Sunday, September 30, 2012

Dreaming Dreams and Sharing Visions at Highbury

One of the great things about our Congregational way of being the church is the way all who belong to the church have the opportunity to shape what the whole life of our church.

So it is that back in January those who belong to Church got together in our Church Meeting and came up with words and phrases describing what Highbury was like.

In February our leadership team of Deacons sorted through the words and phrases people had come up with and noticed six things that were special at Highbury - our Worship, our Welcome, our Pastoral Care, our Mission, our Prayer and our commitment to Children.

For the last six months we have been exploring those areas of our church life and looking forward to the weekend that has just come to an end.

For over this weekend everyone at Highbury has had the opportunity to come together and shape the future that lies ahead of us.

But we wanted to do that in a particular kind of way.

It's not just to us having any kind of dreams and visions.

We are a church, part of the world-wide Church - we are called to be nothing less than the body of Christ here in this place.  We are the hands and feet Christ has for making a difference in our world.

And as a church that is the body of Christ in this place we have a standard to compare ourselves with, a model to use as the basis for what we do.  And that can be found in the pages of the Bible.  At its heart the Bible tells the story of Jesus and the difference he cam make to individuals, to families to the world at large.

To follow in the footsteps of Christ takes some doing in a world that is hostile to his values and so much of what he stands for.  To follow in the footsteps of Christ is difficult when so much in our personal lives goes wrong.

That's one of the reasons why Jesus invited those who follow him to team up and find help and support for one another.

The story of the first churches that came into being is told in the pages of the New Testament.

What we have been doing in recent weeks is looking at a cross section of those churches in Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, Philippi and Colossae.

We began our weekend back then - asking what the church of the New Testament was like.

We then looked Then and Now at how that compares with the picture we have come up with of our church here at Highbury.

In a wonderful way there was a real sense of coming to a mind together as we put our finger on three things that will help to shape the future that lies ahead of us.

We had the opportunity over the weekend to reflect on specific things we can do in each of those three areas.  We now take that planning on to the next stage as our leadership team of Deacons comes together and as everyone at church has the opportunity to meet together and flesh out what we can do.

It starts with each of us individually as we focus on Personal Faith and Prayer.

Each of us gets things wrong at times, we all make a mess of things, our faith is never as strong as it might be.  How important that we strengthen the faith we have have nurturing each other and seeking the blessing of God.  How important that we grow as a praying church, seeking specifically in prayer for God's blessing on what we do.

Then together as a church in this place we need to focus on Renewal and the Gifts

It's eight years since we explored what people belonging to our church were passionate about, what gifts they had and what kind of people they were.  We then sought to shape what we do by the people we are.  And we have seen great blessing in the last eight years.

But now we need to re-visit the gifts of those who belong now and ask how best we who belong now can harness our passions, our gifts and our personalities to God's glory that we can truly be the body of Christ in this place.

That may take some pruning, reassessing some of the things we do and the way we organise ourselves so that we can move forward together as the body of Christ.

Then we need to have a focus on Mission and Outreach.

Mission has always been at the heart of our church life ... but how does that work out.  It was telling that when we did that exercise back in January people came up with 'mission' yes.  But that word wasn't there so much as the word 'welcoming' or the word 'pastoral care'.  Maybe we need to re-focus what we do.   Help people who are exploring faith in an alpha course maybe.  Develop our initiative with men through Hy-Speed.  Raise our profile.  And underpin it all with prayer.

And then that mission must find its focus in our community and internationally too.

Our flower arrangers challenged us to re-invigorate our support of County Community Project's Foodshare programme.  It was a most moving time at our last church meeting when one of them who had recently started working in Cheltenham among some of those in greates need reported what she had found.  She was daily witnessing a new gap in our society - if people on a weekly wage lose a job, for example, there is a gap of six weeks before any benefits lock in.  For the first time since the soup kitchens of the 30's there is no safety net provided for the state to provide people with basic food needs.  Consequently, there are a disturbing number of people even in affluent Cheltenham with no food for tomorrow.

That's why there has been a proliferation of food banks up and down the country and here in Cheltenham.  We have supported CCP and their food share programme.

And this week for our Harvest Celebration our flower arrangers had decided to spend no money on flowers.  Usually people can give flowers in memory of a loved one.  It costs our flower arrangers £17 to do a pedestal.  Today we had a basket of food for CCP instead that came to £16-98.

Church Meeting decided that we would give people the opportunity to donate £17 worth of food in memory of their loved ones instead of flowers, we would then reinvigorate our support of CCP.

But that was not all.

Someone at the church meeting asked how on earth this could have happened in our society.  We decided to invite our friend from church to tell us at our next Church meeting what she has seen and someone from CCP to tell us what they are doing with their Food Share programme.  Then we would invite at a subsequent meeting our MP, Martin Horwood, and put the case to him for addressing this issue.

We read this evening from 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 where Paul speaks of the need for those who have to help those who have not so that there should be a fair balance.  It is in its care of the most vulnerable members of society that a civilised society can be judged.

This is all part of our mission.

To belong to one church is to belong to the one church world-wide of Jesus Christ.  And so we had a focus today on the international partnership our Congregational Federation churches have through Christian Aid with Nicaragua.

Our collection today went in part to Highbury's mission at home and  in part to that Nicaragua appeal.

One of those who visited Nicaragua from our churches joined us and he tells his story on the accompanying video.

As one of our older members said on the way out of church this evening, one of the most moving parts of the whole weekend was the wisdom of our young people, two of whom had led one of the groups exploirng what we could do for mission and outreach.  Sponsor a child, had been one of their successions, sponsor the Robins, maybe who knows through their match day programme!!!  Our friends at St Luke's have done it before ... as part of a move to offer a chaplaincy service to the local football club.  And that chaplaincy is still there!  And another was offering to collect money from those who couldn't carry extra food home with them to add to the CCP food share programme.

