Does David Cameron really want the church to be more evangelical?

Crown Copyright

Crown Copyright

David Cameron calls on British Christians to be more evangelical. Why am I not jumping up and down on the rooftops whooping and hollering, and generally celebrating?

Because I’m not convinced.

The Prime Minister doesn’t know what an evangelical is, and I suppose I should have some sympathy with him there.

He uses the word as a verb, a synonym for passion or zeal, only with a religious fervour. Likewise he called for more evangelism, but evangelism for the role of the church in society, rather than sharing the good news that Jesus came to save.

On this weekend when we remember Jesus died to take the weight of all we do to reject God, when we know that he went beyond the grave and rose on the Sunday to triumph over the death that was all too real but could not hold him. On this weekend we should have a clearer view than ever what it means to share the good news. What that good news is and what it does.

The good news is that Jesus saves, not that churches run foodbanks.

David Cameron’s words are a nice way of using language in a way it is almost meant, it is designed to resonate with those for whom they have particular affinity but it doesn’t mean very much. The Prime Minister wants the church to be nice, to provide the endless services it does to communities, to stay when others go, to build resilience, to be the glue that holds things together.

But it is not a coincidence Christians provide the vast amount of support which they do.

It’s not just they have lots of volunteers and are able to mobilise activity.

It’s not a guilt thing, making recompense for the poor record religious institutions might have.

Or a decontamination thing, acting in certain ways so that others will think better. It didn’t work with huskies and it wouldn’t with food banks.

It’s a good news thing. That good news we want to share. What we are evangelical about.

David Cameron wants our good works but despite his talk of evangelism that seems the totality of his good news.

Churches offer incredible services to their community, they remain when others do not, they serve when others walk away, they live while others leave.

And it’s quite nice when this contribution is recognised. When the local council want to partner with you in providing a service, when businesses support you, when the Prime Minister lauds you.

Yet have we sacrificed something along the way? Have we been too quick to keep our calling card in our pocket, has our identity been obscured?

Have we opted for favour over faithfulness?

They are many examples of churches holding true to their beliefs, their motivation and their passion and serving their community.

Look at Street Pastors, you’d have to be pretty dim to miss the church connection.

We have to be the same people whether we’re preaching from the pulpit or sweeping the streets. Whether we’re expounding theology or handing our food parcels. We do not have a Christian button which we flip on when we are in church and off when we serve the public. That’s what being evangelical is all about.

It doesn’t mean we act the same in every context, the words we use from the pulpit won’t be appropriate on the playing field when we’re coaching football.

We don’t do good just to earn the adulation of the authorities. We do good because we believe that the gospel which changes our lives will one day banish every trace of pain and suffering. When good will triumph.

We do good because we get to be partners in bringing this good into our world today while we hope for tomorrow.

We do good because we are called to be good news. We are called to be carriers of the gospel.

When we step into our community, when we serve with passion, when we lead with conviction we are ambassadors for Christ.

It’s not a choice between good works or good news. It’s about both. Always about both.

Being evangelical means speaking truth, it means serving others, it means loving without limits, above all it means know that Jesus saves. This weekend as we remember Jesus’ death and celebrate his resurrection let that be centre stage.

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Long Live The King | Easter Sunday

They have stolen the body. Someone has moved it, how dare they? Don’t they know who this is? Can’t they let us come to terms with our loss, with the fact that the one that we have has gone.

The tears of grief turn to tears of anguish. Mary runs back to find the disciples, the little one heeds her call and is out the door. Peter not wanting to be left behind sets off in pursuit. They come to the tomb and Mary is right, Jesus is not there.

The pain soon turns to anger, and the anger to frustration and confusion. And just there at the end of the confusion is the faintest glimmer of hope. The scene before them doesn’t make sense, the grave clothes haven’t been ripped off by a thief, they have been walked out of.

Mary is left outside weeping at this latest desecration. She cries out. And the angels comfort her.

The gardener tries to talk to her but she is beyond herself. And then he calls her name.

Suddenly the darkness has turned to light. The night has gone and the day has come. Death has given way to life. In the morning as the tears pour down her cheeks Mary sees Jesus before her: the same only somehow different. As he spoke her name, her heart stirred out of love for the one she knew so well, as he urged her not to cling to his body, she comprehended the distance that was now between them. He was there, but he was not.

We could argue for centuries, and the theologians probably have, whether the death or the resurrection of Jesus is the more important event. And maybe it’s a pointless conversation, without death there would be no need for resurrection, but without resurrection death would be the end.

