Sunday, 26 April 2015

G(r)owing nowhere fast

There's a conversation going on at the moment within the Church of England, about growth (or in other words, how to halt decline), which is proceeding along depressingly predictable lines, as reported recently in the Church Times:

This week it was the turn of the evangelical group, Fulcrum, to address the criticism of Reform and Renewal, the Archbishop's vision for the renaissance of the C of E. It was the contention of the Rt Revd. Pete Broadbent, Bishop of Willesden, that now that the Church of England is finally looking hard at some really important things, asking awkward questions like 'what actually leads to growth? (or, if you like, how do we get out of the mess we're in?) those more used to managing decline suddenly don't like what they see, and are resorting to accusations that the Church is adopting un- thought through secular management techniques, seeking safety in numbers, and ignoring the fact that sometimes priests do struggle on bravely in the toughest ministry circumstances, whilst numbers drop inexorably away, sometimes to zero.

The narrative of this increasingly polarised debate goes like this: liberals are hopelessly happy to preside over decline, stressing prayerfulness and holiness above numbers, and relying on presence as an evangelistic strategy, while evangelicals unquestioningly adopt secular management techniques, flog their programmes, pinch other people's churchgoers and rely on a certain sort of leadership mystique for numerical growth (thought they're always quick to add, as an afterthought, that growth is about quality, not just quantity).

Bishop Broadbent declared himself to be 'allergic to Rev.', the gritty, award winning BBC series about an inner city priest who struggles on despite having, to all intents and purposes a 'failing' church, with no money, smug authoritarian overseers, and a handful of oddballs for worshippers.

Being allergic to Rev. is also a predictable part of the narrative. Rev. has a decided 'liberal catholic' flavour, and evangelicals got short shrift in series 1, episode 2: Jesus is Awesome, with the satirising of 'smoothie bar' Christianity. Okay, maybe a bit unfair, but excruciatingly funny precisely because there was more than a grain of truth in it.

If you're primarily geared up to growth and how to achieve it, watching the Rev. Adam Smallbone lurch from one crisis to another in a church which is teetering on the edge of closure (which is in fact what sadly happens at the end of series 3), will of course leave you feeling queasy. But from a dramatic, and even a theological point of view, anyone who's 'allergic to Rev', for me, is dangerously close to saying they're allergic to the underdog, therefore allergic to the Beatitudes, even allergic to the possibility of resurrection...?

It's a cloudy picture, this debate about decline/growth/leadership etc... In the mix is another unseemly argument around the word discipleship, a word I admit is beloved of evangelicals, but also a rather hard to ignore idea in the New Testament. I'm keen on the word and do not share other people's scruples about it. Anyone brought up on David Watson's 1981 seminal book of that name is likely to read a critique (see link below) of the concept as an attack on the very foundation of a serious lifelong commitment to following Jesus, which is how I interpret discipleship.

So there you are - I love Rev. and I don't want to 'diss' discipleship. And I'm desperately hoping that instead of arguing about growth, we Christ followers could just get together and 'seek first his kingdom and his righteousness', then 'all these things' (numbers; or at least, the people God is calling, which are not always the same thing) would maybe be added to us as well....

Is it too much to hope for? Or in our little camps, promoting our own brand and dissing the others, are we just going to be going (growing) nowhere fast...?

Saturday, 18 April 2015

On the Third Day

Easter Morning Sermon

John 20:1-8 'I have seen the Lord'.

The Resurrection of the Body (Maia Press, 1995) by author Maggie Hamand (whom I was privileged to meet recently) features a vicar with a crisis of faith. Revd. Richard Page shepherds a church in a London suburb; he has a loving wife and two small sons, but for him the resurrection of Jesus form the dead is more a spiritual thing than anything that could strictly said to be physical. He's a good man, with strong convictions, but he cannot reconcile the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith. Until, that is, he has a dramatic experience in church on Good Friday.

During the sombre Good Friday service, while the congregation are in quiet prayer and contemplation of the saviour on the cross, a man stumbles in, bleeding from a vicious knife wound, and collapses inside the church. The paramedics are called, the congregation is distraught and the vicar unable to complete the service. The man is taken away to hospital where he later dies. The subsequent disappearance of the body is made even more mysterious by his later reported appearances in the local park, fish restaurant and ‘upper room’ of a flat in the town. The vicar sets out to try and find out what is really going on, and in doing so, nearly falls foul of the police, his congregation and even his wife. Is he going mad, or is the man still alive somehow? What would it mean if it were true? In addition one of the congregation is also convinced she has seen the man alive and wants Richard to corroborate this, whilst others doubt.

