Thursday, 27 November 2008

On being watched....

This last Sunday I preached at the evening service. Not in itelf an unusual experience, but made so this time by the fact that it was my "assessed sermon" where 5 fellow students and 1 member of staff came along to listen and then to critique it with me afterwards.

There is nothing that induces nerves in me more then people assessing what I do and then reporting on it - so I am profoundly grateful the group for the tender and loving way they helped me to unpack the sermon and look at ways that it worked well and areas were it could have worked better. They left me feeling very uplifted and inspired - no easy task in the circumstances - thanks guys :o)

Matthew 28:16-20.

When it comes to last words, timing is everything. something that General John Sedgwick, the Union Army commander who was killed in battle during the American civil war didn’t have time to discover – immortalised, as he know is for his final words “They couldn't hit an elephant at this dist. . . .”

Jesus, fortunately for us, was not cut off in the midst of his final message and so we have here in Matthew, Jesus’ last words The Great Commission, the passage that for 2000 years Christians have read as their marching orders – their mandate to mission. As such one of the most famous passages in the bible– but also I think, for a lot of us, it’s also one of the most scary!

I think this fear comes from the fact that its one of those passages that seems to whip preachers up into an absolute frenzy of exhortations for people to be immediately spurred into action to go out and help everyone they come across, whether they like it or not, and to convert everybody and everything to the cause of Jesus Christ immediately. Indeed, such can be the pressure to get out there and do something I sometimes wonder why these preachers bother to write a concluding paragraph to their sermon, because surly they don’t expect anyone to still be in church at that point do they?

But you may be glad to know that’s not my plan this evening, apart from anything else because I think it ignores an essential truth of this passage and that is that this great commission actually starts with worship. In this passage the disciples go back to the mountain where they were first called by Jesus and there they worship him. Whatever we are called to do by Jesus it is essential that it is grounded in worship. However we choose to do that, whether it’s in an ancient and beautiful setting such as this with words and symbols that have echoed over the centuries or whether it’s with drums and guitars and words that come from the moment that’s not the issue. It’s about us being drawn into the presence of God and through our worship being lifted up, restored and filled by his presence.

The image that kept repeating in my mind when I was thinking about this passage was of a Well. A well that is continually replenished and re-filled so that it is always a source of fresh water. But the thing about a well is that this fresh water is not there just for its own sake, its there to be drawn on, to provide nourishment and sustenance for all who have cause to draw water from it. Thus, though it may be tempting to make worship the be all and end all, to live life in a holy bubble of beautiful music and prayer that is not what Jesus asks us to do. For worship is not the end, in fact it is only the beginning for after the worship comes Jesus’ stark command – “Go and make disciples of all nations”.

Now if this command sends fear coursing through you, you are not alone for as we saw in the passage some of the disciples doubted too, they held back not at all sure about risking themselves so totally.
As one commentator I read put it “It must have been a staggering thing for eleven humble Galileans to be sent forth to the conquest of the world. Even as they heard it there hearts must have failed them.”

What’s interesting is the Greek word that is translated here as doubt is the same word as was used to describe Peter’s attitude when he tried to walk on water but only really succeeded in falling in! It’s often said that “if you want to walk on water then you have to get out of the boat!” but stepping over the side of that boat is for many of us terrifying, we don’t have the confidence or the belief that we will succeed…. But that’s the thing with Jesus, he often invites us to step beyond our inhibitions but in doing so he is right there with is and most importantly he never turns away from us if we fail. You know what I think the best bit about the story of Peter walking on water is? It’s when he gets scared and starts to sink, at that point the gospel tells us “Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him.” He caught him and you know what he will catch us to if we need it!

And so the eleven were commissioned – or as I like to think of it empowered - to go from there out into the world. But now they were not on some restricted and very well defined mission like they were first sent on. Back in Matthew 10 we see the disciples told by Jesus where to go, what to take with them, what exactly to do when they got there, how to deal with payments, what to do if they weren’t welcomed etc etc… micro-managed in the extreme, and quite frankly they probably needed to be, and yet we see none of that here. For here we see the words of a leader who knows that he has taught his followers well, who knows that he can put his work safely into their hands for they would know what to do with it. They were to do all that needed doing, in all the places that it needed doing in, that’s the task and it’s the task from which the universal church was and is formed.

Again the fear can well up at this point for this is an overwhelming prospect – there is so much to do, what I can do in the face of all that is needed, I am not able. Well if that is what you feel then I have news for you – you are quite right, we are not able – at least not in our own strength.
Thank goodness then that we don’t attempt to do this in our own strength but rather we do it in the strength of Jesus. We are given the necessary strength by being empowered with his authority and what an authority it is because as we have heard it is not just any old authority it’s “all authority in heaven and on earth” its total and its there backing up all that we do and say.

