Friday, July 26, 2019

Minutes that Matter: Tuesdays in July, 2019

This is the transcript for the fourth of my talks for RTHK Radio 4's Minutes that Matter programme on Tuesdays in July.

Talk Four: A Wild Olive Tree

Jesus was a Jew. He interpreted his life and ministry in the light of the Hebrew Scriptures. His mother and followers all believed that he came in fulfilment of promises made to the significant figures in Israel’s history. So important were his own people to him that Jesus made no attempt to reach out to anyone else. ‘He came only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ as he himself put it. All this should have made antisemitism inconceivable in the Church. As history shows us only too clearly however, it didn’t. So what went wrong?

The Church began as a grouping within Judaism. The apostles were all based in Jerusalem and continued to live as observant Jews, observing the Jewish times of prayer and going daily to the Temple to pray. The credit and the blame for the Church becoming more than a group within Judaism is given in equal measure to Saint Paul.

In popular histories of the Church, it is under the influence of St Paul that the Church reached out beyond the confines of Judaism and left behind its Jewish roots to become a universal faith and religion. There is no question that St Paul was an amazing evangelist for the Christian faith and no doubt either that he believed that the Gospel was not only for the Jews, but for the Gentiles also. St Paul, however, wouldn’t recognize himself from the descriptions of him and his teaching in many accounts of his life and theology.

Yes indeed, St Paul did believe the Gospel was for the Gentiles as well as the Jews, but as he himself puts it, it was for the Jews first. He was after all a devout, observant Jew himself. He describes himself in this way: ‘circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews’. And while he came to see his birth and upbringing in a new light when he became a follower of Christ, he didn’t stop being an observant Jew. He still understood both the Lord he followed and the Gospel message he preached in the light of the Hebrew Scriptures. He still went to the Temple when he was in Jerusalem and still believed that God’s promises to Israel stood. He says so explicitly in his most important letter to the Christians in Rome.

Ironically, it is also in his letter to the Romans that he has to combat an increasing tendency in the Church, a tendency which has now become the norm in the Church. As Gentiles came into the Church, and more and more of the Church’s members were ex-pagans rather than Jews, the Church became less and less Jewish in character. This led the non-Jewish majority in the Church to look down on the Jewish minority and take a superior attitude toward them.

St Paul is horrified at this attitude. Apart from the fact that such pride and arrogance should have no place in the Church whatever the reason, in this case it showed a complete lack of understanding of the Gospel itself and the role of the Jewish people. Describing the people of Israel as an ‘olive tree’ that the Gentiles have been grafted on to, he warns the Gentiles:

‘do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you.’ He continues: ‘So do not become proud but stand in awe.’

We do not know whether the Roman Christians listened to St Paul’s warning, what is certain is that, tragically, the Church historically did not. It was not long before the Jewish roots of the Church were all but forgotten and the two faiths that St Paul saw as belonging to the same root had parted ways. 

[Music: 
Gideon Klein, Duo pour violon and alto en 1/4 de ton: Andante]

The parting of the ways between Jew and Christian was to have tragic consequences. Doubtless there were faults on both sides; there always are. But, as the saying has it: ‘to the victor the spoils’. With the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Romans in the Jewish War of AD 66-70, Jewish Christianity was to lose all influence in the Church and, with the conversion of the Emperor Constantine, Christianity was to become the dominant force in the Empire and, with its dominance, the pride and arrogance that St Paul warned against was given free rein.

The Church of today can’t put the clock back – would that we could! We can, however, work hard to make sure that never again is antisemitism allowed a place in the Church and that the warning of St Paul, unheard in his own day is, at long last, heard in ours.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Minutes that Matter: Tuesdays in July, 2019

This is the transcript for the third of my talks for RTHK Radio 4's Minutes that Matter programme on Tuesdays in July.

Talk Three: Jesus the Jewish Rabbi

Christians will only be able to combat antisemitism both in the Church and the world if we better understand where we ourselves come from.  In my last talk at this time, I pointed to how our history as a Church begins with the promises of God to Abraham, promises which are repeated throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, culminating in the promise of a ‘son of David’, the great King of Israel.  Such an understanding may not prevent us falling into the sin of antisemitism, but it may at least make us pause for thought.

While we pause to contemplate where we have come from, we may also like to consider the example of the Lord we follow.  Nowadays, most of those of us who are Christians are Gentiles.  We are not Jews.  Most of the work we do as a Church is directed towards other Gentiles.  Jesus himself told his disciples to ‘go into all the world and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit’.  No matter what mistakes we may have made in the process, we have, as a Church, sought to do this.

