Saturday, March 28, 2009

So What's the Problem?

Following on from my post yesterday about the bigoted attacks on the Pope this week.  I would like to publish today what the Pope actually said and which has got everyone so worked up:

I would say that this problem of AIDS cannot be overcome with advertising slogans. If the soul is lacking, if Africans do not help one another, the scourge cannot be resolved by distributing condoms; quite the contrary, we risk worsening the problem. The solution can only come through a twofold commitment: firstly, the humanization of sexuality, in other words a spiritual and human renewal bringing a new way of behaving towards one another; and secondly, true friendship, above all with those who are suffering, a readiness—even through personal sacrifice—to be present with those who suffer. And these are the factors that help and bring visible progress.

I simply do not know how anyone could really object to these comments.  The Pope himself would presumably be against condom use in all circumstances: we 
already know that, but that is not what he said to reporters.

Soon after the story broke, Kathryn Jean Lopez, editor of National Review Online, released an interview with Edward C. Green, director of the AIDS Prevention Research Project at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies. Here’s what he had to say:

We have found no consistent associations between condom use and lower HIV-infection rates, which, 25 years into the pandemic, we should be seeing if this intervention was working.

The pope is correct, or put it a better way, the best evidence we have supports the pope’s comments. He stresses that condoms have been proven to not be effective at the level of population. There is a consistent association shown by our best studies, including the US-funded Demographic Health Surveys, between greater availability and use of condoms and higher (not lower) HIV-infection rates. This may be due in part to a phenomenon known as risk compensation, meaning that when one uses a risk-reduction technology such as condoms, one often loses the benefit (reduction in risk) by compensating or taking greater chances than one would take without the risk-reduction technology.

I also noticed that the pope said monogamy was the best single answer to African AIDS, rather than abstinence. The best and latest empirical evidence indeed shows that reduction in multiple and concurrent sexual partners is the most important single behavior change associated with reduction in HIV-infection rates (the other major factor is male circumcision).

So what's the problem with what the Pope said?  And why all the fuss?  Well, I would suggest that it's not because most of those reporting on this issue care about Africa.  It's hard to see who in the West cares about Africa at the moment.  Certainly the millenium goals have been quietly forgotten in the rush to help the American and European middle classes in danger of losing money in the present financial crisis.  A crisis brought on by their own greed!

To understand the irrational outcry against the Pope's comments, we need to appreciate that the west has seen a revolution in sexual behaviour that now means that the majority think thatpromiscuity is no big deal.  Indeed, on the contrary, it is celebrated daily in the newspapers and on TV.  Underpinning this, however, is the fervent hope that male condom wearing willensure that there are no nasty health consequences.  If condoms ultimately don't work in preventing sexually transmitted diseases, then the values and lifestyle that has been championed by many in the west would be under great threat.

The Pope's comments aren't a risk to the health of people in Africa, rather they are a challenge to the lifestyles of people in the west.

And that's the problem.

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Pope, Condoms, and Western Bigotry

As a rule I try to avoid unnecessary controversy.  As St Paul says:

Have nothing to do with stupid and senseless controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. (2 Timothy 2:23)

I have, however, listened to the recent press attacks on the Pope, first with mild amusement at how intolerant liberals can be, and then with increasing anger as they have become more personal, bigoted, and nasty.  What has offended western secularists is that the Pope had the audacity in conversations with the press, as part of his recent visit to Africa, to question whether, in fact, increased condom use actually works in the prevention of HIV.  When his comments were reported, to coin a phrase, all hell broke lose.

Now even the Lancet, who really should know better, have got on the bandwagon.  According to the BBC, it said the Pope's recent comments that condoms exacerbated the problem of HIV/Aids were wildly inaccurate and could have devastating consequences.  The London-based Lancet said the Pope had "publicly distorted scientific evidence to promote Catholic doctrine on this issue".  It said the male latex condom was the single most efficient way to reduce the sexual transmission of HIV/Aids.  "Whether the Pope's error was due to ignorance or a deliberate attempt to manipulate science to support Catholic ideology is unclear," said the journal.

Over the past few years condom use in Africa has increased dramatically.  Bewilderingly, if you take the Lancet's line, so has the rate of HIV.  What the the Lancet failed to say is that the Pope is not alone in his belief.  This is from a report in an African based newspaper:

'A Harvard expert on AIDS prevention, Dr. Edward C. Green, said “the Pope is actually correct”. Dr. Green has written five books and over 250 peer-reviewed articles, and is an agnostic, not a Catholic. Last year, he wrote in the journal First Things that the never-enough-condoms explanation of the AIDS epidemic is driven “not by evidence, but by ideology, stereotypes and false assumptions.”

