13 June 2016

The City on the Hill

The old city on the hill - Approaching the end of his three and a half years of teaching and healing, Jesus told his disciples, 'Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing'. (Matthew 23:37-39)

A city on a hill - Ostuni, Italy
Jesus means us to take these verses very seriously indeed. In Matthew's account they're sandwiched between some of the most severe criticism of the religion of the day and a terrifying promise of the destruction to come. The city of Jerusalem and the temple at its heart were pulled down in 70 AD and replaced by a Roman city. The people died in the assault or were thrown out; this is what Jesus predicts and describes.

Jesus is well aware that we, too, are hemmed in by religious traditions and habits on the one hand, and inflexible structures on the other. And in the same way, he wants to gather us together under his wings. But are we willing? If we are not, he will criticise our religious tradition and allow our structures to be destroyed in order to save us from our own error and foolishness. Let’s not mislead ourselves, religion and structure are central to much that we think and do.

The new city on the hill - This is the New Jerusalem, the bride of the Lamb, the church! In Revelation 21:2-3 we read, 'I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling-place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.’ Revelation 21:9-11 tells us, 'I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb. And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal.'

This new Jerusalem has no traditions and is not built of stone. We are the living stones it's constructed from! Jesus said, 'You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven'.

Sometimes we think in terms of our own, individual lights, and how they should not be hidden. It's not wrong to read the passage in that way, but surely what Jesus really has in mind is his people collectively, the church, his bride, the new city built on a hill - the city that 'cannot be hidden'. And this new city is not built on a foundation of traditions and human teaching and Sunday services. It's built on the foundation of Christ alone and it's driven by every breath he breathes, the wind of the Spirit of Christ.

The how – life in the city - So what do we get in place of tradition and structure? Church life is based on something far more flexible and adaptable, something much more organic.

Ephesians 4:11-16 reveals church life as Jesus intended it. 'Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.'

And here's the practical detail. 'To each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.'  (1 Corinthians 12:7-11)

And yet more detail from 1 Corinthians 14:26. 'When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.'

This is the new city on the hill that shines its light all around (not hidden under a jar). This is the church, the new Jerusalem, light in a dark world, individuals all bringing a contribution, building and equipping one another. This is who we are, it’s what we need to be doing.

See also


09 May 2016

That can't be right!

The truth is not always intuitive or obvious. Claims and counterclaims abound in our day, many of them helped along by the rapid spread of ideas on the internet. But false ideas are often very dangerous.

I'm thinking of ideas like creationism, a young Earth, vaccines causing autism, the denial of climate change, and many others like them.

It's been a while since I posted regularly on this blog, but I'm going to try to get back to it. Some of the  posts might examine one or other of these ideas. But at the root of all them lies a common issue - are we going to begin with the evidence? The alternative is to begin with a position and seek to justify it by finding evidence to support it. But to see the universe as it truly is we must begin with the evidence and argue from that. Often, this will lead us to ask more questions. This is the scientific way.

What we must not do is begin with a preferred view of the way things are and sift the evidence, gathering anything that supports our starting position and ignoring whatever seems to go against it.

I can assure you of one thing. If, as a society, we ignore the evidence, eventually our decisions will come back to bite us. It's happened before; here's one cautionary tale.

Lysenkoism - Jean Baptiste Lamarck was a distinguished French scientist working in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He developed an early theory of evolution and thought that organisms could inherit acquired features from their parents. This was a reasonable conclusion based on the evidence available in his day. But later evidence showed it was incorrect.

In the 1930s a form of Lamarckism was adopted in the Soviet Union. It was called Lysenkoism (after the Soviet scientist Trofim Lysenko). Based on his work to improve crop yields, his theories were approved by Stalin and laws were made to outlaw opposing theories. But the opposing theories were correct (inheritance and evolution as we understand them today).

How did this mistake come back to bite the Soviet Union? To put it as simply as possible, crops failed and people went hungry, biology and agriculture in western capitalist nations forged ahead, while Soviet biology and agriculture stagnated. Eventually Lysenko's ideas were discredited.

