Sunday, 18 May 2014

Giving for joy



Today I am going to speak a little bit more about giving

The passage we had read is Moses’ instructions to the people of Israel, telling them what they must do when they enter the Promised Land.

Now I am rather cautious about basing teaching on giving from the Old Testament.

In the Old Testament there are laws about giving. There are instructions about how much you must give, what you must give and when you must give. The most obvious law that we know is the law of tithing. The people were called to give one tenth of what they receive to God – although we are not sure whether that is once every year, or every three years (v12).

But as Christian believers we are not under the law.

It is significant that when Paul or the other apostles speak of giving, they at no time mention tithing. Tithing may be a good principle, and it is one that Alison and myself, and many people in our church, try to follow, but it is not a rule. Some of you will not be able to afford a tithe, and that’s OK. Others of us should be able to afford to give significantly more than a tithe. I remember when John Sentamu, the current archbishop of York, was made Bishop of Stepney – his salary increased. And so he pledged that he would twithe, give 20%

It is significant that in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 where Paul speaks most clearly of giving, at no point does he talk about tithing. Instead he speaks about the desire to give: ‘Last year you were the first not only to give to also to have the desire to do so. Now finish the work so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion.. For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have’ (v10ff)

We are not under law.  We are to be guided by the Spirit of God. And as a person grows in Jesus, as we allow the Spirit to speak to us, we will give more.

However, although there are big differences between the Old and the New Testament, there are several principals here which I think are important for us as we consider our giving.

1.      We give as a response to the goodness of God

The people make a declaration when they give. They say, ‘And now I bring the first fruits of the soil that you, LORD, have given me’. (v10)

The people give to God because they recognise that it is God who has first given to them. It is God who brought them out of slavery in Egypt, who has brought them through the wilderness, and who has brought them into the Promised Land.

And that has not changed. We give out of gratitude to God for all that he has given us.

What have we got that is not gift? Today we see the beauty of nature, bathed in light? What did we do to deserve that? We have life. We did nothing to deserve life. And what did we do in order to merit being born here and now, with the family background, opportunities and resources that we have? And if we have inherited money or property, how did we deserve that? And if we have worked hard and done good – who gave us the gifts that we have?

As Christians we believe that everything we have belongs to God and has been given us as gift – even our ability and our desire to give.

And Paul writing to the Corinthians reminds them of the goodness of God in not just giving us physical life, but also of the goodness of God in then giving us eternal life in Jesus.

‘For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that through you through his poverty might become rich’.

I really would recommend that before we decide what to give, we take time out to list down some of the blessings that God has given us in Jesus.

·         Acceptance and forgiveness – God knows us as we really are, and because of Jesus we are forgiven. We don’t need to prove ourselves to God, to other people or to ourselves
·         The liberation of confession – we can be absolutely real
·         New identity – as sons and daughters of God, as members of a new family.
·         New desires – I don’t know whether you have noticed this as you grow in your faith, but the things that you desire change. You begin to hate some of the things that you have done or are doing. You begin to hate some of the stuff that you are looking at or spending your time and money on – and instead you find that you are beginning to love the things of God.
·         New way of living – which is very different to the sort of lifestyle presented to us through social media, magazines or films. And yet we discover that as we live his way, there is a rightness about it which means that both we are blessed and others are blessed
·         New presence with us – growing consciousness not only of God the Father and of the Holy Spirit, but also of the Lord Jesus not only as my Lord and leader, the one who I seek to follow, but also as the one who calls me friend. There is a growing relationship with him.
·         The gift of praise
·         The privilege of prayer, of being able to call the eternal God our heavenly Father – and we can spend time with him. I was talking to a colleague who was a vicar who has now retired. She said, ‘One of the really great things is that now I am retired I have more time to pray’
·         The most amazing purpose now. Yes as Christians we may find ourselves doing boring and repetitive jobs which don’t really seem to be bringing blessing to others. But we have a second task, which is far more significant: your job is to make your enemies, or people you have never known, your friends for eternity by bringing them to Jesus
·         The most incredible future – of life with God. There are moments when that future breaks into the present: when we see miraculous healings, or relationships that we thought were hopelessy broken are restored, or the door to heaven is opened and we have moments of astonishing clarity

We have so much. And it is all gift. And we give to God because we recognise that all that we have is gift – It is a response to the goodness of God. 

