Have you noticed that the fear industry is booming at the moment? These are good days for things like suspicion, cynicism and gloom. They prey on people’s worst instincts, creating an atmosphere that is thick with the toxicity of distrust. It’s contagion blows into key aspects of society including politics, media and education, and it spreads confusion over a hurting nation. Church is not exempt from it. If you are the type of person whose disposition leans more towards negativism, then the sinister climate that hangs overhead will simply encourage unbelief.
Personally though, I’m resisting it. In fact, I find myself battling to protect against a pessimistic default. It could be the easiest thing for me to slip into a downward spiral of doom and despair. That’s why I choose my friends very carefully. It is never helpful to keep company with a vibe that panders to the prevailing culture and rolls with it’s hateful jibes. Better to acquaint with faith than fear.
Fear feeds negative culture and starves faith of it’s vitality. Religion loves fear because it provides an opportunity to manipulate and control people. That’s why Jesus reserved his most ferocious words for the religious establishment of his day. They thrived off the power that fear afforded them, playing on people’s anxieties with subtle yet brutal precision. The Pharisees hatred of Jesus was venomous because Jesus exposed their hypocritical legalism and preached a message of freedom instead. His word hasn’t changed. But neither has the spirit of religion.
When we understand the difference between religion and relationship, it changes everything. One controls you. The other empowers you. One holds you back. The other releases you into your God given potential. One leads to hate while the other to love. Interestingly, Jesus was never into religion. His message was totally relational. He came to set us free from the grip of fear, and into the loving embrace of God’s amazing grace.
In his letter to Timothy, Paul says ‘God has not given us a spirit of fear’ (2 Timothy 1:7). This verse is a massive statement. It tells us something about the culture that God wants us to carry in our everyday lives, and which changes the atmosphere around us. It is FearLESS, not fearful. It is FaithFUL, not faithless. The threat of fear can only be expelled by the power of love. That’s why the bible teaches us that ‘love drives out fear‘ (1 John 4:18).
At the wedding of Harry & Meghan, something happened which caused quite a stir. A bishop by the name of Michael Curry preached a brilliant sermon which had some real conviction & passion. These are things you don’t always find amidst the formal pomp and circumstance of a British royal wedding.
The response to Bishop Curry’s message by the stiff upper lip types was monotonously predictable. There was a great deal of murmuring from those who can’t bring themselves to recognise any different expression of church other than the established one. The BBC commentator patronisingly described Bishop Curry’s sermon as ‘forceful and uplifting‘. Say what?? Mr BBC man was uttering verbal clap trap of the most condescending kind. Honestly….the BBC…bless. Bishop Michael was different…and surely this should be well and truly celebrated?!!! He wasn’t being ‘forceful‘ at all. He simply sounded like a man who believed what he was talking about. That’s a good thing!!!
As I watched Bishop Curry preaching his brilliant message and the awkward reaction afterwards, my mind was drawn back to something that happened when we first planted the Junction Church in Loughborough. I’ll never forget chatting to a brand new Christian who’d been journeying with us. This zealous person had gone into town giving out flyers advertising our new church (something which we had not asked them to do). After receiving lots of positive feedback from passers by, a church minister who happened to walk by (wearing a collar) took one of the flyers and rudely asked what this was all about. As the new Christian naively tried to explain our heart, the minister then proceeded to scrunch up the flyer and grumbled words to the effect ‘we don’t need another church in this town‘ before abruptly walking off. The new Christian could hardly believe what had just happened. Truly shocking stuff…yet that’s just one story!! Surely it would have been far better to just celebrate a different kind of church instead of criticising it?
Anyway…back to Bishop Curry. I loved his sermon. I love it that he was different. I love the fact that he dared to bring some warm passion into a context which can be cold and clinical. This is exactly what the UK Church needs more of. It’s something to be celebrated, not frowned upon. This is a new day and there’s change in the air. A new generation is rising up. It’s time to get with it. God bless Bishop Michael!!
In John 2, Jesus performed a controversial miracle. He turned water into wine. Sometimes, it feels like the Church has been trying to change it back ever since. I suspect legalistic types would prefer it if this story had been excluded from the bible. After all, the party context doesn’t sit well with religious sneering & seething. See, religion never approves.
