Sunday, 10 May 2015

After the General Election...

You can listen to this sermon here:

Acts 10.44-48  While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.  45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles,  46 for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said,  47 "Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?"  48 So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.

Romans 13.1-7  Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.  2 Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.  3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval;  4 for it is God's servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.  5 Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience.  6 For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, busy with this very thing.  7 Pay to all what is due them-- taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.

Call to Worship

Luke 1.46-53  
My soul magnifies the Lord, 
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.

His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
Opening Prayer
Great God of all the earth,
            we come to you this day
to dedicate ourselves once again to your service.

Pour out your Holy Spirit upon us,
            that we might become good news for the whole earth.

We pray for our nation,
            for those we live alongside,
            and for those who have to live alongside us.

May we be good neighbours,
            may we be good stewards,
            may we be good news.

Forgive us for those times we have acted selfishly,
            for the times we have decided in our own self-interest,
            rather than in the interests of others.

May we learn to see the world as you see it,
            by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit.

So we ask that you will reveal yourself to us today,
            through your son Jesus Christ.

And we pray together the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples.

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.
Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours
Now and forever

‘Be careful what you wish for, or you might get it’,
            the old saying goes;
or, as Oscar Wilde memorably put it:
            "When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers"[1]

Well, here we are, post-election…
            Did you get what you wished for?
            Have your prayers been answered?
Do you think the current leadership of our country is good news or bad?

I’m going to come clean now, and admit to the fact
            that I wrote this sermon, and planned this service,
            on and before Thursday, when the nation went to the polls.
This was partly because I like to get my sermons written a few days in advance,
            but it was also because I didn’t want my pontifical ramblings
            to be influence by my own personal response
                        to the outcome of the general election.

I do, however, very much think that our passages this morning
            speak powerfully to a post-election scenario,
And so I made a commitment to preach this sermon in this way,
            regardless of how the balance of power in government was settled.

And that is because in our short reading from the book of Acts
            we encounter God casting his vote, decisively,
                        on the question of who’s in, and who’s out,
            and in our reading from Romans,
                        we hear Paul challenging his readers
                        as to what they’re going to do about it.

But first, let me tell you about a hymn
            that I couldn’t sing on Wednesday evening.

Now, anyone who’s ever heard me trying to sing,
            might legitimately remark that, seeing as I can’t sing any hymns,
                        singling out just one of them is rather unfair,
            and there may be a point in that,...

…but, whilst it’s true that I rarely raise my voice in song,
            and more usually mouth along with the words for fear of being heard,
I do still consider my silent vocalization
            to signify assent to the words in front of me.
And if I can’t agree with them,
            I will, on occasions, keep my mouth shut.

Well, on Wednesday evening,
            I went, with a number of others from Bloomsbury,
to the Florence Nightingale memorial service
            at Westminster Abbey.

It’s a wonderful service,
            and provides a fitting annual tribute to an incredible woman,
offering a celebration of her astonishing legacy
            in the work of nurses throughout the world.

I love it. I’ve been before, and hope to go again.

And this year, the service included the hymn,
            ‘I vow to thee my country’
set to the wonderful tune Thaxted,
            adapted by Gustav Holst from the Jupiter movement of The Planets.
I would sing it to you, but, well, you know…

Anyway, stirring stuff.

Except I couldn’t even mouth the first verse;
            at least, not in agreement.

I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;
The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,
That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;
The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,
The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

Cecil Spring Rice, a British diplomat, published these words in 1918
            to express his nationalistic loyalty to his mother country,
and to reflect on the ultimate sacrifice paid by so many
            in the trenches and battlefields of the Great War.

Interestingly, on Wednesday night,
            especially given that Florence Nightingale developed
            her nursing practices in the theatre of the Crimean war,
none of us were asked to sing the second verse
            which makes far clearer the call of Britannia
            to death and destruction,

I heard my country calling, away across the sea,
Across the waste of waters, she calls and calls to me.
Her sword is girded at her side, her helmet on her head,
And around her feet are lying the dying and the dead;
I hear the noise of battle, the thunder of her guns;
I haste to thee, my mother, a son among thy sons.