Dr. Green is not a lone voice. In an article in the leading British medical journal, The Lancet, James Shelton, of the US Agency for International Development, stated openly that one of the 10 damaging myths about the fight against AIDS is that condoms are the answer. “They have limited impact in generalised epidemics,” he wrote.

In 2004, an article in the journal- “Studies in Family Planning” admitted that “no clear examples have emerged yet of a country that has turned back a generalised epidemic primarily by means of condom promotion.” In fact, in Cameroon, precisely where the Pope was flying to when he made his “infamous” remarks, between 1992 and 2001 condom sales increased from 6 to 15 million, while HIV prevalence tripled, from 3 to 9 per cent.'

The Pope has no need for me to defend him, and I am not even saying who I think is right.  I do think the Pope is right, however, to at least raise the issue, and I think the Lancet is wrong to come to the aid of vested interests rather than engage in open, honest, scientific debate.

The Lancet said this:

"When any influential person, be it a religious or political figure, makes a false scientific statement that could be devastating to the health of millions of people, they should retract or correct the public record," it said.

A modern example of casting a speck out of someone else's eye and missing the beam in your own.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Below is the fourth of my Radio Broadcasts for RTHK for March.
Creation Talk Four: Salvation not Evolution

Christians talk of salvation.  They believe that when Christ came, he came to save us.  This, of course, implies that we needed saving in the first place.  There are those who persist in believing that human beings are fundamentally good, but even the most optimistic of us must admit that as human beings we frequently make a mess of things at best, and, at worst, are capable of acts which can only be described as evil. 
The theory of evolution is receiving much attention this year as it is both the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his book, On the Origin of the Species.  This didn’t just change how people understood how the world came in to being, it changed how they thought about themselves.  They came to see human beings in a different light to how they had been viewed when Christianity provided the dominating world-view.
Darwin’s theory of evolution suggested that we had arrived where we were by a complex process of evolution.  Life since its inception had adapted and changed until it emerged in the form and forms we now knew.  Human beings as the most intelligent life form on the planet was the greatest result of this process: its crowning achievement.  From very primitive beginnings human beings had emerged supreme.  And if we had evolved to this state getting better and knowing more at each stage wasn’t there every reason to believe that this was how it would continue?
A theory that described a physical process was applied to the area of human moral and spiritual development.  There was no necessary and logical connection, but no matter: it all made sense.  As humans had evolved physically so too they had evolved morally and as they had left behind previous physical states so too they should leave behind previous moral and spiritual ones.
For many, religion came into this category.  Religion belonged to a previous stage in our evolution, useful perhaps in the past when we thought the earth was flat and at the centre of the universe, but we knew better now.  We did not need the crutch of religion, we could manage perfectly well on our own.  Things could only get better.  Now we understood where we came from, we could see where we were going and we certainly did not need religion to get there.  Religion if anything would only hold us back.

Religion insulted human intelligence and, with its talk of human sin and weakness, it failed to see the glory of the human species.  Human beings would leave behind superstition and animal like behaviour and enter a brave new world confirming their moral dominance of it.  Human beings were fundamentally good and, as they continued to evolve, society would only improve.
This myth still exists.  It has survived the trenches of the first world war, the concentration camps of the second, the bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the cruelty of dictatorships and millions of other daily examples of human cruelty and wickedness.  We can’t seem to bring ourselves to admit that whatever may or may not be the case in our evolving physical state, morally and spiritually we are no different now to how we have ever been.
But admitting this suggests that religion, and even worse, Christianity, may have been right all along.  That no matter what our achievements, and they are many.  No matter how advanced our scientific and technological accomplishments, and they are great.  We remain weak, helpless, selfish, and, very often, just plain evil.
Christianity seeks to explain this contradiction.  It does so by telling us that God created us originally to know him and worship him, but in a drama that each age and individual repeats, we reject him and choose instead to go our own way regardless of the harm and damage that it is does to both ourselves and to others.
The situation would be hopeless were it not for the love of the Creator for his creation.  A love, which led him to become one of the created and live with them in their world, taking their nature and as one of them revealing himself to them.  In Christ, God offers us the chance to leave the past behind and become what we always were meant to be.  This won’t happen by a process of evolution, it will only happen through the salvation we find in Christ.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Parable of the Shrewd Manager

We had the fourth of our Lent Studies last night.  I must confess that I have been enjoying this series on the parables more than I expected to.  Yesterday it was the, again badly named, Parable of the Unjust (or Dishonest) Steward (or Manager) in Luke 16.  This parable has caused many Christians and commentators an awful lot of worry.  They feel uneasy that Jesus uses a dishonest person as an example of how we should live as his followers.