David prays a famous prayer when people have given with incredible generosity for the building of the temple: ‘But who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give as generously as this? Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand. We are foreigners and strangers in your sight, as were all our ancestors. Our days on earth are like a shadow, without hope. Lord our God, all this abundance that we have provided for building you a temple for your Holy Name comes from your hand and all of it belongs to you’ (1 Chronicles 14-16)

2.      We give the first fruits to God

Moses says, ‘Take some of the first fruits of all that you produce  ...’ (v2)

This is important.

In Genesis 4, Cain and Abel both offer gifts to God. Cain worked the soil. Abel kept flocks. They both bring a sacrifice to God. Cain brings some of his produce. Abel brings some of his firstborn as an offering. God accepts Abel’s sacrifice, but not Cain’s.

The NT tells us why. Abel’s offering was given by faith. In other words he gave it as a response to God’s gift. Cain gave for a different reason. We’re not told what it was. We are told that it came from a wrong heart: maybe he felt he ought to give, or maybe he was trying to bargain with God.

But there is another difference between the two gifts. Cain gives some of his produce. Abel gives of his first born.

Time and time again the command of the bible is that we are to give God the first fruits of our labour. [Ex 23:16,19; 34:26; Lev 2:12,14; 23:10,20; Num 18:12; Deut 18:4; 21:17; 2 Chr 3:5; Neh 10:35; Prov 3:9; Ezek 44:30]

The first child belongs to God – and a sacrifice needed to be offered to redeem the life of the child
The first colt, or lamb, or calf of any mother belonged to God
The first fruits of the harvest belonged to God.

It is a way of saying that if God is God then he must be first.
  
And I think that principle is carried on into the New Testament.

Believers are instructed that, on the first day of the week, when they gather ‘each of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income, saving it up ..’ (1 Cor 16:2)

I like that. You put something aside at the beginning of the week; you set it aside and you say that is for God.
It is the exact opposite of what many of us do: At the end of the week we think how much have I got left - and we give that.

Brothers and sisters, we claim to put God first in our lives. So could I urge us to consider our giving as the first of our items of expenditure. At the very least it should be up there with paying the rent or mortgage, the utility bills, paying off any debt and the pension provision.

And in our day when we can pay so much by standing order, and have internet banking, I would encourage you to sit down and think what you wish to give to the work of furthering the gospel here in this place, and to other Christian work, and then set up standing orders – so that it is done. Or if you use envelopes, decide how much money that you wish to give at the beginning of each week and month so that your giving to God is what comes first.

So that it is a first fruit and not an after-thought

3.      What we give is a token of ourselves

I note that at the end of this little ceremony of giving in Deuteronomy 26, the giver places the basket before the Lord and bows down before him.

In other words, the giver and the gift are one.  What we give really is a token of ourselves. When you place the offering in the basket, when you set up the standing order, you are offering yourself.

What we give is a window into our soul, and a picture of what God means to us.

In the book of Malachi, God challenges the people. He tells them you are giving me the rubbish animals in the flock, the ones that nobody wants to buy. I hate that, he says, because you are treating me as a fag-end God.

We’ll take the best out of life, and if there is a bit of rubbish that we don’t want, we’ll give it to God. It is a bit like our giving to charity shops. In most cases that is not really giving. It’s a useful and a good way of getting rid of the stuff that we don’t want anymore, but it is not usually giving. It costs us a bit of time and not much else

And when we give God our loose change, or when we give him our left overs, then it really is saying something quite significant about the part that God plays in our life.
If it is true of our money, it is probably true of our life.

4.      We give for the sake of joy

‘Then you and the Levites and the foreigners residing among you shall rejoice in all the good things the LORD your God has given to you and your household’ (v11)

There is a fruit of giving.

It is not that we will get rich. I often quote the vicar who said to his congregation, and he was talking about tithing: ‘If you give 10% of your income to God then I can guarantee you this. You will be 10% poorer’.

