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Sam Sheppard writes on Mark 8 & Identity.

I wonder if you’d agree with me that there’s something quite compelling about someones driving license.

Whenever someone gets there license out, there’s always a little crowd of people trying to see it, they get passed around quite a lot for people to see. People seem to be really interested in other peoples driving licenses.

More specifically I think its probably the picture people want to see.

How many people are embarrassed by the picture on their license or passport or whatever.

My driving license does prove on thing about me, it proves that I’ve looked thirty five since I was seventeen.

It also gives you a good idea of what I’d look like in a serial killer line-up.

The information on a driving license tells you about a person but it doesn’t really tell you about them.

My driving license can tell you that my name is Sam Sheppard. It can tell you that I was born on September the thirtieth Nineteen ninety two. It’ll tell you about me but none of those things really tell you anything.

We can take it a little further and give you more facts I could tell you my Fathers name is David Sheppard, my mother is Mary Foxwell. I was born in Chippenham. That I grew up in Kingswood. My heritage is Scottish and Irish.

I’m six feet and two inches tall, I have size eleven and a half feet.

It still doesn’t really tell you about me. Because these are my statistics, these are what I am. They don’t tell you who I am.

Thats because i am not the sum of my statistics. There’s something deeper, something more a divine spark that makes a person more than numbers. I’m pointing I think to something bigger that I’m calling identity.

Who a person is. Not what a person is, you can get that from a driving license. But who a person is their identity. What makes them them.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about identity and talking about it a lot this summer.

More specifically about Jesus’ identity. And I’ve been in Mark 8. In Mark 8 Jesus says to the disciples who do people say i am. They say some say John the baptist some say Elijah one of the prophets. Then Jesus says who do you say i am. And Peter says for the first time what they’d been thinking for a while.

“You are the Messiah”.

This is the first time the disciples articulate who Jesus is, but Jesus’ identity is made clear throughout scripture, he’s called Emmanuel God with us. I’m sure you’ve heard before about Jesus saying I Am, using the socially unspeakable name of God to refer to himself.

Son of Man, Prince of Peace, in Matthew 16 Peter even calls him “Christ, Son of the living God”.

He speaks and fulfils prophecy about the messiah left right and centre.

C.S.Lewis said “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said wouldn’t be a great moral teacher; he’d either be insane or else he’d be the devil of hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was and is the Son of God or else insane or something worse. But don’t let us come up with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He hasn’t left that open to us. He didn’t intend to.”

Jesus is the son of God, God incarnate that is his identity that is who he is.

And i’m telling you this because it has a huge bearing on your identity, but more than that it has a huge bearing on the identity of every human being.

Because when Jesus says I no longer call you servants but friends. That is God saying you are my friend.

When Jesus says he has a special place for you God says I have a special place for you.

When Jesus showed his love for you on that cross, God showed his love for you on that cross.

Your identity and the identity of every single human being is wrapped up in the identity of Jesus and his love for you.

That identity and the identity of every one else in the whole world is summed up for me in one sentence.

Child of God.

That is your identity and the identity of every other human being a child of God.

And you’re identity, and that of every single human being in the world is precious, unique, and utterly irreplaceable.

I listen to a lot of audiobooks i’m not the strongest reader so I listen to books in the gym. One of my favourites is a call to conscience. The landmark speeches of Martin Luther King.

Martin Luther King is one of the greatest people in human history a huge inspiration to me and many before me and I’m sure many after.

One of the things I find fascinating about Martin Luther King is his insistence on his citizenship. At the beginning of his speech at the montgomery bus boycott, he says we are here first and foremost because we are american citizens. His identity as an american citizen was important to him, he talks about America and his love for it passionately, refers to it as this great nation. His identity as an American citizen was a huge part of his campaign for civil rights.

Because I’m not an expert, or even really anything but it seems to me that in his campaign for civil rights he didn’t believe he was asking for something new, but rather he was asking, or demanding his rights as an american citizen, he was demanding what he was already entitled to as an american citizen, freedom and equality.