The story can at times be dismissed as a kind of irrelevant footnote which happened just before Jesus officially got going in ministry. But such a crass conclusion would completely miss an important point. The Holy Spirit included this incident in scripture for very good reason. We must be sure we never reduce a momentous miracle to a monotonous monologue which sounds more like water into whine than ‘water into wine’. That’s sadly what the spirit of religion tends to do. But joyless religiosity is un-representative of the culture of God’s Kingdom.
It’s interesting that this first recorded miracle of Jesus occurred at a party. It was a happy occasion…well, apart from the little crisis behind the scenes. The problem? They’d run out of wine – a big deal in that culture. Here was a situation which was clearly brought about by human error. Wedding celebrations in those days would have lasted up to a week. So, the lack of wine might have been because someone had miscalculated and not purchased enough? Or perhaps the budget for the wedding party had not been properly prepared to cater for all the guests? Then again, maybe some attendees had been a bit selfish with their consumption of said beverage, thus denying others? Whatever way you look at it, somebody somewhere had badly messed up.
Yet, it says something about Jesus that he graciously went ahead and performed a miracle. It could have been all too easy for him to resist. He might even have preached a judgmental message on the imperfection of humanity and the ultimate reason for this pitiful mess up! But he didn’t. Instead, he did something about it and created a miracle. But not just any old miracle. From water poured into ceremonial vats which weren’t even meant to be used for drinking (aye…Jesus is always mixing things up), he did something in a moment which should have taken literally years to produce. After all, good wine requires a long process. But there and then, Jesus created the best wine anyone could possibly imagine. I have a sneaky suspicion this was the finest wine that has ever been consumed. AD30 was definitely a year of rare vintage.
The danger when studying this story is that we can try to read more into it than the Holy Spirit intends. To do so is to miss the real point of the outcome. Of course there are lessons which can be gleaned about faith, obedience and courage. But what this event is really all about is… God’s grace. It’s a picture of undeserved favour in the midst of humanity’s failure. Isn’t this what the Gospel is all about? Isn’t this the good news that all who follow Jesus experience every day of their lives? It’s why we celebrate – not because of our own religious works but because of God’s amazing grace. Just like the wine Jesus created, his love & forgiveness are incomparable too.
It is surely no coincidence that the miracle occurred at a wedding party in Cana. Religion doesn’t like this. Yet it represents the vibe of God’s kingdom…gracious, joyful, celebratory, honourable. How on earth could any Christian ever portray Jesus as tedious, intense and clinical? Such a portrayal is a downright travesty. After all, Jesus is the source of real joy…and the finest wine maker on this planet and beyond. If he can work a miracle in the midst of a crisis in Cana, his grace can do the same in your life. Now that’s a message worth celebrating.
Recently at the Junction Church, we had a ‘Let’s Talk Church’ day. We don’t do many of these because if they happen too regularly, they tend to become naval gazing and self congratulatory. Yet, it’s important to afford ourselves moments to look back and reflect on how far we’ve come in just over five years of existence. This is not only encouraging but it also gives us some perspective regarding the why behind our what.
When we planted the Junction Church in 2012, there was just a small handful of people. Today, there are literally hundreds of people who call it their spiritual home. Our Sunday services have grown very significantly. But what is most encouraging is the type of growth that’s happening. The vast majority of people in our church community are recent Christians. This creates a freshness in the atmosphere. There’s also an obvious hunger for a real relationship with Christ that is free from religious pretence. As a pastor, I find this profoundly healthy.
Here are some recent facts:
Since January, Loughborough has seen 78 people deciding to follow Christ (as of 11 March 2018)
Since January, Leicester has seen 28 people deciding to follow Christ (as of 11 March 2018)
We’ve recently baptised 28 people (with more to come)
There are over 40 nations represented in our community
The church is by no means perfect. Seems silly to even say this since our imperfections are glaringly obvious. Yet as we lean into God’s grace, it creates an opportunity for people to encounter Jesus. It’s unforced. It’s unpressurised. This is the grace we carry. It doesn’t matter what the service theme is. Everything we do seeks to exude God’s love.
I really love being part of a church where people feel comfortable to bring their unchurched friends along to any service or event. It’s not embarrassing. Nor is it cringy. It’s raw. It’s real. Yet people are more open to Christianity than I’ve ever seen before. These are momentous times – days of God’s amazing grace. Our message is loud and clear. Religion is NOT the answer. A personal relationship with Jesus Christ is. It’s HIS grace which makes all the difference. This is the grace we’re privileged to carry.
