Category Archives: Bulletin

Go with the flow.

Shimshalabim ~ ocean magic.......i've never seen anything like this. | Sea  and ocean, Ocean, Ocean waves

As a child I remember being in the sea off the Cornish coast with my father when I was caught by an undertow. For a few moments it was very frightening fortunately dad was a good swimmer and we got back to land unscathed.

An undertow is not the same thing as a rip tide. The latter can drag you out to sea and drown you. An undertow sweeps you along for a short distance and spits you out. Unless you’re a small child or a poor swimmer, an undertow won’t kill you. But when you’re surprised by a powerful one, it sure feels like it will.

The first impulse many people feel in those moments is to fight the current. That can make things worse. As counterintuitive as the advice may seem, experts recommend that you swim with the undertow until you feel it release you.

I believe that in our lives we can be caught out by an ‘undertow’. Suddenly life takes a different and unexpected turn and we are swept along to a place we don’t want to be. Our reaction is fight against it, to try and get back to the comfortable life we had. We can spend loads of energy fighting the undertow, when what we need to do is to swim with it.

Instead of denying or trying to work our way out of the circumstances we find ourselves in we need to admit candidly that these are real forces pulling us from the shore. At times like these we need to recognise the undertow will keep us in its grip as long as we fight against it. Our release, and our ability to land on a peaceful shore, can only come after we learn to swimming with it.

This may sound like popular psychology to you. And that’s fine. But strictly speaking I’m talking about one of the enduring lessons of the Bible. Christians traditionally talk about spiritual practices like self-examination and forgiveness as paths to spiritual liberation and restored wholeness.

Take for instance an episode from the Joseph story in Genesis (chapters 37-50).

Years after his brothers had sold him into Egyptian slavery, Joseph had risen to the rank of second in command under Pharaoh. A famine swept the land, and those same brothers turned up begging for food.

Joseph managed to hold it together for a while. These men had degraded him, betrayed him, and tossed aside in an unimaginably cruel way. The ‘undertow’ would have been strong for Joseph, and he initially fought against it. 

Had his spiritual ‘undertow’ merely swept him away, he would have killed or imprisoned his tormentors. Instead, he decided to swim with it.

He acknowledged his pain as his own. The text puts it this way: “Joseph could no longer control himself.” He sent his deputies and guards out of the room. “He wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it.” (Genesis 45:1, 2)

His liberation and healing came with a dual recognition. He put it this way to his brothers, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.” (Genesis 50:20)

The wounds wrought by their hate still ached within him. And yet God’s love was healing those very wounds. He faced a choice: exact revenge and tumble out of control in reaction to their hate or do the hard, honest work of reconciliation and claim the freedom of God’s healing love.

Joseph chose love. He chose freedom. In other words, he swam with the undertow.

Our present circumstances mean that the undertow of Covid19 has swept us off our feet. Do we swim against it, fighting to get back to the way things were? Or do we swim with it for a season and allow it to bring us safely to a different shore?

God bless and stay safe

Alan.

“I have longed to see you”.

For I long to see you that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you, that is that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith both yours and mine. Romans v 11/12

This is St Paul opening his letter to the Romans. The letter was written from Corinth where he was staying at the time. It is perhaps the most important letter in the New Testament and addresses many pastoral and theological questions. These questions still engage the best minds in the Church today.

Paul had never visited the Roman Church. Nevertheless he seems well informed about their affairs. They would have been a small community living in tenement blocks on what is still the unfashionable side of the River Tiber. They would have comprised gentile converts and Jewish converts and that matters in view of the contents of the letter. He says that he wishes to bring them some spiritual gift to strengthen them but as he says it he immediately qualifies himself. Mutual encouragement, mutual ministry are what he is looking forward to. He is expecting to receive as much ministry and encouragement from them as he gives. He needs them. After all they are God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints.

At the heart of the Christian faith is the idea that we are members one of another-members of Christ-grafted into his body. The Christian way is a life together-our worship is what we do together-we pray together to “our” father, when bread is broken and wine poured out it is rightly said that we break the bread-we come to the table-we lift up our hearts to the Lord. Togetherness matters. And this is what we have deprived of for months. We long to be together again just as Paul longed to meet the congregation in Rome.

Communicating remotely either in writing or by way of live streaming or whatever can never be a substitute for being together. Even the use of Zoom and other video conferencing apps cannot be a wholly sufficient substitute for face to face meetings. Nevertheless at the moment it’s probably the best we can do. Poor Paul he was criticised however he put his message across. He writes (2 Corinthians 10 verse 10) quoting his critics, “his letters are weighty and strong but his bodily presence his weak and his speech is of no account”. But some critics were unimpressed by the letters as well. (See 2 Peter 3 verse 5)

As for me I have offered my writings to the blog in the hope that they may be useful to you. Now that I have the realistic prospect of meeting some of you in person and as I am also about to go on holiday I am going to lay down my pen for a while.

Paul can supply a suitable benediction to close;

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. (2 Corinthians 13 verse 14)

Mr Wesley’s Bible

The Museum of Methodism – The Museum of Methodism & John Wesley's House

In a previous post I spoke about how as Methodists we have a particular ‘Wesleyan’ way of thinking about faith and theology. Much of that thinking stems out of the way as Methodists approach our bible, not surprisingly we do it methodicaly! 