He believed those views were in-keeping not only with his religious beliefs but with his nations constitution.

He said that “If we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong.  If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong.  If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong. If we are wrong, Jesus of Nazareth was merely a utopian dreamer that never came down to earth. If we are wrong, justice is a lie.  Love has no meaning.”

Because of they’re identity as american citizens they had certain inalienable rights, a certain inherent value.

The civil rights movement in america is to me not just the story of an oppressed minority rising up, though it is that.

But its the story of people, and most of those people were Christians, standing up in Gods name and saying no to oppression and injustice, saying no prejudice and racism, saying human lives matter. Period, full stop. End of discussion human lives matter.

A mantra that has come to live in me, that God has placed somewhere deep in my heart encouraged and influenced by reading about people like Martin Luther King who took a stand for people.

I think stories like the one we heard from New Zealand a few months ago.

A New Zealand man drove to a mosque and fired indiscriminately at men women and children. He then drove to another mosque and opened fire again killing anyone he could see. 48 people were shot dead. And he live streamed it on facebook.

I’m sure you’re aware of this, it was in the news a lot.

It upset me but its not the thing that upset me most that weekend.

Because the truth is i’ve become quite cold to stories like this.

How many times have we woken up to news of mass shootings in america. How many terrorist attacks do we hear about every week.

No the thing that upset me most was after Church. I went to Broad Plain club like I do most weeks. Its a sort of gritty, dirty working mens club you know the sort of place.

When I first went in there it was as a sort of outreach, I was trying to connect with local people, the sort of local people that would never come to church. But over the last two years i’ve become fond of them, I have mates there, I quite like going in.

That weekend people were talking about it and I man i’d known for a year and a half, someone I get on with someone I would call a mate said about the shooter.

“I admire him for what he done.”

But before you dismiss that man as a monster I want to tell you he’s not a monster. He’s a good guy. I like him. He’s kind, he’s generous, he’s a loving partner and father. A hard worker. In fact I don’t know anyone who doesn’t think he’s an all round top bloke.

Because to label him a monster would be far to easy.

The truth is that sentiment is widespread.

And I want to tell you that that man, my mate, would consider himself Church of England. He considers this to be a Christian country. He never comes to Church, perhaps most of us wouldn’t consider him a Christian but he considers himself one. Christian on my estate is basically code for not a muslim.

Racism and prejudice are widespread in this country, I read an article on BBC news that said experts believe all the components that led to the New Zealand attack are present in this country.

There are Muslim people who are afraid right now, people who haven’t done anything to hurt anyone who are afraid of being attacked in the street.

I want to say today that it is never okay, whatever you think of someones beliefs, whatever you think of someones lifestyle, it is never okay as a Christian to treat anyone with anything short of love dignity and respect.

I believe that our Christian faith compels us to fight against prejudice, to fight for the rights of those who would never agree with us, to fight for the rights and the safety of all human beings because that identity that you have as a child of God, beloved and unique, utterly irreplaceable. That identity is also in every single human being, every single human being. No exceptions.

Every human being is made in the image of God, every human being is loved unconditionally by God and God stands against oppression and prejudice wherever it is found because all people have a claim to that identity as children of God.

Andrew Ollerton author and presenter of the bible course said wherever there is oppression the God of Exodus roars let my people go.

It is because of his identity as God that all people have the identity child of God whether they believe in him or not.

And just like Martin Luther King believed that they’re identity as american citizens entitled them to certain rights so does everybody’s identity as a child of God entitle them to certain rights.

I am so convicted of this fact that I would paraphrase Martin Luther King If i am wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong.  If I am wrong, the Constitution of Great Britain is wrong.  If I am wrong, God Almighty is wrong. If I am wrong, Jesus of Nazareth was merely a utopian dreamer that never came down to earth. If I am wrong, justice is a lie.  Love has no meaning.”

People matter. I was asked here today to talk about mission. And I suppose you could argue that I haven’t done that. And if that’s what you think i’m okay with that.