All in all it has been a moving weekend ... and opens up for us an exciting future ahead as we put ourselves into God's hands.

Maybe it's good to adapt Paul's words in Colossians 4:2-6 as very much a challenge and a prayer for us.

Let's devote ourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with thanksgiving.

At the same time let's pray for each other that God will open a door for the word,
that we may declare the mystery of Christ so that we may reveal it as clearly as we can.

Let's conduct ourselves wisely towards outsiders, making the most of the time.
Let our speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt,
so that we know how we ought to answer everyone.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Being the Church in Rome and Corinth

Last week I gave you an invitation – or did I extend to you a challenge?

What expectations do we have as we come to church?

Do we come with expectation?

Next Weekend we are going to have a great harvest celebration – not just one harvest supper with all its fun – but two – a party on Friday night and a Quiz night on Saturday.   All part of our Highbury @ home weekend.

It really is the last moment today to book up – come along if you can.

And if you really cannot – be thinking of us,  be there in spirit if not in person.

But come with expectation.

That’s where my invitation or was it a challenge came in.

We are going to be dreaming dreams and sharing visions for our church here at Highbury.

We cannot just dream any old dreams. We cannot just have any old visions.  If we are to be church here at Highbury we need to be shaped not just by our ideas but by Jesus Christ who is the head of the church who calls us to be his body here on earth.  We need to be true to the God Jesus opens up for us who is ‘our father’.  The great thing is that Jesus has left his Spirit for us so that we can be guided by the very Spirit of God.

This is exciting stuff.  There’s more.  We have a document that is if you like our foundation document that sets out all we need to know not just about Jesus, our Father God and the holy spirit, but life the universe and everything.

That document is of course the Bible.

Hence my invitation … or was it a challenge?

I prepared a set of readings for a couple of weeks – if you haven’t started yet, there’s still time – just read two days at once!

The readings take us to five cities in the Mediterranean world of the Roman emperor where there were churches made up of people who believe it or not were in so many ways just like us!

Those five city churches have one thing in common – they all received a letter from Paul.  As he gives thanks for their strengths, challenges their weaknesses and offers guidance as they shape their future it is possible to read between the lines and sense what kind of church fellowship these churches were.

If you start to do that these real life letters from a real life person to real life people start to leap off the page and live before our eyes.

But that takes a little bit of imagination.

How do we know what these people were like, what made them tick, what kind of people they were, what their society was like?

If only we could be a fly on the wall.  If only they had had a camera or better still mobile phones so that we could see what their lives were really like.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if those people and their lives could have been frozen in time and we could catch a glimpse of what they were like.

What’s remarkable is that actually it is possible to do just that.

Only fifteen to twenty years after Paul wrote his letter to the Romans, on the 24th August AD 79 something happened that had devastating consequences for people at the time and remarkable results for us today.

Mount Vesuvius erupted – it’s great cloud of ash fell at first slowly and then more rapidly on the city of Pompeii.  People left meals half prepared, some hid under tables – and the ash buried them, leaving only the very tops of the buildings uncovered.

Another city, Heruclaneum was engulfed by the flow of lava as life in virtually an instant was scorched into the ground and buried 80 feet deep.

People who have visited Pompeii or Heruclaneum have told me how wonderful those places are.  And next summer the big exhibition at the British Museum will mean that you don’t just have to travel to Pompeii to wonder at what it was like.

Maev Kennedy writing in the Guardian quotes the curator,

“Despite the display of bodies and the poignant objects the citizens snatched up as they tried to flee a collapsing cloud of ash and gas towering 19 miles into the sky above their heads, curator Paul Roberts, head of Roman collections at the museum, said the emphasis would be on everyday life in the towns not death.”

And that’s what’s interesting for us as we turn to Romans and Corinthians.

To use your imagination to enter into the world of Romans and of Corinthians the best thing to do is to enter into the world of the Roman empire.

The people in Pompeii were just the same kind of people as the people in Rome.

And that’s what Peter Oakes explores in what to me is an exciting new commentary on Romans  “Reading Romans in Pompeii”  Paul’s letter at ground level.

Pompeii was in the words of that article ‘the larger town full of bars and brothels’

If you want a feel for the kind of extravagance, decadence, license of the world of Rome that is the backdrop for the first chapter of Romans some of the sites in Pompeii are a real eye-opener.  You make sense of the words.

If you want a grasp of what the ordinary people who are named in Romans 16 were like then you have their lives captured in a moment and revealed two millennia later in that exhibition

“Faces of the inhabitants will include an imposing bronze bust of a banker and moneylender who was also a freed slave, as up to half the population may have been.  A vivid wall painting portrays a baker, Terenitus Neo and his wif; his wife is nameless but as Neil MacGregor [the inspiration behind so many of the great exhibitions in London in recent years] remarked, she looks much the brighter of the two, standing slightly in front of him and holding a writing tablet – striking evidence of her literacy and status.”

Maybe not quite the surprise to see from Romans 16 the key part in leadership and service played by women like Phoebe and Priscilla.

The word that caught my eye is the word ‘status’ there.

Peter Oakes imagines a church meeting in the home of a craft-worker and asks what it would be like to read Romans 12.

Every home has its shrine and a temple won’t be far away – and makes its sacrifices – you need look no further than Chedworth up into the Cotswolds, Uley under the escacrpment or Lydney – and what Paul asks of People in Romans 12 is a living sacrifice – being prepared to give the whole of their lives –

Don’t go along with the pattern of this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

Paul is challenging the people of this church to stand up and be counted, to stand out and be different – what is our relationship with the world around  us go along with the pattern or turn things upside down and inside out.