And I find myself wondering…
            Is our national identity, really, the most important thing?
            Are we really defined by the borders that define us?
The commemorations marking the 70th anniversary of VE Day this weekend
            speak to us powerfully of the ultimate cost paid by so many,
            as they fought and died in the service of their country.
And so I find myself wondering…
            Is Britannia worth dying for?

Perhaps depressingly, if the statistics are to be believed,
            a good many of those who live here
            don’t even think she’s worth voting for…

Now, don’t get me wrong here,
            I love being English.
There are many things about my culture that I’m proud of,
            and whether it’s democracy, tolerance, or warm beer,
            I’m happy to celebrate my Englishness.

And by the same token, I love to join with others, from other cultures,
            as they celebrate all that is good in their heritage.

But England does not own my ultimate allegiance.
            That, I’m afraid, lies elsewhere.

Which is why I cannot vow to my country
            a love that asks no question.

Interestingly, Cecil Spring Rice also recognized the call of another place,
            a different allegiance.
Listen to his third verse,
            the one I could sing, or at least, pretend to sing, on Wednesday evening.

And there's another country, I've heard of long ago,
Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.

And so we find ourselves confronted with the problem faced by Christians
            in the face of nationalistic ideologies.

Those whose citizenship lies in the kingdom of heaven,
            owe their ultimate loyalty somewhere other
            than the country of their birth or habitation.

Because the kingdom of God transcends human borders,
            it joins people across cultural, linguistic, and social divides,
            it breaks down barriers, and demolishes walls.

The kingdom of God does not sit easily
            with any nationalist agenda.
And those who have sought to equate the two
            are, I would suggest, acting against the interests
            of the dawning kingdom of heaven.

… and back to the Bible:
            This is what is going on, in Acts chapter 10.

The back-story here
            is that, up until this point,
            the emerging Christianity had existed as a sub-set of Judaism.
The earliest Christians were Jews,
            and they had inherited a Jewish nationalist ideology, based upon
                        their understanding of their nation as God’s chosen nation,
                        and their ethnic identity as God’s chosen people.

And so, for many of the earliest Christ-followers,
            any non-Jew who wanted to join them in following Jesus,
            needed to convert to Judaism to do so.

But then we come to Acts chapter 10,
            and Simon Peter, the Jewish disciple of Jesus,
                        goes to visit the house of a Roman called Cornelius.

The thing is, Peter has just had a vision, a vivid dream,
            of a tablecloth laden with food,
                        some of it ritually clean,
                        and some of it ritually unclean.
As a good Jew, he could only eat the ritually clean food,
            and yet in his dream, God’s voice tells him
                        to eat food that is ritually unclean.

And then he comes to meet Cornelius,
            a Roman, not a Jew, and yet someone who is seeking after God.
And suddenly the meaning of the dream becomes clear:
            the opportunity to encounter God through Jesus
                        is not just for the ritually-clean Jewish people,
                        but for the ritually-unclean Gentiles as well.

So Peter preaches a sermon,
            summarizing the gospel story
            of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus,
and the Holy Spirit falls on the Gentiles, the non-Jews,
            who hear his message.

As I said, this is the point where God casts his vote,
            on who’s in, and who’s out.
This is the moment that sets the agenda for the future,
            this is the point where God’s manifesto is made manifest.
This is where the gospel starts to become real for the world;
            it’s where the gift of the Spirit takes practical shape
            in the political sphere of relationships, nationalism, and power.

Because this is where God goes beyond one nation,
            it is where God transcends any one society, however big it may be.

It turns out, as Peter discovers,
            that the kingdom of God is bigger than any nationalist agenda,
            and broader than any nationalist ideology.

