Monday, December 29, 2008

Some notes towards the end of a year

In no particular order of importance:

- if its hard work to find the right beginning to a sermon (so we do that work) it is also hard work to get the right ending (so let's do that work too) ... some sermons are like aeroplanes buzzing round an airfield, seemingly not knowing how to land!

- honour sermons with a standing up action by the congregation immediately following the conclusion, whether by singing a song or saying the creed; and do not follow the sermon directly with intercessions - too much passivity for the congregation!

- there should be some minimum liturgy-based-in-Scripture content to every "informal service": (my minimum) confession-using-an-actual-prayer (not 'silence while we remember what kind of week we have had'), the Lord's Prayer ... and (as commanded in 1 Timothy 2) there should be intercessions at every service

- 'the Peace' or 'the Greeting' should not become, should be changed from a conversation to a brief 'exchange of peace' or 'exchange of greeting' ... the liturgical purpose is to gather us together in one communion ... conversation has ample opportunity in the cup of tea after the service

- ensure sound, light, projection work to the highest possible standard: its tragic when an otherwise superbly prepared service or sermon is disrupted or diminished through 'technical mistake'

- aim for uniform excellence and achieve it: speaking quite personally, I am getting tired of being in services which have both superb aspects and glaring errors which cannot be brushed aside. The superb aspects imply uniform excellence through the whole service is achievable: we can do it; yes, we can!

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Ministry success in terms of love, not words or deeds

From Dallas Willard's The Great Omission:

"The people to whom we speak and minister will not recall 99 percent of what we say to them. But they will never forget the kind of persons we are. ... The quality of our souls will indelibly touch others for good or for ill. So we must never forget that the most important thing happening at any moment, in the midst of all our ministerial duties, is the kind of person we are becoming." (p. 124)

The great resource for people being great ministers is this:

"Divine love permeating every part of our lives is ... a resource adequate to every condition of life and death." (p. 124)

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Possible inspiration for Christmas sermon

Stuck in the last day or so before Christmas for something to say ... or rung out through preparing for Christmas and nothing in the tank for 28th December? Read this and see where your reflections take you, its posted on Thinking Anglicans by David Walker (Monday 22nd December):

"A pregnant pause

As Mary makes her weary way to Bethlehem the Christ within her is about to face one of the most dangerous moments of his existence. For both mother and child the journey from womb to outside world in first century Palestine comes with a high mortality risk; their fates entwined together, either might kill the other.

St Luke gives few insights into the unborn Christ, telling us briefly of how John the Baptist, himself yet unborn, leaps in Elizabeth’s womb when Mary visits. But that account, taken with the story of Gabriel’s visit, is enough to establish that the Son of God did not take on human form at any point later than conception. It’s not a point I’ve heard dwelt on by preachers and theologians, and liturgically it all gets lost in the joy of Christmas when we gaze in awe at the infant in the manger, yet the nine months of Mary’s pregnancy matter.

The Early Fathers had a knock down argument for the necessity of the incarnation; “What has not been assumed (by God) has not been saved”, they stated. The salvation of humanity could only be accomplished, and was fully accomplished, by true God becoming truly human. Christ became first a single vital cell, then a rapidly dividing clump of cells, then embryo and foetus. Just as the creed affirms that at Easter Christ descends to hell to save the dead, so, in these nine hidden months God works the salvation of the many that will never see the light of day: the miscarried; the aborted; the stillborn.

At the same time he himself is being fashioned both by God and Mary. A recent academic study found that human metabolism is fixed before birth, so that, inter alia, mothers who diet during pregnancy are more likely to have children with a lifelong tendency to obesity. How Mary has lived during these nine vital months will affect, indeed quite literally shape, her son for the whole of his life. She is no passive incubator of the divine child but fully part of his formation. He shares not just her genes but the consequences of her actions. We, who share her flesh, are both active in the drama of salvation and shapers of the living Christ that is revealed to the world.

In little over a couple of days the full joy of Christmas will be upon us; for today the task is to pause, and be with Mary in her pregnancy, and all that it means for us."

