Sunday, 25 July 2010

On Prayer

Today we look at Luke 11:1-13. Jesus teaches us about prayer.

For Jesus, prayer was a central part of his life. It was at the heart of who he was and what he did.

We discover him here, praying in a certain place (Luke 11:1). He is taking time out to be with God his Father.
Time to praise God his Father.
Time to delight in being with God his Father.
Time to seek his Father’s guidance and strength.
Time to ask him for things.

That is often very different to our praying.  

[I came across this extract from the film ‘Anne of Green Gables’. Anne is an orphan and has gone to Green Gables where she has been placed with Mrs Cuthbert.

"Have you said your prayers?" Ms. Cuthbert asks Anne.
"I never say any prayers," Anne responds.
"What do you mean? Haven't you been taught to say your prayers?"
Anne replies, "Mrs. Hammond told me that God made my hair red on purpose, and I've never cared for him since."
"Well," says Anne's new guardian, "while you're under my roof you will say your prayers."
"Why, of course," Anne says, "if you want me to. How does one do it?"
"Well, you kneel beside the bed."
Anne interrupts, "That's the part I never really could understand. Why must people kneel down to pray? If I really wanted to pray, I'd go out into a great big field, all alone. I'd look up into the sky. I'd imagine it was the dome of a great cathedral. Oh, and then, I'd close my eyes and just feel the prayer. What am I to say?"
"Well," answers Marilla, "I think you're old enough to think of your own prayer. You thank God for his blessings, and then humbly ask him for the things you want."
"I'll do my best. Dear gracious heavenly Father, I thank you for everything. As for the things I especially want, they're so numerous it would take a great deal of time to mention them all. So, I'll just mention the two most important: please let me stay at Green Gables; please make me beautiful when I grow up. I remain yours respectfully, Anne Shirley—with an e. Did I do all right?"
Ms. Cuthbert replies, "Yes, if you were addressing a business letter to the catalog store. Get into bed."
Anne says, "I should have said 'amen' instead of 'yours respectfully.' Think it'll make any difference?"
"I expect God will overlook it—this time. Good night."]

·        We might say some prayers, even the Lord’s prayer, but that in itself is not prayer. They can very easily be just words.
·        We might pray when we really want something or are scared or when we are out of our depth. That is OK, but it is not necessarily Christian prayer. It is the naturally turning out of ourselves of a human being who is in a mess.
·        Or we might just take time out to stop and to be quiet, to focus on a word or an object so that we quiet down our mind and our heart. Again, that can be very useful, and in our frantic society I recommend it, but it is not actually Christian prayer.

Jesus teaches us here about prayer

Three sermons:
Vv 1-4  Knowing what to pray
Vv 5-10 Persistence in prayer
Vv 11-13 Trusting God and the gift of the Holy Spirit.  

  1. We do not know how to pray
The disciples see Jesus praying, and they ask, ‘Teach us to pray’.

Jesus is very practical.

He does not say, ‘Talk to God’, because that is the problem, we don’t know how to talk to God. He does not say, ‘Go to church’, or ‘kneel down’ or ‘put your hands together and close your eyes’, although elsewhere he does give some advice on where we should pray (‘go into your room, shut your door’). Instead here he gives them a prayer to pray. ‘When you pray, say ..’ 

I am so grateful for the Lord’s prayer: bedrock of all prayer. Especially when I am stuck and dry.

But the Lord’s prayer often brings me up with a jolt. I am struck by how different the focus of Jesus’ prayer is to my prayers. 

My talking to God is often about me - about my glory, my status and reputation, and my well being; or about the things of this world, as they affect me.

It is very different to what Jesus says:

‘Hallowed be your name’. It is a statement and a prayer. ‘Your name is honoured’ and ‘May your name be honoured, glorified’.

When Jesus is born the angels declare “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among those with whom he is well pleased”. (Luke 2:14) 
When Jesus comes into Jerusalem riding on a donkey the disciples cry “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest”.
When God is glorified there is peace on earth and in heaven.

I was struck by something that John Piper said at EMA. He was asked what sustained him spiritually. And he answered that in his church they spend about half an hour worshiping God, actually ascribing glory to God in song. We don’t have the time at this service to do that, but it is something that I would love to see develop. So that we do not simply talk about praising God – but we then get on and do it, and we do it with the gift of words that touch our minds and our hearts, and with music which touches us at the level of our heart. It is so right for us to hallow God’s name in our praises, as well as in our lives.

We were created to praise. Have you noticed that the person who praises that which is praiseworthy in others is taken out of themselves and begins to look a little like what they praise?
They are so much more alive and attractive than the person who grumbles about others.

And when we give glory to, and when we praise the one who is more glorious and more praiseworthy than any other person, the one who has given us all things, who is love and life, who can be trusted completely, who is beauty and glory, we begin to become like the one who we praise.

Prayer begins when we give glory to God

‘Your Kingdom come’
We pray for our kingdoms, for the places where we reign sovereign: whether the kingdom of our family or our business or our school or our church or our nation: God, make my church bigger. God, make my family more happy. God, make my business prosper.

Jesus urges us to pray bigger than that. He urges us to pray that God’s Kingdom will come.

Pray for the coming of the Kingdom in which God will be in the centre, and Jesus will be his King: for his rule of rightness and justice and peace and mercy; in which there will be an end to suffering and pain and death; in which we will rule and have responsibility and fulfilment.

Pray for people to welcome him and receive him as King. 

Pray that we will see glimpses of the Kingdom in the present, for Iraq and Afghanistan; for our own country – for justice and goodness and love to triumph now. For people to put God and the welfare of other people before money and things.

Pray for the Kingdom to come in the church and in our own lives: for Jesus to reign in all parts of our life, and not simply the religious bits. 