And this makes demands on those of us
            who would consider our ultimate allegiance
                        to lie with the eternal Kingdom of Heaven,
            rather than with the United Kingdom
                        of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The arguments in the run-up to this week’s general election
            primarily focused on issues of national identity.
So we have been asked to consider, and vote,
            on the British economy,
                        on immigration,
            on Scottish nationalism, Welsh nationalism,
                        and the National Health Service;
            on National Welfare,
                        National infrastructure
            National Security,
                        and Social Security;
            on Housing, Pensions,
                        and Local government;
            on the European Union,
                        and The Environment;
            to name but some…

And in all of these we have been asked to consider
            where our own interest lies;
either our own interest personally,
            or our own interest nationally.

And yet the message of Acts 10,
            is that the interest of the Kingdom of God
cannot be equated with what’s best for me and mine.

The blessing of God falls beyond our national boundaries,
            and challenges all our attempts to confine our horizon
            to our own, localised, agenda.

So, the nation has decided,
            at least for now.
But politics doesn’t end with the election,
            and engagement by Christians in the political life of our country,
            does not stop at our moment of decision making.

We may have cast our ballot,
            putting down our cross in the relevant box;
but the call on us is to take up our cross,
            and to continue the path of sacrificial living,
                        of focusing on others,
            and seeing the kingdom come
                                    on earth, as it is in heaven.

We, whose primary allegiance is with the Kingdom of Heaven,
            have an ongoing role to play
            in the life of our nation.

The counter-cultural communities that we are called to in our churches,
            are places of prophetic witness to the wider society
                        of which we are a part.

The drawing together in the name of Christ
            of young and old,
                        of rich and poor,
            of different cultures, ideologies, sexualities, and genders
                        embodies the kingdom of God
                        that will not be constrained by borders,
                        wherever it may be that people try to draw them.

As the Cuban theologian Justo González puts it:
            ‘We have to be careful not to fall back into the trap
                        of acting as if the Church were only for people “like us”.
            When in any of our churches people are rejected because
                        “they are not decent”
            or … because they do not share our political ideology,
                        it is time for us to … ask ourselves
            what it means to declare that “God shows no partiality”.’[2]

So where does this leave us,
            on the Sunday after a General Election?
What should our response be
            to the powers-that-be in our land?

Well, here I want us to spend a few moments with Paul,
            and his letter to the church in Rome.

‘Let every person be subject to the governing authorities’, he says…

Which of course, in his context,
            didn’t mean the newly elected government
            of a democratic country.

Rather, for Paul, the governing authorities
            were the agents of the Roman Emperor,
            who was the head of all Roman society.

For Paul and his contemporaries,[3]
            the idea of changing the given social order
            would have been unthinkable.
The social order, for them, was a stable as nature.
            Indeed, it was considered ‘natural’.
The empire had endured for hundreds of years before Paul,
            and would do so for hundreds of years after him.

It would be a misreading of this passage to take it
            as the revelation of a distinctively Christian view of the state.
It is no such thing;
            Paul is simply responding to a social order that,
            so far as he can see, is ‘natural’

But just as we need to recognize that Paul’s advice to the Romans
            was culturally-conditioned
So we also need to recognize
            that our own post-enlightenment perspective on the state
            is also time-conditioned and relative.
Our view of society is no more self-evidently ‘correct’ than is Paul’s.

Just as we now think it is ‘natural’
            for people to have a choice of who governs,
so we need to recognize that people up to the Enlightenment
            thought that society is most naturally governed from the top down.

We still see this in the residual traditions of monarchy
            that underpin our own democracy,
where the new Prime Minister must seek permission
            from the monarch to form a new government.

So, how then do we align our own commitment
            to a crucified and risen messiah
with the reality of the social order in which we live?

Possibly, if all civil authority is from God,
            and ordered under God,
then it follows that a civil authority that does not respond to God’s will
            might be considered disqualified as a true authority,
and so might be resisted ‘for conscience’s sake.’

