Sunday, 23 February 2014

Looking for Perfection

Matthew 5 is, in many ways, summed up in its final verse – be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.  These words seem not just difficult, but impossible.  Surely we are only supposed to do the best that we can.  Well, maybe, though that doesn’t seem to be what Jesus says.  But maybe also, it is a matter of definition.  Why would Jesus demand an impossible thing of us?  This is certainly tough stuff.  But perhaps what we need, and what is happening here, is to be reminded of God’s extravagant giving – and how that should be our model.  As one commentator[1] says: “Perfection is less about getting things right and more about loving as God loves, and Jesus is God’s concrete example of that love.”  Another[2] suggests: “Jesus advocates an alternative system without exploitation, reciprocity, and self-aggrandizement.”  That is important.  So often we do stuff for what we might get back.  I invite you to dinner and, if you don’t invite me back, at the very least, I wonder why not, if I don’t start talking about you.  Things like that.  The Gospel message, the Kingdom message, is a message of giving.  This isn’t about reciprocal love or giving.  It’s about just giving.  That last commentator again – “Indiscriminate loving, part of the greater righteousness required of disciples, is a countercultural practice, undermining, not securing, social hierarchies and obligations.”
Turned cheeks, walked second miles, loved enemies and prayed-for persecutors are outside the experience of the way most would go – but that’s where God’s love takes us. 

[1] Barbara J Essex – Feasting on the Word
[2] Warren Carter - commentary on Matthew

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Writing Letters

On Thursday I had my name in the Daily Mirror – not something I would expect, but the Daily Mirror published an open letter from forty-one church leaders about the situation within the UK in regard to foodbanks, and their proliferation, and the hunger and poverty that are the root causes for their being needed.  I was one of three United Reformed Church Synod Moderators who had signed alongside twenty-six Anglican Bishops, ten Methodist Chairs and two Quakers.  Archbishop Vincent Nichols had done the Roman Catholic bit the previous day hitting the news headlines on the same subject.  It was encouraging to see the amount of publicity and conversation this generated, featuring on radio and TV news bulletins.

I wouldn’t think of that kind of thing as something in which I frequently engage, but it’s the second time in about ten days.  I was also asked – and agreed – to be a signatory to an open letter to the Prime Minister about the Syrian refugee crisis. 

I don’t know how much difference such actions make – but I am sure they don’t do any harm.  Here is something, like sending cards at Christmas as organised by Amnesty, something I have done on other occasions, which can just do the little I can – and we can all say, and do, that and then, together, we might just make a real difference.  People power can work.  We have seen the iron curtain come down, apartheid dismantled in South Africa, the removal of dictators in various places.  What are the actions to which God is calling us right now?  What are the points where we can make a difference in our communities?

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Anger: the Bigger Picture

In Matthew 5:21-26 we have some comments from Jesus about anger which challenge our thinking on this matter.  Jesus starts by talking about murder and points that anger is the first step on the way.  He then goes on to condemn anger, but it is important to place this thinking in context.  It is always important to have the bigger picture.  It is remarkably easy to take an isolated Biblical verse and say all sorts of things, even apparently good things, that perhaps ought to be challenged if we were to take into account everything the Bible says on the particular matter.  Equally, and perhaps more often, in the Bible and now, specific situations influence how we respond.  The Bible clearly does not dismiss anger as something that can never have a place in our response to things.  Most obviously, we see Jesus’ anger when he drives the profiteering money changers and sacrifice sellers out of the temple courtyards.  It would be entirely wrong to say that anger is wrong.  But it can be wrong, and especially it can be wrong when it gets out of control. 

The Gospel writers are perfectly content to describe Jesus become angry.  The important point is about what you do with your anger.  Anger that is allowed to turn into hatred very often then becomes abusive. 

There is one other thing I want to highlight here, and that is to say something about reconciliation and to comment on this point about leaving your gift at the altar and going off to work out things with your brother or sister when you are out of sorts with them.  Again surely, strictly speaking, this is over-stating the case.  It’s advice that won’t work, if taken literally.  “It was surely not possible to leave unattended even a cereal offering in the busy altar area, let alone a pair of pigeons or a lively goat!”[1]  But the point is that we should make the effort to sort out those things that need sorting out.  When Jesus says, as he does in the early part of the passage, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers,’ I don’t believe that he means blessed are those who sweep things under the carpet.  Conflict needs to be dealt with, even when that’s difficult.

[1] Douglas Hare – Interpretation commentary on Matthew

Friday, 14 February 2014

Forgiven For Failing

God calls us to be active - to engage in stuff.  Sometimes we are wary of that because we are scared of getting it wrong.  It is as though we think that it is better to do nothing than to do it wrong.  Actually, I think that to be getting it wrong.  The great characters, on the whole, got it wrong sometimes.  Noah was tripped up by alcohol.  David was tripped up by sex.  Moses lacked faith.  The twelve all failed to stand beside Jesus at the point when he most needed them.  However, all of these also did many good and great things.  In Paul's words, they were "partners working together for God" (1 Corinthians 3:9).

We will get it wrong sometimes, but that really ought not prevent us from trying.  I have been reading through Matthew 5 this week and reflecting on that chapter with the help of comments provided by Malcolm Carroll (in "Fresh from the Word", ed. Nathan Eddy, IBRA, 2013).  I was really struck by the suggestion he made for "further thought" with respect to verses 17 to 20 - "Not doing wrong is the righteousness of the coward.  Far better to fail, and ask for forgiveness."

Living a Gospel life means taking risks.  It means making oneself vulnerable.  Sometimes that will mean failing.  How good that God does forgive failings - but perhaps the greater forgiveness is needed when we haven't even tried. 

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Ministry in Five Forms

I am reading "The Permanent Revolution: Apostolic Imagination and Practice for the 21st Century Church" by Alan Hirsch and Tim Catchim.  Hirsch and Catchim suggest, drawing on Ephesians 4, that there are five times of ministry, and that all are needed - apostle, prophet, evangelist, shepherd and teacher.

They suggest this fivefold ministry to be a major piece of Pauline ecclesiology and that we have diminished the impact of the church by placing too much emphasis on the shepherd and teacher, and neglecting the other three.  The essence of the apostle's task can be summed up in "sentness".  The prophet is the guardians of those things which are of the essence of the faith, with the task of proclaiming how we should live.  The evangelist "is the recruiter to the cause".  The shepherd has the task of nurture and the teaches is a channel of wisdom and understanding.

"All five are needed if we are to be the authentically missional church as Jesus intended us to be."