‘Give us today our daily bread’

We pray for financial security, for comfort and possessions.

Jesus invites us to pray a prayer which assumes that we are relying on God completely.

Terry Muck was  a missionary in Burma, but has since returned to working in the United States. He writes, “In Burma, if one of us got sick, the nearest hospital was ten days away. … In Burma, we'd go months without bread. Once we asked our daughter Karen to say grace before a meal, and she said, "Why do I have to pray for my daily bread when I don't ever get any?"

I have often coveted that experience for our youngest daughter who never had to wonder where her food came from. It's hard to have that sense of helplessness and humility so vital to prayer when you sit down to your daily bread and don't even think about how you got it.

I don't in any way blame people here for not knowing what God can do. We're victims of our prosperity. But I sometimes wish we had a few more hard times so people could experience firsthand how wonderful it is to be totally dependent on God.

And who are the ‘us’ in this prayer. I guess it is all who call on God as Father and Jesus as Lord. In other words, this is a prayer which takes us out beyond ourselves. The ‘us’ is me, but it is also you and the people in the churches in Kiteto, whose children have died from diseases caused by malnutrition.

‘Forgive us our sin as we forgive those who sin against us’.
We pray that other people will realise that we matter, that we are a force to be reckoned with, that they cannot mess with us. That is what revenge is about: It is us saying to another person, ‘I cannot believe that you have treated me this way, and I am going to show you that you can’t get away with that’.

I watched the Damned United on Thursday. It tells of the deep resentment that Brian Clough had for Don Revie. It all began when Clough thought that he had been snubbed by Revie. It was a resentment that became a demon and almost ended up destroying Clough.

Jesus invites us to ask God for forgiveness. It is a wise thing to do. We have chosen to snub God, and that is a very foolish thing to do, because he does matter.

But he also says that we cannot be asking for forgiveness from God, if we are not prepared to offer forgiveness to others.

Let me illustrate. Imagine that I have hurt you badly. You are gracious and willing to forgive. You come to me and say, ‘I hear you have done this, but I’m willing to forgive’. To receive your forgiveness I have to be willing to look at you and say, ‘Yes I have and I am sorry’. But equally I am in no state to receive any forgiveness if, at the same time, I am saying, ‘OK, but they did this to me, and I’m going to make them pay’.

Forgiveness is about letting go of the hurt, giving it to God, and letting him deal with the judgement bit. It is the only way that I can receive his forgiveness.

 ‘Do not lead us into temptation’.
We pray for protection from harm, from ill health, from poverty, from violence, from awful accidents.

Jesus invites us to pray for protection from temptation. Why?

Temptation invites us to deny God, to reject him and his life, and to trust in ourselves. That is sin, and sin separates us from God.

So Jesus urges us to pray first of all for protection from the temptation which is too strong for us, which will lead to sin and to separation from God.

Bad things will happen to all of us. It is part of what it means to live in a sinful fallen world. That is why we pray for God’s kingdom to come.
But – here and now – in all circumstances - with God we can face all things, even suffering and death.

I think of the Peter in the garden of Gethsemane: Jesus knows that he is about to be crucified. Jesus does not say to him, ‘Pray for me that this will not happen’ – that is between him and God. He does not say, ‘Peter, pray that we will be safe’. Instead he says to him, ‘Pray that you may not enter into temptation’ (Luke 22:40,46). What temptation? The temptation to deny Jesus and to go on denying Jesus. Because when we deny Jesus once, it is very much easier to deny him a second time, a third time – until it becomes a life habit.

Peter must have prayed something before he fell asleep, because even though he did give into the temptation to deny Jesus, Jesus came again to him and he was able to turn again back to Jesus. Indeed, if tradition is correct, Peter ended his life crucified upside down rather than deny his Lord again. 

So Jesus teaches  us to pray
·        That God’s name will be honoured
·        That  God’s Kingdom will come
·        For daily provision
·        For forgiveness
·        For protection from the temptation that makes us deny God

They are all things that he has promised to give us.

He has said his name will be glorified: ‘That the earth will be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea’ (Habbakuk 2:14)
He has said his Kingdom will (Luke 13:18-21)
He has said he will provide for our needs in life (Luke 12:31)
He has said he will forgive us (1 John 1:9)
He has said we will not be tempted beyond our strength (1 Corinthians 10:13)

So we pray with confidence.

How do I pray: begin with the Lord’s prayer. 

[There are, of course, times when we still do not know how to pray. We groan inwardly: ‘How will God be glorified in this? What does it mean for God’s kingdom to come in the present dilemma that I find myself? What do I pray in this situation for this person – that they should be healed, that the Lord will take them home, that I should get this job or stay where I am? I am desperate for God to intervene and help me out? I’ve been praying for someone for so long and they still are as closed to you as they were 10 years ago. What should I do? How should I be praying? I do feel driven beyond my limit?

Be encouraged. I think that those are the times when his Spirit steps in and prays for us in us – Romans 8:23,26 – with groans.

What is important, however, is that we go on praying.]

  1. We persist in prayer 
The story Jesus tells is of a man who knocks on the door of his neighbour in the middle of the night. Why? It is going to make him unpopular. But he needs something and he goes on knocking, because he desperately needs what he is asking for.

Jesus is not saying that God will give us what we ask for if we make a real pain of ourselves.

Instead he is asking us, just how much do you want this?
How much do you want God’s name to be honoured?
How much do you desire for his Kingdom to come: in this world, country, town, in your family, among your friends, in your own life.
How much are you prepared to look to God for your daily bread, forgiveness and ultimate protection?

Do you want this so much that you will keep on asking? Even if you embarrass yourself? Even if you become a bit of a pain?