The first thing to be said is that the passage doesn't exactly say that the manager was dishonest that's just how some versions translate it.  Luke says that he was 'unrighteous'.  Hence the title, 'Unjust Steward'.  Clearly though, this doesn't get rid of the problem for Jesus is still holding up an unrighteous person as an example to us.  But in any case what the Manager is praised for is his shrewdness in his use of money to secure a future home for himself not his dishonesty or whatever.

Jesus' comment on the parable, however, is a bit complicated:

'...for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.  And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of the mammon of unrighteousness so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.'

Some commentators understand the first part of this to mean that the children of this age know how to exist and get on in this age among their own kind, but that the children of light don't take their place and responsibilty in the kingdom of God as seriously. The meaning then would be that we need as Christians to take being a Christian as seriously as unbelievers take acquiring money and possessions.

While this is doubtless true, I don't think it is the point of the parable.  The parable is focusing on the Manager's shrewd use of money.  Jesus is wanting to encourage his disciples in their present use of money in this age.  The Manager had used his master's money, over which he had legal control, to make friends for himself and ensure he was welcomed into their homes when he was out of a job.  Jesus then is picking up on this and speaking figuratively when he says we should make friends by means of money (literally: the mammon of unrighteousness).  He is telling us that we should so use money in this life that we will be welcomed into eternal homes in the future.

Christians have a very difficult realtionship with money.  On the one hand, we just give in and adopt the same values, attitudes and behaviour as everyone else.  The lifestyles, possessions and ambitions of Christians aren't noticeably different to those who are not.  You would not often be able to tell whether someone was a Christian, for example, simply by looking at their use of money.  On the other hand, there have been those who have rejected the use of money altogether and who have idealised poverty.  St Francis is, perhaps, a good example of this approach.

I rather suspect that many Christians think that Jesus taught a St Francis type of ethic, while following the lifestyle of the society around them.  The choice then seems to be either capitulation or rejection.

Jesus is, I think, asking for something different.  We are to use money, but we are not to use it the way society around us uses it.  We are to have different aims and goals.  Those around us  use it to make their life better here.  We are to use it to make our life better hereafter.  Jesus is under no illusions about money.  I have heard preachers say that it is not money that is evil, but rather the 'love of money'.  I think Jesus goes further than this.  He sees money itself as inherently evil. It is both bad and transient.  It is the 'mammon of unrighteousness'.  The day will come when it is gone.  It is impossible to serve God and serve money, says Jesus.  But it is, nevertheless, possible to use money to serve God.

When I go to Europe, I have to change my Hong Kong dollars for Euros.  The Euro is the currency of Europe and if I am to get around in Europe, I need Euros.  Money is the currency of this age: of this generation.  To function in this age, I need to deal with money, but in dealing with it I need to keep my eye on the future age when money will be no more.  As a Christian, how I use money should be very different to how those around me use it.

As Jesus says, this calls for a shrewdness that we children of light often find hard.  The challenge, nevertheless, remains.  As Jesus asks:

'If then you have not been faithful with the mammon of unrighteousness, who will entrust to you the true riches?  (Luke 16:11)

Saturday, March 21, 2009

It's Mothering Sunday tomorrow.  Well, more accurately, it's Mothering Sunday in the UK.  Other countries honour their mothers on a different day.  Most people in Hong Kong follow the American date, which is strange given Hong Kong's recent British colonial past.  

At Christ Church, however, we go with the Anglican tradition of celebrating Mothering Sunday on the fourth Sunday of Lent.  As we keep saying, it's Mothering Sunday and not Mother's Day, but no-one really seems to listen!  We will, however, be saying 'thank you' to our mothers tomorrow.  As a token of our thanks, we will give the mothers in the congregation a posy of flowers.

The irony is that even as I type the posies are being made - by a team of our mothers!

Have a Happy Mothering Sunday whichever country you are in!

2. Works of the Law and Good Works: Works in Context

I began the first in this new series by suggesting some questions I would like to ask Paul.  At the heart of the recent debate about what Paul means when he talks about 'works of the Law' and 'good works' is the issue of historical context and what the nature of the argument was between Paul and his fellow Jewish believers.  The so-called New Perspective suggests that it was essentially about who could be a member of the Church.  Previously, it was thought to be about how you could be saved.  (For more on this, see my blogs under the link, Paul)

As a favourite writer of mine, Don Garlington, himself a believer in the New Perspective, has argued, the two are not necessarily exclusive as membership of the Church is membership of a community of salvation.  Nevertheless, there is, at least, an important difference in emphasis.  It would be really helpful to have the arguments of Paul's opponents in their own words.  In the New Testament, we only have Paul's response to them.

