Thursday, 23 June 2016

A prayer for referendum day

Father God, who gives us the gift of freedom and choice, we pray for all who today will be exercising their right to vote. We pray for your wisdom and understanding. We ask that whatever the result, you would give us hearts that are not only motivated by self-interest, but by a vision of what is good for our neighbour. And as we bow before you, the one from whom sovereignty comes and who is sovereign over all, we place the future of Europe, of our nation and of ourselves into your hands. We pray this in the name of Jesus Christ, who is King of kings and Lord of lords. Amen.  

Sunday, 12 June 2016

How can we change the world?


How can we change the world?
It is an important question. It is also part of our Diocesan vision: ‘To grow in influence’

How can we be salt? How can we influence society – bring healing where things are going bad, preserve what is good, and add flavour to what has gone flat?
How can we be light? How can we show people the way to Jesus, and to the good life, in a world that can be very dark and in which so many have lost their way?


Perhaps we need a new Constantine?
Constantine lived 272-337AD, and our history books tell us that he was probably one of the most significant people in the history of Europe. It was because of his decision, that Christianity became the religion of the empire, and subsequently the dominant political and cultural force for almost 2000 years. It is because of him that so many of our laws are rooted in the bible.
And surely, if we wish to grow in influence, we should be praying for significant godly leaders, politicians, academics, broadcasters, even celebrities: people who will shape the culture in which we live and influence this nation and Europe for Christ and for good.

Or perhaps we need people of significance who can influence the church: that God will raise up in our generation evangelists like Wesley or Whitefield or Moody or Jonathan Edwards (not the triple jumper!) or Billy Graham. We should be praying for a new influential spiritual figure, with a significance that touches many for Jesus: a new Mother Theresa, CS Lewis, John Stott or Henri Nouwen. We should be praying for real spiritual leaders who can make a difference.

I suspect that most of us think that if we wish to influence people and society we need to go big. We need big people, with big ideas and big power and big events.

But that is not what Jesus teaches.

If we look at vv13-16, you will notice that Jesus does not tell those who are his followers, his disciples to become salt and light. He doesn’t say to them, ‘Be saltier’ or ‘Shine more brightly’. Instead he says to them:
‘You are the salt of the earth. Keep your saltiness’;
‘You are the light of the world. You can’t be hidden’.
And please remember that Jesus was not speaking to political or religious or business leaders; he was not even speaking to a big crowd. Instead, although a large crowd has gathered, he specifically goes away from the crowds (v1) and chooses instead to speak to his disciples, his first followers: fishermen, tax collectors, freedom fighters and some of the women who were already following him.

And it is precisely these sort of people, and not the rich and strong and powerful, who will influence and shape people – not just for a few years, or for a lifetime, or even for 2000 years. They will influence people for eternity. It is these people who will be ambassadors for the Kingdom of God. They are the real game changers.

So what are these game changers like?

Well, in vv3-12 Jesus describes the heart of a woman or man who is following him.

1.      They are the poor in spirit.

These are not the people you would expect to be game changers.

These are the people who have realised that they are nothing, but that God is everything. They live not by trusting their own abilities or gifts, but by trusting him. They have no self-confidence but complete God-confidence. Catherine of Siena was praying one day when she heard God speak to her. He said, ‘There are only two things you need to know. You are she who is not, and I am He who is’.
So people who are poor in spirit have nothing to prove and nothing to lose. They know that they are known by God and beloved by God. They know that everything they have is unmerited gift from God. They live in a constant daze of gratitude and thankfulness. They pray. And they are set free to love and to serve.

2.      They are those who mourn.

How can those who weep change the world?

Well, perhaps they are the honest ones. They realise that life is not simply about moving from one party to the next. It is not about a constant smile.
We tell people to smile for the camera. It is a very cultural thing. In earlier times you never smiled for the camera. If you look at the photos of your great grandparents, it is all very formal and they all look serious.  Why? Is it to show the world that we are enjoying ourselves? It is what we want to say to eternity: ‘It was all about enjoyment’.