Before I became a minister when I had a ‘proper job'(!) I would often travel with work which would mean an overnight stay in an hotel. If I ever forget to take my bible with me I wasn’t too worried as there would be a Gideons bible in the hotel room I could use. One of the good things in the Gideons version of the bible is an index which suggests bible passages that will help you in times of need, whether you are anxious, depressed, facing challenges etc. It means you don’t have to rifle through the pages trying to find a particular passage to offer help or comfort. 

The phrase “searching the scriptures” is old-fashioned, as if we are looking for buried treasure. Yet this is an accurate description for a truly Wesleyan way to read the Bible. In his preface to The Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament, one of his most important texts, John Wesley describes his purpose in having done the background research and then having written the commentary notes. The Explanatory Notes are not written for intellectuals or professional scholars. Rather, they are written “for plain, unlettered men, who understand only their mother tongue, and yet reverence and love the word of God, and have a desire to save their souls.” This comment, along with many other statements Wesley makes about the Bible, demonstrate that for Wesley, reading the Bible is for the explicit purpose of Christian transformation. We “search” the scriptures, leaving no stone unturned, expecting to encounter the living God and discover life-changing guidance in its pages.

John Wesley was sometimes mocked for his deep love of scripture. Some of his detractors called him a “Bible moth.” He called himself a “man of one book,” an interesting designation considering he read widely from many disciplines, including science and medicine. In fact the most popular book in his lifetime that he wrote was Primitive Physic, a guide to holistic medicine. When he referenced himself as a man of one book, then, what he meant was the central role the Bible played in his thought and life. In reading through his journals, sermons, and other writings, it is obvious that his life and thoughts  have been shaped by the Bible.

Even so, Wesley didn’t understand the Bible to be infallible in the way some interpreters prefer today. As a life long high, tory Anglican priest Wesley’s doctrine of scripture was guided by the Anglican Articles of Faith and the Confession and they never refer to the text of scripture as “inspired,” nor do they call the Bible “the Word of God.” It’s clear that Wesley believed the Bible was inspired by God, but it is doubtful that he should be characterised as an inerrantist in the contemporary sense of the term. The Anglican Confession states that the Bible “reveals the word of God.” Despite his deep love of scripture, Wesley never preached a sermon focusing exclusively on the Bible, nor did he write a treatise about it. For Wesley scripture was the ocean on which he sailed his boat of faith allowing the bible to permeating his thought, words, and actions.

In his preface to the Explanatory Notes upon the Old Testament, Wesley advises the following. First, the reader should set aside time morning and evening, habitually, to read a full chapter each from both the Old and New Testaments. If there is not time for two chapters, the reader should select one chapter or a portion of one chapter. The goal in this reading is for one purpose: to know and do the will of God. Because the goal is Christian formation, Wesley urges readers to keep in mind at all times the basic themes and doctrines of the Christian faith as interpretive lenses. The reader must pray for the Holy Spirit to illumine his or her mind to receive the spiritual understanding of the text, something that doesn’t happen automatically and without which the reading will be useless. While reading one should move slowly through the passage, pausing to reflect often so that the text can aid the reader in self-examination, with the scripture sometimes comforting, sometimes challenging, and sometimes convicting the reader of the need for change. Finally, one should immediately put into practice any guidance or instructions that come through this twice-daily practice of searching the scriptures.

The goal in searching the scriptures is that we increasingly bear the love and grace of God to our neighbours because God’s word has become alive in us. Sometimes when searching the scriptures we don’t seem to notice anything that speaks to us. We may not always feel anything, or find ourselves drawn to an image or idea in the text. There are times when we read the Bible and, despite our best intentions, it seems dry to us. At such times, we may rest in the love of God and simply let the experience be what it is. The important thing is to regularly pray with scripture in this way. Over time, as we habitually search the scriptures with our hearts open to God, we will be shaped by the word.

God bless and happy reading. Alan.

Something for Sunday

Matthew 16 verse 24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.

Very often these days when I think about a sermon for Sunday I look back in the file to see if I have addressed the text before. Matthew 16 verse 24 is a challenging verse and I was slightly surprised to discover that I hadn’t preached on it. But when I came to reflect on the text and its implications I wasn’t surprised anymore. Good news? Is this good news? Jesus is telling his disciples that if they are to be his followers they must go all the way. That is to say they must submit to carry the means of their own execution, to endure the mockery and scorn of the crowds and to be put to death in hideously prolonged and painful manner. That is what is meant by taking up the cross. It doesn’t bear thinking about so we don’t think about it.

How might we avoid the message of these words and similar ones in the gospel record?

One method is to pretend that Jesus never said it or if he did say it it was as a kind of rhetorical flourish. Sometimes we might say to someone; and if you fail your head will roll. Nobody seriously believes that public decapitation will be the result of a poor performance.

Another tactic of avoidance is to refer to a text like Luke 9 verse 23 where Jesus speaks of taking up one’s cross daily. Nobody can take up their cross on a daily basis. Remember what the cross means. It’s not to be compared to a minor physical handicap, a disagreeable boss or an unhappy relationship.