No, the fruit of giving which comes from gratitude to God for what he has given, and which comes from a desire to put God first in our lives and to give him the best, is joy

It is the joy of beginning to see our money and our possessions in a completely new way.
It is the joy of seeing all things as gift
It is the joy and freedom of knowing that you do not need money to prove yourself; you do not need to put massive burdens on yourself and others in order to get more
It is the joy and freedom of knowing our heavenly Father’s provision – especially when we really do throw ourselves on him.
It is the joy and freedom of being content if we have much and content if we have little
It is the joy of being set free from the slavery of the pursuit of money and stuff.
It is the joy of knowing that we have a far greater security, than the security of money

The fruit and joy of giving is that when we let go of the things of this world, we see the things of that world far more clearly.


So could I again urge you to think very seriously about what you give to the work of the church. Yes, we do need an increase in general giving by at least £24k if we are to get a second minister. But I am asking you today to consider giving for your own sake 

-          Because everything you have comes from God
-          Because we want to give God the best
-          Because what we give is a token of ourselves

-          Because we need to learn to let go of the things of this world for the sake of the joy of the next. 

Monday, 12 May 2014

Giving for the gospel




I apologise in advance. I’m going to speak specifically about money and giving. It is not something that we usually do. But for this week and next I would like to talk about giving. 

I'd planned this some time ago, but it has worked out to be a very good time to do so. 

The bishop and archdeacon have indicated that they would be willing to seriously consider a request from the parish to appoint a second full time stipendiary minister to the parish. I’m not talking here about another curate to replace Matthew – that may well happen anyway. Rather we are talking about appointing someone who could serve as an associate vicar who would have specific responsibility for St Peter’s and who would be here longer than a curate. We would still be one parish, and I would remain as parish vicar, but it would mean that I would be able to focus my time on Sunday mornings at St Mary’s at the 9:30 and 11am services, and another vicar would be able to focus on the service at St Peter’s – and all the research seems to show that churches grow faster when they have their own allotted minister.

However the diocese would only be willing to support a request for a second post if we were fully able to fund the post – which effectively means that we need to initially increase our regular giving to the church by at least £24k per annum (that is not the cost to us, but it is the bare minimum that our income would need to increase if we are able to do this). So I will be asking you in these two talks to consider what you are giving to the church and what you could be giving to the church.

Paul has an absolute commitment to the gospel.

Gospel is another word for good news. The message of the good news is summarized in 1 Corinthians 15:3: ‘For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.’

It is the message that Jesus Christ, who is the eternal Son of God, came and lived among us as a human person. He died on the cross for our forgiveness and rose from the dead. He is alive, He is Lord and by coming to him and putting our faith in Him, we can have a relationship with God as our heavenly Father, power to change and live life God’s way and the solid certain hope of eternal life.

Paul is committed to this message.

He is convinced of its truth. He has seen the risen Jesus (he says that in v1)

He knows he has been called to proclaim this message

In 1 Corinthians 9 Paul states that – for the sake of this message –

• He is willing to give up his right to receive any payment for preaching the message.

In 1 Corinthians 9:1-14, Paul affirms the right of people who preach the gospel to receive a living from the gospel. He argues that it is a basic principle – that you should be allowed to benefit from the work that you do. It applies to farmers, donkeys and vicars. And he goes on to say that even Jesus commanded ‘those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel’. But having affirmed that right, he goes on in the next few verses to say that he has given up that right: ‘But I have not used any of these rights’ (v15). And he continues (v18), ‘What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not misuse my rights as a preacher of the gospel’.

The reality was that as someone speaking of Jesus in areas where Jesus was not known, there were no Christians there already who could support him financially. So he worked part time to earn his keep and he worked full time preaching the good news

• He is willing to give up his freedom. 

He will become a servant to all people doing what is necessary not to offend them unnecessarily so that there is no obstacle to them hearing the message. He says, in effect, when I am in Rome – even though I don’t need to, because I am free – I will do what the Romans do. When I am among Jews – even though I don’t need to, because I am free – I will do what Jews do. ‘I have become all things to all people, so that by all possible means I might save some’.

And look at the life of Paul.

For the sake of this message about Jesus Christ he was willing to give up everything – a home, the possibility of family life, stability, security and comfort. He was never able to settle anywhere. Because of the message he was beaten, stoned, arrested, imprisoned (on several occasions) and eventually executed.

