Jesus on tour… #stillconfusedaudience

Last Sunday I preached a slightly rambling version of this text, having conducted a wedding the day before (weirdly the most tiring thing I do in my job…) and generally feeling slightly odd… apparently the last 5 minutes of the talk were really good, so you may want to fast forward the audio from our website or skip a few paragraphs… anyway, from chapter 8 of Mark’s Gospel…

Jesus’ preaching tour continues, and at this point he ask his disciples for some feedback- who do people say I am? And the answers they give are quite revealing-

John the Baptist, who we all know is dead, but somehow people aren’t paying attention to what they know is true…

Elijah (or another one of the prophets)…

Interestingly, all of those were people who came to draw people towards God and also to speak God’s words to people… so the crowds have got something right- they know Jesus isn’t just a teacher and a wise man (which if you were to conduct the same survey in Barnstaple today would be the most widely offered responses by folks in town).

But, its as if they’re so close, but just missing out- there was an expectation that Elijah might return as a forerunner to the messiah, and John had claimed to be doing just that… and yet they think Jesus is also fitting into that mould-  why is that? Maybe its because its easier that way- its ok to get excited about something that is on its way- you can look forward to it and get ready for it, but until it gets happens you can pretty much carry on as you were… the messiah is going to come YES!, the messiah is on the way YES!, the messiah is coming YES! But in between whiles nothing has to change. The messiah has arrived and is in the next village- that requires a shift in thinking, a shift that many people weren’t ready for. And many still aren’t.

But not Peter- You are the Christ, which is the greek translation of messiah. You are the anointed one of God who comes to save. And you’re also challenging people and changing things, and while some may not have been happy with that, Peter was.

As Christians we have to acknowledge that we have changed- that is what it means to be baptised and live in the light of our faith- we’ve been forgiven for our sins and brought to new life- it doesn’t matter when it happened or how slowly it happened, but we have been changed by God. If we have always been a Christian for as long as we can remember, then it can be really hard to understand this, but it is the basis of our faith.

Peter accepted that, he’d seen enough of Jesus, and was able to say ‘you are the messiah’.

But, and this is really important for us to hear- Peter still messed up. And Jesus didn’t just say ‘its ok, you had one moment where you got it, that’ll do fine’. No- he rebuked him, and then called him to come further along the road- further into the life of following Jesus, of discipleship.  If we’re going to be Christians, it involves change- not just once but again and again- because it involves growth- growing in the knowledge of God’s love for us, growing in love for the world, growing in compassion and in the gifts that God has given us- both the natural talents that we have and the spiritual gifts that the Spirit brings…

The difficulty of change- its painful but essential to accept that if, like the disciples, we’re going to change, we have to have come to the realisation that we are spiritually hard of hearing and short sighted… if God’s desire is to change us and ours is to remain the same, its probably not that God has a mistaken view of us or an overblown idea of our potential… This is for all of us- there’s no super holiness exam… everyone who is a Christian is called to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow Jesus.

To deny ourself is to put God first- to say that his will, his word has the final say in the decisions we make, rather than the things we see on adverts or read in papers.

To take up our cross is to recognise that those decisions will have an impact and they may cause us to suffer, to be rejected by others.

But we follow Jesus- to remember that when we do this we are following the one who has saved us and changed us and has promised to be with us and offers us life eternal.

This life of following Jesus starts with us, just us, and him. Just the same as it was in the beginning. A few people working out what it means to follow Jesus and committing to that path, encouraging and helping one another- that’s all we mean when we talk of mentoring…

And the single most important thing we need, the greatest thing we have, the thing we see Jesus and the early church doing throughout the New Testament, is prayer. That’s why we pray so much when we’re gathered together in worship- because it is important. But we don’t just pray using the words of our learned prayers. Sometimes we pray in silence, and our thoughts and the prayers of our hearts are guided by and inspired by the world around us- that’s what we’ll be doing this evening, if you can join us. Sometimes we pray out loud in our own words- not because they’re any better, but because they are from our own heart. Sometimes we pray with others to be encouraged and held accountable (that’s Thursday morning each week here in the church) and sometimes we pray our prayers in solitude- whether it’s the Lord’s Prayer at noon or the daily office of Morning or Evening Prayer. Sometimes it’s a putting aside a chunk of time- going to the House of Prayer this week or during our prayer days, sometimes it’s a fleeting prayer, fired like an arrow… We don’t always get the answer we want to those prayers- God hears and responds, but doesn’t obedient to us… we’re obedient to him in our prayers and our lives.

But its prayer, however we do it, that will help us to stand, like Peter and say ‘you are the Christ’, to give up what we have for the what we will receive…

People may wonder how we Christians know that prayer works… and one answer I’ve heard is that if prayer doesn’t work, then there is nothing to lose by trying it… try praying consistently about something that is of importance to you, every day, for a month, and honestly ask yourself at the end whether anything has happened. And whether it is in you, in others, or in the world, I believe that you will find that your prayer will be answered. You may want to pray about the question that Jesus asked- Who are you Jesus? I want to know who you are… you may want to pray about what happened next ‘Help me to have in mind the things of God’… you may be struggling with following Jesus instead of the values of the world- help me to follow you… you may have forgotten your faith and what it once meant to you, and need that reassurance and forgiveness… help me to know I’m forgiven…

God’s desire is for you to come deeper into relationship with him, for us to grow as a church both in depth and in strength, and the way that he calls us to do that is through prayer.

