Into the Neighbourhood

I post this, in part, by way of a thank you to my mother in law, 20 years down the line. 
It's an adaptation of something I wrote for the Methodist Newsletter for December and shared with our own congregation last Sunday as part of our Home Missions Service, but anyone who has been listening to me over the past 20 years or following this blog in more recent years, will have heard/seen bits of it before. I make no apology for that... It is too important to say once, and I will say it again...
Twenty years ago, when I was a mere ministerial student helping out at Sydenham Methodist, my mother in law gave me an early Christmas present that not only helped me in an emergency, but has also helped shape my ministry from that day. She had arrived on the Friday before Christmas, but early the following Sunday morning I got a phone call  saying that Brian Fletcher, the minister at the time, had taken ill and asking me to speak at the two services that day… Since I was only a student I didn’t have a huge back-catalogue of Christmas sermons to draw on and so had to think of something quickly. So I turned to my early Christmas present… a new translation of the New Testament entitled The Message, by an American theologian I’d never heard of before called Eugene Peterson… Actually I had first heard about it a couple of months previously when some of my Presbyterian contemporaries were dismissing it as a ‘paraphrase’ that was trying too hard to be trendy.
But for that morning service on the Sunday before Christmas I turned to my mother-in-law’s gift and to Peterson’s translation of the prologue to John’s Gospel. What I read there was certainly a fresh take on that familiar passage, although much of it didn’t have the gravitas and poetic beauty of the AVor even the NIV, routinely read in carol services each year, but when I got to verse 14 I found the text for my morning sermon and, arguably the strapline for my entire ministry since:
The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighbourhood.
John 1:14 (The Message)
I knew enough Greek to know that this was not a mere paraphrase, but as good a translation of this verse as I had ever read. It reminded me that the incarnation is a messy affair, involving flesh and blood expressions of the Good News of Christ, turning words into actions. Theology is, strictly speaking, the study of God words, but I believe that Christ’s incarnation means that any theology that isn’t ultimately practical theology isn’t deserving of the name of Christian theology at all.
It also reminded me that all expressions of faith must ultimately be local and personal. The text of the Gospel must take root in a particular context or neighbourhood.
Jesus said that the second greatest command is to love our neighbours, therefore, if we as Christians must love our neighbours, then we, as churches, should love our neighbourhoods.
I’ve been heavily involved in community development and community relations work, in different areas for most of my ministry… But I have been increasingly frustrated by the word community, which in its very origins hints at everyone in an area being the same… meaning that we can end up defining such communities in terms of who is NOT part of the community as much as who is… far better is the term neighbourhood… the place where people act as neighbours… loving one another as Christ has commanded us and as the Samaritan loved the man injured on the Jericho Road in Jesus' story to answer the question "Who is my neighbour?"
But we've got to move the action along from the Jericho Road in the 1st century AD to the Lisburn Road in the 21st century (or whatever the main road is in your neighbourhood). In my new church on the Lisburn Road in Belfast we have five wonderful new stained glass windows, depicting Hope, Healing, Love, Justice and Peace – all expressions of the good news of Christ and all reflected in the lectionary readings from Isaiah during Advent this year. But if they are only words on a page or images in a stained glass window then they will do little to reveal the word of God to a world that needs to hear it.
As part of the Hope and History campaign we have used those readings as the framework for an Advent Candle Liturgy and commission/benediction for congregations who are seeking to let the light of Christ shine through them and get involved in the messy business of putting flesh and blood on the word of God by loving their neighbourhoods. 
Please download them here, adapt them for use in your neighbourhood (or "neighborhood" for our American friends) and seek to live them out...


ps. I'll be posting each of the liturgies on the respective Sundays, with an additional short reflection, but I thought I would give you a heads up here first, incase you want to use them


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