Tuesday, September 30, 2008

National Day

Tomorrow is national day and so we have a public holiday which is nice!  It is also a bit cooler here (still high 20s), but much better than it has been.  It makes the idea of going out tomorrow more attractive!

Here is my next talk!

2. Living Sacrifices 

In his great letter to the Christians in Rome, Paul begins by explaining that the Christian message is for everyone who has faith and all that is required of people is that they have faith.  He has to do this because many in the Church felt that while everyone could indeed join the Church, once they did they had to behave the same way as those who followed Jesus, but were of Jewish birth.  This meant obeying God’s commandments in the Old Testament.  Paul takes a very radical position.  He believed that all that God requires of people is faith and that this requirement applies equally to Jew and non-Jew alike. 

For the first eleven chapters of his letter, he tries to explain why this is the case.  Jew and Gentile are both sinners, both stand condemned because of their sin, and both need saving.  The only way out of the mess is by faith.  The commandments in the Old Testament won’t help us because we are incapable of keeping them.  Fortunately, God doesn’t expect us to any more.  He sets us free from any obligation to keep them when we have faith in Christ. 

This means that Paul has to explain why God gave the commandments in the first place if we are unable to keep them.  Has God changed his mind?  And if all are in the same position with regard to their need and how that need is met, does this mean that there was no advantage being a Jew?  And what about Israel?  Did God have any future plan for her?  He wants to deal with the implications of saying it is by faith and answer any objections and misunderstandings.  He concludes: 

‘For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.’  God’s plan is to show mercy to all, Jew and Gentile on the same basis: faith. 

In chapter 12, he appeals to the Roman Christians to respond to this mercy.  Having explained in general terms what his commitment to faith means, he draws out now the implications of this for those who have faith and for the Roman Christians in particular.  He begins: 

‘I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.’ 

In the same way that the a priest in the Temple would offer a dead animal in sacrifice to God so they should offer their bodies – by this he means their very selves – as living sacrifices to God.  This offering is not the basis for securing the mercy of God, but their response to the mercy of God that they have already experienced in Christ. 

Paul’s themes have been big ones and have focused on what has been God’s plan for those who were his people in the past, the Jews, and those who are now his people, that is: all those who have faith, Jew and Gentile alike.  Here he shows how this plays out in the daily lives of those who have faith.  He gives examples of how they should live and what they should do.  In doing so, he gives a definition of worship.  Worship, he says, is not about going to the temple and offering sacrifices.  It is not even about singing hymns and saying prayers.  It is not about special services at all.  It is about our daily service of God in every aspect and dimension of our lives.

All of us who have faith in Christ may experience the mercy of God regardless of who we are or where we come from.  All of us.  Paul invites us as he did the Roman Christians to respond to the mercy of God in Christ by giving ourselves totally to the service of God.  This clearly has consequences for the big decisions we need to make in our lives about career, family, children, and planning for the future.  It also has consequences for how we live our lives each day in our jobs, at home, at school or in the office.  Everything we do should be an act of worship, something we can offer in thankfulness to God.  Or as Paul puts it in another letter: 

‘Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all to the glory of God.’

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Romans on the Radio

I am about to record a new series of talks for broadcast on the Radio.  They pick up where the last ones left off!

I am also teaching Christian Ethics this term at our Theological College so they reflect some of my thinking about that.


Of all the works of theology that have been written since the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, none have been as important or more influential than a letter St Paul wrote to Christians in Rome in the mid-50s AD and which is preserved in the New Testament.  The Church’s greatest theologians have all been massively influenced by it and there is still a constant flow of books all seeking to interpret, explain, and apply it.  It is frequently read in Church services all over the world. 

St Paul wrote the letter to a Church he had not yet visited.  He hoped soon to do so, however, but was concerned about the reception he would receive from these Christians, most of whom had only heard about him and never met him.  This was a problem because Paul wasn’t universally popular; indeed, he was anything but.  Paul believed that God had given him a special job to do as a Christian apostle and that was to take the Christian message to Gentiles, that is, non-Jews, throughout the Roman Empire

This was not quite as straightforward as it might sound.  Apart from being a demanding task in its own right, the Church at this time was still trying to make its mind up whether it wanted Gentiles to be members at all and, if they were to be allowed to join the Church, on what basis they should be admitted. 

