The church in the city

St Barnabas and St Michael’s, 2nd February 2014

Reading – 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:5

I love the countryside. Ever since I was little, I’ve always enjoyed going up onto the wide open spaces of the moors or walking along by the ever changing coastline. There always seems something new to see, whether it is a magnificent view you’ve never really appreciated before, or a bird you haven’t yet identified, or even just a cloud formation tinged with the first hues of the setting sun. Personally, I find there’s a wonder and a beauty in the landscape that never ceases to delight and I guess like many people I have this rather romantic vision of living in the country.

Yet the reality is, I have always lived in a city, or at least if not in a city, in a large town. And as we know, in the future cities and towns are only going to get bigger and bigger, as more and more people move into them. We may not like the idea of thousands of new homes being built, and even whole new towns springing up, but unless we come up with an alternative solution, there seems no other way to accommodate an ever-growing population. And we need to understand that what’s happening here in the United Kingdom is only part of a much larger global issue. As the American author Tim Keller reports: By most estimates, we have reached the point where over 50 percent of the world population now lives in cities, compared to around 5 percent two centuries ago1and this figure may well rise still further to something like 80 percent eventually. Supercities like Mexico City or Lagos, for example, are well and truly here to stay.

The trouble is, as churches we are not always that good at knowing how to communicate in an urban setting. After all, most of the Bible uses language and images from the countryside. Think of Psalm 23, that most well-known of Psalms, which begins with the words The Lord is my shepherd. Think of Jesus’ parables about, say, the sower or the mustard seed. Now I believe it is perfectly possible to explain what the Bible says without changing its message. The gospel, after all, is the same in every situation.

And yet as we have thought about our mission and ministry I’m not always sure we’ve always fully taken on board the essential differences between the countryside and the city. Until very recently the Anglican church in Plymouth still had three rural deans. Each year at our Harvest Festival we sing “We plough the fields and scatter” as if we were ourselves still part of a village community. We can, if we’re not careful, give the impression that the church is still geared up for rural ministry and hasn’t really noticed that the world has moved on.

So what are the differences between life in the country and life in the city? Would anyone like to make any suggestions?

City life is busy. There’s a lot of traffic. It’s not just the traffic of cars and lorries constantly on the move. There is the traffic of people moving backwards and forwards, as they look for somewhere to live and somewhere to work. There is the traffic of new ideas, as people bring with them new ideas and share them with those living close by. There is the traffic of fashions as new trends become established and old ways become outdated. A city is a place of constant change and movement, where yesterday’s headlines quickly become old news, and you are never quite certain what tomorrow will bring.

So what does it mean to establish a church in the city? As we have seen over the past couple of weeks, that was exactly the question Paul faced as he came to Corinth. Here was no sleepy backwater with people just waiting around until the apostle moseyed into town and hit them with the gospel. No, everywhere he went he could see streets full of movement as folk hurried about their business, heading purposefully to the port or the temple or perhaps somewhere less reputable. And as he looked around and saw all this activity, I am sure he must have asked himself: How could the gospel gain a hearing here? And what would it mean to proclaim good news?

Well, Paul knew that if the church was going to make an impact it had to be clear above all else about its message. After all, people in the city haven’t got the time to listen to a message that’s confused or long-winded or hesitant. They need to know without any doubt what you stand for and, if I may put it this way, what’s on offer. After all, they are being constantly bombarded by slogans and taglines that advertise this or that product, and while I am not suggesting we copy the tactics of the adman, surely we can at least ensure our own message can be easily and quickly understood.

That’s why I believe we can learn much from Paul who left his hearers as to no doubt what he was trying to get across. It was plain and simple the message of the cross (verse 18), Christ crucified (verse 23). Whenever Paul spoke his one central theme was Jesus dying in our place for our sins. It was the one thing that he came back to again and again and by the time he finished speaking you knew exactly who Jesus was and what response you needed to make.

Now I guess for many of us this message comes as no great surprise. If we’ve come from a Christian background or been part of the church for many years there is nothing revolutionary or startling about Jesus dying on the cross. It is a story that is very familiar to us which we have accepted and believed. But to the people who first heard Paul’s message it was deeply, deeply shocking. After all, crucifixion was the form of death prescribed for slaves and criminals. It was such an offensive subject it could not even be mentioned at dinner parties or in polite company.

And to the educated Greeks who delighted in sophistication and good taste it was ridiculous to suggest that anyone who claimed to be the source of wisdom and truth could possibly die in this way. As for Paul’s Jewish hearers, if this Jesus really was the Messiah, it was inconceivable He would choose to end His life in this way. When the Messiah came, He would reveal Himself with signs of awesome wonder and demonstrate publicly His power. He would certainly not allow Himself to be arrested, sentenced to death and nailed by Romans to a cross. It’s little wonder Paul writes in verses 22-23: Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. And just to press home the point, we should perhaps note that the word translated here as “stumbling-block” gives us the modern English word “scandal”. The message of the cross was, and remains, to so many who hear it deeply scandalous.

