Sunday, October 28, 2012


Ephesians 2:19-22
John 15:17-27

One of the things Kate and I like most about preaching here is this little book (it’s called the Lectionary) that sets out official Bible readings for each day throughout the year.

At our last church, the Lectionary was completely ignored - the Vicar simply chose readings to support the preaching themes he had chosen, and gave each sermon a bold title that left the congregation in no doubt as to where things were going – earnest titles like “Why should I give to the church?” or “What does the Bible say about money?”

It’s clearly preferable to let each book of the Bible speak for itself. And that’s where the Lectionary comes in. It stops us preachers from preaching too often on the passages we like. It stops us cherry-picking key verses that bolster our own agenda. Just as helpfully, it draw together passages that help to clarify and enrich one another, just as our lessons from John and Ephesians do today.

Of course it’s still necessary to focus on the real-life issues facing the church family. Right now there’s a pressing need for us to reflect week by week on the financial needs of the church. And sometimes the official readings are directly relevant to the issues that need to be addressed; for example, if we’re talking finance, the rich young ruler whom Jesus challenged to loosen his grip on wealth; or the widow cheerfully putting her last penny into the Temple coffers. Readings like that coming up at a time like this are a preacher’s dream.

It isn’t that easy for me this morning. Neither of today’s readings says anything directly about finance. But sometimes God’s Word speaks most powerfully when it doesn’t talk about the problems facing us, but puts our understanding of them into a larger and more illuminating context. And this morning’s readings are a case in point.

The first reading, from Ephesians, focuses not on what we should do about money, but on exactly who and what we are as the church. At the time it was written, the church was being pulled apart by cultural divisions and conflicting agendas – not unlike today – and many Christians were confused about what their membership of the church meant. And so Paul’s first priority was to help his listeners grasp what they were really part of.

What Paul wants to clarify for his listeners – and what he clarifies for us – is that we are a people who have been brought in from the cold - made part of something precious and unique and stupendous. We have been brought out of a world that is distant from God who is the source of all love and goodness; we have been brought into a kingdom in which – for all our weaknesses - God’s love reigns supreme in Christ. Paul sums it up this way: We’re no longer outsiders; we’re fellow citizens with God’s people, members of his household. We’re intimately connected with God and with one another; Paul compares us to a gigantic building that has Jesus himself as its cornerstone. In short, we’re not just a club, not just a charity, not just a self-help group. We are a holy temple, a dwelling place for the living Spirit of God. Church isn’t something we do; church is what we are.

In our second reading, Jesus himself spells out what it means to be church. And this picture is a more challenging one, because while Paul has stressed the privilege of being church, Jesus is stressing the responsibility. Jesus starts by commanding us to love one another, and the verb he uses (agapatÄ“, for those interested) means more than just feelings of affection; it refers to the kind of practical love that Jesus himself showed when he died for humanity on the Cross of Calvary – the kind of love that makes sacrifices for others. And when Jesus goes on to warn us of the hostility that his church will experience from society at large, the implication is clear: Caring for one another won’t just be a duty – it will be the very key to the church’s survival and the very basis of its mission to the world.

And so, to summarise: 
·         Paul reassures us that we’re no longer outsiders, no longer isolated from God’s  plans and his people. We’ve been brought in from the cold,  made part of a unique and beautiful structure, one with Christ as its cornerstone, one that brings the presence of God into the very heart of human society. 
·       Jesus himself warns that our membership of the church earns the world’s hatred. But he does so in order to impress on us the importance of his opening words – our responsibility to  make loving sacrifices for one another.  

So how does this inform our attitude to stewardship? Neither passage speaks directly about money, but then neither of them really needs to. Rather, they show us that in relation to the church there can be no ‘me vs. them’. If we give to the church, we aren’t depriving ourselves, any more than when we give good things to loved ones in our own family. Because my family is an extension of who I am, indeed the fulfilment of who I am. And that’s how Jesus and Paul would wish us to see the church – as the fulfilment of who we are as individuals.

As far as money itself is concerned, everyone’s ability to contribute is different but one thing is the same for all of us: We all know what it’s like to make hard choices in our domestic spending. It may be a choice between fixing the roof or buying little Johnny a new bike. It may be between having a holiday or changing the car or replacing our worn out clothes. The difference, when we accept who and what we are as Christians, is that we factor the needs of the church family into our juggling of spending priorities. And when we pray for solutions, we must expect God to use us as part of his answer.  

Let’s bow our heads in prayer: Heavenly Father, help us to see ourselves for what we are: A body of people brought in from the cold, outsiders adopted into your household, and a beloved community that needs solidarity in the face of opposition from the world outside. Inspire us to live joyfully and generously. Enable us to see how all we are and all we possess comes from you and belongs to you. Help us as we struggle to set our spending priorities, and heal the blindness that so often makes it hard for us to put the needs of the church family on a par with our separate home lives….