But the person who mourns is the person who is real. They can be game changers because they are prepared to look at the pain, to take the pain in, and bring the pain to one who has taken onto himself all the pain, and so is bigger than the pain.

3.      They are the meek.

These are the very last people we would expect to change the world.

They don’t push themselves forward – they push others forward. And that is not because they have a sense of inadequacy, but because they delight to see others use their gifts and grow in their gifts.

Meekness is not about weakness. It is not a ‘The meek will inherit the earth if that is OK by you’. Think of a stallion at a dressage competition. It has immense power, but it is power that is submitted to another.

In CS Lewis’, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Aslan – the king, the Christ figure – walks into the camp of the evil witch. Even though he has more strength than all of them put together, he allows them to bind him, to shave his mane, to mock him and to kill him. He chooses to do it in order to save Edmund.

4.      They are those who hunger for righteousness.

They are game changers because they have a different set of values. They don’t hunger for the things that this world hungers for. They are not out for money, for status, for comfort, for new experiences, for power or for things. Significantly they don’t even hunger for influence. Instead they have a deep longing for God and for the things of God.

On one occasion Jesus is told that Herod has made a death threat against him. Jesus says, ‘I am not going to change anything. I have to do the work that I have been given’. On another occasion he spoke about what he ate. He said, ‘My food is to do the Father’s will’. He hungered for righteousness. Doing what God wanted was his daily bread. It is what sustained and strengthened him.

Game changers are people who begin to have that deep passion, who hunger to see God’s will done. 

5.      They are those who are merciful.

The world tells us that we have to stand up for ourselves.
If someone hurts us we need to show them that we can’t be messed with.
And if we feel that we have the right to get what we can from them because of what they have done to us – then we should exercise that right. We should make them pay.

Mercy is so radical because it is the opposite. Mercy begins by recognising how much God has let us off what we owe him, and it is about letting the other off the debt that they owe us.

It is not the people who are out to get revenge who will change the world. They are just playing the world’s game of dog eat dog. No, the people who make the real difference are the people who say, ‘I forgive’.

6.      They are the pure in heart.

The pure in heart are game changers because they are totally sincere. They know themselves. There is no pretence, no image. What you see is what you get. What is on the outside is what is on the inside. Their visible motives are the same as their invisible motives. They are rubbish at lying. In this world they are almost child-like, naive. But they are beautiful people and one day we will see that beauty and all our mockery or self-justification will be silenced. 

7.      They are peace makers.

I am not speaking of the big stuff, but the little stuff. They want enemies to become friends. They weep when people are in conflict with each other, not because they hate conflict (often peace makers have to be prepared to allow the anger and hatred to be directed at themselves), but because they know that God created us in a way that meant that we need God and we need each other.
Peace makers are reconcilers: they want people to be reconciled to one another
Peace makers are evangelists: they long that people would be reconciled with God.

And now we come to the most surprising category:

8.      They are the ones who are persecuted.

The people who are the salt of the earth and the light of the world are not the people who exercise power. They are the ones who those who exercise power persecute.
They are not persecuted because they are arrogant or offensive (and I am conscious that we can be very arrogant and offensive), but because they are prepared to make a stand for God, for righteousness, mercy, purity and peace – even when they do it in a way that is gentle and shows great respect for others.
In God’s economy it is not the man with the club who is the game changer, but the man who is being beaten.


Our history books tell us that the game changers are the powerful, clever, attractive, rich and significant people in human history.

But God’s history book, while it will include those who have had roles that our secular world considers significant, is packed full of very ordinary people who have done very ordinary things in the name of Jesus.

Jesus said that if you even just give another person a glass of water in his name then you will receive your reward.