The moral of the story is this. Let's not ignore evidence and let's not pick and choose evidence to support our pre-existing ideas. If we do, the consequences may be very severe.

23 March 2016

Supporting Belgium

Come and stand quietly in support of Belgium in their pain. 15:00 on Sunday 27th March near the Ambiance Cafe in St Neots. If you live far from St Neots, consider doing something similar in your own area.

Click through for  details on Facebook

09 March 2016

Ben chooses love

Ben Scott and donations
Ben Scott and donations
Ben Scott has discovered first hand what it means to love. He's volunteered to help the people living in the mess and squalour of the Calais 'Jungle'.

The French authorities are closing it down, demolishing  the flimsy structures that so many have called 'home' for so long. The problem is being moved on, but not resolved.

Read Ben's account of his experiences. It's powerful, gut wrenching, heart changing stuff. Don't miss it.

16 February 2016

Shoals and flocks, church works like this

Jesus often used biological systems to illustrate the kingdom of heaven - yeast, seeds, fruit, trees, weeds. He didn't say so much about church, only in Matthew's gospel is the Greek word 'ekklesia' used, and in Matthew 16:18 he tells us that he will build his church. What can we learn about church from living systems?

Swarming robots
Swarming robots
Everything else about the church is found, not in the gospels, but in the remainder of the New Testament. It's worth noting though, that Jesus did teach his disciples to love, respect and serve one another. He pointed out that if he, their master and teacher, served them, so should they serve one another (John 13:12-17). And he made it very clear that they were not to rule over one another like the Gentiles did (Matthew 20:25-28, Mark 10:42-45).

So then, how are leading and following supposed to work in the church? Peter Farmer posted recently and pointed out that new forms of organisation might be like the flocking of birds or the shoaling of fish. If he is right (and I believe he is) then the normal ideas of leader and follower don't make much sense. Tell me, where in a flock of birds or a shoal of fish will you find the leader? One possible answer might be 'the one at the front', but this doesn't work. You don't have to watch a flock or a shoal for very long to see constant changing of position. There is not one identifiable leader. There is a great deal of coming and going, twisting and turning, and the flock or shoal as a whole seems to move purposefully - but how?

Studies of flocks, shoals and herds, swarms of bees and gnats, and foraging ants all show the same thing. Each individual is making its own choices of speed and direction independently of the flock. The individuals respond to certain cues, tending to keep the same distance from their neighbours and heading in more or less the same direction. There may be other cues; bees communicate direction and distance by special movements, ants leave trails of pheromones.

Simple robots (virtual or physical) can be programmed to do much the same. Give them just a few very simple rules and they will form swarms and move together.

In church life, we too follow some very simple rules. Here are some examples, perhaps you can think of more. (Leave a comment below if you can.)

  • We focus on Jesus and do our best to follow him
  • We pay attention to the promptings of the Holy Spirit
  • We meet one another often
  • We encourage one another
  • We love one another
  • We pay attention the gifts we see in one another
  • We ask one another for help when we need it
  • We pray
  • We share food together
  • We show the world that Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life.

Taking these together and integrating them, I suggest we can see Jesus at the centre, discipleship, outreach, APEST leadership, an organic and living church, and an exciting journey together. If this sounds familiar - it should! For more, check out Jesus, Disciple, Mission, Church (JDMC). Notice the light touch of the APEST form of leading one another. We are all gifted and there are times for each one to contribute something that the others need to hear, see, understand or do.

I have a strong sense that as we keep these simple rules we will find we are living and moving in unison. Like the birds, fish and other animals mentioned above, we make constant adjustments to our course, but nobody commands us (other than the Spirit of Christ).

Not only do we not need leaders in the normal sense of that word, they will rather quickly take us way off track. If you think that is not the case just look at church history. If you like, look also at the history of Israel in the Old Testament. Open your eyes, see what human leadership has done over and over again. Church is a shoal in many ways and the right course is a course of togetherness, guided by those very simple rules.

