Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Faith - Alive & Well

Walsall Advertiser Living Faith Article, published 29 March 2012

Richard Dawkins, author of ‘The God Delusion’, would like us to believe that religion is a spent force, and that the world would be a much better place without religion. Yet two events, one national and one local prove that he is wrong.

Two weeks ago Bolton Wanderers' midfielder Fabrice Muamba collapsed during his teams FA Cup tie against Tottenham, he was rushed into hospital fighting for his life.  What has been so extraordinary about this story is that so many people, many of whom I suspect would not necessarily profess to having an active faith, have been praying for Fabrice.  His former team mate, Chelsea defender Gary Cahill wore a vest encouraging supporters to "Pray 4 Muamba" and the Sun newspaper rang the headline "God is in Control" below the subheading "Praying for Muamba", and the Daily Star had "In God's Hands".  What this goes to show, is that the vast majority of people, whether they have a strong faith or not, in times of difficulty turn to God in prayer.

Closer to home, Monday 26th March marked the first anniversary of the launch of Street Pastors in Walsall.  During the last year hundreds of people have been helped by the Street Pastors, Christians from churches across Walsall, who give up their time to patrol the town centre every Friday and Saturday evening from 10pm to 4am.  Whether it is providing a listening ear, sweeping up broken glass, or helping someone who has had too much to drink, the presence of the Street Pastors in Walsall has helped to make the town a safer place.  This has been recognised by two community service awards that the Street Pastors have received in the last month, one from Walsall Housing Group and the other from the West Midlands Police Authority.
What these two stories go to show is that religion, far from being a spent force, is alive and well in our society, and that faith rather than being a bad thing, is a positive thing that should be nurtured and valued. As we approach the great festival of Easter, when Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, it is a good reminder of the central role Christianity has played and continues to play in shaping the values of our society, and that we should not be ashamed of our Christian heritage, but value and protect it.  

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Salt & Light - Discipleship as Lifestyle

Sermon based on Matthew 5:13-16

During the course of this year we are exploring what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.
To be a Christian is not just about coming to church on a Sunday, it is about being a fully committed follower of Jesus.  That is why Jesus called people to take up their cross and follow him.  If we are serious about following Jesus, then it should affect every aspect of our lives, including how we use our time, money, possessions, how we relate to other people, what our values and priorities in life should be. 

To be a committed follower of Jesus means putting Jesus at the centre of our lives.  Of course this is easier said than done, but through prayer and worship, and the transforming work of the Holy Spirit within us, we should become more like Jesus.  To be a disciple of Jesus Christ is about whom we are and who we are becoming.  It is about our identity as individuals.

This idea of our identity, of who we are in Christ, is picked up in our Gospel reading.  Jesus describes us as the salt of the earth, and the light of the world.  Notice that he doesn’t say, we should be, or should try to be the salt or the earth and light of the world, but that we ARE. 


Salt has many uses. 

Before the days of modern refrigeration salt was also used as a preservative, to prevent meat from spoiling. 

As Christians we are called to act as a preservative, to uphold and fight for God’s kingdom values.  For example the Government is trying to redefine marriage, in order to legalise gay marriage.  I believe it is really important that as Christians, we speak up in defence of the traditional understanding of marriage as being between a man and a women, and that we resist attempts to redefine marriage.  It is about upholding the biblical understanding of marriage, which has been the bedrock of our society for hundreds of years.  A survey commissioned by Catholic Voices last month should that 70% of the people interviewed agreed with the statement "marriage should continue to be defined as a life-long exclusive commitment between a man and a woman". A spokesman for Catholic Voices said "British people believe that gay relationships should be recognised by the state through civil partnerships. But they are clear that marriage is a unique institution which needs to be promoted because of the benefits to children of being raised by a mother and a father.”

There are also moves to try and legalise euthanasia.  But many Christians as well as Doctors groups are gravely concerned about the consequences of such an action.  If euthanasia was legalised, what safe guards could be introduce to protect the most vulnerable people within society? 