If, for example, a state, such as that in Germany under the Nazis,
            took to itself ultimate powers over conscience,
            or punished those who did no wrong except following their conscience,
then, as Christians such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer concluded,
            ‘for conscience’ sake’, such a regime can be actively opposed.

But in our world, this is not our situation;
            and in our democracy this is not, by the grace of God,
            where we find ourselves.

But there is a warning and message here
            that there is no ‘default Christian’ position on party politics.
There is no one party that can be identified
            as consonant with the politics of the kingdom of Heaven.

Whether we identify as a Christian Socialist,
            or a Christian Conservative,
                        or a Christian Liberal Democrat,
            or a Christian Green,
                        or a Christian conscientious no-voter…
Wherever we draw our boundary,
            the blessing of God falls beyond it,
            onto those we would consider unclean.

The Christian position in this post-election country of ours,
            must surely be the prophetic living-out of an alternative society,
            where in Christ the boundaries that separate us,
            and divide us one from another, are challenged.

The transformation of society, which is the aim of politics,
            begins with us,
and it begins again with us, here, today.

What divides us one from another?

There will be people here today who voted
            for each of the main political parties, I’m quite sure of that.
There will be people here today who disagree on a whole range of issues,
            from the political to the ethical.
There will be boundaries and division within and amongst us,
            and there will be walls that we construct around ourselves
            to differentiate ‘us’ from ‘them’.

Who do we look down on?

Whom do we exclude?

Where do we draw the line?

Well, the message for us this morning,
            is that wherever we would seek to draw it,
the blessing of God continues to fall beyond it,
            as God is at work in Christ in the world,
            drawing all nations to himself.

[1] An Ideal Husband (1895) Act II
[2] Justo L. González, Acts: The Gospel of the Spirit (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2001), p.136
[3] What follows is drawn from L.T. Johnson, ‘Reading Romans’ pp.186ff

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Prayers for a Baptismal Sunday

Loving God of living water, we come now to pray for ourselves and for your world. 

In Christ, you meet us in the everyday stuff of our lives. As you once entered the waters of the Jordan at your own baptism, so you continue to immerse yourself in the daily reality of our humanity. As you once met us in the waters of our own baptism, so you are joined with us each moment in our need for forgiveness, renewal, and transformation. And so we take this opportunity, this day, to reaffirm before you the promises made at our own baptisms. We pray especially for AAAAA and BBBBB who have been baptised here today. Together as your people we recommit ourselves to the path of faithful discipleship, we seek forgiveness for those times where we have been less than we should have been, and we offer ourselves once again to the task of becoming your people, for the salvation of the world.

Loving God of living water, we pray for all those who need your cleansing touch. We pray for those whose path in this life has taken them far from the life-giving way of Christ. We pray for those whose courage has failed, and whose will has been lacking. We pray for those who have heard your voice inviting them to join you in the life-giving water, but who have turned away and followed their own path. We pray for our friends, and for our families. We pray for those known to us only by their reputation. Lord, draw near to those who draw away from you.

Loving God of living water, we pray for a world where death so often gets the last word. We lift before you now those places and people known to us where death seems to have the upper hand, and where life seems stifled and suppressed. 

We pray for those living with illness, and especially for those who know that their time remaining on this earth is less than they would have hoped for. Living Lord, draw near to them as they draw nearer to you in death. Through the promises of baptism and resurrection, may they know that life is more than death, and that your love endures through and beyond the tomb.

We pray also for those situations around the world where death and disaster overtake a population. We pray especially today for Syria, for Iraq and Iran, for Palestine, and for other places and peoples known to us where death seems victorious. ... ... ... Living Lord of resurrection promise, may streams of life-giving water come to the deserts of destruction. May justice flow like rivers, and righteousness like a never failing stream.

