Faith Meets World

Reflections on faith in a messed-up but beautiful world

Category: Leadership

What kind of messiah? A sermon for the fourth Sunday of Easter

[This post is the transcript of a sermon I preached this morning at the local Anglican church I attend.]

Today’s Gospel reading is John 10:22-30. You can read the text here.

Background

In the year 167 BC, nearly two centuries before Jesus was born, disaster came upon Jerusalem.

Israel was under the control of the Seleucid Empire and its king, Antiochus IV, who came to power in 175 BC. He chose for himself the name Antiochus Epiphanes, which means “God manifest”; that gives you some idea how he saw himself. He immediately began to persecute the Jews, outlawing their religious practices, including the observance of kosher food laws, and ordering the worship of the Greek god Zeus. He had a gymnasium, symbolising the supremacy of Greek culture, built just outside the Temple. And in 167 BC, he committed the ultimate act of sacrilege, vandalising the Temple, setting up an idol on its altar, and outlawing various central practices of Judaism, including circumcision and the Sabbath. He set up altars to Greek gods and idols in every town and put to death anyone who refused to pray to them.

This, obviously, was the worst kind of humiliation for the people of God. For them, the Temple was much more than just a building where you went to worship: like the Ark of the Covenant and the Tabernacle before it, it was the place where God himself dwelled among his people. And practices like circumcision and observance of the Sabbath were much more than mundane religious rituals: they were vital markers of Israel’s identity as the chosen, covenant people of the one true God.

Who would rescue the Jewish people from this awful humiliation and repression?

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On ministry, status and church culture

Hamster wheelAs I write this in September 2014, it’s not far off thirty years since I became a Christian and church went from being something I had rarely experienced to becoming a very big part of my life. If I could have a pound (or a dollar) for every hour spent in a church building or church meeting (or otherwise doing “church work”) since then, I could probably retire and live the high life until I die.

For pretty much all of that thirty-year period, I have been involved in some form of what is generally referred to as “ministry”. For me, this has mainly consisted of leading worship and playing in a worship band. However, I have also participated in running kids’ outreach, leading home groups, leading Sunday gatherings and preaching. I was also part of a church’s team of leaders/elders for a few years. The last few months have really been the only period during which I have not engaged in some kind of ministry, preferring instead to simply attend church on a Sunday.

Now, before I go on to say what I want to say, let me first clarify something: I do not wish to imply that all ministry is futile or misdirected. Nor do I wish to suggest that the institutional church is without merit, or cast aspersions on the motivations of anyone involved in ministry. I have benefited immensely from my journey through the church, and I know many people who sincerely and tirelessly seek to serve God by serving others in their faith communities. Not to mention many who have found compassion, love and healing through the institutional church. (I say this because some will inevitably assume that I have an axe to grind and am simply airing a bad case of sour grapes against the church. Not so.)

Having had a few months out of active “ministry”, and having at the same time had a good portion of my theological thinking deconstructed and rearranged, I find that my perspective on ministry involvement in church has evolved somewhat.

You see, with the benefit of thirty years’ hindsight and the increased clarity that comes from stepping back for a few months, I’ve begun to see some worrying aspects of the “ministry culture” that is found in many charismatic and Pentecostal churches.

We like to pretend that everyone in church is equal, that we are all simply using our various gifts to serve God together in a variety of ways. Indeed, I’ve often heard it said from the pulpit that the person who cleans the toilets is just as important as the pastor or the preacher. In practice, however, the reality is often rather different.

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Some musings on Nelson Mandela

MandelaYesterday evening (as if anyone could not already know this), the world learned of the death of South African political-activist-turned-president Nelson Mandela, who passed away aged 95 after a long struggle with a lung infection.

Predictably – and, I might add, justifiably given his stature – the internet and social media have been alive with news and comment about Mandela’s life and legacy today. There’s probably little of substance that I can add to what’s already been said, but I thought it would be appropriate to offer a few thoughts of my own.

I first heard Mandela’s name on the radio when I was a teenager in the 1980s; for a long time, I had little idea who he was, what he stood for or why he was such an important figure. It was only really after the fall of the apartheid regime and the establishment of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission that I began to understand his significance. However, while few would deny the crucial role he played in engineering a peaceful transition to an inclusive democracy, there always remained questions over his past affiliations, and in particular his involvement in a militant group known as MK, which led a sabotage campaign against the apartheid government that resulted in significant numbers of civilian casualties. It was, of course, this association that landed him in prison in 1962; he would not emerge until 27 years later.

Broadly speaking, the reactions I’ve seen on social media to Mandela’s death range from one extreme to the other. While many have been content to commend his achievements, some seem to have accorded him almost godlike status, while others have harked back to his militant days and expressed their frustration at such accolades being heaped upon a “terrorist” and a “murderer”.

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The secret of being weak

God's favorite place on earthI recently began reading a little book by Frank Viola. In it, Frank uses what we know about the Judean village of Bethany to highlight what made it such a haven for Jesus and to tease out and explore common struggles faced by Christians. He seems to put his finger on many of the challenges I see both in myself and in modern church culture. The first chapter contains the following section, which I thought was simply too good not to share (emphasis added):

We live in a day where the popular idea behind ministry training is to focus on developing one’s gifts. Gift inventories, personality surveys, and strength indicator tests are the rage among those who want to be equipped for ministry today.

But these kinds of tests set your eyes on your gifts. They put the focus on your strengths and your natural abilities. They make you the center of attention.

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