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A model sermon

There are many sermons available on the internet. This one caught my eye. It comes via the Covenant site from a recent conference of American and British clergy committed to finding a way forward through present controversies for the Anglican Communion. I note the way the preacher carefully selects six themes in two groups of three matching themes around the two headings of Warning and Promise. Read on ...

Three Admonitions, Three Promises
By Nathan Humphrey | December 19, 2008

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of messages from the Covenant authors’ retreat and our public conference, held on December 4-6 in Dallas. For information on sponsoring a Covenant conference in your diocese, email Craig Uffman at assi… or leave a comment on this post.

The following homily was offered by The Rev’d N.J.A. Humphrey as part of Morning Prayer that began the Covenant Conference on Saturday, December 6, 2009 (I Advent (Year One)) at the Church of the Incarnation in Dallas, TX. Fr. Nathan’s text was Luke 21:5-19.

In our gospel reading from Luke this morning, we find an apocalyptic discourse centered on the destruction of the one thing the Jewish people of Jesus’ day took the most pride in: the Temple. I am from the Diocese of Washington, where we have a rather nice cathedral, which I would hardly want to see destroyed. By comparison, I don’t think we can possibly comprehend the disciples’ sheer horror when Jesus proclaims, “the days will come when there shall not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”(I was reminded, by the way, that in 1974, before the Mormon Temple in Washington D.C. was consecrated, it was opened to non-Mormons for a tour. Afterwards, all the carpet that the tourists had walked on was reportedly torn out and replaced with fresh carpet. Someone I know took that tour, and told me that inside there was a mural depicting the Second Coming of Jesus. Fire and brimstone was raining down upon the National Cathedral.)

Faced with such a dire prediction, it’s no wonder the disciples are anxious to know when this will happen, and what signs will foreshadow such a [catastrophe, a calamity, a cataclysm]!

But wait, there’s more. Jesus tells them that false messiahs will come, that they will be betrayed by family and friends, that some of them will be killed. And yet, paradoxically, he says, “not a hair of your head will perish.”

Read from one perspective, these words are pretty bleak. But from another, they are full of hope and promise and wisdom.

Jesus gives us three admonitions and he gives us three promises. The three admonitions are: “Do not go after them,” “Do not be terrified,” and “Do not meditate beforehand how to answer.” Allow me to re-formulate these admonitions alliteratively as: “Don’t be seduced, don’t be scared, and don’t be studied.” The three promises are: “This will be a time for you to bear testimony,” “I will give you…wisdom,” and “By your endurance you will gain your lives.” These promises likewise lend themselves to a common theme, which I will call the Three Graces: the grace to witness, the grace of wisdom, and the grace to withstand. Let’s look at each one briefly.

First, we are told: Don’t be seduced. Jesus says, “Take heed that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is at hand!’ Do not go after them.” “Led astray”—other translations, following Jerome’s Vulgate, render this, “do not be seduced.” I glean from this that we need to be somewhat skeptical that anyone has a corner on who Jesus is—including people we are inclined to agree with. We are too easily seduced by images of Jesus that are skewed in one direction or another. So, too, we need to resist the reckless urgency of the moment implied when people tell us, “The time is at hand!” We are warned against following those latter-day messiahs on either the left or the right who promise us that they can lead us to a new Promised Land, a purer Church, or even a radically just and better World. Don’t get me wrong, the Church needs discipline and the World needs justice, but in seeking these things it is too easy to be led astray by little messiahs with big agendas.

Second, we are told: Don’t be scared. And what could possibly scare us? Wars, tumults, earthquakes, famines, pestilences, terrorism—in other words, the usual suspects. This advice is easier said than done, of course, though I personally am a fan of Rabbi Friedman’s “non-anxious presence” approach to ministry. If we get wrapped up in our fears and anxieties, if we let the secular or ecclesiastical terrorists of either side get to us, something dreadful happens: we lose perspective. Which is worse, the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem or the deposition of the bishop of Ft. Worth? Is this the worst chapter in Church History? It is true that we are suffering from a crisis, but a crisis is also an opportunity to step back and put things in perspective. And we can only do this if we refuse to be terrified or taken over by the pain and sadness that surround us.

