Wednesday, June 12, 2024

A last Hurrah!

Denuded of my preaching library and with fewer outlets for research, I pondered whether I could offer any words of value to this volume. But then a thought struck me! In 2014 the US seminary where I was teaching was chosen by the Lily Foundation to contribute research to its national project titled: ‘Strengthening the Quality of Preaching.’ I seized the opportunity to design a response called ‘A New Kind of Preacher (NKP)’ which resulted in conferences, peer learning groups, two books and shared fieldwork influencing a few hundred pastors. However, owing to a change of seminary personnel, the books were never published and, sadly, the programme lost momentum with my work disappearing.  I wondered whether a compressed essay in this festschrift might give this lost work one last Hurrah!  

I admit my thinking was absurdly ambitious. Instead of concentrating on the task of preaching and the act of sermon making, I dared to question the role of sermon makers, probing theological questions about who preachers are in relationship to God, to their congregations, and to the surrounding culture. Not so much about what they preach as to how and why they preach. On the persons of preachers.

To encapsulate the project’s concept as well as its structure I proposed this definition. The Preacher thinks and feels deeply about God, has self-knowledge, and is called by God to pastor the congregation as a lead worshipper, proclaimer, collaborator, community builder and missionary.

 It begins theologically, with concern that preachers have a lively understanding of Trinitarian dynamics not only for seeing more of how God works in the world but experiencing how he is involved with them in the preaching act. Pivotal for integrating five roles, I use the term pastor to express the foundational relationship with a congregation.  The five roles define dimensions of the preacher’s ministry. Not all hold equal significance. Lead-worshipper, Proclaimer and Missionary are prime roles with Collaborator and Community Builder playing indispensable supplementary roles. Whenever any one of these roles is diminished so is preaching. 

A range of preaching genres is closely connected with these roles. Traditionally, sermon preparation concentrated mainly on words (focus) in order to retell a passage’s meaning with appropriate application.  However, more recently a revolution has occurred in biblical interpretation about how God encounters us in Scripture. He not only says words in messages but also does things (function) by those messages. Rhetorical studies of Scripture have shown how different genres move us to varying responses. Some are well known such as evangelistic, prophetic, pastoral and doctrinal.  To these I add: celebratory, liturgical (recognizing that ‘liturgy’ applies to any order of worship from highly formal to wildly informal), salvation history, and missional. Together, these eight complement each other in the five dimensions of the preacher’s ministry.

So, dear Stephen's festschrift gave me one last chance for this preaching vision to see the light of day before I ride off into the sunset.  Thank you for the opportunity Stephen!

 


Friday, June 7, 2024

Honouring a friend

When notable academic colleagues retire one special way of marking their contribution is to publish a festschrift (from German celebration and writing) in their honour.  Rev. Dr. Stephen Wright - a noted New Testament and Homiletics scholar - recently finished at Spurgeon's College after beginning there in 1998. He started as Director of the College of Preachers but was to continue as a vital leader of the Spurgeon's community. For over 25 years he has been such a wise, gentle, humble, gifted teacher, educator, pastor, author and friends to so many of us. So, a very worthy candidate for a festschrift.

When the editor asked me to contribute a chapter I wanted to say 'Yes'. I have contributed to others' celebration writing and since I was involved in Stephen's appointment I particularly would have liked to chip in a word. However, all my academic books had already been shipped out and familiar academic props were missing.  I felt academically bereft!  Therefore I declined to take part.

However, the Editor came back to me.  His second ask was insistent. Didn't I have special responsibility at Stephen's beginning?  Surely something could emerge!  Reluctantly, with mixed results, something did emerge and I'll post about it next. But the wonderful aspect of presenting any final publication like this is that, at its best, the whole exercise has been conducted in utmost secrecy.  When the presentation is eventually made on a public occasion, the book should be a total surprise. A shock of the best kind. 

Last week the presentation ceremony was scheduled at Spurgeon's College Chapel. It was too early for me to attend in person but fortunately it was streamed (and what a gift online service gives us)!  Though we were ready for the start at 10:30 am and the camera showed friends gathered in the chapel, Stephen was absent and blissfully unaware. He arrived some 10 minutes later and was utterly stunned .  By his wife and daughter, who had been involved in the planning, yet who had somewhat misled him about their commitments that morning! And by the group of friends and colleagues.  Beginning with lively worship and prayer we came to the moment when Stephen was handed his own festschrift.  You could see the genuine surprise and delight as he held it and as video tributes and written greetings followed.  It was a shock of the best kind.

What a great way to honour a deserving scholar. To top it all he was told that in the afternoon he would be at Lambeth Palace with the Archbishop who had written the book's foreword.  It's worthily called: Well Done, Good and Faithful Servant. 