In our attempts to bring people to believe in Christ, we have sought to make him as attractive to people as possible, and this has resulted in us leaving out those bits that we ourselves find unattractive or those bits that we think they will find unattractive.  So, for example, today we seek to show people how welcoming, inclusive, and forgiving Jesus was - which is true, he was - but we leave out the fact that he said that anyone who didn’t leave all that he had could not be one of his followers.

We also don’t tell them that he was a Jewish Rabbi who saw his ministry as being to the Jewish people in fulfilment of the Jewish Scriptures.  Instead, we make Jesus into a universal religious teacher whose teaching is for all people whatever their background.  This, apart from making Jesus’ teaching sound no more than pious platitudes of the kind that you might find in a self-help manual, also distorts who Jesus really was.

His mother pointed out that Jesus’ birth was in accordance with the promise made to her Jewish ancestors.  Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, the one who was to prepare the way for Jesus, was told that John would ‘turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God.’  Rather than being a teacher of universal truths, Jesus’ teaching can only be understood in relation to the Hebrew Scriptures.  Jesus sought to explain and interpret them.  This may at times have been in a radical and shocking way, but he would have nothing to do with any suggestion that he had come to get rid of the Hebrew Scriptures:

‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets;’ he said, ‘I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.’

When asked by a lawyer what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus replied that the lawyer must keep the ten commandments.  When asked what is the greatest commandment, Jesus recites the Shema, which was and is at the heart of Jewish prayer and worship.  Jesus dressed as an observant Jew, prayed as an observant Jew, and lived as an observant Jew.  He also avoided contact with Gentiles and confined his ministry to the historic boundaries of Israel.  For the avoidance of any doubt, on one occasion he specifically states: ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’

[Music:
Gideon Klein, Duo pour violon and alto en 1/4 de ton: Lento]

Clearly Jesus’ life and ministry was to have significance for other than his own people.  But that was to come later.  First, he came to his own. 

After his resurrection from the dead, Jesus says to his disciples:

‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’

As Christians this is where we need to begin. We will only understand Jesus’ teaching and significance when we understand not only who he was, but also the people to whom he came. When St John in the Book of Revelation has a vision of the exalted Jesus in heaven, he sees: 

'the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David’

This is not only who Jesus was; it is who he still is.

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Minutes that Matter: Tuesdays in July, 2019

This is the transcript to the second talk in my talks for RTHK Radio 4's Minutes that Matter programme on Tuesdays in July.

Talk Two: Beginnings

How can Christians respond to the rise of antisemitism that we are witnessing at the present time?  How can we avoid being complicit in it as, to our shame, we were during the dark days of the third Reich?  How are we to avoid a repeat of the Shoah, the Holocaust in which six million Jews were murdered in concentration camps such as Auschwitz, while many endured unbearable pain and suffering?

Others are more competent than I am to describe the causes and events that led to the Holocaust.  The Yad Vashem website has many helpful resources for any who wish to know more.  Hopefully though, as a Christian leader, I am in a position to talk about the history of Christianity, and at least to express an opinion on how we should react to antisemitism today.  In what follows, then, I speak unashamedly as a Christian.  I am not a Jew, and I realize that my Jewish friends will not agree with some of what I have to say.  What I hope is that they will be able to see that in speaking about my faith, I am not speaking against theirs.  And, from the outset, I wish to distance myself as far as possible from the attitudes towards Judaism that have characterized many Christians in the past.

Ask most Christians to give a potted history of Christianity and they will, as likely as not, begin with Jesus’ baptism and his ministry in Galilee.  This is not unreasonable.  It is how St Mark, the first to write an account of Jesus’ life, begins his Gospel.  Others will perhaps go back to the appearance of the Angel Gabriel to the Blessed Virgin Mary and to the announcement to her that she is to give birth.  Again, it is not an unreasonable place to begin.  However, it is the Blessed Virgin Mary herself who gives us a clue as to where we should begin.  In giving thanks to God for what has happened to her, she says:

‘He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.’

These words are part of what has become known as the Magnificat, a hymn which is said or sung in Church services all over the world as part of Christian daily worship.  We listen to many famous musical settings of it by the great composers here on Radio 4.  Of course, Christianity centres on Christ.  The clue is in the name.  But it doesn’t begin with Christ, at least not in the sense that this is normally understood.  Its specific earthly history at least begins with God’s promise to Abraham and with his dealings with Israel.

This, indeed, is how St Matthew explains it in his Gospel.  St Matthew’s opening words are: ‘An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.’  He identifies Jesus using a Jewish title that comes from the great King of Israel, David, and traces Jesus’ ancestry back to the father of the Jewish people, Abraham.