Reconstructing history is an art as much as a science.  One reconstruction will give you one answer; another, an entirely different one.  The strength of the New Perspective is that it gives priority to the historical context and insists on understanding Paul against the background of first century Judaism.  The problem with those who reject the New Perspective is that all too often they sound as if they are rejecting it, not because they disagree with its historical research, but because it does not fit their doctrinal system.

This allows writers like N T Wright to argue that faithfulness to scripture means faithfulness to the original meaning of Scripture and not faithfulness to later interpretations of it.  It also allows New Perspective people to portray themselves as faithful historians and interpreters of Paul and their opponents as prejudiced and dogmatic.  Some of those who have written and spoken against the New Perspective have only themselves to blame for influence the New Perspective has had and continues to have.

The New Perspective is right to insist on an accurate, historical understanding of Paul and what he wrote, free from theological preconditions.  Challenging and painful though it might be at times!  This, nevertheless, raises the question of what an accurate, historical understanding of Paul should be.  Some scholars are beginning to ask, on the basis of historical research, whether the New Perspective is as right in its understanding of Judaism and Paul as some within it like like to think.

But we can begin by agreeing what should never have been in contention: to understand Paul we need to understand Paul in his original context.  And that brings us back to the first blog in this series: why did Paul get into such of a state over 'works of the Law'? 

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A Lenten Bible Study

It is amazing how the Bible never fails to deliver new surprises and challenges from even the most familiar of passages.  Last night's passage at our Lenten Bible Study, the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) being a case in point.

At first it seems straightforward enough: a lawyer comes to test Jesus.  This is not necessarily in a hostile fashion.  Perhaps he just wants to make sure Jesus is a sound teacher and knows the Law. The question, however, is fundamental:  'What must I do to inherit eternal life?'  Jesus responds with a question:  'You are the lawyer, what does the Law say?'  The lawyer answers that you should love God and love your neighbour.  'Exactly', replies Jesus, 'Do this and you will live'.

Of course, this does not satisfy the lawyer and leaves him looking not a little foolish.  It's as if Jesus says, 'If you knew the answer, why are you asking the question?'  So wanting to 'justify' himself and explain why he is questioning Jesus, he asks a follow-up question: 'And who is my neighbour?'  It's a good recovery and not an unreasonable question.  If eternal life depends on us loving our neighbour, we could do with knowing who our neighbour is!  The question also suggests, of course, that some people are not our neighbour!

And so to the parable.  I must confess that I have in the past tended to focus in the story on the Priest and the Levite and what they did not do and on the Samaritan and what he did do.  As I was preparing for last night, I became much more interested in the man who was beaten, stripped naked, and left half dead.  We are told nothing about him.  In the story, he is completely anonymous and without identity.  The Priest, Levite, and Samaritan have no idea who he is. How could they?  He is left naked with nothing to suggest who he is.  He could be rich, poor, a Jew, Samaritan, or whatever.  Even though he hasn't a clue who the man is, the Samaritan still helps him.

At the end of the story, Jesus asks the lawyer, 'Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?'  This is a very interesting change of question.  The lawyer had asked, 'Who is my neighbour?'  Jesus tells a story that is designed to answer a different question, 'Who was the neighbour?'  

The answer to Jesus' question is obviously the Samaritan.  The Samaritan did not worry whether the naked man was his neighbour or not.  He was too busy being a neighbour to the man in need.    However, the lawyer now also has the answer to his original question of what he must do to inherit eternal life:  'Go and do likewise', Jesus tells the lawyer.  

Rather than worrying about who his neighbour is (and who is neighbour is not!) the lawyer must focus instead on his own action in showing mercy to all whatever their identity.

The Parable of the Good Samaritan remains a perfectly acceptable title for the parable, but maybe a good sub-title could be the Parable of the Naked Man!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Lent 3

We are now up to the third study tonight in my Church's Lent Studies.  We are going to be looking at the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  This time there is no need to change the name of the parable.  For the first parable, you may remember, I suggested that the Parable of the Soils was a better title than the Parable of the Sower.  For the second, I suggested the Parable of the Two Sons instead of the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  With this the third, the Good Samaritan seems to work fine!

Below is the third in my series of radio talks for March.

Creation Talk Three: The Revelation of God in Christ

If God really did create the heavens and the earth, why did he do it?  It is the Christian belief that before even time itself came into being, there was God existing beyond time in eternity.  Christians believe that science describes the process by which God brought you and I into being.  It is a fascinating thought that if the conditions immediately after the big bang had been even a fraction different from what they were, then you and I would not be here and I would not be giving this talk.  Indeed, the laws of nature look as if they have been written to enable you and me to emerge. The late scientist and astronomer, Fred Hoyle, was so struck by the coincidence that he described the Universe as a ‘put up job’.