A similar approach is to treat the cross as a kind of metaphor for sacrificial living and loving. Jesus is teaching us to live unselfishly promising that if we do we will live more satisfying lives. No doubt that is true. Indeed I have said it myself in one form or another many times. But that’s not what is being said here.

What is being proclaimed here is a complete revolution in human affairs. The coming of Jesus marks the end of the old order-the former mode of life. Jesus calls upon his disciples then and now to embrace death to the old order in order to receive life in the new order. Through this revolutionary act the old order is judged and found wanting. This is a basic point not just in Matthew but in all the gospels. Discipleship is costly and as Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously wrote: “When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die”. For baptism, an event not usually associated with death in most people’s minds a key text is Romans 6 verse 3 where St Paul writes: “Do you know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death?” Well most people don’t know but we need to know and we need to keep the idea in the forefront of our minds.

What is the cost of not knowing? Christianity is turned into a benevolent form of do-gooding according to the precepts of the present time. It becomes what I like to call in my more cynical moments: political correctness with hymns. Such a philosophy of moral improvement, kindly sentiments and humanitarian ideals all associated of course with Christian texts and the idea of Jesus as a moral teacher pushes out the historical Christian faith with its radical demands. This has been summed up in a famous quotation, one of my favourites: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgement through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross” (full reference supplied on request)

A religion based on earnest self-improvement and effort is ultimately unsatisfying and depressing. We need to be in Charles Wesley’s words ransomed, healed restored and forgiven and then, Charles Wesley again, “we can show by deeds that our sins are forgiven”. And thus we show that we have passed from death to life and our hearts are filled with joy. Anything else is too gloomy for words.

We proclaim Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again”.  And one way in which he comes again is through our acts of love for one another. As Mother Theresa said: “Christ has no body now on earth but yours”. Nice one Tess!

If we are honest we know that Christianity has now become a counter-cultural movement. That’s nothing to be upset about; indeed we should embrace this moment with joy. What I find exasperating is the sight of Christian leaders refusing to acknowledge this and claiming for themselves all kinds of ancient privileges and establishment status. No brothers and sisters you were not called to be Chaplains to Pontius Pilate and his bodyguard.

When I was growing up all my family were Christians of one kind or another. That generation has passed and now I find myself in a tiny minority of believers. I must be careful what I say if I am not to attract comment such as: you don’t believe that do you! I have also discovered that I am a more traditional and orthodox Christian than my parents. I find myself saying quite frequently: “and that is what Christians have always believed”. Such sentiments are not always acceptable even today among thoroughly modern Methodists.

Most of us when we grow up want to embrace modernity and serve the present age with body and soul. Slowly I became disillusioned with this approach finding the present age to be a spiritual desert however much it promised by way of amusement and entertainment in “vanity fair”. For me the Christian faith came to seem more and more attractive and to offer answers at both the political and the personal level. But I still wanted to have my cake and eat it-to save my life for myself. Then I encountered texts like todays and I saw the light. Love bade me welcome. I put my doubts to one side and I followed what I now know to be the true light. Now I am quite sure, despite the cost, following Jesus is the best way.

Wrestling with God.

Man meets Milky Way | ESO

When I was a child my Grandfather lived with us for a number of weeks and I really enjoyed spending time with him, having breakfast together where he would eat most of a white loaf of bread covered with what in Yorkshire was called ‘mucky fat’ (I never took to that delicacy!), listening to the stories of his childhood (the more gruesome the better!) and Saturday afternoon meant watching World of Sport especially the wrestling, as he sat on the edge of the sofa sucking furiously on his pipe and stamping is foot at every move. This was the early 1960s, decades before the high-end productions of the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment). Live wrestling was filmed in front of a small audience at some town hall or other.

The wrestlers were more big than physically fit (think Big Daddy) and I’ve come to believe that professional wrestling is choreographed without being completely fake. It’s entertainment and yet it’s also a sport requiring strength, agility, and toughness.

By contrast, on a dark night along the banks of the Jabbok, Jacob laid it all on the line. He wrestled with God. And he wrestled with himself. (Genesis 32;22-32)

This was not a fight for biological survival. Jacob was wrestling with life’s fundamental question. What am I really living for? Who or what will be the god of my life?
 As a young man Jacob had swindled his older and perhaps dimmer, brother Esau out of his birthright. Twice.

Jacob fled his brother’s murderous rage and was working for his uncle, Laban, in another town. While he was tending Laban’s flocks, he married both the older man’s daughters and managed to swindle his uncle out of a good portion of his wealth.

Once again Jacob had to flee. This time he headed back in the direction of his old home and the brother he had cheated. The Jabbok River marked the beginning of Esau’s territory.

An advance team of Jacob’s hired hands had come back with the news that Esau was on his way to greet his brother. With 400 men in tow, it didn’t look good for Jacob!

In the person of what he assumed would be a vengeful and heavily armed brother, Jacob was coming face-to-face with himself. The mess he had made by being himself was about to serve as a mirror for his spiritual condition.

Jacob always pursued what Jacob wanted by depending upon Jacob’s wits. He was a self-centered, manipulative striver. To get what he desired, he had no qualms about lying and stealing.

Jacob did religious things. He prayed and erected altars and offered sacrifices. But God did not seem to be the god of his life. Jacob was the god of his own life.