Listen to a recent podcast called ‘Let’s Talk Church’
Picture the scene. It’s a balmy Virginia morning in early August – about 9am. The sky is brilliant blue and the sun is shining brightly. My wife and I are still buzzing from the day before when we celebrated the wedding of a beautiful young couple whose lives are bursting with joy and optimism. Now, in the afterglow of such a fabulous occasion, we’re enjoying a quiet breakfast under the shade of an Ash tree at a downtown street cafe. The vibe is peaceful and relaxed. We just sit there for an hour or two, chatting, laughing, drinking coffee, people watching. It’s all good. The name of the town? Charlottesville.
One week later, the heart of Charlottesville is torn apart by the hatred of racism. A mob of white supremacists (mainly transported in from other places) contaminate the atmosphere, turning it nasty and vicious. Destruction and death are the inevitable consequence of its bigoted ideology which is intent on creating division and promoting fear. It is evil, pure and simple. The awful carnage it creates is a wake up call regarding the menace which lurks deep within. Its sinister motivation masquerades as acceptable, empowered by stoking the fires of division. Suddenly, 2017 feels more like 1817. In many ways, these are even more dangerous times. The voices of hatred & fear are growing ever louder, taking advantage of the uncertainty that exists around the world. It’s how evil works.
The very notion that any one race holds superiority over another is not only utterly delusional, but is as contrary to biblical teaching as it is possible to get. Galatians 3:28 clearly states ‘There is neither Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus‘. It couldn’t be any clearer. We must never be silent at even the faintest hint of racist thinking. The bible is unambiguous and unequivocal about this. The same should be true for all of us.
My thoughts turn to Britain, the nation I love. We would be wise to reflect on the events of Charlottesville, and understand that the menace of bigotry lurks here too. The UK Church is not exempt from this, subtle though it may be. Instead of paying lip service and engaging in moral protestations which make us feel morally better, it’s far wiser to put Galations 3:28 into practice. Our actions speak far louder than our words. It’s always best to model what is right.
If any community on earth should be showing the way ahead, it’s the Church. We are one in Christ. It is His amazing grace which unites our hearts. There is no place for racism here, subtle or otherwise…ever.
When you read through the Gospels, it’s interesting to note the sadness that Jesus felt at pretentious religiosity. It hurt his heart more than anything else. His strongest words by far were reserved for the Pharisees. He fearlessly challenged their judgmental legalism and the hypocrisy which accompanied it. On the surface, they’d be laying down the law and condemning those who weren’t adhering to it. But behind the scenes, they were excusing and reprieving themselves for breaking it. It was a classic case of ‘do as we say, not as we do‘.
On one occasion, Jesus addressed the elephant in the room and said ‘Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.’ (Matthew 23:27). Wow. Pretty strong stuff…and certainly not RC (religiously correct).
Sadly, there’s a religious spirit that still exists today. It feeds suspicion, instills fear, thrives off gossip and is quick to pronounce judgments. The thing is…we are all susceptible to it, me included. There have been times in my own life when I’ve felt the Holy Spirit tugging on my heart because I’ve veered into territory where he doesn’t want me to wander. Lets face it, none of us are THAT good.
Yet, there’s a strange comfort in self-righteous religiosity. It’s like a prison that makes you feel that God is pleased you are suffering for truth. But this is a false comfort and its thinking is not only flawed, but dangerous. You see, truth is releasing not restricting. Jesus taught us that when we know the truth, ‘the truth shall set you free.’ (John 8:32). Living in unhindered integrity is a beautifully liberating experience.
Of course, truth must always be accompanied by grace. Without the latter, all you get is the harshness of legalism, judgmentalism, condemnation, self-indulgence and the inevitable hypocrisy that goes along with it. However, God’s grace allows us time and space to be honest and vulnerable with ourselves and others. That’s why 1 John 4:18 says ‘love casts out fear‘. It’s not a choice between truth OR grace. It’s both.
It is time to graciously but fearlessly challenge the spirit of religion. It does huge damage to people’s lives and robs so many of the joy of real relationship. The challenge begins in the heart.
Lets talk about Jesus (my favourite subject!). He is the most compelling person the world has ever encountered. During his ministry, people flocked to listen to him.