These are just two issues, but there are many more, where we as Christians need to stand up and make our voices heard, speaking on behalf of the poorest and most vulnerable people within our society, and those who have no voice.  Protecting & preserving the values of justice and fairness within our world.  The prophet Micah reminds us what God requires of us, ‘To act justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God.’ (Micah 6:8)  This is what it means to be the salt of the earth.


Salt is also used to bring out the flavour in food.  Without salt some food is bland and tasteless.  We need to help bring the best out of life, to give taste to life.  Jesus came into the world so that people can live life in abundance.  As Christians we need to help people to understand and experience what this means, and to experience and know God’s love, grace and mercy.


Salt also has healing properties, if dissolved in water it can be used to wash out cuts or wounds. As Christians we are called to bring healing to our world, and to work for that healing.  People need to know the reality that broken lives can be made whole again in Jesus.

But in this passage, there is also a warning.  ‘If the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.’  If a seasoning has no flavour, it has no value.  If as Christians we make no effort to have an effect on the world around us, then we are little value to God.  If we are too much like the world, we face the danger of becoming worthless.  As Christians we are called not to blend in with everyone else, instead we should affect them positively, just as seasoning brings out the best flavour in food. 

The challenge is how we different are we from the world around us?  Jesus taught that Christians would be recognizable by their distinctive behaviour - specifically, by the way they love others and how their lives reflect their spiritual values and beliefs. But research by the Barna Group in the USA shows that faith has a limited effect on most people’s behaviour.  Are we as distinctive as we should be?  Or are we in danger of losing our saltiness?  Paul reminds us that we should not be conformed “to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” (Romans 12:2)  To be a committed disciple of Christ, means being prepared to go against the flow, which at times can be tough, but that is part of the cost of taking up our cross and following Jesus.

The wonderful thing about salt, is you don’t need much to make a big difference.  A small amount of salt in food, helps bring out the flavour.  Mother Theresa said "We can do no great things, only small things with great love." But those small acts done in great love, like a pinch of salt, can make all the difference in the world. 


Jesus says, ‘You are the light of the world.  A city on a hill cannot be hidden’ (verse 14).  Before the introduction of tower blocks and skyscrapers, a church would undoubtedly have been the tallest building in any town or city.  That’s the reason why architects designed churches to have a spire or bell tower, so that the church building would be visible to everyone living in the vicinity. 

That’s just bricks and mortar.  The real church is us, the body of Christ.  As the body of Christ, we are called to reflect Christ’s light and love to those around us.

If we are truly living for Christ, then we will be lights to the world. But we hide our light by being quiet when we should speak, going along with the crowd, denying the light, ignoring the needs of others, or letting sin dim our light. 

We reflect Christ’s light when we:
o   Trust wholly in God, and not in ourselves
o   Show mercy
o   Strive for relationships that are built on trust and love
o   Look to spread peace, and quell hatred and anger

When we do this, people will see our faith in action.  In 2005 there was a famine in the Sahel region of West Africa, in Niger Christians gave food aid to 12 mainly Muslim villages.  The villagers were astounded that Christians were helping them.  One person said: “They used to tell us that the Christians are compassionate, yet we were dubious, but today we believe it.  In all of our history, no one has ever given us food aid.  This time we have been taken notice of.  The Christians are welcome among us.”

Your Kingdom Come

We can’t be salt and light in the world by drawing on our own resources.  We need to depend on God and the experience of his Holy Spirit, it is only then when we do this that we are able to change in the way we act towards others.

When we serve Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit, we are brining God’s kingdom of heaven to earth.  As John Ortberg writes, in God is Closer than you Think.

Every time you are in conflict with someone, want to hurt them, gossip about them or avoid them, but instead, go to them and seek reconciliation and forgiveness:

The kingdom of God is breaking into this world.

Every time you have a chunk of money and decide to give sacrificially to somebody who is hungry or homeless.

The kingdom of God is breaking into this world.

