Preface: the vision is Jesus
Is it possible to be a scientist and a Christian?
Is it possible to speak of the gospel of Jesus Christ as public truth and of universal significance to all of humanity and the entire cosmos? And is it possible to do that coherently, in the context of the phenomenal advances in scientific understanding and the post/modern development of interpretation and rationality?
Is it possible to hold on to the Newtonian understanding of the universe and the quantum mechanics of the subatomic world. Yet believe in the incarnation and resurrection and the existence of a God – who not only created the universe out of nothing – but is present to us by the Holy Spirit. That we can know God and pray to him for miracles, that seem to break the law of scientific evidence, that was just as evident to the witnesses of Jesus ministry, even if they were not codified as physical laws?
I think the church is God’s gathering of people from every race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic standing and educational background of who can say a humble yet confident Yes to three questions.
The reason for writing this essay is I believe that Jesus Christ is the cornerstone of this conviction. By which I mean the start of our understanding of God and the questions of life, rationality, meaning making and ultimately truth because he said I am the way the truth and the life j14: 6.
The transcript below is taken from my sermon on Vision Sunday
You can listen to the audio file here.
It is Written
“Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the spirit.” Where had Jesus come from? Had he come from a revival meeting? Had he come from some big event? He came from the desert. He came from a time of testing.He faced the three common temptations to man, to use his own powers for his own glory, to turn stones into bread, to use his powers just for himself, to seek adoration, to give himself to the devil. The devil said, “I’ll give you the worship of everybody, if you give up on God and you turn to me.” He faced the temptation to unbelief, to test God. In every temptation he faced, he did one thing. He said, “It is written.”
He said these three things. In response to the first one, he said, “Man doesn’t live on bread alone.” He said, secondly, “It is written, worship the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and serve him only.” To the third one, the big one, when the devils go, “You can’t really trust God,” he says, “Do not put the Lord, your God, to the test. It is written.”
He resists every temptation. He faces the desert with the word of God. He trusts in the word of God. That’s where he stands. That’s what he aligns himself to. He is the son of God. He knows this stuff, and yet he lives a fully human life. He says, “I’m going to align my life to the word of God.” As he does that, he returns in the power of the Holy Spirit. That is where the power of the spirit comes from. The power of the Holy Spirit doesn’t come from how strong or how weak we feel. It comes from trusting in the word of God.
How do we respond to Crisis?
I think, in our day, we were praying about it just now. I’m so grateful for those prayers, because we are facing a spiritual desert in the West, probably everywhere in the world. But the crisis that we see all around us is like a desert. We have a choice of how to respond to that. Do we just let it pour into the church, and we just look like the world? Or do we live, and refuse to retreat, and live in the light and the life of God, and take that out into the world, and be good news?
People of Hope
Rick Warren was asked about the spiritual vacuum that there is in our world today. He’s the author of The Purpose Driven Life. He said this, “The good news gets better as society gets darker. We need to be people of hope not discouragement. There are people feeling overwhelmed, and while I can understand why, we needn’t. In the depression of the 1930s, there were two things that increased, theater attendance and church attendance. People were looking for escapism, and they were looking for something of meaning and worth.” He basically says, “Now is the perfect time to offer the world hope. That is what the world is looking for.”
He recounts a story. Who’s seen the film Forrest Gump? Anyone seen the film? It’s 17 years old, I realized. But anyway, time flies, doesn’t it? In that film, Forrest decides to go into the shrimping business with Lieutenant Dan. They don’t turn out to be very good shrimp fishermen. But what happens is that there’s a big storm brewing. All the other shrimping boats basically make the decision that they’re going to stay in the apparent safety of the harbor. They’re going to weather the storm there.
But I think slightly oddly Lieutenant Dan’s leading, they head out into the midst of the storm. They decide no. We’re going to go out amidst the storm. It was touch and go for a minute. They nearly went down. There’s this moment where they question is this going to be the right thing to do?
The storm passes. They go back into the harbor, and they discover that all the other boats have been wrecked in the storm. They decided to opt for the apparent safety of the harbor, and they were wrecked. Forrest and Lieutenant Dan go out into the storm and they prosper, because basically they’re the only ones that survived the storm.
What Rick Warren was saying is, this is not a moment for the church to retreat. This is the moment for the church to be on the front foot. Because we’ve either got the hope that is the answer to these things, or we haven’t. We know that we have. In Jesus Christ, we’re going to come to his vision statement in a moment, we have hope for poverty, for the lack of freedom that there is in the world, for oppression, for blindness. They go out into the storm.
The Power of the Spirit
The first thing is Jesus returns in the power of the Spirit because he’s decided to take God at his word and to trust him. That is how he finds the power of the Spirit. I’ll come back to that at the end of this talk.