Friday, May 31, 2024

Y = TRUTH

Right from the beginning of this short letter John links LOVE with TRUTH. Just look at the word's frequency. Whom I love in the truth - and not I only but also all who know the truth - because of the truth which lies in us and will be with us forever (vv1,2)   It has given me great joy to find some of your children walking in the truth. (v4). But it's only some who are walking in the truth. That deeply concerns him.

There are truths with a capital T and the biggest is who Jesus is, the Way, the Truth and the Life (John 14:6). Scripture reveals the extraordinary truth that God has revealed himself to us in flesh.  That Jesus is born in Bethlehem. He is God incarnates, identifying with us. Yet at the same time he is God's Son. 100% divine and 100% human. To sensible people this belief is nonsense! Ever since the church began sensible people have taught either he is more God than man or man that God.

For this new young church some have come with a particular teaching: 'Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh have gone out into the world' (v7) This church is clearly in danger of listening to false teaching. This Gnostic thinking with many variations likes behind several New Testament letters. It seem this particular teaching refused to accept that God who is spirit and utterly pure and good could be mixed up with the material, impure and evil world.  So, if Jesus is truly God it’s nonsense to claim that he was born in flesh and that he actually died. No, Jesus became God at his baptism and left the man before the crucifixion.  

There has always been controversy about who Jesus is. Always.  Someone came up to me at church a couple of weeks ago:  'We have a group of Christians who meet at work and we have this bloke who is a Christadelphian.  And don’t they have strange teaching about Jesus? ' Well, their approach is to say that because there is one God, Jesus is not divine with the Father. There's no Trinity. I happened to be preaching this last Sunday which to many in the world church is set apart as Trinity Sunday. After the Spirit has come at Pentecost the fullness of God's three persons is revealed. New disciples will be baptised in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Trinity Sunday always pushes us to think beyond human wisdom and ask for spiritual wisdom which is truth beyond reaston - transrational.  It's spiritual truth which God wants us to open our hearts and minds to in wondering faith that  accepts God's thoughts are not ours. 

One radio programme when the Archbishop talked with various people about Christianity involved the comedian John Cleese who expressed interest. . But then he said: 'What I don't understand is wh yJesus had to die!'  That's raw human wisdom declaring how something makes no sense. It is foolishness (1 Cor 2:13). It's only by spiritual wisdom which opens up to the possibility that Jesus truly is the Son of God  that the Cross begins to make spiritual sense.   

John writes to this church about being careful about who you have to teach and challenge you. It means keeping alert.  Don’t let minor byways distract you from the major truths of the gospel and Jesus as Lord, Son of the Father, with the Holy Spirt as Trinity is as major as they come.

Monday, May 27, 2024

X = TOUGH LOVE

It’s tough love. Tough love is the practice of being very strict with someone to help them correct their behaviour.  Jesus as Lord commands us to love in his ways. He commands us to walk together in love.

Nicky Gumbel, the inspiration behind the Alpha programme, has recently posted a couple of quotes on Facebook from Alice Cooper, the American rock singer. Almost as old as me (!) Cooper used to plaster his face with lurid black make-up. An old picture of him accompanies the quote: Drinking beer is easy. Trashing your hotel room is easy. But being a Christian is a tough call. That’s real rebellion.  Yes, real rebellion.

Doing stuff that Jesus calls us to do is tough There’s an act of compassion, someone who could really benefit from us giving them some time. We just don't feel like doing it. Jesus says: 'Do it for me.' There’s a commitment that I know Jesus would like but I don’t feel like doing it. Jesus says: 'Do it for me.' When my home group discussed keeping commitments recently (I mentioned this in a post) we saw the challenge between the practical commitments that are required in our daily lives - paying bills, keeping appointments, doing jobs and the voluntary commitments that Jesus requires.  Those commitments reveal our willingness to obey with tough love. Jesus love. Agape.

Local churches work by tough love - when their congregations make commitments to each other and their neighbours that Jesus requires, commands.  And I know it as an itinerant preacher.  When you visit a church for the first time, sadly, sometimes you can feel the tensions where people are working an organization rather than working at love. Sometimes it has almost seemed that aliens had come and sucked out life spirit from people and left soulless bodies.  

It's obvious that the formula for a spiritual strong church needs LOVE. X.  And in this letter John keenly links love with one other vital requirement. Y.  It's mentioned five times in the first four verses.....

Friday, May 24, 2024

X = LOVE

The first word in the formula X + Y = a spiritually strong church is so obvious, and it is especially a John, the apostle, word. There’s an old story (which means you have probably already heard it) of John preaching his last sermon.  He was so old, his voice was weak and he was frail. Because they so revered him the crowds squeezed in tight to hear this apostle who’d actually been with Jesus. |What would his last words be?  With a quavering voice he said: Little children love one another. Little children love one another. Little children love one another. And then again, and again, the same words. People became restless. Some said it was such a shame. Was it a sign of dementia?  Was this all he was going to say?  Some people understood. It really was the most important thing of all for them to hear. And some, in their shame, knew John was probing deeply about what mattered most about their own behaviour.  

