What song do you sing?

This post by Rob May was originally published at Seventy Two

Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the festival. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. ‘Sir,’ they said, ‘we would like to see Jesus.’ John 12:20-33

Earlier this year we heard about a rare bird that had lost its song. There are only 300 Regent Honeyeaters left! Too few to teach the young ones to sing like a Honeyeater. Instead they’ve started singing all kinds of weird stuff.

This is why church and passages like John 12:20-33 matter. Around you in the church is a choir to teach you to sing properly. Because if we are not careful, we find ourselves no longer sounding quite as Christian as we should.

‘Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies it remains a single grain. But if it falls and dies it produces many seeds.’

The Greeks had come looking for Jesus but it’s not clear what they expected to hear.

For John, they are representatives of the nations coming to see Jesus. Scripture being fulfilled and people still coming looking for Jesus.

Some come for nostalgia’s sake, the warm feeling of a distant memory that comes back. Others hope Jesus will help them to live successful and trouble-free lives. Just enough religion to keep a guilty conscience at bay. A little spiritual disruption but not so much that they can’t go skiing every year. Just enough passion and commitment to feel like maybe you might change the world but not so much that you might end up risking everything. To join a church doing ‘whatever it takes’ to grow rather than a church teetering on the edge of death. Rock star worship, gifted designer-clothed speakers, some money for the poor, a stint at the foodbank and a flat overlooking the river at Battersea.

Maybe this is where the Greeks hoped they would one day live.

Our Easter song says that Jesus had to fall and he had to die. He cannot cling on and still live. But in this dying there will be much fruit.

Perhaps we wished he’d stopped talking there. Left us out of it. We want to be one of those many seeds that come from his resurrected life. But can we just go straight there? Skip Lent and Good Friday? Straight to Easter Sunday and the joy of resurrection!

Anyone who loves their life will lose it; while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves must follow me; and where I am my servant will be also.

There’s hyperbole here of course. Like tattooed knuckles: Love-Hate. Love life and lose it. Hate life and keep it.

Jesus didn’t hate life. He was not a hair-shirt Christian incapable of appreciating and celebrating beautiful art or music or the kindness of a stranger. Like a Puritan lying awake at night tortured and bitter worried that someone, somewhere is enjoying themselves. Eating and drinking, laughing and sharing stories with Jesus.

I read somewhere recently  that a common factor in healthy growing churches is laughter. Healthy churches laugh easily and often. Like Jesus.

To spend time with Jesus was not to be with someone who wished he was somewhere else. We know people like this. They never quite have enough time for you. There’s always something or someone more important or better for them to be seen with. Leaders who prefer to invest in their legacy rather than in the church’s losers. They’re not listening to you because you matter. They are just waiting before they can tell you little more about themselves

Jesus was at his most lively and life-giving in the presence of sin and brokenness. Desolate lives abused and over-looked. Jesus was to be found in some God-forsaken home surrounded by tax collectors, sinners and prostitutes. Not your average middle-class dinner party but very much a Christian one.

Something lit up in his face when they cried out for mercy. He came and touched them. Healed them and they lived. He spoke hope and love, compassion and forgiveness. He came not for the righteous but for sinners. Not for the healthy but the sick. There is a way of life loved by Jesus but it is a way of life not of this world’s making. And it is a life that reaches into our world from the throne room of heaven.

There is also a way of life that Jesus hates.

It’s the life of those who strut in the presence of power and position. They abuse and violate the very life-giving laws they signed up to protect. Concerned only for themselves, their station and position, asserting their self-importance to anyone who might listen.

That’s when his anger simmered. That’s when his calling and vocation came into sharper focus.

With steady gaze Jesus stood before those who wanted to destroy him. And, in glorious obedience, he let go of this grain of wheat only to watch it fall and die.

Was this what the Greeks wanted to hear? Is this why they wanted ‘to see’ Jesus? Is this the song the Greeks wanted to learn? Is this what they wanted to be heard singing to the end of their days?