I think of Jenny, who is in hospital now and who has been given only a few days more to live. All she can do is lie on the bed, and she is at times in quite a bit of pain. A few weeks ago one of the junior doctors who is caring for her spoke with her. He said, ‘You’ve got a faith. I wish I could believe’. And Jenny, who is now, in the world’s eyes, one of the least of all, is gently continuing to speak about her faith about her Lord Jesus. That is what it is to be light.

I think of one of the mums in our church. Her mother was struggling with a very painful leg. So she said, nervously, ‘Can I pray for you?’ She prayed that God would heal her mother’s leg. God healed her leg, and it was so real that her mother was in tears for all of the next day.

I think of Stuart. He was a young man who worked with us in London. He was a gifted musician. But when he was a student at York, he told of how on one occasion he was invited to lead a time of worship at St Michael the Belfrey. It is a large student church. He had never done it before. He spoke of how nervous he was. But as he stood up and led the worship, the Holy Spirit came on the place with astonishing gentleness and power – God met with people and they were changed. That is what it is to be salt – to do what you are called to do in the name of the Lord Jesus, often out of your depth and trusting not in yourself, but in him.

Do you wish to be a game changer, a history maker?
You probably won’t become a new Constantine
You probably will not be a new Mr Theresa or Billy Graham.

All you and I need to do is to do what these first disciples had done.
They came to Jesus and they listened to him. They confessed their sin, their self-reliance, that they had hungered after the things of this world and not the things of God.
And they turned to Jesus. They believed him when he said that God’s Kingdom, God’s rule was very close. They put their trust in him, they allowed his Holy Spirit to work in them and they began to live for his Kingdom.

You don’t need to read more books, or go on more courses, or get better qualifications to become salt or light. Instead you need to recognise that you are nobody and that Jesus is everything. And you need to throw yourself on Jesus, possibly take a risk or two, trust him with your life and be obedient. 

[When, in a few minutes we come to communion, we come empty handed. We are nobodies with nothing. And we simply come to receive.
Just as we have received God’s gift of life, so we receive his gift of forgiveness, of mercy and help in our troubles, we receive his promises, his strength and his presence.]


That is how we will change the world.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

BREXIT: what are the issues for a Christian?

Summary: There are three principles which should lie behind any Godly governance. Does it bring prosperity? Does it enable us to live quiet and peaceable lives? And does it lead to justice?
I will look at three issues: solidarity, subsidiarity and migration/free movement and see whether the bible has anything to say about them. And we need to ask ourselves whether the EU is able to deliver some form of godly governance. 
Finally, I will argue that each of us has to make up our minds not on the basis of what is best for Britain, but what is good for those who are our neighbours.

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INTRODUCTION

Christians are exiles who live in a foreign land (1 Peter 2.11-12). As such, they have lived under many different types of government: empires, nation states, city states, unions.

If you were a Christian born in Belgrade in 1917 you would have lived in 7 different countries.
Think of the rather arbitrary division of Africa by the colonial powers into different nation states
And is the UK a nation state or a union of nation states?

There is no ideal form of government or state that will guarantee prosperity and security: certainly not staying in the EU or leaving the EU.

And the idea that the England or the UK is like the OT state of Israel, specially chosen and anointed by God, is idolatrous.

Some argue that nation states are permanent and God-given. They quote Deut 32.7-9
“Remember the days of old, consider the years long past;
ask your father, and he will inform you; your elders, and they will tell you.
When the Most High apportioned the nations, when he divided humankind,
he fixed the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the gods;
the Lord’s own portion was his people, Jacob his allotted share.” 

But this is quite obscure, and the emphasis is on the fact that the people of Israel have been chosen by the Lord to be his own portion.

And if one looks at Acts 17.26f, [“From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us”] we notice that the boundaries of the nations are time-limited, and the reason that God has limited us to a particular time and place is so that we would search for God.

And yes, we have had a great Christian heritage in this nation, many of our laws have been shaped by the bible, and we are incredibly fortunate to have a head of state who is a committed Christian – but nobody, for instance, could argue that the monarch as head of the Church is a particularly biblical model.