It is very easy today to forget that the Church started as small sect within Judaism in Palestine.  The first followers of Jesus being themselves Jewish, as was Jesus himself, not unreasonably assumed that their message was mainly for other Jews.  It proved, however, to be extraordinarily popular with those who heard it who weren’t Jewish, and it was not long before Gentiles were asking how they could join the Church.  At first, the Jewish believers were reluctant to let them in at all as it would mark a significant change of focus, but it soon became plain that this wasn’t going to work.  And so the Church had some serious thinking to do! 

Some thought that it was very simple.  Gentiles could join the Church if they also lived as the Jewish believers did obeying the Old Testament commandments.  God hadn’t changed his mind, they believed, and what God had required of people in the Old Testament still applied to anyone who wanted to serve him.  Yes, Jesus was God’s Son and believing in him was essential, but you still had to keep the Ten Commandments. 

The reason Paul became so unpopular was he suggested an alternative and that was that the Gentiles did not have to keep the Old Testament Law, and while it was ok for Jewish believers to go on observing it if they wanted to, it wasn’t this that established a relationship with God, a relationship which would ultimately save them.  This was explosive stuff.  Jews had died in the past because of their obedience to the Law and the last thing the Jewish believers wanted was for fellow Jews to think that the new faith in Jesus was an attack on the Law and all their history.  All sorts of rumours circulated about what Paul did or did not teach and believe.  

Paul believed that Rome was going to become an important base for his work in the future.  It was vital then for him to explain just what it was that he taught and to clear up any mis-understandings that might arise from it. 

Paul begins by declaring where he stands on the issue of who can become a member of the Church.  The Christian message is for everyone who has faith in Jesus whether Jew or Gentile.  It is faith in Jesus, he declares, that matters most not your birth or behaviour.  It is a very simple message, but one that many people found it hard to accept then and still find it hard to accept today.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Sunday, ****** Sunday

Normally I like Sundays.  Normally.  Today is different.  I have to go to one of those events, so typical of Churches, where if I don't go it will lead to criticism of myself (which I can live with) and of my Church (which is always more complicated).  I am expected to be there.  As are members of my Church.  

What the hard pressed parents of my Church have been doing in the few hours they have today with their children after a demanding week, I don't know.  Personally, I have been trying to use the time before I go to do what I would normally do.  Except there just isn't time.

Sundays after services have finished are for me about planning; the only time I get in the week just to think, as opposed to think about something. 

I have changed my mind about a lot in my ministry, the one thing I haven't changed my mind about is the number of completely pointless and purposeless events and meetings that we pressure people to attend.

At the end of the day, I am paid to go to these horrible events. I just wish there were fewer of them.

The Church talks a lot about supporting families.  It could make a real contribution to family life by not dividing families and by not asking one or other of the parents to go to unnecessary meetings and events.

Am I being unreasonable?

Oh and I forgot to mention, these events cost a loy of money at a time when normal people are struggling just to survive.

I am sorry if I sound annoyed: I am!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The gods of Wall Street

Yesterday was a public holiday here.  It's officially known as the 'Day following the Mid-autumn Festival'!  Being in a relaxed mood, I switched on the morning news.  There were pictures of the devastation caused by Hurricane Ike in Texas, but the hurricane that was getting the most attention was the one threatening the imminent demise of Lehman Brothers with speculation that it would soon devastate Merrill Lynch and AIG, not to mention other banks and financial institutions as well.  For those in Texas who have lost their homes inevitably it's the damage caused by Hurricane Ike that matters most, but this hurricane which has just hit Wall Street looks like it will leave devastation everywhere across the world.

For someone like myself, who is not particularly knowledgeable about economics, the hardest thing to grasp in all this is the utter stupidity of those who have brought this financial crisis on us all.  Those who were meant to be the best of the best when it came to financial management and investment engaged in business involving billions of dollars the like of which most of us wouldn't have even risked in a game of monopoly.

