A sermon

A sermon preached on 2 Corinthians 11, at St Andrews Baptist Church. There’s an easy sermon in these verses. Not a good sermon, but an easy sermon. The Corinthians had had their heads turned by false teaching about Jesus; this was bad; we should hold to true teaching. Now let’s have some coffee. But the Corinthian church were not stock cartoon baddies, to be used only as examples of how not to live; they were real people, trying their best to hold to Jesus. Think about how they felt… It wasn’t our fault – I want you to know that. We can’t be blamed. What we did – what we thought – the things we decided – they were natural, normal. You’d have done the same. You would, I tell you – in our place, you’d have done the same. You would! Perhaps some of you are doing the same today… I remember when we first heard about Jesus the Christ. And it was Paul, of course it was – and we honour him for that – we always have. He was staying with Titus – Titus Justus; you must know him; rich; house next door to the synagogue? Anyway, Paul was staying there, and he told us about Jesus, about the things God had done, about the resurrection of the dead and the hope of new life. And we believed; of course we did. I remember that first time – how exciting it all seemed. Hearing Paul, and how what he said seemed – how do you describe it? It seemed to make sense, what he said, it seemed to gather up all the odd bits of my life and weave them into something satisfying, coherent, for the first time in my life. Maybe that doesn’t help you, but I’m training to be a weaver, you see – I watch, sometimes, when I supposed to be cleaning up, as my master ties up all sorts of bits of thread, a chaotic jumble of colours, and then it slowly all becomes a pattern or even a picture, as he pulls the shuttle across. That’s what it felt like for me, hearing Paul – for all of us here in Corinth. And we honour Paul for that – we do. I want you to know that. Then – sneaking away from my master’s house before dawn one morning to be baptised. I was baptised the same morning as Stephanas, and we became firm friends after that. We would sneak out to join the sisters and brothers. We always met before dawn, of course – most of us slaves, or apprentices like me. There was no other time that we were allowed out. We’d get together, and break bread, and hear bits of the old Jewish Scriptures read to us by someone who could read. And then Paul, or Aquilla, or Priscilla, would teach us, explaining how those Scriptures pointed to Jesus, and all He did, and all He was going to do. They weren’t great speakers, any of them – Priscilla perhaps the best, but even she was fairly ordinary – but they taught us at the beginning, opened our eyes to so many new things – and we do respect them for that – I still thank God for them, sometimes, when I pray, alone. But things changed. Of course, things always change. Paul left, took Prisca and Aquilla with him, left other folks in charge, asked them to keep teaching us, reminding us of what he had taught. And we tried, but – well, it’s hard, isn’t it? Someone would hear a Scripture, and say, ‘Well, that must mean this…’ and then someone else would say, ‘But Paul said that…’ then it was like ‘Are you sure? Do you remember what Paul said exactly?’ And we started to get confused – it’s natural, normal, understandable. You’d have done the same, if you were where we are. Stephanas was strong, quoting Paul, insisting we remember what he said – but sometimes I was less sure – did Paul really say that? I wasn’t sure I could remember. Some of the arguments got ugly. Meeting with the sisters and brothers became painful, difficult. Squabbles before and after worship – during, even, sometimes. One of the prophets would bring us a word from God, then another one would start up, saying God said something completely different, while she was still speaking. None of us knew what was right, none of us really understood. I was praying God would send Paul back to us, or Priscilla, or another teacher, to help us with all our problems. I...

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John Stackhouse on worship music