And all that we do and say is the final section of this great command for it is a call to action to live out our lives in love and service to all around us.

And that service is this “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”

How we go about fulfilling this commission is going to be different for each and every one of us. There is no way I can stand here and in all honesty tell you what to do, believe me, many days I struggle with knowing what I am supposed to do let alone anyone else! All I can say is that each and every one has a part to play, we are each commissioned and I believe that through our worship, through liturgy, prayer, bible readings, beautiful music, in these God will show us, each of us, what that commission is to look like in our own lives.

Whatever our own personal commission looks like one thing we can see from this passage is that it will involve teaching but the original Greek is probably better translated as “make learners of” – yes that is right – the schooldays of a Christian are never over.

We are to be and create a company of learners, brought by baptism into union with the Trinitarian God. Just as we are these new Christians are to be enabled in the strength of this divine fellowship, to live for God and in doing so be a living witness to those around them. So he doesn’t want us to create a new generation of Christian automatons blindly obeying strict teachings that we have laid down about the way that things have to be done. No he wants us to enable a new generation of people that know and love God and live their lives freely and openly for him. Continually growing and learning in faith to the extent that it overflows into all aspects of their life.
And I can’t emphasis enough that this is a call to enable a new generation of Christians is for everyone! not just a select few
“Though the details of what we are to do has changed over the 2000 years – the call to a practical outworking of our faith continues –
“Jesus still wants committed people!”

And so this most challenging of passages finishes with arguably the greatest of promises and probably the greatest ever last words – “I am with you always, to the end of the age” Day after day after day – Christ is with us. In all that we are called to do, whether it be great or small, whether we help bring Jesus into the lives of 1 person or thousands Jesus will be with us in it. The disciples were sent out that day on the greatest task in history but they had with them the greatest presence in the world, our task is no less great but the good news is that Jesus’ presence with us is no less great either!


Saturday, 15 November 2008


...priests really looked as delicious as Martin Shaw did in the TV show "Apparitions" on Thursday then I have no doubt that church attendence figures would sky rocket!

Monday, 10 November 2008

Goodbye Mama Afrika…

I was sad to wake up to the news today that Miriam Makeba has died. Like many people I am sure, listening to Miriam’s music was my first exposure to non-western music. Her blending of traditional African songs and rhythms with jazz and blues seemed so exotic and beautiful that it has remained a firm favourite of mine ever since, indeed her songs Mbube and Pata Pata feature among my favourite songs of all time.

She is a reminder of the power of music to transport and transform. Through 30 years of exile from her beloved South Africa she never lost her commitment to bring about reform and justice through her music and her witness. Similarly for so many people African and Western alike her music is the embodiment of a continent and its people.

Walking back from a lecture today through a cold, wet and grey Cambridge I put some of her songs on my Ipod and was immediately transported to the plains of Africa, such is the power of her music – her talent was unparalleled, her generosity to the next generation of South African musicians was legendary.
Mama Afrika, you will be missed.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Playing with your food...

I think these people take it to a whole new level...

For more of the same check out their website

Friday, 7 November 2008

What next?

On one of my extended procrastination sessions avoiding my latest essay I came across a book I bought yonks ago entitled 99 things to do between here and heaven… sadly since reading the book was not one of the 99 things I had not got round to it yet...

I found that I was already covered on 50 of them having visited Africa (#33), listened to a choral masterpiece (#57), taken part in a Passover meal (#91) and other such delights in life. Mind you I feel that I should do #48 “walk the stations of the cross” again to really count it as we were in a bit of a rush and so did them at rather an accelerated pace and also backwards as we were on the wrong side of Jerusalem to start them the right way around. Much as it was heartening to have finished up with Jesus is such good health at the end I am not sure that was the experience we were supposed to have…

Anyway I figure that, assuming I live till 88, I could cover the rest at the nice and leisurely pace of 1 per year (though I suppose I had best not leave such challenges as “attempt an extreme sport” till the end!) so that begs the question of which of the remaining 49 to do this year? The limited time left this year rules out many such as #15 – Learn New Testament Greek and the British winter definitely rules out #74… so which of these (carefully selected for their do-ability in what remains of the year) do you reckon I should do – The one with the most votes I will attempt in my next procrastination session!

#3 – read a gospel in one sitting
#40 – pray the rosary
#49 – contribute to wikipedia
#60 – Analyse yourself with Myers-Briggs
#68 – read religious poetry (if so, what??)

Over to you…