She is our mother

What is Mother’s Day about?

The celebration of our human mothers only goes back to 1914 in the USA, where it is celebrated on May 9th, the anniversary of the death of the mother of its American promoter, Anna Jarvis.

The custom of celebrating motherhood in Lent started here in 1920 when Constance Smith suggested that the Bible reading for the Fourth Sunday of Lent would be a suitable pointer to thanking God for our mothers:

“But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother.” (Galatians 4:26)

There is huge value in reminding ourselves annually of the care shown by our mothers and honouring them in this way through sending flowers, cards and Simnel cakes. The care shown by mothers also reminds us of the “brooding” of God’s Spirit over chaos before creation began (Genesis 1:2) and of Jesus’ longing to protect his own Jewish people in Jerusalem (Luke 13:34). We celebrate motherhood as an image of God’s love creating life and protecting his children.

Mother’s Day (as it is known outside the Church) has largely ceased to be a religious occasion in the UK, as in the USA. Anna Jarvis regretted the growing commercialisation of the day, even to disapproving of pre-printed Mother’s Day cards. “A printed card means nothing,” she said, “except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world.”

As we nonetheless continue to thank God for his gracious provision of motherhood, we can also reclaim the original meaning of that text for the Fourth Sunday of Lent about the Church. The Church, wonderfully composed of all in Christ from east to west, young to old, on earth and in glory, gathered around His throne, is our mother. For centuries Mothering Sunday has seen people gather at their local “mother” church or cathedral.

In the text from Galatians above Paul is making the point that God’s people are free in Christ. In the context, he draws the contrast between the children of Hagar, Abraham’s slavegirl, and the children of Sarah, his wife. He then makes a radical claim that those who see Jewish law, instead of faith in Christ, as the way to be right with God are not children of Sarah but of Hagar, because only those in Christ are free from sin and law. Those who are children of the promise by faith in Christ, whether Jew or Gentile, are free, children of God’s heavenly city Jerusalem. She is our mother.

I think it’s brilliant that in the middle of Lent we have this text. It reminds us that:

  • earthly mothers are remarkable, but belonging to our heavenly mother the Church matters even more
  • membership of God’s family rests not on what we do but on what Christ has done in fulfilling the Law of God, and paying the price on the Cross for us who broke it

Paul goes on in the remainder of Galatians to apply these truths by calling us who are free in Christ not to let ourselves become slaves either to law or to sin again.

Let’s pray that the Freedom message of Mothering Sunday will set many free to know and live for Christ, secure in our heavenly family as we honour our earthly one.

 

 

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What is Church for?

What is Church for? Why do we go? What mental state are you in when you walk through the door? During the songs and the sermon? And when the service “finishes”?

sunday-morning-a-cottage-family-going-to-church William Redmore Biggs

 Sunday Morning: A Family Going to Church – William Redmore Biggs

These are the very practical questions raised in How to Walk into Church  by Tony Payne. Chapters 1-3 answer the question I’m picking up in this article, “What is Church for?”. I don’t plan to repeat what the book says (it’s so clear and concise!) but to supplement and reflect upon it.

The “Why?” question is in my experience a vital one for churches to ask: it’s so easy to go through the motions of doing what churches do without thinking what the purpose is. We focus on what happens in church, or what we personally hope to “get” from it, and not on why we are here: what is Church for?

  1. God

Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings” (Hebrews 10:22). With this verse the writer reminds us of the first reason we come to Church: to draw near to God. Believing that the heavenly visions of worship in Hebrews 12 and in Revelation are both future and present, we want the One on the throne of heaven, and the “Lamb” Jesus who died and rose for us, to be our central focus. We want to sing of God’s power and love, his greatness and his closeness. We want to come to the throne of grace in prayer (Hebrews 4:16). We want to hear God’s voice speak through the Bible as it is read and then explained in the sermon. We want to have our vision stretched and thrilled by seeing the grand purposes of God in coming in Christ to introduce His kingdom, calling us His people to Himself, triumphing over evil, renewing all creation, and seeing every knee one day bow before the throne of His Son.