Once Summer is over, we will start to look forward to Christmas.  Christians believe that in the history of the Jewish people as recounted in the Hebrew Scriptures, there is a looking forward to the coming of Christ.  This is why readings from the Hebrew Scriptures feature so prominently both in the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ birth and in the services that will take place in a few months’ time.

[Music: 
Gideon Klein, Divertimento: Tempo di marcia]

The Christian name for the Hebrew Scriptures, the Tanakh, is the Old Testament.  Most Bibles are divided using this title.  Fair enough.  Christians believe that God did something new when Christ came.  But old can also be understood in the sense of being no longer relevant, out of date, or even wrong.  That is not how the first Christians thought of these writings.  These were their Scriptures, they were all Jews themselves after all.  They believed that what God was doing in their midst, through the person in whom they believed, could only be understood by studying and learning from these Scriptures.

Christians can only hope to understand their history by going back to where it all began in what we may call the Old Testament, but which remains strangely new and relevant to us today.

Monday, July 08, 2019

Minutes that Matter: Tuesdays in July, 2019

I am giving the talks for RTHK Radio 4's Minutes that Matter programme on Tuesdays in July.  This is the transcript of the first talk with a link to the audio on the RTHK website.

Talk One: Antisemitism

Recently, I had the very great privilege of being invited to attend a Seminar organized by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.  Yad Vashem is the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem whose mission is not only to inform people about what happened in those terrible days of the Third Reich in Germany, but also, through education and outreach, to help people learn the lessons of the Holocaust and to combat the rise of antisemitism today.  There were 30 of us there, Christian leaders from 13 different nationalities, with the majority from America.  We all shared a commitment to Christ and a desire to learn more about what had led people, brought up in a Christian culture, to take part in such an unprecedented programme of hate and mass murder.

We all felt deep shame at our part as Christians in the horrors that we were studying, moved both to tears and, hopefully, repentance.  We also felt, I think, a sense of responsibility to join with our Jewish brothers and sisters to work together to make sure that it could never happen again, while seeing with horror that antisemitism refuses to go away.  Sadly, there seems to be truth in the saying that ‘the only thing history seems to teach us, is that history doesn’t teach us anything’.

Since returning from Jerusalem, I have read headlines reporting acts of violence against Jews in America, Nazi swastikas painted on photographs of Holocaust survivors in Vienna, and the toleration of antisemitism in one of the two major British political parties in the UK – the country I come from.  And this is to give just three examples from many.

One of the observations that has been made of Jeremy Corbyn, the present leader of the political party in the UK that I have referred to, is, that when asked to condemn antisemitism, he always replies that he condemns antisemitism and all other forms of racism.  At first, this seems entirely reasonable.  Christians, in particular, should surely be against all forms of discrimination.  The problem is that this response, while it cannot be faulted for what it affirms, gives the impression that the person responding in this way wants not so much to condemn racism as to minimize the seriousness of antisemitism.  It is, after all, just one form of racism.  That may be unfair, and not what is intended, but it remains an impression, nevertheless.

Friends in the Church I have shared my experience in Jerusalem with, interestingly, have had a similar reaction when I have talked with them about antisemitism.  Their first reaction hasn’t been to share my repulsion towards this specific evil and join in condemning it, but to ask me how I feel about other evils.  Why won’t we face up to this evil I wonder?  Could it be that we still don’t see how evil it is?  Could it be that the seeds of antisemitism still remain planted in the soil not only of Christianity, but of the culture of our own times?

I would like to think not.  But, if we want to avoid an enemy planting them there once more, we, and again particularly those of us who are Christians, have to face up to the reality of antisemitism and of the Church’s responsibility historically for it.  Bishop Otto Dibelius, who became the President of the World Council of Churches after the war, said in 1928:

‘Despite the evil ring that the word has acquired in many cases, I have always considered myself an antisemite.  It cannot be denied that Judaism plays a leading role in all the corruptive phenomena of modern civilization.’

[Music:
Gideon Klein, Mouvements pour quatuor à cordes, Op. 2: Largo]

Bishop Dibelius was by no means alone in thinking this way.  Thankfully, I know no Church leader or Christian who would say that today.  But, to quote Martin Niemoller, another Church leader from those dark days:

‘First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out —
     Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out —
     Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out —
     Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.’

It is not enough for us to be against antisemitism, we need both to speak and act.


Sunday, April 21, 2019

I had the privilege of giving the 'Thought for the Week' on RTHK Radio 3 today.  This is a transcript of the talk with a link to the broadcast in the Radio 3 archive.