Jesus was remarkable ‘apolitical’. He did recognise the rights of human authorities to rule and to raise taxes (Luke 20.25); and the NT urges the godly discipline of submission to those in authority (except for the case of conscience – Romans 13.15)

And as Christians we look for another home, for the return of Christ, and the establishing of the Kingdom of God

Nevertheless, as exiles, as people who belong to another world but who live in this world, we have a responsibility to this world.

1.      Jeremiah writes to the people of Israel who were exiles in Babylon. He urges them to ‘seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare’ (Jeremiah 29.7) As Christians, the people of God in exile in a foreign, ungodly land, we are still called to seek the welfare of this land.

2.      Paul urges us ‘to pray for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and acceptable to God our Saviour, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.’ (1 Tim 2.2f)

3.      And if one looks to the values of the Kingdom of Heaven, then we should be working so that, where we are able to, we should shape our temporary home so that it will, to the extent that it can, mirror our future eternal home. So we are called to strive, in so far as it is up to us, to live in a society which ‘pursues justice by building up the common good’ (Andrew Goddard). We are to live in a society which respects individuals made in the image of God, but also provides for those who are in need – and equips them so that they might, in turn, equip others.

And as people who live in a democratic society, we need to take our responsibility to vote seriously. And because of that I think that the referendum is a good thing.


THREE ISSUES RAISED BY THE BREXIT REFERENDUM

1.      SOLIDARITY

The idea that we are all, as human beings, in this together!

Personalism is a philosophical way of looking at the world which has come to us from Scripture via the teaching of the earliest Church Fathers (Eastern and Western), and subsequently via Roman Catholic social teaching. It teaches that because God has revealed himself, at his heart, as Trinity – as three persons in relationship – it is who we are in relationship that fundamentally defines us. In other words, it is not my physical nature that makes me really who I am, but my relationship with others. So the more open that I am to others, especially to others who are different to me, the more fully I become the person I am meant to be.  And I am, whether I like it or not, responsible for who they are - and they for who I am.

This is profoundly biblical.

We are bound up together. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus answers the question, ‘Who is my neighbour’ with another question, ‘Who becomes a neighbour to the man beaten by robbers?’ (Luke 10.36)

Or we look at Jesus teaching in Luke 6: ‘If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.  If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.  Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6.32-36)

And so, after the war, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Belgium – whose politics were dominated by the Christian Democratic parties – looked to this idea of solidarity as a way of preventing another major war in Europe.  Nationalism was seen to be the great evil that had led the nations to two world wars.  And, it was argued, if some sovereignty was surrendered and shared, then peace was far more likely. And that was the initial impetus for the European Community: the merging of the coal and steel industries so that neither Germany nor France could rearm without the other knowing.

And there was, in the initial years, a real spiritual vision, a commitment among the member nations to ‘the constant improvement of the living and working conditions of their peoples’. And there was an emphasis on supporting families and local communities

So, for instance, Churchill’s often quoted Zurich speech: “We must build a United States of Europe. In this way only will hundreds of millions of toilers be able to regain the simple joys and hopes which make life worth living. The process is simple. All that is needed is the resolve of hundreds of millions of men and women to do right instead of wrong and gain as their reward blessing instead of cursing… There can be no revival of Europe without a spiritually great France and a spiritually great Germany.”


The problem is that as that spiritual vision has faded (because of the decline of the Christian Democratic parties in Europe, and the introduction of new elements into the EU: former communist states, Islamic communities, plus the break-up of Yugoslavia) – much of the sense of solidarity has been lost.

On the positive side:
-          Peace has been maintained between France and Germany
-          There is a significant EU solidarity fund
-          Great steps have been taken with protecting the environment

On the negative side:
-          In the last 25 years Europe could have played a leading role in Bosnian war (1992-5) and Kosovan war (1998-9) but did not. And many would argue that the EU has played a significant role in causing, or at least complicating, the Ukrainian civil war.
-          Migration: There is little sense of solidarity. Policies to share migrants locating to Greece and Italy were rejected by UK, France, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Czech Republic.
-          Welfare state: pressure of mass migration is threatening the welfare state.
-          Talk of collective answers has been replaced by a stress on individual rights. Lisbon: guaranteed rights to life, prohibition of torture, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, academic freedom and education.