But the second thing that we see in this passage is the total difference that Jesus makes, the total difference. Jesus goes to Nazareth, and he reads those words that everyone in the synagogue would have known very well. He reads out, “The spirit of the sovereign Lord is on me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
He rolls up the scroll, and he gives it back to the attendant. Luke says everybody’s eyes were fixed on him. They couldn’t take their eyes off him. Why? Because he had read that as if this was for now, as if basically this was what was happening. They were like, “He’s not reading this like a distant hope, like an aspirational vision. He’s reading this as if it’s actually happening now.” That’s why they were fixed on him. In case they haven’t quite got the point, he says, “Today. This scripture is fulfilled in your hearing today.”
The difference that Jesus brings
This is the difference that Jesus brings today. Good news to the poor, freedom for captives, recovery of sight to the blind, release to the oppressed, the year of the Lord’s favor, jubilee. That is for today in Nazareth. It’s for today right now, because Jesus is here and now, with us by his spirit. When Bill Hybels says that the local church is the hope for the world, it’s because this message of Jesus hasn’t changed. It’s for today. Jesus is with us by his spirit. It’s no aspirational vision.
Jesus certainly meant the materially poor, the physically imprisoned, and physically blind or oppressed. That’s why part of our vision is to look to the places in the world where there is such poverty, where there is injustice, where people are imprisoned without any opportunity for justice. So we support missionaries overseas. We support the International Justice Mission. We support agencies working to give aid. It’s why we go into the prisons in this country, to those that are actually physically prisoners, to bring them the good news of Jesus Christ.
But there’s nothing kind of over there and out there about this vision. This vision is for every single one of us in Tollington, because without Christ, we’re all poor. We’re all blind. We’re all captives. We know that, don’t we? We see so much need, so much need in the world today.
We live in a nation that has so much, doesn’t it? Justice, health, education. Yet the experience of life for so many people is one that’s painful. I don’t know if you were struck, as I was, it was pointed out to me, and I thought about it, and I thought, yeah. Amy Winehouse is like a picture for our nation, because so tragic that someone so talented, and so successful, and so beautiful, and so wealthy and everything, and yet she was clearly just in so much pain. We don’t know how she died or why she died, but we saw her life. It’s a picture of our nation, isn’t it? So much, and yet so much pain.
Jesus is the only answer to the Amy Winehouses. Amy Winehouse, we just know about because she was famous. But to anyone in that situation. More widely, the riots this summer were a picture, weren’t they, of the kind of loss of meaning and purpose in our society.
But as Rick Warren says, this isn’t the moment to be despondent about it, or to go, “Oh dear, everything’s going to the dogs.” This is the moment to step out. This is the moment to say, “In Jesus Christ, we have the answer. We have the hope.” I’m not saying the church … It’s not an us and them thing. It’s not like, “Well, we’re the church. We’re sorted. There’s no depression. There’s no anxiety. There’s no struggles.” But we have the hope, and we have a life together in which Jesus can turn those things to the good, to be good news to the poor, freedom for the captives. It’s that hope, not as perfect sorted people, but as people who found the answer, who found Jesus, that we go out into this nation to bring hope, because it’s Jesus who brings freedom.
Jesus says, “I’ve come to proclaim freedom for the captives.” If you could sum up, I think, in one word, the difference that Jesus brings, I say freedom. Paul says to the Galatians, “It was for freedom that Christ has set us free.”
Freedom is a quality of life that only Jesus can bring. The culture today offers freedom through money or power or influence or beauty. There’s all these things that are portrayed, and we sort of slightly buy into it. “Oh, if I just had that, I’d be really free. I’d be really alive.” But we know it’s only in Jesus that we have true freedom. Only the love of God can cast out fear. Only a relationship with God can set us truly free to be who we were created to be.
That’s the good news. That’s the life that we live together, and that we take out into the world. Because when we see it, it’s like seeing, for the first time, recovery of sight to the blind. It’s that life in Jesus that we are seeing and I want us to celebrate today, because we’re seeing it all across this parish.
Alpha and Soul in the City
We see every term on Alpha, a life or lives being transformed by Jesus. It would be worth it if only one person showed up for Alpha. Last term, again, it was amazing still in the Andover community center, because a whole bunch of people came who said, “This is the space I know, and this is the space where we got to talk about Jesus.”
Pastorates. Every single pastorate is growing, growing in depth of relationship with God, growing in number. We’ve got more pastorates. Two new ones started over the summer. I went to one this week with Bernard and Connie. We had such a good time. We were looking at the difference that God makes in our lives, through the book of Esther, how God is at work in our lives. Someone said to me, I hope they won’t mind, I haven’t asked him, but I’m not going to name them. But they said to me afterwards, “I can’t imagine what life would be like without Jesus Christ.” That’s true. We can’t imagine, when we taste it and we see it.
