Wednesday, June 27, 2007
Today I celebrate twenty-five years as a priest. While, sadly, I am not exactly doing anything to celebrate, I am publishing today the text of the sermon I intend to preach on Sunday to mark the occasion. Readers of this blog, epsecially new ones, may like to read it in the context of the Personal Journey Series.
Disappointed: A Retrospective Twenty-five Years On
Twenty-six years ago this week, I was ordained a deacon in the Church of England. A year later, twenty-five years ago, on June 27, I was ordained a priest in the Cathedral Church of Jesus Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary in Chester. It is customary to celebrate becoming a priest rather than becoming a deacon, and so today, on the nearest Sunday, I celebrate 25 years as priest.
Since ordination, I have served a curacy in an urban setting on Merseyside in the north of England; I have worked as Chaplain and Tutor in Religious Studies at a secular college in the south of England; and as the Rector of two churches in a semi-rural and rural setting in the north of Scotland. And, of course, for the past seven years, I have had the privilege of being the Vicar of Christ Church, here in Hong Kong.
Twenty-five years is a milestone of sorts, and I have recently been reflecting on my ministry: what I have learnt and what has changed, both in my own perceptions, attitudes, and beliefs and in the Church and the world around me. I hope today you will allow me, for the sermon, to reflect a little bit on how I feel. There’s not enough time to say all I would like to say so what follows will, inevitably, be highly selective and runs the risk of being misleading because of that. For a fuller reflection, I must ask you to look elsewhere! Having issued this disclaimer, let me begin.
I have been thinking about this sermon for some while and about what word or phrase would best describe my feelings as I look back. I am both surprised and saddened that the word I keep coming back to is ‘disappointed’. Now let me say again that there is much more that I would want to say. I am, for example, genuinely grateful to all who have supported me both in the years leading up to ordination and in ministry since. I am today especially grateful to those who believed in me when I first told them I felt called to the ministry. This for me was around the age of 13. I give thanks to God for those who were prepared to stick by me and give me the help and encouragement I needed.
It was 1974 when, at the age of 19, I went to theological college to study for my first degree in theology. It was with tremendous optimism that I embarked on this adventure. Winnie will tell you that, while not a thoroughgoing pessimist, I am not by nature optimistic. I was, however, part of a group of people who really believed that God was wanting to do something new in the Church and the world and that he was calling us to be part of it.
I had been much affected by the Charismatic Movement and what were described at the time as the House Churches. Although people had turned from God and, as a result, the Church was witnessing sharp decline, we believed all this was about to change. God was going to renew his Church and bring many back to Him. Yes, there was much that was wrong, but through the power of the Holy Spirit it could be different.
‘For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery’. (Galatians 5:1) The opening of our second reading for this morning.
This was a verse that resonated with us in those days. In the UK, as in many parts of the world, society was witnessing massive social change. The word freedom seemed to catch the mood. Politically, countries sought freedom from their colonial past, from apartheid, or Stalinist domination. Economically, people wanted freedom from capitalist oppression or Marxist failure, depending on your political bent. Socially, people wanted freedom from what they regarded as the oppressive institutions of the past. Sexually, women demanded freedom from patriarchy and the chance to be treated equally; homosexuals hadn’t become gay yet and campaigned for freedom from bigotry; men and women of all sexual orientations struggled for freedom from traditional forms of morality. Popular culture was all about obtaining freedom from old-fashioned standards of right and wrong.
We wanted freedom, too. We believed that freedom could only be found in Christ. The Church had lost that freedom and needed to rediscover it. Freedom from church tradition that was no longer relevant to a changing world. Freedom to worship and serve God in the new life of the Spirit. Freedom from all that oppresses and enslaves us. It was a very exciting time. A time when it seemed renewal and change were possible. A chance for a renewed Church to proclaim the Gospel to a fast-changing world.
What went wrong? Well, my charismatic friends probably wouldn’t agree with me, but the promised renewal just did not happen and the Charismatic Movement itself became introspective and focused on superficial experiences. Individuals were often affected positively by it, but the Church on the whole was not.
The low point for me in all this came many years later with the so-called Toronto Blessing, named after a Church in Toronto where it was first experienced. People received the ‘blessing’ at meetings where they passed out and had a variety of experiences, including hysterical laughter and making animal noises such as barking like a dog. In 1974, there was quite a lot of opposition to the Church. It was something that people rebelled against. By 1994, when the Toronto Blessing first came on the scene, those outside the Church had largely lost interest in anything to do with the Church. Is it any wonder? Others will disagree with me, but I regard this as the point at which the Charismatic Movement ceased to have anything positive to offer the Church.
It’s a shame because the traditional Churches did need spiritual renewal if they were to meet the challenge of the age. Instead, the traditional Churches, despite all their rhetoric to the contrary, turned in on themselves too and concentrated on political and liturgical reform. Instead of working out how we could win a lost world for Christ, we spent countless hours on internal discussions and disputes. I dread to think how much of my own ministry has been spent discussing which particular liturgy we should or should not use. We talked a lot about mission, and how we talked, but how little we actually engaged in it. I am not sure we even know what it is any more.