St Paul writes in his famous letter to the Romans that all of us should be able to see that there is a God and appreciate what he is like simply by observing the world around us.  The majesty and complexity of the creation points us to the Creator.  There is much we can learn about God by studying his ways.  Scientists are engaged in a noble task for when they study the universe and the physical world they are studying the creation of the One who is beyond it, but responsible for it.    

Studying the creation tells us much, what it cannot tell us, however, is why the Creator went to so much trouble.  What was his purpose in bring all things into existence?  The answer to this question is one that we cannot work out for ourselves.  The Creator must answer for himself.  But before we can ask the Creator this question we must find him.  Where is he to be found?  Christians believe that the God who exists beyond space and time entered our world in physical form and is to be found in the person of Jesus Christ.  Christians believe that in the person of Christ God revealed himself to us.  Christians revere Christ as teacher and prophet, but they believe that he was much more than that.   

When he was on earth one of his disciples, Philip, said to him that if he showed them God, they would be satisfied.  He replied that anyone who had seen him had already seen God.  It was through him, he claimed, that people could come themselves to know God.  This is an amazing claim.  It is no wonder that C S Lewis, the author of the Narnia books, said that if Jesus was not God, then he must have been mad or bad.  If he was not who he said he was, then he must have been deluded or deliberately deluding others.   

The first Christians believed he was who he said he was.  It is a fantastic fact that the people who knew Jesus personally, who spent time with him; who ate, drank, laughed and lived with him, claimed after his death that while fully human he was also divine.  They didn’t have to do this.  They could have believed he had come back from the dead without believing he was also God.  They could have believed all his teaching.  They could have reverenced him as a prophet in the way other religions reverence their founders.  There was no need for them to resort to the belief in Christ as divine.   

Indeed there was every reason for them not to.  They were devout Jews who believed absolutely that there was one God and that the worship of anything or anyone else was idolatry and strictly forbidden.  Everything suggested that they should honour Christ as a great prophet, even the greatest prophet, but stop there.  But they didn’t.  They went on to describe the friend they knew intimately as God become flesh.   

It took the early Christians a great deal of time to work out want this meant and to express it in human language.  They knew that in trying to put it in words, they were trying to express the inexpressible, but they felt they had to do it for no other reason than it was true.  They believed that they had met God himself in the person of Christ and that the man who had walked the streets of Jerusalem was the One who had created the Universe and all that was in it.   

In a famous passage one early Christian said:  

‘… but we say that the Son of God , while visible to the eyes, and a babe in swaddling clothes, and still at the breast of his Virgin Mother, filled all creation as God …’   

This is an incredible thought.  Jesus reveals who God is and what he is like.  He shows us the love of God for us and what God wants from us.  God reveals himself to us not in the first place by giving us a book, but by coming as a person, as one of us.  What the book, the Bible does do is point us to the One who in himself reveals God to us.  In pointing us to Christ, it also gives us the answer to the question of why the Universe was created.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Monday and a New Week

It's Monday and a new week.  Quite a full one by the look of it.  I will post the next talk in my Radio Broadcast Series tomorrow and the next one in the Works Series towards the end of the week.  

On a lighter note today: I ran my blog through something called the Genderanalyzer which is meant to determine the gender of the blogger the site's gender character.  This is what it said:

We guess is written by a woman (52%), however it's quite gender neutral.

Not entirely sure what I think, but I am pleased it's gender neutral - assuming it is, that is.  And as I rather dislike the whole macho thing, I am glad that that is not how it comes across.  But maybe I take these things a bit too seriously.

Have a good week!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Well here is the first in my new series on Paul and the issue of works.  This first post raises some questions that I think need to be answered especially in the context of much that is being written at the moment about Paul and what he taught.

1.  Works of the Law and Good Works: Some points with which to begin

St Paul in Galatians is at his most polemical.  Some Jewish believers from Jerusalem have visited churches that he founded and have encouraged them to get circumcised and keep the law of Moses.  The believers there are willing to do this.  Paul tells them they are betraying the Gospel of Christ and that Christ will be of no use to them if they continue.  He has some very strong words about what he thinks of the Jerusalem visitors.  The following are 12 points I would have wanted to put to Paul and have him answer for himself if I had been around at the time!

1.  Paul, you were formerly a Pharisee before becoming a Christian and a very zealous one at that.  You know Judaism and the Law better than most.  Indeed, you still keep certain Jewish rituals and practices. You had no problem, for example, circumcising your most trusted co-worker, Timothy.

2.  Ironically, some of your main opponents seem to be Pharisees who have themselves also become believers.  It was they that spoke out at the so-called Jerusalem Council demanding that the Gentile believers be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses.

3.  Presumably, they like you believe that Jesus is the Messiah and that he died and rose again.  You have, in other words, a great deal in common.

