A drive-by lesson in love

So, this week I was on my way to church for a funeral I was conducting. I always try to leave enough time to be there at least 20-30 minutes early, just so I can prepare myself for the service. By the time I left home, I was just about ‘on time’ by my schedule.

However, as I was driving through the village, I noticed a van in the middle of the road, broken down. It was a milk-van (yes we still have milk delivered here!) As I waited in the road to get past, the driver, with some effort, started pushing the van back into a side road. It looked hard work.

I drove on.

But as I drove, I couldn’t help feeling guilty for not stopping to help. The more I thought about it, the more clear it became to me that I could have got out and helped him move the van. It must have been pretty heavy.  Okay, he looked fit, but a helping hand probably wouldn’t have been refused.

But I didn’t; I drove on. I told myself that I didn’t have time, I didn’t want to be late. Now, I had a a good reason. I was on my way to a funeral, after all. Surely that was important. But it probably would have taken no more than 2 minutes to get out of the car, push the van and be off. I had time. Actually, he probably would have got it out of the way quicker with a bit of help.

I started thinking about the parable of the good Samaritan,

There is the man, attacked by robbers, lying injured and bleeding on the side of the road. For hours he lies, weakened and half-dead in the scorching heat. He’s in desperate need of help. And then a figure starts coming into sight.

“A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side.” (Luke 10:31)

Maybe the priest thought he was dead, and didn’t want to get himself ritually unclean by touching a dead body. Or perhaps he was on his way to the Temple to fulfil his religious duties. Maybe he was running a bit late, and didn’t have time to stop. But he should have.

And it occurred to me that I was the priest in the parable of the good Samaritan.

Okay, so the situations are nowhere near the same. But I used the excuse of not having the time to be a help to someone. The point is that it’s so easy to allow our own agendas, our own schedules to get in the way of love and compassion.

“I don’t have time to help.” “It’s not convenient right now.” “I’m too busy; I’ve got a lot on.”

The point of the parable was to teach what it meant to love your neighbour as yourself. The reality is that the needs of the world, and the people we meet around us, are never convenient. They don’t wait until we’re ready for them. We have to be prepared to stop and be the one who can make a difference, and not just walk on by leaving compassion to someone else. Let it be us.

“The Lord is gracious and righteous; our God is full of compassion.” (Psalm 116:5)

So, to the milkman, whoever and wherever you are: Sorry.


Praying for the world

It’s a big world. Or rather, it used to feel like it was. Globalisation has meant that the world feels like it has contracted. It takes less and less time to fly to far-off places, we can see friends and family on our computers even though they’re on the other side of the world; news is travelling so fast now that we can hear about events going on somewhere else in the world as they’re happening. You don’t even need to wait for tomorrow’s paper, which is already out of date before it’s even printed!

So as Christians we have no excuse for being uninformed about what is going on in the world, particularly with churches and fellow Christians. The information is there, the resources are available. We just need to use them.

One of the most effective resources is Operation World, which can be found here. Each day they provide you with details about a different country in the world, so you can pray. And if like me you’re liable to forget to pray, you can subscribe to a handy daily email. So from your inbox you can go straight to the needs of the world. I commend it to you. You can also get the book!

I used Operation World on Sunday in my sermon, as we were looking at Acts 8:26-40, the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch through Philip. Even though Philip was involved in a successful mission to the Samaritans, God sent him off to what was an unpromising desert road. The eunuch was returning home from worshipping in Jerusalem to Cush (south of Egypt) when Philip met him. It looked like he’d missed the opportunity to hear about Jesus for himself. But God had other ideas.

After all, Jesus had told his disciples that they would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth. For a lot of people, Cush really was the ends of the earth.  When Philip had explained the gospel to him, this man went away rejoicing because he now knew Jesus. The good news of Jesus was going with him.

What strikes me is that, whatever one’s opinion is on immigration in the UK (and there are lots of views), one thing is without doubt. Lots of people are coming to the UK for work, refuge, a better life and so on. Many of them are coming from places where it is dangerous or even illegal to be or become a Christian. And they are coming here, where they can hear about the saving power of Jesus. So we need to pray that more people will be sent into this particular field, more churches engage with those who are coming into this country, because the harvest is plentiful. Many are looking for a better life. What better than to know the Saviour and King of the Universe?