So let’s pray now.

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E100- what happens when we hear God…

In modern life we tend to use the word prophet with a degree of caution- outside of industry. In media and communications etc its more acceptable to speak of someone like Steve Jobs as a prophet because of their entrepeneurship and vision (anyone ever think of Richard Branson like that?- after all, he has gone from selling records out of a phone box for an office to investing in commercial spaceflight…).  Anyway, within church circles its a word that we use with great caution… because when we speak of someone as a prophet in that respect, it doesn’t just mean that they have vision and determination, but that their vision, and the reason for their commitment all stems from God- and so if we speak of them as a prophet, we ought to listen… if only we could understand…

Its much easier, and probably more honest to speak of someone or something as ‘prophetic’ ie, pointing towards God, moving towards God’s will. It allows a greater degree of frailty- I know I try to live my life in a way that is prophetic, but would be terrified by the idea that anyone thought I spoke as a prophet.

(as an aside- behind all of this lies a deep uncertainty about what it means to be a prophet, or what prophecy and all those other words mean.  At the bottom line, a prophet of God is a person who speaks and shows others what God is saying, and if you look through the Bible and at the lives of other people in history who could have that label attached to them, its usually uncomfortable listening, because its calling people back to something they’ve left, or challenging them to stop a way of living that is wrong for those who call themselves the people of God- mind, a prophet speaks more often to the people of God (Jews or Christians depending on your Testament) than to others… just as in the same way its important not to offer a judgement on someone’s life if they don’t yet believe that God exists or is interested in them…)

Back to the point- its about listening. Prophets listened to God, and heard from God- in that order. If we’re wondering why God doesn’t speak to people we know, its probably more to do with whether those people are listening than whether God is speaking… There’s also something about how we expect to hear from God. The Bible contains examples of people hearing from God through Scripture, through things they saw in the world around them, through dreams, through strange meetings, pictures, an audible voice, even through the words of other people.  So God can communicate in all sorts of ways.  Today of course, those things still work and are still possible, along with a whole bunch of other things.  Wondering what to pray for? Watch the news. Wondering who needs your support? take a quick look at who’s posting what on Facebook. Or what if God was to use modern technology to speak to us?  Here, taken from my friend Brian Patterson’s great blog here, is one way that God might communicate with us today… and see also the link to a Twitter Bible at the bottom.

Here in text shorthand are the 10 commandments as they may appear on modern Moses’ mobile or cellphone.
BY JAMIE QUATRO

1. no1 b4 me. srsly.

2. dnt wrshp pix/idols

3. no omg’s

4. no wrk on w/end (sat 4 now; sun l8r)

5. pos ok – ur m&d r cool

6. dnt kill ppl

7. :-X only w/ m8

8. dnt steal

9. dnt lie re: bf

10. dnt ogle ur bf’s m8. or ox. or dnkey. myob.

M, pls rite on tabs & giv 2 ppl.

ttyl, JHWH.

ps. wwjd?

http://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/god-texts-the-ten-commandments

AND meanwhile Blogger Jana Riess has the whole Bible on Twitter. Check The Twible.

http://www.religionnews.com/2013/11/13/can-god-take-tweet-twible-delivers-holy-writ-twitter-wit/

I guess the point is, don’t rule out anything, and be prepared to hear God’s voice in everything…. I watched Karate Kid the other night (the recent one with Jackie Chan), and the line ‘Kung Fu is everywhere’ stayed with me… Jackie Chan uses everything around him in a way that is unmatchable, and its beautiful to watch… that’s what faith should be like.

where have I been? where am I going? Like Abraham, I’m not quite sure but I know who I’m with

so it’s been a while since I posted, and a few things have been going on… in the last few weeks we’ve made some stellar progress on whether I’m going to have an ongoing job, the building work has started and been completed (we have a new floor and we’re back in- wahey!!), and I’ve also had a number of things crop up- some good (a great time teaching on eco-theology and climate change, yes, the notes will appear here one day) and some not so good.

Anyway, we’ve begun to think about how we might, in our lives, come to a deeper place of trust and faith, and what it might look like to make the step of trusting God a bit more… yesterday I spoke from a passage in Paul’s letter to the Roman church, and here’s what I said:

I’ve had two sermons in my head this week- the first is an exposition of why Paul’s writing seems to flit between these two style, looking at why Paul at one moment harks back to the deep roots of the Jewish faith, and in the next seems to be writing for those who have none of this… looking particularly at how these things show up in the passage we’ve had read for us today as he writes about faith and justification (being made right).  The second is to look simply at what Paul is writing about, and to consider how we can know it for ourselves. Its not that I don’t consider it important to understand that the Roman church was a mix of Christians from Jewish and Gentile backgrounds, nor that I don’t think its interesting to think about the comparisons between claiming Abraham as a direct forefather and the things Paul writes about how all Christians can claiming him as a spiritual father. I just think that the main thing here, the main thing for us, is to be able to do what Abraham did, what Christians through history and today have done: to trust God in our lives.

God made a promise to Abraham. A promise. Jesus made a promise to his friends and followers. A promise. Promises are based on trust, which comes from relationship.

When someone puts a blindfold over your eyes and says ‘trust me’- there’s all sorts of things going on- what do I know about this person, our previous contact- their ability to give instructions etc, as well as the stuff that’s to do with you- am I basically a trusting person or is that something I’m hesitant about… but it has a lot to do with your relationship with the person who says trust me…

SO what does it mean to trust God? And how do we do it more?