And now, in the dark, at water’s edge, it all came crashing down. His way of living had led him to catastrophic disaster.

So Jacob wrestled. All night he grappled with a powerful stranger, refusing to submit to his more powerful opponent. As the hours wore on, he started to think that maybe he was getting the upper hand. The stranger, despite his superior strength, would have to submit to him. 

With the sun’s first rays on the horizon, the stranger said, “Let me go.” And Jacob’s heart froze. He heard in those words this truth:

You’ve lived your whole life trying to make everything bend to your will and fulfill your desires. You’ve wanted to make all things and all people submit to you. You see now where this path leads. Catastrophe. Choose another way. A better way. Let go.

In response, Jacob asked for and received a blessing. Jacob became Israel. God became the God of his life.

If you read the rest of Jacob’s story, you’ll see that this transformation was not, in fact, instantaneous. Nor was it finally completed in Jacob’s lifetime. He still manipulated others, and played favourites among his own children.

It seems likely that Jacob wrestled with God, and with himself, repeatedly in the succeeding years. And in that thought I find some comfort.

God knows that I still wrestle with myself from time to time. And God will keep wrestling with me, as long as it takes.

What are you wrestling with at the moment in your life? What is God asking you to ‘let go’? I believe this passage has profound important for the Methodist Church at this moment, it did inspire Charles Wesley to write one of his shorter hymns (only 12 verses), “Come, O thou Traveller unknown,” – Singing the Faith 461. As a church we are the River Jabbok. The Covid-19 crisis has opened up  the mistakes of the past and we are challenged into having to let go to cherished but now impractical models of church, but we seemingly can’t. We rush to reopen churches waving our risk assessment documents which tell us how, but not why. Do we need to do some more wrestling with God? 

God bless and take care,Alan.

Something for Sunday

Central to our gospel message today are two questions. Firstly; who do people think Jesus is? And secondly and much more important who do I think Jesus is? Who is Jesus Christ for me and for all of us today? Everyone whoever they are and wherever they are has to come up with some sort of answer to that one.

In the passage the disciples respond to the first question by citing figures from the past. Who is Jesus? He’s like Jeremiah or John the Baptist or he’s really just another prophet. In a similar way people to-day also try to bracket Jesus, so he’s a Zealot a political revolutionary like Che Guevera.[I have T shirt that identifies Jesus in this way] There is a bestselling book entitled “Zealot” about Jesus in the shops now which makes this argument. Alternatively he’s a great moral teacher like Ghandi perhaps or a healer or even a magician. A book entitled “Jesus the Magician” came out about forty years ago and can still be found in libraries and second hand bookshops.

But consider next Jesus’ challenge to Peter and Peter’s reply to the second question. Who do you say that I am? And Peter replies; you are the Christ the son of the living God and Jesus responds with a blessing for Peter.

The words of Jesus blessing: You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church are the title deeds of the Roman Church. Go to Rome stand in the piazza before St Peters and you will see these words carved in stone letters of great size in Latin of course on the pediment of the basilica of St Peters. Why are we here? What authority do we have? It comes from these words.

The Church it is often said is built on Peter’s faith. What does that mean?

The Church is built on Peter’s faith not on Paul’s theological insights. Christianity is not a philosophy or a system of secret knowledge it’s a response to a person – the person of Jesus. In his many and varied responses to the person of Jesus we see Peter growing from misunderstanding to insight from doubt to faith, from cowardly flight to faithful obedience. However I don’t think we should patronise Peter-although he was slower than Paul to grasp a full understanding of what Jesus was about –he grasped quickly- and having grasped it he didn’t let go easily.

Like Peter we too have to address the question as to who Jesus is for us and for our times. It can be a struggle to realise the truth about the real Jesus but it’s a great struggle.

The Church is built on Peter’s faith not on Stephen’s heroic virtues. There is a temptation for all of us in ministry to imagine that suffering or persecution somehow validates all that we do. Paul warned against this. “If I deliver my body to be burned but have not love I gain nothing”. No the Church is not built on that. It’s built on the faith that ordinary Christians like Peter have in a loving God- a faith that empowers them to love others.

Of course it’s a bit of a misstatement to say that the Church is built on Peter’s faith. The right place to put the emphasis is to say that the Churches one foundation is Jesus Christ Her lord which is given expression by the faith of the disciples of whom the first is Peter. Peter declares that Jesus is the Christ the son of the living God. Peter proves to be headstrong, vacillating, cowardly and weak by turns but in the end in human terms faith like his is a sufficient base to be the foundation for the Church.

These then are the title deeds of the Church universal.

And one might ask of any local church. What are your title deeds? What’s your foundational text or foundational story? Most churches have them. The vision, the person the combination of inspiration and perspiration that made it happen in the first place.

The other aspect of Jesus’ charge to Peter is that Jesus gives Peter authority to bind and loose-to make rules and change them-to acquit the accused and condemn the guilty. What we are talking about here is discipline-discipline in the Church a subject of great interest to the author of Matthew’s gospel.

Christianity is a way of life. It’s not just a package of religious opinions. The earliest followers of Jesus defined themselves as followers of the way. Now if Christianity is a way of life then it ought to be possible for the Church to say: this kind of behaviour is not compatible with the way and this kind of behaviour is. And these things have to be named. Sometimes the Church changes its mind. It doesn’t happen overnight but it does happen. What we are talking about here is church discipline.