Peter Farmer uses some interesting words as he considers a murmuration (flock) of starlings. These are trust, humility, unity and diversity. Do you recognise these in the list of simple rules above? He adds that the murmuration is highly adaptive, flexible, intuitive, constantly changing, everyone plays an important part and it's characterised by flow. All of these are attributes we would like to see in church life. Do you see them in the traditional denominations? Do you see them fully anywhere? Is there a sense of direction here.

How can we rethink human leadership to set the church free to flow and turn as it is intended to do? Christ's body should surely be nimble, athletic, fit and healthy. She should be adaptive, flexible, intuitive, constantly changing, everyone playing a part, and flowing.

I believe we face an important choice. Will we continue to control ourselves to a standstill? Or will we let go of all that holds us back and go with the flow of the Holy Spirit, living moment by moment by the simplest of rules? In the end, they really distill down to love.

Swimming in harmony

Make no mistake - Jesus will have his way with his people. A time is coming when we will live as one body and we will experience the rule of the head - one Lord over all and in all. Jesus himself is at work. If we are to experience this we must understand the principle that all of us be willing to follow and all of us be willing to lead.

Swimming as one
Swimming as one
I began to follow Jesus in a serious way in my early twenties, beginning by reading through the Bible several times and realising that nobody I knew was taking the implications seriously.

Indeed, it seemed to me that almost all Christian scholars and leaders were blind to the deepest and simplest truths while picking over many tiny yet barely relevant details. As an example, there were entire books on the finer points of Hebrew and Koine Greek grammar, yet there were many denominations that at best ignored one another or at worst argued bitterly or had even fought wars over doctrine - yet Jesus clearly calls us to be one 'as I and the Father are one'. Not only that, he points out that the Pharisees swallow camels while taking issue with gnats, or attempt to remove specks from other's eyes while having planks in their own.

I was deeply troubled, especially by divisions in the church. I could do nothing to bring together Catholic and Brethren, or Baptist and Anglican. Neither could any conceivable ecumenical movement. In the end I realised that mending what was so broken could only come through direct intervention by the Almighty himself. It would have to be Father's move, not merely a human movement. And I would have to be patient.

When I discovered the Charismatic Movement my hopes rose as I met with believers from widely differing backgrounds. We found unity and wholeness in simple praise and community around Jesus; he confirmed it all by the abundant pouring out of his Holy Spirit. Mind you, it all fell apart soon enough, though I've never forgotten the flavour and the sheer excitement of those times!

Thinking back there are two aspects of this that have remained very strong in my heart and in my aspirations. There is a powerful sense that there was no leader at work other than Jesus himself through his Holy Spirit. All of us were followers together. And the other aspect was the opposite, that every one of us had the responsibility of leading and guiding the others. There was no tension between these 'opposites' of following and leading. We all entered into the practicalities of this, we were always eager to see and hear what the others would bring, and we had a sense of responsibility to share whatever was revealed to us because we knew the others needed it. Sometimes we got it wrong, but we forgave one another quickly and knew that Jesus, too, forgave us. And he always put us back on track. The sense of one people and one Lord was palpable; we all knew it in our hearts.

How did this work in practice? What were the unspoken rules of engagement? There were just the two already mentioned, lead and follow, follow and lead. We trusted one another, we encouraged one another, we were not afraid to correct one another when necessary, we sensed the responsibility of leading when we were called to do that, and we also understood the value of following. This was never a matter of authority and obedience. There were no individuals 'in authority' over others. But we recognised wisdom, grace, gifting and truth in one another and we knew in our hearts that we were truly one body and there was only one head. We loved one another. Think of a shoal of fish. How do they stay together? Which is the lead fish?

Today, I sense a return of this kind of oneness. It's happening in many places and in many ways. It's another move at grass roots level. But this time there is a deeper understanding developing too. Where will Jesus take us next? What are the mechanisms at work here? I plan to return to this topic in another post. Meanwhile, read Peter Farmer's post New forms of organisation, if you haven't already done so.

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