That’s where that little word ‘status’ comes in in the newspaper article.  Roman society was very conscious of status – and it was all built around a system of honour – Peter Oakes imagines 30 people meeting in a model craftworker’s house.

“The 30 people in the model house church stood in a status order that would be broadly agreed by them and by society as a whole.  There were subtleties and scope for limited differences of opinion, but there was a fairly clear scale running down from the wealthiest free-born male householder (unless someone else in the house church was particularly well born) to the lowest-level slave.  Free-born was above freed, which was above slave.  Male was above female.  Adult above child.  Wealthy was above poor.”

Paul cuts right through all of this in the most life-transforming of ways.

For,, through the gift that I have been given, I say to each one among you that you shouldn’t think more highly of yourself than you ought.  Instead you should assess soberly, as God has distributed to each an amount of faith.

Nothing about the honour system, the status system counts any more.  All that counts is the gift of faith.  That’s what so transforms and is so transforming.

Paul goes on to speak of the members of a body in that image we love so well – but we don’t appreciate how different it was – the different roles are not determined by status or honour, but by function what you do.  And we are to value each one for the gift they have – whatever status or honour they bear.

You can do exactly the same for the church in Corinth.

Indeed another recently published commentary that interestingly is among the chosen few Christian books regularly on the shelves at Waterstone’s – in Paul through Mediterranean Eyes, the Arab and Middle Eastern scholar, Kenneth E Bailey reads 1  Corinthians from the ancient world.  These are works that invite us to imagine ourselves into the world that day.

What do you see in that so-cosmopolitan city on a major trades route very much at the cross roads of the ancient world, Corinth – divisions, people going into groups.

Paul counters that by coming back to the same set of insights.

Church is a place where all sit around the table to eat of the Lord’s Supper – jew and gentile, man and woman, slave and free – all equal, all members of the one body of Christ – the tragedy in Corinth in 1 Corinthians 11 is that people have allowed status, honour, the old divisions to creep in when they are supposed to be sharing in the Lord’s Supper.  Paul warns fiercely against it – no we are all one  body.

Just the same picture – challenged in Christ to hold one another in high regard, each with different gifts.

And then one thing binds them all together … and that one thing is love.

Not just a great reading for a wedding – and, yes, we did use it yesterday – it comes for Paul at a key moment in one of his most powerful letters as it goes to the heart of what being the body of Christ is all about – without love there is nothing.

Faith, hope, love … the greatest of these is love.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Dreaming Dreams Sharing Visions

When you go away you see things from a new perspective.  You come back charged up with something fresh.   That was very much the experience I had when I went to Berlin to join Stefan in the biennial conference of the Fellowship of European Evangelical Theologians.

So that all the thoughts and ideas don’t disappear into thin air, I have always kept a journal when I have attended such an event.  This time was no exception.  On the flight over I began my journal and set out what my hopes and expectations were for the weekend that lay ahead and for the conference I would share.  I continued in part on the blog so others could share some of my thoughts.

The conference did not disappoint.

On the flight back I made note of the things I would bring back with me.

I came back noting four things that relate to my vision for Highbury.

  1. a passion for teaching – this book, the Bible, is the most wonderful of books – I am as passionate now as ever I have been – but it can be the most dangerous of books – I believe passionately we need tin church to find ways to help us read this book so that in all its words we can hear God’s Word for us.
  2. a passion for the mission of the church
  3. And those two come together – with a passion that what we do in church should be rooted in the bible and that we who belong to the church should be people who read the Bible people who pray
  4. And there was one more thing I  will come to later.

I took some of that renewed passion into the training weekend I shared last weekend in Nottingham – it was great to be exploring ways of reading the bible with church leaders from another seven of our churches.  I take some of that passion into the Highbury @ home weekend we have in a fortnight’s time.

We’ve been looking at what makes Highbury special ever since the first Church Meeting of the Year shaped what we would focus on through the year.  We have celebrated highbury as a welcoming church, committed to pastoral care, where all we do is underpinned by worship and prayer.  Ours is a church with an active concern for the community, where mission is at the heart of church life.  A child-friendly church that is inclusive and diverse, a church where all are welcome.

As well as having a fun time getting to know each other better and just enjoying each other’s company we are going to take forward our thinking on the church.  How should we shape things for the future as a church?  Where should our emphasis be?

That begs the question … where can we find guidance?

We are going to look into the pages of the bible to see what we can draw out from the Bible.

So I want to lay down an invitation and a challenge.

If you haven’t signed up for our weekend, why not take the plunge and join us.

If you cannot come, then think of the whole of our church and its future in your prayers.

And then … come with a spirit of expectation.  So I invite you to share with me in doing some Bible reading in preparation for our weekend together.

I want us in our mind’s eye to imagine what it would have been like to have been part of one of those very first churches that we meet in the New Testament.

What would it be like to be part of the church in Rome?  What would it have been like to have belonged to that church in Corinth?  On Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, I have chosen a reading from the beginning o f Paul’s letters where Paul shares in prayer for that church.  And a reading from the last part of the letter where he seeks to encourage to put their faith into practice.

We then move on to Ephesus.

There are all sorts of ways of reading the Bible.  I love trying to think yourself into the skin of the people who belonged to the first church.  Ephesus was the very first place I visited from the Bible story, and I still well remember the impact it had on me sitting on the upper tier of the enormous theatre built on the side of the hill looking down on to the stage and beyond to the streets of the one-time bustling sea port.  I was there in the story in Acts when Paul had moved on from meeting in the synagogue week in week out for three months, and now had gathered a church in Christ’s name that met in the hall of Tyrannus.  Acts builds up such a vivid picture of the discussion, the dialogue, the teaching that goes on.  It’s vibrant.