This is an uncomfortable subject for us. We are subject to a double temptation. The first temptation is to ignore the subject for fear that we might upset someone. This neglect leads to bad relationships-festering hurts, injured feelings, and a sense of injustice and betrayal. The second temptation is abuse –picking on someone in a weak position –misusing power. The great difficulty is our inability to speak the truth in love because of our fear of confrontation. But a failure to speak the truth in love is quite simply a failure to love. 

There is only one simple answer to this. It could be the motto for the entire church. We must love one another of die. Loving one another is not that difficult but God’s grace is needed if loving is to be effective. Certainly we must work at it.

When I was thinking about candidating for the ministry I went on a day’s course to try and put my thinking into focus. A very wise thing was said to the course members. Being a minister is no substitute for being a Christian. I agree with that statement. I found it profoundly helpful then and I still do.

The Church is built on Peter’s faith and the care of the Church is entrusted to Peter. And who is Peter. Well it’s not just me and it certainly isn’t just Pope Francis, the Circuit Meeting or the Methodist Conference. . The truth, palatable or not, is that it is all of us together. The Church is built on the faith of all of us and we all share a duty to care for each other. You are Peter said Jesus and on this rock I will build my church. What an awesome responsibility and at the same time what a wonderful gift!

Wesleyan Thoughts

File:John Wesley. Reproduction of mezzotint by J. Faber, junior ...

Dear friends,

One of the pleasant surprises of our current situation has been the number of people engaged in theological debate. It may be a surprise to some as they would not have thought that they were doing theology but every question, comment and thought over the past weeks is doing theology.

Sadly in our western culture we have confined Theology to an academic discipline, but at its basic it is words/thoughts (logos) about God (theos). Rev Dr John Taylor once said you can have a theology about anything because it is simply asking two questions, ‘What has this got to do with God?’ and ‘What has God got to do with this?’ whatever the ‘this’ is.

This doesn’t mean that everyone does good theology. Good, faithful, specifically Christian theology doesn’t come naturally. Orthodox theology is imaginative thinking that is formed by and responsive to Scripture, the faith of the church, and the promptings of the Holy Spirit right now in our lives. There is well formed, informed theology, and then there is theology that is merely “what seems right to me” or “here is the latest idea on the internet.”

Do not attempt theology at home! Faithful Christian theology is a group activity. Our God is so wonderfully complex, dynamic, mysterious, and counter to who we expect God to be that you need help from your friends—saints, past and present—to think about the Trinity. As Wesley said, Christianity is a “social religion”—you can’t do it alone.

The good news is that you don’t have to come up with words about or words from God—theology—on your own. Wesleyan Christians are those who think about God along with the Wesleys and the church to which they gave birth. The theological revolution begun in eighteenth-century England has now spread to every corner of the globe. “Warm hearts and active hands” is a good summary of theology in the Wesleyan tradition.

You don’t have to be a Wesleyan to do faithful Christian theology, but forgive me for thinking that it really helps. John and Charles Wesley’s discoveries about God still astound and challenge us today. The worldwide renewal of the church launched by the Wesleys has exceeded their wildest dreams. Wesleyan “practical divinity” (John Wesley’s favourite description for his sort of theology) is as revolutionary and as badly needed today as ever.

Mark 10:17 says that a rich man stopped Jesus and asked a deep theological question: “What must I do to obtain eternal life?” Jesus, who appears to have had a low tolerance for prosperous types, brushed him off with, “Obey the Ten Commandments.”

“I’ve obeyed all the commandments since I was a child,” replied the man.

Then Mark says, “Jesus looked at him carefully and loved him”—the only time that Jesus is said to have loved a specific individual. Then, in one of the wildest demands Jesus ever made of anybody (because “he loved him”?) Jesus told the man, “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, then come, follow me.”

With that Mark says that the man got depressed and departed, leaving Jesus to lament, “It is very difficult to save those who have lots of stuff.”

The Wesleyan in me loves Jesus’s response to the man’s big theological question. Refusing to be drawn into an intellectual discussion about “eternal life” (which Jesus discusses only rarely), Jesus hits the man with ethics here on earth—the Ten Commandments, redistribution of wealth, moral transformation, discipleship. Here this rather smug, successful person attempts to lure Jesus into abstract, speculative theology; but Jesus, after citing scripture, forces the man to talk about obedience and action. Jesus doesn’t say to him, “think,” “ponder,” or “reflect.” Rather he speaks to him only in active verbs: “Go . . . sell . . . give . . . follow me.”

It was a wonderfully Wesleyan theological moment. The man wants a relaxed discussion; Jesus gives him practical and demanding action. Never did Jesus say, “Think about me!” He said, “Follow me!” All the man may have wanted was an open-minded exchange of vague, spiritual ideas about “eternal life.” What he got was a call to go, sell, give, and be a disciple.

When Wesley discusses this passage in his Explanatory Notes on the New Testament, he focuses on both Jesus’s love for this person and the need for loving personal response: “The love of God, without which all religion is a dead carcass.” Then Wesley exhorts, “In order to obtain this, throw away what is to you the grand hindrance of it. Give up your great idol, riches.”

