Thoughts on Mission [2]

So, here’s another passage from Vincent J Donavan’s book “Christianity Rediscovered” that really made me think:

In the final analysis, the message of the New Testament, the message that passes from Jesus to us, is that the only way to overcome evil is to give into it.  Overcome it he did, beginning with death which he turned into resurrection.  In his case, he could not have overcome death by violently struggling against it, or by disputing with Pilate or Caiphas over the injustice of it all, and thus avoiding it altogether.  It can be argued that his was a singular case, and a singular solution, and that it is no applicable to others, and to us.  Singular it was, but it stands nonetheless as the only solution to evil offered in the New Testament.

I’m not sure I agree with this, or certainly not all of this.  I don’t think the established churches do either: one of the five CofE marks of mission is “To seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation”; one of the five Baptist core values is to be “A Prophetic Community – Following Jesus in confronting evil, injustice and hypocrisy. Challenging worldly concepts of wealth, power, status and security.”  How is that compatible with “the only way to overcome evil is to give into it”?

Perhaps Donavan is just wrong on this?  And yet, there is a ring of truth to some of it.  Jesus could have called on legions of angels to forcibly resist his arrest and execution but he didn’t, and he said as much.  Jesus could have encouraged violent resistance to the forces occupying his nation’s homeland, but he didn’t, and he rebuked Peter when he resorted to violence in Gethsemane.  Jesus did give in to the evil forces that plotted against him, and in so doing has won for us the ultimate victory over death itself.  There was to be no resurrection from the dead without death first.

But can it ever be the right thing simply to give into evil?  Are we simply not far-sighted enough to see how giving in will lead to overcoming?

What do you think?

An eye for an eye? (Matthew 5:38-48)

‘‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

If statistics are to be believed, the majority of people in the UK are in favour of the death penalty (between 50 and 75% in poll results I’ve seen).  Retributive justice still appeals to many people: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life.

At some levels the idea of retributive justice makes sense: if I stole ten pounds from you, it would seem only right that ten pounds was taken from me and given back to you.  Everyone is placed back in their previous position before any wrongdoing occurred.

When something terrible happens, who would not want to return everything to the way it was before?

But if you’ve lost an eye, no amount of eyes will give you yours back.  No amount of teeth will return your tooth; no amount of lives the life of one you love.  Nothing we can do can turn the clock back or reverse history.

It is the great Christian hope that one day all wrongs will be made right; all ills healed; all enemies reconciled; every tear of grief wiped away; death itself defeated.  Our hope is that God will complete this work through His Son Jesus Christ; the great work that Jesus has  already started; the work we call the Resurrection.

Our hope is that this will be no simple return to how things were before – our broken teeth made whole, our blinded eyes restored, our wounds patched up and us sent on our way.  The hope of the Resurrection is much greater than that: seeing God face-to-face, and dwelling in His presence sustained by His great Love.

We believe that this great work was begun in the life, death and return to life – Resurrection – of the one we call Jesus Christ.  We don’t know when this work begun in Him will finally be completed.  But until that day we are told to love those who persecute us; bless those who curse us; to return evil not with further evil, but with good, not to seek retribution against those who wrong us.

For just as the rain falls without discrimination on everyone, whether good or evil, so the Love of Jesus, God’s own Love, is given to all.  And we are called to do the same.

That should be enough for us (Matthew 5:21-37)

“‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

‘It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

‘Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”

Sometimes it’s not nice to think about the bad things we do.  Sat here listening to some great folk music and enjoying a glass of wine I feel pretty good thanks, and not really in the mood to contemplate on the fact that I, like everyone else, can also be a shit some of the time.

It can be difficult not to feel bad about yourself after reading the gospel passage appointed for this Sunday.  Ever been angry with someone?  That’s on a par with murder…  Called someone a fool?  To hell…  Looked at someone of the opposite sex improperly?  As bad as committing adultery…  Tried cutting off your hand or mutilating your face to sort out that problem?

Bloody.  Difficult.  Stuff.  To.  Read.

The saving grace for me comes from last week’s passage – verse 19 “whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven”

Although we may be the least of all there, there is room for people who do bad things – who sin, who break God’s commandments – in the presence of God in his kingdom.  And perhaps by some undeserved generosity while we’re there something of God’s goodness and capacity to love might rub off on us.