For me the joy that cometh in the morning wins. We are dead and we all need resurrection. It is the hope that Jesus, walking out of his grave clothes, brings that defines what life this side of the cross must look like. We do not have to follow Jesus onto the cross, but we do have to follow him out of the grave.

As Tom Wright notes, the resurrection is on the first day of the new week, it is the dawn of a new creation. It is the same in so many ways, but it is also so very different.

The disciples were hiding out in Jerusalem, knowing that their lives were at stake, they had publicly followed this crucified man who was killed as a king trying to lead a revolution. They locked the doors but Jesus found a way in.

The king is dead, long live the king.

The King has Gone | Easter Saturday

The women wept, the soldiers gambled, one prisoner mocked, the other pleaded. The centurion acknowledged that they’d killed the king.

The next day was dark. Not the darkness that had come with Jesus’ death, the sun rose as usual. But the light had gone.

The night before Jesus’ death he prayed in the garden and asked his father to take this cup from him, but only if that was his will. He didn’t want to go through with this, he wondered if there was another way, a way out, a way that could avoid the darkness. But the darkness was already around him. He had already been betrayed, the authorities had decided once and for all that this menace, this man who claimed to be from God should be silenced.

And for a day he was.

And so are the scriptures, we can only guess what went on during that passover Sabbath. The religious leaders were so keen to protect their purity on the Sabbath that they hurried him off the cross and into the pristine tomb donated for his body. They wanted this finished so they could enjoy their festival without blood on their hands.

I suspect the women cried and the men were silent. I suspect some were in shock, others angry, most afraid for their lives. Because the Son of God they had came to believe in was now gone. The one they had placed their trust in was no longer there. The distance was impenetrable.

The distance from God that they felt that day. The distance from God that Jesus experienced as he was torn away from the father he had known from the start. The distance that is reflected into this day when we call on God to answer our prays and all we get is silence.

Unanswered prayer is nothing new. When Jesus prayed in the garden, if this be your will, he was not pretending to be more spiritual than he was. He wanted to avoid having to die. How often we want to avoid things. We pray to God for something and he seems to reject our pleas. We ask God for what we want and he leaves us to our own.

How often we want to avoid having to die. We cling to ourself. We hold onto the life we know.

Because we do not think that God is there, we think that he has left us, ignored us, rejected us. We think that we are not good enough to come to him, and he is too far away to reach out to us. We think the distance is unreachable.

We think that the king has gone.

The Killing of a King | Good Friday

Most of them stayed away. It was just too dangerous to be seen with this crucified traitor. The women could stand there, they could fall to their knees. They could wail and they could weep: they were no threat. Apparently the young disciple was also too insignificant to worry the guards.

He had been dragged through the streets. They made him carry that cross. They laughed and they mocked as they dressed him up as a king, put a robe around his shoulders and a crown of sorts, a crown of thorns, upon his head. And then they hung him there. Each breath an ordeal of excruciating agony. He had given them the choicest of wine, they quenched his thirst with the dregs left for the lowest.

20130329-103543.jpg Beneath the cross as if his dying gasps were not indignity enough the soldiers divided the spoils. The best piece, his tunic, would be ruined if they cut it up, so they turned it into a game. That’s all it was to them.

Jesus, the man they thought had come to liberate, was left to die between two common criminals. The men beside him knew this was not any normal crucifixion. They saw the soldiers taunting Jesus, they heard the religious leaders come and gaze at the sign written in three languages above his head. This joke was not going to be missed by anyone, the man who thought he was king, who said he was above our authority. This man hanging there from a tree.

One of the robbers joined in the joke, he thought this was a win-win situation. He called on Jesus to save himself and while he was at it why not help us out too. If the joke was not a joke he might somehow escape the death that was accelerating towards him. And at the worst he got to go out with one last chuckle. Father forgive them Jesus cried, the words pierced through the pain and the laughter, they do not know what they do.

Even in his agony, maybe especially because of it, the man condemned on Jesus’ other side saw something else. This was not a time to mock, here hung an innocent man. This man, the one they called lord, the would be king, maybe that’s what he was. Don’t count that man’s words for me, he cried, remember me in paradise.

Death came. The legs did not need to be broken, the blood and the water signalled the death of Christ.

For years afterwards the disciples would debate what the last words were that slipped from his lips before he died. But knew as they heard from the women and the young disciple that it was over. Finished.

Under the cover of darkness that came with his death, the curtain in the temple was rendered in two. The divide gone between who was good enough to enter God’s space.

The centurion set at the foot of the cross looked up as Jesus breathed his last, and he knew what they had done. They had killed the king. This man, he was the son of God.