Every time you love, every time you include someone who’s lonely, encourage someone who’s defeated, every time you challenge somebody who’s wandering off the path, every time you serve the under resourced:

It’s a sign that the Kingdom is one more breaking into the world.

To add another one to Ortberg’s list:

Every time we shine a light on the injustice of our generation, and working to end poverty. 

The kingdom of God is breaking into this world.


Called to A living Discipleship: Ephesians 4:20-32 & Matthew 5:13-16

Sermon preached by the Revd Phill Ball at St Martin's Church Walsall on Sunday 11 March 2012.  The video clips are taken from session 7 of the 'Moving On Course' by Robin Gamble and David Banbury.  For further details about this excellent seven week discipleship course go to

'He's the salt of the earth.' We say that about somebody who's loving and kind, in a quiet and modest way. 'He may never be great and famous, but he does so much good he's the salt of the earth.'

The poet Shelley described one of his friends as one of those happy souls

Which are the salt of the earth, and without whom this world would smell like what it is - a tomb.
Salt's what makes food interesting, and before modern day refrigeration the only thing that preserves it from going rotten.

Jesus meant something like this when he told us, his followers, that we must be the salt of the earth, as we live our lives of discipleship.

Please note, Not we should be, or should try to be, but we are the salt of the earth! .
We as followers of Christ are called to share our life, to give taste to life, and to save others from losing their saltiness and remaining spirituality rotten.

Lets hear what some new Christians think about who or what is important in their lives.

Does that ring any bells?

Jesus also said we're to be the light of the world, with a goodness shining out of us that will show others the way to live their lives, even without any words being spoken.

People never light a candle and put it under a bowl. That defeats the whole purpose of the light and it would go out.

It would seem ridiculous; especially to people whose only source of light at night was a candle or small lamp. Why light a candle if you are only going to put it out? In the same way, why become a Christian if you only want to be personally “saved” and do not intend on being a light to the world or to make it more palatable for others?

What good does it do to become a Christian if you are going to be like everybody else?
The answer is: Your life would become tasteless and dark, and useless to God’s kingdom.
But if you see your responsibility and privilege to “to live a life that becomes the Gospel,” then your life has meaning and purpose. There is huge value in becoming a Christian, if we live that life and daily strive to be a disciple of Jesus.

The danger in the 21st century Christian discipleship is that it has become so personal. For many it is “all about me and Jesus.”  I “get saved”, I get my ticket to heaven, and then I just sit back and wait till Jesus comes.  I want God’s blessings so my personal life will “work” or be better in some way. I want God to fix my marriage, my finances, my children, my health or I want God to give me protection, but I’m not sure I want to have the responsibility of living for God , and making a difference in the world, in being its Salt and its light! But what good does it do if you are going to have your life lit with the light of God if you are not going to let that light shine into the world’s darkness?

If your life was meant to be like salt in a tasteless world; and you lose your flavour, what good does it do?  If you believe certain things, or become a Christian just so you can feel more comfortable, or Saints forbid, so that you can feel superior to other people, it amounts to nothing.
You are living in darkness and you have lost your saltiness. We are called as Disciples of Christ, to strive to be more like Christ, who was the salt and light in this dark world.

We are called in our daily lives to share his salt and light, with our families, friends, all we meet, even with those who do not share our beliefs, at home ,work, school ,church, on the bus, at the shops; just let Christ’s light shine from us, in our daily lives working for what’s important to Jesus, the Kingdom of God. Jesus is concerned about what our chief concerns in life are.  And he says that our chief concern should be whether we are really salt and light in a dark and flavourless world.

Are we actually seeking the Kingdom?

If we really are seeking Kingdom of God, all the rest will take care of itself. Jesus is again telling us not to live for the kingdom of this world, but for the kingdom of God. As C. S. Lewis said, “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you will get neither.”