So now, after 25 years as a priest, the Church I was ordained in is tearing itself to bits, not over its doctrine of God, or its understanding of the person of Christ, or over the question of how a person receives salvation – disputes from the past – but over sex. While the Charismatics have been lying on the floor unconscious and while the liberals and traditionalists have been arguing over whether being gay prevents you from being a priest, the world has just moved on. The world doesn’t bother us very much, because there is not much to be bothered about.
Intellectually in the universities, in the media, and in popular culture in general, Christianity is simply irrelevant. There are places in the world where the Church can still make a political impression, but in the world of ideas, the Christian faith is not seen as having anything meaningful to contribute. Christianity is meaningless to the vast majority of people.
Instead of Christianity influencing the way people think in the world, within the Church itself many Christians have simply adopted the values and ideas of the world around them. Let me, very briefly, give as examples three areas where I think this especially true:
1. Atheism: While most people are not strictly atheists, Richard Dawkins, notwithstanding, they may as well be for all the difference God makes to them. Just as God has become largely irrelevant to the lives of many people outside the Church, so too he has become irrelevant to the lives of many people inside the Church. It’s not that people do not believe in God and not that they don’t value their time spent in Church, they do. It’s just that they are not particularly interested in God the rest of the time. Many Christians are practical atheists, their belief in God is merely a theoretical one: intellectually they believe there probably is a God, but practically this belief has very little affect on how they live their life and the decisions they make concerning it.
2. Consumerism: As communism has died as a force in our world, consumerism has taken over. It is a dominant influence in most Churches, too. As a ‘what’s in it for me’ philosophy has come to dominate in society so it dominates what happens in the Church. What makes me happy. What I want. Or as a poster I know puts it, ‘It’s all about me’. We expect our clergy to take this on board when leading services, preaching, or organising church activities and meetings. No matter that Jesus calls us to follow Him regardless of personal cost to ourselves, even leaving the ‘dead to bury the dead’ (as in this morning’s Gospel). No matter that Jesus said that it is only when we lose our lives that we will save them. And no matter that he said we must deny ourselves: the complete opposite of consumerism.
3. Entertainment: We have become an entertainment based culture. People expect to be entertained and for everything to be entertaining. That’s understood by the entertainment providers, hence the huge TVs, the DVDs, CDs, the ipod, the mobile, the internet, non-stop TV, constant celebrity gossip, and with even the news made to seem like a television soap. We expect death and disaster to be fun to watch as we enjoy our TV dinners. And Christians want Church to be entertaining too. Often it is not, hence the low priority many give to Bible Studies and sermons. Some Churches have understood this and embraced it, and going to Church has become more like going to a show. Priests have become performers. We have forgotten that when we go to Church, we go to a service. An opportunity to serve both God and those we go to Church with, and not to be entertained.
All this is bad news for me believing as I still do that God called me first and foremost to preach and teach. I believe my role, as a priest, is precisely to help people apply their faith to and in their daily lives; that the worship I lead is not for our benefit and what we get out of it, but for God and what he thinks of it; that Church is where we go to grow spiritually and to learn more about God, irrespective of whether it is entertaining or not. But as someone very honestly said to me recently, ‘Ross on Sundays most people don’t understand what you are saying and don’t want to’
‘For freedom Christ has set us free’, but we have submitted again to a yoke of slavery as we have allowed ourselves to be possessed by the spirits of the age. Spirits that tell us that God is not relevant to how we live our lives, that what matters most is ourselves and what we want, and that we have a right to be constantly entertained, even when we come to Church.
So I am disappointed. Disappointed at missed opportunities. Disappointed at our own complicity as Christians in society’s rejection of Christian values and beliefs. Disappointed that we have failed so miserably to make an impact on the world for whom Christ died. Disappointed for all the people who have missed out on the Gospel because of it. And I am disappointed in myself for not having been more effective as a priest and preacher and in my own personal failure to make a difference.
Let me stop there before you all decide that I badly need a holiday. But in closing, let me say that I am not disappointed that I became a priest. I believe there is no greater calling, no work so important, and no sacrifice not worth making. I am grateful to God that despite my own failings and the times I have undoubtedly let Him down that he has not let me down, but instead continues to allow me to serve Him as a priest.
It is my prayer, at this milestone in my ministry, that if He allows, that in 25, or however many years time, I may look back and feel less disappointed than I do now. For I remain convinced that if we are willing to accept the freedom that Christ has given and refuse to be enslaved by the world around us that we can be agents of liberation for people whose lives are trapped in sin and despair.
I am not confident or optimistic that this will happen, but I am hopeful.
Saturday, June 16, 2007
It's been a very demanding week. I have spent a lot of time interviewing for teachers at two of the Schools I am involved in. I always find this demanding: having to make decisions that affect a lot of lives on the basis of a 30 minute to an hour interview. At one School, the choice was reasonably straightforward; at the other, not nearly so.
I am working on my next post, which is on the Eucharist. I hope it will be ready for Monday!