Soul in the City was the fourth Soul in the City this year. Soul in the City is at the heart of our vision. It’s all one week in the summer, but actually it’s a culmination of so much that’s going on. It was the fourth one this year, but look at how the Soul in the City vision has grown.
The first time, we joined in with a national movement. Soul Survivor said, in 2004, “Let’s do a mission. Let’s get out on our streets. Let’s make a difference.” We said, “Yeah. We’re up for that,” and we joined in. Then when Stu came, he said, “Well, why don’t we do our own Soul in the City?” In 2008, we did our second one. We got the whole church involved in the community. Then the last two, the third and the fourth, we’ve seen other churches partnering up with us. Then this year, other churches in North London saying, “Oh, could we use your branding and do the same Soul in the City?” We were like, “Yeah. There’s no copyrights in the kingdom.” It wasn’t our idea in the first place. It was Soul Survivors’.
This is about joining in with what God is doing. I’m so excited, because in November, Stu’s going to be with me, in the Rock Church. They’re going to be putting on a conference at St Mary’s Church, Islington, for any church leaders from around the country to come, to find out how they can do a Soul in the City.
That’s exciting. We’re going to have testimonies from here. We’re going to get involved in praying for leaders. There’ll be leaders who come who are a bit, “We want to get out there, but how do we do it?” We get a chance to tell them, and we get a chance to pray for them. Not because we got it sorted, not because we know, but because we’re saying, “We’re in this together.” It’s so exciting.
Family life, Jim laid out the family life vision a couple of weeks ago. I really recommend the download if you want to have a look on the website. The Falcon Camp, the marriage course, we’re going to start a marriage course in the new year, because marriages don’t have to break down as they are in the world. It’s not easy, but we’re in this together. The gospel choir, the Sunday worship, worshiping God, prayer. As I said, prayer is where it all begins.
But before it begins to sound like a shopping list, let me pause there, because it’s so important that we don’t see it as a set of lists, a list of tasks or activities. This is about a life that God is bringing in us. This is about you and I living in the knowledge of God and what he is doing.
Seeing the big picture
It’s so important that you don’t see your part within it, I don’t see my part within it, as just a task. I make the tea, or I send out a rota for pastorate, or I give 10 pounds a week to the vision, and reduce it to just a task. The reason for that is that we need to see the whole. We need to see the big picture.
Do you know that story of Sir Christopher Wren when he was building St. Paul’s Cathedral? A journalist wanted to interview him, and he took him around the building site for St. Paul’s Cathedral, the original one. They came across three stonemasons. The journalist said to them all, “What are you doing? What are you making?” The first builder said, “I’m chiseling a stone. That’s what I’m doing.” The second builder said, “I’m making an archway.” The third builder said, “I’m working with Sir Christopher Wren to build a cathedral for London to the glory of God.”
That builder was the builder of vision. He saw exactly what they were … Sitting in a line, he saw what all the others saw as well. Yet he saw the big picture. He saw what it was all about. Actually, you might think, “Oh, he’s the dreamer. He’s kind of big for his own boots.” But actually, I was thinking about it. He’s the most humble one, isn’t he? Because the other two can’t see beyond themselves. The other two can’t see beyond the stone that they’re chipping away at. He’s the one who looks beyond himself, and puts his life and his work in the hands of God, and says, “I’m joining with God in doing something for this city that is going to be a cathedral to the glory of God.”
There’s a cathedral growing here in Tollington, and it’s living stones. You are each a part of it. If we think that we’re just making a cup of tea … I’m not going to … Oh, I’m going to embarrass Hadley. Hadley always brings me a cup of tea, because I never manage to get from here to the tea station. It’s part of the vision. It’s an expression of the love of Christ. It doesn’t matter what we do. What matters is that we see that everything that we do is part of what God is doing. We’re joining in with him.
This is really what I’m wanting to bring home here. This is not just a difference of perspective. This is about faith and it’s about experience. Because whenever church anywhere in the world becomes just a set of tasks, a to do list, not only do we lose sight of what God is doing, but we don’t get the experience. It was only the third builder in that little illustration that actually had the joy and the experience of feeling, “I am part of what God is doing.” So it matters that we see that everything that we do is part of what God is doing.
As we believe that, the experience follows. That’s the point I made at the beginning. As Jesus chose to believe in God’s word in the middle of the desert, in the middle of the storm, wherever we need to have faith, the experience of God’s sovereignty and what only Jesus can do follows. We live in a world where often we think we’ll start with experience and we’ll base our faith on that. We’re radical people, because we say we start with the word of God, with who Jesus is. We stand on that, and the experience follows because God is faithful.
Paul wrote to the Galatian church. Paul didn’t pull his punches, I’ve come to decide, in some of his letters. Let me read to you what he wrote to the Galatian church. He got a little bit bogged down with the works and stuff. He just said this. In Galatians 3, he says, “You foolish Galatians. Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes, Jesus was clearly portrayed to you as crucified. I’d like to learn just one thing from you. Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish, after beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? Have you suffered so much for nothing, if it really was for nothing? Does God give you his spirit and work his miracles among you because you observed the law, or because you believe what you heard?”