It is easy to know how much we want something. If we really want it, we will go on asking for it. It is like the children and their birthday lists. We occasionally ask them what they would like. If what they would like stays the same for 6 months, then we know that it is something that they would like, and not just a passing fad.

Jesus urges us to ask and to go on asking. To seek and go on seeking. To knock and go on knocking.

So if you have been asking for something, and nothing has happened, there are three possible answers

1.      We are praying for the wrong thing. 

James warns us: ‘You ask and you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures’. Perhaps we need to look again at our prayer list, and maybe we need to repent. 

We need to allow Jesus’ prayer to control our prayers. 

2.      Is God trying to say something to us? 

Most of prayer, 99% of prayer, is not conversation, but me doing the talking. However there are times, (I can think of about 8 times in my life), when we become convinced that God has said something very directly to us – we read, hear, feel or think something, and it comes with particular conviction. I think of Paul praying 3 times that God will take away the thorn in his flesh. After the third occasion Paul becomes aware that God is saying to him, ‘No, my strength is made perfect in weakness’. 

At which point Paul gives thanks to God even for the thorn in his flesh. 

So maybe you are praying for a job; for a boyfriend or girlfriend; God to show you how you can best serve him; grandmother to get better; for good health – and God is trying to say something to you, and you need to listen. 

3.      And I suspect that this is the case most of the time. We are praying for something that we know is right and nothing seems to happen. Revival does not break out; our friend remains as closed to God as she always has been. The Kingdom does not come. The temptation seems to be getting stronger.

In which case Jesus says, ‘How much do you want this? Do you desire it for my sake, or do you really really desire it for my sake? 

Because if we really really want something for his sake (maybe the conversion of a child or a partner), we will ask, we will seek, we will knock, and we will go on asking, seeking, knocking (which is what the Greek actually is saying). And time is the big test of how important something is to us. How long are you prepared to pray for them?

  1. We really can trust God
Notice how this passage is bracketed by the word ‘Father’.
v2: ‘When you pray say, Father’
v13: ‘How much more will your Heavenly Father give ..’

Because of Jesus, we pray to God as our heavenly Father.

And we can trust him. Verses 11 -13 are quite hard. Jesus says: “human fathers generally give good gifts to their children, even though they are ‘evil’” But, he continues, the Father in heaven to whom you pray is good, and he will give that which is good to his children.

The Father to whom we pray loves to give (the word ‘give’ appears 9 times in this passage). He has given us life, his Son, love, ‘all things’. He would give us his Kingdom, daily bread, forgiveness, protection. 

He is good and these are good gifts. We can trust him. 

But what he wishes to give us now, more than anything else, is his Holy Spirit (Luke 11:13).

Why? Because it is the Holy Spirit who helps us to pray.
The Holy Spirit enables us to call out to God as ‘Father’
The Holy Spirit teaches us how to pray and what to pray for (Romans 8:26-27).
The Holy Spirit strengthens us to persist in prayer.

Without the Holy Spirit, all of what Jesus has taught about prayer is meaningless. We cannot pray without the Spirit.

That is why the implication of this passage is that along with the Lord’s prayer, we need one other prayer. God has given us his Son. We now need to ask God for the best gift of all: the gift of his Holy Spirit.

God our heavenly Father wants to give us the gift of himself, his very presence to come into us, to change us so that we become like him, so that we have his life within us, his love, joy, peace within us. It is the Spirit of his Son, so that we – with Jesus - through the Holy Spirit can call God our heavenly Father, so that we can know Him, so that we can become like Jesus, and so that he prays within us for us. 

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

What is evangelicalism?

Evangelicalism: A talk given to the Ipswich Sea of Faith group.

Personal introduction: brought up within an evangelical tradition.

Immensely uneasy with labels.

cf. The Puritan, Thomas Goodwin writes, “As for my part, this I say, and I say it with much integrity, I never yet took up party religion in the lump. For I have found by a long trial of such matters that there is some truth on all sides. I have found Gospel holiness where you would little think it to be, and so likewise truth. And I have learned this principle, which I hope I shall never lay down till I am swallowed up of immortality, and that is, to acknowledge every truth and every goodness wherever I find it”.

Other influences on my own Christian development: flirting with the charismatic movement; and time spent in an Orthodox seminary.

What is evangelicalism?

Not new. In fact, it has been at the heart of orthodox Christianity from the very first believers.

John Stott: “The evangelical faith is not a peculiar or esoteric version of the Christian faith – it is the Christian faith. It is not a recent innovation. The evangelical faith is original biblical, apostolic Christianity”

Trace its way right back from Christ through John, Paul, Tertullian, Augustine, Calvin, Luther

But evangelicalism, in the sort of form that we find it today, as a movement is a child of its time: 
Evangelical revival from 1730’s. Four defining attributes: ‘conversionism, activism, Biblicism and crucicentrism’.

It developed – through preaching of Wesleys and Whitefield, Newton, Simeon, Spurgeon, Moody, Moule, Forsythe, Whyte, Martin Lloyd-Jones, John Stott, Jim Packer, Don Carson, John Piper, Tom Wright.

It’s emergence and flourishing are dependent on its time and culture.

1.      in a world where, because of the enlightenment, experience has the last word, more emphasis was placed on personal responsibility for salvation. You could not assume that you were saved by virtue of being a baptised member of 18th century Britain.
2.      today many need to find some secure foundation, some certainties in an increasingly shaky relative world. However, unless you go down the route of extreme relativism (and few do), you have to stand on some principles or a-priori.


  1. Commitment to Jesus Christ, the Son of God (together with Christian church) – rooted in history (cross and resurrection of Jesus). 