Third, we are told, in essence: Don’t be studied. When we face any sort of testing of our faith on the part of others, especially authorities, we are told, “Do not meditate beforehand how to answer.” Luckily for you, I do not apply this admonition to sermon preparation, otherwise we’d be here all day. I don’t think Jesus is telling us not to be reflective, but not to rely on our own wits alone.

This brings us to the three promises. Looking back over the text, we can see that Jesus promises us first that “This will be a time for you to bear testimony.” This may not seem like much of a promise, but it is really a very exciting opportunity. I was told once that the Chinese word for “crisis” also means “opportunity.” (Perhaps this is why an understated Chinese curse, I’ve been told, is “May you live in interesting times.” “Interesting” times are often times of crisis.) The word Jesus uses here for “testimony” is the word for witness—“martyr.” In a crisis, if we are open to receiving it, we are given the first of our Three Graces, the grace to witness to the love of God for us in Christ and the relationship that we are called into as members of Christ’s One (yet broken) Body, the Church.

This promised grace to witness is followed by a promised grace of wisdom, which comes on the heels of the last admonition quoted above: “Settle it therefore in your minds, not to meditate beforehand how to answer; for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict.” Unfortunately, I don’t believe Jesus is promising us that we will win every argument, or that people will be convinced by what we have to say. The promise of a wisdom “which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict” is not so much about outcomes as it is about faithfulness. We are not called to manage outcomes. We are called to speak the truth as we know it in Christ, and even more importantly, to live that truth in our relationships with others, whether they are our “adversaries” or not.

Finally, we are promised that “by your endurance you will gain your lives.” (“Endurance” here, by the way, can also be rendered as “patience.”) The life we will gain isn’t necessarily this life, since Jesus gives this promise in the context of a discourse in which he informs his disciples that some of them will be put to death because of him. Rather, I take Jesus to mean in part that if the life we live here is marked by patient endurance, it will be worth the living. Patience is a virtue, and it is one that I know from experience comes only by grace. This third and final grace to withstand is perhaps the most difficult grace for Americans to become open to receiving. We are people of action, after all, and in order to get things done, a little impatience is thought to be a good thing. But with the grace of wisdom comes the grace of patience, both of which are needed in order to claim fully that promised grace of witness.

It is as a witness to patient, wise endurance that we are gathered here this morning. As we meditate on the words presented to us by our conference speakers, I hope that we will be equipped so that come what may, we won’t be seduced, we won’t be scared, and we won’t need to act “studied,” as if we know all the answers ahead of time. Rather, we will, I hope, be equipped to abide ever more deeply in God’s grace and love, that we may in our witness show forth the wisdom that comes from above, thereby withstanding all the temptations that keep us from living into the reconciling mission we are called to as members of Christ’s Body.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Gospel Star Times Christmas edition: Matthew interviews Joseph and Luke interviews Mary

The two versions of the birth of Jesus provided by Matthew and Luke could scarcely be more different! Each is agreed that Jesus’ mother was Mary, he was conceived through the agency of the Holy Spirit, her husband was Joseph, the birth took place in Bethlehem, and the eventual family home was Nazareth. But this agreement is expressed in a very few words: the bulk of each account is taken up with significantly different features.

Matthew focuses on Joseph, barely mentions Mary, recounts several dreams of Joseph in which God gives vital direction, tells us in great detail of the wise men visiting Herod the Great and then the Holy Family, the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt, and finally their return to Israel to settle in Nazareth. Absent from Matthew’s account is any mention of the conception and birth of John the Baptist, the angelic visitation to the shepherds, the shepherds’ visit to the Holy Family, the circumcision and presentation of Jesus. We will never know if Matthew actually interviewed Joseph, but if his report were published for the first time in the Boxing Day newspapers of 2008 we would presume that he had talked to Joseph but not to his wife!

If Luke interviewed anyone it was Mary, not Joseph. On several occasions he conveys insight into the inner workings of Mary’s mind. Joseph barely figures in the story. There are no wise men, no references to Herod, and no flight to Egypt. There is an extensive story of the conception and birth of John the Baptist, with many parallels to the way the story of Jesus’ conception and birth are told. The first visitors to the crib are shepherds and not wise men. Luke provides details of the Holy Family fulfilling requirements of the Law (circumcision, purification), introducing us to the only two named characters, Anna and Simeon, who meet the Holy Family in the course of the infancy of Jesus.