On one level, to trust God in our lives is simple: when I become a Christian, when I move from being someone who has some knowledge of God to being someone who knows God- whether as a child or an adult, whether I can pinpoint the date or just know that it happened at some time in my life; when I do that, I am trusting my life to God- I’m saying that God is my God, that I want to live his way, I want to call him my Lord.  The next stage is very important, and one that we can easily miss out. It’s the action that defines whether we are believers or disciples- it’s the one that defined Abraham- God asked Abraham to go, Jesus asked his followers to come… its simply that we allow our trust in God to shape our actions.  It doesn’t have to all happen at once- it can take many years to realise that we’re still waiting to make that decision to actually follow God, and there’s no shame in that- it no one’s ever told you, how could you know?

Beyond that first level, trusting God in our lives is something that we do on a day by day basis, in the things that we face- do I trust that God’s way of life will be the best way to live in this situation, or do I trust in my own ideas? If we’re thinking that the Bible doesn’t contain much help when it comes to accountancy or IT, or planning care packages for a relative etc… it doesn’t specifically, but it does contain all we need to know about getting through our day. So we learn to trust God, to know what God says- by reading and absorbing our Bible, whether on our own, in small groups.

What about our relationship with God- I said that’s key to trust… Well our relationship with God, is based partly on Scripture- what we can read, and what we know God has said; but its also based heavily in our own prayer life.  Two questions- both rhetorical, so there’s no need to raise your hand or worry that I’m going to ask for answers… firstly, have you ever prayed? The statistics suggest that almost everyone in the world has at some stage, even those who claim to have no faith. Prayer being simply that expression of emotions that goes out from us, when we’re not speaking to another person, when our heart cries out at something terrible on the news or soars at the sight of a sunrise. Secondly, have you got prayer completely sorted? When I talk with folk about prayer things like distraction, uncertainty of what to pray about, what words to use… these things seem universal to everyone.  So- most people pray or have at some point prayed, and no one I know of claims to have prayer sorted… sounds a bit like every other relationship: we all have them, and none are perfect.

As with every relationship, it has to start at the beginning- thanksgiving, baptism, coming to church, the first prayer in the still of the night, prayers with our parents… these are all possible start places, but that’s all they are. As we mature in our faith, so our prayer matures- that might mean we pray freely, or that we dig deeper into the riches of the prayers written over the years, it might mean that we pray in tongues or can hold silence and stillness.  But it will most often only do so with the help of others- we learn to pray as we experience prayer with other people… sometimes it might feel a bit formal or false to get help in learning to pray, but no more so than in learning to speak, the difference being that few of us now remember learning to speak our native tongue.

What would it mean, what would it be like if prayer was as natural and easy for us as speaking to each other in English? If we were to become fluent in prayer?

Maybe, maybe it would help us to know how close God is to us all the time, maybe it would help us to include God in everything we do, maybe it would help us to trust God in our lives every day.

 

I’m conscious that if this stuff comes out wrong, it feels like a burden, a pressure, and a cause of guilt for already busy people… but that’s not how its meant to sound, or how a relationship with God should work… so I hope you can read this with that in mind.

 

 

Stuff i said last night…

Yesterday, after attending a funeral in the morning and spending the afternoon with 60 12yrs olds who wanted to know ‘what is worship anyway?’, I managed to make it to one of our Alpha Course sessions. I’ve missed the last few due to the birth of our son, Samuel (did I mention him yet?), but was back and giving the after dinner talk last night. Its largely based on the Alpha talks written by Nicky Gumbel of Holy Trinity Brompton church in London, with tweaks, omissions and personal bits added in.  As always, my script and what I actually said don’t completely match up, but here it is for your perusal, edification etc…

Before I was a Christian I used to be rather confused by Christians – I didn’t really see the point of faith. And they might try to tell me about it, kind of convert me. And I felt — you know, I thought God and church and Christianity were irrelevant, but I didn’t go to church trying to persuade other people not to go. I couldn’t see why they did it.

Sometimes people say, ‘Surely the best kind of Christian is the kind of person who is a Christian but doesn’t talk about their faith. Surely it’s a kind of private matter?’ And sometimes they refer to some relation of theirs, sort of ‘Uncle Norman’, who is this wonderful Christian but never talks about his faith. And the question I always want to ask is: Well, how did Uncle Norman hear about it? Someone must have told him. And if the early Christians had not told people about their faith, none of us would know.

So why should we tell people? First of all, because Jesus told us to. Jesus died for us, he rose again from the dead, and then he said, ‘Now go and tell people about this amazing news that you can be forgiven, you can be set free. You can have eternal life.’ And really he had no other plans except to use us to tell other people.

The word ‘Go’ appears 1,514 times in the Bible — I didn’t count that, but somebody did! In the New Testament it’s 233 times, in Matthew’s Gospel 54 times. Jesus says, `Go and tell … Go and invite … Go and make disciples.’

The second reason is because of our love for others. As we look around, we see people who are struggling to find meaning, purpose in their lives, struggling with guilt, struggling with fear of death, and so on. It’s rather like, I guess, if you’re in a desert and you came across water, it would be selfish to say, ‘Oh, it’s wonderful to find water!’ but not want to tell other people about it.

And I think a recognition of the fact that there’s a kind of spiritual hunger out there sometimes comes from surprising sources.