It makes the vicar reassess his crisis of faith.
In the end we’re left wondering if he has re-found his faith in a living Jesus.

The truth remains for us that we believe that Jesus rose from the dead. Our Creeds declare, ‘on the third day he rose again’)

Why this confidence?


Who dunnits are a favourite genre with me.
In any reconstruction of events, the testimony of a witness is of paramount importance.

We will consider 1) witnesses then and 2) witnesses now

1)Paul’s account in 1 Corinthians 15 reads rather different from the gospel account - he seems to miss out that it was the women who first saw Jesus on that Easter morning. 

In the gospel accounts, women feature heavily as witnesses: ‘the women in the gospel narratives are the first people to find the tomb of Jesus empty. Moreover 'they are the only witnesses to the empty tomb who had seen Jesus buried and therefore could vouch for the fact that the empty tomb really was the tomb in which Jesus’ body had been laid two days before’ (Richard Bauckham)*.

Let’s reconstruct the events from our eyewitness accounts.
In our gospel today, Mary is the first to witness the empty tomb.
She runs to Peter and John and says: ‘they have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have put him’.
Resurrection is so far from her mind, she naturally takes something known (theft of a body) and assumes this is the case here (the intriguing ‘we’ do not know where they have put him is suggestive of others with here – we know from other accounts that there were at least three women in the garden that morning – but John focuses on Mary Magdalene).
The next witnesses to the empty tomb are Peter and John.
I love the personal details: John outruns Peter but doesn’t go in; Peter goes into the empty tomb after arriving there and sees the linen cloth for the body wrapped up in a different place from the head wrapping.
It seems Jesus just passed through it (compare this to the raising of Lazarus, where Lazarus came out still wrapped in the linens...)
We’re not told what Peter made of this, but we are told that John looked in and believed: ‘he saw and believed’.
Seeing is not always believing, but in John’s case it is, though all he has seen is the absence of a body...
So we are building up a picture of the witnesses to the resurrection:
·      The empty tomb.
·      The empty tomb now seen by three disciples: Mary, Peter and John
·      The grave cloths wrapped up neatly inside.

Now we go to a different segment of the resurrection story.
Bauckham* points out that in each of the gospel accounts, we have the same narrative pattern: the discovery of the empty tomb – the appearance of Jesus to his disciples and their commissioning – and in the middle and transition: in this case, it is the personal experience of Mary Magdalene.
Added to her witnessing the empty tomb, she now sees the angels and meets the risen Lord.
The evidence of her eyes is battling with her preconceived ideas of what is actually possible – dead persons do not generally come back to life, so she thinks Jesus is the gardener.
In some way he must have looked different – though also the same – she does recognise him with her ears, when he says her name: MARY.
There is something intimate in the recognition.

We have seen that our belief in the risen Jesus is based on eyewitness accounts of the resurrection: that

·      Mary was a witness to where Jesus was buried; to the empty tomb, to the angels and finally to Jesus himself.
·      Peter and John witnessed the empty tomb, the linen cloths and eventually, on the evening of the first day of the week, Jesus himself in the upper room.
·      Paul attests to the very basic fact of Jesus’ resurrection, to Peter, the 12, James and to himself.

This leads us to our 2nd point:

2)Where/who are the witnesses to the resurrection today?
You will have realised that Paul never actually met the physical person of Jesus – he was born too late.
However he testifies to the risen Jesus because he met him on the road to Damascus.
This is our clue: today, the witnesses to Jesus are us, those who have met him and know him to have changed our lives.
A witness is the word ‘marturia’ – martyr.
A martyr is simply one who testifies to Jesus.
I’d like us to think particularly about this idea of witness as we start a new year with the PCC.
In each generation, the Church has continued because of the witness of the followers of Jesus.
Where that witness stops, the Church stops.
How can we be witnesses, if we have never seen the Lord?
Mary said ‘I have seen the Lord’
Can we say the same?
What does a witness need to do?

·     Witnesses gather for worship.
·     Witnesses when love one another
·     Witnesses care about the community.
·     Witnesses point to Jesus 

We started with Revd. Richard Page, struggling to believe in the historical resurrection, wondering if it weren’t all a myth – a nice myth, but a myth nonetheless. You'll have to buy the book and read the final 2 pages to see what happened in the changes everything...

*'The Women at the Tomb: The Credibility of their Story'. The Laing Lecture at London Bible College.