A sense of solidarity has been replaced by a new European economic orthodoxy which replaces the sense of moral or spiritual purpose with a free market dominated model. Market and economic performance indicators have become an end in themselves.
“A consensus has been allowed to build up that the primary, perhaps exclusive value of Europe lies in national economic interest – i.e. will we – the British or Spanish or Slovaks – be ‘better off’ in or out of Europe”. (Ryan)


2.      SUBSIDIARITY
The union does not take action unless it is more effective than action taken at national, regional or local level.

The Old Testament is suspicious of big government.
-          The tower of Babel (Genesis 11.1-9)
-          The people’s request for a king in 1 Sam 8.5: ‘You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.” It is seen as an act of rebellion against God. The people are warned that a king will centralise power and will oppress them. But God still gives them a king, and then transforms kingship in the person of Jesus Christ.

And subsidiarity is echoed in Catholic social teaching. Pope Pius XI: ‘It is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organisations can do’

The problem is not with the theory. The problem is the practice. How can we attempt to embed subsidiarity into the EU institutions? We have the European Parliament, but it only really has the right of veto. Currently there are very clumsy attempts

Much of the time decisions are being made by technocrats
§  Economists: the requirement to reduce levels of sovereign debt mean that austerity has been imposed on Greece. Whatever one thinks of that, it is clearly contrary to the will of the people
§  Lawyers: emphasis on rights seems to appear to people as something that is external that has been imposed on them
§  And it inevitably leads to excessive bureaucracy and red tape

And so there is a sense of ‘democratic deficit’. I can name my MP. I have no idea who our MEPs are.

3.      FREE MOVEMENT AND MIGRATION

It is hard to find biblical justification for or against.

There certainly was free movement in OT. In fact, the people of Israel in Egypt demanded free movement!

And there is the command of Leviticus 19.33-34: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”

At the same time, there were the commands to the Israelite nation to wipe out the foreigners (nokrim) who were perceived to be a threat. Although I would argue that what was dangerous to them was not their threat to Israel as a national entity, but a threat to them in their faith and trust in Yahweh

There was, to a degree, free movement in the Roman empire, and that certainly helped with the spread of the gospel.

And people speak of how mass migration (especially from Syria and the middle east) means that we lose our Christian identity. And yet I can’t help feeling that this was lost long again. Indeed, many of the more recent migrants have revitalised our churches – and they are the reason that many churches in London are growing. That was my own experience as a vicar in Holloway.
                                                                    
SUMMARY

So to go back to my first three principles.

1.      We need to ask if the EU will bring prosperity: not just to ourselves, but to the citizens of Europe and, beyond that, to the world.
2.      We need to ask if the EU, the 28 states and 500m members, has enough of a shared identity to see political institutions as genuinely representing them. In other words, will this make for peaceful government. I am reassured by the fact that many young people do not see an issue here. They feel that they are part of Europe in a way that many of those of us who are older do not.
And we need to ask what is going to be most helpful, not for the preservation of the gospel – of what we have – but for the spread of the gospel?
3.      We need to ask how do we apply the law of love to this?
The great command is to ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. What is significant about that is that we cannot choose our neighbour. They are a given to us. But we can choose to become a neighbour to them.

The debate is usually couched in terms of what is good for Britain. And for a Christian that is profoundly the wrong question. Rather we need to ask, What is good for the other countries of the EU? What would our remaining/leaving do for them? And what would it do for the rest of the world?

Whatever the decision, we need to commit ourselves to it.
If it is to leave, we need to make it work not just for us, but for others.
If we vote to stay in, we need to make it work not just for us, but for all.