  1. Gospel

The good news that God’s kingdom has come, that He chose us, redeemed us, transforms us and prepares us for glory in Christ (Ephesians 1:1-12) is the gospel. And this gospel is what calls us gather for worship, inspires us to put God first in our lives, and sends us out to live for and serve God’s purposes in the world. We want to be a Bible-centred and gospel-shaped church whenever we gather on Sundays: “Let  the word of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish each other with all wisdom through psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, singing to God in your hearts.” (Colossians 3:16). We want to sing songs and hymns that tell this gospel story. We want the gospel to shape our prayers together, whether of confession, thanksgiving or intercession. We want to enact the gospel in the sacraments of baptism (the sign of inclusion in the Church) and holy communion (the sign of being made one Body through Jesus’ death on the Cross). We want the gospel to create and nourish faith in our hearts as the preacher unpacks and applies the Bible for us.

  1. Gathering

Tony Payne crucially points us to Hebrews 10:24-25 in the book: “Let us consider how to stir one another up towards love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – all the more as you see the Day approaching”. We could equally well point to the focus Paul has in 1 Corinthians 14 on the purpose of Church being to gather for each other’s sake. He uses there an image from the construction industry: building each other up is more important when I am in church than puffing myself up. If I decide not to turn up this Sunday, I miss out – but so do you. We gather for spiritual formation, to help the person in the pew next to us to leave church a little stronger in faith, hope and love – because we shared with them and encouraged them. The preacher hopes to do this, as do the musicians and others leading “up front”; but it is the purpose and calling of us all to gather, in order to spur each other on in our faith. It’s the ministry of the pew, not (as so often) the ministry of the few.

Two practical things follow as I come to church this Sunday:

Pray about where you sit. I loved this suggestion in the book. It is such a powerful reminder that I am not coming to church for myself but for God, for the Gospel and to Gather with others. When I pray I recognise the vital truth that God (not me) is sovereign over my life, and all of life, including Sunday at church, is best that way.

Pray for the people you will meet. Before and during the formal part of the service, I can look out for others. Who is next to me, do they look happy, new, confused, lonely or anxious? Over coffee afterwards, who can I encourage by saying hello, asking what most spoke to them in the sermon, what I can pray for them this week?

“Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us worship God acceptably, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:28-29).

 

Virtue: not rocket science

FAITH + 2015

David Voas, a sociology of religion professor, recently accused the Church of worrying about why people no longer come to church, without ever asking why they would want to. His point? That in the busy modern world, young adults have so many attractive alternatives that only seeing a compelling benefit in churchgoing will make them come. He thinks that is “community” (which, he notes, people can get without church) but I think the answer is richer than that.

So the problem is that the results of faith are mostly spiritual – eternal life, peace with God – and not as immediate as gym membership, afterwork cocktails and a digital screen. Yet there is a Christian answer: the gospel gives the one tangible thing nothing else can: the way to live a good life. Reintroducing the language of “goodness” or “virtue” into our discipleship, and thence into our families and workplaces for others to see, is essential for others to be drawn to “wearing God” with us.

The “good” life is described by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, by Paul (eg Galatians 5:22-23 and Colossians 3), by James, and in 2 Peter 1:5-7 (our church verses for 2015). Here is what a “good” life (virtue) looks like.

Virtue is not duty

Make every effort (to add to your faith) – 2 Peter repeats this phrase three times. Making effort appeals to those of us who are activistic types. We love to DO things.

But living a good life is impossible without spiritual change first – Peter says “make every effort” only once he has reminded us about God’s gift of faith and hope in Christ (“for this reason”) in verses 1-4.

Calling for a good life out of duty is like telling a dead person to walk. Start with faith in Jesus which brings you to know Him. Start with his power which promises immortality. Goodness comes from gratitude, not duty.

Virtue is not optional

Peter is deeply concerned that when he has gone, his readers will not give up on the gospel. He calls on them not to stumble & fall back (2:20), and to be pure & ready for the new creation (3:13-14).