Paul gave up everything for the sake of this message.

My brothers and sisters I have a very simple question today.

How precious is Jesus to you and how precious is the message of Jesus to you?

It is the message which brings people face to face with God
It is the message which is the key to the Kingdom of heaven.
It is described like a precious jewel, which is beyond value
This message gives life to people who are lost and spiritually dead
This message makes our enemies into our friends in Christ
This message can transform societies and communities. It can make places of bitterness and criticism places of joy and praise. It can turn communities lusting for revenge into communities which offer costly forgiveness. It can transform self-centred self-seeking communities into models of generousity. 

This message is the power of God to bring his salvation to a lost and broken world, to people who are living for shallow, hopeless dreams.

Paul writes elsewhere: 'I am not ashamed of the gospel. It is the power of God for salvation for all who believe'

How important is it to you?

There is a very simple way of telling.

How much money do we give specifically so that this message can be proclaimed? How much money do we give to this church for the work of sharing the good news? How much money do we give so that the good news is proclaimed elsewhere in this country and overseas?

The problem is that many of us have lost confidence in the message of Jesus Christ.

We are prepared to give to the hospice – because we can see the great work that it does; to children’s and animal charities; to environmental agencies; to cancer research; to charities that work with the most deprived. I’m not saying that that is wrong. Jesus specifically challenges us that we cannot say to someone in need 'God loves you', and then do nothing practical.

Or we give to the church because we love the buildings or we think that the church is a good social organisation that ought to be kept going. 

But surely as those who have put our trust in Jesus we have to believe that the deepest, most fundamental need of our society is for people to come face to face with God, so that they begin to see this world and other people through his eyes, and so that self-centred people begin to change and become God-centred and other people-centred? And for that to happen we need people who will preach the good news of Jesus Christ - people who are set apart for that work, who are paid to do that work. 'How can people believe in Jesus' says Paul, 'if they have not heard the message about Jesus. And how can they hear the message, if nobody tells them?'

And yet many of God's people are not giving to the work of the gospel.

In the Church of England in Suffolk there are currently 118 full time paid ministers. But in order to pay 118 full time ministers, we have to sell off three vicarages each year to cover the shortfall between what we give and what that costs. So that figure of 118 ministers needs to be reduced to 100 – so the very fact that the bishop and archdeacon are prepared to even consider a second post here is near miraculous. But you also see why they need us to be able to pay for it.

Now I am aware that it is possible to give in many ways, and many do give sacrificially of their time and money.

Some of you are like Paul. You work virtually full time – whether you have a title or not - for the Church, whether here at St Mary’s and St Peter’s or wider, in the work of enabling this message to be proclaimed, without receiving any salary. That may be as preachers and ministers and town pastors and ..; it may be as trustees or wardens or treasurers or musicians or workers with children and young people .. the list is endless. 

But I would also ask each of us to consider what we are giving financially to the church each week or each month or each year – and to ask, ‘Does what I give reflect how precious Jesus is to me?’ ‘Does what I give reflect how important the message of Jesus is for me?'

In the end we spend our money on what is important for us. 

We spend our money on what we love. 

We hear of multi-millionaires who spend hundreds of millions buying football clubs - not to make money but because they love the club. So when some of you become multi-millionaires listen to what I am about to say. I long for God to raise up one or two multi-millionaires who get grabbed by Jesus and who give significantly to the work of the church - so that the message of Jesus Christ can be proclaimed. 

We give to what we love. And you don't have to be a multi-millionaire before we can begin to give. This is not about the amount given but the cost to us of whatever it is that we give. On one occasion Jesus was in the temple when the rich came in and put large sums into the glass box of the temple. And then a widow came and put in a few coins. Jesus said, 'That woman gave more than all of the others. They gave out of their wealth and still had much left over. She gave everything she had'.

One lady told me this week that when I was last speaking on giving I had said that what we give is one of the indicators of how much we love Jesus. She said when she heard that, she was convicted. She said 'You could have knocked me down with a feather’. And she added, ‘People need to hear that’.