In Romania, 20 years ago , when the country was still in the grip of a communist tyranny. Laszlo Tokes, was the pastor of a church in the Romanian city of Timisoara. He had caught the attention of communist officials, and they began a strategy of suppression. They stationed police officers around his church, machine guns cradled in their arms & They hired thugs to attack him.
Finally, just before Christmas, they decided to send him into exile. But when the police arrived to hustle Pastor Tokes away, they were stopped for around the church stood a wall of Christians.
Christians from around the city- Baptist, Pentecostal, Orthodox, Catholic and others- had joined together to protest. All through the day they held their post. As it grew dark, a young Christian student pulled out a packet of candles, lit one, and passed it to his neighbour. Then he lit another. One by one the burning candles were passed out among the crowd. Soon the darkness of the December night was pierced by the light of hundreds of candles. When Pastor Tokes looked out his window, he saw a sea of faces lit up by a warm glow. He would never erase from his mind the picture of believers from all denominations joining hands in his defence. Two days later, the police finally broke through the crowd and dragged Pastor Tokes away. But that was not the end. The people now streamed to the city square and began a full-scale demonstration against the communist government, that was a catalyst for the beginning of the end for the communist terror of the CeauČ™escu regime, all brought about by united faith, and Christian disciples being light in the darkness of this world.

If like me you don’t achieve all you should every day as you stumble after the example of Christ, be thankful that we receive new Grace every day, on our journey of living faith and living Christian discipleship, then remember this: Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven .So daily pray, confess, be forgiven, then live each new day as a disciple of Christ.

Lets look for a challenge for us all in all our Christian lives as Disciples of Christ; as Robin talks about Saltaire and Titus Salt.

Finally, Brothers and Sisters, as disciples of Christ, living his life; remember; we are the salt of the earth, and the light of the world, lets us share what Jesus has given us, in this flavourless and dark world. Amen.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Discipleship L Plates

For this sermon I am hugely indebted to Robin Gamble and the excellent 'Moving On Course' - which forms the basis of this sermon.  The video clips featured here are from the 'Moving On Course'.  Further details about this course can be found at

Discipleship.  I wonder what your immediate reaction is to that word?  Do you know what a disciple is?  Do you consider yourself a disciple? 

I imagine amongst us here today, there will be very different reactions to that word.  We’re going to start by listening to a number of people who’ve recently become Christians, talking about what being a disciple of Jesus means to them.

It is interesting to see what a different range of responses there are to discipleship, it is possible that you identify with some of the things that the people said there on that clip, I know I do!

So what is a disciple?  A disciple is someone who wants to spend as much time as possible with his master, to learn from them, to be a committed follower, to become like them

This is God’s desire for us, Paul writes that God wants us to be "conformed to the image of His Son" (Romans 8:29). So to be a disciple of Jesus is to want to become like Jesus – not in the sense of growing long hair and a beard, and wearing sandals, but being in the moral likeness of Jesus.  To have the fruit of the Holy Spirit growing in our lives, so that we are full of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23), just like Jesus.  And to do the sort of things that Jesus did, caring for the poor, healing the sick, sharing God’s love in words and actions.

Jesus had a very striking expression, he said he wanted people to follow him, to walk in his footsteps, even to be willing to carry their cross, that is to say, to be willing to make sacrifices, do difficult things, push out of their comfort zones.  Jesus was willing to carry his cross for us, and he wants us to do something similar for him.  That is why he said to his followers, go into the world and make disciples of all nations.  Not, go into the world and make church attendees.   You see Jesus doesn’t want one day a week church attendees, he wants committed seven day a week followers.  The question we need to ask ourselves is which one are we?  Are we occasional attendees, or committed followers? 

One of my hobbies is photography.  As with discipleship, photography is all about learning, growing and developing.  I like to think that when it comes to photography I have a pretty good eye, and know what makes for a good photo.  But I’m never going to be as good a photographer, as say Steve McCurry, who took the hauntingly beautiful picture of an Afghan Girl, but I can become a pretty good Simon Bickersteth.


Photography is a bit like discipleship, people often say, I’m not as good as others at praying, or reading my Bible, or sharing my faith and caring for people.  But as with photography, we learn, we develop, we get better at it gradually.  We get better at it by listening to other people, by reading books, and crucially we get better at it by doing it. 