[ht Andy and Ben] John Stackhouse (who was once kind enough to buy me breakfast) has posted a farily blunt condemnation of certain trends in contemporary worship music, focusing on Chris Tomlin. He makes, as far as I can see, two separable complaints: on the one hand, contemporary worship music (as exemplified by Tomlin) is lyrically poor – an aesthetic judgement; on the other, that it is doctrinally light or erroneous – a theological judgement. I have posted before on the error of assuming that the great songs that have come down to us from earlier ages were in any way normal in those ages. Wesley, Watts and Newton were the pinnacles of what was happening in their day, not average examples. And each of them wrote his fair share of weaker lyrics – consider this, from a verse-diatribe against Muslims, by Charles Wesley: The smoke of the infernal cave, Which half the Christian world o’erspread, Disperse, Thou heavenly Light, and save The souls by that Impostor led, That Arab-chief, as Satan bold, Who quite destroy’d Thy Asian fold. O might the blood of sprinkling cry For those who spurn the sprinkled blood! Assert Thy glorious Deity, Stretch out Thine arm, Thou Triune God The Unitarian fiend expel, And chase his doctrine back to hell. Yes, well… Charles Wesley was allowed to publish 6000-odd hymns by his brother (who censored an unknown number as not being good enough). We know perhaps twenty – perhaps not that. Were the other 5980 all of the same quality as ‘And Can it Be’ or ‘Hark the Herald’? Oddly enough, no… (and even his best are sometimes the result of editorial work: famously, Wesley wrote ‘Hark, how all the welkin rings / Glory to the King of Kings…’ Whitefield edited the first two lines a few years later, much to Wesley’s disgust, by all accounts; the first verse also ended ‘universal nature say / Christ the Lord is born today’; someone else put that one right…). But consider a hymn-writer we’ve all-but forgotten: Benjamin Keach was a significant leader amongst the Baptists, and taught our churches to sing hymns, which is pretty amazing, when you consider the general quality of his output: The Pure in heart are thy delight O Thou most holy One! All that do what things are right May sing thy Praise alone. All mixtures, Lord, in Doctrine And Practice thou dost hate; Ourselves therefore with wicked men Let’s not associate! (Hymn 32 from A Feast of Fat Things (1696); this is pretty average quality for Keach; by no means his worst.) Of course, that’s not an excuse for bad writing, but it does make Ben’s point: good hymn-writing is hard, really hard. We cannot expect every song written to be of high quality, and there is a place for singing about welkins, because an editor may appear who puts the problem right and gives us a great hymn from the wreckage of something that just isn’t. (Whittier’s ‘Dear Lord and Father’ is actually the last six stanzas of an odd 17-stanza poem entitled ‘The Brewing of Soma’ in begins like this: The fagots blazed, the cauldron’s smoke Up through the green wood curled; ‘Bring honey from the hollow oak, Bring milky sap,’ the brewers spoke, In the childhood of the world. And brewed they well or brewed they ill, The priests thrust in their rods, First tasted, and then drank their fill, and shouted, with one voice and will, ‘Behold the drink of gods!’ Who saw a hymn in that?!) John’s complaints about the quality of Tomlin’s writing are actually slightly eccentric: he complains about mixed metaphors (which is a classic of bad hymnody, admittedly), but also about the use of half-rhymes. But this is endemic in Christian hymnody (and in English poetry), and is in some of the greatest hymns we have. Wesley again: Come, and partake the gospel feast; Be saved from sin; in Jesus rest; O taste the goodness of your God, And eat his flesh, and drink his blood! (From ‘Come sinners to the gospel feast’) Neither of those ‘rhymes’ is even close, but it’s a great piece of writing by any poetic standards I know. Rhyming ‘God’ with ‘blood’ is so common in Wesley as to be almost a leitmotiv. What of the claim of weak theology? John says ‘We are the most educated Christians in history, and yet our lyrics are considerably stupider than our much less educated Christian forebears…’ Well, for starters I’m not sure about this – once again, one would need to look at what they actually sang, not the classics that have come down...

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What is evangelism?

Someone told me yesterday about a book – it doesn’t matter which – on personal witness, that included chapters such as ‘preparing to evangelise’ and ‘what to do after you’ve evangelised’. The language grated, and I’ve been trying to analyse why. The implicit assumption in the language (and, it seemed clear from the description, in the book) is that ‘evangelism’ is a discrete, verbal activity that consists essentially of stating a small number of particular theological propositions (concerning universal sinfulness; atonement in Christ’s death; and the need for personal appropriation of that atonement) in the hearing of someone who is not yet a Christian believer. Now, I am not, of course, opposed to doing this thing. But to restrict ‘evangelism’ to this seems to me to be unbearably limiting, and patently obviously unbiblical. I wrote an article recently for the Evangelical Alliance magazine IDEA on mission. In part, I wrote this: Does this mean that anything that is not proclaiming the gospel directly is not mission? I would rather ask the question a different way: when Jesus touched a leper, or ate with a tax collector, or healed an outcast, was he not proclaiming the gospel directly? Was Peter not proclaiming the gospel just as much when he went to eat with Cornelius as when he preached to him? Christian social action is, or should be, a living out of the message of reconciliation that God has committed to us. Actually, every aspect of our lives should be a living out of that gospel. Our activities, our values, our decisions about work and family—and about shopping and voting—are, or should be, decisions that are incomprehensible except for the truth of the atoning sacrifice of Christ. Mission is not something we do; it is what we are. The word literally means ‘being sent’. Christian mission means being sent by Christ, being sent by Christ to live out the truth of his atoning sacrifice. And living out that truth means proclaiming it, joyfully and reverently, to all people at all times and in all places. And it also means living in patterns of love and service that would be incomprehensible had Christ not lived and died. It means raising our children and spending our money differently to those around us, eating and drinking, even, only to the glory of God (1 Cor 10:31). There is no part of an obedient, properly lived Christian life that is ‘not proclaiming the gospel directly’. I don’t think St Francis of Assisi ever said ‘Preach the gospel always, and use words if you must’ (the closest in the authentic writings is, I think, ch. XVII of the Rule (1221), which is actually about Brothers who have not been licenced to preach). I’m not even very comfortable with the quotation, which is rather too often used as an excuse to not speak when words are demanded. But the idea the evangelism is a constant, continuous duty and reality of an authentic Christian life, not one confined to the speaking out of certain concepts, is surely vital. If so, any account of personal evangelism that suggests it is not a 24/7 duty and reality should be rejected as inadequate – and, indeed, simply faithless. There is no preparation for evangelism (other than the catechumenate); there is no ‘apres evangelism’ (other than the rest of the saints in glory); there is only the constant call to follow, to live and speak at every moment in such a way that the truth of what God has done in Christ is luminously...

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