Paul is passionate – this God we believe in through Jesus Christ is the God of the whole of creation.  It’s a challenge to the Roman way of life and to the religious fabric of a town build around one of the seven wonders of the world in the Temple of Diana.

When their trade was affected they were up in arms and led a virtual rebellion against Paul – you could imagine the shouts of the silversmiths echoing from the theatre over the streets of the city.

What was it like to be living at that time in that way in that place?  You can raise questions about whether Ephesians was written by Paul or by a close follower … but its message speaks so powerfully into that place that church.  Paul is passionate about the dividing wall of hostility coming down, of the oneness three is between Jew and Greek in Christ.  The letter is rich with prayers for the church.

Read the passages – think yourself there.

Paul’s travels took him further north up the coast of what we now think of as Turkey until in a dream, Luke tells us in Acts, Paul was beckoned over to Macedonia.  Philippi was a massively important city.  Regional capital.  Location of a key battle that had helped shape the whole Roman Empire.  No wonder one of the first things Octavian did on becoming Emperor Augustus was to honour the city with the very highest status of all Roman cities – making it a Colonia.  That meant that Roman citizens living in its walls had all the rights, privileges and responsibilities of people living in Rome itself.  

That’s why those women in Philippi had to meet out of the city walls, down by the river.  That’s why when Paul was put in prison by the slave owners of the girl he healed he appealed to the authorities as a Roman citizen.

Imagine what it would have been like to be that slave girl, the gaoler and his family – all belonging to that church in Philippi.  Paul’s letter is full of joy as he thinks of their vibrant faith.  And wise words of counsel as he equips them to live with the anxieties that inevitably came their way.

Take the words of Paul’s prayer and turn them into prayer – prayer of thanksgiving, prayer seeking God’s blessing.   Think how the words of challenge Paul writes and his recipe for coping with stressful times speaks into your situation.  Think what makes this church so special.

From what the letters themselves say four letters are written by Paul while he is in prison: they have similar themes.

It’s fascinating how as Paul is making haste back towards Jerusalem with the collection he has been making he wants to visit Ephesus again, but he cannot so there is an account of a meeting he has with the senior members of the Ephesus church.  That seems to have been a really key base in his missionary work.  A number of churches were founded in that locality by Paul’s fellow workers.  One of them Colossae by Epaphras  is one of those churches Paul writes to.

He has much to give thanks for – prayers that we can adapt and use ourselves.  As in Philippians he focuses on Christ Jesus at the heart of the life of the church.  And then he has these wonderful words of challenge as he urges people in Colossae to put on a whole new set of clothes held together by love, ensuring that all things are done in the name of Jesus Christ.

There’s something even more special here – it’s not just a theory about barriers coming down, it’s personal.  Very personal.  Accompanying the letter to the Colossians is a second, very personal letter to Philemon who hosts the church at his house.  Paul urges Philemon to welcome back into his home and into the church a runaway slave called Onesimus – and he is to welcome him back no longer as a slave but as a brother in Christ.

This is a remarkable glimpse of just how radical and different the church communities of these first years were.

Prone to problems, but treasured and nurtured by Paul.

So here’s the challenge … and the invitation – to take home this set of readings.  Over the next couple of weeks follow these readings, pray these scriptures and imagine yourself in these churches.

Then let’s draw together in our weekend with the expectation that God will grant us his Spirit that we may dream dreams together and come to share a vision for the future of our church to God’s glory.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Moving Immoveable Mountains

When the service came to an end Stefan recognised a couple he knew from days gone by.  He got engrossed in conversation and I stood by.

I was itching to talk to the person who had taken the service.

I looked around.

He was nowhere to be seen.

I rushed to the door and saw him disappearing over the other side of the park we had walked through to get to the park.

Honouring the Olympic Legacy I set off in pursuit and was quite out of breath when I caught up with him.

I was glad I did.

It wasn’t long before we were in deep conversation … and a good twenty minutes had passed.

It wasn’t long after I came to Highbury in 1991 that we were joined in the congregation by a young girl from Meissen in what until two years before had been East Germany.  She was doing a year’s voluntary work, but the placement she was on collapsed.  She found a replacement in Nottingham and I arranged to meet her at a training weekend that September.  She turned up at our Centre in Nottingham at her wit’s end – the placement was appalling, the accommodation worse.

So it was we put an ad hoc placement together, supported her in staying in Cheltenham for the rest of her year and Katja became the first of our volunteers.

She was the first of a number of a wonderful series of volunteers from Germany, the UK and Poland.

Then came the round-robin email to all the churches of Gloucestershire looking for a pastoral placement for a student who was coming from the Geissen seminary in Germany to study at the University of Gloucestershire.  We offered him a placement – and he made his mark wonderfully.  Before his year was out he suggested a friend and colleage from Geissen might follow in his footsteps as he was coming to do a PhD.

Stefan and Birgit joined us for three wonderful years.

Stefan, a German, having completed his PhD in English soon announced he and Birgit were going to learn Portuguese and he was going to take up a post at a theological seminary in South America – Faculdade Teologica Sul Americana in Rolandia, Brazil.

We’ve been in touch since and we at Highbury provide a way for people to give their support to Stefan and Birgit.

After four years of mission work in Brazil they are back in Germany, in Marburg for six months and will join us in October.  When he invited me to join him at the bi-ennial conference of the Fellowship of European Evangelical Theologians in Berlin, it was an opportunity not to miss.

So it was I found myself catching the 4-30 bus from the Royal Well a week last Thursday morning, and meeting Stefan in the Tegel Airport at lunch time.

It was a stimulating weekend with some thought-provoking papers and a wonderful opportunity to share in what was very much an academic conference, something I had not experienced quite in that way before.