There is a clear case, as Paul sets out here in 1 Corinthians 9, for paying people so that they are set free to proclaim the message about Jesus. And with the size of congregations that we have, we should at the very minimum be able to support two permanent paid ministers.

And having an extra full time minister will make a tremendous difference to our congregation here (for a start it will mean that I won’t need to dash off after the service), it will make a big difference to both St Mary’s and St Peter’s and it will make a big difference to how we share the message of Jesus in this town.

But I do appreciate that this is a big ask.

I’m not asking for a one off contribution for something specific. That might be easier. But one of the amazing things that I have seen happen time and time again is that whenever we have had a big need (roof, organ, the heating at St Peter’s), God seems to have known in advance and provided in astonishing ways. 

I’m also not asking for you to put your hand in your pocket and put the extra £1 into the basket at the back of church today. 

Instead I am asking each of us to consider increasing what we regularly give – whether that is each week, month, year.

I do not know how much any individual gives, unless that person tells me. You know and God knows, and possibly our gift aid secretary knows. And that is all that matters. But in the light of this opportunity that we have I am asking you to prayerfully review your regular giving to the church – and ask yourself whether what you give reflects what Jesus means to you, and how important the gospel is for you. 

Immigration and Christianity in the UK. Some notes

INITIAL NOTES
1. Of Britain’s 6.5 m immigrants, about 1.1m are Muslim and 3.5m Christian

2. About 5m migrants, now living overseas, have come from the UK



3. Famous refugees in the bible: Abraham, the brothers of Joseph (economic migrants), the people of Israel (political refugees), Naomi (economic) and then Ruth (family reasons), David (political – several times!), people of Israel (forced into exile), Joseph, Mary and Jesus (political)

FOUR BIBLICAL PRINCIPLES

1. Dignity of each created person

Gen 1:26f Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’
So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

2. Command to love the stranger (because you were once strangers)

Lev 19:33 ‘“When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not ill-treat them. 34 The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”
 (cf. Lev 19:17-18 “Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your neighbour frankly so that you will not share in their guilt. Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbour as yourself. I am the Lord.”)

Ex 22:21 “You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. (cf Ex 23:9)

Jeremiah 22:3   This is what the Lord says: do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place. (cf Deut 27:19; Jer 7:5-7; Zech 7:9-10; Malachi 3:5)

Matthew 25:35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me

Luke 10:3-37 Story of good Samaritan: ‘Go and do likewise’

Hebrews 13:2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares

3. The importance of government and law

Romans 13:1-2   Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment  .. (v4) for the one in authority is God’s servant for your good.

4. The fact that as Christians we are exiles and strangers in this world

Philippians 3:20  But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ,
Hebrews 13:14 For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.
1 Peter 1:1 To God’s elect, exiles scattered throughout the provinces of ..
1 Peter 2:11 Dear friends, I urge you as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires .. Live such good lives among the pagans that, .. they may see your good works and glorify God on the day he visits us

POLITICAL CONSIDERATIONS

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks argues that “multiculturalism has had its day and it’s time to move on”. He distinguishes between a country house “where every minority is welcome but it’s a guest”, a hotel where “nobody is at home, it doesn’t belong to anyone — we’ve each got our room and so long as we don’t disturb the neighbours we can do whatever we like” and a home we build together. (Times 21.8.13)

How can we create a society which allows us to absorb migrant communities so that we build one common home, without creating social unrest?

Fears: that we will be ‘swamped’ by mass migration; of the stranger who doesn’t do things the way we do; of ‘the dangerous’ stranger (eg headlines about numbers of Romanians who have been ‘arrested’ – 20000 in 5 years); that they will take ‘our’ jobs and benefits; of militant Islam and the fact that we are becoming a less ‘Christian’ society

[Not sure that the loss of our Christian identity as a country can be laid at the door of immigration or Islam – rather of those who have an aggressively anti-Christian agenda, who would like to see a fully secularised state, and who are using migrants and other faiths as a stick to beat Christians with. The reality is that migrants are reinvigorating many churches. Christianity benefits from immigration more than Islam]

Requirements for a harmonious society?

1. The need for boundaries?
Kelly Monroe Kullberg is an InterVarsity minister to faculty and graduate students, author/editor of the bestselling Finding God at Harvard, and founder of The Veritas Forum.

