Well I am so sorry to be so long absent. Thank you to those who have kept reading. By way of an apology and to get going again, I am publishing today the first in a series of four short talks I have just completed.
What has been going on lately? Well, I have been speaking on 1 Corithinas during Lent for our Lent Bible Studies. I will tell you more about this when I resume my series on present challenges in my ministry here in Christ Church in a few days time. We have also just had our Annual General Meeting.
I have been uncomfortable with Church AGMs ever since one in my previous Church went horribly and unpredictably wrong. Everything had been going smoothly and the year had gone well. One member took it upon himself to vent some personal prejudices in a way that was hurtful and destrutive to many who were present. We did our best to conatain the damge, but it left a bitter taste in everyone's mouth.
Our AGM last Sunday went well, but I still think that the more we make the Church seem like a secular organization in the way we do business, the more we will think and behave as if it is a secular organization. Please don't misundertsand me. I am sure there needs to be good practice and accountability. I just with we could behave more as if we were different. That we were perhaps the body of Christ.
I also intensely dislike democracy in the Church. There is a wonderful moment in the film, the Mission, when one of the Jesuit priests says to the character played by Jeremy Irons, 'Father, we have discussed the possibility and don't think we should do it.' The reply is, 'We are not a democracy, we are an order.' Democracy in the Church is wasting time, effort, and money and passing off the votes of men as the will of God. But it looks as if we are stuck with it!
Enough of my prejudices against democracy for now. Here is the first talk!
Talk One: Idolatry
One thing that most people know about the Apostle Paul is that he went on journeys. In the past, Paul’s missionary journeys used to be the staple diet of Sunday School children. I was reminded of this the other day when I came across a shop on the Peak here in Hong Kong selling a T-shirt with a map of Paul’s journeys printed on it! It was while on his second journey that he visited Athens. St Luke, who records these journeys, tells us that Paul was shocked by the idolatry he saw there. Of course, for the Athenians and for the ancient world in general, this was just a normal part of everyday life. Pagan temples were at the heart of city culture.
Paul as a good Jew, however, could only regard such worship as both dangerous and wrong. The first commandment that God gave Moses was, ‘You shall have no other gods before me’. And the second, ‘You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.’ The first Christians being Jewish, as Jesus was himself, were also firmly opposed to idolatry.
The problem was that as Jewish-Christians like Paul journeyed telling people about Christ they attracted converts who came, not from a Jewish background with its hatred of idolatry, but from a pagan background where idolatry was very much the thing. Paul and the other Christian teachers had to teach these converts not only to worship God in Christ, but also to abandon their idols. In one of his first letters to Christians in Thessalonica, not far from Athens, Paul writes of them that they had ‘turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.’
In his most famous letter, to the Christians at Rome, Paul elaborates on this theme and explains what the problem with idolatry is. Idolatry says Paul is what happens when people stop worshipping the living and true God. Evidence for the living and true God is to be seen everywhere in the world around us whether we look at it through the eyes of an artist and see its incredible beauty and majesty such as the beauty of a sunset or the majesty of the sea. Or whether we look at it through the eyes of a scientist and see its incredible complexity and design. You don’t need to be a brilliant scientist or theologian to be able to see that there is a God: commonsense should tell you. How could the universe just be?
In popular media, theists, that is those who believe in God, are often portrayed as gullible and naïve, people who have sacrificed their mind and intelligence because of their faith. The Bible tells us that it is, in fact, the other way round. We sacrificed our minds and intellect when we stopped believing in the living and true God. Our thinking became futile and our minds became darkened, says Paul. But we did not stop being spiritual beings when we stopped believing in the living and true God. Made in the image of God, who is himself spirit, we still needed, and need, something and someone to worship, to give our lives meaning, and to replace the God we have lost.
For the ancients, God was replaced with images of animals, of the creation itself, or even of other human beings. Not prepared to worship the Creator, we decided to worship what he had created instead. And the images multiplied. Today we may not worship the images of animals any more, but we still need something to worship and our hearts ache to find that something or someone to give our lives meaning. But as the Apostle Paul told people in his day, only the living and true God can do that.