Thursday, September 27, 2007

Life on Mars: 2. Crucified Under Pontius Pilate

Well, the installation went very well with a full Cathedral. The Cathedral in Hong Kong is not air-conditioned. Sitting, fully-robed in the Cathedral at midday is an interesting experience! I believe the Cathedral people are thinking about air-con - the sooner, the better!

Looking at my diary for the next couple of days, I see I have a School Council meeting tonight, three School assemblies tomorrow morning and then a PTA AGM followed by a PTA Annual dinner tomorrow evening. I think I had better get on with my sermon for Sunday this afternoon if only to remind myself that I am a Vicar!

Here is the next in my Life on Mars series!

Life on Mars: 2. Crucified Under Pontius Pilate

Last time, I wrote about Life on Mars, the BBC police drama series, in which a detective from the present wakes up in 1973 and what a shock life in 1973 is to him. Everything is very different to what he is used to. I know the feeling, I am just about to have a birthday and thinking back to 1973, when I was an older teenager, I am constantly amazed at just how much has changed. Obviously, technology has advanced – assuming you think kids being stuck on playstations for hours or chatting endlessly on Facebook is advancement. In addition to such changes, attitudes and outlooks have changed radically, too.

If this is true in my short lifetime, how much more true is it in the time since the events related in the Bible? How can what people wrote and wrote about 2,000 and more years ago have anything to say to us living in the 21st century. This really is an important issue and Christians are at fault for sometimes acting as if it isn’t. Let me put it another way:

Suppose we were to do a Life on Mars in reverse and transport a Christian leader from the New Testament era to the present and make him a leader of a Church now, how long would it be before he had a nervous breakdown? That’s assuming that the first passing motor car didn’t knock him down. A motor-car being something he would never have seen before and now may never see again! How we do Church, what we believe, how we live, how we relate, everything would be so very, very different. What this leader said to us in his preaching, assuming we gave him the ability to speak Chinese or English, would also sound very different to what we are used to. And this from someone who is a Christian like us. His world was different then, they were different then. If a Christian from the past would have trouble living with us now, why should what Christians wrote in the past be of any relevance to us now? They are not of our world and we are not of theirs.

As L. P. Hartley said: ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’ All this applies to any religion that looks to a founder who lived in the past. But it applies even more to Christianity. For central to Christianity is the belief that God himself in the person of Jesus entered our space-time existence at a specific point in our history. Every week in my Church, we recite the Nicene Creed in which we say of Jesus that ‘he was crucified under Pontius Pilate’.

I think we forget the significance of this. Pontius Pilate was a minor Roman official in a relatively minor part of the Empire, and yet he is remembered every week at the most holy service of the Church’s worship. This is because our faith is centred on something that happened at a particular moment in history. For many Christians, this is rather embarrassing and inconvenient. We want a God who speaks now, not a God who spoke then. History isn’t everyone’s favourite subject and to make history, that is, what happened, 2000 years ago, so central and important seems to create more problems than it solves.

This is, perhaps, one of the reasons why Christians emphasize the resurrection and why the Charismatic movement has been so popular. By emphasizing that Jesus is alive today, there is the possibility that we don’t have to worry quite so much about yesterday. For if he is alive today and can speak to us in the way that many Christians believe he can and does, then we don’t have to worry so much about understanding what went on all those years ago. Jesus can speak directly to us. We don’t need to go through Christians in the past with all their difference and strangeness.

Unfortunately, by claiming that the Jesus we worship today, who we believe speaks to us today, is the same as the man who was ‘crucified under Pontius Pilate’ – as we do – week by week, we are committing ourselves to the importance of history and what happened in the past. We can only know the Jesus who is alive today if we can discover something of the man Pilate crucified. We need to know what it was he said and did then, otherwise what we hear when he speaks to us now, may turn out to be no more than our imagination and wistful thinking.

Time travel may not be a possibility, but historical study, for the Christian at least, is a necessity.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Mid-Autumn Festival

Today it is the Mid-Autumn Festival here in China and other parts of Asia and tomorrow is a public holiday. Tonight families will be gathering for family meals, to eat moon-cakes, and to light lanterns. Well, we'll try to light them, it is still very wet here! Moon-cakes I am not particularly partial to, but the lanterns and family gatherings are fun.

Tomorrow, it is the installation of our new Archbishop, Archbishop Paul Kwong. Archbishop Paul, as you will know if you are a regular to this blog, has actually been Archbishop for some time, but this is the official event followed by lunch.

