Monday, 19 September 2016

Something missing

I realise as I write this blogpost that there are very few, if any, who will read it judging from the fact that, to date, I only have three 'followers' (i.e. that is those how have signed up to have notification that I have written another post). But although I would prefer more readers, I have to be honest and say that, a bit like my composing, the principle reader (listener) is really me. The blog has become my way of thinking out loud about my faith and my ministry. Of course I can't divulge everything about what I am thinking as there is a danger in this instance that someone WILL actually read it and perhaps misunderstand what I have said. I have had my hand burned in the past about this and so I am anxious not to repeat it. For example I can't share exactly what I think about the Church in Wales at the moment, or how I feel about my ministry and my perception of its success/failures now that I have reached my 60th year. Besides who would really be that interested anyway. So what you read - if you are reading this - are topics which interest and challenge me, but which hopefully will avoid getting into stuff that is too personal.

So what do I want to write about today? Yesterday's sermon on Matthew 7 which is below:

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’

24 “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. 26 But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”

28 When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, 29 because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law."
Matthew 7:21-29
Without wanting to reproduce the whole sermon text here I just want to highlight several important points and observations:

First, Jesus is concerned about meaningless words, even if they are, as in this instance, correctly applied to him. He is indeed 'Lord' and therefore God. But how far 'down' do those words go in the lives of those who utter them. Towards the beginning of the last century the perceptive Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple wrote:

"It is not so much the words we say with our lips that produce inner peace, but the thoughts that we carry deep within our heart. It is down there - in the heart (note: the heart being the totality of who we are) - that the real changes take place. If the thoughts in our hearts do not really correspond with the words on our lips, then we are just whistling in the dark."
Although Temple is primarily talking about words and thoughts, he is making the same point as Jesus is making in our text. Words in and of themselves - even if they are meaningful and powerful words as above - are really empty unless they connect with the totality of who we are. Only then do they become authentic and truly powerful because they arise out of an inner change that expresses itself in action. Without that connection however they lose their meaning, at least to those who utter them.

"Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven."
Second, Jesus is also concerned that the religion He has come to express and promote is, at its very foundation, built upon a dynamic, active and real relationship with Him and with God as Father.

Those who listen at any length or with any concentration or focus to my sermons will recognise this as a recurring theme which I tend to make ad nauseam. And so well worn phrases crop up every now and again like "Christianity is about Christ" or "Christianity is not a religion but a relationship" (actually is it both as the word 'religion' is from a Latin word which at its root means "to bind" in relation to two individuals or persons0.

Here then Jesus emphasises this relationship - modelled by Him - with "my Father who is in heaven" with it's echoes of the Lord's Prayer where He teaches his followers to make that relationship the basis of their prayer/conversation with "our Father who art in heaven".

And this relationship is not merely one of acquaintance only. It runs deep, deep enough to trust one's salvation to, and deep enough to see that salvation being worked out or worked 'on' in terms of carrying through the Father's will for our lives. (See Paul in Philipians 2:12, Ephesians 2:10).

Jesus of course is our example par excellance here. His relationship with God in his humanity - remember he had left the advantages of divinity and the innate oneness with God behind when He was born of Mary (cf Philippians 2:6-11)) - meant that He had to remain in constant contact with God through prayer and the companionship of the Holy Spirit. this led him to make the following observations in John 5:19 and John 12:49: “I only do what I see my father doing” and “I only say what I hear my Father say”. Later in John 15:1-7 he teaches how this can be true for his disciples and every Christian as long as they "abide in me".

And third, which is the telling point for me, the Christian Faith is about action not talk. This comes across forcefully here in the last verses of the Sermn on the Mount where Jesus differentiates between the two subjects of his parable and their respective foundations - one sand and the other rock. This differentiation is not between what the two people believe - although it is pretty insecapable that the reference to 'rock' is almost certainly a reference to Jesus Himelf (see Isaiah 8:14, 1 Peter 2:8,  1Corinthians 10:4) or at least faith in and obedinece to Him (see Matthew 16:18). No the way in which Jesus differentiates is between the response that each person makes to His teaching. According to what is done in response to Jesus determines whether the person's house/life collapses (sand) or stands (rock).

Here at the climax of some of Jesus' greatest teaching is His concern that people do not just sit around and have a Bible study about what He means, but that they go and put it into practice. They act upon, or in response, to it.

At this point everyone will be nodding in agreement, muttering an affirmative 'amen' and saying "yeh, we all knew that." But as we all recognise there is a world of difference between acknowledging something and KNOWING it in the depths and centre of their being. Anyone who has read the Bible for any length of time will tell you that they have read the same passage for years with understanding - so they thought - until, on the 50th reading they suddenly 'get it'.