    Key text: 1 Corinthians 2:2  “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

    Emphasis on following Jesus, surrendering to Jesus, WWJD, on a personal relationship with Jesus (quiet time)

    Danger of individualism (co-mission representatives in St Petersburg), of focussing on personal experiences (Missionary going to Brazil). 
    Danger of Jesus-centred spirituality. 

    However growing awareness of Trinitarian theology, and focussing on the Father
  1. Commitment to Scripture – Word of God. 
    Belief that God has spoken: in his Son and through the Bible 
    Sufficiency of scripture (2 Timothy 3:16-17

    Packer writes, “The first foundation-principle is the formal one, namely the authority of the Scriptures, or, more fully, the sufficiency for all questions of faith, life, and action of the authoritative, God-breathed, self-interpreting biblical canon, which the Holy Spirit opens our minds and enlightens our hearts to understand”

    Basic argument on scriptures: Jesus Christ believed the Old Testament scriptures to be the Word of God, and that they are authoritative (Matthew 4:18; John 10:35). He tells the apostles that the Holy Spirit will remind them of all that he has taught (John 14:26). The New Testament are the words of the apostles. They speak of them as scriptures (2 Peter 3:15-16; 2 Timothy 3:16-17). The church came to receive them as scriptures, and authorised them as scripture.

    This is not new: favourite text from Chrysostom..

    Key then is how we understand? 

    Interpretive principals:
  • We make the assumption of human authorial intent within the writings, and of a divine authorial intent and a single meaning (eschatological: final and corporate) – and that even though this side of heaven we will never fully understand, that does not mean that we should fully buy into the total scepticism of modern hermeneutics. ‘What does it mean for you?’ will not do.
  • We need to interpret scripture in the light of Jesus Christ. (John 5:39; Luke 24:27; Ethiopian eunuch, Acts 8:34, About whom, I ask, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’
  • We need to interpret scripture through the lens of the people of God.
    Acts 8:31 ‘How can I unless someone guides me?’
  • We need to interpret scripture by scripture, the Old Testament by the New Testament. Use of analogy (currently reading Philokalia, where in some passages analogies are very far pressed) – control is biblically authorised analogies
  • A hermeneutics, when it comes to scripture, of trust:
    • that all of scripture is inspired – even the difficult parts!
    • an openness to believe that astonishing things happen (up to 20 years ago, it meant evangelicals were ridiculed in academic circles. Today, with quantum mechanics, the Heisenberg uncertainty principal, there is a recognition that we live in an open universe. If you hypothesise an infinite number of multiple universes, someone walking on water in this particular one is a piece of cake)
  • If I don’t understand or find something very difficult – then bracket; or go back to passage (cf. Orthodox: if I don’t agree with prayer, then it is not the prayer that has to change, but me)

    But in the end, the final appeal – in debates about issues (uniqueness of Christ; women as bishops [complementarians, egalitarians], human sexuality, creation, hell, divine sovereignty and human responsibility, prosperity gospel, the role of the Holy Spirit, whether the gospel is about us or about God) – has to be to scripture. You cannot say – at least within an evangelical debate, ‘The New Testament says this, but we cannot accept that today’. In other words, I have to justify ignoring one passage of scripture (eg. food laws), by reference to another. [cf. Wright debates with Piper on nature of justification]

    Emphasis on prayerful reading the Bible. After 27 years of serious reading of the bible, I still find that God speaks to me in very real ways. I have a confidence in scripture as the word of God, but a major hesitation about my own interpretation. 
3.      Commitment to need for conversion:
a person must be born again. Billy Graham

For some: eg. Whitefield, “I know the place! .. whenever I go to Oxford I cannot help running to that place where Jesus Christ first revealed himself to me and gave me the new birth”. Wesley’s conversion also comes after anguished search for faith.

For others: eg. Edwards – placed no date on their conversion – emphasis on the consequence of conversion; Alexander Whyte, “The new birth that we must all every day undergo, the one all-embracing change of heart that God demands of us in His Son every day, is a complete change of end and intention, a completely new motive. The fall of man took place when God ceased to be man’s motive, and when each man became his own motive and his own end”.

Fundamental need of the human heart is to be made new. We need rebirth by the Holy Spirit.

Language used: ‘born again’, ‘receive Christ’, ‘trust in Christ’, ‘believe in Christ’ (all very Johannine). ‘Become a Christian’

Expressed in a commitment to evangelism: at home and overseas. (Matthew 28:28; Acts 4:12). The belief that this is true for all people, and the challenge for an individual, personal response

4. Commitment to the centrality of God’s love, grace and of the completeness of the work of God on the cross. 
     More of focus on cross than incarnation, but wrong to say that evangelicals neglect incarnation. Rather cross is seen as the supreme moment of incarnation. Christ identifies himself with us, becomes one of us and dies in our place. 

      Key place of John 3:16. The love of God is shown in his sending of Jesus, and in Jesus death for us. 
   Substitutionary atonement: (within Trinitarian framework). Jesus as the ‘lamb of God’, The self-substitution of God. 

    The death of Jesus deals with sin: Sin is our rebellion against God. The cross demonstrates both the wrath of God against sin and sinful men and women, and the love of God in that he deals with the consequences of sin and the power of sin.

Absolute assurance: not in myself, but in what Christ has done.

The glory of the evangelical emphasis on sin: it means I can look at myself totally honestly. I don’t need to pretend to either God or myself. I am probably far worse than I begin to imagine. But it doesn’t matter. God knows, and he still loves. 

Paranoia of any work that takes away from the cross. Suspicion of any ritual that claims to channel faith. (In my own church, debate re lighting of candles; pinning prayers to the cross. Suspicion of anything that hints of pelagianism: by doing this, God will hear my prayer.)