Have a good weekend.
Thursday, June 14, 2007
The following is a sermon I preached for Corpus Christi this year. As I am about to write on the Eucharist in my series on my spiritual journey, I thought it might be useful to post it. It can also be heard on my Church's website.
"For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes." (1 Corinthians 11:23-26 NRSV)
"I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh." The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" So Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever."" (John 6:51-58 NRSV)
June 7 was the day known as Corpus Christi. In some parts of the world, it is a public holiday. Corpus Christi is Latin for the Body of Christ. As the Anglican lectionary puts it, it is a ‘Day of Thanksgiving for the Institution of Holy Communion’, otherwise known as the Eucharist, the Mass, the Lord’s Supper, or the Breaking of Bread. However, as these different names suggest, there are real differences between Christians as to what it means and what, if anything, happens in it.
These differences largely emerged as a result of the 16th century European Reformation. At the time of the Reformation, the Reformers were very critical of the way the Catholic Mass was celebrated. I think most, Roman Catholics included, would agree nowadays that there was some justification for theReformers concerns. It needs to be said, however, that the Mass celebrated by Roman Catholics today is very different to the Mass celebrated then and of which the Reformers were so critical. Criticisms of the practice of the Mass in the 16th century cannot simply be transferred to the Roman Catholic Mass of the present.
It was one thing for the Reformers to agree on their protest, another altogether agreeing on an alternative. There emerged sharp disagreements between the Reformers. Neither they, nor their followers, could agree on an understanding of the Eucharist. These disagreeemnets are still with us today.
At the risk of a gross over-simplification, there were and are, basically three different approaches. At one extreme, are those who see nothing happening in the elements of the Eucharist. This was the position of Zwingli and his followers. Essentially for them, the Eucharist is a chance to remember what Christ has done for us. The elements of bread and wine merely serve as visual aids to help us in this act of remembrance. They remind us of His body given for us and His blood shed for us. Nothing happens to them, in them, or through them. They remain bread and wine.
Everyone would agree that the bread and wine do help us to remember, but is that really all they do? At the other extreme were Reformers who took a position very similar to the Roman Catholics. This was the position of Luther and his followers. For them, the bread and the wine actually do become the body and blood of Christ so that when we eat the bread and drink the wine at Communion, we are, quite literally, eating Christ’s body and drinking Christ’s blood.
Many wanted to say that more is happening than mere remembrance. But are we really physically eating Christ’s flesh and drinking Him blood? A third alternative was taken by those who were not happy in seeing the bread and the wine as physically body and blood, but who could not accept that nothing is happening except an act of remembrance. They argued that that while the bread and wine remains physically bread and wine, they nevertheless became the means by which spiritually we eat Christ’s body and drink his blood. The bread and wine so represent Christ’s body and blood that they enable us by faith to feed on Christ spiritually. This was the position of Calvin. Calvin also argued that Holy Communion should take place each week and should be at the heart of the Church.
Strangely, those who followed Calvin more generally in his teaching in the Reformed Churches, largely did not follow him in his understanding and the practice of Holy Communion. Ironically, it was Anglicanism that did not follow Calvin more generally on other matters that took up his position on Holy Communion. It is Calvin’s understanding that is reflected, broadly speaking, in the Anglican liturgy we use Sunday by Sunday. Although with Anglicanism being Anglicanism, you will find Anglicans at each of the extremes and at all points in between!
What do you think? What do you think is happening in our service of Eucharist this morning? What are you doing when you eat the bread and drink the wine? And, perhaps more importantly, does it matter? To attempt an answer to these questions, let us think for a moment about why we do this in the first place.
On the night before he died, Jesus had a Last Meal with His disciples, a meal that the Gospel writers tell us that He went to some trouble to arrange. It mattered to Him that it took place. The Meal had the character of a Passover Meal. This was a meal celebrated annually by the Jewish people, then as now. Jesus reinterpreted this sacred Jewish meal, which remembered the deliverance from Egypt, to refer to Himself and His soon to be death. He famously told them to do this in remembrance of Him.
So seriously did His disciples take this that their re-creation of the Last Supper took place weekly, and not annually, as was the case with the original Passover Meal. Incredibly, within 20 years of Jesus’ death, we know that this Meal was the centre of Christian worship in churches of Gentiles in Greece.
In our reading from 1 Corinthians 11, Paul tells us that he had passed on to the Corinthians what had been passed on to him, namely the details of the Last Supper. This meal was something they too shared in week by week in their gatherings. It was not an optional extra or something at the periphery of the Christian faith, but something central to it.
What is more, it is clear from what Paul writes to the Corinthians that it was understood as far more than act of remembrance. Paul elsewhere in 1 Corinthians describes it as ‘participation’ in Christ’s body and blood. So seriously does Paul take it that he believes that the reason why some of the Corinthians have become sick or have died is because of their failure to celebrate the Lord’s Supper properly.
Jesus went to great trouble to institute this meal, a practice established by how seriously His first followers took it. But why? Why did Jesus want His disciples to do this in remembrance of Him?
