This morning I put on my cassock (a dress, if you will – though the cut is far from flattering) and surplice, in preparation to preach. I’ll be honest: it wouldn’t be my first choice. It offends my sense of relevance. But then again, it reminds me that I am not the Authority on relevance; and, indeed, that relevance has its blind-spots and limitations anyway. It reminds me that I stand there in continuity with faithful preachers of God’s word through many generations. It helps those listening, in particular the older members of the congregation, to hear what I bring: I would not want my clothes to so offend that the messenger was a stumbling-block to the message. And those layers have their plus side, in the cold snap that finally arrived this weekend.
So I put on my dress and preached to a congregation of grandmas. And granddads; middle-aged folk; younger adults...Mostly older than myself, I grant you. A group of people who feel like they have been sheep without a shepherd for a long time; who are harassed and helpless. A group of people who sense new life. A group of people whose number is being added to.
I preached that our neighbours’ lives will not be transformed if they might only come into our beautiful building (though I believe God can speak through it); or even if they might get to know us, our caring community (though, again, I do believe God reveals himself through that care); but that what we and our neighbours need is to see Jesus and to respond to him. (After all, revelation that demands a response is what an epiphany is; and if we don’t take the opportunity of the Season of Epiphany to learn how to see and respond, we miss a gift.) I preached that God wants to reveal himself to us, and looks for a response; but that it doesn’t happen by accident: we need to learn how to see him, and how to respond. And so we looked together at an account of Jesus’ first disciples (John 1:35-51) and I spoke about how our lives, which go about our day-to-day business chronologically, are interrupted by a completely other quality of time – wonderful times, and sad times; difficult times, and significant times – and that it is in these interruptions that epiphanies occur. Drawing on the passage from John, I unpacked how together we see Jesus, causing a change of perspective; and how together we follow Jesus in intentional response. I spoke about the need to help one another see Jesus in the interruptions of our lives; to reflect on what we have seen; to do that in discussion. I spoke about the need to prepare, or plan (albeit provisionally) how we will follow, not least drawing others with us; to be accountable together, for the distance; if our following is to be an enduring act.
And then I asked anyone present, who was experiencing one of those interruptions, and who was wanting to see Jesus in that interruption, to stand, so that we could pray for them. Which is not the way in which things have been done. And of course, at first no one stood up. Preaching for a specific response, and responding, both take courage. But as I started to pray for us as a church, people stood, and we prayed for them too. It wasn’t hyped, or manipulated: but it was as if people had been longing for an opportunity to respond to God in a bodily way.
Afterwards, a lot of people gave, in their own way and their own words, testimony of seeing Jesus; or expressed thanks for having been equipped to see and to respond to Jesus, in a way they hadn’t experienced before.
That’s the way in which I intend to preach. To help us see Jesus and respond: to come to Jesus, entering into covenant relationship; and to be sent by him, entering into kingdom breakthrough. There will be occasions, I am sure, when I bottle it. There have been in the past; just as there have also been times when, I have been told by people whose judgement I value, that my faltering words have been powerfully anointed.
And yes, there is a part of me that would like to be a celebrated preacher. But – while I will always seek to prepare for a few as I would for a multitude – to be honest, the extent to which I crave recognition is the extent to which my life is not submitted to God, to which I have not embraced discipline and healing.
So there you have it. I wear a ‘dress’ and preach to grandmas. I am not known by millions around the world. Like Jesus’ first disciples – like Peter, on whom he chose to build his Church – I have moments of cowardice, though I don’t think that would be a fair summary statement, because I seek to speak the truth of our need to see and respond to Jesus – the truth as I understand it, recognising with confidence and humility that, with future epiphanies, I will discover that my hunch about Jesus is affirmed but that my present understanding of who Jesus is is (at any given time) incomplete.
And I am not alone in these things. There are others like me. Reports of the death of the British preacher are misinformed.