I personally make distinction between something that is useful and something that is required. If a ritual becomes required, then it is better not to do it (eg. the use of icons). But it can be useful.

Evangelicals divide on sacraments: for many, baptism is simply a response of faith and communion is a simply an act of memorial.
More reformed evangelicals, who have a developed covenantal theology, will see baptism and communion as sacraments, and a means of grace, but only by virtue that they take us back to the ‘once and for all’ sacrifice of Christ.

Key principle: is justification by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. It is all of him. The big enemy of evangelicalism is Pelagianism.  

5.      Commitment to Sanctification (or perhaps this is wishful thinking!)
Debate between those who claimed that perfection was possible – and those who claim that we will always struggle with the old Adam this side of heaven.

Reflected in how Romans 7 is interpreted. Is this the experience of the Christian? Or is it the experience of the defeated Christian who is not putting their trust in Christ? Keswick convention (latter) vs JC Ryle (former, and author of Holiness).

Agreed emphasis on sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in the regenerate, reborn, believer. Emphasis is on growing in holiness; growing to become like Christ – obedience, surrender, self-sacrifice, growth in fruits of the Spirit.

Two dangers: 
a. Moralism: retreat from big issues of society into personal morality issues: Recent Christian Institute lecture on Christian involvement in politics: identified issues of abortion, euthanasia, marriage, freedom of speech, and yet spoke nothing about issues of justice, labelling, attitude to authority, banking, poverty, fair trade.But cf. John Stott, Issues facing Christians Today; TEARFUND; many evangelical missions are committed to holistic mission. 
b. Withdrawal: My parents tell of how evangelicals never went to the cinema or to dances. Tension (which again we find in John) of being in this world, but not of this world. 

6.      Commitment to the people of God: to assembly around the word of God (Mark 3:34).
Vision of the church less as ‘the body of Christ’, and more as ‘the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven’ (
Hebrews 12:23).

A distinction is usually drawn between the visible church on earth and the invisible Church in heaven.

For a movement that can be very individualistic (emphasis on Priesthood of all believers – which, at its worst, can be that each believer is his or her own pope), there is a strong corporate emphasis on worshiping together, meeting together to study the Bible, to encourage each other and to pray.

7.      Commitment to hope of heaven
Tom Wright: Surprised by Hope.   

Issues: universalism, nature of hell, second coming of Christ.
Mark Ashton: On my way to heaven (p21f)

The weakness of evangelicalism
It emphasises the Christ in Us language of the New Testament, but not the Us in Christ language. As a result it can lead to individualism, pride, judgementalism and division (eg. 37th Baptist church of Pennsylvania)

The strength of evangelicalism
It is proving to be an astonishingly effective movement. Its growth overseas is phenomenal, and it still is the evangelical churches which tend to be growing in the UK (or declining slower than some other traditions).

Perhaps one of the reasons, sociologically speaking, is because it is a conviction movement, and in an era where there are currently very few conviction movements (political, ‘create your own universe’) – apart from possibly the anti-conviction movement: ‘there are no convictions’ (but people are not going to die for that) – here is a conviction which, I would argue, is grounded solidly on historic fact (the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ), makes sense of the world, of the messed up nature of the church, of who I am, of my and your part in the world, and which gives us hope. 

Getting our priorities right

We know what it is like. You’ve done everything: cooked the dinner, cleaned up, tidied the kitchen, emptied the dishwasher and loaded it again, unloaded the washing machine and hung things out to dry. And they just go through and read a book or watch television. It happens a lot in our house.  And it really is very annoying when the slave gets stroppy and asks you to do something.

And of course, our sympathies here are with Martha.

She is the one who has invited Jesus into her home
She a real doer, a servant.

Martha is the hub of the community. Other people may have the ideas, but she is the one who buckles down and does the work. She is the one who recruits and motivates and manages the volunteers. She is on the committees that actually do the work: the friends of the school committee, the summer fete organising committee; and when the theatre put on a fundraising event, she is there on the front line.

And I’m sure that here, Martha is the person who makes the synagogue run. She does the cleaning, the linen, the catering. She is on the coffee rota, the flower rota, and if there is a special event – we all know who the first person is who would be asked.

But equally Martha could be the vicar with constant new ideas and programmes and things to do, on umpteen committees, or on their rounds visiting people; Or she could be the warden, active in making sure that the buildings are in good shape, the gutters are cleaned, the grass is cut, dealing with the day to day problems.

And we are an activist society. We need our Marthas; we need people who can get things done.

Mary on the other hand is doing nothing. While Martha is doing all the work, she sits at Jesus’ feet and she listens to what he says.

And surely Martha is right to ask Jesus to tell her sister to get off her backside and to do some of the work. It is not right and it is not fair.

And yet Jesus response is quite astonishing.

 “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed – or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:42).

It was a risky thing to say.

 1. If you said it in our house, you might – occasionally – get the answer, ‘Well, if that is the case, you get your own dinner!’

2.  Mary was doing what Mary should not have been doing. The woman’s place was in the kitchen, serving the men. It was not sitting at a rabbi’s feet listening to him. There was a saying of '’Rabbi Eliezer (Mishnah Sotah 3:4) "that whoever teaches his daughter Torah is considered as if he had taught her licentiousness". So when Jesus says, ‘Mary has chosen what is better and it will not be taken away from her’, he is saying something incredibly radical.  

So what is going on? What is Jesus saying? Is he saying that the Christian life is about sitting at his feet, and not about doing anything? Is it about being and not doing?

No. He is not saying that. He has just told us the story of the Good Samaritan, and he finished it off by telling the lawyer, ‘Go and do likewise’. Later in Luke, Jesus demands of his followers a readiness to serve at any time, and he calls them to be faithful in their service (Luke 12:35-36).