I think that John gives us the answer in the Gospel reading for this morning. John does not describe the actual institution of the Eucharist. Instead, he gives us an account of Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. Jesus tells those listening that He is the Living Bread. But then He says, ‘Very truly’ – in other words He wants His hearers to take what follows very seriously indeed – ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.’
Even more startling He says, ‘Whoever eats me will live because of me’
This very graphic way of speaking was just too much for his audience in the synagogue, who could not understand how they could eat His flesh or drink his blood. What is more, it was too much for many of His disciples who, we are told, stopped following Him because of what He had said.
Jesus is not saying that they should indulge in cannibalism as if chewing on His arm would do them any good, but that they must feed on Him in the sense that they must become as dependent on Him for life as they are dependent on food and drink. He is to be the source of their life, the basis on which they live, the One they worship and follow. This is to be a dependency and reliance on him that goes beyond faith and obedience. It is a complete identification with Him so that life without Him becomes not only undesirable, but impossible and unthinkable.
Those who so feed and depend on Christ in this way are promised that they will have eternal life. This is not just life after death, although it includes that, but life here and now.
His disciples who left him realized what this means and what it entails. It means abandoning trust and reliance on anything or anyone else ourselves included. It means relying solely and absolutely on Jesus for life, strength, and fulfilment: not money, not family, not our own achievements, not our own resources, nor anything else, but only on Christ. It is not just a spiritual reliance whereby we depend on Christ in, for example, our prayer life. It is a complete spiritual, emotional, psychological, and intellectual dependence on Him in which our physical welfare becomes of no consequence compared to doing His will.
One of the accusations frequently made against Christians is that we are weak people, who cannot make it on our own. We need an emotional and psychological crutch. The truth, however, is that we are not weak enough. We think we can rely on Christ and ….. and money, and career, and our gifts and abilities. But, as Paul put it, it is only when we realize our own weakness, only when we abandon all hope and trust in ourselves, only when we are so utterly crushed and broken that it is only on Christ that we depend, then, and only then, will we know the power of God. For the power of God is made perfect in weakness.
What is the source of my life here in the present? What is my hope for life in the future? What is my strength? Not my intellect. Not my gifts. Not my status or position. Not my wealth or influence. Nothing, but Christ.
‘Nothing in my hand I bring,Simply to the cross I cling;Naked, come to Thee for dress;Helpless look to Thee for grace;Foul, I to the fountain fly;Wash me, Savior, or I die.’
Paul writes: ‘Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ …’ (Philippians 3:7-8) And this is what Jesus means when He says:
‘Very truly, I tell you unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.’
For Jesus’ words this morning are not just a promise, but a statement of a stark reality: it is only by feeding on Christ that we can have life. This feeding on Christ begins when we first trust in Christ and commit ourselves to Him, but it is a feeding that must be continual. It is in Holy Communion supremely that we do this. Here the benefits of Christ’s death are made available to us. Here we are united with Him in his death. And here the benefits of his death are made available to us for without the death of Christ nothing would be possible.
Paul writes: ‘For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes’. As we meet each week for Holy Communion, we proclaim that it is only in the death of Christ that life may be found, and we call others to join us in this life. We also pronounce the judgement of God on this world and its values. We tell the world so confident in its power, strength, and wealth that it is only in the humiliation, weakness, and poverty of the Cross that the true God is to be found. Here Sunday by Sunday the world is judged and its idols laid bare.
We gather here today to feed on Christ and to receive from him all we need for life both now and forever.
Wednesday, June 13, 2007
You will have gathered from my previous post that I was very upset not only because of the nature of the offensive comments that the BBC broadcast on the radio programme the Newsquiz on May 25, but also by the arrogance of their response - or lack of it. They point blank refused to discuss it, let alone apologize.
I did ask if there was any other way I could complain. They just ignored the question. I now discover that complaints can also be made to Ofcom, an official body. I have sent them a complaint.
I have never complained before and only wanted to make the point that there have to be self-imposed limits to comedy in a decent society. The comedians concerned would despise anyone making jokes about race. If it is right to respect race, which it is, then we should respect religion as well. The people at organisations such as the BBC in the UK need to realize this and they will only realize it if those of us who feel this way complain in a reasonable way.
I will let you know how this goes. Given the way my complaint has been handled so far, I am not overly optimistic.
Monday, June 11, 2007
At the end of May, I listened to a recording of the BBC Radio 4 Programme, the Newsquiz, online. I have been listening to this programme for as long as I can remember. It is very funny and often quite intelligent. Whatever, I enjoy it.
As part of it, you have to accept that they will make fun of everyone and everything. That's the deal. I accept that, and have laughed with them about all sorts of topics, religious ones included. I have to accept that if we religious people make a mess of it, we deserve to be made fun of.
However, in this broadcast I felt they went too far. Way too far. The joke was about a virgin shark. They joked about Jesus coming again in a fish. I thought this exceeded the bounds of good taste by any standards. Still, I thought just a mild complaint would be enough. I don't like a lot of fuss.