I think Mark 10:21 is the only place in the Gospels where someone is called by Jesus to be a disciple and refuses. Yet for all that, it’s an explicitly Wesleyan discipleship moment. God’s love is gracious but also demanding. Wesley was suspicious of any theology that couldn’t be put into practice; warmed hearts and good intentions were no substitute for active hands. And the point of having deep conversations with Jesus about what to believe is to be better equipped to obey Jesus. Theological reflection on Jesus is in service of better following Jesus. And even Jesus’s demands upon us, his call for relinquishment and giving, are gracious testimony to his love for us. To think in this fashion is theology in the Wesleyan spirit. In his tract “The Character of a Methodist,” Wesley noted that Methodism is distinguished not by unique doctrines but by a shared commitment to theological renewal and active obedience to a living Lord. “Plain truth for plain people” Wesley called his theology—theological thinking for practical, Christian living.

What an adventure to think like a Wesleyan!

God bless and stay safe,

Alan.

Something for Sunday

Matthew 15: 10-28

Sometimes in our Bibles we have cross headings: Jesus walks on the sea last week, the five thousand fed a fortnight ago and so on. What heading might be given that would link the two parts of our gospel reading. In the first part there’s a discussion about what defiles someone and in the other Jesus encounters a foreign woman who importunes him for her daughter and earns Jesus’ praise for her great faith or perhaps for her sheer cheek. So what kind of cross-heading might we devise? Remember it’s got to unite both stories under one heading. How about this: The scandal of the gospel.

Scandal in the usage of the New Testament is something that is a difficulty-a stumbling block-an obstacle to belief or godly living. The old baptismal service used to say: Let no stumbling block be put in the way of this child. That doesn’t mean what I took it to mean when I was a child myself namely that a child can do what it likes-on the contrary it expresses the hope that the child will be well brought up and find no obstacle or difficulty in coming to faith in Jesus.  In this gospel Jesus says: “Blessed is he who is not scandalised by me”. In some modern translations this is rendered as “Blessed is he who takes no offence at me”. So in our gospel passage the Pharisees do take offence but the foreign woman does not take offence. And that’s a real surprise because Jesus calls her a dog. Well let’s not be mealy mouthed about it lets attempt a bit of paraphrase. She says; “Lord help me”. He says; “I’m not bothering with a foreign bitch like you”.

And she comes straight back at him with a disarming witty rejoinder. It’s as if she’s been on assertiveness training or attended a NHS course on how to handle difficult people. But the most important thing is that she’s not offended. The person and words of Jesus are no scandal to her.

The Pharisees are offended-scandalised by Jesus. The Pharisees have a point. Quite apart from considerations to do with e-coli covid 19 and mrsa it is good to wash ritually before meals. It reminds us as to who we are and what we are about. Besides it’s hallowed by tradition.

The disciples too are rather uncomfortable about this wholesale dismissal of a traditional religious practice. Almost offended.

But Jesus makes no concessions at all. He makes a joke, rather a dark one about blind guides. He insists that the central point is that we should live faithful and Godly lives and that questions of religious custom are secondary. No doubt the disciples continued to be somewhat sceptical. We’d be sceptical too!

Part of our trouble with all this is that we are aware that the cost of discipleship is a real cost. We’ve heard many sermons about that and no doubt we’ll hear more. Walking the way of the cross is the term that covers it all. The central symbol of the faith is the cross and the way of the cross is the way of suffering love. We all agree.

The difficulty is that the way of the cross is too easily confused with scrupulous religious observance. This is a confusion that religious professionals are always happy to indulge in.

It’s important not to misunderstand the Pharisees in these passages Easy to think of Jesus as confronting a worn out, failed religion which is about to be superseded by the gospel. Easy but dangerous. It’s unfair to the Pharisees historically and it also encourages anti-Semitic sentiments. Better by far to think of ourselves as the Pharisees and the debate as a debate within the first church. We all know from experience how often these debates are replicated in the modern church.

As for the Greek woman she is not offended. She has every reason to be offended but she is not offended. She won’t let Jesus go until he blesses her. Some have said that this is Jesus transcending the racism of his own background and that of the disciples.

In the end all I feel I want to express about this strange episode is surprise. Jesus is surprised and impressed. In Matthew he is surprised and impressed by her faith but in Mark’s version he is surprised and impressed by her wit and argumentation.

Rather than imposing an anachronistic meaning on these words let’s just be surprised, as Jesus was surprised. Perhaps the good news ought to surprise and perplex us more than it does. Be surprised. There’s a blessing in being surprised. And we are surprised. Why is Jesus so gratuitously offensive to this person? We know that the gospel with its radical demands will strike many as offensive but why is this?

Jesus says that those who are not scandalised by him are blessed just as the foreign woman was blessed. What might it mean for us to be blessed in this way? And what might it mean to be scandalised by Jesus and how do we suffer if we are.

You know there’s a great deal of the Pharisee in all of us and by us I don’t mean occasional visitors or outsiders. They are most welcome but they should be warned, they are in great danger-from the rest of us.  For we have a tendency to be offended by the radical freedom offered by Jesus, to reject the new wine and retreat into the old wineskins. To put in the place of the gospel a heavy religious superstructure devoted to the worship of a pitiless god who demands endless sacrifice. This god will really make you suffer. The good news of Jesus is that there is no such god.