Let me put this into some kind of personal context. I have been a student of the Bible ever since my conversion to Christianity when wise friends told me that in order to sustain this new life I should read the Bible and pray every day. This love for the Bible followed me into full time Christian ministry, finding expression first in an emphasis on Biblical preaching and second on encouraging personal and communal Bible study groups. This has led me to explain or expound a passage of the Bible - short of long - on every occasion the Scriptures are read. And so every baptism, wedding, funeral, mid-week service or early morning Holy Communion on Sunday, I deliver a sermon, homily or reflection. Every week I run one of two Bible study groups and short courses on related topics with the aim of inculcating a love of the Scriptures in others.

All this is well and good but I have noticed that I revel in sharing knowledge of the Bible and addressing slightly controversial issues. I also talk a lot and tend to dominate sessions, sharing some insight I have picked up on the way. Discussions therefore tend to be rather cerebral and taken up with accumulating knowledge or deepening understanding. Now I am not saying any of this is bad, even if rather self-indulgent on my part (that comes under the 'personal' part of what I was referring to above). But reading the words of Jesus above I do feel rather convicted and challenged by what He is saying and it does raise a whole raft of questions in respect of how we 'do' Church.

First, it raises the question as to what is Bible Study for? Yes it is to look at and ensure that we understand and correctly interpret the passage before us. But - and it is a significant 'but' - we have to avoid the danger of merely accumulating knowledge without actually acting on it.

Second, and related to the above, what has this got to do with God's intentions for our Christian lives. Where are we headed as Christians and what is the goal of the Christian life, and where does Bible study come in?

John Stott at the end of an illustrious life as leader, preacher, writer and teacher, delivered a very honest and, I believe, insightful sermon in which I thought I sensed a slight tinge of regret. In particular the following passage struck me right at the start of his last address:

"I remember very vividly, some years ago, that the question which perplexed me as a younger Christian (and some of my friends as well) was this: what is God’s purpose for His people? Granted that we have been converted, granted that we have been saved and received new life in Jesus Christ, what comes next? Of course, we knew the famous statement of the Westminster Shorter Catechism: that man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever: we knew that, and we believed it. We also toyed with some briefer statements, like one of only five words— love God, love your neighbor. But somehow neither of these, nor some others that we could mention, seemed wholly satisfactory. So I want to share with you where my mind has come to rest as I approach the end of my pilgrimage on earth, and it is—God wants His people to become like Christ. Christlikeness is the will of God for the people of God." (see full sermon here)
Taking Stott's words as read, how does Bible Study help that process of becoming like Jesus? How can it make us more Christlike? It is interesting to look at Stott's 5 part advice on becoming like Christ. We are to become like Christ

1. "...in his Incarnation in the amazing self-humbling which lies behind the Incarnation.
2. "....(in) regard(ing) no task too menial or degrading to undertake for each other."
3. "....in his death, to love with self-giving Calvary love
4. "....in suffering unjustly..."
5. (through mission as we) enter other people’s worlds (with the Good News).

What is striking about each one of the above is that they all entail action, acting upon what we know as a priority in enabling us to grow in Christlikeness.

Lastly, is this perhaps the reason why God is not blessing us with growth, beause our Bible Study groups have become mere talking shops where we have a good discussion, share some knowledge with one another, have an argument on whether babies sin or not, then go home?  Is this the reason why we can go to church, read our Bibles and say our prayers for years and yet stay the same people we were at the start? Is this the reason why the church is having such little imapct on the world becasue people want to SEE Christianity working rather than join a class and accumulate knowldge - even right knowldge - which makes no visible difference to people's lives or the world in which we live.

Let me end with this. At the moment I am very impressed with what i read about the Eastern Orthodox Church. Not so much with its worship - which is pretty awesome and strange - or it's dcotrine and beliefs - although I am warming to their understanding of the Cross/resurrection in respect on how Christ saves us. No what impresses me is the changed lives of so many of its adherents, some of whom are declared saints by the Church. The same goes, I guess, for the Roman Catholic Church. We may not agree with the veneration of these people or some of the stuff associated with this, but one thing impresses itself on me. The bottom line is that these people lived lives of Christlikeness. All the Church is doing in making them saints is acknowledging this and raising them up as examples for the faithful to follow and emulate. Where do we see any of this in the evangelical churches? How many people can we - I speak as an evangelical - point to and say "that man/woman is or was a saint. How can I become like them?"

And so Jesus' call at the end of his Sermon on the Mount is a call to become Christlike through DOING what He calls us to do. To build the house of our lives on obedience to Him is to become rock-like, like Him. Is that where my life is headed? Is it an intention of mine to do this? Do I read the Bible and lead Bible studies to that end?

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