Stumbling conscience

This is a sermon for the fourth Sunday after Epiphany.  The Scripture it references is 1 Corinthians 8:1-13.

Some of Paul’s letters deal with social situations so far removed from our own culture, that we have to do some work to understand what’s going on, and what he’s talking about.  Today’s reading from Corinthians is one of those, I suspect; so let me start by filling in the background a little bit.

In the first century, in a city like Corinth, meat was – if not luxury food – in somewhat limited supply.  The main suppliers of meat in the marketplace were actually the temples; people would go to worship their god or goddess of choice, sacrifice some sort of bird or – if the situation were significant or the worshipper was very wealthy – a larger animal, and the temple would then sell the meat to the public.

It was a win all around; the population got meat, the temple got money, the gods got worshipped, and – for the consumer – you got to participate in this pious system by eating meat which had been given to the gods, and so, by extension, to participate in honouring those gods.  Perhaps even attracting some sort of blessing from those gods for doing so.

It was not, conceptually, anything like picking out a pot roast from the fridge section in the supermarket is for us; but had a whole range of social connections to other people and their gods, and the worship of those gods.

And that worked just fine, as long as everyone basically shared the same worldview and religious system, and had no real problem with each others’ gods.

Enter the Christians, who of course didn’t have the same worldview and religious system as the pagan population, and who did indeed have significant problems with the pagan gods, and the worship thereof.  And who then had to work out what their attitude and behaviour was going to be in this matter.  And – because it seems some things never change – who managed to disagree about that.

From what we can tell from the letter, it seems there were two main opinions on how Christians should react to meat sacrificed to idols.  On the one hand, there was a group who said that the idol was powerless, there was no real god there to worship, and as such the meat that the temples were selling in the marketplace was spiritually no different to meat you might butcher yourself.  Go ahead, buy and eat, or accept it as a guest, without having any issues with it.  Knock yourself out.

On the other hand, there was a group who felt that participating in the worship of that idol was, in some sense, still wrong, and that Christians should avoid that meat.  Not buy it, not eat it, and not accept it if given it to eat by a host.  Better safe than sorry, perhaps.

And it seems that Paul was asked for his advice in the matter, to settle the dispute, because this part of the letter seems to be his reply to a question posed by the Corinthians.

And this is where it gets interesting, because, Paul agrees with the group who say that the idol is no god and you can go ahead and eat.  But – and this is the key thing – he says you shouldn’t do it, if it’s going to cause a problem for your brother or sister.

So even if you know that you can do something, if someone else believes it’s wrong, and might be encouraged to do something they believe is wrong, because they see you doing it; better to refrain.  Your brother’s conscience is more important than your appetite.

This is, I think, something we struggle with in our society.  Not the meat market and all of that, but the idea that we each have some responsibility for each others’ consciences.  We tend to be very individualistic; my conscience is my business, your conscience is your business, and the less we talk about that, the happier we generally are.

But I would suggest that contemporary Western individualism is not something Paul – or Jesus – would have understood.  And I’d go further to say that in some ways, it distorts the picture of human wholeness given to us by the earliest Christians.  While we each need a healthy sense of our own personal identity, our society tends to encourage us to carry that to a point that is destructive of healthy communal identity.

To put that another way, my best human self isn’t something I’ll find by striving to be as independent and internally isolated from others as possible, but is something I’ll find in relationship, in connection with others, in shared life.  Each of us, even before we are born, are beings-in-relationship; and the paradox of being human is that it’s only in relationships that we can be most fully and authentically ourselves.

This, by the way, is one of the reasons why the gospel breaks down the old social categories.  Elsewhere in his letters Paul writes that “there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free;” or again, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female.”  Why?  Because those social categories put barriers between people which made authentic loving relationships impossible.  This is not about abolishing diversity, but about overcoming divisions.

When the gospel calls us to be human beings in relationship, anything which impairs that relationship – anything which creates dynamics of resentment, mistrust or envy between human beings – is called into question.

And this is where this principle becomes relevant for us.  We have a society riddled with resentments, mistrusts, envies and so on.  A glance at all the competing arguments about how best to observe – or not observe – Australia day would tell you that.  Being aware of refugees in detention centres, or all the arguments about how to structure tax reform or how best to care for our most economically vulnerable citizens, says some more.  We have divisions where there ought to be diversity held in mutually respectful and advantageous relationship.

The overriding principle Paul was trying to teach the Corinthians was that we’re in this together.  Your success is my success; your suffering is my suffering.  Your sin is – to the extent that I could have prevented or discouraged it – my sin.  And vice versa.