Instead Jesus is talking here about priorities

1. We need to sit at his feet and to listen to him

Sometimes it is easier to see our own faults in other people and in other cultures. In Russia we used to see babushka’s fussing around in the church, making sure it was swept, that the glass on the icons was cleaned, that the burnt out candles were removed. And if you asked them why they were doing it, they would answer that it was because they loved God, it was their service of God. But even during the services they were sweeping wiping or snuffing. You very rarely noticed them stopping to actually worship, to be in his presence, to listen.

Mary began by doing the thing that is both the hardest and yet the easiest thing to do. She sat at Jesus feet and she listened.

It is so hard to do that because we define ourselves by our activities. One of the first questions that we ask of someone is, “What do you do?” We are valued because of our activity. Some of us get paid for what we do. And we get so much of our sense of self-worth from what we do, and from what others think of what we do.

So I get up in the morning, and after feeding the cat and making a cup of tea, I drift into the study. The intention is to sit down with the bible and to pray. And when I do that it is often glorious and liberating. But so often I think of something that needs sorting out or wonder if someone has sent me the email I’m waiting for. And I do this and I do that, and I end up having lost the time and having lost the focus.

It is so hard to stop and sit at Jesus’ feet. Martha was just too busy.

2. We need to let Jesus set us free from the many things that cause us anxiety and upset

I guess Martha defined herself as a good hostess. I guess she judged herself on how clean her house was, on how good the meal is, on her control of the situation. And now the most important person she could imagine had come to her house. She had to make sure it was good. She would be mortified if Jesus thought that her house was dirty, or that the meal was sub-standard.

Isn’t it interesting how we project onto others our own judgements, particularly religious leaders?

Actually, seeing a spotless house or having an amazing meal, were not on Jesus’ radar.

What was on Jesus radar was a deep love for Mary and for Martha. Martha had invited him into her house. He wanted to spend time with them. He was also the Son of God, and he had so much to say. He desired the best for Martha and Mary. He wanted to set Martha free from the expectations that she put onto herself, that she allowed other people to put onto her. He wanted her to know that God loved her even if the house was in a mess, and they only ate beans on toast. He wanted Martha to know that she was deeply deeply loved by God, that she could do nothing for God (as God said to Job, ‘Who has given anything to me that I should repay them?’), that she was valuable and precious not because of what she did, but because of who she was. Jesus wanted Martha to know that she was so precious to him that he would die for her. He wanted her to know that she didn’t need to prove herself to him, to the neighbours or even to God – she couldn’t, but she didn’t need to. He wanted her to know the astonishing hope, that if she trusted in him then death was not the end, and she could look forward to eternal life.

He wanted her to know all of this, but she would not sit down and listen.

Of course there are times for action and service, but there are also times to stop and listen to God. And when Jesus comes to your house that is one of those times.

Don’t try to entertain Jesus, listen to him
Don’t try to prove yourself to Jesus, listen to him
Don’t try to make everything right for Jesus, listen to him
Don’t try to serve Jesus, listen to him.

Bit of joke really, Martha getting a meal ready for someone who has fed 5000 people (in Luke 9:12-17) with a few loaves and fish.

Of course, having listened to Jesus, we need to go away and to do what he says. But we cannot do anything of value, if we have not first listened to him. And I am absolutely sure that when Jesus had finished saying what he wanted to say, Mary – and maybe Jesus himself - would have got up and gone to help put some food on the table. It wouldn’t have been as grand, but it would have been what was necessary.

3. We need to let Jesus judge us.

Jesus makes us look at ourselves.

You can imagine Martha. She is doing all this stuff, and her sister is doing nothing. All the sister stuff comes back. It is how it has always been. The old resentments rise. She is getting angrier and angrier. She’s bashing the pots together, deliberately loud, so that Mary will hear. And when Mary still doesn’t move, it all comes out. “Jesus, tell her to come and help me”.

Just a little warning: when you ask Jesus to make another person do something, watch out what he says. Because usually when we ask him to judge another, he turns it round and judges us.

And that happens on this occasion. Instead of telling Mary to help her sister, he turns the whole thing round. ‘Martha, you are getting distracted and upset because your mind is telling you that there are 101 things that need to be done, and that Mary is doing nothing. Don’t let it destroy you. At this point, only one thing is necessary. I’m not going to take what Mary has away from her. In fact, you should be here and you could be here, listening’.

In other words, Jesus challenges Martha, ‘stop looking at others and start to look at yourself’.

So when you get angry with someone, when you think that it is unfair, and when you are tempted to ask Jesus to sort them out, to pass sentence on them, just stop – and ask him to show you why you think it is unfair, and – even more important - why you think it matters that it is unfair.

And when you get overwhelmed by the many things that you have to do, and particularly if you start to resent people who seem, at times, to do nothing, please ask yourself why you are doing what you are doing. Is it to make a name for yourself, to maintain a reputation, to be in control? Or is what you are doing a joy, or done in the hope of a future joy. It would have been OK if Martha had loved the making of the meal, and it really was done as an act of service and because she loved Jesus. But actually it was really being done, as so much of what we do is done, because she loved herself and wanted to put on a good show.

And yes, it might mean that some things are left undone, or that things are not always as nice as we would like them to be, or that we are not fully in control, but that is OK. Life is like that. And God is still in control. A couple I knew (in a place far far away), had an extraordinarily messy home, and domestically things seemed to be quite out of control – but it didn’t worry either of them – and they have been used by Jesus Christ to touch more lives for him than almost any other couple that I know.

These verses are about priorities.

Listening to Jesus
Letting Jesus set us free
Allowing Jesus to judge us

These verses balance the story of the Good Samaritan. There Jesus emphasizes the second part of the commandment, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’, and tells the lawyer to ‘go and do likewise’. Here we see the importance of ensuring that the first of those two commandments actually does come first: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength’.  