“Ours is a God who breaks through barriers – and a God who cares about fair dealing and indigenous justice. Grace and truth, mercy and justice, God is too transcendent and too loving to reside in only one part of the equation. So we should be mindful both of welcoming the other and of establishing wise boundaries that defend and serve the communities in which we live. . . .
 Naturally, those who honor God and his Word will love the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. The difficulty comes with the influx of hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants into a region whose majority population is neither adequately equipped nor enthusiastic to receive them. In this context it’s appropriate to explore what is meant, in Scripture, by the usefulness of hedges and fences, the importance of just weights, and the sheer folly and even sinfulness of those who spend what they have not first saved. Individuals, groups and nations that put themselves in debt, especially severe debt, place themselves in positions of vulnerability and even enslavement to those whom they owe. As the author of the Proverbs tells us, “The borrower is servant to the lender.” At some point, it is neither wise nor right to put ourselves in deeper and deeper debt in order to provide greater and greater benefits to more and more people. We’re first to put our own house in order.
Let’s leave behind the rhetoric and the easy sloganeering and confront the hard task of discernment. Just as Paul taught the Church to delineate among widows in order to find those for whom the Church would provide, we are called, I believe, to make difficult and principled decisions about stewardship and about providing the conditions for healthy flourishing communities that can welcome many strangers not with hostility but with hospitality. With kindness and grace. Obedience to the whole counsel of Scripture yields sustainable growth and goodness to those in need” (Quoted by Mark Roberts in Blog below)

I can’t help thinking that the perspective would look very different when viewed by one of the ‘have nots’ in our world.

2. The need for a shared language and common citizenship

A community needs to have a shared language, shared ideas about citizenship and also a shared story if it is to be cohesive. It is not sufficient for us to sit in our own hotel rooms, each with our own story. Perhaps the story of the accommodating hotel is our story. However I would argue that while Christianity remains the ‘established religion’, the story of Christmas and Easter – of a God who values each individual sufficient to become a human person, of the nature of love and self sacrifice, and of hope even in the deepest pit -  officially is that story.

3. The need for a single law to which all are accountable

cf. Exodus 12:48f (requirement to be circumcised if you wish to eat Passover); Leviticus 16:29 (deny yourselves and not do any work on day of atonement); Leviticus 17:8ff (laws re offering sacrifice, eating blood)
 Leviticus 18:26ff But you must keep my decrees and my laws. The native-born and the foreigners residing among you must not do any of these detestable things, 27 for all these things were done by the people who lived in the land before you, and the land became defiled. 28 And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you.

PRACTICAL CONSIDERATIONS
a) The benefits to the church

b) The opportunity for the church

Jeff Barneson is a longtime staff member for InterVarsity’s ministry to faculty and graduate students at Harvard University.
What if God’s intention in the hyper-diversification of our country is akin to what happened when the Romans sacked Jerusalem in 70 A.D.? Historians question whether the message of the early Christians, without the presence of the Romans, would have spread beyond the local setting of Jerusalem. What if the present situation in the United States is just another accelerated opportunity to bring good news to people who are more than ready to hear it?
I believe it with all my heart: If we spend all our time and energy on the policy discussion, and never reorient our perspective and realign our congregations to engage with actual immigrants and their actual circumstances, we may miss out on the extraordinary opportunity that God has placed in front of us.

What could we do?



Saturday, 3 May 2014

What does it mean to be fishers of men?


There are three times in this passage that the net is mentioned. 

As the church, the people of the risen Jesus, we are called to use the net and to be the net.

1. The net is a picture of what we are called to be about. 

We are called to go fishing! But not for fish, for people.

The thing about Jesus' followers is that whenever we read about them they are rubbish fishermen. They are either on the shore mending their nets, or terrified in a storm (twice), or they are out fishing all night and not catching a thing (twice). The only time we read of them making a great catch of fish is when they follow Jesus' instructions.

But Jesus does not want his followers to be effective fishers for fish. What he is saying here is that he wants his followers to be effective fishers for people!