The more I pray the bit better I get at praying.  The more I try to share the gospel, the better I become at it.


The fact is that when it comes to Christian discipleship, we all wear L plates.  It doesn’t matter if you’ve been a Christian for a few days or all your life, we never lose our L plates, because none of us our perfect.  Instead we should be learning and getting better at it as we go along.


It was Albert Einstein who said, “Anyone who has never made a mistake, has never tried anything new.”  We learn from our mistakes.  This is certainly true for Jesus’ twelve disciples.  You could not have picked a more unlikely or less promising bunch of people, fishermen, a sprinkling of zealots, a tax collector, a collaborator with the Romans, none of them outstanding for their abilities or achievements.  You have probably all come across the management consultant story where they evaluate Jesus’ workforce and advise him to sack the lot – except for one who shows remarkable promise and a good business head, Judas Iscariot.  Jesus’ disciples were forever making mistakes, like Peter, who one minute was being congratulated by Jesus for what he had said, and the next minute he is being rebuked with the words "Get behind me Satan!”  But crucially Peter, and the other disciples learned from their mistakes. 


So being a committed disciple of Jesus is not about getting everything right, because we will mistakes, but it is about learning from our mistakes and by picking ourselves up and pressing on with God when we get things wrong.  Being a disciple is also about being prepared to take risks, like Peter when he stepped out of the safety of the boat, and on a dark and stormy night started to walk over the water to Jesus. 

Fortunately the journey of discipleship is not made alone, God gives us the Holy Spirit and the Church to help us along the way, and we will think more about this as we explore discipleship over the coming months. 

I want to finish by showing another short video clip, this time of Vicki’s story.

Vicki faced a real choice, to go for it and be an active disciple.  It’s a choice we all face, what about you?

Work & Wealth Matters To God (Luke 16:19-31)

The issues of work and wealth clearly matter to God.  It is a subject that one out of every three parables touches upon.  And these two issues, work and wealth are central themes in the story of Lazarus and the rich man, sometimes referred to as Lazarus and Dives (Luke 16:19-31).

What we work for, and what we do with our wealth clearly matter to God.  The Bible makes it clear that it is part of our God given nature to work.  For example in Genesis chapter 2 we read that God placed Adam into the garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.  And the picture we have of God in the Bible, is that He is a God who works.  It may not always feel it, but work is actually a gift from God!

Work is given to us, as a way of providing not only for ourselves, but also for others.  For example Deuteronomy talks about leaving some of the harvest for the poor and needy.  We should view the money that we have, not just as ours to use as we wish, but to use for the good of others.  Problems arise, when the pursuit of money becomes our priority in life.  Jesus warned us that we cannot serve God and money.  We only need to look at the problems affecting the global economy to realise the dangers of unbridled greed.

We see the potentially corrupting nature of wealth in our story of Lazarus and the rich man.  The rich man in the story was clearly incredibly wealthy.  He wore the finest clothing, ate the best food, lived in a beautiful house, surrounded by many possessions.  But sitting outside the door of his house was Lazarus, in complete contrast to the rich man, Lazarus had nothing.  No fine clothes, just what he wore on his back, no food, but only that which he could beg or which he could scrounge of the streets, and no home.  No place of safety or refuge.  A stark contrast between the wealth of the rich man, and the poverty of Lazarus. 

But the rich man was clearly indifferent to Lazarus’ plight.  In fact he seems to have been blind to it.  Rather than sharing some of his wealth, the rich man kept it all for himself.  His love for money came first above all other things. 
How we handle our money, reveals much about our depth of commitment to Christ.  Godfrey Davis, who wrote a biography about the Duke of Wellington, said, "I found an old account ledger that showed how the Duke spent his money. It was a far better clue to what he thought was really important than the reading of his letters or speeches.

What about us?  When we make decisions, do we consider how they may affect others?  Do we use our wealth or the gifts we have been given for the benefit of others? If someone was to look at our account ledger, what would it say about us and our priorities?