Beyond the Bible – in mission and practical theology was the theme – and speakers ranged over biblical and theological subjects in a stimulating way.  Much food for thought that I will be digesting and, perhaps not quite the right word (!) re-gurgitating before too long!!!

The conference didn’t begin until Friday evening.

On the Thursday afternoon Stefan and I explored the Pergamon museum, Berlin’s equivalent of the British Museum with the Altar to Zeus from Pergamon which 40 years earlier on my one student adventure to Turkey and Greece I had missed when I visited Pergamon itself.  So where’s the altar itself, we enquired … in Berlin came the response.  The Pergamon altar is to Berlin what the Elgin Marbles are to London – a wonderful display.  The museum was full of interest to any student of the Bible with so many artefacts from the Ancient Near East.

Then on Friday came for me the highlight of the weekend.

I hadn’t seen Stefan since my visit to the Holy Land.  I had much to share.  It was fascinating talking with others with a different perspective on the Holy Land.  One thing came across very powerfully that a tour round the museum reminded me of.  That was the impact the archaeology, the historical sites had on my reading of the text.

I shared with Stefan a conversation I had had with a young Bethlehem lad who had just finished his studies to become a guide to the biblical sites.

What text would I read differently, having visited the Holy Land?  I asked him.

Without a moment’s hesitation this was the text he quoted.  Matthew 14:20

For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, “Move from here to there”, and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.’

I had always thought of any mountains I had recently seen.  But visiting the summer palace and mausoleum of King Herod the Great, towering on a mountain overlooking Bethlehem, and visitng the remarkable Temple mount in Jerusalem, we had been all too aware of the sheer power and brute force of King Herod and his building achievements.

It was wonderful meeting a couple of PhD students and a couple of staff from the Geissen Seminary where Jurgen and Stefan had studied.  They were just the same kind of spirit as our two friends – it was wonderful!  One was in charge of the Bookshop.  On the last day I wrote in a book about the world of the Old Testament and the Ancient Near East for Stefan while he inscribed an introduction to Josephus the Jewish 1st century historian.  It was a book by someone from Geissen so seemed very appropriate.

I read it through on my return journey.  It was fascinating to see my impressions of King Herod the Great confirmed in reading that account.  He was one who could literally move mountains – the summer palace he had sliced the top of the mountain off – at the Temple Mount he had levelled the mountain top off and extended it too. 

The power of the king who could literally move mountains and his dynasty was closely linked with the awesome power of the Romans.  It was a sheer strength that nothing could topple in the time of Jesus.

This, suggested, my guide was perhaps at the back of Jesus’ mind.

Have faith, hold on to that faith that is so much a part of you … and when your faith wavers, keep holding on.  Even if it is but the size of a grain of mustard seed … yet it has a power that nothing in the world can prevail against it.

You don’t need the brute force of Herod and his armies of builders, or the brute force of Rome and its armies of legionaries – have faith and say to this mountain, move from here to there, and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.

That’s the power of faith.

It was the hope the exiles had expressed so powerfully when they longed for a return from exile.  The route from far off Babylon back to Jerusalem was a tough one – so hard.  With hills and mountains, rough places and valleys to negotiate.

Isaiah of Babylon had a wonderful vision – hold on to your faith, keep believing.  For come the day and

Every valley shall be lifted up,
And every mountain and hill be made low;
The uneven ground shall become level,
And the rough placves a plain.

Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed …

What a wonderful vision.

They held on to their faith … and the return from exile came.

And John the Baptist came with those words echoing in his words as he faced the immoveable mountain of Herod the Great and the Roman regime.  It seemed that they got the better of John with his execution … but Jesus took up where John left off.

It seemed they got the better of Jesus at his crucifixion but on the third day he rose again and nothing could keep him down.

It seemed they had the last word with the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple.

But no, that young man in Bethlehem said – the immoveable mountains were moved in the fullness of time.  Hold fast the faith … even if that faith is the size of a grain of mustard seed.

IN the two years before I arrived in Highbury two remarkable things happened.  In the next six years a third thing happened too.

I had lived until that time with immoveable mountains.  The Berlin Wall, the Iron Curtain, the Cold War were there to stay – nothing could move them.

Apartheid in South Africa and then the troubles in Northern Ireland – were here to stay – nothing could move them.

Immoveable mountains.

But something remarkable happened.

The Peace Process in Northern Ireland, the ending of Apartheid, and in 1989 the coming down of the Berlin Wall.

We had made it just in time for the service.  I really wanted to catch up with the person who had led the service, and I was delighted when I did.

I had something I wanted to present to him.

My predecessor, Eric Burton, as he arrived in Highbury back in 1966 was just finishing off a little book that he published in 1968 dedicating it to Highbury.  It sets out his vision for a church that embraces all ages and all peoples.  It finishes with a vision for a church with, in the words of the book’s title, No Walls Within.

He speaks of the sheer awfulness of a church in East Berlin, cut off from its congregation by the wall only a metre or so from its front door.  A photo was on the cover of the book.  And he holds out the hope that the church can be a church with no walls, no barriers, that’s welcoming to all.

In 1985 the East German regime demolished the church.  But a church is not a building, it’s people.

The people danced in defiance on the wall.

In 1989 the wall came down.

And in 1999 a new church, the Chapel of Reconciliation was built on the spot.

It was deeply moving to here the person who had taken the service telling the story of the church.

He spoke of their vision – it was a vision of reconciliation.  It was a vision to share with the world.  They longed for walls the world over to come down.

I handed over a copy of Eric’s book, with a greeting from the church here at Highbury … and included a greeting from Eric as well.

In my lifetime I have seen the impossible happen.

The wall came down.