Because I knew I was asked here to talk about mission but I also knew I was going first.

And I knew there’d be people after me who’d say all I could say about mission, and I’m sure Jackie can do it better.

So today I wanted to say something else. I wanted to set a pace. To set a tone.

As we go on to talk about mission and outreach, I wanted to set a tone by saying why we do mission and outreach.

I believe that mission is important because people matter.

Because people matter.

At St Barnabas we do a lot of stuff, we’re a busy church, we’re a growing community.

And if you were to ask me why we do what we do at St Barnabas that is what I would say.

Because people matter.

And if you were to ask me why mission and outreach matter, thats what I’d say. Because people matter.

People matter.

Glorious messy catastrophic people. Every single one of them. No matter what, no exceptions, whether you agree with them or not. Whether they ever come to church or not. They matter.

They are children of God whether they believe in him or not and they matter.

When you meet a person they’re identity, who they are is wrapped up in who God is. So treat them accordingly. Treat people like children of God wherever they come from, whatever they look like.

Whatever they believe. Because that person is a child of God and they matter.

Because I don’t believe the world is changed in parliament. I don’t believe that the world is changed by politics, I believe that you have the power to change the world. The world changes in our homes and in our streets, the world changes by regular people standing up and saying no to hatred and prejudice and yes to love.

I believe our Christian faith compels us to say yes to love.

To treat people with love and respect, not to be silent when we here people say hateful things.

I believe our Christian faith compels us to defend the rights of all of Gods children, to stand for equality, to stand for justice, to stand for freedom, to stand, above all else, for people.

I believe we can make a better world, I believe that we can end prejudice, that we can end inequality, that we can end terrorism.

But I do not believe that that end will come in parliament, I believe it will come from you. Living out your faith with every human being you meet and by the way you treat people showing the world that whoever you are you have rights, you matter your life is significant, you are a child of God and he loves you.

By showing the world in the way you live your live that whoever you are you matter. Whoever you are you’re important.

I want to say one more thing.

Segregation in America didn’t end because of government, it didn’t end because of programs. It didn’t end because of organisations. It didn’t end because of day conferences.

it ended because ordinary Christians were brave enough to love.

And that’s what this comes down to.

Be brave enough to love.

Its scary as hell but I believe in you. I know you can do it.

Be brave enough to love.

End prejudice with love. Stand for equality, stand for justice, stand for freedom, stand for people.

Be brave enough to love.

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Reflection from the School of Mission Launch.

I’ve been touched by the people who’ve sent messages asking about how our launch event for the school of Mission went on Saturday.

Actually I think God was very gracious with a really blessed time but what probably scared me the most about Saturday is that it was a dream in my head and heart now becoming a reality which is both exciting but scary. The dream that “one day I might…” is an exciting but comfortable fantasy the reality wakes me up at night sweating!

The dream seems crazy when I write it to see every Christian in the UK comfortable and Confident to share their faith with wisdom and sensitivity both to the person/context and to the prompting of the Holy Spirit.

Self doubt creeps in and my answers of loving and praying together to seek God for your context seem “not enough” I need a clever message, a PowerPoint (or at least a flip chart) be selling a “how to” book that is thicker than a telephone directory. Yet friendship, love, prayers and my own bumbling journey with bruises and graised knees seem not enough, but it is all I’ve got.

As I embark on this launch -and the subsequent journey from Cornwall to Carlisle- I feel like Naaman as he was told to wash in the filthy river Jordan (rather than do something difficult, complex and dangerous) -he had to loose his pride, ego and humbly surrender to the downward mobility of a God who is strong when we are weak. Facing the unknown with the simple belief that love and seeking a Missional God who speaks (and loves) is all we need feels like David standing before Golliath with 5 small stones.

Anyway, back to the launch Saturday -or rather a few months before this when the idea that had been conceived many years before began the gestation period, the embryo began to take form, flesh and grow.

I remember thinking where to launch this and Bristol felt right as I’ve spent the last 8 years crying out to God for this city it had to be there.