From these differences some investigators make a great deal of carnage, arguing there is so much difference some of it amounts to contradiction (see below) so pretty much everything was made up, apart from the core common elements, and even then there are some doubts (was Bethlehem as the site of the birth made up to suit Micah 5:2?). Further wrecking trust in the historical accuracy of either account is a big question surrounding Luke’s reference to a census in the time of Quirinius governor of Syria (Luke 2:2): if Jesus was born in the time of Herod the Great (Matthew) then Quirinius was not governor at that time (Luke), and vice versa. On the face of it, the historical evidence for Quirinius being ‘the governor’ of Syria is that it was ten or so years after Herod’s death. But there is no need for destruction of trust in the reliability of the gospels in respect of the Christmas story.

My reason for making the last point involves the following way of accounting for the differences, and an explanation given below of the issue arising from Luke’s mention of Quirinius. Others would describe things differently. None of us can “prove” that our account is correct and the others wrong. What I am attempting here is to explain the plausibility of Matthew and Luke writing different factual accounts of the birth of Jesus.

First, for a number of reasons, including Luke’s introduction to his gospel (1:1-4), I believe Luke was familiar with both Mark and Matthew’s gospels. From this starting point I suppose that Luke’s interest in the origin of John the Baptist is fuelled by its absence from both Matthew and Mark’s gospel, and its parallels with Jesus’ conception and birth narrative is inspired by the parallels Mark draws between the death of John the Baptist and the death of Jesus (see especially Mark 6:17-29). Then the points of agreement between Matthew and Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ conception and birth (noted above) are accounted for by Luke’s familiarity with Matthew. Incidentally it is entirely reasonable to suppose that Luke agrees with Matthew on these details because he knows them to be true from other sources and not just because Matthew is his only source for these details.

Luke completely discards Matthew’s stories of the wise men, Herod’s execution of Bethlehem’s children, and the flight to Egypt. Just why he does this we will never know but we could imagine Luke, normally keen to paint the early Christian movement in terms of posing little or no threat to the Roman empire, found it congenial to drop reference to Jesus being associated with Egypt and with royal figures from the East (i.e. two areas Rome had trouble with). Positively, Luke takes the opportunity when writing another gospel to inform readers of other recognition of Jesus (shepherds, Anna, Simeon) and to fill out key ‘religious’ details of Jesus’ childhood, absent in Matthew’s account.

By saying nothing about the flight to Egypt, Luke runs a risk that readers of both gospels will bring the charge that there is a contradiction between the two accounts. On the face of it, Matthew tells a story in which Joseph and Mary not only never went to Jerusalem but would have been terrified of doing so. But Matthew’s story is chronologically vague. When Herod sends the soldiers to kill the children, their task is to kill those aged two and under. This implies that his initial interview of the wise men, combined with the time taken to realise they had not returned to report back to him, meant he understood the birth to have happened some time beforehand. We only need to presume that Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the temple (as per Luke 2:22-38) and returned to Bethlehem (just a dozen miles or so apart) prior to the visit of the wise men for Luke and Matthew’s account to cohere chronologically.

On this account some details remain difficult! Matthew gives a clear impression that Nazareth is a brand new family home, following the return from Egypt. Luke gives a clear impression that the Holy Family go directly from Jerusalem to Nazareth. But I do not see these impressions as necessarily implying that Matthew and Luke’s accounts are contradictory. Providing we have some disposition to trust Matthew and Luke’s reliability as historians we can view the two accounts as complementary rather than contradictory.