Sinéad O’Connor (irish singer, no hair) said this: ‘As a race we feel empty because our spirituality has been wiped out and we don’t know how to express ourselves. And as a result we’re encouraged to fill that gap with alcohol, drugs, sex or money. People out there,’ she adds, ‘are screaming for the truth.’

Third reason to tell people is because good news travels fast. We can’t keep it to ourselves; we don’t want to. And the word `gospel’ actually means good news.

You may or may not be aware that 3wks ago my wife Carolyn gave birth to our son Samuel. He’s our 3rd child and we’ve just about got it sorted when it comes to telling folks about it: phone calls to parents with strict instructions about who they can’t tell, followed by email and facebook announcements. But the thing is, you just can’t stop people sharing good news- when we were still in the hospital we had a visitor who worked in the labour unit, as soon as my mum got the news she started phoning her friends and put together a birth announcement card to send to relatives that don’t do the email thing…we didn’t have to ask her to do that, in fact it would have been near impossible to stop her. And it didn’t stop there- you get people who live down your street, or who’s kids are at school with yours, and they’re all asking how things are and congratulating you… and sometimes you don’t even know their name…

People want to share good news.

So how do we go about it? In my experience, certainly in my own life, there’ve been two sort of equal and opposite dangers. I think I’ve swung in my life between insensitivity and fear. When I first became a Christian, it was definitely insensitivity that predominated — I just wanted to tell everybody!

When I was at uni I had a few friends who were Christians, but a lot who weren’t, and I wanted them to come along to church, to understand the Christian faith- to become Christians. And at various times I invited them, I tried to explain, I shared my faith… one of the worst was probably when I and a friend had sat up most of the night playing backgammon (as you do when you’re a student… it seemed the right thing to do), and it was near the end of the academic year… and for some reason I felt a real urgency: I’ve got to tell them, and not mess around, pull no punches… and the whole problem was that I think I felt it was a fight that I had to win, and so my whole attitude was combative… I don’t think I listened an awful lot.

On the flip side, I would be so worried about being laughed at, or not having the right answer to someone’s questions, that I wouldn’t even be willing to have the conversation in case I… lost the argument?

And this swinging from insensitivity to fear can leave us in a place where we are paralysed- doomed if we do and doomed if we don’t.

The thing is, Jesus didn’t tell his followers to share the Gospel only when it would be well received. Or to avoid difficult conversations. He didn’t guarantee the kind of reception that the good news would receive. When we’ve something exciting to share, we don’t worry about those things. We are sensitive to the people and timing, but the importance of the news is paramount.

And much of my life it’s been like that. You know, I’ve swung from insensitivity to fear. And then I’ve heard a talk: `Go and make disciples!’ and I’ve gone back to insensitivity. And then I get hurt and I go back to fear. And all the way along I’ve been thinking: `What’s the right way to do this?’

And I think in essence it boils down to one word, and that is love. That’s why we tell people, and that’s how we tell people.

PRESENCE…

I find it helpful to think of this subject under really five headings, all beginning with the letter ‘P’, to make it slightly easier to remember. And the first one is Presence. Look at this verse: Matthew, chapter 5, verses 13–16?

Jesus said this (verse 13):

‘You are the salt of the earth.’

Verse 14:

‘You are the light of the world.’

Verse 16: ‘… let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.’

Jesus says to this group of people, he says, `Look,’ — just as he would say to us tonight — he says, ‘Look, you can make a difference to the whole world.’ ‘You are the salt of the earth’; `you’re the light of the whole world.’ What he’s saying is we can have a wide-ranging influence.

And we do that not by withdrawal. He says it’s no good if you cover a light. We do it by involvement. You have to be out there. You have to be out there in your jobs. You’re on the front line. Those of us involved in kind of full-time Christian work are, hopefully, supporting you. But you’re the ministers! You’re the people who are bringing the light of Jesus Christ to the world around, to your families, to your neighbourhood.

So we need to be in the world, but we need to be different. Jesus says, ‘You’re salt.’ Now, salt in the ancient world was used instead of refrigeration to stop things going bad. And he says, `You’re the people who need to stop the society around you going bad. And you’re light — you’re the ones who allow the light of Christ to shine through you.’ We do it’, he says, ‘by your good deeds’ — everything that we do and say as Christians. And it’s summarised in, I suppose, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ It’s living out the Christian life, particularly with those in close proximity to us — our family, our work colleagues, people maybe we share a flat with. It’s really enough that they know that we’re Christians. We can’t constantly be sort of forcing it down their throats. But if they know that we are Christians, they watch our lives. And we’re called to be different — and to show it through our love — our love for our enemies, little acts of kindness, honesty, integrity.

This is hard. You know, it’s really hard to live the kind of life that Jesus calls us to live. But this is what we’re called to: we’re called to a different love. That’s what we’re striving for.

With our family. When I first became a Christian, I thought I need to convert my parents. And I realised that was so counterproductive. Because you know, if you say to your parents, as I’d said, `I’ve become a Christian,’ what that is, is an implied criticism of their upbringing, the way that they brought you up. And I wish somebody had told me earlier that it would have been better to say something along the lines of: `You know, I’m beginning to find there’s a bit more to the Christian faith than I first thought,’ and then to live it out.

The same with a husband and wife relationship. In fact, St Peter gives very clear guidance — don’t look it up, but in 1 Peter 3, verse 1 he says:

‘If any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behaviour of their wives when they see the purity and reverence of your lives.’