Here are 7 reasons why he was so compelling…
1. He spoke “as one who had authority’
In other words, Jesus knew what he was talking about. This was unlike the confused message of the religious establishment who were all over the place. Yet in a world of confusion, his voice was crystal clear. Read more about this in Matthew 7:28-29.
2. He was relevant to people’s lives
The religious establishment tried to smear Jesus as a “friend of sinners” (Luke 7:34). But it unwittingly emphasised just how completely relevant he was (and how irrelevant they were). Jesus was a man of the people. He spoke a language they knew. They respected that.
3. He connected with people
For example, Luke 19:1-10 tells the story of Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector. This man was as corrupt as they get. Yet when Jesus met him, he didn’t harshly confront him. Instead, he spent time with him. It must have been a compelling conversation as Zacchaeus emerged with a resolve to give his wealth to the poor and repay those he’d swindled. Result.
4. He was a great story teller
Jesus spent much of his time communicating through stories. Luke 15 is a great example of this. The religious establishment dismissed this as shallow and lacking substance. But they had no idea how to relate to people. Jesus did. People connect with people before they connect with truth.
5. He empathised with people’s needs
You can see this in Matthew 8:3. Here, Jesus met a leper. During their conversation, he reached out and touched the sick man. This was an act of immense compassion by Jesus. After all, who would take the risk of touching diseased skin? Jesus did. He showed massive empathy, coming alongside a man in desperate need.
6. He was vulnerable
The shortest verse in the Bible is in John 11:35. It says “Jesus wept”. This was because his good friend Lazarus had died. Such a public expression of emotion was a demonstration that Jesus was profoundly touched by grief. He wasn’t cold and clinical. His vulnerability was actually a sign of strength. (READ A BLOG ABOUT THIS HERE)
7. He understood the power of appropriate silence
In John 8:1-11, the religious establishment confronted Jesus with the case of a woman caught in adultery. His response? Silence. Then, in a moment that could have been academy award winning, he invited any Pharisee who was without sin to be the first to throw a stone. They left. But Jesus stayed….cos that’s what Jesus does. (READ A BLOG ABOUT THIS HERE)
Read the Gospels for yourself, and you’ll see that religion was the enemy of everything Jesus was about. It still is. Jesus heart was warm and gracious towards people…and he was relevant to their lives. We could learn much from Jesus.
Anyone who is willing to raise their head above the parapet and be subjected to intense public scrutiny is worthy of respect. Yet, as our nation finds itself facing one crisis after another, it is genuinely concerning to observe how febrile the political culture has become. This creates a growing sense of marginalisation where any alternative viewpoint is derided with scorn – and a road ahead which presents some very real challenges for democracy.
An unhealthy political system is what lies at the heart of the problem, not democracy itself. It is egotistical, self indulgent, self righteous and antagonistic. Take a look at social media and you can often see this up close and personal. Hate filled put downs are what are increasingly passing for political discourse. Gracious discussion and measured reasoning are becoming less and less common, giving way to the spectacle of wild hysteria and yobbish behaviour. It seems that it is easier to smear an opponent’s character than engage in civil conversation. As Eleanor Roosevelt once observed, ‘Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.‘
It is difficult to recall ever having witnessed such incendiary politics in our nation. Any attempt to silence those who might hold a different point of view will concern everyone who cares about freedom and democracy. By all means should ideas be robustly challenged and alternatives presented. But Voltaire was right when he said ‘I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it‘.
Our nation is the poorer because of a political system that has moved from adversarial to antagonistic. Politicians would be wise to think very carefully when they condemn hate speech – as hatred has become the language of their own profession. Those in power set the tone and people ultimately follow. Moral authority is earned through what is modelled more than maligned. That is why the vibe of political discourse desperately needs to change, and this begins with those in leadership taking responsibility and demonstrating a better way.
Meanwhile, in the midst of the political turmoil, it is always helpful to keep a healthy perspective of God. Proverbs 14:34 says ‘Doing what is right exalts a nation, but sin condemns any people.’ We would do well to pray that God will help our nation. How we need his grace.
The question of God and suffering is one which perplexes many hearts and minds. While the predicament is nothing new, it is always current. Why do evil things happen in the world, and yet God seems either unwilling or unable to do something about it?