I also knew some great Bristolians that are deeply committed to the city they know and love and are seeking to see “the Kingdom come here on earth -in Bristol/Knowel west/Hartcliffe/Hanham as it is in heaven”.

When thinking about the context of ministry we need those who live it and breath it, what the African Christians refer to as “someone who knows where the shoes pinch” but we also often need a friend from outside “who can see where the roof is leaking” -the fresh eyes see what we on the inside are oblivious too, our blindspots. Yet, who to ask for this role?

Who to have as a keynote speaker? My first choice was a lady called Jackie Leswell who I’d worked with projects such as Town Pastors and the Poole Youth conversation, one of the wisest /Godliest ministers I know. Yet she had just moved to Norfolk, she’s not going to travel 5 hours to help me out, would she? Indeed because of this I nearly didn’t ask her! Yet, so glad I did as she brought such gentle prophetic wisdom to the people that day. I was reminded of a phrase Bishop Lee (Bishop of Swindon) once said: “don’t say someone else’s ‘no’ for them!”.

The day came, and the day opened with some beautiful worship led by my friend Wes, and then Sam, my former intern a 26 year old Anglican ‘Priest’ from Knowel West gave a word. A passionate plea for us to be embedded in our communities, to realise not only how much God loves us but those we are speaking to, to have/be theologically robust enough to keep on loving people even when one of his friends from the working man’s club said: “I admire what he did” when referring to the far right murderer if Muslim worshippers in Christ Church (New Zealand) and not to take the lazy/easy option of simply labelling people as “monsters”.

A challenging word, I smiled as one of our accountability group, Chris Harwood, would have given a similar message if he had been there.

I also felt pride in Sam, as I remembered the 19 year old I first met 7 or so years ago, and the privilege it is seeing him grow into this amazing man of God, I look across at Regan another guy I walked with in a mentoring relationship and again felt proud, I may have left the city but there is something wonderful about playing a part (even in a small way) in helping to rise up this new generation of leaders.

This is idea was something we reflected on afterwards, as felt from conversations afterwards about this need for Missional Mentoring of people, and explored how often our leadership in Churches often is more “cork” than “catalyst” and how the Kingdom is about enabling people to thrive in who they are and what God has called them to do.

Wes played the song which featured the line “Lord, break my heart for what breaks yours”. -Which was part of Sam’s call.

Jackie spoke next about “uncovering wells” I think this is probably a blog on it’s own really but the idea of realising that which God has put within you and maybe we need to discover/rediscover/resurrect this. The image (which appeared later too with my friend Mark) was of an artisan well which is more like a fountain or spring coming from that deep place and bringing life.

She called us to think about mission as a way of life lived out in everything we do, say and how we pray, “where is our field” where has God placed us?

After Jackie’s talk we had the awesome privilege of anointing everyone who came and praying for them, which was amazing and there were many prophetic words -including one gentleman who was reminded of a word that had been given to him 25 years ago.

In the afternoon, my friend Tom did an advert for CVM (blokes ministry) and this was fantastic. Tom had not spoken much before in Church and it was great to give him an opportunity as he is stepping into this new role as regional co-ordinator for Bristol, and in many ways was a living embodiment of what he was praying for.

We asked Jackie to pray for him, and this was a profound moment as we were celebrating the vital role women play in leadership of our Churches and also our need to think afresh of how we meaningfully engage with guys with the message of Jesus.

After this my friend Regan gave his testimony, which was incredibly moving, and is a great reminder that it is God who is the primary agent in mission, but we get to participate within it -and there were great examples of where God worked through his people to see Regan become the man of God he is now.

After this I shared a little of the vision of the School of Mission and our desire to travel from Cornwall to Carlisle over the summer, offering people the opportunity to join me in this journey and adventure, and join us as we seek to be a blessing to encourage mission and discipleship.

I shared the picture from my previous parish about the need to “encourage missional DNA” and to help build “good incubators”, and challenged us to think about our “words, works and the wonders God can do through us” -living for God’s glory every day in what we say, do and how we pray.