Sadly, this isn't monopoly.  People have lost real homes, jobs, and livelihoods.  For most of us in the western world the past few years have seen incredible financial growth.  It's as if we have been celebrating the victory of capitalism as the only credible philosophy and way of life. Yesterday the party finally came to an end.  Now there is only the clearing-up to do.

For the Christian seeking to comment on these events there is both a temptation and a challenge.  The temptation to be avoided is the temptation to gloat and adopt an 'I told you so' attitude.  For those on the verge of losing everything to be told that there is more to life than money is cold comfort.  Christians sounding superior is not what we need at the present time.

The challenge though is to provide some kind of ideological and moral leadership that seeks to step into the vacuum left by the demise of communism, which recognizes the need for financial growth and development, but which rejects the idolatry of capitalism.  For the past ten years or so it has seemed that only Islam has been capable of providing a coherent world-view as an alternative to capitalist idolatry.  Maybe this is because too many of us as Christians have allowed ourselves to be caught up in the worship of the gods of Wall Street.  We need a Christian theology that isn't so other-wordly that it has nothing to say to people in the real world in which we live and do business, but which isn't so in thrall to the gods of this world that it becomes just a religious version of capitalism. 

In the meantime, we can only pray for those made unemployed, bankrupt, and homeless by human greed and love of money.   

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Strong Meat

This coming Sunday will mark a special Sunday for me.  It will be 8 years since I was formally inducted as Vicar of Christ Church, Kowloon Tong.  It will also mean that I am the longest serving Vicar in the 75 year history of Christ Church!  This is not something I intend to dwell on in the service, but perhaps something I can mention here!  It is also on the way to becoming the longest time I have served in one post since ordination.  So far the longest I have stayed in one position was while Chaplain and Tutor at Bedford.

I always hoped that I would spend 8 years here, but now I am looking beyond that and am concerned that in staying in my present position, I shouldn't fall into a rut.  There is a danger, I think, when you have been at a place for a while of getting into a routine in a way that you don't attempt anything new.  Given that, as regular readers will know, one of my constant concerns is the way in which church life can suffocate what it is we actually are called to do, I am anxious that the next few years should not just be more of the same.  Quite what they should be is another question altogether!

Strong Meat

For the past two Sundays, I have preached on Romans 12 and 13, the set readings for the day. As I wrote yesterday, I will be preaching on Romans 14 this coming Sunday.  In Romans, Paul writes for eleven chapters about salvation, sin, the law, righteousness, and the place of Israel in the purposes of God.  He concludes what he writes by focusing on the greatness of God's mercy to all, both Jew and Gentile.

In chapter 12, Paul appeals to his readers by these very mercies to offer themselves completely to God's service.  In the way that a priest in the temple would offer a dead animal in sacrifice to God, we are to offer our own bodies, that is our very selves, as living sacrifices to God.  Paul then continues to spell out what this means in practice.  He concludes with a call to believers to wake up and serve the Lord in love.

How does he follow all this in chapter 14?  He discusses whether we should eat meat and vegetables or just vegetables!  This seems an amazing anti-climax after his theological discussion in chapters 1-11 and its rousing application in chapters 12-13.

I was reflecting on this when listening to Barack Obama, the democratic contender for the Presidency in the United States, on TV earlier today.  On Tuesday, Barack Obama said in a speech attacking his opponents in the race for the White House that 'you can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig'.  This led to Republican outrage claiming that it was an offensive and sexist reference to Sarah Palin.

The Democrats have responded that no such slur was intended and that John McCain, the Republican contender had used a similar line earlier in the campaign.  The problem, of course, is that last week at the Republican convention in her acceptance speech of the nomination as the Republican Vice Presidential candidate, Sarah Palin had made a joke asking what the difference was between a 'hockey mom and a pit bull'.  The answer: lipstick!  The answer was delivered with a gesture pointing at her lips.

The crowd listening to Barack Obama's reference to pigs and lipstick clearly took it as a reference to Sarah Palin.  Obama denies he meant this and in righteous indignation has complained that when America is engaged in two wars, is facing rising unemployment and an economic crisis, not to mention the problems of global warning, we should not be focusing on comments about lipstick!