We are offended by the notion that God doesn’t fit into the scheme into which we think he ought to fit. We want to make burdens for ourselves and for others because freedom is just too much for us. The real good news comes quietly, kindly and slowly. Blessed are those says Jesus who can receive this and are not offended.

Jesus does not offend the foreign woman. She is prepared to risk being offended. She’s not trapped inside a system of religious and social obligation as the Pharisees are. She’s prepared to cross a boundary, speak out of turn, risk a snub all for a great reward. How many of us would be willing to do that. The prize is a blessing and the fulfillment of faith. The cost is the likelihood of hearing a word that takes us to the limit of what we can receive without offence.

Perhaps the message here is that we should all be a little bit bolder. Respond to those hard sayings. Give God a witty answer-express our faith in questions and arguments-not worry too much about the pieties.

Kierkegaard, the Danish writer, was not afraid of giving offense-indeed he made a career of it. Once he said this. Take away from Christianity the possibility of offense – or take away from the forgiveness of sin the battle of an anguished conscience. Then lock the churches, the sooner the better or turn them into places of amusement which stand open all day long. Yes Christianity can and should give offence sometimes. Blessed are those who are not offended said Jesus.

Kierkegaard also wrote parables. Here’s one he didn’t write. A close encounter with the Kingdom of God is like a visit to the circus. We are fascinated by the clown’s performance and yet we fear that we may be selected as the object of his next trick. So as he approaches our ringside we look away.  What a lot we miss!

Blessed is he, says Jesus, who is not scandalised by me!

Something for Sunday

Allow me to share with you the last time I visited the shore of the Sea of Galilee. It was a warm day, we had a good lunch featuring fish from the same sea and thereafter people made their way to the water’s edge and waded in. Selfie sticks were drawn from back packs and then selfies were taken. “This is me in the Sea of galilee” I thought this was all rather odd at the time and somewhat contrary to the spirit of the gospel which discourages emphasis on the self. Still they were mostly Anglicans so what do you expect.

Our gospel reading today features God and the sea. Another anecdote now. In 1735 John Wesley was outward bound by sea from England to the American colonies. He wasn’t used to sea voyages. He wrote subsequently:

“At eleven at night I was waked by a great noise. I soon found that there was no danger. But the bare apprehension of it gave me a lively conviction of what manner of men those ought to be who are every moment on the brink of eternity.”

Ships were wooden in those days so it’s easy to imagine the sounds of groaning timbers and the noise of the wind amidst the sails and the rigging.

Among the other passengers were some German Moravians. Wesley was impressed by their faith and confidence and joined in their worship. Wesley had found himself on the brink of eternity, his faith had been tested and he had given way to fear. He probably remembered these verses from psalm 107:

They that go down to the sea in ships

And do business in great waters

These men see the works of the Lord;

And his wonders in the deep

They are carried up to the heaven, and down again to the deep

For at his word the stormy wind ariseth: which lifteth up the waves thereof

They are carried up to heaven and down again to the deep.

And so on.

Wonderful and often set to music.

So through the ministry of the Moravians and the witness of scripture Wesley’s faith is confirmed and strengthened. Not faith in the shipbuilders, the captain or the crew but in God.

Switching our attention now from Wesley’s ship to the boat on the lake what do we find? The wind is against them; the far shore is a long way ahead. This is a difficult and dangerous moment.

And then they see something extraordinary; Jesus himself walking on the water. This is truly an extraordinary sight and the text says that they were terrified.

Now all of us, you and I together have to answer a key question-who do we think Jesus is? Perhaps a moral teacher to be mentioned in the same breath as Socrates or Gandhi or to that famous professor, whose name I cannot remember who contributed so lucidly to Radio 4s moral maze, or of course a healer and if you remember last week’s gospel an organizer of pot luck suppers but someone who walked on water come now we are respectable godless people people don’t walk on water. It must be a ghost. So I can imagine the disciples in the boat. But we are wiser than they for we remember a few chapters back how Jesus stilled the storm eliciting the question: who is this that even the winds and waves obey him? Who indeed?

Peter, who is beginning to realise just who Jesus is leaves the boat and receiving Jesus invitation walks on the water until his faith gives way and he begins to sink. Then Jesus rescues him and they all worship Jesus. Remember only God is worthy of our worship.

So sisters and brothers what is all this to us. It’s a warning to us all to remember who Jesus is so that we don’t dismiss him from our minds with an easy verdict such as: It’s a ghost! Our calling is to bear witness to him and not to dismiss him because we are too fearful to take him seriously. Remember he commanded the disciples to leave the shore and push out into the deep.

When I was in theological college one of our tutors preached on the theme of walking on water. That’s what presbyters have to do he suggested-walk on water. What did he mean?

Clearly all Christians have to be sustained by faith, have confidence in Jesus and not succumb to doubt as Peter does in the passage. So far so straightforward but is there more to it than that.