You can hear John's love for these people  It says 'the chosen lady and her children' and it could be a family group whom he loves  v1.  Or it could be his way of speaking to a local church a sister church full of brothers and sisters . In fact, it’s suggested that the details are left vague so that in those  days of persecution disciples couldn’t be identified. But I think he knew their names and he loves them. He cannot wait to see them face-to-face v12. To belong to a group of people who love and care for each other is the greatest gift.

Love  is such a warm, popular yet elastic word. It extends over a wide spectrum from the superficial at its lowest end. Carol and I happen to love Lentil and Bacon soup which at the moment means we have a small store. And we say we love it.  We can say that with meaning about favourite food, football clubs, pop stars and the a heap of things. Moving along the spectrum love becomes heavier and more engaging.  We can fall in love - love of partners, family, friends, It can be highly emotional. Of course we can also fall out of love. But at its highest, and it really is the highest form of love, is Jesus love, Agape. That's the word in John 2.  It's never highly emotional. It cost Jesus everything to love us and it costs us everything to love him back.  We have to make him Lord and say in the power of the Spirit that we want to love other people like Jesus loves us.  It’s a commanded love, that needs our hearts, souls, minds and will.  John says it often: it’s not a new command but one we had from the beginning. I ask that we love one another and this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love. (vv5,6).

It's a tough love. 

Monday, May 20, 2024

A church formula

Keeping commitments (to follow a recent theme) involves me preaching a couple of times in the next few weeks. Back at Bluntisham, still in awaiting a new minister, I am hooked into their current preaching series -‘Overlooked books of the Bible.’ My two dates coincide with John 2 and Jude. My records (not necessarily hyper-accurate you understand) suggest that I have never preached on John 2 though I have intensively focused on John 1.  Jude has only one outing.  That's in over 60 plus years of preaching. So, overlooked they certainly are!

I was reminded of the old green Baptist Hymn Book, published in 1954. My father as Baptist minister set his heart on making sure that none of the nearly 800 hymns were overlooked. As a teenager I got to know the hymn book – some golden oldies and new ones. Not new as in Kendricks, Gettys, Redmon, Hillsong etc...but new for the 50's.. In the tune book on the piano he began to write the dates against the days he chose particular hymns.  If he felt the tune was a barrier he’d find a another tune with the same metre. And some had to be introduced tune and all. He said he wanted to make sure we didn’t stay with the popular ones but sang ones we didn’t know. I guess some people might have been fed up. 'Look at the words carefully' he would say. ' We shouldn’t miss this one out.  It’s chosen because it says something that matters'.  

Now, with Scripture it’s different because big choices were taken as to which books were important for telling out God's story, but a similar principle applies. Look at the words carefully. We shouldn't miss this one out.  It's here because it says something important. So, what matters in John 2?   

Certainly something mattered to the apostle John when he wrote this.  He’s the elder and as he addresses this young church two issues really matter.  Which of course means they matter for any church, like ours. I think that together these two themes almost amount to a formula for a spiritually strong church.. X plus Y equals....



Thursday, May 16, 2024

Keeping Commitments 3)

Our group meeting always ends in group prayer but I wanted every member to be able to share from the beginning. So I split our study session into two parts.  Part 1 asked members to name a commitment they have to keep and, as I mentioned two posts ago, I began with my foot exercises. Certainly no one else named that issue (though two group members have suffered in the past).  As we went round the room people particularly identified commitments to family, especially grandchildren. One highlighted their belonging to a church choir, another referred to their list of friends with whom to keep in contact. Someone spoke about their commitment to a weekly church outreach programme involving young families in the village. And yes, there was honest disclosure. Someone described how their desire to move from couch to 5K run was a failed commitment!

|We reflected on these and many other kinds of commitments and placed them in four categories.        

First - our vows to God  

Second - vows in marriage, to family, to friends 

Third - required practical commitments like paying bills, maintaining contracts, getting to work on time, projects keeping appointments.

Fourth - voluntary commitments - involvement with others offering help, showing compassion, mercy, which are extra to duties of daily life.

Part 2 reviewed some set questions about Hosea's marriage modelling God's broken relationship with Israel yet his enduring love, and with this in mind focused on the list above.  Because God's love for us calls for our commitment to him to be so serious that it affects every level of commitment.  As one group member said: 'It really challenges me to think that everything that we do matters to God - all commitments at every level! '.

As we prepared to pray together one person shared how they were particularly burdened with a decision about further leadership involvement in the church.  About how difficult it is to discern at the fourth level how much more we should do in busy lives. 

We always value time together. I know this challenge about keeping commitments has a sharper edge as I plan my diary ahead.