Have you ever complained to the BBC? They make it as difficult as possible. To cut a long story short. I complained via their website. They refused to deal with my complaint. I complained again. Same response. I complained again. They gave me a telephone number. All the while saying they could not give me a specific address to write to and insisting I had to begin from the beginning. The idea is that you lose energy.
I phoned. The person who answered said she hadn't a clue what I was talking about and couldn't waste her time talking to me. I tried to give her the reference, but she refused to take it. I am sure the BBC have the tape of the conversation. I kept saying that all I wanted was for the BBC to take my complaint seriously. After nine minutes, I was told to get off the phone.
We are fair game as are others in the public eye. I think we take it in good spirits most of the time. However, I do not think it is on to make jokes like this about anyone's religion. IT"S NOT FUNNY.
The reason why Muslims are offended by western culture is that it can be offensive. It is often offensive to me as a Christian and, hopefully, to members of other religions too. These sort of comments offend decency.
The broadcasters really are locked in a world of their own.
Friday, June 08, 2007
Well, I have had better weeks! I have felt that I have been running around a lot this week, but not really achieveing anything. One thing I did do this week was give a talk at the monthly meeting for Anglican clergy in Hong Kong. At every meeting someone is asked to lead people's thoughts on the readings for the forthcoming Sunday. This Sunday, the epistle is from the first chapter of Galatians. I took the opportunity to give some random thoughts on Paul in the light of his comments in Galatians that anyone who disagreed with him should be damned!
Ironically, we are not having this reading at Christ Church on Sunday as we are following the Roman Catholic practice of celebrating Corpus Christi on the Sunday after the day it falls on. In the Anglican calendar it is also more delicately referred to as Day of Thanksgiving for the Instituion of Holy Communion, doubtless to avoid offending any protestant sensibilities. Corpus Christi (Latin for Body of Christ) is, of course, its traditional name and I see no point in not using it.
Protestant attitudes to Communion can be confusing. While Zwingli amongst the Reformers did not see anything special happening at Communion, Luther and Calvin did. True, they criticised what they saw as abuses in the Roman Mass, but they did not throw the baby out with the bath water in the way many of their followers subsequently have. Anyway, my next post in the series, Where I am Now will be on the Eucharist!
Until then, here is the talk I gave for the clergy on Thursday. I wonder what you think?
Some Thoughts on Paul
In his first letter to the Corinthians in chapters 8 to 10, Paul writes about ‘food offered to idols’. As many will know, in pagan cities such as Corinth, animals were sacrificed in the temples. The meat from these sacrifices was then either sold in the meat market or consumed in banquets held in the temple itself. The temples were the social clubs of the city. They were places to meet, to socialize, and to do business. And where you get men and money, you also get sex. Prostitution was commonly associated with the life of the temple
The Corinthians came from this background where going to the temple to eat – and have sex – was a normal part of city life, and where buying meat from the temple at the market was a normal practice. But what about now they were Christians?
Some of the Corinthians argued that nothing needed to change. Paul quotes them as saying, ‘ we know no idol in the world really exists’, and, ‘ there is no God, but one’. They knew that the idol the animal was sacrificed to did not exist. Furthermore, they were not bound by law, ‘all things were lawful’ to them. In other words, they could do what they felt right. What then did it matter if they went to the temple to eat? The idol didn’t exist. What did it matter if they ate meat bought at the market? This was the logical outworking of what was, after all, Paul’s own Gospel.
Paul agrees with the premise, but not the conclusion. It is true that an idol does not exist. However, not all Christians in Corinth believed this. For them going to the temple was as if they were worshipping the idol. Besides, there is, argues Paul, a spiritual reality behind the idol. Concern for our brother and sister ought to come first before our own rights and knowledge in the matter. In any case, prostituion is always wrong.
As for meat sold in the market, Paul himself is convinced that there is no reason why Christians should not buy and eat it. If, however, my eating meat offends another Christian, then it is wrong to eat it. What matters is love and unity between Christians. They should avoid giving offence to one another and be prepared to limit their freedom out of consideration for one another.
He concludes his argument:
So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God. Give no offence to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, so that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. (1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1)
This sort of approach, avoiding giving offence and concentrating on the unity of the Church, was Paul’s approach generally and not just in Corinth. In his letter to the Romans, he again has to deal with arguments over food. Here it is not food offered to idols, but the issue of what is clean and unclean. This was a big issue for Jewish-Christians. Some in the Church would eat anything; some would not eat any meat in case it was unclean. Some saw some days as holy, presumably Jewish-Christians, while others saw all days as being the same.
Paul’s own position is, again, clear. He sides with the strong, that is, with those who eat anything and who see all days as the same. But again, Paul argues what matters is not what a person thinks right, but the effect it has on a brother or sister. Christians are not to pass judgement on other Christians and what they do. Each is to be persuaded in their own mind. Both positions should co-exist. Each is doing what they do to honour the Lord and that’s what counts. We must not cause our brother or sister to stumble. It is better not to eat than to offend a brother or sister for whom Christ died.