The spirit, the life in the spirit follows from believing in the word of God. As I say, we’re not immune from the problems of this world. What makes us different is our response to them, to say, “We’re going to believe in God’s word. We’re going to align ourselves to God’s word. We’re going to then see the work of the Spirit transforming us and transforming our community.”
It’s not about how strong or how weak we feel. It’s like Paul, in one of the last letters he wrote to Timothy from prison. He says, “I know whom I have believed.” That is the key. We know whom we have believed. It’s his life. That’s the key to a spirit filled life, a spirit filled church, knowing who we’ve believed, trusting in him. That’s what makes all these activities that we do so exciting, because they are about joining in with his life by faith, and the experience of seeing God at work in our lives follows.
Just as we come in to finish, how do we do that? How in practice do we make that decision to be like the third builder, or to hear Paul’s words and say, “I’m going to live by faith? I’m going to experience all that God is doing, and see it in my day like they saw it in 1880 and 1925.
Walk with God
Here are four little things. The first is a personal walk with God. There’s no substitute for knowing God’s word for ourselves, and spending time with Him, and aligning our lives to Him. Because as I said at the beginning, we live in the power of the spirit by believing in God’s word, and trusting in Him, spending time with Him.
I was thinking that day, in our day, one of the gifts of the church, one of the most exciting things, I think, is the worship, isn’t it? Many people today become Christians, and they have their first experience of God in worship, because you come and you can sense God’s presence, his spirit, in worship. Now see, what is that? It’s because every worship song we sing is scripturally based. Many of them are actually straight from the Bible, set to music. As we sing, as we align our hearts to them, we’re believing in God’s word. We’re experiencing God’s spirit. That’s why, as we worship, we go, “God, you’re so real. You are so present.” Then the question is, how do we not just go, “Well, then I’ll wait until next Sunday to experience that again?” How is because we have this. We get to take this. The same songs that we sing, the same words that we align our lives to are in the Bible. As we take it into our lives and believe in his word, that personal walk with God… Because as this sense of worship being at the heart of the church has grown in our generation, I think there’s an issue in the biblical knowledge and literacy, as biblical knowledge has gone down, there’s that sense of do people really know the word of God? It’s not a question of word or spirit. It’s a question that as we get into the word, as we live according to God’s word, we experience the spirit, because the spirit is the one who inspired every word in scripture. So it’s that walk with God, personal walk with God. We encourage each other in that.
Secondly, fellowship. I know life is busy. As I go through all those things, none of us could be involved in all of those things going on. If we can only make it to Sundays and pastorates, that would be okay, because I’d love you to be involved in everything, but Sundays and pastorates are the time where we get to live the life that Jesus has given us, where we get to taste it and to see it. We need each other. Paul writes to the Hebrews, he says, “Don’t give up meeting together. Meeting together is so key.” Because it’s in that fellowship that we experience the life of God. Stu was saying about the prayer ministry training. I’d love to encourage you all, even if you don’t want to be on the ministry prayer team at the front, to come. Because actually, I don’t know if we’ve got the right title for it, but it’s the best title we can find. But actually, prayer ministry training is a course on how to live in the spirit. It’s how to pray for someone, to ask for God to fill them with his spirit, to look, to listen to God, to hear his words, to take words from scripture and to speak them into people’s lives.That is what prayer ministry training is all about. It’s not just for the blessing of the person we pray for. As we pray for people, we get to see God at work, and our faith grows, because we’re like, “Wow. God, this is real. You can actually heal. You can actually speak to me and give me a word for someone. How exciting is that?” Prayer ministry training. Basically it’s a little course in the life that we’re seeking to build on Sundays and in pastorates, the life of God, everything that Jesus says in that vision statement, how we do it in practice.
Thirdly, prayer, prayer of all kinds. As Colin Kerr, the vicar here in 1925 said, “Without prayer, nothing happens.” I haven’t heard of a revival that has happened without people first committing themselves to prayer. I’m so grateful to Sahan for starting, and those with him, just really digging in with the half nights of prayer, because this vision, to pray into being everything that God is doing, to say, “Yes, Lord,” to everything that he’s doing is so key. Again, it’s about trusting in him totally, depending on him.
Fourthly and finally, giving. Mother Teresa used to say that Christianity is a kind of giving. What she meant by that, it was because Christianity is all about grace, all about what God has given us. As we do these things, as we walk with God, we get to know him more. We share his life in fellowship together. We pray. We get to know a God who gives and who gives and who gives. It’s just natural. It flows from it that we will be giving people too, giving of time, giving of resources, giving of encouragement, everything that we do and you do already.our