4.  And yet, in your letter to the Gentile believers in Galatia, you are extremely critical of them (or at least of those like them) claiming that they are preaching a different Gospel to you and deserve to be damned for it.  Even allowing for the rhetoric, this seems to be an extreme position to take about people with whom you apparently have so much in common.  It is not immediately clear why you feel quite so strongly.

5.  You agree that the Galatians should not live immorally and that they should live good lives.  In other words, that they should do, in fact, much of what the Law commands.  And yet you tell them that you are completely opposed to them getting circumcised and keeping the Law.  Furthermore, you even suggest that they will lose their salvation if they do.

6.  I can understand just why you might prefer Gentile believers not to be told that they have to be circumcised when they don't want to be, but the Galatians don't seem themselves to see it as too much of a problem.  You tell them not to keep the Law, but warn them against doing things that the Law itself forbids.  Would it be really so bad if they willingly got circumcised?

7.  I again understand why you are concerned that there should be unity between Gentile and Jewish believer.  I agree that Peter and Barnabas refusing to eat with Gentile believers because of what James' friends said was terrible, but aren't you going to the opposite extreme in saying that James' friends are enemies of Christ?

8.  It is clearly right that if God has accepted the Gentiles then so must we.  I think we are all agreed on that.  The issue seems to be what must the Gentile believers do now that they are accepted by God and us.  You agree that they must live to the same moral standards as Jewish believers.  You just don't agree that Gentile believers should adopt any of the rituals that the Jewish believers practise - even if they want to!

9.  Your fellow Jewish believers are arguing that Gentiles are welcome to become members of the Church.  You don't deny this.  Like you, they want all, Jewish and Gentile believer alike, to be one in Christ and equal in Him.  They just happen to think that this can best be achieved if the Gentiles do what God himself has always required so that both Jew and Gentile believer are alike.  No-one is disputing that the Law is God's Law.  

10.  You suggest that Gentile and Jewish believers cannot be one and have fellowship if Gentiles have to be cirucmcised.  Isn't, in fact, the reverse the case?  And is it not the case that by not allowing the Gentile believers to be circumcised, while you yourself still live as a Jew and continue to circumcise people when you want to, you are creating a two tier Church?

11.  You say that the Gentiles should not be circumcised.  Your Jewish colleagues say that they should.  You are very critical of the Law, they are not.  But both you and they live in much the same way.

12.  Given that we all believe the same when it comes to the life, death and resurrection of our Lord and that we all seek to follow him as the Messiah, aren't you over-reacting somewhat?  If it enables the Church to be truly one wouldn't it be better to allow circumcision?  Are you really prepared to divide the Church and condemn fellow-believers over this?  

And if you are, why?

Friday, March 13, 2009

Nearly a year ago, I posted a blog about good works in the teaching of Paul.  This was part of a series looking at Paul's teaching in general.  It was my intention to continue to look at the relationship between 'works of Law' and 'good works' in Paul.  I realized, however, that this was going to be much harder than I had thought.  The relationship is not that straightforward.

The problem is that Paul is adamant that we are not righteoused (justified) by 'works of the Law', but he is also adamant that we as Christians must do 'good works'.  I have been thinking about this and trying to get clear in my mind how Paul would explained the difference if he was around to be asked.  Anyway, I think now is the time to return to the issue.  Previous blogs can be accessed by clicking on the link 'Paul'.  Rather than simply continuing the old series, I am going to begin another that will pick up where the last one left off!

I know this sounds a bit clumsy, but the whole point of blogging is to let things go where they lead you and that means they are not always as tidy as you might otherwise wish.  To start off the new series, I publish below again the last last blog in the previous series.

18. Life in the Spirit: No Escaping the Importance of 'Good Works'

As I argued in the last blog, in Paul, as in the New Testament and Judaism, eternal life is given with reference to how we have lived in this life. This troubles many Christians for it seems to re-introduce ‘works’ as the basis for salvation. It appears as though we ‘earn’ our salvation after all. This is an understandable reaction, but equally we need to listen to what the text actually says rather than simply following our theological traditions important though these are.

I came again across a wonderful text from Acts the other day while preparing a sermon. It is Paul’s words in his defence before Felix:

‘But this I admit to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our ancestors, believing everything laid down according to the law or written in the prophets. I have a hope in God—a hope that they themselves also accept - that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous. Therefore I do my best always to have a clear conscience toward God and all people.’
(Acts 24:14-16)

Not everyone is comfortable with using Acts as a reliable guide to what Paul and others actually said, but this does seem a very good summary of Paul’s attitude. Paul did not see himself as departing from Judaism as such and accepted much that he had believed in his former life. As I have been arguing, how to become one of the righteous was a key idea in this. Paul disagreed with his fellow Jews and many Jewish-believers on how one became righteous. He did not disagree on the need to do so.