There are no answers, I am afraid.
But I am convinced of this. That, as Christians, what we have in Christ is bigger than any stance we take on this particular issue.
And in the end, whatever the vote, God is sovereign.


I have read a few articles on this, some of which I was more convinced by than others.

A Christian case for leaving the European Union, Duncan Boyd
A biblical case for BREXIT, Pastor Peter Simpson
Articles from the Jubilee Centre: Guy Brandon, The big Isseu
Andrew Goddard: The EU referendum
Intercessors for Britain


However the main article that I found most helpful, and many of the arguments I have repeated here, was from the Theos thinktank, A soul for the Union by Ben Ryan

Saturday, 4 June 2016

Why should we share?


[Invite a pre-prepared older child to arm wrestle with a younger smaller child. Tell them that the prize is a large box of chocolates. Usually the older will want to allow the younger to win, but you need to persuade them before the service that they must win]

Is that fair? Unfortunately that is the way that the world works. The strong get the stuff and the weaker usually get nothing. 

Perhaps N [who has the sweets] should share them. But why should they share? I'm sure that they could make a very strong case for keeping what they have. After all they won it in a fair fight!

And why should I share what I have?

1. We share because we are told to: They tell us to share at school. And the government tell us to share. That is what taxes are. But usually when we share because we have been told to share, we try to get out of it. We try to avoid paying taxes. 
In the OT people were told to share: they were told to tithe. But because they really didn't want to share, they found ways round it. 
2. We share because we feel we ought to. We feel guilty if we don’t. Charities have been challenged on this. Sometimes they get people to give by making them feel guilty if they don’t give, and they prey on people who are vulnerable. You know when you give out of guilt when your giving is token-giving. (Giving away one sweet from our box of chocolates).
3. We share out of self-interest: we give for what we can get back for it. I share with you today because one day I may need you to share with me. Or I share with you to make you or other people like me: so that they say, 'What a generous person they are!'  In Jesus’ day people would have a giving competition: see what a great person I am because I give more than you. (So we give away not one sweet, but two sweets. Am I not a lovely, generous person?). Jesus challenged people who gave like that.
4. We share because we really want to


That is the kind of sharing that happens in Acts 4.32-35. 
People share:
- not because they have been told to do so.
- not because they think they ought to.
- not out of self-interest (they don’t give directly, but through the church leaders – so no sense of control). 
- but they give because they want to.

And that is evidence that the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, is at work in their lives and in their community.

1)    The Holy Spirit has given them a deep love for Jesus. Do you notice how it says here that they continue to testify, to tell people, about the resurrection of Jesus. The single most important thing that this Spirit filled community can do is to tell people that Jesus is alive.

2)    The Holy Spirit has made them realise that everything they have is a gift. You received this box of chocolates as a gift. But everything that we have is gift. And do you notice here how we are told that these first Christians don’t call anything their own.

3)    The Holy Spirit has set them free to share. Not just share a little, the left-overs. They share big – they sell lands and houses. The Holy Spirit has set them free to let go.
They know that who they are does not depend on what they have. 
In our world the person with the big box of chocolates is better than the person with the little box of chocolates. But they know that is not true.
And they also know that they don’t need to hold on to everything to be secure – because they can trust God for the future.

4)    The Holy Spirit has given them a deep sense of love for their brothers and sisters (They are of ‘one heart, one mind’). And the Holy Spirit starts to help them think. Why should I have when others don’t have? 

[To the child with the chocolates] I'm giving you an ethical dilemma. I really have given you that box of chocolates. What are you going to do with your box of chocolates? 

And if you think that is really unfair of me to do that to N – then I challenge each of us. 
We possess far more than a box of chocolates. 

Do we know anything of the Holy Spirit at work in our lives?
Do we have that deep love of Jesus?
Do we realise that everything we have is gift?
Are we being set free to give?
Are we being given a deeper and deeper love for our Christian brothers and sisters, and especially for those in need?

In other words, what are we going to do with what we do have?