The King Denied and Convicted | Maundy Thursday

He cried. He prayed. He asked to be relieved from this most heinous of deaths. There in the Garden after praying to God, for his disciples and those who would follow in his wake, he prayed for himself. He needed strength to do this, but he knew he must.

And as he knew they would the guards arrived with Judas at their head. At least he had the nerve to come with them, not just point them on their way and run for cover. As the guards paused a few paces away Judas stepped forward and betrayed him with a kiss. The sweet perfume on his skin a token of his newly found wealth. Only dead bodies usually needed that much anointing.

Peter had to be restrained, he always had to. He was so keen to save his king, to spare him from the agony he thought might await him. His sword swung, the ear fell. Jesus, always the one with the contrary response chastised Peter and healed the chief priest’s servant.

As they went to the house of the chief priest Peter slipped back. He had started to doubt the one he loved. It was never his intention to reject him. He meant every word of it when he said he would do what ever it took, follow him anywhere – hadn’t he just risked his life by springing to Jesus’ defence?

But then the questions started to come. Here, outside the home of the authorities who had made it their quest to get Jesus out of their hair, here he was being asked if he knew this man. What harm could it do, Peter thought, this servant is a nobody, she doesn’t matter, I only make life harder by making a show of following Jesus.

So he denied Jesus. And as inside Jesus was questioned by the chief priests and religious authorities, Peter denied him again. Jesus stood before the inquisitors, declared that he had lived and acted in the daylight, he had not hid from anyone, he called for witnesses to speak against him, he asked what charges they laid at his feet. Just before the cock crowed three times Peter once again said he did not know the man inside about to be delivered to the Roman governor.

Pilate was hoping his posting would soon be over. Get out of this dust bowl without any black marks against his name. Most of all make sure these crazy locals don’t go starting a revolution. He saw no reason to put this man to death, there was no evidence of any treason, why couldn’t the Jews sort out their own religious affairs. But the threats of the priests to write to Rome, that would not do, that could cause serious trouble, get him posted to Hadrian’s wall.

This man was clearly not a king, he had no army, no majesty. He did not even have that chiselled jaw necessary to make the crowds swoon when he stood to speak. But he rejected Pilate’s authority, and that of Caesar, this could not go on. He gave the priests one last chance to save their king. And as luck would have it they declared their unswerving allegiance to Rome. The king was sent to be crucified.

The Servant King | Maundy Thursday

Things started to get pretty intense at this point Jesus is ducking and diving to keep out of the way of the authorities. He calls his disciples together for dinner the day before passover is to begin, it must be important they think we’ll be celebrating the festival all week.

The atmosphere is different. It is quieter, it is darker.

Jesus begins to talk and he’s got a few screws loose. The disciples really thought this was going to be an intense strategy session, planning the operation for the next week. If ever there was a time to usurp authority then this was it, Jerusalem was thronging with people, they were ready to rise up in rebellion.

Because if he is king this is what he should do. He should claim what is rightfully his. And the Peter was sure that the others would help him achieve this on his Lord’s behalf. Because kings rule.

They don’t serve.

So Jesus stood up from the table, he left his place, he took the water – maybe they thought he was going to turn it into wine again – and he began to wash their feet.

Peter was furious, who did he think he was? That was the job of a servant, how could he possibly follow a man who with a towel wrapped around him started scrubbing away at people’s feet. He might as well strip off altogether and let him wash his hands and head as well.

This king did things differently, he was a servant before all else.

Politicians often talk about serving the people, in the military you serve in the armed forces. Serving is not always what it seems. Sometimes serving is actually just a power play. Or to demonstrate that you are one of the people, that you recognise there struggles and their difficulties. In churches in the twenty first century washing people’s feet is a symbol of leadership, it is still a service, and really a particularly pleasant thing to do, but in echoing the actions of Jesus as a Servant King they are reinforcing their position as a leader.

Funny. The upside down kingdom. How to be first we must first be last.

After Jesus had called Judas out on his betrayal the disciples and Jesus walked through the streets. And they talked, or more to the point Jesus talked and the disciples listened on in varying stated of puzzlement. The disciples were worried, as the evening drew in the talk was also getting dark. Jesus said he was going, but where? He said he would be gone a little while, what’s a little while?

Eventually the pictures gave way to clarity. And they started to understand. That he knows all things. That he came from God. And that the father loves us.

This king, this king who washes feet has come to do away with the religious figures that say they are the only way to God. This king says we get to go straight there. This servant king.