It is true that “nothing will separate us from the love of God” and that “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion”. Calvinism teaches the “perseverance of the saints”, and the Church of England Article 17 says that we,

“are called, justified, adopted, made like Christ, live by good works and by God’s mercy reach eternal happiness”

But…

James says that faith without works is dead (2:20). Paul says that a Spirit-filled person will produce “fruit” and has “clothed” themselves with the virtues of the gospel. Calvin – before he unpacks in detail how Christ’s death on the cross is all we need for salvation – urges that faith is inseparable from works, as the sun is inseparable from its rays.

For us who are Anglican, Article 12 of The 39 Articles says:

“good works are the fruit of faith; they follow justification and cannot pay for our sins; yet they please God, and spring necessarily from a true and living faith. You know living faith from good works as you know a tree from its fruit.”

The life of virtue (goodness or godliness) is not optional.

Virtue is not automatic

Make every effort” – learning virtue is like learning a language.  You need to turn up to class, listen, take notes, try out the sound of the words, learn the right way to put sentences together.

Make every effort, Peter says,  to furnish your faith – the image is of fitting out a stage for a show, hiring the best possible choirs and singers, with lavish provision.

Make every effort: virtue is not automatic.

Virtue is not ‘being nice’

Many of the seven “virtues” Peter lists are favourite Greek ones (goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, mutual kindness).

Yet he makes them Christ-shaped: perseverance is not just Stoical Greek or Churchill’s “never surrender” but Christian hope – we survive anything the world throws at us, not because we are tough but because Jesus is coming, not because the pain is small but because the promise of new creation is great.

And he tops and tails the list with two unique Christian virtues – faith, with which we start, and love, with which we continue and which lasts forever.

Virtue is not complicated

Peter’s list of eight virtues begins with faith, ends with love, and has gospel hope in the centre. These three “theological virtues” are the key ones, from which all others flow, in the New Testament1 and early theologians such as Augustine2.

The seven virtues which Peter lists flowing out of “faith” can be divided into: two by which I interact within myself (goodness/strength and  knowledge/wisdom); three by which I interact with the world (self-control, perseverance, godliness); and two by which I interact with others (mutual kindness and, supremely, love).

None of these eight things is complicated, all are about the daily habit of loving God and others, and all are based on faith in Christ.

So how do I ‘add virtue to my faith’?

Pray for it

If virtue is the gift of God beginning with faith and culminating in love, it makes sense to ask for it. The Anglican Collect for the Fifth Sunday of Easter (Easter Sunday in Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer) puts it well:

 “Almighty God who through Jesus Christ has overcome death and opened the gate of glory, grant that, as by your grace going before us, you put into our minds good desires, so by your continual help, we may bring them to good effect.”

Practise it

That is, reflect on it, rehearse it, react using it, as you would learning a language. In practice this means immersing my life in what many call “the means of grace” such as baptism, reading Scripture, studying the lives of godly Christians, praise & thanksgiving, confession, prayer together and alone, serving others, giving, and sharing communion.

Is my life a silent sermon?

What would the world think if we began to live as Peter describes here in God’s grace?

Here’s how Victorian bishop JC Ryle urges us to live holy lives for the sake of others,

“We must be holy, because this is the most likely way to do good to others…Our lives will always be doing either good or harm to those who see them. It is sad indeed when they are a sermon for the devil’s cause, and not for God’s…far more is done for Christ’s kingdom by the holy living of believers than we are aware of…(People) may not understand justification, but they will understand love.”3

1 See especially 1 Corinthians 13
2 Augustine, Enchiridion, a book of “basic” teaching on the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer
3 JC Ryle “Holiness”, 3.2.f

Mission(al): what’s in a name?

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When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. “They’ve a temper, some of them – particularly verbs, they’re the proudest – adjectives you do anything with, but not verbs – however, I can manage the whole lot them! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!”

“Would you tell me, please,” said Alice, “what that means?”

Humpty Dumpty gave a lengthy explanation of what he meant by the word.

“That’s a great deal to make one word mean,” Alice said in a thoughtful tone.

“When I make a word do a lot of work like that,” said Humpty Dumpty, “I always pay it extra.”

 The word “mission” should be paid extra for all the things we make it mean today. In the last few years “mission” has included everything that the Church does, from cross-cultural evangelism to litter-picking or campaigning on social justice  issues. It has Biblical roots going back to Jesus “sending” (the root of the Latin term missio) his disciples after the resurrection: “as the Father sent me, so I am sending you” (John 20:21). So I think we should retain the word, and its related adjective “missional”.