Pray for the world. Pray for the world arriving on our doorstep.

Following Christ

This is a sermon I preached on Sunday on discipleship from Matthew 9:9-13, the calling of Matthew the tax-collector. I hope you find it helpful.

Politics has been very much in the news this last week. And when you’re running a political party, or launching a movement for change, the kind of people you attract to follow you is important. Scotland voted to stay part of the Union, but there was plenty of feeling on both sides.
People with friends and relatives in Scotland were telling me about banners being defaced, people being spat at, and bricks thrown through windows because they were voting the other way to them. Are those the kind of supporters you want? Would you want to attract supporters who do that?
If we were Jesus, launching a world-changing movement, who would we want following and supporting us? The most respectable, well-behaved, people? Thankfully we’re not Jesus, and the kind of people Jesus attracted tells us what we need to know about what it means to follow him. The gospel is not just good news – it’s the best news. And we’ll see why!

Condemn, condone or call?

Jesus doesn’t just wait for people to come to him. And he doesn’t wait for the right kind of people either. Jesus has just come from healing a man who was paralyzed. He was brought for healing, and Jesus told him his sins were forgiven. And healing him showed he had the power and the authority to forgive. So Jesus has already shown that he’s in the business of changing people – from the inside out. Physical healing here was a sign of God’s greater work in healing the soul.
And so, as Jesus is walking through Capernaum, he sees Matthew sitting at the tax-collecting booth. Capernaum would have been a hub of activity, as goods came through into Herod’s territory, either by land or across the Sea of Galilee. Matthew was almost certainly collecting the duty on those goods.
We may not think much of taxes and tax-collectors today (though there is nothing wrong in being a tax collector, it has to be said!), but then they were pretty low in people’s opinions. Not only were they seen as traitors for collecting taxes for the occupying Romans, but they were viewed as thieves too. Tax collecting was a profitable business, and there was always some profit to be skimmed off the top for yourself. So Matthew would have been wealthy, but despised.
And Jesus walks up to him, and says, “Follow me.” Now, we have no idea what contact Matthew had had with Jesus before now – he knew who he was, because Jesus was based in Capernaum, and had probably heard him speak. But now, Jesus gives him the chance to do something about his life.And not only does Jesus call him to join his disciples, he goes and eats with him – and his friends. It was a pretty scandalous thing to do, and the Pharisees knew that, which is why they reacted so badly. But we’ll come on to them in a moment.
Jesus doesn’t condemn Matthew. There would have been a lot of fingers pointing at Matthew, but Jesus’ wasn’t one of them. But Jesus doesn’t condone Matthew’s lifestyle either. Eating with Matthew doesn’t mean that Jesus is turning a blind eye, or saying in effect, what you get up to isn’t important to me as long as you come along and be my disciple. That is, I think, a real misconception among a lot of people who think they know something of Jesus.
“Jesus didn’t judge people”. That’s true. Jesus didn’t. But he didn’t come to just love people and leave them as they were. Jesus didn’t condemn, or condone – he called. He called people to follow him. Look at what Jesus says, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” There is no doubt that Jesus saw Matthew as a sinner. Just as I am; and you are. And he was called not in spite of his sin, but because of it.
Jesus met Matthew where he was, but didn’t leave him there. It’s the same now: Jesus takes us as we are, but never leaves us as we are. There is the call to repent, to turn away from our rejection of God, and the life that says ‘I will do what I want’, and to follow.
We rightly remember John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”
But we need to remember John 3:17 too: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
And as Christ’s disciples, that ministry is extended to us: not to condemn, not to condone, but to call people to Jesus.