To walk on water is clearly impossible within the normal frame of expectations and customary possibilities. But surely that’s the point. To be a Christian is to believe in a better world than this one, with different frames of expectation in which the impossible becomes possible. The shorthand word for this is the “Kingdom of God” an economy not of scarcity but of grace. I’ve been around long enough now to experience how expectations and customary ideas of what is practical and possible have changed. I have been reminded that in the end Christianity is no religion for this world but is instead revolutionary in the sense that it offers you and me a better world than this one.

As a dominant establishment Christianity fades away in our time the call of Jesus to walk on water seems ever more relevant. A this worldly creed seems ever more absurd and inadequate to meet our deepest needs. So the call that I think I heard from my tutor could be summed up like this: stop splashing about in the shallow end taking selfies and prepare to step out into the deep-and above all think differently.

Pivot Points.

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I have spent my entire ministry believing that disruption can be a good thing. Maybe that’s hard to accept in the midst of a pandemic. But when things are disrupted, something new can break in. I recently read an article about how the bush in Australia is springing back to life after the devastating fires last year. In fact there are some seeds which will not germinate until they have been through the fire.

My ministry was born out of a frustration that too often we perpetuate models of church that no longer apply to the world in which we live, excluding and leaving people behind. To me, that is the antithesis of the hope of the gospel. While we may can discuss and plan for change sadly it isn’t until a crisis that change really happens.

Often in business and in life these are called pivot points, where there is a sudden change in direction. For the ‘pivot’ to be successful there needs to be five stages.

1. Recognition
Recognition is often the hardest stage in the process. You have to see that something isn’t working.

Human nature predisposes us to retell a narrative suggesting that something is working when really it isn’t. We are afraid of admitting when things start to go wrong. To recognise that something isn’t working does not mean that nothing good has come of it — rather, that the good is fading and we are putting more and more resources into something that is declining.

I believe the pandemic and the lock down has held a mirror up to us and we have to look hard at what we see. Is our church really as wonderful and successful as we like to tell ourselves? Are we now at a ‘come-to-Jesus moment’? Does the church have to change?

We can extend this to the COVID-19 world around us as well. Can’t we recognise that there is something broken in our ecclesiology and in our economics? Can’t we see that our churches’ economic models are failing when the church looks as busy and stressed out as the business world?

It is time to recognize that we’ve been totally out of control and the way we’ve been living hasn’t been good for people or the planet.

2. Grief
 Once you recognize that things have to change, you feel loss — and with it, a deep fear because of the uncertainty of what will replace it.

Christians are a people that believe in a gospel of death and resurrection. But too often, we rush from death to resurrection and don’t acknowledge the pain and the loss. The challenge here is not to rush or move on too quickly. We need to acknowledge the loss and make space for our feelings.

With the current pandemic crisis, we’ve lost some of our sense of security. We are separated from others. Our economy is crumbling around us. And one of the hardest things is that we aren’t comfortable with grief. If we cannot acknowledge what is being lost, it is impossible to move forward in a healthy way. Grief needs a way to commemorate and memorialise.

3. Learning
 You don’t want to sit in grief forever. In this step, we start to see the things we want to take with us and the things we need to leave behind. We need to find a way to sift through the rubble and pull out the essential and meaningful parts from the past, but we also need to identify the assumptions that were problematic.

In our new COVID-19 world, we are still learning, but some lessons are becoming clear: how fragile our economic and civil systems are, as well as our models of church.

If we really have the courage to be honest, people on the margins have been telling us this all along. The church has been measuring success by the number of people in the pews and the amount of money in the offering plate — as if that reflected authentic discipleship or the existence of beloved community.

Surely, we are realizing that individualism only gets us so far. We are interconnected. The opportunity here is to ask, What, then, is our path toward mutuality and interdependence, toward mercy and justice?

4. Renewed vision
 There has been a lot of talk in recent years about “knowing your why.” Why are you here? Not just why is this building here in this place, but why are you in this community? Why are you running these groups? Why are you involved in this mission? If you cannot come up with some serious answers then you have lost your ‘why’ To what end are we working? What is our desired impact? What transformation do we want see in people, places, policies or systems? When you think through the lens of impact and purpose — the why — then you can more easily redesign the how and the what.

This is the step where hope can break back in. It’s where we can be more aware of both the opportunities and the challenges. We understand the reason we exist, and we can acknowledge our false assumptions.

I don’t know the why for the UK or the world in this time of crisis. But for Christians, surely our why takes us back to the fact that we are not meant to serve ourselves but the Lord. We are called to love God and love our neighbour as we love ourselves. Maybe that seems simplistic. But it is the answer Jesus gave when asked what is the heart of the gospel.

5. Re-imagined practice
 Once you get clearer on your why and the impact you want to have, then you can re-imagine the how. This is where new practice can be developed.

In stage five, we hit the place where it is time to be brave again. But as we start, we do it with our eyes wide open. Rather than holding on to the complexity we once cherished, this restructuring allows each church to focus on its mission and landscape and live out its prophetic imagination. It should be a new peared down more responsive church not always wondering how can we keep this group or that particular piece of work going a bit longer but where does God want us to be now, where does he want us to be in 5, 10 even 20 years time.
The world needs us to show up as a hopeful people and to be good news people. And this current crisis gives us the perfect opportunity to turn the world upside down with the gospel. 

God bless and stay safe,

Alan.