One final thing: Jesus says of Mary: “Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her”. Jesus is saying to Martha, ‘No, I’m not going to tell her to help you’. But he is also saying that time spent with him is the one thing that will not be taken from us. We may lose our reputation, our dignity, our possessions, our closest friends, even our mind, ultimately our physical life – but for those who choose to put him first, to sit at his feet and listen to him, he will never ever be taken away from us.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

The Good Samaritan: how do we love?

This is one of the few stories which many people still know from the bible. The phrase ‘Good Samaritan’, although never used in the passage, has entered the English language. And we have the ‘Samaritans’.

It is a passage which Christians have interpreted in different ways.

Earlier interpretations focussed on the story as an illustration of salvation.
We are the man on the road; Old Testament religion (legalistic religion) embodied in the priest and the Levite, did nothing for us. Jesus comes, and has compassion on us. He saves us at great cost to himself.
That of course, is true. But I don’t think that it is what this passage is about.

This passage really is about how we live. It is about ethics and virtue.
Notice how the little word ‘do’ appears several times (v25, 28, 37)

‘Teacher what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ [I notice that the lawyer says ‘inherit’. That is significant. At least in his language, he realises that whatever he does, eternal life remains a gift]

And Jesus answers his question. He does not say – on this occasion -  ‘Believe in me and you will receive eternal life’. Instead he points the lawyer to the Old Testament law. He asks him how he understands it.

Now there was in Judaism at the time a debate between one leggers and two leggers. The debate was whether the law could be summarised or not. Could you say the law while standing on one leg? The two leggers said ‘no’. The one leggers said ‘yes’.

The story is told of the Gentile who first approached Rabbi Shammai, asking that the teacher provide him with a summary of the Torah while standing on one foot. Known in later years as a fierce opponent of commerce with Gentiles, Shammai took offense at the request and drove the man away with a measuring rod. When the man went Rabbi Hillel, however, the sage saw his request not as an offense but as an opportunity. Standing on one leg, Hillel said: "What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Law; the rest is the explanation; go and learn." (Shab. 31a)

It is interesting that Jesus, preaching about 10 years after Hillel, in Matthew 7:12 says, "Do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets." Although he expands that a bit later on (Matthew 22:37-40) when he says, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Some summarised the law with the 10 commandments
Some summarised the law in the words of Psalm 34:11-14
But the most common summary were with words which would be said by devout Jews twice every day: words which come from Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself.”

And Jesus says to the lawyer: “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will inherit eternal life’.
No. He says, ‘Do this and you will live’.

In other words Jesus turns a question about, ‘How do I inherit eternal life?’ into a question about ‘How do I live?’ It is about ethics. It is about virtue. It is about the good life.

True living: this side of death and that side of death is about loving God and loving our neighbour as ourselves.

1. It is about loving God:
It is about desiring God more than we desire anything else.

You can tell a great deal about a person by looking at what or who they love: self, money, status, entertainment, new experiences, art, music, creation, people. One of the puritans said, ‘Show me what a person most loves, and I will show you their true heart and their true value’.

It is good and right to love that which is beautiful and glorious and loving. The more glorious the thing that we worship, we love, the more glorious we are. So the more we worship and love the one who is the source of beauty and glory and love, the more glorious we become.

To live, to really live, is to love the Source, the Giver, of all beauty and glory, the source of art and music, the source of experience and all that is and the one who is the giver and sustainer of life. When we get that right, everything else slots into place.

We discover the one who will never let us down. The other things will all be taken from us (‘The Lord gives and the Lord takes away’). But the Lord is the beginning and the end. He is the one who will never let us down

The more a person focuses their being on the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the more like the Son of God they become. They begin to see as Jesus sees, think as Jesus thinks, speak as Jesus speaks, do as Jesus does.

To live, to truly live, is to put God first. Jean King was telling me that her mother had a green sign on her wall that read, ‘God first’.

Of course, it is OK to love our wives and our husbands, our children, our parents, to love this building and matins, to love quiet and space, to love Rostropovich or Rihanna, to love travel, football or good food and wine. BUT BUT BUT they must never take first place, because that place belongs to God. And if they do take first place, then our lives become seriously scewed and stunted.

I was chatting with a man about this. He said, ‘How can I love God more than I love my wife and children?’ We think that if we love God more, we have to love other things less. But, as I said to him, ‘Who gave you your wife and children? Who gave you the gift of love? To whom do you belong, and to whom do your wife and children ultimately belong?’ To love God more than your wife and children does not mean that you need to give them up. It means rather that you see them in a new light: not as your reason for living, not as your possession, not as existing to make you happy. They are a gift, to be cherished and nurtured for God.

How does one put God first?
It is very simple.
The heart is involved. I begin to open my eyes and to see what God has given to us. I look at his gift of his Son Jesus, at his love for me. And I begin to desire the one who is the source of life, love, beauty.
The soul is involved. I take the soul as being our innermost will. It is a conscious (and sub-conscious) decision. I choose to put God first.
·        I’m on holiday, and I choose to go to church on Sunday.
·        I get up in the morning, and I choose to stop, read some verses from the bible, and pray. I pray for Glory to come to his name, for his Kingdom to come, and his will to be done. I seek his strength and his guidance so that I might serve him.
·        I have a decision to make: one way is clearly wrong by God, the other way is clearly right. I choose to do what is right by God. Or maybe I do not know which is right. In which case I ask that he will guide me, and help me as I walk the path that I choose to take.
The mind is involved. I read and study the bible. I read and talk and discuss and think about the Christian life.
My body is involved. I dedicate myself afresh to use the strength that God has given me to live first for him. 

