Sunday, 18 October 2015

Evangelism Lucan style

Sermon for St Luke (whose special day is celebrated by the Church on 18th October)

2 Timothy 4:9-12
Do your best to come to me soon, for Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica; Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful in my ministry. I have sent Tychicus to Ephesus. When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas...

Luke 10:10
After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few..."

Have you ever wondered why there are Four Gospels, when perhaps one account of Jesus would’ve been simpler?

A helpful book that suggests reasons for there being four is The Four Faces of God, by John Bickersteth and Timothy Pain (1992).

In the 1980s John and Timothy ministered at Ashburnham Place in East Sussex, a Christian retreat house where I had some formative experiences in my teenage years, so it’s been a book that’s journeyed with me a long time, and one of my top favourites.

Their portrayal shows that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John point to different aspects of Jesus, which taken together, make up a very rich picture of the God who walked among us.

Briefly, Matthew is a regal portrayal of Jesus. He is shown as the King of Israel, majestic and powerful. Matthew emphasises the kingdom of heaven, leadership, authority, judgment and the church. The symbol for kingly authority is the lion.

In Mark we find a very different portrayal of Jesus. The symbol is a wounded ox; Mark’s themes are servanthood, suffering, submission and secrecy. The ox is servant to all and is eventually sacrificed for all.

Luke portrays a Saviour who is for everyone. Jesus is the perfect example of humanity. There’s a universal feeling to the message of salvation. Luke’s particular themes are joy, meals, prayer, money and women. The symbol for this universal healer/saviour is the perfect man of Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous pen and ink drawing.

Finally, John’s gospel is the most exalted vision of Jesus, the Eternal One, Son of God, present from before the creation of the world. The themes are love, light, truth and glory, belief and new birth.

The four faces of God idea serves as background to today, as we celebrate St Luke.

The story of Jesus sending out the 70 (or 72) occurs only in Luke. In the other gospels it is the 12 who are sent out. Already we can see Luke’s emphasis – the gospel is not just for the Jews, it’s not for the in-group, it’s for everyone.

So as we look at this mission of the 70, what do we see for our own mission here in the place where we live?

    1)   The Harvest is plentiful

This is Jesus’ starting point. We tend to think there aren’t that many people out there who would be interested in our message, but Jesus says the harvest is plentiful; it’s the workers who are few: Someone said of their church:

 “You know my church is like going to a football match. There are 22 people running around, exhausted and desperately in need of a rest being cheered on by a big crowd of people who actually need some exercise!”
(from Sermon given at St Mary’s Linton,

We sometimes hear similar things – today’s passage and the Epistle both speak of ministry being widely shared amongst the people of God, though we hear that note of sadness in Paul’s voice as he writes, ‘Demas has deserted me…’

Ministry is meaningful and even fun when it’s shared, and onerous when it’s not.

‘Ask the Lord of the Harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field’.
So that’s all about the size and manageability of the harvest (of souls, that is).

Next up, Jesus sends the disciples out on a mission to share the Good News.

Us too. But are we to go off with no shoes and refuse to say hello to people as we walk up the High Street?

2)   We need to find culturally appropriate ways to share the Good News.

Jesus didn’t say to his disciples, go out and invite everyone to the Synagogue…
No, he expected his followers to be out in the community sharing the Good News with those who would listen.
Similarly our mission strategy can’t afford to be simply to ‘invite someone to church’, though sometimes that’s entirely appropriate.
We need to look also at how our midweek and evening activities can also be opportunities for others to engage with the Christian message.

Or, simply, when did you last pray for your neighbours, or think about what the Good News would mean for them?

Jesus’ mission strategy was nothing if not gritty. The disciples were sent out in twos, ‘like lambs amongst wolves’, and told not to take any money or footwear, and not to greet anyone on the road.

It’s not an evangelistic strategy that I would particularly recommend today.

But we can ponder some of the principles behind Jesus’ instruction:
          The disciples were to trust him completely for provision
          They were to be single minded
          They were to prepare the way for Jesus himself
          They were to accept hospitality where the welcome was warm
          They were to heal and proclaim (actions and words).

So if that’s what they did as they went out into the streets, what was the content of their message? In other words:

3)   What is the heart of the Good News?

That’s a hard question actually, and one to which, if you took a straw poll of the people in this church, you might get a dozen or so different answers.
I’m indebted to another church member for this anecdote, which neatly sums up the confusion we sometimes have around what actually is the message of the Good News (the answer is in verse 9).

