important thing we could do. On the other hand, Acts 4:31 tells us: After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly. And that is not an isolated occurrence in this book. We often speak of the book of Acts as the story of the early church but it is also a wonderful account of what happens when Christians pray. Because there is, you see, an inseparable link between the progress of the church and the priority of prayer.

Samuel Zwemer, who in the early 20th century was an American pioneer missionary to Muslims once said these words: The history of missions is the history of answered prayer. It is the key to the whole mission problem. All human means are secondary. And if you study the history of revivals over the past few hundred years, you will see that nearly everyone has been birthed in men and women getting together and praying. Corporate prayer, in other words, is the fuel which propels the church. Yet somehow or other we have convinced ourselves it is an optional extra, something for the spiritually keen who don’t really have anything better to do. That attitude, I suggest, reveals we haven’t fully understood the gospel and the grace of Jesus Christ.

As can be seen from the verses I have already quoted the early church was also focused on the word of God.

 Acts 6:1-2: In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables.”

Why did the twelve apostles not get involved in the daily food distribution? It wasn’t because they saw this practical task beneath them. They had been present when Jesus washed their feet, and they knew just how much their Lord and Saviour had given up for them. Nor was it simply the case that they decided that practical administration wasn’t their gift. That could easily have been misunderstood as an excuse for not doing what they really didn’t want to do in any case.

No, the apostles focused on the ministry of the word of God because they knew ultimately only that word could heal the divisions in the church. The food distribution would sort out the immediate issue, but only by concentrating on the word of God could the underlying problem be addressed.

However, as an Anglican I also recognise that in our culture today there are some believers who would at this point question precisely this direct and practical relevance of Scripture I am talking about here. The Bible is very much seen as a product of its own time and culture, unable to address the issues of the modern world in a way that we find acceptable. Such a view of the Bible is sadly all often taught in our universities and in our training colleges, and it is not surprising that those who encounter this teaching not only see the Bible as irrelevant but also come to doubt its authority and even its very inspiration as the Word of God.

Yet, for me, as an evangelical, I firmly stand on the conviction outlined in 2 Tim 3:16 that: All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness. In other words, I believe that the Scriptures were written for our direct practical benefit so that God could speak through His Holy Spirit to every situation that we face. I am not of course suggesting that it is always easy to understand what the Bible says. We still need to spend time studying the Word of God, going back to the original languages, looking at how other people have wrestled with the big issues that it raises. But we always do so in order that we might apply what we learn to the real situations that people are facing, and maintaining a kind of dialogue between what the Bible says and what our experience is telling us.

At St Michael’s we have recently started a sermon series on the Psalms. What strikes me again and again is how so many psalms were written precisely out of the tension David experienced between what he knew of the Lord and what was actually happening in his life. He knew the Lord to be the faithful God of the covenant who remains constant and unchanging in every season of life. But he also faced situations where he despaired of his own life and could only call out in anguish and distress. It was out of this tension he wrote so many of the psalms, and they have a spiritual power which still speaks to us today.

And it seems to me that like the apostles in the early church we still need men and women whose full-time ministry is focused on bringing the eternal word of God to bear on lives which are all too often in a state of change and confusion. After all, the divisions in the church weren’t going to be solved just by making sure everyone had an equal amount of food. In my experience you tend to find that when you have two groups who don’t get on, they will soon find something else over which they can happily – or unhappily – fall out. The apostles – and this is something that comes out again and again in the epistles – had to teach as matter of first priority about unity in the body of Christ and show how that unity had to work itself out in the life of the church in practical, concrete ways. That is why they devoted themselves to the Word of God, because it is this teaching of the Word of God which is in the end the mark of the health of any church.

But even when the church is centred on the gospel, filled with grace, devoted to prayer and focused on the word this doesn’t mean that what lies ahead will be plain sailing. For the fifth principle of the early church was that it was refined by suffering.

 In Acts 6 and 7 we are told of the arrest, trial and death of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. As a result Acts 8:1 goes on to tell us: On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.

 Now I guess that all of us here find the idea of suffering and persecution uncomfortable. We don’t like the idea that the Christian faith might involve a cross and we may wonder why a loving Heavenly Father would let His children go through such trials. But actually persecution is the tool that He uses to refine our faith; it shows whether when push comes to shove we really care that much about following Jesus.