Unfortunately, there are no quick or easy answers to this apparant conundrum. For the person who is experiencing their own valley of pain, it is an immense challenge to provide any kind of answer that can sooth the rawness of bitter experience. Glib retorts like ‘it was God’s will‘ are not only deeply unhelpful, but totally unrepresentative of the heart of God. Though well intended, it unwittingly portrays him as uncaring, aloof, distant and un-compassionate. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The whole point of the biblical narrative is that God has personally intervened in our fallen world. He is more familiar with suffering than we will ever know, and he has the scars to prove it. His intervention cost him everything. It is a stupendous mystery to think that the immortal God was not only born as a man, but died a death so cruel that it is beyond comprehension what he endured. The latter was the price Jesus paid for the falleness of humanity, and to bring about the hope of his Kingdom on earth.
Yet, even after 2000 years since the events of the cross, we still live in a profound tension: the world as it is today (fallen) – and the world as it will be one day (renewed). That’s why Jesus taught us to pray ‘Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven‘ (Matthew 6:10).
One day, everything will make sense. However, as we await the full manifestation of God’s Kingdom on earth, suffering is part of our pilgrimage because of the fallen state of our world. This is not a defeatist reflection, rather an exhortation to lean into the protection of God’s grace. Surely this is one of the reasons why Jesus taught so much about faith? As believers, we are not exempt from suffering – but we journey through life in the confident hope that God will renew all things (Matthew 19:28-30). Our posture is one of trust. This means we can ask the difficult questions during times of suffering and God is not offended by them. He simply longs for us to follow him, even through the darkest valley’s of our lives.
After Jesus had risen from the dead, a disciple called Thomas was racked with doubt, and adamant in his refusal to believe unless he saw Christ’s scars for himself. A whole week passed before Thomas eventually got to meet Jesus. Those seven days must have felt like a life time. However, when Thomas finally saw the wounds, his hardened heart melted in an instant as he cried ‘My Lord and my God‘ (John 20:28). How utterly compelling this moment must have been.
God has wounds. Far from being distant and aloof, he is acquainted with suffering more than any of us could possibly grasp. His scars are the proof of his love for us. Interestingly, Jesus said to Thomas ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed‘ (John 20:29).
In times of challenge, our greatest act of faith is to keep following Jesus. That’s why Hebrews 10:35 says ‘Do not throw away your confidence‘. Suffering is temporary, even though it sometimes feels like an eternity. But one day, we will meet Jesus face to face. When we see his wounds, our hearts will melt, just like Thomas. In that single moment, everything will make sense.
There’s a fascinating story in Luke 24 about two men walking along the road to Emmaus (near Jerusalem). The vibe of their conversation was downbeat and melancholic, reeling from the bitter disappointment of Jesus death a few days earlier. Their hopes had been dashed since the one in whom they’d rooted their trust was no longer with them. Devastating stuff.
Meanwhile, a third man who joined them on the journey seemed strangely oblivious to recent events. As they offered him explanation regarding the tragedy of what had just occurred, they were so lost in the fog of confused perspective that they failed to recognise the identity of the person in their company. It was Jesus himself….right there with them, listening to them, walking with them through their pain.
The two men on the road to Emmaus are like a lot of people today…living on the right side of the resurrection but settling on the wrong side of a revelation. Sometimes, our ponderings and wonderings can be so slanted by the bias of our own subjectivity that we completely miss the reality of what God has actually accomplished. Little did the two men know that while they were wallowing in pitiful dispair, Jesus had just been through hell for them…literally. You see, there’s always more going on than meets the eye.
Disappointment happens to all of us. However, it’s always a mistake to camp in the valley of hurt. God intends for us to pass through it, not live there. Making pain our identity is merely surrendering to earth’s facts without submitting to heaven’s truth. As followers of Jesus, we are to keep trusting through the challenges of our pilgrimage. God doesn’t always owe us explanations for the more challenging paths we tread. Wise people settle this in their hearts…and dare to keep following.
When your heart feels conflicted by hurt, be kind to yourself and avoid the pitfalls of unnecessary guilt and overanalyses. Sure, it’s good to reflect. However, allow your reflection to be shaped by revelation, the reality of a God who has experienced his own wounds, who feels your pain and whose heart toward you is pure and unadulterated. When you know deep down that you are deeply loved, there’s powerful healing in this truth that can overcome any hurt. Surely this explains Isaiah 53:5… ‘by his wounds, we are healed.‘