Take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling-block to the weak, Paul wrote.  If we share responsibility for one another, we are also all supports and resources to one another in our need.  We are stronger together than we ever could be each on our own.

It’s probably not something that comes naturally to us, to think of ourselves in this way.  So I’d encourage you to ask yourselves; this week, what one thing could I do to reach out and build or strengthen real relationship with someone else?

If we all did one thing each week, how might our community be transformed, a year from now?

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The other great religion

I mean sport, of course.

I’ve been involved in children’s ministry of one kind or another for about twenty years now.  And what I observe is this; traditional forms of Sunday school, youth group and so on are dying in many churches.  And they are dying because families choose to prioritise children’s participation in various forms of sport.

I see various reactions to this from other people in church.  Dismay that respect for the sacred means that sports are now held at times traditionally reserved for worship.  Questioning of the commitment of these families to church as the primary expression of faith.  And so on.

But as a parent of a young child myself, I understand that spare time and energy are valuable commodities for most families.  Parents are only going to choose to spend that spare time and energy on activities which they see contributing significantly to their children’s development and future opportunities.

And this is where a comparison is telling.

Parents prioritise their children being involved in sport, because from it the children get:

  • skills development
  • growing confidence
  • experience in teamwork
  • character development and chances to build resilience
  • healthy habits around exercise and work/life balance
  • and community.

That’s off the top of my head.  There are probably other things as well.

Let’s contrast that with what children get from your average children’s ministry activity:

  • education in values*
  • a religious framework for life*
  • access to rites of passage
  • community.

I’ve marked a couple of those with an asterisk because frankly, most children’s ministries, while they aspire to give children this, only manage to accomplish doing so to a fairly shallow degree.  (Again, that’s off the top of my head, and I may have missed things; do feel free to chime in, in the comments).

From the point of view of a parent who can choose consistent commitment to church or sport, but not both, it’s a no-brainer which will give their child more value for the time invested; especially if that parent is reasonably confident that their children can be taught that God loves them without going to church (but might be at a good school, or learn it at home).

It strikes me that rather than getting angry at sport for being good for children, or being angry at parents for making sensible choices about stewardship of time, it’s time for churches to look seriously at our children’s ministries and their shortcomings.  As long as Sunday school means not much more than learning that God created the world, Jesus loves you, coming to church is good, and some sort of craft or activity (usually done less well than most children will experience in school or other settings), our value proposition is lousy.  And we need to own up to that.

What if, when children came to church, we nurtured them and gave them opportunities to develop and use new skills?  What if we connected them to our mission in ways which taught them teamwork and confidence?  What if we involved them in real service, in ways which build character and resilience ?  What if we provided access to spirituality which truly enriched their lives in a dimension not available elsewhere?  What if our communities were more robust and inclusive?

And what if we did all this, in a context where Jesus Christ is Lord, where our priorities are Spirit-breathed, and where our love for one another was lived out in transformative community?

I don’t necessarily know what that would look like.  I expect that a one-size-fits-all approach isn’t going to cut it, because these things are personal, communal and contextual.

But I suspect that if we took seriously the challenge of making it possible for children to encounter church in that way, we might find there is more impetus to come.

What do you think?

On fishing

This is a sermon for the third Sunday after Epiphany.  The Scripture it references is Mark 1:14-20.

There’s a story in my family – and you might appreciate this, after the weather we’ve had this week – about the day we arrived in Australia.  Apparently, my parents stepped off the plane in Melbourne, juggling their luggage and me as a toddler, into a day of forty-something-degree summer heat.  And my mum looked up at my dad, and my dad just said, “We can’t go back!”

My parents came here from apartheid-era South Africa.  Mum was a nurse, and after working in emergency during the riots, and some of the injuries she saw, she and dad had decided they needed to raise their family somewhere that would give us – me and my not-yet-born brother – a chance at a better life than they saw as possible where they were.  It wasn’t easy to leave; they lost a lot, financially, and dad had to illegally avoid his annual bout of army service to get out.  By the time they’d made their decisions about where to go, done everything necessary to move, and come here, what dad said was very true; they couldn’t go back.  Come what may, they had to make the best of where they were.

It wasn’t always easy, and it took a very long time for us to feel as if this was where we belonged.  But having gone back for a visit recently, I think my parents felt vindicated that they’d made the right decision; the life my brother and I have as adults here is much better than the life we would likely have had there.

I was thinking about all of this, though, because of the part of the gospel we heard this morning.  Simon and Andrew and James and John are going about their normal lives, fishing and mending their nets, and Jesus comes along and presents them with a decision to make.  “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”  I imagine this moment of the men looking at one another.  What do we do now?  What does this offer really mean?  A decision had to be made, and once made, lived with.  Which way lies the best future?  With the fish or the wandering rabbi?