Fortunately the early church was prepared for the suffering that faced them. They knew all about the suffering of Jesus Christ. The apostles had been eyewitnesses of the cross, and they would have passed on all He taught about His suffering and His death. They also had been baptised, and in those days baptism was very different from the comfortable religious rite we practice today. As soon as you confessed Jesus as your Lord, you were breaking from the rest of society who owned Caesar as their King; from your family and friends who worshipped other gods; even from your business partners who would exclude you from their trade association. Baptism really was about saying goodbye to an old way of life and making a commitment that bore a real cost.

But because the early church knew what they could expect, they had a robust Christian faith that prepared them for every season of life. And that is important. I get worried today when a kind of “Christianity lite” is preached, when the message is all about the wonder of God’s love and the joy of coming home to your Heavenly Father. That message is of course true. But it’s only half the story, and it seems to me that if we want to make disciples who stay the course we need also to teach about the cross and the cost of commitment. So that when that evil day comes we together are able still stand, confident in Jesus’ ultimate victory.

Again, at St Michael’s, in our Christian basic courses we have recently spent quite some time reflecting on these words from Romans 8:14-17:

Those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

Now I would be the last person in the world who claims to have a gift of prophecy. But if there is one prediction that I would make about the future of the church in the West, it is this. We are going to increasingly be facing a situation where we will face direct opposition and at times persecution. After all, if you look at the history of the church, you will see that the freedoms we have enjoyed for hundreds of years are by and large an anomaly compared to the experience of so many other believers other world. And for a variety of reasons these freedoms are now coming under attack. You may see them as a sign of spiritual warfare, or as a sign of changes of society, or as a sign of God’s judgement upon a church that has grown complacent. But whatever the reason, we need to be prepared to face suffering and teach others to do the same. Not because we want to be martyrs, and so draw attention to ourselves, but to show that we stand in solidarity with Christ our risen Lord and want to glorify Him in our life, and where necessary, in our death.

Jim Elliott was an American missionary who was killed by the Auca Indians in Ecuador in 1956, at the age of 28. You may know his well-known saying: He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose. Our trouble it seems to me, is that we believe we can keep what we have and have the benefits of knowing Christ without bearing the cost. That, after all, is the message so many of our worship songs tell us. We need to learn to sing about suffering and about offering ourselves fully and totally to the glory of God, come what may. We may not like the lyrics as much, but at least we will be a lot clearer about understanding the path to glory.

 And yet for all the trials and tribulations that the first believers faced, the early church was an outward-looking church.

 Acts 11:19-21: Now those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen travelled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, telling the message only to Jews. Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.

 Imagine, if you will, arriving in a new place like Antioch and calling yourself a Christian. The locals would already have heard about you. They would have known the trouble you caused. Perhaps the police had orders to arrest you as soon as you showed up. Would you be willing to start sharing the good news?

Yet it seems as we read through the book of Acts almost nothing stopped the first believers speaking out. They knew just what a radical difference Jesus had made to their lives. They had a story which simply had to be told. And so they told that story, not only to people like themselves, but also to people that perhaps they previously had very little to do with. They realised that Jesus was far more than a Jewish Messiah; He was the hope for the whole world. So in many ways it didn’t matter whether the person they were seeking to reach was Jewish, Greek or from any other background. They simply saw those around them in Antioch as folk who needed to hear about Jesus, and so they spoke.

After all, if they didn’t speak about Jesus, the chances are, these folk would have ended up worshipping something else. You see, we mustn’t ever make the mistake of thinking that if we don’t share the good news of Jesus, somehow those around us will remain, as it were, spiritually neutral. More and more I find that we live in an age of great spiritual hunger and confusion, and people are looking for meaning and purpose in their lives in all kinds of strange directions.

So opposite St Michael’s there is a psychic shop where you can have your fortunes read and learn to read tarot cards. Round the corner there is a spiritualist church where mediums promise to connect you with the dearly departed. Down the road in Devonport the Scientologists have bought the Royal China Fleet Club and who knows what they will do with it once they have planning permission.  And even if folk don’t go so far as to actually go to these places, this won’t mean they won’t invite the Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons in when they come knocking, or go to Waterstones and browse the spirituality books, or click on a weird and wacky website promising fulfilment and well-being.