We also commit to your loving care all those whose faithful commitment to their baptismal promises has led them to persecution and death. We lift before you now those situations around the world where Christians are targeted for no other reason than their unyielding identification with the God of love made known in Christ Jesus. May new life come to many through their faithful witness.

Loving God of living water, we thank you that you step down into the midst of the mess of this world, and into the complexities of our own lives. We thank you that in baptism, you draw near to us and invite us to draw near to you. We thank you that you do not leave the world unchanged, and that you are daily at work, inviting transformation, and bringing hope and new life.


Monday, 13 April 2015


Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
12/3/15 11.00am

Listen to this sermon here:

Acts 4.32-35  Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.  33 With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.  34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.  35 They laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

Psalm 133.1-3  How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!  2 It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes.  3 It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion. For there the LORD ordained his blessing, life forevermore.

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common
When I was a child, I brought up on the adage
            that I should always try to ‘live within my means’,
which meant that if I wanted something, I should save up for it,
            and only buy it when I had enough money.
Of course, this meant that if I hadn’t got the money,
            I needed to earn more, to work harder,
            and to go without until I could afford it.

And so it was that at the age of thirteen I took a job
            working for the paper shop opposite Sevenoaks station,
                        starting at 5am every morning
                        before catching the 8.05 train to school;
and so it was
            that I bought my own motorbike when I turned sixteen,
            with money I had saved up myself.

And broadly, this has remained my approach.
            Of course, I borrowed a lot of money
                        when I took out a mortgage to buy a house,
            but apart from that, I’ve never been one to live, ‘on the never never’.

There’s an old song, which I think I learned at Boy’s Brigade,
            that enshrines this adage of prudence…
Perhaps you know it too?

I've got sixpence
Jolly. jolly sixpence
I've got sixpence to last me all my life
I've got tuppence to spend
And tuppence to lend
And tuppence to take home to my wife.

The values here are clear:
            prudence, investment,
                        spending within your means,
                        and taking care of your own,
            are the ingredients for a happy life.

And, of course, there is much here that is good,
            much that is sensible,
            and much that many of us still need to hear.

I don’t regret the years we have spent paying off our mortgage,
            I don’t regret the years of cheap camping holidays,
                        even though friends who were prepared to borrow
                        were going abroad twice a year.

But I do wonder if this is all there is to be said
            about the question of how we should be with our money…?

Thinking somewhat beyond the level of the individual for a minute,
            this is the question that the financial crash of 2008,
                        and the subsequent global recession,
            has posed for many countries, our own included.

Is it sustainable to live with a deficit?
            Is it prudent to spend your way out of debt?
Do all debts need to be repaid?
            What are the responsibilities of those responsible for money?

If there are choices to be made about what we will spend our money on,
                        and there always are,
            then who gets to take those choices,
                        and on what basis do they take them?

Where are our spending priorities going to lie?
            And where are we prepared to live with cuts?
Are we content to commit to renewing Trident?
            Are we committed to universal healthcare?
What about the social security budget?
            What about overseas aid?

These are not simple decisions,
            and yet they form the backdrop to much to the election-wrangling
            that is dominating our news media in the run up to the May 7th.

And that’s before we even start getting onto the question
            of how the different taxation policies of the various political parties
            are going to affect different segments of the population.

Did you know that on the Conservative Party website,
            you can put in your personal income details,
and they will tell you how much better off you are
            as a result of their taxation changes.

So I did it, and apparently, I’m on course
            to pay £770 less tax on my income this year,
            than I would have done if I had earned the same amount in 2010.

There was then, naturally,
            an invitation to donate some of that money to their campaign,
                        so that, as they put it,
            ‘we can keep cutting taxes and keep securing a better future’.

I assume they mean a ‘better future’ for me, and others like me,
            who are fortunate enough to have a regular taxable income.
But we won’t get into that particular diversion here and now.

However, it raises for me an interesting question,
            which takes us into the realm of our Bible reading this morning
                        from the book of Acts.
And this is the question of, whose money is it anyway?