The immoveable mountain really did move.

I recall the wall in Bethlehem, in Palestine and I think of the seemingly immoveable mountains there are in the Middle East today.

I think of circumstanes that seem to trap us in our own personal lives.

And I am moved in that place to hold on to my faith.

Every valley shall be lifted up,
And every mountain and hill be made low;

For truly, I tell you, said Jesus, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”

For I am convinced that neither death nor life,
Nor angels, nor rulers,
Nor things present, nor things to come,
Nor powers, nor height, nor depth,
Nor anything else in all creation
Will be able to separate us from the love of God
In Christ Jesus our Lord.

Who are we? - head, heart and hands

Evening worship – 26 August 2012 led by the Rev Dr Graham Adams

Readings: Joshua 24: 1-18
                  John 6: 52-69

Head: Who are we?

Who are we?
It’s a constantly important question for the church,
because we need to reflect on who we are as a community of disciples of Jesus
in order to remind ourselves of our calling and our mission –
who we are informs how we should live and what we should do,
and as we face challenges in each new age, we need to reflect on this question time & again.
This evening I’ll break it down into three sections – head, heart and hands.
Head is about thinking the issues through,
heart is about committing to the kind of relationships and community we aim to be,
and hands is about our actions; what are we going to do about it?
So we begin with our heads.

Who are we?
In particular, to start with, who are we in these Bible passages? – a question we often ask.
Who do we most identify with? – and why do we identify with ‘this group’ & not ‘them’?
This question stood out for me, in relation to these 2 Bible stories, because of a problem:
In the Old Testament passage, we’d probably want to identify ourselves with the Jews –
the ones rescued by God, the ones who God travels with, & who God promises much to;
after all, as Christians our story is rooted in the ancient story of the Jewish people,
primarily because Jesus himself was Jewish and its heritage obviously shaped who he was,
but in particular in this story, the Jews commit to serve the Lord, and to reject false gods –
so we presumably want to identify ourselves with them, and not with ‘the others’. Do we?

But when we turn to the New Testament passage, we see the Gospel-writer poses us with a problem
because he contrasts ‘the Jews’, who are troubled by Jesus, & Jesus’ own followers –
not least because he was writing at a time when the emerging Christian community
was increasingly in tension with the synagogues, as the differences were becoming clearer,
so the relationship was under stress…
so if we ask ‘who are we?’, can we be ‘the Jews’ in one story but ‘not the Jews’ in the other?
Now on the one hand, this doesn’t necessarily cause us any problems,
because it reflects the ambiguity which is at the heart of being Christian:
for we are rooted in Judaism and yet quite distinct from it too.
But on the other hand, we should take care identifying ourselves with one group not another:
for what about those others: whether the Egyptians, or the Amorites, killed in God’s name,
or those disciples who ended up turning away, or ‘the Jews’ in John’s Gospel?
If we see ourselves very clearly as being like ‘them’, that group, but different from the others,
are we doing that for the right motives, and what does it say about those others anyway?

For example, if – by identifying ourselves with the Jews in the Old Testament passage –
we are saying ‘we’re nothing like the Egyptians, who kept people in slavery, & ended up being killed’
or ‘we are nothing like the Amorites, who tried to resist the advance of God’s people’
then we should take care!
In fact, Joshua himself realised that the story wasn’t one-sided, for the Jews themselves
had a habit of taking on false gods and failing to serve the true living God,
so it’s dangerous to see ourselves only as ‘the good guys’ – it won’t ring true;
and we shouldn’t only see ourselves as being like the Jews who suffered slavery
just because it is preferable to think of ourselves as the victims of other people’s power,
for the truth is that other people in the world have been & remain the victims of our power,
whether we realise it or not.
We live in a messy world – with structures and systems with untold effects on many people,
and we are part of these things which bring both freedom & captivity simultaneously.

Similarly, if we identify ourselves in the New Testament story with the disciples who commit to Jesus and therefore dissociate ourselves from those who end up turning away from him,
we once again tell a half-truth,
because surely there are times when we effectively turn away, & others when we commit:
we are human, life is messy, we make mistakes, our motives are mixed,
we sometimes hurt each other, and sometimes choose the easier road to suit ourselves.
All these things suggest we should recognise that we’re not only like those who say ‘Yes’,
for we also say ‘Maybe’, ‘in a moment’, ‘it depends’, ‘what’s the catch?’, and ‘not so sure’.

But this is good news, because it reminds us that, when we find the going gets tough,
we’re not alone – others have walked similar paths and made similar mistakes,
so don’t despair!
Because even though we’re not always perfect & our actions have unforeseen consequences;
even though our lives sometimes reflect allegiance to false gods (security, wealth, or pride),
& we’re not always so cleanly on ‘the right side’ of an issue – life isn’t like that; & we’re not;
still we can take comfort, because the Bible shows us that disciples are a mixed bunch –
so we don’t need to be one-dimensional, always getting things right, or with perfect faith:
no, Jesus shows us God’s love is for all of us, including with our muddles & mess. Thank God!

Heart: ‘Choose this day (who to be)’

So, we’ve been thinking through the issues with our heads
and I’ve suggested that it’s a bit of a problem if we try to identify ourselves
with one group, and not another, with ‘insiders’ (or ‘the good guys’) as opposed to ‘outsiders’,
because that might leave us feeling under pressure to get everything right to stay ‘inside’,
as though we can never be honest, or ‘real’ or ‘human’ or complicated, or many-sided.
Instead, I want to suggest that something at the heart of who we are as Christian people
is an acceptance that we shouldn’t only see ourselves as ‘insiders’,
on the right side of every argument – like the disciples who got it right with Jesus –
but that it’s also absolutely appropriate to recognise the ways in which we are ‘outsiders’,
sometimes getting things wrong, worshipping false gods, or effectively turning away,
because what we see most of all in the ministry of Jesus
is a ministry towards those who were on the outside.