We’ve seen something of both lives in the last 12 months. We’ve seen signs of the life we see in Jesus and we’ve seen signs of a life we should despise. We’ve lived a year ‘stripped back’. We’ve been given choices we don’t normally get offered.

Families with more time together than they could have previously imagined. Friends more isolated than they’ve ever been. Neighbourhoods unknowingly becoming signs of the kingdom. The poor cared for. Neighbours shopped for. Weekly foodbank collections. Jesus has come amongst us.

We have been given a gift although sometimes it didn’t feel like it. What really matters most in life? What song do you want to sing?

But then we look again and see the other world.

No more money for tired nurses but some for a shiny new room with microphones, two flags and a podium. Less aid for world’s poor but more nuclear bombs. There’s more than enough to feed the poor, but first we must satisfy the rich.

Goldman Sacks workers asking for their hours to be capped to an inhuman 80 hours a week. Goldman Sach’s 2020 net revenue? £32.1 billion. Apparently, still not enough. And we’re back in Egypt with the slave masters. Thank God Jesus hears the songs of the slaves.

Alex McCammond steps down as editor of Teen Vogue because someone unpleasant dug up rash and offensive tweets she posted as a teenager. Thank God we didn’t have Twitter when we were growing up. A world with no forgiveness for our sins even with a confession.

The brutality of social media. The absence of grace and generosity. The absence of life. Just dying and death but no redemption.

If you want to talk about sin how about sin number 10? ‘Thou shalt not covet!’

Not all the Greeks moved to Battersea, of course.

Rather than clinging on tightly to their grains of wheat, some let them fall and found that they lived. They went back to their friends and neighbours and they sang the songs of Jesus. They moved in amongst the poor and they sang the songs of Jesus. They sat down with the abused and they sang their songs. They sang forgiveness to those who confessed and repented. They opened their homes singing  the songs of Jesus. They faced up to the powerful, stood in the gap, spoke up for the voiceless and they sang their songs. Some even went to the ends of the earth still singing the songs of Jesus.

They gave up craving the things of this world and gained the life of eternity. And they sang their songs. The world was judged and the ruler of this world was driven out!

We would recognise them. They sound like us. They sing like us. I think we would recognise the melody. Unless of course, you have forgotten the song. Or worse still, prefer not to be reminded.

But I don’t think that’s true, is it…?

 

The post What song do you sing? appeared first on Seventy Two.

Truth and the Absence of Relationship

This post by Rob May was originally published at Seventy Two

People love a conspiracy theory. Lockdown has outed a few more.

So, to Covid, the vaccines and Christians.

Most of our church members have been positive about the vaccine celebrating, with those already vaccinated and encouraging those not yet vaccinated to go for it. But there are a few who struggle. Some are uncomfortable with how quickly it has been developed and are worried about its safety. Others struggle because of a similar vaccine developed some years ago linked to aborted foetal tissue. Then there’s a third group. These are people suspicious the vaccine is part of a global conspiracy. End times indicators are everywhere possibly involving Bill Gates, the mark of the Beast, the complete fabrication of Covid 19, one world governments and the involvement of almost the entire global health care system. Neither mainstream medical science nor majority theological opinion accepts this view and cannot seem to sway this small group. I probably should ignore it, but it’s got me thinking. I am increasingly bothered by it.

Over lockdown I received links to two YouTube videos from two different church members. One video was from a group of ‘medical experts’ claiming Covid didn’t exist and the vaccine was not what we thought it was. The second video presented by a ‘theological expert’ put the biblical case for the rise of a one world government, the coming of the anti-Christ and the imminent outbreak of the persecution of Christians.

Now neither church member had any direct personal relationship with either ‘YouTube expert’ yet they trusted their perspective and promoted their argument. And all of this despite the fact they also have access to their own ‘experts’ who they already know personally.