Whether Obama intended them to refer to Sarah Palin or not, they were certainly unwise.  What gave them meaning for those who heard them was the context in which they were uttered.  And after Sarah Palin's joke last week, it was impossible for them to be understood any other way.  Either way, Obama appears either nasty or naive.

His reaction to the complaints about his comments that this controversy is just silly and trivial also misses a very important point.  The seemingly trivial issues are symbolic of much more serious and important issues.  It may be about lipstick on the surface, but underneath it is the whole issue of male-female politics and what is and what is not acceptable in political debate. Interestingly, ordinary people seem to get this better than professional politicians like Barack Obama and his team.

Many of us find it hard to express and put into words deep philosophical ideas.  It doesn't mean though that at some level we don't get them.  What we do is to express them in ways we can understand and articulate.  People may not be able to give a philosophical explanation of sexism and the rights of women, they do know, however, that appearing to describe a woman as a pig is wrong in the same way using similar language to describe a black man would be wrong.  

The debate in Romans (don't worry I have forgotten it!) about meat and vegetables may seem trivial to us and almost unworthy of a place in a great letter like Romans, but, to those affected by it in the Roman Church, the debate reflected and illustrated the very issues that Paul had been dealing with in the first eleven chapters of Romans.  Paul's response to how the debate should be handled reflects what he says about the need for love of one's neighbour in chapters 12 to 13.

As in the controversy over Obama's remarks about lipstick and pigs, what gives the discussion about meat and vegetables its significance is its context.  The context in Romans is the relationship between Jew and Gentiles that Paul has been so focused on in Romans.  For Jews and for many Jewish-Christians what you ate or did not eat showed who was in and who was out. In Galatia, Peter had withdrawn from eating with Gentile-Christians when Jewish-Christians had arrived.  In a different situation in Corinth, eating meat offered to idols demonstrated how strong your faith was.  There those who thought themselves the most spiritual despised those who refused to eat meat offered to idols.  The 'what you eat or don't eat' debate wasn't so much a debate about food as a debate about theology.

A popular saying tells us 'we are what we eat' and that was certainly true theologically in the first century.

Paul understands all this perfectly well.  He responds to the issue in the Church of Rome in two ways: 

1. He makes it clear where he personally stands.  Those who eat meat are indeed 'the strong'. They have understood all that Paul has said in Romans 1-11 about faith and the Law and have drawn the right conclusion.  He doesn't see those in Rome who refuse to eat meat, probably because of scruples based on the Law, as more pure, but as weak.  Whatever else it meant, Paul would certainly have seen dying to the Law as meaning that the Christian was free from the Law's dietary requirements!

2. Paradoxically though, this does not mean that everyone in the Church in Rome should eat meat.  Drawing on what he has written in 1 Corinthians, Paul won't allow the strong to despise the weak.  They may be weak, but they are still brothers and sisters in Christ.  The strong at Rome need to understand not only the argument in Romans 1-11, but also the argument in Romans 12-13 where Paul reminds them that we are to love our neighbour as ourself.  What is more, our neighbour in this instance is a brother or sister for whom Christ died.

In other words, what I believe about what God has done for me in Christ means that I can eat anything, but what God has done for me in Christ means that I shouldn't if it hurts someone else for whom Christ died.

It's not just about lipstick and wasn't just about meat!

A Marriage made in ...

One thing that happened over the summer was the marriage of Alan, the fictional Vicar of Ambridge, to Usha, a local lawyer, in the BBC radio drama the Archers.  Actually, they had two marriages, or at least, two services.  The first a Hindu ceremony, the second the Church of England version.  What little opposition there had been in the village to the union melted away being exposed as bigotry and racism.  Everyone, well nearly everyone, was really happy for them.  As a member of my congregation said, the script shows us how the script writers would like us to see things.  It conveys accurately the values, if not of a real village, then at least of  influential people in the media and society.