The King Betrayed | Wednesday

Jerusalem was brewing with discontent, beneath the asymmetric dual rule of Rome and the chief priests revolutionary fever was beginning to ferment. So sticking with Jesus was risky business.

Others had turned away from Jesus when his teachings got a bit too radical for their liking. The Pharisees would occasionally join Jesus for a little bit of banter, trying to entrap him into saying or doing something they could arrest him for. Some of these Pharisees were won round to Jesus’ cause, others sat on the fence, waiting to see which way the wind would blow.

Judas stuck with the disciples, and stayed as part of Jesus’ core group of followers, but he had serious doubts. He was worried about the trouble Jesus was causing with the authorities.

One night a representative of the chief priests cornered him on his way home. He had all sorts of questions, they wanted to know what Jesus was up to, what he was doing, where he would be. They knew he had entered Jerusalem, they were even laughing about the palm leaves and the donkey. What kind of leader rides on a donkey.

He wasn’t sure whether to be offended by the scoffing tone they used to mock Jesus, or afraid of the trouble they could cause if it all went wrong with Jesus and he was left carrying the can. After all, he had no idea what Jesus’ plan was, he never answered any of the disciples questions properly he just told some stories, asked them to consider the lilies and be like little children. This was hardly a manifesto to risk his life for.

So he decided to play safe. After the humiliation he’d been dealt by Mary shaming herself in front of everyone, and Jesus taking her side, Judas struck a deal with the ruling authorities. He could make some money and stay onside with the men in charge.

Judas didn’t like to think of his actions as betrayal, that was far too crude a way of putting it. He was simply keeping his options open. He would join Jesus and the disciples for dinner the next evening. This way he could keep in touch with his friends but at the same time be ready to jump ship if it all got a bit too dangerous.

All the chief priests wanted was to know where Jesus would be the next night, what harm could slipping them that bit of info do? Jesus had encountered the religious authorities several times in the past and even when it got a bit tense nothing disastrous had happened. It might also give Jesus the nudge he needed to break out of his rather elliptical behaviour and lead the revolution everyone was hoping he would lead.

If he wasn’t going to do it properly what point, Judas thought, was there in risking his life to follow him.

But this wasn’t the way this king operated. He was betrayed because he had accepted the worship of a sinful women. Betrayed by a man who chose the way of his world over the way of the king.

The Followers of the King | Tuesday

I’m reposting a series I wrote last year for Holy Week, I suggest you start with Sunday’s and Monday’s posts if you’re just joining.

It had begun at a wedding, his mum of all people had let the cat out of the bag. He didn’t think it was quite time to start his campaign. But a wedding without wine was a pretty big problem. He wanted people to know that under his rule there would be plenty of joy and celebration.

His followers believed he was the special one. It had taken a while for them to be convinced of his cause; to begin with most of them had just come along on the jaunt for a bit of fun. It made a pleasant change from catching fish. But after a few years of following him around, day in day out, through days when the crowds threatened to overwhelm, and the days when they turned away to find something else to occupy their minds.

They stood with him as he brought healing to the hurting, they were astonished as he shook off the social norms and spoke to a woman alone, a Samaritan woman, and not a respectable one at that. But she had proved a great evangelist for the cause, running back into the village and bringing others back to see him. They had seen him cry when he heard the news of Lazarus’s death, but then preceded to say he was only asleep, and called him out of the tomb, it was like seeing a mummy walk.

It was not all simple for the disciples. Some of the things he said were really confusing, when they wanted an answer to their questions he told them a story or asked them more questions. But it was captivating.

He threw off the constraints that society tried to impose. It was as though he had another rule to live by. Normally when people wanted to climb up the social ladder they were very careful who they spoke to, and even more aware who they ate dinner with. Jesus wasn’t like that, he called out to Zacchaeus the tax collector who had climbed up a tree to catch a peek and proceeded to sit down and eat with him, in his house.

And Mary and the incident with the perfume. It was rather embarrassing really. They did their best to keep up with Jesus and the way he operated, but each time they thought they had the measure of him he turned things upside down. Here was another woman any self respecting Jew would stay away from but Jesus counted her and her sister Martha as some of his closest friends. Her behaviour was scandalous: she poured good perfume, that could have been sold to care for the poor, all over Jesus’ feet and then, to make matters worse, undid her hair to rub it in.

But through it all these disciples stuck with Jesus. Despite not really understanding his grand plan, despite struggling with the way he courted controversy with the religious leaders, and courted those no one else did.

When most of the fair weather followers had deserted Jesus they stayed. They saw that he was Christ the Lord. And that he was the only show in town.