A group of Curates was quizzed by a bishop: ‘what is the heart of the Good News as you understand it?’
Eager to impress the great personage, a keen young Curate popped up his hand: ‘it’s all about peace’.
‘Not so’, said the Bishop.
‘It all about love’, said another.
‘Not so’, said the Bishop, to increasing puzzlement.
The group was getting uneasy; had all their training been for nothing? Had they fundamentally misunderstood the Christian message?
Finally a bright young thing raised a cautious hand: ‘The Kingdom of God is near, he said.
‘Spot on’, replied the Bishop.

‘The kingdom of God near’ just about sums up the message of the Good News that Jesus commissioned his followers to proclaim, and here in here in the second decade of the 21st Century, we’re still doing the same.
Whenever we welcome people with hospitality, pray for them, offer acts of service in the power of the Holy Spirit, ‘the kingdom of God is near’. 
  • The Harvest is plentiful
  • We need to find culturally appropriate ways of sharing it
  • The Good News is: ‘the kingdom of God is near’

As St Luke gave us a Jesus whose message was for all, may we have eyes to see the harvest, imagination to share the message, and always remember the heart of the message: ‘the kingdom of God is near’.


Sunday, 11 October 2015

Secrets of a real life preacher

So, you're a preacher.

When you were a keen lay person, and not yet a minister, perhaps you got the chance to preach once in a while. It was great - you had about 4 weeks notice or more; you read widely, chewed the theme over, made some notes, felt on top of things, felt quite inspired and even a bit holy, wrote out your sermon and practised it in front of the mirror till you were word perfect.

It's a bit different now you're a fully paid up preacher. That sermon comes round far too soon every week. Unless you're one of those preachers who has a large staff to do all the other ministry tasks for you, so that you can spend the elusive 'hour per minute' on your sermon prep, you'll probably have some sympathy for the following two scenarios. Neither is fictional, both are recent, and in each case, I initially plumped for one option when in fact the other was the only one that (in hindsight) worked. 

I wonder which options you would have taken?

Despite reserving some time in your diary for sermon preparation, it's somehow got eaten into bit by bit till you suddenly arrive at nearly the weekend and you have no sermon. It's late afternoon, you've finally extricated yourself from admin; you tell yourself, 'now is the time, I'll never get round to it unless I do it now''s after lunch and all the blood has gone to your stomach, leaving nothing in your brain. But you MUST write something NOW. But you're so tired............Do you:

1) Sit and stare at the computer screen and spend the next two hours fretting about being unproductive. Afterwards you still have no sermon but you do have a headache, feel grumpy and are too tired to cook the supper properly. 

2) Sleep. 
Somehow you'll wake up feeling a lot better and inspiration will always come along if you have the energy. You'll be amazed how clear your head is now and somehow more minutes will be found that you didn't otherwise envisage. You'll even enjoy putting something down on paper with your renewed energy, maybe between phone calls, cake making and a TV programme, but it'll be good...

You have to prepare an All Age talk for Harvest on Matthew 6: Jesus' teaching on 'Do not worry'. You don't really know who will be at the all age service because all age congregations are like the 'Marmite' of church life: they're either strangely and inexplicably empty, or encouragingly bang full of lovely people you've never seen before. But you never know which till you process in. This is normal. As far as children are concerned, you're haunted by the time you prepared an 'all age' fun song that involved jumping up and down and generally making a fool of yourself; and no children came. In addition, last night you had a dream where you found yourself at home on a Sunday morning and you suddenly looked at the clock and realised the service had started 2 minutes ago and you're still in your pyjamas. Furthermore in the dream your house was in a terrible mess, all the furniture was upside down and covered in dust sheets, and you couldn't find any of the things you'd prepared for the all age service; neither the music, the talk, the visual aids nor the notice sheets.  Not only could you not move your legs about normally in the dream; you couldn't actually speak either, only moan incoherently: 'please, someone help me'. 

How do you approach this task?

1) Ignore the entire point of the reading and WORRY.

2) Remember that the point of church is to witness to the presence of Jesus and he said 'do not worry' for a reason, and anyway it's bad for your health AND a bad witness; and actually you have no idea of people's lives; if they can come, they'll come; if they can't they won't. But very likely someone will be there, and they will hopefully encounter God there, and that's His work anyway; and we're called to be faithful, not 'successful'. So put something together that can be adapted as need be. Put the dream behind you and enjoy the people who do come. And above all, don't worry.

As it says in the Good Book: 'Physician, heal thyself'.