But given the confusion about what should or should not be called “mission”,  a look at the word’s definition and scope  is overdue.

Mission is not just for “missionaries”

Because the words of Jesus “as the Father sent me, so I am sending you” are followed by him “breathing on them” and saying “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:21-22), this moment has been called John’s version of Luke’s Day of Pentecost – the giving of the Holy Spirit to empower us to share the good news of his kingdom. All who follow Jesus are sent (commissioned) by Jesus.

Whilst we recognise the particular calling of some to leave home and share the good news in other nations, it is clear that it is not just those we call “missionaries” who are sent to do mission. We are all missionaries, the moment we receive Christ, his Spirit, and his Commission to “make disciples of all people”. Mission is not just for those labelled “missionaries”.

Mission is not unchanging

The word “missional” in particular has been in vogue in some church circles over the last 20 years or so. It reflects a rediscovery, to some extent, that the way in which churches reach out to their culture needs to be flexible and sensitive to that culture.

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One of the spurs to this impetus was the British theologian Lesslie Newbigin, who spent 30 years in cross-cultural mission in a non-Christian culture (India). He was shocked to return to Britain in 1980 and find that in that period, this country had effectively become non-christian too, and the Church was still operating as if everyone around shared Christian belief, and was not ready for mission. His books “The Gospel in a Pluralist Society” and “The Open Secret: an introduction to the theology of mission” remain key to the modern interest in mission in the West today.

The missional movement has rightly identified that in the West today the ordinary person does not any longer give the Church much attention, look to the Church in time of need, or know much at all about the Bible story. We cannot simply keep “doing” church the way we did 30 years ago. We have moved (as Tim Keller from Manhattan is fond of putting it) from doing mission in Acts 2 (Scripturally-influenced Jerusalem) to Acts 17 (pagan Athens). Mission needs to change the shape of Church life to reach each generation that comes along in our culture.

In recent years this has meant realising that churches will connect more with our culture if we do not simply repeat what we believe to the world around us, but demonstrate the difference faith makes in life; if we send disciples out into the culture and don’t just expect people to come to church uninvited; if we speak not only about what we believe but the difference faith makes in life; if we recognise that coming to faith is not just an event but a journey of exploration.

Missional churches show the people around them a community that is both connected with their culture (speaking their language instead of religious jargon, for instance) and  counter to that culture when it comes to issues of money, sex and power. Missional churches  have doctrines which we believe, but we are also respectful towards those who those who differ from us. All of this is somewhat different from 50 or even 30 years ago. So mission is not unchanging.

Mission(al) is not new

When I read some of the writings of “missional” church leaders I get the impression that they think mission started with them. Everything that came before was hidebound, inwardly-focussed, formal, and aimed only at those who were already Christians.

In fact, of course, the Church has been missionary over the entire 20 centuries since the Great Commission of Jesus to “make disciples” (Matthew 28:16-20) and the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2)! How else did the good news of Christ reach the shores of Britain 1500 years ago and become surely THE dominant cultural and spiritual influence over the succeeding years? Are we saying that the apostles, and Augustine of Canterbury, and Patrick and Columba, and George Whitefield and John Wesley, and Williams Booth and Wilberforce, Billy Sunday and Billy Graham, and a million other evangelists, leaders and church planters, had no missional heart? Certainly every one of these found a different way to communicate the good news in their generation, but communicate it they did.

Mission has always been the energy of the Church, and we simply need to discern what shape it should take in each generation.

Nor, for that matter, are many of the concerns of the modern “missional church” movement new either. The existential search for meaning and relationship (often described as one of the things a missional church will seek to address) has been the search of human beings since Augustine of Hippo’s famous line in his Confessions “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee” – and long before him. We all need love and hope, whether we are young “millenials” or middle-aged; we always have done, and the mission of God has always brought those things to the needy. Mission and its need is not new!

In following posts on Mission we will look further at “missional” thinking, and in a culture of “mission statements”, we will ask the key question “Whose mission is it anyway?”

(An adapted version of a post on the website of Christ Church Cockfosters.)