Our task to spread the good news of Jesus Christ is urgent and it is important. As in every age, we are surrounded by false gods and no gods, and we must always recognise that our primary goal is to witness to Christ and Him crucified. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:22-24: Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Two thousand years later we must continually pray that through us others discover in Christ the wisdom and power of God, for their own good, and keep looking outwards to reach those who are living and dying without the knowledge of His saving grace.

This leads to the final point that the early church kept in step with the Spirit.

 Acts 13:2-3: While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.

 Now I realise it may be a little dangerous coming to a Pentecostal church and talking about the Holy Spirit! Again, because of our different history and experiences, you and I may have a rather different understanding of the Holy Spirit. But I am always reminded of some words George Verwer, the founder of OM, said at a conference I attended some thirty years ago: I don’t care how you get the Holy Spirit, just get it! While nowadays I might quibble at the use of the word “it”, there is a lot of truth in what he said back then.

Because if we are to be a gospel-centred church we need to be filled with the Holy Spirit. If we are to be a grace-filled church we need to be filled with the Holy Spirit. If we are to be devoted to prayer we need to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Do you get the pattern? It is the Holy Spirit who keeps us focused on the word of God, who sustains us when we are refined by suffering, who makes us an outward-looking church.

 So however you or I may understand the work of the Holy Spirit, let’s together make sure we keep in step with Him. Let’s keep working together for the sake of the kingdom, valuing and recognising our differences, while seeking the common goal of making Jesus known in a world that is – in those poignant words of Ephesians 2:12 – without hope and without God.

 And to that end may I humbly and warmly thank you for inviting me to preach this afternoon. If any of my words have not been of the Lord, then please let them fall away. But if the Lord has chosen to speak through me, then please do take away a little of what I’ve said. And let’s ask Him to make us more and more the people that He calls us to be, so that His church at this time and in this place is revived to the glory of His name. Amen.

 

 


A positive alternative

October 28, 2014

For weeks now the shops have been filled with all the trappings of Halloween. For us, it’s about the only time of year we can get our chickens’ favourite treat – pumpkins. But for many other people, it seems an excuse to get in touch with the dark side of their imagination. And while some people may claim it is only a harmless piece of fun, the danger is, that all these undead characters being so shamelessly promoted become all a little too real. Without being too dramatic, Halloween does force us – whether we like it or not –  to confront the fact we are in a spiritual battle.

The tragedy is, that Halloween was originally a Christian festival. It was the eve of a great festival that has almost been completely lost in today’s world, All Saints Day. All Saints was, and remains, an opportunity to remember those who have gone before us and celebrate their example of faith. Not to venerate them, or, heaven forbid, pray to them, but to learn how to follow Jesus Christ our whole life long even in the face of persecution, adversity and death.

So this Sunday while the rest of world are putting away their Halloween costumes, we are going to be looking at the solid, real hope that is ours in Jesus Christ, the hope that inspired the saints of old, and which should inspire us today. We will be looking at that great passage of hope from 1 Thessalonians, chapter 4, verses 13-18. It should be a very suitable opportunity to invite those you know who are at this time are struggling with issues of loss and bereavement.

Let’s show there is a positive alternative in what so often seems to be a dark and confused world, that we do not have to retreat into the fantasy of Halloween because we have light of Jesus Christ.

See you on Sunday!


Today I was blessed by….

October 19, 2014

… not preaching for once, but instead being challenged by two excellent sermons from Joy and John! Both of them took 1 Thessalonians 3 and made similar points which spoke in different ways.

Joy asked us to consider the difference between a church and a club. In some ways a club is like a church. It attracts like-minded people, it’s a place where people find fellowship and to which people give willingly. But the difference about church is that relationships one with another are not optional. We are a community of faith and that faith needs to transform the way we relate to each other, and to the wider world.

John asked us to consider how we  view the local church. Do we look at the material things such as the attendance figures, the finances and the building? Or do we see the church in spiritual terms? He challenged to consider how much we pray for one another and talk with each other about our faith.

