Here are the notes for the sermon I will be preaching at Central Baptist Church in Luton tomorrow. They express my thoughts on the terrible weekend we had in London, and our response to it as Christians.
Bless you, dear reader.
Unity in Community
"If the young men are not initiated into the village, they will burn it down – just to feel it's warmth."
- African proverb
Over the last week, England and the world have been shocked by the appalling incidents of rioting and looting which have devastated communities in London, and across England. The question being asked by politicians, journalists, community leaders, in fact by everyone - is what caused such a massive outbreak of lawlessness and violence among a group mainly aged between 9 and 25 years old. People are baffled .
Perhaps the incidents in Tottenham could be understood in the light of the anger against the shooting of Mark Dugan by police, even if the level of violence resulting could not be condoned. But why did this kind of rioting and lawlessness spread, not just across London, but to other cities where they couldn't possibly have known Mark Duggan - Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Wolverhampton?
As I have watched the debates about this on TV and read them in the Newspaper and Online, there have been various theories about this put forward. Many of them speculate that it is to do with the feelings of disenfranchisement experienced by disadvantaged youths, a loss of hope for the future in the current economic climate of cutbacks and unemployment, perhaps the consumerisation of youth in our society who are given so much for nothing that they have come to expect their every desire to be given to them immediately, and for free.
When I read the quote I started with posted on Facebook by a friend of mine in the US, it really resonated with me as I wrestle with my own questions about why this could possibly happen - not just the city I live in, but my own neighbourhood. Somehow, it manages to capture everything that people are theorising - the sense of not belonging, the lack of hope, the senselessness of the violence that burst forth, the selfishness of the acts of looting and destruction that occurred.
"If the young men are not initiated into the village, they will burn it down – just to feel it's warmth."
Last night on Sky News they interviewed 4 young people, who wanted the chance to say why they had been out looting. To sumarise what they said: they felt isolated, hopeless, desperate, and did it to survive. They said that they need the money they think they will make from selling the loot on to the black market.
In Ephesians, Paul writes to a church that he spent 3 years with after he planted the church. If you remember, his message was so successful that it, too, led to a riot. A riot which was started by a silversmith who gives his reasons for rioting in Acts 19:25-27:
25 He called them together, along with the workers in related trades, and said: “You know, my friends, that we receive a good income from this business. 26 And you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia. He says that gods made by human hands are no gods at all. 27 There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited; and the goddess herself, who is worshiped throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty.”
We see from this passage that Demetrius is concerned about a number of things:
1) He receives a good income from his business, and Paul's message has been so successful that it has led to an economic crisis in Ephesus for those who made their living from the worship of Artemis. Like the youths on Sky news on Friday night, he is desperately worried about his financial future.
2) His identity is threatened. He crafts statues made from silver of the goddess Artemis. This is who he is! His identity is rooted in his work. Paul is threatening that when he says that "God's made from human hands are no gods at all." The truth of the Gospel exposes the lie that Demetrius's life is built upon.
In our culture, Celebrity status is revered and sought out by many, especially young people. In the current economic climate, many young people are desperate for the wealth and prestige that celebrity brings. They try to emulate their favourite celebrities in the way they dress, the way they talk, and the way they live their lives. When they compare the reality of their own situations against the seductive lie that celebrity gossip magazines and television promote, they can't measure up, lose hope, and feel worthless. They will do anything in order to belong, feel part of something, worth something.
3) The community he belongs to is under attack. He says:
"There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited; and the goddess herself, who is worshiped throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty."
All of this leads to him starting a riot in Ephesus.
This is all background to what happened while Paul was in Ephesus. Well, that situation was eventually resolved, and Paul's ministry continued throughtout the ancient near east. Eventually, Paul was so successful in his ministry that it lead to him being falsely accused by the Jews, and eventual imprisonment in Rome. Whil in prison, Paul's thoughts are constantly with the churches he had planted, and he wrote numerous letters to them. One of those letters was to the church in Ehpesus.
In the first part of the letter, Paul begins by reminding them of the calling that they’ve received. The first part of it, from Chapter 1, is that they’re to be blameless and holy in God's sight. Secondly, it’s that they might live to His glory. Likewise, he reminds the church in Chapter 2, that they've been created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared beforehand to be their way of life. But then, in Chapter 3:10, he says that their calling is that through the Church the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rest of creation. Go back further to Chapter 1:10. God’s plan for the world, and in particular, for the Church, is that all things should be brought together under one head, even Christ.
As Christians, we too have the same calling that Paul was speaking to the Ephesians about. The calling which we’ve received is a calling to be the new people of God bound together in unity under Christ; and so Paul goes on to outline how being the new people of God is to be worked out in the down-to-earth, concrete realities of life. He writes in Chapter 4:1-6:
1 As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
He starts out by reminding them - live worthy of the calling you have been called to, and he lists five characteristics that are necessary to maintain this calling: humility, gentleness, patience, love, and peace. What a contrast to the world they lived in, where you protect what you have through power, violence, and deceit; a "dog eat dog" world, where only the strongest survive.
I wonder how well we as a church reflect this in the world around us? Does the world see these things when it looks at our church? Does it see them when it looks at us in our workplaces outside the church? We are called to be different to the culture we live in. To be humble, in a world where the proud celebrity is admired, to be gentle in a world which often looks at gentleness and sees weakness. To be patient in a world which views life as a "rat race". To love as Jesus commanded, not just our friends, but our enemies. And to bring peace, where there is war, and rioting, and looting.
When Jesus was just moments away from his death upon the cross, he prayed to his heavenly father. But he didn't just pray for those disciples that were alive at that time - he prayed for us! John 17 records that prayer. Starting in vs 20 we read the following:
20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
Jesus wants us to be united, showing the world that we are his disciples by our love for one another. And He has given us a message to share.
I believe that Ephesians 4 doesn't just speak to us as believers and our life in the church. I believe that it reminds us of the message we should be speaking - to those we work with, to the communities we live in, and even to the rioters in London, or elsewhere in the country.
Firstly, they are loved. To a disenfranchised youth, who feels like no-one loves him or her, nobody cares, what they need to hear is that they are loved.
Secondly, to the hopeless, those who have given up on society, and are depressed, or overwhelmed, God gives them a hope. You are not alone in your situation. God is with you. You may feel powerless, overwhelmed, unable to cope, hopeless. But when God is with you, you have a hope. He will be with you. He will protect you. He will guide you. He will comfort you.
Thirdly, they have a future. To the person who sees their future as bleak, and empty, God wants to tell them a new story about themselves. He wants to tell them the story of the future He has for them, and that He wants to write with them. A future where they are loved, a future where they belong to a family - the family of God. A future where they have a purpose and a calling. A future where they have a heavenly father who will always be with them, and provide for them. A future that stretches on beyond just the life they imagined for themselves on earth, into the future that God imagines for them, leading into eternity.
Will you take the message?