So, not only with our heads but with our hearts too, let us affirm that we are messy people,
sometimes right, sometimes wrong, sometimes on the inside, sometimes on the outside,
sometimes living our lives in accordance with the ways of the living God,
sometimes living our lives in the light of some kind of false god,
but still God welcomes us, time & again, with open arms, and gives us purpose. Thank God!
And by affirming this, we are better placed to come alongside one another
and alongside those who find themselves feeling like outsiders, unsure, & in need of grace.

It can be tempting to think that everyone has to fall in line, & believe everything ‘just so’,
and of course we try to have standards which reflect some core Christian values –
but right at the heart of our core values is Grace: love which cannot be earned
but which makes a world of difference to people’s lives.
It is this which lies at the very heart of who we are, or who we are called to be – Grace! –
because it is grace which has drawn us here, made us feel we belong even though we are imperfect; it is grace which gives us a part to play even though we make mistakes.
So, not only with our heads, but with our hearts, let us choose this day to be people of grace:
to aim to be a community which knows we’re sometimes a bit like the Jews, sometimes not,
we’re sometimes right, sometimes wrong, sometimes gracious, often not, but always in need of grace:
so let us choose to extend our welcome even to disciples who sometimes turn away,
including each other and ourselves.

Hands: ‘We will serve the Lord’

So what might our commitment be, in terms of our hands, our actions, as a result of this?
As a Christian community, the church, I suggest we strive to be generous –
not only welcoming to those who fit in, who get it right, who behave like the best of us,
but welcoming to those who struggle, who need more grace, just as we too need grace;
not only welcoming to those who play by the rules but to those who cause us trouble;
not only welcoming to those who believe everything they’ve been taught
but also to those who ask many hard questions.
But this applies in our own lives too: don’t expect perfection of each other –
recognise that we’re all a bit messy, we’re all a bit complicated, we’re not one-dimensional
so we need to give each other that allowance, understanding that we’re not consistent.
Let us, with our heads, understand that who we are as Christian people, & as human beings,
isn’t straightforward: we’re all a mix of things, insiders, outsiders, committed, turning away;
and let us, with our hearts, commit to be that kind of community which allows for this, in love,
which does not expect perfection, but affirms this is a place for all sorts of people, always;
and let us, with our hands, work for a world which practices this kind of hospitality & grace,
let us practise this kind of understanding and love which doesn’t stop at the walls of the church
but extends outwards, to all people.
This, I suggest, is at the heart of what it means to ‘serve the Lord’ – the Lord of love,
whose love for us is always gracious and which gives us this sense of who we are:
as people of grace.

Ambassadors in Chains ... moving mountains

Morning worship – 26 August 2012 led by the Rev Dr Graham Adams

Readings: Zechariah 9: 12, Ephesians 6: 18-20, Mark 11: 12-24

Reflection 1: Ambassadors in chains

I love the phrase that Paul uses at the end of that passage – about him being an ‘ambassador in chains’. (or in the GNB: ‘an ambassador … in prison’)
In his case there was something very literal about it, being that he was in prison,
but as our opening words from the prophet Zechariah reminded us,
there’s a sense in which we are all ‘prisoners of hope’
as well as ‘ambassadors in chains’:
because we have our dreams, our goals, the things we long to see happen,
but things hold us back – we remain prisoners, restricted by certain chains,
whether physical limitations, or lack of self-esteem, or money, or Olympic skill -
so even if we see ourselves as a potential world champion at javelin-throwing
we may know deep inside it will never happen … if we don’t have a javelin.
Life holds us back, and sometimes seems to squash our dreams.

It’s because of that sense of limitation that Paul asks for people’s prayers:
we too need each other’s prayers, and encouragement, and support, and love,
far more than we need each other’s criticism, and discouragement;
so although we need to know if we’re deluding ourselves about what we could do
most people suffer more from a lack of self-belief, so let us be encouraging.

But what about these chains? What might we achieve without them?
The Gospel story itself may have the opposite effect from the one it intends
if we focus so much on our inability to move mountains that we feel powerless;
so we need to recover the meaning here –
after all, I doubt when Jesus urged us never to have a doubt in our hearts,
I doubt he meant we should never doubt!
For elsewhere he praised those whose faith is only the size of a mustard seed,
so it’s not about the quantity of faith we have, or how strong we think we are,
but what our faith is directed towards.
In fact, I’m a big believer in doubting – it’s very healthy, it’s a sign of honesty,
and God is big enough to absorb all of our doubts;
so when Jesus urges us to have ‘no doubts in our hearts’, the context is specific:
he is presenting us with a choice, between two different ways of believing,
two different kinds of faith – one which produces unhealthy fruit, one good fruit;
one which ties us up with more & more chains; one which helps to set us free.
So which will we choose?

But before I expand on that, it’s worth noting that even though Paul was in chains
& even though many of us frequently feel inhibited, not quite fulfilling our goals,
still many amazing things are achieved – so the chains need not get the better of us!
In fact, we live in a world so attuned to the bad news, that we often overlook
all the many subtle ways in which even people who are desperately up against it
manage to bring about small  victories in the causes of justice and peace.

So let’s not lose sight of the courage of people, both far away & close to home,
as they dare to confront a predicament, persevere, & bring some good to fruition.
This happens on a global scale,
when campaigns set prisoners of conscience free, or empower those in poverty,
or companies or governments are held to account for their misbehaviour,
but also when people with illnesses or who suffer domestic violence or abuse
show unbelievable fortitude & resilience.
The human spirit can be amazing, whether people believe it is God-given or not,
and we should simply give thanks for the small acts of kindness,
the heroic bravery of people standing up for the rights and dignity of others,
or anything which shows us that, even though we are in chains in so many ways,
still much good & beauty & hope & healing can be achieved & often is.