It followed for Paul, as again we have seen, that the righteous had to live righteously and God would judge whether in fact they had done so. This is why Paul does his best to have a ‘good conscience’. This raises the question of whether Paul allows a form of salvation by works in by the back door. Some think that he does and so embrace this by saying that the only works Paul is against are ‘works of Law’ - variously defined. He is not, they argue, against works as such.

At first glance there may seem to be some support for this in Ephesians. Again, it is worth noting that not all are convinced that Ephesians was written by Paul. I think we should accept that it is, or that at the very least it faithfully embodies his teaching. We read this:

‘For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.’ (Ephesians 2:8-10)

He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace … (Ephesians 2:15)

It could be argued that Paul is simply against works of Law because these were what separated Jew and Gentile believers, but that he was not against good works, which were required of all believers. However, we need to remember all that we have said so far not least that when Paul discusses the Law. He dismisses an ongoing role for Law by reference to what is sometimes called the moral law. Notice too how here he stresses that this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works so that no-one may boast. But surely our good works can be something that we boast in as well as Jewish works?

This has led some to argue that good works are evidence of faith and salvation but not the basis for it. John Calvin, who certainly cannot be accused of making works the basis for salvation wrote in his Commentary on Romans:

‘It is quite nonsensical to insist that there is a fire, when there is neither flame nor heat.’

This is certainly a way forward, but again, in Paul, works seem to have even more importance than simply as evidence. They seem in some sense to be the basis on which our future judgement will be made. Indeed, Paul does not assume at any time that the judgement will automatically be favourable for either himself or the believer. In Galatians, he seems to suggest that bad works, if we can put it like that, might actually lose a believer their salvation.

Consider this verse:

‘Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest-time, if we do not give up.’ (Galatians 6:7-9)

And this earlier. Having listed the works of the flesh he writes:

‘I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.’ (Galatians 5:21)

Taken together and with what Paul says elsewhere, not least in Romans, it does seem that Paul sees what we do as Christians as being more than simply illustrative of faith, though they are that, but more than it appears that they be the basis on which we will be judged.

If we are to take Paul seriously we will not receive eternal life without good works. Now someone who believes that good works illustrate faith will do good works and so the question of whether they are simply evidence of faith or the cause of a positive judgement is in a sense an academic question as in any case eternal life will be the result! It seems clear, even if we come to the conclusion that we will not receive eternal life because of our good works, that we certainly will not receive it without them. In this sense, Paul is a lot nearer James than sometimes it is thought. You will remember that James rejects the notion that we can be saved by faith alone without works.

Next I will try to be more precise about how I think Paul sees good works working!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Parable of the Two Sons

We had our Lenten Bible Study last night on the Parable of the Prodigal Son, or more accurately, the Parable of the Two Sons.  It is to be found in Luke, chapter 15.  As you will know, the context of this parable is the Pharisees and the scribes grumbling and complaining that Jesus eats with ‘sinners’.    

Jesus responds to this criticism by then telling three parables designed to show what the right reaction should be to sinners who were lost, but who have now been found.  First, that of shepherd who rejoices when he finds the sheep and secondly, of the woman who rejoices when she finds her missing coin.  Both invite their friends and neighbours to join the celebration.

In the Parable of the Two Sons, the elder son refuses to join in the celebration that the Father organizes for his lost and found son.  The Pharisees are like this elder son.  They won’t join Jesus’ celebration with the lost and found sinners.

Interestingly, the parable does not tell us what happened after the Father explains the need to celebrate to the elder son.  Did the elder son go in and join the celebration, or did he storm off and have nothing to do with it?  We don’t know.  We do know, however, what the Pharisees, that the elder son represents, did.  They went off to plan the murder of this friend of sinners.

But there is a sequel. 

We know from St Luke’s sequel to the Gospel, the book of Acts, that some Pharisees became believers and Church members.  There were sufficient of them for them to have had a voice in the Jerusalem Church.  Indeed, it is the believing Pharisees that kick-off the so-called Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, taking a radically different position to that other believing Pharisee, St Paul.  The believing Pharisees are clearly behind the opposition to St Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles.

We know from Galatians that this opposition meant that Peter and ‘even Barnabas’ in Antioch stopped eating with ‘Gentile sinners’ (Galatians 2:15) Wouldn’t it be interesting to know whether any of those who complained about Paul eating with ‘Gentile sinners’ had been amongst those who had complained about Jesus eating with the tax-collectors and sinners?  Whatever, the same attitude that led the Pharisees to condemn Jesus for eating with ‘sinners’ continued when the Pharisees became followers of Jesus. 