Well, we know what they did.  The apostles left their families’ fishing businesses, and became the foundation of a new community, a new group where people could belong, based on relationship with Jesus, that wandering rabbi who turned out to be so much more.

This part of their story, though, is important, because it’s part of the story of all Christians.  Those of you who came to the Bible studies we did on Jesus and the Pharisees last year will remember learning about how the earliest Christians were kind of spiritually homeless; if they were Jewish, they got kicked out of the synagogues, and if they were non-Jewish, they’d had to leave the temples of their former deities.  Like the disciples leaving their boats, they’d had to leave what was familiar and make decisions which disconnected them from their communities, and come together to build new communities and places of belonging, at first based in their own homes because they had nowhere else.

That’s the community who first received Mark’s gospel, by the way; who would have been encouraged to realise that when the disciples left their fishing boats, the story had a worthwhile ending.  And who could then imagine that their own struggles and disconnections and so forth might have a worthwhile ending; because the process of disconnecting from what we were, to build new communities of belonging, is part of what has been the Christian experience from earliest times.

The challenge looks and feels a little different for us, I suspect, but it’s still there.  Most of you have grown up as part of Christian communities, and have known belonging here for a long time.  You haven’t had to create Christ-centred community for yourselves, you’ve received it from those who were here before you.  But the challenge we have now is how to create Christ-centred communities of belonging for people who haven’t already found that with us.

I see that challenge in various ways.  I see it in all the research that tells us that millennials want to interact with us online before they’ll ever come through the church door.  I see it in the feedback I get from some of our younger people – the ones we seldom see on Sunday mornings, and increasingly seldom in the evenings as well – that the services we offer them just don’t meet their needs, and that we need to consider different options and perhaps a more modern approach, for them to feel they belong here.

(There’s a whole heap of work to be done on what “modern” actually means in that kind of conversation; but as I look around at this building and remember how shockingly modern it was when it was built, I think it’s a conversation that we can fruitfully have).

A bit like the disciples, it seems to me we are confronted with the need to make a decision; are we prepared to willingly leave behind what’s comfortable and familiar, in order to build a community where people who don’t currently belong here, can find belonging?  And can be nurtured in faith, and grow in Christ?

If we do make those decisions, it’s going to be difficult for us, in some ways.  There will be grief; it’s normal for us to grieve as things change.  We will go through all the grief stages of denial, anger, bargaining and depression.  I’d add in anxiety, uncertainty and lack of confidence about who we are and what we do.  Actually, even though I’ve only been here six months, it’s been long enough for me to see something of all of those things in our life together already.  Things will change no matter what decisions we make, and all the emotions of grief will come with that.  Making decisions just gives us a choice about what the other side of that grief might look like.

What I’m saying is that the challenge for us is to feel the grief but do it anyway.  To support one another as we build a renewed, inclusive place of belonging for people who are not yet here; a spiritual home for them that might well, for a while, not feel at all like home for us, because it’s not what we had before.

If Simon and Andrew, James and John had refused to leave their boats, there would never have been a church.  If we refuse to leave our preferred habits, there may not be a parish church here when there’s nobody left who likes things the way we do them now.

But I look back on those fishermen who became apostles, and I see a story of hope.  I look back on my own parents, and what they were able to give their family by leaving everything they knew, and I see a story of hope.  I know from the very fabric of my own life, that this kind of sacrifice can pay off.  I look forward to the process of change for us in this parish, and even though it calls for courage and vision and sacrifice, I see a blank page in our story just waiting to have written on it our own story of hope.

We will need to work on building our courage, our resilience for that process.  We will need to be intentional about working through our griefs, and committed to equipping ourselves for what comes next.  The apostles had three years living and working with Jesus; we mustn’t imagine we’ll work through everything we need to in the next few weeks or even months.

But these stories show us that it is possible.  That in following Jesus, in leaving behind what we know to build new communities of faith and belonging, the results can be much greater than we can see now.  The invitation is always to “Follow me.”  The focus is always on people beyond our current group.  What are their needs, their culture, their styles of relationship?  How can we meet them where they are, engage them as they are?  That’s part of what following Jesus means.

We can’t go back.  We can’t even stay the same as we are.  We can only follow Jesus, one step at a time, as best we can manage, into a future only God can fully see.  But we can know the basic shape of that future because we know how God works; and we know that when we follow Jesus, things happen.  People change.  Community is created.  And hope grows.   And we get to be part of all of that.