Listen again to Luke’s words:
Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common

Is ‘the pound in my pocket’ really mine?
            Or is there another way of looking at this?

I prefer to think of my money as being mine ‘on trust’
            rather than mine ‘absolutely’.

It may be mine at this moment,
            but that doesn’t mean I am free from obligations in what I do with it.

Some of the money that is currently mine,
                        I have on trust from the government,
            and when I have filled out my tax return,
                        and calculated my obligation to the state,
                        I’ll have to give it over to them.

So, by proxy, we might say that my money
            is mine on trust from the cancer patient,
                        whose therapy will be paid for out of taxation,
            or the child whose education will be state funded,
                        and so on, and so on…

For others of us, we might say that some of the money we have
                        is on trust from our children, or from other dependents,
            and we are not at liberty to simply spend it all as we wish,
                        lest they go without at our hands.

One might indeed raise the question
            of whether our money is ever truly ours,
                        even when it is sitting in our bank accounts?
            Or is it merely ours ‘on trust’ for now.

This language of ‘trust’ with regard to money is an interesting development,
            because it takes us away from the idea of ‘me and my own’
            and into the world of corporate responsibility.

So, charities have ‘trustees’ whose role is to ensure
            that the funds of the charity are used in accordance
            with the trust deed that set it up.

Here at Bloomsbury,
            our deacons and ministers are designated the ‘trustees’ of this church,
and as such they have a responsibility to the current church members,
                        and also to those who founded this church 167 years ago,
            to make sure that we do not misuse
                        the money that comes in each week,
            whether through the cash or cheques given via the offertory plate,
                        or through the monthly standing orders
                                    that an increasing number of us use
                                    for our giving to the church.

It’s all a matter of trust.

And, here’s the thing that I think it boils down to:
            I think our money is only ours on trust from God,
            and I think that what we do with it will tell us quite a lot
                        about how much we trust one another,
                        and about how much we trust God.

Look with me for a moment, if you will,
            as this challenging little story from the book of Acts.

Luke tells us in v.32 that:
the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul,
and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions,
but everything they owned was held in common.

And he goes on in v.34
There was not a needy person among them,
for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.  35 They laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

Can you hear the politically loaded soundbites?
            Phrases which could have come straight from the manifestos
                        of our current political parties?

‘private ownership’, ‘possessions’, ‘held in common’
            ‘needy person’, ‘ownership of lands or houses’,
                        ‘proceeds of what has been sold’
                        ‘distribution to each as any has need’

This is a political text, every bit as much as it is an economic text,
            and whilst it directly addresses the financial situation
                        of the earliest Christian community
            as they tried to work out together, in real terms,
                        what it meant to be followers of Jesus Christ,
it also speaks to a wider and more contemporary context
            of fiscal policy and monetary dogma.

Clearly, for the early Christians, discipleship did not simply mean:
            prayer and worship, and singing and communion,
                        and other such spiritualised practices.
Rather, the scope of conversion to the path of Christ
            had implications for every area of life,
            not least the way in which money and possessions were handled.

But this verse has also had financial and political implications
            for Christians down the centuries between then and now.
Including, notoriously, our own forbearers, the Anabaptists.

Did you know that the thirty-nine articles of the church of England
            include the following injunction:

Article 38.
The Riches and Goods of Christians are not common, as touching the right, title, and possession of the same; as certain Anabaptists do falsely boast. Notwithstanding, every man ought, of such things as he possesseth, liberally to give alms to the poor, according to his ability.

This argument about communism of goods,
            and whether it is right for Christians to seek to impose such a policy
                        by means of political force
            is not a new one.

And current debates around Christian responses to capitalism and socialism,
            to issues of big state or big society,
need to be heard in the context of the historic attempts
            by some Christians to demand, by virtue of compulsion,
                        that which others have believed
                        should be a matter of voluntary conviction.