And so often I’ve noticed on Alpha people say, when we say, ‘How do you come to be here?’ they say, ‘Well, I noticed a change in my wife … I noticed a change in my husband … I noticed a change in my son … in my daughter … in my parent … in my friend … at work.’ They see the difference.

It involves, of course, more than just our family and our immediate friends; it involves the needs of the people around us. Relieving human need — hunger, homelessness, poverty. I’m just so impressed by, well, many of you and all the young people in our church when I see the kind of things that they get involved in.

And then social justice — the removal of injustice, inhumanity, gross inequality in our society.

William Wilberforce. He was aged 27, which is actually the median age, it’s kind of the average age of people who come on Alpha here at this church:

He was aged 27 when he sensed God’s call to fight against the inhuman, degrading slave trade. Ten million slaves left Africa for the plantations in the year 1787, and in that year he put down a motion in the House of Commons about the slave trade. It was not a popular cause, but he said this:

‘So enormous, so dreadful did its wickedness appear that my own mind was completely made up for abolition. Let the consequences be what they would; I from that time determined I would never rest until I had effected its abolition.’

Bills were debated in 1789, 1791, 1792, 1794, 1796, 1798, 1799 — they all failed. In 1831 he sent a message to the Anti-Slavery Society in which he said: ‘Our motto must be perseverance, and ultimately I trust the Almighty will crown our efforts with success.’

He did. In July 1833 the Abolition of Slavery Bill was passed in both Houses of Parliament. Three days later Wilberforce died. He was buried in Westminster Abbey in national recognition of his 45 years of persevering struggle on behalf of African slaves.

But what about today? There are massive needs, injustices, out there. What about the fact that 800 million people live on less than a dollar a day and go to bed hungry every night — if we were to fast on bread and water for the rest of our lives, we would still be vastly better off than them. Every three seconds poverty takes a child’s life. Today and every day until we act, 30,000 children die because of avoidable diseases, ie because they live in poverty. 8,000 die of AIDS every day in developing countries. There will be 15 million preventable deaths this year.

And that’s what I love about what Bono is doing, inspired by his Christian faith. And he was invited to speak at the Labour Party Conference in Brighton, He said this.

He said, ‘My name is Bono. I’m a rock-star — Brighton rock star. Excuse me if I appear a little nervous — I’m not used to appearing before crowds of less than 80,000 people. I heard the word “party” — obviously got the wrong idea!’ And he went on to speak of his time working in an Ethiopian orphanage. He said: `We lived for a month working at the orphanage. The locals knew me as “Dr Good Morning”. The children called me “The girl with a beard”. Don’t ask!

‘It just blew my mind; it opened my mind. On our last day at the orphanage a man handed me his baby and said, “Take him with you.” He knew in Ireland his son would live; in Ethiopia his son would die. I turned him down. In that moment I started this journey. In that moment I became the worst thing of all: a rock-star with a cause. Except this isn’t a cause — 6,500 Africans dying a day of treatable, preventable disease, dying for want of medicines you and I can get at our local chemist: that’s not a cause; that’s an emergency.’

And I think it’s easy to be overwhelmed, really, by the scale of the problems and to think, you know, ‘Can we really make a difference?’

There’s the story of a man walking along a beach… And he saw that what had happened is the tide had gone out and there were tens of thousands of starfish left stranded on the beach, dying for lack of oxygen, in the heat of the sun. And there was a young boy who was picking up the starfish one at a time, going down to the sea and just throwing them in, and going back to get another one, pick it up and going back and throwing it into the sea.

And this man went up to him and he said, ‘Look, can’t you see — there are tens of thousands of starfish out here! I don’t really think that what you’re doing is going to make any difference.’ And the young boy picked up another one, and he went down to the water’s edge and he threw it in the sea, and he said, ‘I bet it made a difference for that one!’

That’s what we can do. Nelson Mandela said this: `It’s not the kings and generals who make history, but the masses of the people.’

That’s the first ‘P’ — Presence.

Secondly, Persuasion. Would you like to turn to Acts, chapter 17, verses 2–4?

‘As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. “This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ,” he said.’

‘Some of the Jews were persuaded …’

There’s a big difference, I think, between pressure and persuasion. Pressure is not a good idea. I don’t know how you respond to pressure, but most of us run a mile if anyone tries to pressurise us to do anything. And the effect of pressure is the opposite effect of persuasion: pressure is very unpersuasive. But Paul says he tries to persuade people. And he does it by reasoning, by explaining.

Because the Christian faith is not a blind leap of faith; it’s a reasonable step of faith. There are good reasons to believe. And that’s why I would encourage you to look into those reasons quite carefully, so that if somebody says to you, ‘Well, what is the evidence for the resurrection?’ you’re able to say, `Well, actually there’s quite a lot,’ and that you’ve thought about it. If somebody says to you, `Well, how can you believe when there’s so much suffering in the world?’ — of course we don’t have neat answers to these, but there’s something that we can say.

Again, don’t bother to turn to it because we haven’t got time, but in 1 Peter 3:15 Peter writes this:

‘Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have, but do this with gentleness and respect.’

Those are two key things. I have never met anybody who became a Christian as a result of an argument. I’ve never met anybody who said, ‘I met this Christian and we had this violent disagreement, and at the end of it I said, “Oh, I see! I’m so sorry, I was completely wrong and you’re completely right! I’d better become like you!”’ It doesn’t work like that. He says, don’t do it like that; do it with gentleness and respect.