We would do well, also, to recognise that when we think we are free
(because we like to think of ourselves as independent and self-sufficient),
even so we remain under the influence of subtle forces which shape our lives –
so none of us can ever achieve some kind of state of innocence, unsullied by it all:
for we do live with chains, we are part of structures and systems which do harm others,
we cannot pretend to stay aloof from it all;
in fact, rather than refusing to get our hands dirty in the real world,
we should accept that compromise & messiness are an inevitable part of things,
but even so we can still strive to make a difference – and every effort counts:
for even the greatest mountain becomes less formidable
when many join together to move it!

So, basically, don’t be disheartened by the scale of the challenges we face
or the risk of compromise - should we dare to get stuck in & get our hands dirty,
because although we remain ‘in chains’, as prisoners of hope, not entirely free,
or our actions not as pure as we’d like,
still we contribute to something better and we do make a difference
as ambassadors of a new world which begins to take shape
even in the shadow of the mountain itself.

Reflection 2: Moving Mountains

So what of the choice between two different ways of believing?
Remember, the context was specific:
Jesus had just undertaken his most direct attack on the Temple establishment yet
which most historians accept would have been the ultimate trigger for his arrest.
So this wasn’t just about clearing a space to have some quiet prayer –
it was a direct challenge to the whole system which the Temple represented:
namely the purity code, which taught that people were unclean because of sin
and that only the Temple could secure their forgiveness & make them clean,
but they had to pay, to make a sacrifice, which meant using the Temple currency
with an exchange rate which exploited them.
So the Temple was not only a religious institution but political and economic –
at the heart of the way of life of the people, which was about exclusion and exploitation,
and Jesus wasn’t the only Jewish teacher to see this, but he brought the issues together.
And he struck at the heart of it – in an act bravely designed strategically to cause trouble.
It’s with that in mind that we should read the conversations surrounding it:
first, the cursing of a barren fig-tree, surely a metaphor for the Temple
a creation which was not bearing good fruit, but was morally withering instead,
as Mark’s account of those things shows us;
and secondly, the saying about having faith that can move mountains,
because the Temple, being on the mountain, was associated with the mountain,
so any talk of throwing this mountain into the sea was about throwing the Temple
the sheer audacity of it! No wonder the authorities would want him dead.

The choice, then, becomes clear:
Have faith in God, Jesus says – not in the Temple, but directly in God.
Though the Temple claimed to speak for God, to act in God’s name,
Jesus undermined this claim, and opened up an alternative possibility:
The people would have been taught the inevitability of the Temple’s authority
and to doubt that anything else could speak for God.
But Jesus urged people not to doubt this! There was another way! Believe it!
Have faith in God – don’t doubt it – because the temple keeps you in chains;
but instead a kind of freedom is possible, which throws the Temple away,
and it makes all sorts of things possible which may feel unlikely …

We may not have the same Temple in our day, but other things have replaced it –
powers and structures and forces at work in our world
which make us doubt that alternatives are really possible,
which act as though they are ‘god’, supreme, beyond doubt, secure, eternal.
This is why institutions in the City of London must have loved being called
‘the masters of the universe’ by politicians,
and relished the free rein they were given, as many profited greatly from it too,
until the hollowness of their authority was exposed
and wider society bore the cost;
well-known media moguls also had their lengthy stint as supreme Temples;
but one by one, such Temples fall, mountains crumble –
so let’s not doubt it is possible to move these mountains, these temples,
to undermine their arrogance, and make the world better.
Have faith in God, not in any of these pretenders, these temples;
Have faith that even if we remain in chains, they need not have the last word,
because God continues to do new things…

I’ve been invited to a conference in Brazil, organised by the World Council of Churches and the Council for World Mission, with 70 theologians and economists coming together
to discuss the economic crisis and map out a better way of organising things
to put limits on the power of human greed.
An exciting opportunity – which reflects the word ‘crisis’, both a trauma
and an opportunity to be seized, and I believe this is a mountain-moving moment,
an opportunity for reform, if politicians can be persuaded to take it on our behalf,
to help shape the economy in a way which is less about exclusion and exploitation
and more about God’s House being, as Jesus proclaimed, ‘for all nations’.
So pray for the conference – and for all attempts to seize moments of crisis
to help reform our own Temples and work for a fairer, more just world.

So, for ourselves too, we’re faced with a choice today:
Whether to opt for the kind of faith which believes we’re better off
sticking with what we know;
we’re better off opting for the security which comes when we accept
that our chains are inevitable;
that the world cannot really be any different, things are as they always will be;
that we can never really flourish & others in our world will never flourish either…
Or should we choose a different way of believing – braver, riskier, but more alive?
Having faith in God, the living God whose love makes new things possible?
Daring to imagine that injustices, violence, brokenness can be overcome?
Because we see, as though through Jesus’ own eyes, that faith is about imagination –
daring to imagine, to dream, to envisage alternative, outrageous possibilities,
not to doubt that these temples or mountains might even yet be moved!
Dare we, even if our faith is as fragile as a mustard seed, or a fig tree,
envisage living as though our prayers are already answered:
that the mountains and temples and obstacles which stand in our way
may not be as overwhelming as they appear?
Dare we have faith in the God who helps us to move mountains?

So much to pass on at Highbury

If you give a little love you can get a little love of your own

A blessing shared at Highbury

Now and the Future at Highbury

Dreaming Dreams Sharing Visions at Highbury

Dreaming Dreams Sharing Visions

Darkness into Light