Thought for the Week: April 21, 2019

Easter Sunday

Today is Easter Sunday.  This is the highlight of the Church’s Year.  It is the day when Christians all around the world celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  It all began when, nearly 2,000 years ago, a group of women who had followed him went to the tomb where he had been buried after his crucifixion by the Roman authorities.  They found it empty.  One of them, Mary Magdalene, claimed that Jesus had appeared to her.

His closest male disciples also claimed that he had appeared to them and other appearances followed.  It wasn’t long before the disciples were telling everyone that Jesus was alive and people were believing them.  The fact that the authorities couldn’t produce his body, which would have shut everyone up, only gave added credence to the reports that he was alive.

The rest, as they say, is history and the Christian Church was to go on to greater and greater success, eventually becoming the dominant force in the growth and development of western civilization although its influence has been felt all over the world and the Church today is strong in both Africa and Asia.

It’s a great story of success and the Church is right to celebrate it.  It’s just the sort of story for this time of year as well when, in the northern hemisphere, we are enjoying the arrival of Spring and looking forward to Summer.  In my own Church today, the Church will be decorated with lots of flowers as we celebrate Jesus being alive.

So far, so good; and far be it for me to say anything to spoil it.  However, it’s one thing to celebrate Jesus being alive and another thing altogether to understand what it means.  And this is where even Christians have some difficulty.  In the Bible, Jesus’ resurrection is linked inseparably to his death, not in the obvious sense that you can’t come back from the dead unless you first die, but in the sense that his death was for a purpose: it achieved something, something more than someone dying for what they believed.

This may be why Christmas, for most people, is the more popular Christian festival.  What’s not to like about celebrating the birth of a baby?  We can all get our minds around this and get together because of it.  And this too may be why Christians prefer to focus on the events of Easter Sunday rather than the events of Good Friday.  My Church will be full today.  It wasn’t full on Friday.

This isn’t just because death is something that we don’t want to think about – although there is that in it – but because of the Bible’s unremitting message that the responsibility for Jesus’ death isn’t down to those like Pilate and the governing authorities who arranged it, but because of you and me.  How on earth can we be held responsible is the obvious question?  The answer lies in the earliest explanation of Jesus’ death given by his first followers.  Their message quite simply was that: ‘Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures’.  In other words, that Jesus’ death was an event designed and determined by God to bring forgiveness for sin: yours and mine.

The universal symbol of Christianity is a plain Cross.  Jesus may have died on the Cross, but the Cross is now empty.  Christ is alive!  At the front of my Church, however, is a large Crucifix – a wooden Cross with the figure of Christ nailed to it.  A reminder that there is no escaping the death of Christ as much as we might like to.  The Risen Christ who Christians celebrate today is the Christ who died for us and who now today invites us to find forgiveness through his death for us.

And that really is something worth celebrating.

Saturday, December 08, 2018

Minutes that Matter: November, 2018

Here is the final part of my series of talks for RTHK's 'Minutes that Matter' programme.  The link to the audio is at the end.

Talk Five: Teach it to your children

Jesus, when asked what was the greatest commandment, replied: ‘The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’  This would have come as no surprise to the person asking the question.  Jesus was quoting from the book of Deuteronomy in the Bible and it was also part of people’s daily prayers.  The Bible continues by commanding that we teach these words to our children.

The education of children is a major part of my life and the life of my Church.  If, however, I judge the success or otherwise of what we are doing by how much it fulfils the command of the Bible, then I am forced to admit that we are failing terribly.  Failing, not because we don’t care about children and their education, we do.  But failing because we have got the focus of our education all wrong.  For the Bible, the beginning and end of education should be no less than God himself.  If children leave school not having learnt about God and not having had the opportunity to enter a relationship with him in the person of Jesus Christ, then as Christians we have failed no matter how much else the child may have learnt.

Sherlock Holmes, in one story, tells Dr Watson that you can tell what an adult is like by looking at their children.  It is also true that you can see what parents most value in their lives by observing what they want for their children.  What we prioritize in the upbringing and education of our children shows what we prioritize in our own lives.  The children are a mirror that reflects what is important to us and what really matters to us.  If we prioritize social standing and material wealth that will be reflected in the choices we make for our children.  If we prioritize knowing God and his commandments that too will be reflected in the choices we make and how we bring them up.  This, as they say, is not rocket science.

Given how we relegate God to the side-lines of our lives or, more often than not, ignore him completely, it is comes as no surprise that God does not play a particularly central role in the education of our children and the choices we make for them.  We will normally begin choosing a school for them, for example, by examining the school’s academic performance rather than asking what it teaches about God.

In the same way that the Church is tailoring its message in an attempt to make it more relevant and acceptable to the society in which we live, so too we Christians are tailoring the education we give our children to be like the education on offer in the society around us.  There is very little real difference in the curriculum pursued in church schools and that followed in any other school that children may attend.