Like many churches, we have a number of ‘medical experts’. These include a consultant at the Royal Marsden, a professor at King’s College, a retired GP and a doctor training in public health. We also have some ‘theological experts’. A vice-principal of a theological college, two other ministers with theological degrees and a couple of church members with graduate level theological education. Now, our ‘medical experts’ in the church would be the first to point out their expertise is limited and they are not specialists in viruses. Our ‘theological experts’ are also aware of the limits of their expertise. But together they are more than capable of guiding anyone in our church through the complex ideas and conflicting arguments. They would also all disagree with the ‘YouTube experts’. The virus is real. The vaccine is necessary and as safe as any other vaccine. We are not entering the Great Tribulation and Bill Gates is not the anti-Christ.

But what bothers me is not which group of ‘experts’ is right or wrong. My concern is an ecclesial one and a distinctively Baptist one.

The church members who sent the videos worship every week with their own ‘experts’. They share communion together, say the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed together, have watched their children grow in faith together, shared fellowship together over coffee, pray together and have committed to being church members together. To my knowledge none of the ‘experts’ in church have ever sought to do them harm, to lie or to deceive them. I am not aware there has ever been a significant falling out.

So why would you trust the views of someone you have never met rather than the views of someone you not only know, but are supposed to be in covenant fellowship with? Why are real Christian relationships abandoned?

Sadly, and in very simple terms, it’s just easier. It’s threatening to dialogue with someone who knows what they are talking about, who knows more than you know but who you also know disagrees with you. It’s hard listening to someone who is not going to make it easy for you to go on believing what you want to believe.

But what bothers me more is not so much that ‘they’ do it but that I also do it. We all do it. The issues may be less obvious and we may have clever strategies for hiding our differences but it’s still the same issue. We struggle with one another in church but it’s just easier to avoid the difficult conversation. We know we are a community of sinners with very different experiences of life. Conflict in church life is surely inevitable but for most of us we avoid it. The one community on earth who should be extraordinarily good at this kind of thing is far too often not very good at it at all.

In chapter 3 of Dan White’s Subterranean: Why the future of the church is rootedness, he explores the disconnect between the transfer spiritual information and the relational health of the local church.

‘Our current unquestioned approaches to transferring spiritual information are brutal on the virtue of practice. Practice is the inner quality of being formed and informed by the bumps, bruises, and baptism of application. Practice is at the soul of being a Jesus-follower but more so it becomes the material for credibility for the people of God.’ (p.35)

A serious disconnect has been created between spiritual knowledge and spiritual formation. Church members spend years together listening to sermons and sitting in Bible studies without the need to actually get to know one another, let alone truly love one another. White calls this the absence of ‘immersion’. ‘Immersion’ is a ‘full-bodied participation and practice in the information we encounter.’ Thankfully, many people do get to know one another and we have seen the depth of love shared between church members during the pandemic. But this has not been universally shared. It means that I can believe an ‘expert’ I have never met without any awareness that at the same time it says something deeply profound about how I understand the nature of my relationship to another ‘expert’; the one whom I worship with and who is my sister or brother in Christ.

The internet has made the world an extraordinary place. The freedom and availability of information is mind-boggling and much of it is to be celebrated. But it is a complex world in which we benefit from ‘experts’ to help us navigate these complexities. In a world increasingly suspicious of ‘experts’, who do I trust? But the ‘experts’ I need most are not those who know more than me but the ones who love more than me. Not the ones who are the first to tell me what is right and what is wrong but the ones who choose to walk with me in a broken world.  Who will help me when I am tempted to avoid differences rather than to embrace the differences, that I might become more Christian and we might become more like the body of Christ.

Maybe it’s culture’s veneration of the autonomous self, society’s suspicion of ‘experts’, the collapse of truly meaningful relationships, the democratisation of knowledge all creeping into church life, hidden in plain sight. Maybe it’s not. But it still bothers me.

 

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