He tells them:
‘The faith that you have, have as your own conviction before God.’ (Romans 14:22)
This is the liberal Paul: tolerant, inclusive, open and accepting; rejecting fundamentalism and asserting the right of the individual to make up their own mind before God alongside the need to respect conscience and avoid giving offence. It is a Paul who would be very much at home in western, liberal Christianity.
Then we come to Galatians.
We must remember, in reading Galatians, this liberal Paul because in Galatians it is a very different Paul who emerges. Interesting another argument over food is at the heart of the epistle. I will quote from what Paul says:
‘But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, "If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?"” (Galatians 2:11-14)
In Antioch, Jewish and Gentile Christians ate together. For strict Jewish-Christians this practice was unacceptable as it compromised ritual purity. So when ‘men from James’ come to Antioch from Jerusalem, the Jewish-Christians, including Peter and Barnabas, out of respect, stopped eating with the Gentile Christians. Paul, rather than sympathizing with their desire not to give offence, condemned them for their hypocrisy.
It is against the background of this argument that Galatians is written. The Jewish-Christians from James were also, it seems, insisting that Paul’s converts in Galatia should be circumcised and keep the Law. That is, in order to have unity in the Church and full table-fellowship, they argued that Gentiles should adopt the same lifestyle as the Jewish-Christians. It is important to stress that these Jewish-Christians were not anti-Gentile. Paul himself describes them as zealous for the Galatians. They too wanted to avoid offence, preserve Church unity, and have a common basis for fellowship. What is more, the Galatians themselves were not upset at this argument and seem to have been willing to comply with the Jewish-Christians' request. It was, it seems, only Paul who had the problem!
Not only that, Paul himself seems to have been the problem for many of them. They attacked Paul as preaching a Gospel of his own in not requiring the Galatian Christians to be circumcised. They argued that the Christians in Galatia should follow the example of the mother church in Jerusalem and the apostles who knew the Lord, not this maverick Paul.
Attacks on the authority of Paul were common then as now. But before we use the attacks then as the basis for the attacks now, it is worth reminding ourselves that Paul and his opponents had much in common. They believed the same scriptures, had the same Christology, and accepted the same basic structure of the Christian faith. Paul passed on what had been passed on to him, especially, but not only, that 'Christ died for our sins and on the third day rose again'.
The common argument that Paul invented something new, something different from what Jesus preached and was first believed, is not supported by the evidence. What Paul and the Jewish-Christians were arguing over were the Gentiles. Everything else they agreed on. What Paul is supposed to have invented already existed before he came on the scene. This is, indeed, part of the Jewish-Christians’ argument. They got there first and so should be believed before Paul.
What Paul was saying that was new was that Jews and Gentiles were both Christians and members of the Church on the same basis as each other, namely, that of faith. There was no need for the Gentiles in addition to be circumcised and keep the Law. However, Paul goes further than arguing that it is unnecessary. He sees the requirement that they should be circumcised as a perversion of the Gospel. What is more, if they are circumcised Christ will be of no use to them. The Jewish-Christians concerned are enemies of the Cross of Christ. The Galatians must listen to Paul and hold fast to the freedom that God has given them.
Precisely why Paul was so opposed to the Gentiles being circumcised, especially when the Gentiles themselves were quite happy to be, is a question which is too quickly passed over in my opinion, but that must wait for another day. What is important here is the question of where Paul got the authority for his position. Quite simply, he claims, he received it directly from God himself:
“For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 1:11-12)
If anyone preaches anything different to Paul, then they are wrong. He states boldly:
‘Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.’ (Galatians 1:10)
This is the absolute Paul, the Calvinist Paul, intolerant of any view that he sees as compromising the Gospel, confident in his faith, willing to divide the Church for what he believes to be true and unwilling to let anyone get in his way. This is a Paul who would be at home in the Church in Nigeria or Sydney.
Two different Paul’s, listen to them again:
1 Corinthians 10:32-33: ‘Give no offence to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, so that they may be saved.’
Galatians 1:10: ‘‘Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.’
How do we reconcile the two? How do we do justice to these two Paul’s, or two sides to Paul’s teaching.
Paul went out of his way to preserve the unity of the Church. He was prepared to compromise to a breath-taking degree to avoid division, even to the extent of having his co-worker Timothy circumcised, notwithstanding what he says about circumcision in Galatians. It is true he could justify it because Timothy’s mother was Jewish, but it shows how flexible Paul was prepared to be.
However, when it came to something that he saw as lying at the heart of the Christian faith, he was immoveable. For Paul the requirement for the Gentiles to be circumcised compromised the truth of the gospel. (As I said, quite why is another issue!) Again, in these days when it is common to condemn Paul for extremism and arrogance, it is worth reminding ourselves that most of us think he was right. At least no-one has suggested to me recently that I need to be circumcised. We cannot cite the argument in Galatia as an example of why we think Paul was wrong while agreeing with what he says.
The bottom line was the Gospel. And Paul believed the truth of the Gospel was at stake in the issue of circumcision in a way it was not in the issue of food offered to idols and that of clean and unclean food.