But if God really is the one ‘in whom we live and move and have our being’, any education that leaves God out of it cannot be called Christian education.  Nor is any education that relegates learning about God to a few lessons of RE and a religious assembly each week - with perhaps the observance of a few festivals thrown in for good measure.  If we take God seriously, if we want to love him with all our ‘heart, soul, mind, and strength’, then we will want our children to do so as well.  This will mean radically revising our curricula to make God their central concern.  It means moving God from the periphery of our children’s education to its centre. 

The author Yuval Noah Harari has written: ‘If this generation lacks a comprehensive view of the cosmos, the future of life will be decided at random.’  As the One who created the cosmos, it is only God who can give them the comprehensive view of life that they need.  I am not for one moment suggesting that children don’t need to learn to read, write, and add-up.  Nor that we should neglect teaching them about the world in which we live.  It is to suggest that, as we do so, we must do so as people who believe that as it was God who created the world, it can only be properly studied if we include him in the picture.

An old Catholic catechism asks the question: ‘Why did God make me?’  The answer it gives is: ‘God made me to know him, love him and serve him in this world, and to be happy with him for ever in the next.’ 

Knowing God should be central both to how we educate our children and to how, as adults, we live our lives.

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Minutes that Matter: November, 2018

The link to the audio is at the end of this transcript of my fourth talk for RTHK's 'Minutes that Matter' programme.

Talk Four: Only the few

The nice thing about being God is that you don’t need anyone to believe in you.  By virtue of being God, you don’t need anyone or anything to validate your existence.  That is, by definition, what it means to be God.  So when, for example, Moses asked the voice from the burning bush who he should say was sending him to tell Pharaoh to ‘let his people go’, the reply he got was to tell them, ‘I Am Who I Am’ had sent him.  God is - whether people believe in him or not.

God does not need us, but the opposite is true for us.  We do need God.  I don’t mean that we need him in an emotional sense as we might need someone to love or to love us, although that is true too.  No, we need God in the literal sense that our very existence depends on him as does the physical world in which we live.  As St Paul said, ‘in him we live and move and have our being’.  

It is this dependence on God for our very existence that makes the idea that we should keep faith and science separate from each other so funny and ridiculous at the same time.  There would be no science without God.  God not only thought of the world the scientist studies in the first place, he brought it into being and, what is more, he keeps it in being as he does the scientist who studies it - whether he or she realizes it or not.

The reason why the Gospel message is so amazing is that despite not needing us, and despite everything we have done as individuals and as a race to either annoy or ignore him, he hasn’t lost interest in us.  More than that, he continues to love us and to offer us the chance not only of forgiveness for the mess we have made both of ourselves and his creation, but of knowing him and entering a relationship with him.  A relationship not simply of a creature to their creator, but of a child to their father.  Sadly, all too many of us don’t think it is worth the effort, and choose a cosy agnosticism rather than seeking him.  This agnosticism is no more than atheism by another name.  It is a convenient reason to exclude God from our lives.

Christians can get very worried about this.  God may not need anyone to believe in him, but we do.  We seem to need people to believe in God if only to reassure ourselves that we are not mistaken in our faith or because we need the approval that comes through popularity.  It is this, in part, that explains the present desire of many Christians to be relevant even at the cost of changing their message.

Christians, however, have nothing to lose by being unpopular and in a minority and everything to gain.  Jesus’ brother, James, said that to be friends with the society around us is to be an 'enemy with God'.  Having God as our friend is surely worth a little unpopularity and rejection?  

St Paul reassured the Christians in Rome who seemed powerless and irrelevant compared to might and splendour of Rome with these words: ‘If God is for us, who is against us?  He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?’  He continues to tell them that a little suffering - and he himself suffered more than a little - is ultimately of no consequence.  ‘Nothing’, he says, ‘in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’.

It is, of course, sad that people don’t believe in God.  Sad that they prefer to worship the creature rather the Creator.  Sad that they prefer material wealth to spiritual riches.  Sad that they think themselves clever not believing in God when all it shows is their foolishness.  But it doesn’t change anything, God still is.

On one occasion, Jesus was asked whether only a few will be saved.  It can feel like that at times, especially in the society in which we find ourselves.  The temptation is to doubt or despair or to change our message to make it easier for people to believe so that we won’t be so few and alone.  However, in his most famous sermon, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned against such an approach:

‘Enter’, he said, ‘through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it.  For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.’

Believing in God may be hard in the age in which we live, yet God never said it would be easy.  But then, nothing worth having ever is.