But this does not deal with the difficulty posed by Luke 2:2. The evidence for Quirinius being governor of Syria is strongest for a governorship after the time of Herod the Great, and the likely census during such a period was one in 6 AD, well after the death of Herod in 4 BC. Has Luke made basic mistakes over a date and a name? Is Luke correct, and Matthew quite wrong about Jesus being born before Herod died? Or, some would go further: did Luke not make a mistake but deliberately manipulate certain facts in order to place the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem? That is, to explain how a Nazareth-based family ended in Bethlehem for the birth of their child, Luke took liberty with some well-known facts about a census in AD 6 during the governorship of Quirinius in order to explain why Joseph and Mary had to move from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

If Luke has either manipulated or invented facts to fit the needs of his narrative some sharp questions remain: why play round with public facts, readily challengeable by knowledgeable readers? Far simpler, for example, to invent some family crisis which took the family to Bethlehem! We do well to accept that Luke knew something about what he was talking about: there was a census before Herod the Great died, the census required Joseph to head to his home town, and Quirinius was governor of Syria at the time. As I understand research into these matters we can have some confidence that Caesar Augustus called a census around 8 BC, which may then not have made its way to Palestine till a few years later; some censuses did require return to home town; and Quirinius may not have been ‘the governor’ of Syria, but it is conceivable that he was in a position of power, perhaps working alongside the governor. (Good recent commentaries will have details which expand on these points). In other words Luke is not necessarily guilty of basic mistakes in historical accuracy nor of self-serving manipulation of historical facts in order to make his version of events plausible.

Matthew and Luke each tell the story of the conception and birth of Jesus in terms of some agreed common facts – the most important ones, incidentally, such as the names of Jesus’ parents and the place of birth. They also tell the story with significant differences. Matthew’s version connects the events he describes to Old Testament prophecies about the messiah to come. He tells things from Joseph’s perspective, and he underscores the repeated intervention of God in order to keep the baby Jesus safe. Yet Matthew’s version also has an eye on the world Jesus came to save: the wise men come from the world outside Israel and her social, religious and political leadership. Luke’s version also has a connection to the Old Testament (particularly in the songs of Zechariah, Mary, and Simeon) but he particularly connects the events he describes to the political situation in the Roman Empire and in Israel as a subordinate kingdom within the Empire. Thus Luke also has an eye on the world Jesus came to save, but his vision is oriented towards where his narrative of Jesus and his disciples will finally end in Acts 28: in Rome.

By carefully reflecting on the possible contradictions in the two accounts, and doing some research into possible solutions to notable puzzles raised by comparing the two gospels, it is plausible to draw the conclusion that Luke and Matthew’s accounts are complementary not contradictory!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Eucharistic theology in the context of our prayer book

In a comment on a recent post about Extended Communion Bosco Peters wrote the following which I think deserves a fuller rather than a ‘comment’ type response:

“You write "the sacrament is received not as the body and the blood of Jesus".

This appears to go against what our liturgies teach.
We receive the bread and wine as Christ's body and blood, his person and his life.

I can never quite work out why those who have no difficulty finding God's Word in the human words of the scriptures, and Christ's presence in their proclamation, make such heavy weather of Christ's presence in other ways. And whilst they do not make much effort to minimise God's ability within scripture, God's ability in the eucharist appears to need careful analysis.

The formularies to which Anglican clergy assent include:

Praise and glory to you creator Spirit of God;
you make our bread Christ's body
to heal and reconcile
and to make us the body of Christ.
You make our wine Christ's living sacrificial blood
to redeem the world.

NZ Prayer Book p.541”

In response to Bosco Peters initially I observed that much hangs on the word ‘as’ and on reflection prompted by his comment I think ‘as’ can bear my statement about the eucharist dropping the negative qualifier to become, “the sacrament is received as the body and blood of Jesus”!

But here I would not understand the ‘as’ to bear the full weight of a Transubstantiation understanding of the eucharist. Bosco Peters rightly makes the point in another comment that Roman Catholics no longer understand Transubstantiation in Aristotelian categories (substance/accidence) where he says:

“I suspect you are using "substance" and "transubstantiation" with the Aristotelian categories in mind.

You will have to search widely to find many theologians who still hold to such philosophical concepts.

"Transubstantiation" is now used normally in Roman Catholicism as a synonym for Christ being really present in the eucharist - fully in the bread, fully in the wine, rather than an adherence to Aristotelian categories.

Such a belief of Christ's presence is consistent, I posit, and my quote demonstrates, with Anglican formularies to which we assent.

The bending over backwards, as I indicated, to demonstrate Christ is present everywhere EXCEPT in the bread and the wine of holy communion, is a tendency I cannot make sense of.”

Now I want to engage with what Bosco Peters’ says in these two comments not to win a debate but to (try to) better understand the mystery of communion!