So in face of this reaction, how should the church respond? Should it, perhaps, change its message to become more appealing or package it more attractively to gain a wider hearing? Paul decisively rejects such an argument. Let’s listen in full to verse 18: For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. Now we might indeed wonder why God would choose to send His Son Jesus Christ to die in such a cruel, barbaric way, and from a human point of view such a mission may seem like foolishness in the extreme. But the fact remains – this is how God chose to act.

And we have to decide whether in our pride and arrogance we deny the message of the cross or in humility accept that here is Jesus the Messiah dying in our place for our sins: the irony, being, that when we come in simple faith and trust we discover that there is real power and real wisdom in the cross – not power and wisdom as the world understands, but the power which changes the human heart and the wisdom which works salvation for all who believe. That’s why the message of the cross is so important. That’s why amid all the clamour and business of the city we need to keep proclaiming it, clearly, simply and persistently, whatever others might think of us.

There is much, much more that I could say about the cross, but I must move on.

For if the scandalous message of the church is Christ crucified, then who are those that God chooses to be its members?

Now you might think that if God was to start a movement that would turn the world upside down He would choose the powerful, the influential, the educated, the wealthy. They would be the people with the connections and the resources to make a real difference. A large donation there, a publicity campaign here, a few strategic appointments and the whole bandwagon would start rolling.

But that is not how God chooses to act. And to make his point, Paul simply asks the Corinthians to take a long, hard look at themselves. Verses 26-27: Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.

Because, you see, the church is called to be different. It is not called to be another club where the wise and the strong take the places of honour and privilege. If you want that kind of institution there are plenty of other places in the city where you can go and boast of your cleverness and intellectual prowess. No, the church is called to be the place where before the cross of Christ men and women admit their weakness and their poverty, where there is a culture of welcoming the lost and the broken, where status and honour are accorded to those who serve and take the lowest place.

Now I realise that is not always an easy calling to pursue. If the church is to live up to this calling, it will have to stand out from the urban culture of power and success. It will find itself despised and looked down upon by those who consider themselves wise and strong. And yet, and yet, if the church has the confidence to stay true to its calling, then Paul tells us it will be such a community of love and grace that even the wise and the strong will be shamed by what they see. We may seem weak and foolish in the world’s eyes, but when they look more closely, they will begin to see that this group of people they have written off as irrelevant or unimportant actually contain the good news they need to hear.

But how is the church going to get its message across? Will it use, for example, slick advertising and deep, meaningful language to make its case? No, the astonishing answer is that God uses men and women who like Paul come in weakness and fear and with much trembling. Now again from the world’s perspective that seems like the utmost folly. Yet that is the medium God chooses to convey the message of Christ crucified. Why? Well, Paul explains in chapter 2, verses 4-5: My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.

All throughout this passage Paul wants to make one point clear: the good news of Jesus Christ is a matter of God’s power, not human wisdom. So if we are relying on human wisdom to get our message across, yes, we might get a response. People might accept the force of a well-rehearsed argument or be compelled by a reasoned exposition. But they will not experience the power of the Holy Spirit to bring faith and trust in a loving Heavenly Father. They will only experience the power of the Holy Spirit if the person bringing that message is himself relying on the Holy Spirit to communicate the good news. They may not be the most articulate, they may not choose the most eloquent words, but if they are relying on the Holy Spirit their message will be received for what it is – the life-changing words of Christ Himself.

So to sum up: the message God gives His church to preach is very simple: it is Christ crucified. The members God chooses to belong to His church are those who may in the world’s eyes appear weak and foolish. The medium He gives us to communicate this message is the power of the Holy Spirit.

Sounds straightforward? Well, if you go out onto the streets of the city and ask people what the church stands for, very few of them will have any idea at all that it’s all about the message of the cross. They might think the Christian faith is about trying to live a good life, or following the teachings of Jesus, but they would have little understanding about the cross being the power of salvation to those who believe.

And what about its members? Rightly or wrongly, there is a perception that church is for people who are respectable and well-educated. You turn up at the door and you are given a large book you are expected to read fluently. You look around, and everyone seems so much better dressed than yourself. During the first hymn a bag is passed round and it’s clear you’re expected to contribute. Even though the church claims to be welcoming to all, the reality is, the poor and the vulnerable all too often feel excluded or out on the margins.

It’s not helped by the medium the church so often uses to convey its message. One thing we don’t tend to realise is that the New Testament was written in the language of the street. When you read the gospels, you find Jesus employed simple, everyday illustrations about the Kingdom of God. The questions He put to His disciples were, yes profound, but also simple and direct. Yet despite all this, so often when we teach the Christian faith we use long, complex words which may mean an awful lot to us but really don’t communicate that well with those who hear them.

In short, I believe that too often the church in the city has acted as a barrier to people hearing and receiving the good news of Jesus Christ. Paul’s words are, I believe, a real challenge to us that we need to take to heart and consider carefully. What is it that we communicate to those around us in the city? How does our life together reflect the purposes of God? And how do we make sure that our message is heard? As we embark on a week of prayer and planning for Hope 2014, let’s seek answers from the Lord – not for our own sake, but the sake of the many around us who are living and dying without knowledge of Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God – that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.

Rev Tim

1 Center Church, Timothy Keller p.154 © Zondervan 2012

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