[invite children to come out and begin cutting out fish shapes and people shapes]

Jesus has earlier told his followers: 'Follow me and I will make you fishers of people'

There is a verse in the Old Testament, 'Behold, I am sending for many fishers, declares the Lord, and they shall catch them. And afterward I will send for many hunters, and they shall hunt them from every mountain and every hill, and out of the clefts of the rocks. For my eyes are on all their ways. They are not hidden from me, nor is their iniquity concealed from my eyes." (Jer 16:16)

It is the idea that if God is calling you - and the fact that you are here today, or that you are reading this, makes me suspect that he is - you cannot escape him. He'll send his fishers to get you.

And now, after his resurrection, Jesus reminds his followers that they are called to be fishers of people. 

He doesn't say it here, but what happens is almost identical to Luke 5 when he does call them to be fishers of people. It's the same place (the sea of Tiberias is another name for the Sea of Galilee); they've been fishing all night and not caught a thing; they follow Jesus' instructions and catch a huge number of fish. And Jesus says to them, 'From now on you will be fishers of people'

[So I'd like to see how many fish we can catch in our net - start putting cut out fish/people shapes onto the net]

It is a strange idea - that we are to be fishers for people. 

a) It implies that people, like fish, need to be caught

There is, of course, a big difference. Fish run away because they wish to stay alive. We do not wish to be caught because we wish to remain spiritually dead. 

We naturally run away from God. Like the bird that came down the chimney in our lounge. We could not get it out, and in the end it had to be caught with a net before it could be set free. It had to learn that we could be trusted. 

There is a famous poem called The Hound of Heaven, by Francis Thomson. GK Chesterton calls it the greatest poem in the English language. The idea behind it is that God chases us - but in our sinful rebellion we think he is like a great big beast who is out to get us. 

We run from the one who loves us

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
   I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
   Of my own mind; and in the midst of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
             Up vistaed hopes I sped;
             And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears,
   From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.

But eventually the Hound of Heaven catches up with us

   Halts by me that footfall:
   Is my gloom, after all,
Shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly?
   'Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,
   I am He Whom thou seekest!
Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest Me.'

The thing is about Jesus is that once we are caught, we wish to remain caught. He does not catch us for death. He catches us for life.

b) It implies that we, as Christians, are called to catch people. 

But that is not completely true. 
Our task is to simply to let down the net at the right time and the right place in obedience to Jesus. It is God's task to catch people.

CS Lewis was an atheist of the order of Dawkins. He wrote in a letter, in 1916, "That the man Yeshua or Jesus did actually exist, is as certain as that the Buddha did actually exist: Tacitus mentions his execution in the Annals. But all the other tomfoolery about virgin birth, magic healing, apparitions and so forth is on exactly the same footing as any other mythology." He has long discussions with his believing friend Arthur Greeves. But in the end it is God who gets him. The key years are 1930 and 1931. He writes in 1930, before he has finally surrendered, about how God is catching him. 'I can’t express the change better than by saying that whereas once I would have said “Shall I adopt Christianity”, I now wait to see whether it will adopt me: i.e. I now know there is another Party in the affair—that I’m playing poker, not Patience, as I once supposed.’ [information taken from Public Christianity]

Of course, we don't actually use physical nets to catch people. 
There have been times in church history when Christians have tried to use force to bring people in, and the results have been disastrous.

Instead the net that we use is prayer, love and service, speech and persuasion.


2. The net stands for something else here: the church, the body of believers

Most people writing about this passage remark on the symbolism of the fact that many fish are caught, but the net is not broken.

If you are a Christian you are in the net.

Little Eva today was placed in the net. We pray that as she grows older she will choose to remain in the net.

Or perhaps in today's language, if you are a Christian you are part of a vast net-work of interconnected people, bound together by Jesus

[get many people to hold onto the net]

The church is THE great network - linking up people who are very different: different nationalities, cultures, educational backgrounds, times and eras. It really is open to anybody. 

This is the net that catches us when we drop. 
This is a living net, powered by the Spirit of God.
The banner, the standard over this net is the acclamation: Jesus is Lord. 

And it is obedience to the risen Jesus that makes this net work.

The net is at the centre of what we are about, so it is appropriate that our new website is www.wearechurch.net