One way to engage would be to ask questions – questions, that is, to get any reader thinking, as well as myself. Here are some questions:

(1) If we have moved on from Aristotelian categories, in what manner do we now understand Christ to be ‘really present in the eucharist – fully in the bread, fully in the wine’?

Notes: I agree that such talk is consistent with Anglican formularies. I also understand it to be close to the Lutheran position known as Consubstantiation (in which the bread remains bread yet Christ is fully within it).

(2) Do all words in our NZPB bear equal weight?

I note that the words cited above from page 541 are from a prayer provided for ‘The Day of Pentecost’. That is these words are part of options which may never be used by a priest otherwise regularly and properly using the main Eucharistic prayers, none of which in my estimation is quite as explicit in its use of ‘make’ language. Does the language of ‘assent’ mean we assent directly to the apparent theological commitment of these words or assent to our formularies as expressing a broad theology representative of theological diversity in our church? Could ‘assent’ mean that we assent to a meaning for these words weighed against other Eucharistic understandings in the NZPB, understandings which (I suggest) enable us to legitimately understand ‘make’ in the Cranmerian terms I originally posted on?

(3) Is there an analogy between God’s Word in the words of Scripture, or Christ’s presence in proclamation and Christ’s presence in the sacrament?

This question arises because many would hold that the words of Scripture are always God’s Word, and Christ is necessarily present in proclamation of Christ; but bread and wine are mostly bread and wine (for breakfast, lunch and dinner!) except in the context of the Eucharistic meal, celebrated by the community of faith under the presence of an ordained presider. To this bread and wine something happens which is of a different order to God’s Word/words of Scripture and Christ’s presence/proclamation … or, so the argument would go!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Mark Thompson: Now What was that Text Again

Mark Thompson teaches at Moore College, Sydney; and was a recent William Orange lecturer in this country. Here I pinch his whole column on preaching from Sola Scriptura:

"In the 1950s and 1960s, John Stott, amongst others, raised the bar in evangelical preaching. Stott, in his preaching and in his commentaries, showed three generations of preachers how to expound a biblical text. He unfolded the text, showed what was there, connected it with life, and did it all with passion and a clear, memorable structure. Those who heard Stott and the very best of those who preached like him, knew that they had been addressed by God. They knew why this part of the Bible mattered, why God wanted us to have it, and the difference it makes to life as a disciple of Christ. Whether they were being challenged or comforted, they were gripped by the teaching of Scripture and excited about studying the Bible. This style of preaching nourished faith, revitalized churches and taught people how to read the Bible for themselves.

But nothing good seems to last forever, and expository preaching of this kind has been dealt some body blows in the last few years.
At one end of the spectrum, some practitioners have fallen into dull, lifeless analyses of Bible passages with little sense of their connection to life and little obvious passion and commitment to these words as life-giving and life-transforming. The message they preach terminates on the words of the text, rather than pointing us to the living God who addresses the world we live in and who has something life-changing to say.

At the other end, and perhaps in reaction to what they have seen as growing dullness in many pulpits, others have returned to the launching pad sermon. Nothing they say is untrue, generally. It might be even be genuinely helpful. But the sermon’s relation to the biblical text is impressionistic. The Bible passage suggests a theme, which is handled with a string of anecdotes—some funny, some profoundly moving. People who listen hear the gospel—no question about it. But the message could have been preached from any text, and we aren’t learning how to read the Bible for ourselves anywhere near as much.

Of course, other factors play a role as well, such as the massive internet presence of some very powerful preachers who do not follow the expository model. They are often great communicators and insightful critics of contemporary society, and they are absolutely orthodox in their theological commitments, but the Bible, while open, slides quietly into the background. Add to this the way the basic foundations of confidence in the Bible have been shaken both inside and outside the churches, and can we expect people to listen to what this book has to say anymore? In some quarters, a fascination with technique, which is evident in so many other areas of life, has distracted preachers as well. And perhaps most subtly and yet most insidiously, the desire to be (or to be seen to be) a great preacher can so easily eclipse the desire to preach a great God.