We are learning just so much about the church from our series in Thessalonians. We’ve looked so far at the impact of the gospel, the role of leadership, spiritual opposition and now the quality of our relationships. I think the Lord is trying to teach us something really important. So where do we go with this? How will this teaching shape and mould our thinking as we begin to look afresh at our Mission Action Plan?

Those aren’t rhetorical questions. If together we can work out what the Lord is saying, then I believe the life of our churches will take a decisive step forward.

Over to you…


Where next?

January 17, 2013

I believe one of the tasks of a leader is to try and work out where the church is going next. By this, I don’t mean launching a fully laid out vision on an unsuspecting church and trying to force them to adopt it. I’ve seen that kind of leadership in action and it isn’t pretty. No, what I mean is more trying to listen carefully to the Lord and work out what are the right questions we should asking at this time, and seeking to find others in the church who can help work out the answers. Now, finding time to sit down and listen is time-consuming. It can seem from the outside not very productive. But it is an essential part of ministry if we are to keep in step with the Spirit and work out how the Lord is leading us.

On Monday I sat down with a Bible trying to work out what we should look at as a church from April to September in our preaching programme. I consider this planning of our sermon series to be the most strategic part of my ministry, because it’s in the ministry of the word we hear the Lord speaking most clearly, and it’s from there we start to discern how He wants to take us forward.

So after many scribbled drafts and much prayer, I felt that after Easter we needed to

look at the latter half of Romans. Paul says some challenging things about how to live together as a church community and live out our faith in the wider society. It’s important stuff we need to listen to, not only for our own local parish church, but also in the context of the many disagreements that are tearing our denomination apart and undermining our witness.

Then we’re going to move on to look at a few of the themes in Proverbs. It’s not an easy book to cover on a Sunday morning, but it does cover issues we wouldn’t normally think about elsewhere. How many sermons have you heard on the theme of laziness, for example!?

Finally over the summer, and into September, we are going back to Matthew’s gospel, to chapters 14-16 because we need constantly to be reminded who the Lord is and what He calls us to do. If our lives aren’t full of worship, then any attempts to live for Christ will fail.

Our Mission Action Plan!
Our Mission Action Plan!

The journey of faith

October 8, 2012

It has become a cliché to talk about “the journey of faith”. It is one of those trendy expressions which are regularly trotted out at Christian events, and which has become part of the current jargon in church circles. Of course what that expression actually means is a matter of debate. At its best it alerts us to the fact the early Christians were called Followers of the Way (Acts 9:2) and Jesus called Himself the Way, the Truth and the Life (John 14:6). In this sense it is a perfectly harmless phrase. However sometimes it seems to arise from a conviction that faith always arises as part of a slow process, rather than a moment of crisis or conversion. The journey of faith becomes some kind of spiritual pilgrimage of seeking after truth, rather than actually knowing the truth that sets you free (John 8:32). And at that point I begin to feel uncomfortable because I am suspicious of any theology that seeks to render our faith more mystical or obscure than it really is.

Yet it is true that our faith matures and deepens over time. So as I began to plan for our next preaching programme from Epiphany to Easter, the time of year suggested that we look at some Old Testament character who over a long period had to learn to look forward in faith, someone who early on put his trust in God, but only gradually learnt to appreciate what that trust actually meant. The fact we will have just finishing studying the early chapters of Romans naturally suggested that this character should be Abraham. Abraham received many wonderful promises from God, yet he wrestled with how these promises could apply to his own life, and he learnt many a difficult lesson about obedience.

So although the world of Abraham may seem very remote from our own, there are natural connections between his “journey of faith” and our own. And we shouldn’t also ignore the fact there are some very real and pressing issues that arise out of our study of Abraham. Three world religions claim their ancestry from Abraham. The question of how God’s promise to Abraham relates to the land of Israel and the Jewish people today directly determines foreign policy and how we see the current unrest in the Middle East. Sometimes we sing in fun, “Abraham had many sons. You are one of them and so am I” – but are we? Who are the descendants of Abraham today? We will find Jesus and Paul have some important answers to these questions, which will affect our understanding of the church.

So there is much to look forward to, and I hope that as you journey with us through Romans 1-8 and Genesis 12-22 over the next few months your faith will be enriched and strengthened. Enjoy!