That should be enough for us.  May that be enough for me.

Thoughts on mission [1]

I’ve been really enjoying Vincent J Donavan’s book “Christianity Rediscovered” about mission to the Masai communities in Tanzania in the latter half of the twentieth century.

The latest chapter contains some really interesting and challenging statements.  I thought I’d post a few of them with my thoughts and see if anyone wanted to come in with their opinion.

So the first is this…

[T]he gospel is the affair of the missionary, and the interpretation of the gospel is the affair of the people who hear that gospel.

It sounds…sensible, interesting, very different from how “mission” has traditionally been done, and has provoked in me a lot of questions!

  • Is this really ever a possibility?  Is it possible to preach/deliver/announce “the gospel” without simultaneously transmitting one’s own interpretation of it?  What is “the gospel” divorced from interpretation by tradition or personal experience?  Can it exist as a purely abstract concept?
  • How would this work out of the context of Donavan’s own experience?  He took the gospel to pagan Masai who had absolutely no knowledge of Christianity at all.  On the other hand the UK is essentially a post-Christian society.  Do different factors apply?
  • Who does this apply to?  Is anyone seeking to share their Christian faith with another a “missionary”?  Should we try to share “the” gospel with others, or “our” gospel?

So, agree?  Disagree?

The passage of time (Matthew 5:13-20)

“‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

I’ve preached on this passage before.  It was on Sunday 22 August 2010 at our previous church.  I preached regularly at the evening services, but this was to be the first, and last, time that I would preach at the Sunday morning service.

A lot has happened since then.  For reasons that I don’t particularly want to dig over we ended up leaving that church less than a year later, and in great sadness.  That year in time profoundly affected me and my family, and in some ways affects us still.  Happily, we are now part of another church family, and although it is possible to forgive hurt that has been caused it is never quite possible to forget.

A lot has happened.  And yet I still remember that service very vividly.  I could tell you the short video clip we played and who whooped “yeah” when my wife, who was leading the service, asked after it “So who wants to change the world?”, and that she had to ask that twice as she was met with silence the first time round…  I could tell you who from the congregation thanked me for the sermon afterwards.

A lot has happened.  It was a long time ago.

Looking at the dates, I preached on this text three and a half years ago.  That doesn’t sound like a long time ago.  But taken as a percentage of my life, that’s over 10%.  That makes it feel like an age.

It’s strange how something can feel such a long time ago, yet also feel as if it only happened yesterday.  Funny what you remember, and what you can’t forget.

Light and Dark (Luke 2:22-40)

‘When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.’

And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’

There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him.’

In our warm and cosy living room two electric lights keep the darkness at bay – the standard lamp in the corner that Sebastian loves to shake so much, and the flowery glass globe from Ikea on the cupboard.  When we turn them on we expect the power to surge through the wires giving us light on demand, and, with very rare exception, it does.  Here in Britain it’s quite easy to take light for granted.  We don’t even have proper darkness with which to compare our light – the orange glow of the light-polluted skies over London is not much of a backdrop.

When I lived in Africa over ten years ago we had electric lights in our house…in theory.  The power cuts were so regular and so long that we may as well have not had electricity at all.  That near to the equator the sun sets almost on the dot of 6pm and rises again at 6am – twelve hours of darkness.  Standing outside our house at night the darkness felt almost total with only the stars and moon and occasional firefly to break the blackness.  On the frequent powerless evenings would come the ritual lighting of our candles and smelly paraffin lamps as the sun was setting.  Cooking, eating, socialising, reading, living in the half light of oil lamps, candles and torches feels very different from the total comfort of daylight.

There’s another Light and another darkness.  A Light that created then joined us in our world, and that can shine out of us too if we allow it to.  A darkness which threatens to engulf all we know and love.   The darkness is threatening and, at times, feels all powerful and all consuming; the Light precious, rarefied, yet persistent, strangely fragile sometimes.  And yet, weighed in the balance it is the Light that overcomes.  The Light, however tiny it might seem in our own lives, is not defeated by all that darkness: darkness within us, and darkness from outside us.  The Light had always been there and will always be there and the darkness never stood any hope; but we come slow to that realisation.

This is Good News.  This is something to gladden all people, something to shout about, something to be thankful for.