How to spot your inner Pharisee

But there’s a problem immediately after Jesus calls Matthew. The Pharisees. They come to Jesus’ disciples, and they know that Jesus has been eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners. And they’re not happy.
Why aren’t they happy? Well, because if Jesus really was a prophet, doing the works of God, then he should know what kind of people these were. To understand their problem, we need to think a bit more about the Pharisees.
They were the ruling class in Judea, and they controlled much of the interpretation of the Law. They were ultra-zealous when it came to ceremonial cleanness. Having anything to do with Gentiles, non-Jews, made them unclean. So tax collectors and sinners were always personas non grata, partly because of their lifestyles occupations, but also because those occupations put them in too close a contact with unclean people. Strict obedience to the Law was everything. And so they created laws around the Law to ensure that they didn’t break the Law – like the layers of an onion. Anybody who didn’t live up their standards was a sinner.
But don’t we all do that. I know I do. It’s easy, isn’t it, to judge others by our own standards rather than by God’s. There is a Pharisee in each of us.
But that’s not the problem. In lots of ways, the Pharisees were right. Tax collectors and probably a lot of these sinners were living in a way that would have grieved God’s heart. In the same way that much of the world has still rejected God’s loving purposes for them. Here was, I think, the problem. The Pharisees saw these people existing in sin, and couldn’t care less about them. All they wanted to do was point the finger at them, and justify their own upstanding ‘righteous’ behaviour. If they knew the Law, if they really loved God, they should have been doing everything they could do reach them, to draw them back to God. Instead, they just built up more and more barriers, shut up shop, saying ‘no entrance’. They neither loved God nor loved their neighbour.
How often do we pray for others to repent and turn to Christ? The Pharisees knew their Scriptures really well. They recited them, learnt them, obeyed them. But Jesus reveals their hearts: they didn’t know them at all. “Go away and learn this,” In other words, read it again, and this time with your heart. Don’t just read it, seek to understand it. The Lord God says, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice”. And here’s the headline reason.

Sacrifice is safe, mercy is messy
This is a quote from Hosea 6. Hosea was looking around, and seeing what was going on. People were paying lip-service to God. They would make their way up to the Temple to make their sacrifices, to do their religious duty; but their hearts – and their attitudes to others – were a long way from God.
When we base our faith on simple religious observance, then there is no need to love others, certainly the ones who might ‘contaminate’ us. Sacrifice, religion, seen like this, is safe. Here are my boundaries, here is my comfort zone. But Jesus showed that while sacrifice – religion – is safe, mercy is messy. It brings us into contact with people who are outside our comfort zones; it means loving people in a radical way; it will mean calling people to follow Christ. Whilst the Pharisees effectively wore rubber gloves around people, Jesus got his hands dirty. And he got his hands dirty for us, with hands outstretched on the cross, dying for our sins. My sins. Our sins.
I wonder what this will mean for us as a church? Perhaps this is something we can put some prayer into. What it doesn’t mean is that holiness is unimportant. Our personal walk with God is vital; our church life should be marked by godliness, love and acceptance. But not at any price. Not without the challenge to change, to follow Christ and leave everything that separates us from him behind. And to call by our example that we have followed him the same way.
Part of the problem is that for some, church feels like the waiting room for a job interview. You have to be well dressed, on your best behaviour; you have to put on your best face, and need to remember to say the right things. You’re on show.
But in reality, the church is more like the waiting room to a doctor’s surgery. We’re all sick – spiritually – in one way or another; we all need healing. There is therefore a humility there – we follow the same healer-saviour. No room for pride. We leave that at the door. Jesus neither condemns, or condones. He calls us to leave all that sin behind and follow him.

Revealing our idols

1 Thessalonians 1:9-10 For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven…” (ESV)

As a football fan,  I am still trying to make sense of the result of last night’s World Cup semi-final match between Brazil and Germany. 7-1 was an astonishing score-line. It has been described as extraordinary, shocking, and humiliating. For a country with such a proud footballing heritage to suffer the ignominy of a complete thrashing, it will take some getting used to. For Brazil, this wasn’t just a defeat at the hands of a great footballing rival. This was something more akin to the demolition of hopes and dreams. A sixth World Cup, and on home soil; it had the taste of destiny about it.