The Christendom alliance between church and state,
            against which the Anabaptists took their stand,
held that it was the duty of each citizen to give tithe to support the church:
            Under Christendom, church support and state taxation were conflated.

The Anabaptists argued that this was a misunderstanding of scripture,
            and that, rather, each believer should be free to commit themselves,
                        financially and in other ways,
            to the gathered community of believers
                        of which they chose to be a part.

My own conviction is that communism of goods
            is not something that should be compulsory,
and that to attempt to make it such
            is to fall into an analogous lure to that which Christendom offered.
I do not think that Christian values and state legislation are interchangeable,
            whether it be the compulsory tithe to support the state church,
            or the mandatory communism of goods,
            or indeed any other attempt to construct an enforced fusion
                        of voluntary conviction and state responsibility.

Taxes are taxes,
            what is due to Caesar is due to Caesar,
            and what is due to God is due to God.

And so we find ourselves back at our text from Acts,
            with its tantalising fusion of money, politics, and theology.

And it seems to me that there are two key principles at play here in this story,
            which come together to effect practical change.

Firstly, the group are united in their devotion to God:
            Luke says ‘the whole group of those who believed
                        were of one heart and soul’ (v.32)
And secondly, no-one regarded their possessions
            as being under their own control.

In many ways, these two aspects directly reflect the saying of Jesus,
            that the whole law and the prophets could be summed up
            as pointing to love of neighbour, and love of God (Mk. 12.30-31 //s)

And here we encounter a theological principle which I’ve already alluded to,
            which is, that the way we handle our money and possessions,
            will be determined by both our attitude towards our neighbour,
                        and our attitude towards God.

Do we love our neighbour as we love ourselves?
            Do we trust our neighbour?
Do we love the Lord our God
            with all our heart and mind and soul and strength?
Do we trust God?

Let me put this another way…

If our money and possessions are simply ours on trust from God,
            then our willingness to part with them as part of our discipleship
            will be directly dependent upon the extent to which we trust God.

However, the question of the extent to which we are willing to trust our giving
            to the community of disciples of which we are a part,
            will be dependent upon the extent to which we trust one another.

If we are united in love, both our love of God and our love for one another,
            then giving to God through the fellowship of his people
            is no problem at all.

And here I’d like to bust a key myth:
            The church does not need your money.

What I mean by this, is that the ‘church’, and specifically, in our case,
            Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church,
is not a charity that needs anyone’s support.

This might sound a strange thing for me to be saying,
            given that my monthly stipend is directly dependent
            on the congregational giving of this congregation.
But I really mean it.

We’re not a charity seeking supporters,
            and we’re not a worthy organisation seeking funding.

We’re something far more wonderful than that:
            we’re a community of Christ-followers,
committed in love to one another,
            and to the God of love that we encounter through Christ,
and, like the first disciples in the book of Acts,
            we’re trying to work out what it means to follow Christ
            in a complex and confusing world.

‘The church’ is not an organisation that we support;
            rather, ‘the church’ is us.
And the institutional side of the church,
            is simply that which arises to help us live out before God
            the life of discipleship that we are called to.

So, if we believe, after prayer and discernment
            that what God would have us do with his money
is to sustain a central London witness to the inclusive gospel of Christ,
            then that is what we do.

If we believe, after listening together to the gentle whispers of the Spirit,
            that it is right before God for us to call ministers
to serve this congregation and to facilitate its ministry day by day,
            then that is what we do.

If we believe that it is right for us to feed the homeless,
            care for the vulnerable,
                        speak truth to power,
            and declare the word of the Lord in our generation,
then that is what we do.

And these things are our church,
            they, and so much more, are Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church.
But all this is a function of our discipleship,
            it is an outworking of the commitment, trust, and love,
            that we have towards one another, and towards God.

So, I would want to suggest,
            we shouldn’t determine our giving to the church
on the basis of what we think the church needs from us
            at any given moment.