And I think respect means we listen to people. We say, ‘Well, you know, what do you think? What do you believe?’ That’s why we try to do that — I know sometimes people find it a bit frustrating in the early weeks of Alpha that the leaders and helpers don’t say more. But we’re trying to respect the fact that the guests who come on Alpha, those of you who are guests here, we want to hear what you say. We are genuinely interested. It’s so fascinating to hear it. And we want to respect what people believe, and listen to it.

And I think respect also means being honest. That’s why it’s okay to say, `I don’t know. I’m sorry, I don’t know the answer to that question. But I’ll go away and find out.’

I think we need a little bit of a multi-layered approach, because certainly in my case I had intellectual objections and I believed they were genuine intellectual objections, to the Christian faith. But at the same time, I think, there were other things going on at the same time.

I think, for example, I was beginning to realise the implications that becoming a Christian might have for my lifestyle. And possibly, although the reasons that I was giving to people were the intellectual reasons, deep down for me it was a moral question as well. How will this affect the whole of my life? Am I ready for that?

When they first realised that the Titanic was sinking, they rushed around trying to persuade people to get into the lifeboats, but a lot of people didn’t believe them and wouldn’t get in. Some of those early lifeboats went away half-empty. But they were trying to persuade them out of love.

And I think that trying to persuade people, again, is an act of love.

The third P is Proclamation. It’s communicating the message — at the heart of Christianity it’s all about Jesus. And I suppose that’s what we’re trying to do on Alpha, is to focus on the person of Jesus and try to communicate that message. And there are many ways that we can do this, but one of the simplest ways is simply to say to people, ‘Come and see!’ Would you like to turn to John, chapter 1, verse 35?

‘The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!”’

‘When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. Turning round, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?”’

‘They said, “Rabbi” (which means Teacher), “where are you staying?”’

‘“Come,” he replied, “and you will see.” So they went and saw where he was staying, and spent that day with him. It was about the tenth hour.’

‘Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of the two who heard what John had said and who’d followed Jesus. The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We’ve found the Messiah” (that is, the Christ). And he brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You’re Simon son of John. You’ll be called Cephas”’ (which is translated Peter).

‘The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.” Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We’ve found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote — Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked. “Come and see.”’

It’s so natural, isn’t it, to say, `Come and see!’ That’s what Celebrations, guest services, Christmas services etc are an opportunity to do: to say to friends who’ve maybe been interested in what you’ve been doing, `Come and see!’

There’s no greater privilege than bringing a friend or a member of the family to know Christ.

The great Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, who wrote a commentary on John’s Gospel, he wrote that the words ‘he brought Simon to Jesus’ were ‘the greatest service that one person can render another.’

And it’s something that we can all do. Andrew — we don’t really read very much about Andrew except that all the time he was bringing people to Jesus.

Peter became one of the greatest influences in human history. Countless millions of people — lives have been affected by the apostle Peter.

And we can’t all do what Peter did, but we can all do what Andrew did — he brought his brother to Jesus.

I heard about a man called Albert McMakin. He was 24 years of age, he was a farmer, he’d just become a Christian and he was really excited. So he heard that there was this event going on where someone was speaking about Jesus, and he decided he would invite all his friends.

And he’d got this old van, and there was one guy he really wanted to come. He was a farmer’s son, and he really wasn’t interested. This guy had lots of girlfriends, he was a very good-looking guy. And he thought, ‘How am I going to get him?’ So eventually he said to him, ‘Look, would you drive the van?’ And the guy said, `Okay, well, I’ll drive the van. I’m not particularly keen to come in, but I’ll drive the van.’

And he came along and drove the van, and just was interested in what was going on, so he popped in at the back, and he was spellbound. And he went back night after night after night. And on the last night the speaker said, ‘Look, if you want to give your life to Jesus, come to the front.’ And this farmer’s son got up and went to the front.

Since that day, that person has spoken to 210 million people in person about the Christian faith. He’s been the friend and confidant of nine American Presidents. And he’s spoken — not live, but through television and so on — to half the world’s population. His name, of course, is Billy Graham. We can’t all be Billy Grahams, but we can all be Albert McMakins! We can all be the one who says, `Come and see’ and brings our friends to Christ.

The second thing that we can do is tell our own story. That’s what Paul — if you read the book of Acts, Paul’s constantly telling people his own story. He’d say, ‘Look, this is what I was like. I was persecuting the church. This is what happened, and this is the difference Jesus has made.’ And when friends ask, you can tell your story. And really there’s no answer to your story. They can argue about the evidence for the resurrection or the contradictions in the Bible or suffering or etc etc, but they can’t argue with your story.

When Jesus healed the blind man, there were a lot of people who came and questioned him. The Pharisees came and questioned him about it, and they were cross-examining him and trying to trap him, and he said, `Look, I don’t know the answers to all your questions. But I’ll tell you this: once I was blind and now I can see.’ There’s no answer to that.

And then we may have an opportunity to actually explain, ourselves, and to bring someone ourselves to Christ. Its something that never fails to excite me and fill me with utter joy. Just sitting, talking with someone, and hearing them say that they’d like to become a Christian. Praying a simple prayer- of repentance, thanking Jesus for dying for us, and asking Jesus to come into their life through the Spirit.  I love sharing things with people- teaching folk to climb, or surf, or read… but none of them come even close to the joy and the privilege that it is to see the difference that Jesus makes in the life of those we know.