So shall we go fishing for people?

Becoming one spirit

This is a sermon for the second Sunday after Epiphany.  The Scripture it references is 1st Corinthians 6:12-20.

I had to make a decision this week.  I’ve signed up to one of the local gyms, and a couple of times a week I try to get to one of their group classes.  (It’s nice to have goals about being healthier and fitter, isn’t it?)  Anyway.  So I turned up to the class I usually go to, to discover that they’ve cancelled that class and replaced it with yoga.  And so the helpful staff member I spoke to suggested I stay for yoga.

I must have seemed less than enthusiastic about that, and he seemed surprised that I wouldn’t jump at the chance, so I had to explain.  I can’t do yoga for religious reasons.  I can’t, as a Christian, participate in what is fundamentally a Hindu worship practice, even if it has become the darling of the “spiritual but not religious” wellbeing movement.

Anyway, the point about that is not really to carry on about yoga, but to illustrate the idea that sometimes, saying “yes” to God means saying “no” to something else.

That’s part of what Paul was talking about in our reading from Corinthians today.  For him, the issue wasn’t yoga but prostitution; but his argument about why you can’t run around having a good time with prostitutes is that you can’t “become one” with something that’s incompatible with God, at the same time as “becoming one” with God.  Because “anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.”

The thing about this “becoming one spirit” with God, though, is that it helps us to understand what salvation really means.  Salvation is an immense gift, but sometimes we’re tempted to think of it only in terms of what happens after we die (getting into heaven, or at least, staying out of hell).  But what Paul is trying to get across here is that salvation isn’t just about that; it’s a fundamental re-shaping of our lives now, so that our lives become a participation in the life of God.

Last week we thought a bit about baptism and what it means for us, this sacramental reality of dying and rising with Christ.  And I say sacramental because I want to say something stronger than “symbolic;” we know that people don’t physically die in the font, as if I were to drown them, but something real is happening in them nonetheless.  Their story and Christ’s story, their life and Christ’s life, are being joined together in a way that can never fully be separated.  They are beginning to participate in the life of God; they are becoming one spirit with God.

The body is not meant for fornication but for the Lord, Paul said in today’s reading; and elsewhere he refers to our bodies as “weapons of righteousness;” a weapon is wielded with a purpose, and the implication of Paul’s words is that God wields – or at least sends – us into the world with a purpose, too; one that shouldn’t be undermined by getting involved in things incompatible with that purpose.

This all means that becoming one spirit with God – participating in God’s very life – is ultimately about action.  About being in the world, doing the things God would have us do.

As this is what it means to be Christian, then we can’t say that Christian belief or faith is just a matter of assenting to the Creed (without crossing your fingers), or even trusting God’s goodness.  It has to be more than that; a taking up or embrace of our whole being into God’s being in such a radical way that we consistently act as living extensions of God in our world.  That’s what it means that we have died and yet have been raised to new life; it is a new life; the life of God, with its priorities and loves and joys.

In his other letter to the Corinthians (well, the other one that we still have, anyway), Paul puts it this way: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”  Participating in God’s new creation – becoming one spirit with God – means our transformation; and in different places in his letters Paul talks about how that transformation means we become the glory and the righteousness and the justice of God; ultimately we become the image of God; the image of God that we were originally created to be, before sin and the fall meant our alienation and disfiguration from that image.  So we become like Christ – the perfect image of the invisible God – by participating in the life of Christ.

And here’s the thing: all of this points us towards mission.  To be transformed into the image of God revealed in Christ; to participate in God’s new creation and to become God’s righteousness; to discern and do God’s will; to present our bodies to God as a temple for the Holy Spirit, and as weapons to be wielded for his purposes; all of these things mean that we are meant to be in service to what God is up to in the world.

Becoming one spirit with God means that God’s purposes become our purposes, and God’s priorities become our priorities.  God’s mission becomes our mission.  Those of us who believe the gospel and are baptised enter into a life of participation in God’s mission, along with all the other people who have also entered into that life.

That means that our salvation, our renewal in Christ is not the point; it’s not an end in itself.  It’s part of a much broader and deeper divine agenda; to bring together a body of people who participate in the new creation, doing God’s will in the world.

And let me push this just a little bit further; this is for all Christians.  Not just for the clergy or the particularly educated or gifted.  But each Christian person, in whatever circumstances we find ourselves, participates in the new creation; and carries out a living witness to the gospel.  This is what it means to be part of the church; every single person has a part to play in the mission of God.