In the Church today there is a conflict between those who want to follow the relative line that Paul promotes in Corinth and Rome, and those who want to follow the absolute line that he takes in Galatia.
In Anglicanism, for example, some see the issue of homosexuality, like circumcision, in absolute terms. On the one side, there are those who argue we must permit it if we believe the Gospel. On the other, there those who argue that we should forbid it for precisely the same reason. For both it is a defining issue, one that cannot be compromised on.
Others, such as those who follow the Windsor report, see the issue, like food offered to idols, in relative terms. There are differences of opinion that must be listened to and respected, but what matters most is love of each other and the unity of the Church. Compromise is essential.
I do not wish to discuss the gay issue here. I do want to say though that the reason why Paul could be both relative and absolute at times and still live with himself was because he was clear in his own mind what the Gospel was. He knew what was the basis of his faith. He defined this a lot more minimally and generously than many give him credit for, but he did define it and was prepared to defend it.
Part of our problem today, I would suggest, is that we are unable to say exactly what the Gospel essentially is. What it is that must be believed by everyone, everywhere. Paul believed that the Gospel was not something negotiable, something to be discovered and defined by humans. He believed it was a gift from God carrying divine authority. This was why it was good news that had the power to save.
Until we too know what the Gospel is, we are not going to be in a position to save anyone.
Wednesday, June 06, 2007
I have written earlier about how I came to prefer the description orthodox Christian as a way of describing my theological beliefs. (See Personal Journey 14) I am more and more convinced that we need to rethink the old labels we give ourselves and others: evangelical, charismatic, liberal, catholic, and so on. This is not to say, as some Christians argue, that labels are without use. After all, as someone once said to me, ‘without a label you don’t know what is in the package’! Labels can be useful as a shorthand for describing what we believe and where it is we are coming from. Equally, labels can be restrictive, narrowing who we are and whom we are willing to speak to.
Perhaps more seriously, the labels can over time become out of date so that a label that once said something meaningful is now irrelevant because the debate has moved on. At the risk of being provocative, I think this is true of some of the labels that came out of the reformation, but which are still used by Christians today. Even labels such as evangelical and charismatic are, I suggest problematic, originating as they do in specific historical circumstances, one in eighteen century England, the other in renewal movement of the 1960s and 1970s. What matters, surely, is not the continuing use of labels that describe products now pass their sell by date, but what these products originally represented and how what is still good in them can be preserved in a way that is relevant to the changed circumstances of our day.
Was it necessary for Protestants to protest against abuses in the then Roman Catholic Church? On the whole, yes. Was it right for evangelicals to stress the authority of Scripture against the exaltation of human reason in the enlightenment? Undoubtedly. Were charismatics right to call for a renewal of the church and a rediscovery of the Holy Spirit? Absolutely. But we cannot be fighting the battles of the past over and over again when there are serious issues to be faced in the present.
Roman Catholics may have different beliefs to those who are not, but surely most of us think the Pope is a Christian and not the anti-Christ? Is it evangelicals only who are saved? Do only charismatics experience the Holy Spirit?
What we need is a coming together of Christians who can share the fundamental beliefs of the Christian faith. What are these? Here generosity is called for. Some Christians would define these so tightly that they exclude everyone, but their own kind. Others would define them so loosely that they have no meaning. Others are opposed to any attempt to define the Christian faith believing in an open faith that is always changing.
I believe that the real issue in present day Christianity has to do with whether the Bible is trustworthy and whether the Creeds are an accurate and reliable statement of the Christian faith. There is a myth of Christian origins doing the rounds that the Da Vinci Code tapped into and which is believed by many Christians. I regard this as the most dangerous heresy facing the Church today. It is a myth that questions the reliability of the four canonical Gospels, criticizes the role of Paul, gives credibility to Gnosticism, and challenges the authority of the Creeds and the nature of the canon.
It is perhaps not surprising that they attack the foundation because once the foundation falls all those of whose faith is built on it fall with it. We need to accept that there have been errors in the past and that our labels reflect this, but what we need now is for all who accept the Bible and the Creeds to put aside their differences and strive together for the faith once and for all delivered to the saints.
What is more, if orthodox Christians can get together there will be an added benefit. As we come out of our ghettos, we can listen to one another and learn from one another as we hear what God has been doing with each of us while we have been apart.
I am not advocating a lowest common denominator approach, nor am I saying that the various groups should sacrifice what is dear to them, just that we should be prepared to work together with those who share an orthodox faith. A coalition of the orthodox is what I am advocating.
Anyway that’s where I am. I value all I have learnt in the past as an evangelical and charismatic, and I don’t reject it. I just want more. I want to be able to explore the Christian faith and its meaning for today learning from the past, but not being limited by it or to it. I want to listen and talk to those not from my tradition and hear what they have to say. I want to present the Gospel to people in a way they can understand and hopefully respond to. And I want to resist the attempt to abandon the authority of the Bible and rewrite the Creeds.
Coming from an Anglican background, I am gratified that that was originally what Anglicans stood for!