To love God is to put God first. To love God is also, as Jesus says to really live.

2. It is about loving your neighbour as yourself

This is not the time or place to do a full study on what Jesus means by this, or why the two commandments are connected. However, a couple of thoughts

1. To love my neighbour as I love myself means that I need to recognise that my neighbour is as important to God as I am to myself. It means that, for the sake of God, I cannot walk by on the other side.

2. To love my neighbour as I love myself is to recognise that in some way we are connected. My ultimate well-being is in some way dependent on their well-being. In loving my neighbour I am loving myself; and if they are suffering and I walk by on the other side, then in some way I become smaller.

But there are a number of challenges that come from this particular story

  1. A challenge to the question of the lawyer: ‘Who is my neighbour’. At the end of the story Jesus turns the question round: ‘Who was neighbour to the man who was beaten up?’ In other words, do not ask, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ – in other words, where do I draw the boundaries – but ask instead, ‘To whom can I be a neighbour?’

  1. A challenge to inclusion. The rescuer was a Samaritan (Jews hated Samaritans). The Samaritan rescues a Jew. Interestingly, if the story was simply about inclusion, Jesus would have made the victim a Samaritan, not the rescuer. However it is a challenge to us. Compassion for Jesus’ sake is blind to a person’s racial background, skin colour, ability or disability, sex or sexuality or even sexual practice, education, age, attractiveness or whatever.

  1. Challenge to us to put ourselves in the place of the victim: Jesus does that by making the beaten up man the subject of his question, ‘Who was neighbour to the beaten up man?’ 
    And that is what love is. To love our neighbour as we love ourselves is about putting ourselves in the place of the other. It is what Jesus did for us. He identified himself with us, and at great cost to himself, he met our need.

  1. Challenge to put love into action. 

    At the end of the story, Jesus says, ‘Go and do likewise’. As I said earlier, this passage is about ethics, virtue. It is about living the good life, the God life. 

    This is the challenge to put love into action where we are, and with the people who are where we are. Love does not end at the door of the home, but love certainly begins at home. Of course it is good to be involved in national or global movements of compassion, but if we are blind to the needs of those with whom we live, and work, it is worthless. The priest and the Levite may have been on the board of several charities. They may have drawn up policies about how those on the front line were to show better care to their clients. But when they walk past the victim on the road to Jericho, all that was worthless. 

    This, of course, is where it gets really hard.

    I am, by nature, self-centred, and desire the easy, comfortable life. I may do good to those who are closest to me. It is in my interest to do so. Jesus said, in a very cutting comment, ‘If you then, who are evil, give good gifts to your children ..’. I may – occasionally – show real, genuinely self-sacrificial love to those who I like. But why should I go out of my way for a stranger, especially if there is risk to me.

    We have many excuses. The priest and the Levite no doubt had many reasons not to get involved. ‘I’m too busy – what I am involved in is more important than this man’. ‘It’s not my job to get involved’. ‘People will accuse me of being a busy body’. ‘It might be a set up job. I go over to help, and they get me’. If I get in trouble then someone has got to sort out a bigger mess’.

    So what should we do

  1. We need to be wise. The first thing that we need to do when we see someone in need is not to rush in, but to think. But not think, ‘how can I get out of doing anything’. The first golden rule of the first aid course is the rule to think.

  1. We must not despise small things
    Jesus talks about people receiving a reward when they give a glass of water, in his name, to someone in need.

  1. We need to look at our life style and make space for doing good
    We are too busy, and often with things that we should not be busy with. Chris Knowles talked of the African who said of Westerners: ‘You have the watches; we have the time’. 
    Maybe we need to look again at our priorities; to make ourselves less busy, so that we are more open to the unexpected, so that we have space to love.

  1. We need to keep our eyes open
    The problem is that because we are so used to walking past someone who is in need, we become experts in closing our eyes to need. 
    It is significant that in Matthew 5:42, ‘Jesus says, ‘Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you’. I’m not sure Jesus is saying that we should always give money to people who ask us. But have you noticed that if you have a personal policy of never giving money, and we use that as an excuse for not doing anything, how easy it is to grow incredibly hard.

  1. But above all things, we need to pray that God will give us compassion. 

    This is the key. 

    At the diocesan clergy conference, which we had a couple of weeks ago, Mona Siddiqui, the professor of Islamic law at Glasgow university, spoke to us about the difference between Christianity and Islam. She talked about the Christian idea of the God of love, and the command to love. She said (and I summarise), ‘But it is too hard. Most of the time we find it almost impossible to love even those close to us; Most of the time we simply ignore the people who live even next door to us. How are we to love them, let alone those further away?’

    So how do we love? How do we love our neighbour, when we struggle to love those we live with, and usually ignore the person who lives next door or two doors away? How do I begin to love, when I am so blind to the needs of others – even to the others who I meet – and even if I see their needs, am so self-centred that I don’t really go out of my way for them.

    The answer is that we cannot. We cannot legislate love. 

    But we need to go back to the first of the two commands here, ‘To love the Lord your God’. 

    We need to put God first. We need to seek to desire him, to be obedient to him, to seek him and his strength and his love. God the Father is a God of love. He gives his Son. Jesus, the Son of God, is a God of love. He gives himself. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of love. And as a person opens themselves to God, as they seek him, so they will begin to be filled with his love and his compassion. The Old Testament talks about how when the Spirit comes, our old hearts which are like stone, will become hearts of flesh, living loving hearts. 

    So do pray. Pray that God will open our blind eyes and soften our hard hearts. Pray and ask him to change your priorities. Pray that he will show you opportunities to love. Because it is when we love that we are obedient, and it is when we love that we really do live.