Archbishop Paul has already thrown himself in to his new role and is an inspiring leader. I am so grateful that I get to serve under him. His job is a daunting one with many challenges around the corner. If you remember tomorrow, say a prayer for him at 11.00am Hong Kong time!

Monday, September 24, 2007

Life on Mars

As promised (see I can keep them promises about posting - well sometimes at least!) here is the first in a series. As I mentioned in the last post, the series was inspired by Life on Mars, the BBC police drama series, which I watched on DVD over the summer. It made me think seriously about how life has changed. We talk about this all the time in Church circles: about how we can apply the Bible to our own day. In other words, the problem of hermeneutics. Where the series really succeeded for me was in getting under the skin of the problem and illustrating how great the problem really is. Anyway, have a read and let me know what you think!

It is a dull, rainy day here, but it is still very hot! Whatever the weather where you are, I hope you have a good week!

Life on Mars

A British television police drama was recently released on DVD, and I have just finished watching it. It won many awards. I don’t know if you have seen it at all. It is called Life on Mars. The story centres around Sam Tyler who is a detective in Manchester, England. He has an accident and wakes up in 1973. At the start of each episode he asks the question: ‘am I mad, in a coma, or back in time? Whatever’s happened, he says, it’s like I have landed on a different planet’.

Sam wakes up to discover that he is now a detective in 1973 Manchester who has just been transferred to a new department. The reason it is like a different planet is because everything is so different to what he is used to. There are the obvious things like the fashions and the clothes that people wear and the fact that there are no mobile phones or computers. But there are many other differences, not least the difference in attitudes and what is considered acceptable and what not. For example, attitudes to women and their role are very different. There are no women in the CID, which is considered a male domain. Jokes which would be considered racist, sexist and offensive today are seen as perfectly normal.

Much of the drama centres on the relationship between Sam and his new boss, Detective Chief Inspector Gene Hunt. Gene is an unreconstructed whisky swilling male who believes in gut instinct and is suspicious of forensics and the like. Sam says to him: ‘You’re an overweight, over the hill, nicotine-stained, borderline alcoholic homophobe with a superiority complex and an unhealthy obsession with male bonding.’ To which Gene replies: ‘You make it sound like a bad thing!’ At first Sam takes a superior attitude to and is very critical of his new colleagues. Gradually, however, he begins to realize that he has some thing to learn from them, and he starts to enjoy his new life.

I was a teenager in the 1970s and what is more came from a police family in the north of England. For me, and those like me, who remember the 1970s, it is a real nostalgia trip. Great attention has been given by the programme makers to getting the historical details right. But it is great drama too with some brilliant writing and acting. Where the programme really succeeds is in getting across how society has changed. It really does look and sound like a different world.

But this is only 35 years ago. A mere generation. If the world has changed so much in so short a time, how much more has it changed since the events of the Bible? Sam finds it hard to understand life 35 years ago. What hope, then, for us to understand the world of the Bible? It is very easy for us to forget just how great the change has been. The things that matter to us and dominate our lives just were not issues.

There was no electricity. There were no cars, trains, or plains. The population was much less and towns and cities much smaller. And, of course, there were no televisions, radios, computers, telephones, and other means of mass communication. Medical science was very primitive and some of the discoveries that have changed our world were still a long way off: vaccinations, for example. I could go on, but I hope you get the point. If Manchester, England in 1973 is a different world for the fictional Sam looking at it from the perspective of the 21st century, how much more the world of the Bible?

This raises the question of what possible relevance the Bible and the events it relates can have to us? What can the Biblical writers possibly have to say that is of any use to us?

It is an issue. Bultmann, in a famous statement, said this:

‘It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles.’

Christians believe that while indeed the world may change and change radically almost beyond recognition that God himself does not change. We believe that Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever and that he can speak to our generation as he has spoken to successive generations in the past.

But what of the past and the relevance of the events we read of in the Bible?

More about that next.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

I am Still Here!

Just caught up in events at the beginning of term. And settling into the routine of things.

Last week was dominated by organizing a Thanksgiving Service here at Christ Church for our former Vicar, Michael Simpson. Michael died earlier this year in the UK and we wanted to have a service for him here in Hong Kong. His wife and family members came and many who knew Michael took part. It was, I think, a fitting tribute to Michael.

Some of you have asked if there has been any follow-up to the events of the Summer at DPS. Not yet, is the answer though we expect to hear something soon. The effects of the case continue to reverberate. Our own feeling, for what it is worth, is that parents who try to bribe teachers to gain advantage are at least as guilty as the teachers who accept such bribes. Sadly, this does not seem to be the position of either parents, in general, or of the authorities.