Do you know what your part is, today?  Do you feel equipped for it?  If not, what do you need in the way of equipping?  (That’s not a rhetorical question, by the way.  My role in this mission is to see to it that you are equipped; so if you see that your knowledge or skill or confidence is lacking in some way, tell me; and together we’ll find a way to work on that).

But to come back around to the prostitutes – or the yoga – this is why Paul says “no.”  Not because it’s a matter of being a puritanical killjoy, but because it’s incompatible with the mission.  To exploit a woman’s body for pleasure does nothing to recognise or honour her as an image of God, or to encourage her towards becoming a co-worker with you in God’s purposes for our world.  To worship another god – even at a distance – detracts from my ability to participate fully in God’s life, God’s purposes and God’s mission.

“Anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.”  It is a process of becoming; we grow into it over time.  But what I wonder now, is where do we need to grow into it some more, here in this parish, in order for us to live that out most fully?  What needs to happen for us to move another step closer to being one spirit with the Lord?  I leave that with you to reflect on.

Book review: Dangerous Prayer

This is a review of the book Dangerous Prayer: Discovering a Missional Spirituality in the Lord’s Prayer by Darren Cronshaw (2017, Paternoster: Milton Keynes).

Dangerous?  Why?

Because it comes with risk.  It invites God – all-sovereign and entirely unpredictable – into our human lives.  It shapes our hearts and minds to be more like those of God, in the process stripping us of our delusions, our disordered attachments, and our excuses.  And in this way it fits us to be part of the mission of God to our broken world.

That, at least, is Darren Cronshaw’s take on the Lord’s Prayer.  He is someone who lives a life in mission (as a Baptist pastor and missiologist), and here he brings the fruit of his reflection on his work and his prayer (two sides of the same coin) to share with the wider Church.

Dangerous Prayer opens with Leunig’s prayer, “God help us to change.  To change ourselves and to change our world.  To know the need for it.  To deal with the pain of it.  To feel the joy of it.  To undertake the journey without understanding the destination.  The art of gentle revolution.  Amen.”  And Dangerous Prayer aims to equip us to do just that; to be provoked to change, ourselves and the world.  To open our eyes to the necessity of change.  To inspire us to transcend the grief of it.  And to have a hope which points us firmly to joy, even while experiencing a work in progress.

Working through the Lord’s Prayer phrase by phrase, Cronshaw invites us to look at it with fresh eyes; to see the implications of this prayer for how we understand God’s character and mission, and our place within that mission.  The chapter on “The Subversive Justice of ‘Your kingdom come,’“ in particular, offers an inspiring vision of transformation.

He quotes Buechner: “ ‘Thy kingdom come…on earth’ is what we are saying.  And if that were suddenly to happen, what then?  What would stand and what would fall?  Who would be welcome and who would be thrown the Hell out?  Which if any of our most precious visions of what God is and of what human beings are would prove to be more or less on the mark, and which would turn out to be phony as three-dollar bills?…To speak these words is to invite the tiger out of the cage, to unleash a power that makes atomic power look like a warm breeze.”

The only reason we can invite the tiger out of the cage is because we can trust its purpose; its mission.  We can trust the intention of the power that we ask be unleashed on the world; a purpose and intention that has the good of all creation in view.  This vision of cosmic good is being furthered by the reign of God, or as Cronshaw (not a monarchist) would have it, the dream of God, which we are invited to dream (and work for) with God.

“This is no longer the Lord’s Prayer,” Cronshaw writes.  “They were Jesus’ words, but he handed them over to his disciples, and the prayer became ‘the disciples’ prayer.’ But it has become ‘your prayer’ as Jesus’ body and the church prays it.  It is also ‘the missional prayer’ to pray in radical ways that change our world.”  Liturgists might wish that Cronshaw had expanded on his work to consider the missional implications of the Lord’s Prayer in its liturgical contexts, but perhaps that work can be taken up by another author.

The value of this book is as an integrative work; the insights presented are largely not original to Cronshaw, but rather, drawing heavily on a wide variety of sources – from personal anecdotes, theological works, and pop culture – he presents a clear and consistent take on what the Lord’s Prayer is and does (or at least could be and do, if we pray it with that intention).  In that sense, the work feels very authentic; its plea for a “missional spirituality” is heartfelt and clearly the result of many years of praying, working and reading with particular driving questions in mind.

The book is easy to read, and the discussion questions at the end of each chapter are particularly helpful.  This would be good material for a study group, perhaps as a way of introducing these concepts about mission to a congregation for the first time through a familiar approach; a prayer already well-known and well-loved.  For those who already have a well-established foundation in understanding mission, the extensive references and bibliography invite deeper exploration of particular concepts.