Mark and Jackie closed with some powerful declarations of truth, praying blessing over us all and upon our city and ending with worship.

It was a wonderful day and really grateful to God for his faithfulness, but the challenge moves from having done a successful event to being part of a Kingdom movement, to catch the wind/wave of God’s spirit and to ride it to the shore.
I’ll end with an idea Jackie shared about us living in the 29th chapter of Acts (it finishes in chapter 28) this is our time, story and call responding to the greater story, call, plans and purposes of God who seeks to work in partnership with us.

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The Decimated Cathedral.

As I blog about Notre Dame I feel a bit like I’m jumping on the bandwagon with people saying “how much?” -noting that the money could feed, clothe, educate and provide clean drinking water for millions of people.

I often find it ironic that the followers of a nomadic rabbi who had “no where to lay his head” have erected immoveable, grand mausoleums in stone.

Jesus whose only item of worth is was the cloak that was mockingly placed on his shoulders by jeering guards for which the soldiers rolled dice for.

Jesus cares more about the hungry, thirsty, homeless, lonely, cold, frightened, disposed, marginalised, disenfranchised and ostracised. The man who lived on the margins glorified by religious castles of imperialism.

Also doing the rounds on Facebook are the ‘green memes’ with pictures of our destructions of wonderful habitats asking: “What about these ‘Cathedrals?’” -these places of natural-beauty that declare the glory of God?

Which begs the question why we care about our history rather than the future of our planet?

The ancient vast cathedrals were built as an act of worship to celebrate the wonder and the vastness of God, yet God has already done this with the wonder of his world “that mankind is without excuse”, and we know that “the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands” (Acts 7:48) but inhabits all of creation and is uncontainable in his splendour and glory.

I have worked in several Churches over the last 20 years, a couple of which were genuinely architecturally beautiful -and also places that have some of my precious memories for held there too, but aesthetics and nostalgia should not stand in the way with the plans and purposes of God.

I wonder if at times our buildings have become idols? Even with the newer churches that have been birthed creatively in wonderful indigenous locations seem to have an abnormal hankering for their own building -Interestingly Hillsongs one of the largest Churches in the UK has chosen not to own any buildings because they believe it would hamper what they feel called to do! Churches are often undertaking expensive building projects, and so much of our thinking is building centric. Ironically many Churches remove pews only to replace them with chairs which are barely ever moved!

Churchill said: “we shape our buildings and then our buildings shape us!”

For some the building and God become synonymous in people’s minds; even the disciples were praising the temple in the presence of Jesus and he reminds them that was ultimately matters is not the temporary bricks and mortar of a building (as if God lives in buildings built by men?) but rather the death and resurrection of Jesus which is soon about to occur (Mark 13).

We have forgotten why we exist! I preached a Christmas day sermon using the example of how my baby daughter was more interested in the wrapping paper than the present, which has become the mindset of many in our nation. We glorify something that is simply a tool of the gospel and the Kingdom.

I worry that for some the allegiance to a building and perhaps a small group of insiders has surpassed their allegiance to the crucified and risen Christ?

Whilst I worked in my last parish people spoke of my role to “bring people into Church” -meaning the building (and the type of service that they themselves liked!). Yet, if the point was to ‘fill the Church’ then if we dish out free beer and burgers then we could pack the place out, but instead of being ‘in Church’ we called to be ‘in Christ’; engaging in the bigger call of seeing ordinary people encountering the extraordinary living God and being supported by the Christian community.

The Church as described in scripture is not the building but rather the people. The phrase “going to Church” is an oxymoron because we ARE the Church, we are called to BE the Church, the body and bride of Christ -his hands and his feet- living under his Lordship as the head of the body.

This confusion caught St. Francis of Assisi who had a vision of Christ at San Damiano telling him to “rebuild his Church” and started to repair the walls before realising that the call was to make disciples. Perhaps, the burning cathedral is a call not to restore a building but to realise that the body and bride of Christ is sick and suffering in Europe, which has become the darkest continent, and France was of the most secular and religiously intolerant of nations. The call is not to repair building but transform lives, speaking the truth in love, bringing hope and living out ‘salt and light’ existences under-pinned by prayer.