The fourth P is Power. In 1 Thessalonians, chapter 1, verse 5 St Paul writes this:

‘ … our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction.’

This is not just an intellectual exercise — you don’t sort of persuade people just intellectually. Of course, there are reasons and it’s important to give reasons; but what Paul is saying here is not just about words — it’s about the activity of the Holy Spirit.

For me, I look back to certainly particularly the first experience of the Holy Spirit.

That the love of God — that’s what Paul says in Romans 5, verse 5 — ‘the love of God is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.’ Again, love is at the heart of it. But when we experience God’s love deep down, that’s what the Holy Spirit comes to do.

And the Holy Spirit also comes with activity: with conviction of sin, with deep conviction, but also with activity — with healing, for example. That’s what we’re going to look at next week.

The fifth P is Prayer. Prayer for others. Paul loved people, and out of that love came a desire to pray for them. In Romans 10, verse 1 he says: ‘My heart’s desire and prayer to God is that they may be saved.’ And so often when someone comes to faith, their faith comes alive, we find that somebody’s been praying.

A good friend of mine, Steve, used to go along to church with his parents as a child, but as he grew older he found that attending church clashed with football training and matches. And Steve was a good footballer.  When he was a teenager he decided to commit to football and stopped going to church. One Sunday when he was playing in a match, a fair while after he’d stopped coming to church, he blacked out when heading the ball, crumpled to the floor and was in a coma for several days. When he recovered, he discovered that his parents church, the one he’d walked away from, had been praying for him throughout his coma. The people he’d rejected had been praying for him- not just that he’d recover, but that he’d also come to know God’s love… and he became a Christian soon after that.

I don’t know how it works, but there seems to be something that prayer is very effective.

And maybe that’s one of the things that in the small groups you could begin, maybe even tonight, to start to pray together. It’s so powerful.

We pray for others, but we also pray for ourselves. Because when you start this, some people, hopefully, will be interested and when you say, ‘Come and see!’ they say, ‘Oh, I’d love to.’ But not everybody responds positively. Sometimes — and you may already have experienced this — you’ve told a friend what you’re doing, and they make some … Maybe they mock it a bit or ridicule it or they’re not quite as enthusiastic as you hoped they would be. But this is quite normal.

Would you like to turn Acts, chapter 4, verses 29–31?

This was an occasion where the apostles had been involved in healing somebody and it had provoked a very negative reaction! They’d been threatened, and — verse 29 — this is their response:

‘Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.’

‘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.’

My encouragement to you would be: if you get a negative reaction from time to time, which will probably take place, don’t give up. Don’t stop. Keep going. Because it will have such an impact if you do.

I heard about a man, it was during the war: he was dying in the trenches. And his friend, who was by him in the trenches, turned to him and he said, ‘Is there anything I can do for you?’ And this guy said, ‘No, I’m dying. There’s nothing you can do.’ ‘Well,’ he said, `is there anything I could do when I get home, any message I could take?’ And this man said, `Yes. I’d like you to take a message to this man at this address and tell him that what he taught me as a child is helping me to die now.’

So this man went back and he went round to this man at that address, and he told him the story. And the guy said, `God forgive me.’ He said, `I taught that man in Sunday school, children’s church, but I gave up teaching there years ago because I thought that what I was doing was having no effect.’

But Paul says the gospel, the good news about Jesus, is the power of God, is the power of God to change lives.

‘If bringing a friend to meet Jesus, maybe bringing them along to Alpha or church is the only thing I ever did in my life, my life would have been worthwhile.’

today i’ll be mostly sharing

This evening I’m giving a talk asking the question ‘how can we have faith?’. It’ll be mostly derived from the work of a British writer and minister names Nicky Gumbel and it forms part of the Alpha Course. The Alpha Course has been used worldwide to help people discuss that kind of question, and the idea is that when a local church uses the course, the talks remain largely the same. I sometimes find it hard to just use another person’s words and ideas, but they’re good ones, so i can cope…

I’ve also just come across, thanks to a good friend who pays attention to these things, a great video that the Archbishop of Canterbury has just posted on youtube (yup, thats just how he rolls, and if you want to follow him on Twitter, he’s there too…). The video is about baptism and the beginnings of faith, and is really worth watching. You can find it here.

That’ll do for today… maybe tomorrow my significant thought will be my own. Or maybe I’ll be sharing again..

Day 90- Reheating a lukewarm life

Some things are good when they’re lukewarm, like…um… bread? But thats only because its not meant to be hot in the first place. Things that are meant to be hot, like cooked dinner, or a cup of tea, are vile when they’re tepid (such a great word). And things that are meant to be cold, like salad or ice cream, just need to be cold.

Nice cup of Tea
Nice cup of Tea (Photo credit: DerekL)

Most of the time lukewarm and tepid are not the ideal temperatures- they’re an indicator that things aren’t going too well. When I sit down for dinner and its tepid, its because I didn’t get to the table quick enough, or I’ve wasted time trying to persuade a 3yr old that the meal table is no place for a furry rabbit (she’s right, of course bunny wants to be with us, how could I miss that?).

This morning I was reading Revelation chapter 3, which talks about the church in Laodicea. When Christians discuss their churches, one in-joke that sometimes comes up is ‘who is the Laodicea in the room?’, because over the years that name has become synonymous with a lukewarm faith, and the challenging words that Jesus spoke over them- I’ll spit you out because you’re neither hot nor cold. Ouch. Not what you want to hear.