I wonder if St Luke made the connection when he was writing his two books?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

We are comfortably into Lent now and tonight I have the second of our Lenten Bible Studies.  Tonight I am talking about the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  This is the second of my broadcast talks for Lent.

Creation Talk Two: Where do we find an explanation?   

Belief in creation implies a time when there was no creation: only God existing outside of time and in eternity.  So why, if this was the case, did he decide, if he did so decide, to bring the whole creation into being?  Those who answer the ‘why’ questions, as opposed to the ‘how’, questions have many difficult challenges.   

Scientists look at ‘how’ it all works and try to come up with explanations for the natural world.  The ‘why’ people have a far greater challenge: we have to think the mind of the One who thought it up all up in the beginning, and give an explanation of his ways.  Those dealing with the how have the decidedly easier job!  They deal with what they can see, touch, and handle.   We deal with that which we do not know, and cannot see, touch, or handle.   

We believe, however, that God has given us an account of what he has done and has revealed to us something at least of his ways.  Both the account of God’s actions and the revelation of his ways lie in the book we call the Bible.  Now, obviously, the Bible does not read like a scientific text book.  What it is is an attempt to answer the most fundamental questions of human life in a way that is relevant to every age of human existence.  Give a copy of the Origin of the Species to previous ages and civilisations and it would have made no sense.  Had the ancient Greeks have read it, for example, they would have laughed.  It would not have fitted their world-view.   

The Origin of the Species was a book of its time.  The Bible is a book for all time.  Let’s try a simple test!  Can you think of a passage from the Origin of the Species?  Now can you think of a passage from the Christian Scriptures, otherwise known as the Bible:  The Lord’s my Shepherd, Our Father in heaven, Hail Mary, full of grace, the famous passage about love.  You will say that this familiarity is because the Bible has been around much longer.  Exactly!  The Bible provides, in its own way, an explanation of the Origin of the Species that speaks to every generation and every age in a way that Darwin’s, or anyone else’s for that matter, could not.  It does not mean that Darwin’s account is not true just that it was phrased and expressed in the scientific language of Victorian England.  Who reads the Origin of the Species now?  I doubt if most undergraduate science students have opened it, let alone read it.  However, Sunday by Sunday, here in Hong Kong, people hear the Bible’s explanation of the ‘Origins of the Species’ and, to a greater or lesser extent, understand it.   

It’s all about audiences.  The Bible has addressed generation after generation.  The Origins of the Species addressed just a limited audience in a particular place, at a particular time.  What is more many of those who championed it were actively seeking an alternative to the existing theory of creation.  There is nothing wrong with the science, there is everything wrong with the mindset of those who championed it then, and many of whom who champion it now, as an excuse for rejecting God.   

We are all prejudiced, biased, and lacking in objectivity.  We are all inclined to believe what we want, to choose the ideas that suit us, and the philosophy that furthers our goals.  Perhaps not unsurprisingly, this is exactly how the Bible explains the human story.  We were created for greatness, but instead choose mediocrity.   

The Bible is often criticised for being of its time, that is, that it is culturally limited, belonging to another era.  After all, it appeared many, many years, before the Origin of the Species.  But the Bible will still be around long after the Origin of the Species is confined to the dust of the library shelf.  In my Church alone, there are at least 200 copies of the Bible that have to be replaced regularly because of overuse.    

This is not an attack on science, but on a certain view of science.  A view that fails to see that scientific theories are a product of their environment, are limited by their culture, and are often appropriated by the powerful.  In case you think this is left-wing rhetoric, remember the BIG BANG - of Hiroshima!   

The Bible necessarily does not address the ‘how’, it addresses the ‘why’.  If, ‘e=mc (squared), is one of the most famous of the ‘how’ formulas, then the formula: ‘God created the heavens and the earth …’ is one, if the not the, most famous of, the ‘why.  It has been around much longer and remains the most satisfying explanation of the origin of the species yet to be given.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Cheerful Giving

I am a big fan of Google.  

I have a gmail address, use Google search as my default search engine, and even use Chome as my web-browser.  I think Google is innovative and energetic, and hope they continue as they have started - after all, they are still a comparatively young company.

I was, however, more than a little amused by this statement on their official blog:

'We stand behind the commitment made in 2004 to devote 1% of Google's equity and profits to philanthropy, and we will continue to iterate on our philanthropic model to make sure our resources have the greatest possible impact for good.'

Here at Christ Church, we, like most Churches, are having to take on board that there is a financial crisis at the moment.  One thing we are also clear on is that we stand behind our commiment, made several years ago, to 'devote' twelve and a half per cent of our income to what Google describes as 'philanthropy'.  Income note, not profit!

Sorry guys, 1 per cent doesn't cut it!

In the present crisis, we need more 'philanthropy' not less.