Monday, June 04, 2007
For a while now I have been writing an account of my own personal journey. These blogs haven’t been planned except in a general way, and I have been following my thoughts as I have gone along. Thank you to all who have stayed with it. I have paused somewhat in recent blogs to examine some of the challenges I see in ministering here at Christ Church. While I have written from a personal point of view, they are, nevertheless, challenges I think anyone would face ministering here.
Perhaps now I ought to resume the account of my journey by asking where I am personally. So, in the next few blogs in this series, I am going to ask myself where I am now in my journey. Today I want to think a little about mission.
Where I am Now: 1. Mission
I came to Hong Kong via Jerusalem believing going to Hong Kong a particularly significant move. That turned out to be an understatement. (I have written in a previous blog about the changes in my personal circumstances early on in my time here.) I came via Jerusalem as I saw this as a symbolic way of making a commitment to mission in the next stage of my ministry. This was were it all began.
One thing that has not changed during my time here, though, is the commitment I feel to mission. At Banchory, I was sure that it had to be at the heart of our life as Church. It was also why I had got as involved as I had in Mission 21, a Scottish Episcopal initiative in mission. When I arrived in Hong Kong, I was also sure that it should be at the heart of my ministry here. I think that when I came, I believed the biggest challenge would be engaging in mission in a different culture. And yes, there are cultural differences. And yes all that has been written about being sensitive to people in a different culture are true. However globalisation has ensured that many of the issues facing the Church are the same the world over, certainly in the developed world.
The issue for me personally increasingly has become what it is we mean by ‘mission’. One of the reasons I am interested in the emerging church movement, while having reservations about aspects of it, is that I believe those in the movement are asking the right questions, and are putting mission at the centre of the debate about what it means to be the Church in a post-modern world.
Mission, however, must be about more than getting seats filled. This seems to be so obvious as not to need stating, and yet I wonder how many of us clergy especially are unconsciously working with a numbers based model of church growth. Whenever I talk to people who think their Church is growing, the first thing they tell me is that there are more people attending services. And I want people to attend services as much as anyone. But is this really the most important sign of church growth?
I would go further. Mission and church growth need to be about more than people becoming Christians. At every baptism service, I read the passage from Matthew 28, Jesus’ words to the eleven disciples before he left them. They are well-known, but I think we sometimes miss their message:
‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’
The making of disciples involves baptizing people of all nations, which I take to mean convincing them that Jesus is Lord and that they should make a personal commitment to him. It also involves teaching them to obey everything that Jesus commanded his disciples. In other words, being a disciple, today as then, means more than just believing in Jesus, it means a day by day, moment by moment, life of obedience.
‘Trust and obey
for there’s no other way,
to be happy in Jesus,
but to trust and obey.’
This, however, requires us to develop a Christian lifestyle and worldview: something that will often mean going against the prevailing worldview and its values and beliefs. It may even make us unpopular.
This is where I feel more and more concerned in my own ministry. In the Church, we are simply failing to resist the values of the world in which we live. It is not that our members aren’t sincere or don’t believe. They do. It’s just that all too often it doesn’t make any practical difference. Our values and lifestyles are not significantly different to those of the culture around us. We educate our kids at the same schools, with the same goals and ideals as the kids of parents with no Christian faith. We pursue careers, buy houses, have families, watch TV programmes, read books and magazines, surf the internet, consume material goods, relax and play all in essentially the same way and with the same attitudes as the rest of society.
When I ask myself what difference being a Christian makes, I am disturbed by the answer the evidence suggests I should give. When recently I said to leading member of my own church that the Christian faith called into question making money as the key factor in making decisions in life, they told me not to be silly and that was something that only Vicars believed. Of course, we had to say that in church, but it was only an ideal that no-one took seriously outside.
I do not want a return to where I have come from; where things were rejected as worldly simply because people in the world enjoyed them. Nor do I want a withdrawal from the world and for Christians to be different for the sake of it. But if we are to teach people to obey everything that Jesus taught, surely that will mean, as Jesus himself suggested, a certain sort of difference?
Another aspect of this is the way the entertainment culture has penetrated the Church. We expect to be entertained when we come to Church, not challenged. We want to be given things to enjoy, not called upon to sacrifice them in obedience to Christ. In our desire to get numbers, to have people listen to us, and to take us seriously, we have rewritten the Gospel to leave out the parts that we think people will find unattractive.
The Church community needs to engage faithfully in mission, but that means speaking the truth as it is. If that attracts some, while driving others away, then that is something, albeit with sadness, we may have to accept. Jesus certainly had to. Clearly, it is not what we want, and we should strive to avoid putting any obstacle in people’s way. But we need to ask whether rather than engaging in mission, what we are unwittingly doing is developing the Church as place of spiritual entertainment where success is measured by the criteria of the box office.
Perhaps we have to accept smaller numbers and less worldly success in favour of communities which take the challenge to obey Jesus’ teaching seriously and which are prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to do that. Mission remains a priority for me, but more and more I find myself forced to define what it is I mean by it.