The People’s King | Monday

Part 2 of a series for Holy Week, if you’re just starting it might help to read yesterday’s post

The crowds who watched Jesus enter Jerusalem were puzzled. He came on a donkey, he avoided the crowds. When they started to fawn all over him he stood up and talked in such a bizarre manner that most of them turned and left. Yet the authorities were worried, the chief priests were looking for a charge to lay against him, they even went after the man he raised from the dead.

Surely he was just doing all of this to increase the intrigue? Build up an underground following that would burst out at the crucial moment and declare him as their king. Some of them had seen him speak, most of them had heard the stories, the loaves multiplied, the blind given sight. This was the hope that they needed.

They were ready to answer his call. The religious authorities thought they could control everything, they were particularly keen on making sure no one threatened their cherished position as the underlings of the Roman Empire. There was this sense of anticipation around Jerusalem that things were about to change.

This Jesus had been wondering around for the past few years, he’d covered a lot of ground, after all building an insurgency in Judea called for a sophisticated retail politics operation. He’d made the calls, formed his exploratory committee, dubbed ‘the disciples’. He’d shook a lot of hands, kissed a lot of babies, grabbed some attention with carefully timed and brilliantly executed PR stunts. He’d commissioned field directors for his core constituencies and sent them out on practice runs to act as his operatives. They were even doing some surrogate media spots, casting out the odd demon, healing the sick, making sure they were doing it in his name. All in all he had a pretty good grass roots operation under way.

Now he just needed to make his big splash. The big entrance. Declare his candidacy to the world.

This Jesus had made some pretty big claims as he’d travelled around. It seemed as though he reckoned he had some kind of special access to God. Who could forget the tales of when he was baptised in the River Jordan?

After years of oppression it was time for something new. After the tired rules of the Sadducees and the Pharisees maybe the time had come. The Essenes had fled to the hills and the Zealots were sharpening their swords. Here was a king for the post-priesthood era of politics.

He could unite the factions, he could transcend their partisan differences. He was from the line of David but raised in the home of a carpenter. Here was the king to lead the revolution, no wonder the crowds had lined the streets and laid down their palm leaves.

They didn’t quite get everything he said, some of it just went straight over their heads. But they saw something, they felt it when he spoke, the hairs on their forearms started to rise.

This one was special. And he was here, they thought, they hoped, ready to lead their revolution.

He is a revolutionary king.

The King Has Come | Palm Sunday

During Holy Week I’m reposting a series I ran last year which retells the Easter story, 

I’m not sure who is in charge these days. We have a Queen, we have a Prime Minister, a parliament, an influential media, a web of corporations spanning the globe, and our own individual free will.

Local councils now have a general power of competence which means they can do what they like unless it is explicitly prohibited. It put them on the same footing as the general public, we can do what we like as long as it is not against the law.

But that’s a very technical way of looking at our freedom. Because all sorts of things restrict what we do. It is not just laws that influence our behaviour, we follow the cues of our culture and the expectations of those around us. We try and please people who we want to like us, and we give deference even to those we do not know. In short there is always a king of our lives, even if we are in a constant quest to try and claim the throne for ourselves.

Two thousand years ago the Jewish people had a conflict as to who was in charge. Rome had conquered the region and suppressed rebellions and placed a governor in charge. The face of Caesar adorned the coins to remind the locals who was in charge. But the local religious leaders came to a compromise with Rome, they managed to maintain some semblance of control of their own affairs, but it was only ever conditional on not upsetting their imperial overlords.

And then Jesus came along.

He threatened everything. And when he entered Jerusalem for Passover week the crowds went wild. This Jesus had been giving hints that he was not bound by the authority of the priests, or ruled by the military might of Rome.

The locals got excited: here was the one who would liberate them from the tyranny of Rome. They would know the stories of the last time nearly two centuries before when their hopes had been raised, and then crushed, as Judas Maccabeus promised to be the Messiah and led a revolt to reclaim Jerusalem.

And the authorities would have worried for exactly the same reason. It had taken several years to resolve the conflict and hammer out an agreement between Rome and the Jews, a precarious settlement that the chief priests were keen to hold onto.

But this Jesus, this king who made a triumphant entry, he came in on a donkey.

If he was going to lead a revolution he needed an army. This king had an interesting strategy, whenever the crowds got too keen he would head off to the hills, jump on a boat, find space to pray alone. He didn’t match up to the image of a king. Despite the excitement he had generated, the followers he had gained, the promise of a new king still looked a long way off.

This king was not like other kings. He did not do things in the same way. He followed a different set of rules. But he was not less than earthly kings. He was more. A lot more.