Hello everyone and welcome to this week’s video.
I’m recording this from the College of Bishops meeting in Oxford. This residential meeting of all the Bishops in the Church of England happens once a year. It’s a time to be reminded that we are part of something much bigger than our experience of the Church in the diocese of Hereford. Every diocese is different and at this meeting we’ve also had visitors from the Anglican church around the world. Each is trying to be faithful to Christ in their own unique setting.
The danger of meetings like this is a detachment from the reality of church life in normal parishes around the country. Big picture conversations about strategy have to have a connection with the local church or they are of no value whatsoever. They can even be counterproductive if the ideas are received as yet another burden by already hard-pressed local congregations.
Someone once said that Jesus preached a simple gospel, St. Paul made it complicated and theologians made it incomprehensible. That is a bit harsh, but there is some truth in the observation that the church has found ingenious ways to explain away and qualify the words of Jesus that are culturally inconvenient. At it simplest, being a disciple of Jesus is to receive his forgiveness, and then seeking obediently follow his teaching day by day. Not by learning a new set of rules, which we try to obey, but in opening ourselves to the work of his spirit within us, to form us into his likeness. To be a disciple is to become more and more like the one we follow.
Most diocesan strategies, ours included, put growing discipleship at their heart. The emerging national vision is to foster a church of missionary disciples. But I know that on the ground, in the reality of Christian experience in our diocese, such language can be seen as overly demanding or even threatening. Particularly if it implies what’s going on now is defective, or that it must require a lot more work from already stretched volunteers.
But discipleship is not about a particular set of religious practices, or even church activities. Its much more about the choices we make and the heart that lies behind them in the everyday. At the end of our communion services, fortified by meeting Jesus in word and sacrament, we are commissioned to go in peace to love and serve the Lord. Or, if we are more familiar with the Book of Common Prayer, we are exhorted to shine as a light in the world to the glory of God the Father. Both convey similar ideas. Discipleship is about character before its about activity. It’s a pursuit of what Paul in his letter to the Galatians calls the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
The fact is that every interaction, however small, is an opportunity to grow in our discipleship by manifesting such fruit, thereby saying something of the love of Jesus. It may be as simple as a smile or a kind word to a harassed shop assistant. It might be an expression of gratitude to a carer. It could be stopping focussing on our own needs and showing curiosity about the life of someone else at the school gate. It might be something more serious in deciding not to pursue justice (as you might see it) against someone who has slighted you. Paul got very cross with the Corinthian church. Rather than showing forgiveness to one another they we settling disputes in court and thereby bringing the gospel into disrepute. His advice was simple, “Why not rather be cheated!” In past ministry I’ve encountered situations in church communities where an honest mistake by someone in leadership, even followed by a sincere apology, has been greeted by an almost vindictive refusal to let it go. I wonder what on earth the protagonists hoped they would achieve in this. It became toxic to community. Relentlessly pursuing our own quest to be seen as right whist grinding the other persons face in it is not an expression of Christian love, however many pious words are used in justification.
To encourage this growth, maybe we should think about raising the spiritual temperature of our post service conversations? What does your week ahead look like? What would it look like to shine like a light in the world in that context? Where have we sensed God at work in the everyday business of doing life? How can I pray for you and how could you pray for me? That wouldn’t require any more money or new activities to increase the burden on volunteers, but it might make us look at life through a different lens. It might encourage us to pray for each other more fervently? It might shift the culture a little bit in the direction of helping one another to be better disciples. More importantly, it might show something of Christ’s love to our friends and neighbours in a way that creates an audit trail to Jesus – and who knows where that might lead?
Hello everyone and welcome to this week’s video.
One of the many things I miss about parish ministry is weddings. I used to do sufficiently few to get to know the couples quite well as I prepared them for the big day. Couples usually choose from a small number of Bible readings. One is the section from Johns first letter, chapter 4, verse 18, that says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” On one occasion I attended a wedding rehearsal to discover there was a misprint in the service sheet missing off the one. Instead it said we would read Johns gospel, chapter 4: 18, which, from the story of the woman at the well, says, “the fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband.” Fortunately, we spotted the misprint before the reader got to it. That would have certainly made the wedding memorable!
The lovely reading from John reminds us that the opposite of love, is not hate, but actually fear. Love is about self-giving, not counting the cost or measuring the consequences. Fear causes us to circle the wagons; to withdraw to a circle of safety and control; to focus on self-protection rather than self-giving. These are the genuine antithesis of the love demonstrated by Christ on the cross.
On my motorbike prayer pilgrimage a few weeks ago, I was surprised how often the theme of fear came up in my conversations. Sometimes we discussed situations when the fear was manifesting itself as anger. I spoke a bit about that last week. Sometimes it was honest fear, plain and simple. There was fear of the surrounding community, particularly in places of social deprivation. There was fear of difference, particularly of our culture, which has changed so much in the last 25 years. Sadly, in some hard-working clergy and laity there was fear of being judged for their perceived failure to encourage church growth. I usually encounter these latter fears in the most conscientious, whose ministry of love and service is an exemplar of Christ. That’s not a fear with a foundation in fact.
As we look to the future, fear is the real limiting factor. Juggling church structures, or successfully encouraging greater giving, or managing our buildings more efficiently will be rather like Titanic deckchair re-arrangement if we don’t take steps to address it. Fear prevents us from going deeper in our discipleship; fear closes our mouths when we should speak confidently; confronted with need, fear closes our wallets with anxiety that we won’t have enough.
Lest you think I speak from a position of lofty courage, let me reassure you that clergy and Bishops grapple with fear as well. A few years ago, on a training course about evangelism, the morning session saw us pumped up with how important it was, its theological underpinning and encouraged us with stories of great success. The colour drained from our corporate faces at the end of the morning when we were told that part 2 was to go out on the streets of Sheffield and engage people in conversation about Jesus.
So, lets at least be honest. We all have our fears. Leaving aside arguments about whether the previous approach is culturally appropriate, most of us have had situations when we could have said something about our faith, or invited someone to an event and we bottled it. Or perhaps its just me, and you are all very courageous.
What then is the answer? 1 John 4: 18 – Perfect love casts out fear. Does this point us to the power of worship? From the beginning of the church we have known that meeting the Lord Sunday by Sunday in word and sacrament is the foundation of our discipleship. The loss of that in COVID has been tragic, and yet more tragic if people have got out of the habit. A vibrant discipleship is nourished by a regular encounter with God, not by a worship that is fitted in when there is nothing better to do. In our worship we are reassured that the ‘spiritual enthusiasm’ of the great heroes of faith is not an aberration, but the normal Christian life. They were normal, fearful people like us, who achieved great things empowered by the Spirit, the same Spirit who dwells in disciples today. We praise and recite the creed, not because God has self-esteem issues and we need to say nice things about him to make him feel better about himself, but to encourage one another. Monday to Saturday in secular culture doesn’t exactly re-enforce the idea that the world revolves around God, not around us. Our worship serves to re-calibrate us, to renew and refresh us in the Lord’s service, to see things through the eyes of faith. Our presenting reality is only surface. God’s is much deeper.
As we grow in appreciation of God’s love, we can begin to experience something of Paul’s conviction in Romans 8: 38, for I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creating, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Perfect love indeed to cast out fear.