And that dream is in tatters. To be fair, some had thought that losing their star player, Neymar, was an end to their challenge. Many Brazilian football fans were in mourning for his loss – a broken vertebrae in the last match meaning he will be out for several weeks – and even his team-mates seemed to be dominated by his absence. As the national anthems rang out, Brazilian players held up his No 10 shirt. He may not be there in person, but in spirit he certainly was seems to be the message. What struck me, though, was the faces of the Brazilian football fans as they watched  their football team hit self-destruct, as goal after goal went in. Hurt, anguish, confusion, despair, were there for the world to see. This really mattered to them.

For many football fans, and I wonder whether this is even more the case in Brazil, football is seen almost with religious overtones. Where else do people sing other than in a church or a football stadium? When we invest our lives, our hopes and dreams in something or someone, what happens when they fail, or disappoint? The Bible calls these things idols. Idolatry doesn’t have to take the form of worshipping figures made of metal or wood. It is worshipping anything other than the living God, turning a good thing into an ultimate thing, as Tim Keller has written. It is whatever we derive our ultimate hope, joy, meaning and satisfaction from. We invest our lives in them, expecting something in return.

The turning point, perhaps, comes when we realise those idols are false, full of empty promises; they are powerless, and will always disappoint. They can never provide the sustained joy, hope and life that we so desperately need. Our idols may not be football, but whatever they are, we need to turn from them to the living God, recognising that they cannot provide us with the happiness we need. Is it any wonder that when things don’t go to plan (our plan) we end up angry or despairing?

Question: what are our idols?

Jesus, however, offered life, and life in all its fullness. Only the living God, who has revealed himself perfectly in Jesus Christ, can offer us that. Because he is the only God, and only he has the power and the right to be everything we need. As the source of life and love, he alone is worthy of worship. Unlike our man-made idols, he will never fail or disappoint.




Taking time out


I’ve just come back from a two week lay-off after a gall-bladder operation (word of advice: avoid gall stones if at all possible – ‘extremely painful’ is an understatement of the first order). Actually, I’ve been poorly for the last few months, and during this really frustrating period, I couldn’t do as much as I had been doing, and had to really pull back. In other words, I put in less hours. But guess what, I ended up probably doing more in that time, and being more productive than I had been in a long while.

During my recuperation, I realised why. I had begun to prioritise better. I physically couldn’t do what I had been doing, so some things had to go. I was spending more time on things that mattered, and working out the things that didn’t. I also began to re-learn how to relax and rest. It has been liberating.

And the main reason for this is that I learned this lesson: I am not God. Sounds obvious from a vicar. But in the midst of trying to ‘do ministry’ I had forgotten that I am just a human being – fallen, sinful, time-constrained, and in need of stopping from time to time. I had failed to remember that actually God doesn’t need me for his kingdom to grow. Wonderfully, we have the privilege of being part of his eternal plans, and he uses us; but I am not the centre of the universe. He is. The world continues to spin, God is in charge and he is the one who makes things happen, not me. It took me being out of the equation for a while for me to get this. Sometimes it takes illness for us to get the message, because we’re not going to listen otherwise.

So, while I’m very pleased to be on the way back to full health, I don’t want to waste what I’ve learnt. I don’t want to be spending all that time chasing my tail, trying to do everything, when God has got a handle on it. It’s his ministry, after all, not mine. Making the best use of the time might just involve taking time off to rest too.




Being the Chosen One

So, unless we’ve been living in a cave for the last week, we’ll know the earth-shattering news that David Moyes is no longer the manager of Manchester United. Well, it’s probably earth-shattering to Mr Moyes.

After Sir Alex Ferguson hand-picked him as his successor, he was dubbed ‘The Chosen One.’ The messianic overtones were unmistakeable. Now, of course, he’s The Sacked One. The great hope of continued, and greater success, evaporated quicker than Aston Villa’s hopes of being anything other than mediocre (can you spot my team in there?). And now the great Man Utd folk hero, Ryan Giggs, has stepped up to lead the team for the final few matches. And now there is hope again. The change has been made, and now comes the expectation to play ‘the Man Utd way’ (whatever that is).

While this was going on, I was preparing to preach on John 20:19-23. It is the evening of the resurrection, and we find the disciples locked up in a room out of fear. Mary had reported seeing the risen Jesus, and Peter and John had witnessed the empty tomb, but still they were terrified and confused. All their hopes had rested on Jesus; they thought he was the Messiah. But the Messiah looked like he had failed. That wasn’t in the script.