Saturday, October 13, 2012


There was once a very ordinary Christian named Joe. Actually he was much admired by those around him, but it’s his very ordinariness that’s the most important thing about him. He wasn’t proud or ambitious. He never rose to high office. In fact in the normal course of things, he would have been one of the many heroes of the church whose names are remembered only in Heaven. But Joe made his mark in the critical first years of the Christian movement. And when Luke wrote the book of Acts, he recorded some of Joe’s exploits for posterity.

You may be wondering why you’ve never heard of this Joe. And the answer is that, whatever his own talents may have been, his most treasured gift was setting up opportunities for others, encouraging them, and helping them to grow. And Joe was such a constant inspiration to others that they gave him a nickname: 'Son of Encouragement'. Now in English that’s a bit of a mouthful. It's hard to imagine somebody calling out to him across the room, "Hey, Son of Encouragement, are you joining us down the pub after work?" But in Aramaic (the language Jesus and his followers spoke among themselves), it was a bit snappier. 

In Acts 4:36-37, we hear about him for the first time: “There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus called Joseph, to whom the Apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means son of encouragement). He sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money and laid it at the Apostles’ feet.” Now we don’t know how Barnabas came by this field, but he had probably been keeping it as a nest-egg for his old age. And in explaining why Joseph became known as Barnabas, Luke leaves us in no doubt why he recorded the incident; it was because Barnabas’ example encouraged others in their sacrificial giving.

Barnabas pops up again in Acts chapter 9. I expect you know the story of Saul of Tarsus, the savage persecutor of the infant church: how he received a blinding vision of the risen Lord Jesus and went on to become the Apostle Paul. Well soon after his conversion, Paul went to Jerusalem to meet the leaders of the church. But as the  Bible tells us in Acts 9:26, “the disciples...were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him, brought him to the Apostles, and described how on the road Paul had seen the Lord who had spoken to him, and how in Damascus Paul had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus.”

Do you see how Barnabas was willing to risk everything on his confidence in Paul when more senior Christian leaders had an attack of nerves – putting his physical safety as well as his reputation in the Church at stake? It’s as a result of Barnabas’ quiet courage and conviction that Paul was able to move around freely in Jerusalem and develop his own ministry.

There’s a further story about Barnabas in Acts chapter 11. The Apostles had sent him to Antioch in Syria, the third city of the Roman Empire, as pastor to the infant Christian community there. As you’d expect, he was a terrific success. “He was a good man,” Luke writes in Acts, “full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord.” And no doubt Barnabas could have carried on there, a big fish in a little pond, until the day he died. But as Luke says, Barnabas was full of the Holy Spirit and faith. His vision was as large as his ego was small. And Acts 11:25 tells us he “went to Tarsus to look for Saul (Paul), and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch.”

Together they worked there for a whole year, and it’s a tribute to Barnabas’ vision and humility that the first mainly Gentile church was established right there under his and Paul’s leadership in Antioch. In fact the Bible tells us it was there that followers of Jesus were first called Christians, marking them for the first time as a distinct movement from Judaism. This shared ministry was equally valuable in Paul’s own development, and it’s no coincidence that it was from Antioch that he launched the three great missionary journeys that spread Christianity throughout the Roman Empire.

That’s not the last we see of Barnabas in the Bible, but those three stories are enough to make the point. He wasn’t one of the great Apostles of the Church. He was an ordinary Christian like you and me, but he let God use his gifts to the full and was repeatedly the catalyst for remarkable growth in the church and in the individuals around him. Barnabas is held up to us time after time in Acts, not primarily because he was generous, or modest, or trusting or courageous. Of course he was all of these things, but his real gift was encouraging other people to make the most of their own gifts. It’s no surprise that to his friends and colleagues, and to two thousand years of history, his real name of Joseph is all but forgotten. He is simply known in salvation history as Barnabas, the Son of Encouragement.

It’s my prayer that each one of us will ask God we can do more to encourage others in their fellowship. Here are three questions we can put to God and to ourselves, inspired by these three stories about Barnabas:

Q1). How could I be more generous with my money and my other gifts? Not for empty show, but nevertheless to set an example - to encourage others make more of their gifts and calling.

Q2). Do I have the courage of my convictions, or am I too concerned about how others see me? Am I always trying to score goals of my own, or am I willing to pass the ball to somebody else, the way Barnabas did when he presented Paul to the Apostles, and again when he invited him to Antioch?

Q3). And one last question: What about the way I speak? Nobody in the church needs false flattery, but do I go too far the other way? Do I run people down? Do I criticise, or do I talk to people in a way that will encourage them to take yet bigger risks for Jesus. Do I spread the seeds of division and partisanship, or does my conversation foster cooperation and unity?

Heavenly Father, thank you for the example of Barnabas, a very ordinary Christian who in your strength did extraordinary things. We ask that his example may take root in us under the influence of your Holy Spirit, and that whatever our other gifts may be, we may all truly be sons and daughters of encouragement. In Jesus name. Amen.