Because when we do that,
            we reduce the covenant community that is the people of God
            to the level of a charity that needs our support.

Rather, we give to God, faithfully and sacrificially,
            month by month, or week by week,
and we surrender that giving to our sisters and brothers in Christ,
            so that together we can discern
what God would have us do with his money.

If we say to ourselves,
            ‘Bloomsbury has a nest-egg in the bank,
            they don’t need my money, so I’ll give it elsewhere.’
We are, in fact, rather missing the point.

It is true that Bloomsbury has a nest-egg in the bank,
            we have set aside some money for the next generation,
or perhaps for the next time this grand old building of ours
            needs major surgery.

But this is not a reason to withhold our giving to God,
            given through the body of his people.

It is also true that Bloomsbury is currently running an annual deficit,
            and that over the next few years we will face some difficult decisions
about how much of what we currently do
            we will be able to continue to do.
And unless giving increases,
            some things, some people, may have to be cut.

Let me tell you about a visitor we had here to the church recently.
            He was, I think, an actor here for one of the many script read-throughs
                        that take place during the week.
            (another one of our sources of income:
                        one which is useful, but not enough
                        to solve all our problems, unfortunately).

This actor stopped to talk with me in the foyer,
            as I was stood there with my clerical collar on, looking like a vicar.
I showed him around the church,
            told him something of the history of the place,
and outlined some of our current ministry.

He was particularly interested in the work we do
            with the homeless and vulnerable,
and as he left, he asked if he could make a donation
            to the work of the church.

I said, yes of course,
            and he said he would like it to go to the hardship fund.
I gently suggested that a donation to general funds might be more useful,
            but he was adamant that it should be to the hardship fund.
So I promised him I would make sure it went into the right fund,
            and with that he reached into his pocket,
            and gave me a five pound note.

Now, don’t get me wrong,
            a fiver is a fiver,
and for some of the people who come through our doors,
            that is a significant amount of money.
There have been occasions when people have tried to give me five pounds,
            and it has made me weep with humility at the level of their sacrifice.

But I’m fairly sure that was not the situation here.

I offer this story, not to condemn the actor,
            who I know was giving with a good heart,
            and I know the Lord has received his gift.

But he thought he was giving to a homelessness charity.
            He had conflated giving through the church,
            with giving to the person shaking a bucket outside the tube station.
And I don’t blame him for that at all,
            firstly because he’s not part of this church,
            and secondly because those of us who are part of the church,
                        can find it all too easy to do the same thing.

So my challenge this morning is for each of us
            to spend some time prayerfully reviewing our giving.

For some of us it may be that we make a commitment
            to start giving regularly to God,
laying our gifts at the feet of our sisters and brothers in Christ
            so that we can decide together
            what God would have us do with his money.

For some of us it may be time to take out a standing order to Bloomsbury,
            or to review the level of our current standing order.

Deciding on ‘an amount’ is never easy,
            and, as you’ve heard, I’m no great fan of the 10% tithe,
            but many find that a useful place to start;
recognising, of course, that 10% of a large income is not as sacrificial
            as 10% of a meagre social benefit payment.

For some of us, it may involve visiting the conservative party website,
            seeing how much tax they’ve saved us,
            and committing to give that money back to God.

It’s not for me to answer this question for others,
            but it is my place to ask the question.
It is also my place to say
            that all that I have said applies to me as well…

But in all of this, remember:
            Bloomsbury does not need your money
            to keep the good work that is Bloomsbury going.

But... I do believe that the kingdom of God needs Bloomsbury,
            and that it is the grace and love and mercy of God
                        that has called this church into being,
                        and which sustains us day by day.
            We are the kingdom of God in this place.

And so we are called to love one another,
            to trust one another,
            and to live in the unity of the Holy Spirit.
And we are also called to love God,
            with all our heart, and all our soul,
                        and all our mind, and with all our strength.