There is undoubtedly a view, a view in the Church as well as the world, which would see any resistance to the idea that it is alright for a Vicar to marry a Hindu as the reaction of misguided fundamentalists.  Alan may be fictitious, but he is alive and well in pulpits all over the globe.  The view is steadily gaining ground that what matters most is to be spiritual and that how you express that spirituality is less important than that you do.  Christians can be Christians, Hindus can be Hindus, and the only thing we will not tolerate is intolerance of our opinion.

We are back to a theme from yesterday: tolerance, but on certain terms and conditions.  It isn't real tolerance at all, of course, but a new form of bigotry masquerading as openness.  A real wolf in sheep's clothing if ever there was one.

The truth is, of course, that if Alan and the non-fiction versions of him really believe the Creeds they recite in their churches Sunday by Sunday then by definition all religions cannot be equally valid.  This does not mean that we shouldn't listen to one another and try to understand one another.  It does mean that we shouldn't pretend we are all saying essentially the same thing.

We are not.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Autumn in Hong Kong and Sarah Palin in America

Well, the summer has come to an end.  Not that you would know it from the temperature here in Hong Kong, which is in the mid-thirties centigrade.  The fashions here have gone autumnal as the Fashion Houses roll-out their Fall/Autumn collections.  It is a bit strange seeing people in Central Hong Kong wearing European autumn dress in such hot temperatures, but that's fashion for you!

It was good to be able to get back to the UK to visit family and to have a break.  But now the Schools are back and it's pretty much business as usual.  This Autumn, I will be teaching another Christian Ethics course and as I only found out about it over the summer, I am having to move quickly to get ready!  I imagine that some of my thoughts and opinions will creep on to this blog.

This Autumn will see the US elect a new President and Vice-President and no matter where we live in the world, we will be affected by the American voters' choice.  The campaign this year is making headlines over all over the world.  We all know about Barack Obama having watched him for the past 18 months or so during the primary campaign.  But now there is the surprising choice of Sarah Palin as the Republican Vice-Presidential candidate grabbing the headlines.

Like many, I don't much about Sarah Palin.  We will get to know more about her over the next two months.  I do know, however, that there is something very nasty about some of the press coverage and comment that there has been about her.  Liberals seem to hate the fact that it was conservatives that picked a woman.  And they hate the fact that Sarah is not their sort of woman.

On the BBC's 'Any Questions?' programme in the UK this week, a feminist contributor unleashed an amazing tirade of personal abuse against Sarah and all she stands for even criticizing her hair-style.  The intolerance of those who claim to be champions of tolerance and inclusiveness can be breath-taking.  We will include you as long as you are one of us.

Sarah Palin may not be everyone's cup of tea.  She may or may not get elected.  Surely, however, she is entitled to the same sort of respect that she herself showed Hilary Clinton whose views were more to the liking of those who are so venomous toward Sarah.

Sarah has not made her faith part of her campaign.  And yet at the moment she is being subjected to some of the nastiest comments I have seen simply because she used to go to a Pentecostal Church and is a committed evangelical Christian.  Again, tolerance doesn't seem to apply when you actually believe in something unfashionable like God actually being active in our world.

Anyone who knows me will know that I am not a Pentecostal Christian, but I think Christians need to be very careful before joining in the attacks on a sister in Christ just because they don't like her particular brand of faith.  This coming Sunday, I will be preaching on the set reading, Paul's words in Romans 14.  Paul talks about those whose faith is strong enough to allow them to eat what they like and those whose faith is weak so that they avoid eating meat that may be ritually unclean.  Paul is clear that he agrees with the strong, but says that he would rather never eat meat again if it hurts a fellow-member of the body of Christ.

Instead of joining with unbelievers in their attacking Sarah for her faith, we should be praying for her, not that she gets elected necessarily, but that God will watch over and protect her as she is assaulted for the nature of her faith in Him.  We need to pray that her faith will stay strong in the test she is facing.  We can only hope that her opponents will stick to the issues and legitimate arguments over policies.  

Sadly, that doesn't seem likely any time soon. 

And those of us who believe in tolerance, inclusiveness and openess to others need to avoid the hypocrisy of believeing in it only when it applies to those people we like and get on with.