The best preaching I hear is biblical, profoundly theological and thoroughly engaging. It is suffused with a sense of urgency and importance—not the self-importance of the preacher, but the importance of the living God and the word he wants us to hear. The worst preaching I hear might as well be the rehearsal of tomorrow’s shopping list—almost as coherent and every bit as memorable.
Of course, good expository preaching doesn’t have to sound like it comes from the 1950s. It doesn’t have to bore the socks off all who try to listen to it. It can cut through the confusion of our present circumstances and, at the same time, teach us how to read the Bible responsibly for ourselves. And it builds deep Christian faith, rather than itching ears. We will suffer and our churches will suffer if it is lost to us.

We need a serious conversation about what preaching really is, why good sermons succeed and bad sermons fail. And perhaps—just perhaps—we need to learn again that the way we preach and what we preach are inseparably connected. So if we do really believe in a God who is not only living, but present, as we preach, what difference will that make?"

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Being Counter Cultural through Advent and Christmas

Is your parish church holding as many services through Advent and Christmas as it did last year? Five years ago? Every so often my antennae pick up signals that the number of services being offered is diminishing. A parish once offering Midnight, 8am and 10 am Communions may now be offering only one service on Christmas morning and reviewing whether or not to hold the Midnight service. Behind all such decisions will lie some statistical factors ... the once packed church for a Midnight service, for example, was only 75% full three years ago, and just 50% full for the last two years ... and so on. But I wonder sometimes if other factors are at work. The general busyness of the festive season collides with the time and effort required to prepare special services; less lay assistants may be available; and the further we move into Hillsong territory with worship, the less relevant and engaging Advent hymns and Christmas carols can seem.

Yet somewhere in the midst of all such factors there is an element of the world's culture telling the church's culture what to do. A challenge for all of us involved in worship leadership may be resolve to place the culture of the church ahead of the culture of the world in Advent and Christmas. To do that we may need to remind ourselves that the coming of Christ is utterly decisive for the world: without Christ's coming there would be no cross and resurrection; with the cross and resurrection there would be no salvation, no hope, no ultimate meaning to life. To celebrate the coming of Christ through Advent and Christmas therefore is not our responsibility but our privilege!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Extending Communion

In my previous post (below) I drew attention to Richard Hooker's understanding of the real presence of Christ in respect of the sacrament of the bread and the wine: it is to be sought in the receiver and not in the sacrament itself. This (I humbly suggest) is more or less 'the Anglican line' on communion.

On this line of understanding, is it possible to 'extend communion' to congregations at which a priest is unable to be present, and what might 'reserved sacrament' mean?

I suggest that communion can be extended from one service to another where in one service bread and wine is consecrated in the prescribed orderly manner (a priest presiding over an authorised service) and in the other service the sacrament from the first service is distributed in an orderly manner according to the authorised service provided for such an occasion. According to Hooker's teaching, the bread and the wine at communion are necessary for the real presence of Christ, following the promise of Scripture, to be received by those receiving the bread-wine-become-sacrament by faith with thanksgiving. Thus the sacrament is received not as the body and the blood of Jesus but as necessary to feed on the body and blood of Jesus in our hearts 'by faith with thanksgiving'! To take the sacrament from one congregation to another, or from one congregation to a sick bed is a reasonable action to take in order to incorporate into the communion of the church those otherwise unable to be present at a communion service presided over by a priest.

'Reserved sacrament' would then be about sacrament from one service 'reserved' for later use (e.g. for home communions during the following week, for a service in an outlying centre a week later) but it would not be the subject of any veneration for, on Hooker's understanding, the bread and the wine have not become 'the' body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.

On this understanding here - undoubtedly flawed and full of shortcomings - the sacrament of the bread and the wine has a double significance: a sign of the body and blood of Christ and a sign of fellowship between one congregation and another.

With respect to the latter I make this observation: in some of our parishes I am given to understand that extended communion using reserved sacrament may take place at time intervals as great as a month from the last occasion when a priest has presided at communion. This raises the question how long the sacrament may be reserved. I suggest the answer is subjective and not objective (i.e. specifying a certain time interval): the question a parish in this kind of situation could usefully ask is this, what kind of presence, including what regularity, from our priest(s) enables our sense of communion with the remainder of the parish to be a lively experience?