So, as we mourn the tragedy of a grand building in need of renovation perhaps we need to allow our hearts to be broken over those who do not know Jesus, those who go to bed hungry, those who do not believe they are loved or valuable and are desperately lonely or those with material wealth but spiritual poverty.
Yet, this is not just a call to re-see things, but a call to action, grasping the priority of partnering with Christ who promises that he will build his Church and even the gates of hell will not prevail against us.

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A meal of solidarity with the oppressed.

I had a coffee with a Jewish lady who does a similar work to me going into schools to talk about her faith. We were talking about Passover wondering if we could do a combined lesson around the Jewish Passover and Christian Eucharist. She spoke of the part of Passover where they retell the story of God’s rescue from Egypt and then shared about a Passover meal with a holocaust survivor who continued the Exodus account with their experience in Nazi Germany.

Lynda -the lady I was chatting too, spoke of how Passover is a time when the Jews stand with solidarity with all oppressed people, and their story reminds them to remember others. Yet, this is rarely how we think of our Communion meal as standing in solidarity with the oppressed and partnering with the God of liberation (as Moses did) and seeing Jesus as the ultimate liberator and rescuer. The crucifixion shows the barbaric torture and murder of a prisoner of conscience. We remember our oneness as the body of Christ across the world and throughout time and history and many of our brothers and sisters suffer horrifically for their faith.

I wonder do we spiritualize memories to make them purely about ‘life beyond the grave’ rather than allow ourselves to be caught up in a story that is deeply and challenging and uncomfortable?

Do we rush to the resurrection to make it a happy ending and try to ignore the wounds in the hands, head, feet and side of Christ preserved forever in all eternity?

As someone who has been hugely influenced by the work of liberation theology within the Christian tradition, this was a reminder that this was not an invention of a new theology but rather a rediscovery of truths that are dominant in scripture -just often overlooked- right from the beginning of the scriptural narrative. A reminder that scripture speaks into this life as well as into the age to come.

On her worktop were coconut pyramids which is another popular tradition in Jewish homes for Passover season, and I thought for a moment about all those in forced and exploitative labour, modern day slavery, which is happening unseen (or perhaps unacknowledged) all around us; statistically something you are wearing at the moment statistically could have been made by slaves, or at least by someone who is not receiving a ‘fair days pay for a fair days work’.

As I thought of the story of Moses speaking truth repeatedly to power with clear demands to end this barbaric and exploitative practice of slavery and to free God’s people which fell on the deaf ears of Pharaoh; I thought of the Clapham Sect with William Wilberforce (a Christian) placing motion upon before Parliament (which were repeatedly and shamefully rejected) for the whole of his parliamentary career before finally seeing slavery abolished.
As I thought about nineteenth century abolitionist Wilberforce I was reminded of the call for a new 21st Century generation of abolitionists rests with our generation -true slavery looks different now in a globalised world- but we are not without power, influence or opportunity to change and transform this world. The call to be salt and light has not diminished over the past 2000 years.

The problem is not that people think slavery is a good thing, but rather we feel powerless to stop it, we don’t know what is produced fairly or not and buying ethically is often more expensive (we often buy second hand which although the garment may have originally been produced unfairly it is given a second life and the money goes into the hands of charities rather than exploiters). Yet, I believe we fall for the myth of all established sin (such as apartheid in South Africa) is it looks so entrenched that people cannot imagine a world that looks differently nor a path to walk on to get there. True, the path will be steep and costly, but ultimately when we side ourselves on the marginalised we discover we have sided ourselves with almighty God, and with God no one is in the minority -despite how it feels.

So, as we think of our story lets not gloss over the uncomfortable, painful and difficult bits but rather to spur us into action of solidarity and liberation. I’ll close with a quote from Bonhoeffer:

“We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”

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