I have even come in for criticism personally for thinking that the case should have been reported in the first place. Many parents want to be able to use bribery for advantage for their children and don't appreciate attempts to stop it. It reaches into the Church as parents send their children to Church so that they can claim a religious affiliation with the Anglican Church and so secure more points towards admission.

It is hard being a parent, but it is also hard being a Christian. And being a Christian surely means that we should attempt to be honest in how we behave?

On a positive note: at a meeting of the body responsible yesterday my contract was officially renewed from September next year. So it looks like I will have to deal with these issues for a bit longer.

Have you watched or heard of Life On Mars - the BBC television series? I will be blogging about that next. I watched it on DVD over the Summer and it is currently my favourite drama series.

Thanks for keeping reading.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

The Runaway Slave went over the Hill

Tomorrow I am preaching on Luke 14 and Philemon, the set readings for the day. I couldn’t quite believe that Philemon had come up in the lectionary again as it feels like only a few weeks ago that it last came up and I preached on it! I dug out the sermon and found that it was three years ago - as it would be. Quite scary! As someone quoted to me recently: ‘The days are long, but the years are short’!

The standard understanding of Philemon is that it was written by Paul when he was in prison in Rome. Onesimus, a runaway slave, who belongs, coincidentally, to a friend of Paul’s, meets up with Paul and is converted. The letter to Philemon is Paul writing to his friend on behalf of his convert seeking mercy for him.

I have never been entirely happy with this explanation.

The idea of Onesimus leaving Colossae, running all the way to Rome, and then bumping into Paul, who is in prison there, just seems a little bit too coincidental. Strange coincidences do happen and God can make the strangest happen, but this still feels a bit unreal. It is for this reason that some scholars have suggested that the imprisonment was in Ephesus, which is much nearer to Colossae than is Rome. The problem is that we don’t know for sure that Paul was imprisoned in Ephesus and, in any case, it still seems a bit of a coincidence.

In my last sermon three years ago, I still stuck with the 'runaway slave' idea. The main point is, after all, about him being a slave and Philemon being a master and the difference Christ makes. How Onesimus came to meet Paul is not a crucial issue. Re-reading Philemon this time around, however, I became conscious just how much of a guess it is that Onesimus was a 'runaway slave'. So I decided to spend some time on the commentaries seeing what light, if any, they could shed.

I was quite encouraged that while most do still take the ‘runaway slave’ position, one major commentary, at least, does not, namely that by J D G Dunn. Dunn suggests that Onesimus might have deliberately sought Paul’s help, knowing that Paul was a friend of his master. Perhaps Onesimus had done something wrong and was worried about the consequences, perhaps it was just an argument. Whatever, I think this explanation makes better sense of the letter, wherever it was that Paul was in prison.

As I say, it is not a crucial issue, but what it does demonstrate to me is how much we take for granted when we study the Bible and how easy it is to accept something as true when the Biblical evidence for it is actually quite little. I believe that it is vital to take seriously what the Bible says, but it is just as important to make sure that it is what the Bible says and not just our assumptions about what it says. It also underlines how much we don’t know and that ought to lead us to greater humility when we express our opinions.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

A Revelation

The lectures went extremely well!

Ben lectured on Friday and Saturday evenings, then on Monday afternoon and evening. The auditorium was full for all of them. I wasn't surprised it was full for the evening sessions, but I was surprised and impressed that so many turned out for the Monday afternoon, which must have meant that people took time off work. The level of commitment and enthusiasm of those who turned up was also impressive with a queue before the doors opened half an hour before the session began.

Ben certainly did not disappoint them. His lectures were lively, stimulating, informative, and thoughtful. He didn't dodge the controversial issues, such as the 'Rapture' and the Left Behind books, but tackled them with grace and humour.

Congratulations to the organizers for having the vision to invite Ben and arrange such an event. They even arranged for Ben's commentary on Revelation to be translated and published in Chinese - very exciting. Coming back home on the train last night there were people standing in the subway and sitting on the train reading his commentary. Now that's something you don't often see!

Ben was with us at Christ Church for our morning service on Sunday and preached on Christ the Trailblazer and Finisher of Faith. We were honoured to have him and again benefited greatly from an inspiring sermon.

Given everything else that was going on, I wouldn't exactly describe it as a relaxing weekend. It was though certainly very profitable spiritually and stimualting. I was very sorry when the series came to an end. I have been going back over some of the references that Ben gave in his talks. Any talk that sends you back to the Bible and makes you think again is doing what it should!

Pray for Ben in his ministry. The Church needs more people like him.