What I Shared in Oxford: Worship That Destroys (and Saves) the World

What a privilege to be part of the Festival of Preaching at Oxford this week. I was blessed and inspired by my fellow presenters, and learned so much from the participants I got to meet at mealtimes or walking from place to place. Such an impressive group of people. Thanks to Christine Smith for her excellent planning and hospitality.


Here are the slides from my presentation:

worship that destroys:saves


And here is the text of my sermon at the closing eucharist:


Oxford, Christ Church

Brian D. McLaren

10 September 2019



Fullness of Life in Christ

6 As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, 7 rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.

8 See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe,[c] and not according to Christ. 9 For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10 and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority. 11 In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision,[d] by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; 12 when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. 13 And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God[e] made you[f] alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, 14 erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed[g] the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.

Jesus Chooses the Twelve Apostles

12 Now during those days he went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God. 13 And when day came, he called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles: 14 Simon, whom he named Peter, and his brother Andrew, and James, and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, 15 and Matthew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Simon, who was called the Zealot, 16 and Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.

Jesus Teaches and Heals

17 He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. 18 They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. 19 And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.


Our Christian religion, it seems to me, operates on two different tracks or paths.

I would like to propose that these two paths are diverging, requiring you to make a choice, and I would urge you to choose the less-travelled path.

On one Christian path, the wider and more well-traveled path in my observation, Jesus did some great things—so that we will never have to. Whereas Jesus served, suffered, and died, we get to be happy, forgiven, and blessed, and then go to heaven where we will, basically, eat cake forever.

In this approach, there is a radical discontinuity between Jesus and us. We praise him, we honor him, we believe in him, we love him, and we maximize how great the gap is between him and us. He’s way way up there – and we’re way way down here – and we like that arrangement very much, because if we’re good in believing the right things or behaving the right way, he will bring us way way up there with him someday, and the cake will be sweet.

On the other path, the less-traveled track, Jesus did some wonderful, amazing, and difficult things so that we will join him and do those wonderful, amazing, difficult things as well.

He sought first God’s kingdom and justice, and so do we.

He challenged conventions and traditions, and so do we.

He cared for the sick and provided free education for the poor, and so do we.

He challenged hypocrites and exposed the schemes of the powerful elites, and so do we.

He welcomed in outsiders and ate with outcasts, and so do we.

When he saw suffering, sadness, broken hearts, and injustice, he moved toward the pain with hope and healing and wisdom, and so do we.

He addressed the realities of poverty and oppression and taught the people how to maintain hope and be protagonists in their own liberation, and so do we …

and he developed leaders and sent them out to do the same: and so do we.

We see Jesus’ strategy in Luke’s gospel. He calls 12 in and names them disciples, or students of his teaching. But he also names them apostles, or messengers to be sent out to carry that teaching.

In other words, his goal is not to create happy consumers of his sermons who will keep coming back for more, offerings in hand. No: His goal is to create students of his teaching who will become both doers of his teaching and teachers of his teaching. His goal is to launch a movement of spiritual activists to change humanity, or better said, to save humanity from its own suicidal tendencies.

His goal is not to be the greatest – on a completely different level from his followers, but rather, as he says later in Luke 6, his goal is for his disciples to become like their teacher. Even more surprising, in John 14, he dreams of his disciples doing even greater things than he did.

We see this radical continuity expressed in the very geography of the story in Luke. Jesus goes up to the mountains and calls his disciples to be up there with him. But then he descends, and they descend with him, to a level place … where they are on the same level with everyone else in their sickness and trouble and power deficit. Unlike so many leaders, he doesn’t suck power out of the people to inflate his own power. Instead, power flows out of him and into the people, bringing them healing and empowerment

In the first approach, the wider, well-traveled path, Jesus is the hero and we are the admirers, and there is a radical discontinuity between us. In this second, less-traveled approach, Jesus is the mentor and we are the apprentices, and there is radical continuity between Jesus and us. In fact, I would propose that this is the essence of discipleship: that we disciples become like our teacher, so much so that we can live as his ongoing embodiment, continuing his work in the hot mess of our world.

I often think we would be better off translating Paul’s beautiful phrase “the body of Christ” as “the embodiment of Christ,” and to be “in Christ” is to be participants in his continuing embodiment. In this light, the eucharist takes on new significance: the body and blood that were separated at Jesus’ death are reunited in us, so Christ is resurrected or reconstituted in us. By taking in the body and blood of Christ, we become what we consume. The eucharist seen in this way is a sacrament of radical continuity with Jesus, a surrendering of our bodies as living sacrifices so that, like Mary, we become pregnant with Jesus, so Christ lives in us and grows in us, being born through us into the crazy world of 2019 and beyond.

Let that sink in for a moment, my fellow preachers. Our goal is not merely to get people to listen to us and learn from us. Our goal is for them to become what we are, part of what C. S. Lewis called the good contagion, so they catch an incurable and contagious case of Christ and spread it to others.

With that understanding in mind, the Pauline words of Colossians 2 become positively incandescent. Christ is embodied in us, and we are in Christ’s continuing embodiment, so Paul says,

As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.

Ah, but therein lies the rub. If we present our bodies as living sacrifices, if we allow our bodies to be carriers of the good contagion, if we let our lives be swept up into the ongoing story of Jesus still working and preaching in our world, we will find ourselves in the same trouble and tension Jesus did, which means danger and conflict, drama and risk.

Because to be in Christ, inhabiting his life story, and to have Christ in us, inhabiting our life story, is to join Jesus in confronting the shallow, empty philosophies of this world, including militarism, nationalism, capitalism, consumerism, hedonism, narcissism, and racism. These philosophies, the text says, are traditional to this world and in fit in perfectly with this world’s rulers and authorities. Those who make a living and a killing through these empty philosophies will not say thank you when you point out their emptiness.

So as you prepare for this Sunday, and the Sunday after, and the Sunday after … I hope you will not feel pressure to preach like someone you have heard at this conference, but will instead feel freedom to preach in your own true voice.

And I hope you can think a little less about perfecting your sermon to avoid a barrage of angry emails or satisfy that inner homiletics professor perched on your shoulder ready to pounce on any mistake.

Instead, I hope you can think a little more about what kind of sermon your are creating … a sermon that distances us from Jesus by putting him in a category far, far away … or a sermon that plunges us or baptizes us or abducts us into the story of Jesus, so that Christ runs through our bloodstream and brainwaves … a sermon that puts us into radical continuity with Jesus, a sermon that exposes us to the good contagion and invites us into trouble and tension, danger and conflict, drama and risk.

Because the house is on fire and Jesus is rushing in to save it, and he invites you to join him with your own true voice.