I think the reason that these strong things are said is that the church is still claiming to be living for Jesus, to be faithful, but their words and their hearts are misaligned- like a plate of food that looks and smells great, but just doesn’t hit the button when you put the first mouthful in. Its lost its heat.

The church in Ephesus were challenged to rediscover their first love, and I think the challenge to these people was somewhat similar- to remember what they were meant to be like.

Sometimes when I’ve left a cuppa to get cold, I just slug it down- yeuchh, but the fluid and caffeine are still present so its got some functional purpose. Its better if I reheat it, and then drink it more slowly, enjoying it- which is how its meant to be: there’s more to it that just the motions and the functional intake of liquid to prevent dehydration.

Its the difference between survival and life- there are times when we’re just getting by, but thats not what we’re meant to be like. Life is for living. Similarly our faith is meant to be more than just motions and requirements. Its meant to be at the core of our being… we’re most fully alive when we’re in relationship with people and God, and the challenge is to seek out that intimacy, rather than be content with lukewarm life.

And if its got lukewarm, a bit tepid, then stick it in the microwave, or maybe start again, and get your life and your faith back up to piping hot.

Microwave oven
Microwave oven (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Days 49 & 50- tough times for a blogger

Its been hard for me to blog these last few days- some stuff at work, some gorgeous weather, some social stuff that I want to do… apologies if you’ve been waiting on the edge of your seat for a daily posting and they haven’t appeared.

I’ve been reading some more of the parables of Jesus- Luke 15 which is genius, and now Luke 18 too.

My thought from all of them is a short and simple one- they mean more every time I read them, and while the basic point is utterly simple, its always incredibly challenging to me.

Enough said- its forecast to be the hottest day of the year, so I’m going to the beach with my family (and no, thats not a parable…)

Day 21- trust me…I know how it works.

Today i’ve been looking at the first few verses of Genesis chapter 12- its the story of how Abram leaves his home city and takes all his possessions and family in response to a call from God.  Within those verses lies one of the great prophetic images of the Bible- that the Jewish Messiah was to continue and expand on the original call that God gave to Abram, to be a blessing to all the nations of the world.  Christians see that blessing as the expansive opening up of the gospel of Jesus: all are invited to know God as Father through him. Not simply to encounter God, or to worship God, but to have a parent-child relationship with God- thats something.

But believing in that takes faith, just as it took faith for Abram to leave his home in response to what others might have thought were voices in his head. Its easy to trust when we have faith, and its almost impossible when we don’t have faith. This is the point at which most of the discussions my siblings and i have had over the year falter: they can see I have faith, and I can see they don’t.

So how do we get faith? ‘I believe, help my unbelief’ is a great prayer from the Gospels- asking God to help us believe… saying that we want to have faith but are struggling is an important display of honesty. Its also important to start from where we are: Faith grows over time and with practice, its not something that suddenly appears fully formed in our lives. We need to be constantly nurturing faith, just as we nurture young plants or give time to building relationships (whether with clients in business or with those we love)… we know these things to be true, but for some reason we forget to nurture our relationship with God…

‘I believe, help me to remember that I believe’ might be a more appropriate prayer for today.

Day 14- late but not too late…

I know, you’ve been sitting there waiting for this… or maybe not. I certainly haven’t spent all day pondering over what to write, i’m afraid.

The passage of the Bible i’ve been looking at today comes from the first book of Kings, chapter 8- its the bit where the ark of the covenant is finally carried into the temple in Jerusalem.  In the passage it talks about how this is a sign that God will be present in this place among his people- God is here.

And then, almost 1000 yrs later, God is present in that place- not in Spirit, or in a cloud, but walking around, kicking over the tables and clearing out the tat… in the form of Jesus, God is present.

Its a long time, 1000yrs- thats going back to before the Norman Conquest of England… but God still turned up. Maybe not when people we’re expecting him, and certainly not to do what people expected, but God showed up, and did what needed to be done. He saved the world, and he saved me.

Day 10- slightly belated, but still trying

So technically this isn’t being posted on Friday, but as I haven’t gone to bed yet its not yet Saturday as far as my body is concerned… (none of which has anything to do with the subject of today’s reading or what i was going to write but is proof that its late)

Amos- one of the ‘lesser prophets’ (which either means its a short book or extremely angry- Amos is both).  Its a book about God’s anger at self-righteous societies and those who’s piety exceeds their compassion. 

Its also a book that gives the lie to ideas that ‘God isn’t keen on sin’ or ‘none of us are perfect- in God’s eyes thats ok’… it would appear that God is REALLY not keen on sin etc- particularly when it comes to folk who should know better or are claiming to have a clue about how to follow God.  Hypocrisy is a seriously bad idea (BTW- in the New Testament hypocrisy and lying are talked about in the same terms as witchcraft, and i don’t think Paul was saying that witchcraft is no worse than a little white lie).

But the thought i had as i read todays passage (Amos chapter 5) wasn’t about how God hates worship that doesn’t encompass compassion or justice for the poor, it was more about the word ‘seek’- Seeking good, seeking God as the route to life and the way to please God in how we connect with Him- its not so much the form of what we do, but the intention.

To use another set of images- its not how far we are from God that is important, its whether we’re trying to turn towards God or away from Him.

In all i do this weekend, my hope and prayer is that i can try to seek God, and through seeking Him i’ll also seek good.