This was a movement dead on its feet. The religious leaders knew what they were doing when they went to the Romans for Jesus’ execution. They didn’t just want Jesus dead, they wanted him humiliated. They wanted his followers, anyone who had held out any hope in him, to know that there was no hope. There was no going forward beyond the cross.

But then came the empty tomb, which changed everything.

And into that locked, fear-filled, stood Jesus. And to this group of men who had run away, even denied him, Jesus showed the nail marks and declared peace to them. And then he said this: “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” (John 20:21)

For me, this is one of the proofs of the resurrection. This group of broken, humbled, sorrowful men and women would be the messengers of God’s kingdom and Jesus’ death and resurrection. They would change the world through their message of God’s love and forgiveness in Jesus. What could have changed them so dramatically except for something extraordinary? Only the resurrection provides a satisfactory answer.

Maybe Ryan Giggs can turn Man Utd’s season round at the end; maybe a new manager can ring the changes. But it’s only Jesus who can change the world, only his death and resurrection that can make us right with God. Amongst all the false messiahs, all the things we put our trust in and think will satisfy us, amongst all that the world offers, there’s only one who is the real deal – the one who is the way, the truth and the life.


Humility and humiliation

When I was in the university CU, I remember a friend saying once, “Don’t pray for humility. God may just give it to you.” We laughed about it, but the point was well made. If we did ask God to make us more humble, what would he have to do to make it happen? Would we be willing to be humiliated?

We just have to open a newspaper and read about the latest celebrity getting up to something they shouldn’t to see what humiliation looks like. Or watch programmes like Britain’s Got Talent or the X Factor. Amongst all the really talented people who audition, there are the ones who appear to have been selected to be shown on TV because they’re rubbish. Millions tune in to watch them humiliated, to give us something to laugh at. But, hey, it makes great television. Honestly, though, what does this tell us about the state of our society? But that’s another matter.

Who would knowingly, willingly, deliberately put themselves up to be humiliated? It is utterly counter-intuitive.

We often forget the connection between these two words – humility and humiliation. To be humble means to think less of ourselves in favour of others, not to ‘blow our own trumpet’ and so on. In Philippians 2, Paul encourages the Christians he’s corresponding with to be humble, to consider others’ needs above their own. That’s great. But the example he uses is an uncomfortable one: Jesus himself. It might seem strange to say it’s an uncomfortable example, but it is.

There is the pre-existent Son of God, receiving the praise of heaven, but wiling to ‘take the form of a servant’, be born as a lowly man, and then die on a cross. It’s easy perhaps to think of humility here. But read the gospel accounts again. This is what we find. Jesus was:

– Betrayed by his friend;
– Brought before a court full of people who have already made up their minds that he should be killed;
– Declared innocent by Pilate, but then still given over to be crucified;
– Given a mock kingly purple robe, with jeering Roman soldiers bowing in fake deference, and a crown of thorns, not placed delicately on his head, but rammed down hard;
– Beaten, scourged and spat on
– Led out before a crowd baying for blood;
– had that robe taken away, leaving him probably naked, as he’s placed on the cross;

And then there is the cross itself, not just an instrument of torture, but a fate reserved for the worst criminals. And while on the cross, all that could be heard was the sound of people shouting up abuse, watching him die. They kept on shouting his words back at him, like knocking down the temple and rebuilding it in three days, but misunderstanding and misinterpreting his words.

This isn’t just humility. This is humiliation.

So when we think of the cross this Holy Week, we have to keep in our mind not just that Jesus was humble, but that he was willing to be humiliated. Willing to do this to bring about God’s plan to save people like us – and people like those who did all of the above. Now, that is love.

Archbishop of Canterbury’s personal address to General Synod

The Church of England’s General Synod is meeting this week. As has been reported in the press, the Archbishop of Canterbury made a personal address. As is always the way, the reporting of the address doesn’t necessarily reflect the actual meaning or context. Whenever possible, we should listen to what people have actually said, rather than repeat things second or even third-hand. Anyway, here is what he actually said.