Sunday, November 29, 2009

I am one of those dinosuars who still prefers to write his sermons by hand.  This means that I can't easily post my sermon for Advent here. There is so much going on this weekend and I just don't have the time to type it in.  If you are so motivated, you can download it or listen to it on the Christ Church, Kowloon Tong website.

The theme is 'God in himself and God as he chooses to reveal himself'.

I love Advent and the lead up to Christmas.  I love Christmas Trees, and Christmas Cards, the dinners and parties, and all the celebrations.

Scrooge is not allowed in this household.

But above all, I love the Midnight Eucharist: On this most Holy Night ...

I am trying to persuade a brilliant singer I know and love to sing as part of the Christmas Night Eucharist.  She is proving to be a bit of a shrinking violet at the moment, but I have four Sundays to persuade her ...

I hope you have a great Advent!

The Collect for the First Sunday of Advent

Almighty God,
give us grace to cast away the works of darkness
and to put on the armour of light,
now in the time of this mortal life,
in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility;
that on the last day,
when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
  to judge the living and the dead,
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Friday, November 27, 2009

As we have been celebrating the birthday of Christ Church this past week, a number of people have asked me about the history of the Church. I have written this short introduction that I thought I would also post here. It clearly isn't definitive, but it gives an idea of the Church and its past.

It is Advent Sunday, this coming Sunday and the start of the preparations for Christmas.  Hooray!  We have some repair work going on at the moment and I am hoping it will all be finished by Christmas.  I need a break from building works!  There have been rather a lot of them, but as I say in what follows, this is inevitable given the age of our building and the climate in Hong Kong.

Christ Church – A Short Introduction

The beginnings of Christ Church are quite unusual. Many people even in Christ Church don’t realize that Christ Church is a rebirth of another Church, Saint Peter’s, West Point. Two dates are especially significant: September 2, 1933 and October 29, 1938.

St Peter’s Church had been built in 1872 as a mission Church for seamen. It was supported in its work by large shipping companies. Their support for this work stopped after the first world war. Furthermore, as many of the congregation had moved to Kowloon Tong, the decision was made to open a Church in Kowloon Tong and to close St Peter’s. A Church house was acquired at 3 Duke Street. Worship at St Peter’s stopped in August, 1933 and the Church House was hallowed by Bishop R O Hall on Saturday, September 2, 1933. Worship took place in a large room in the house. The altar and furnishings were those of St Peter’s. At this stage, the Church was known as the Kowloon Tong Anglican Church.

Subsequently, the decision was made to build a Church. The site of the present Church was chosen in January, 1936 and with government assistance a Church was built. The Consecration Service was held on October 29, 1938 and the Kowloon Tong Anglican Church became Christ Church! The Church bell came from St Peter’s. It is rung before every service and at the moment of consecration during the Eucharist.

The date, of course, is significant. Every year Christ Church celebrates the Feast of Christ the King in a special way. Prior to 1970, the feast of Christ the King was observed on the last Sunday in October. However, the reformed calendar approved by the Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church that took effect in that year changed the date to the last Sunday before the next liturgical year's Advent begins (Advent marking the start of the liturgical year). Other Churches have followed this change.

Christ Church celebrated its 75th Anniversary as a worshipping community in Kowloon Tong in 2008!

From the beginning, Christ Church has been comitted to the education of children. In fact, a Sunday School was opened before the Church. Many of the original congregation had close links with DBS, a relationship that continues to this day. In October, 1950 a primary school was opened. Built on Church land, the Dioceesan Preparatory School quickly established itself and its reputation. A redevelopment of DPS in Febraury, 1971 saw two more schools coming to the present site, Christ Church Kindergarten and Mary Rose. Mary Rose was opened to provide education for children with special needs and was named after the wife of a former Vicar of the Church. When Bishop Hall Jubilee School was opened, Christ Church was to have an association with this School as well. Although involvement with education has not been without its problems, it remains a major part of the work of Christ Church and one that it takes very seriously.

The building itself has become a major landmark. On December 7, 1941, shortly after it was built, worship ceased in the building as a consequence of the Japanese invasion. The Church was used as a stable for Japanese horses during the occupation. Originally Waterloo Road was a quiet road leading nowhere. Now it is a major route to the New Territories and to China itself. A building over 70 years old requires constant care and attention. The congregation have in recent years completed major renovation works to the exterior of the building and to the area known as the Committee Room. It is our hope that it will not only be a landmark, but the home of Anglican worship in Kowloon Tong for many years to come!

Christ Church is a both local and global in outlook. Although English-speaking Christ Church has always been locally rooted. This is particularly true since 1997 with the majority of the congregation now being ethnically Chinese. Nevertheless, Christ Church has also always had an international feel with many expatriates joining the Church while they live in Hong Kong. Many other members have been educated or have worked abroad.

Our present Vicar, the Reverend Ross Royden, comes originally from the UK and has been with us since September, 2000.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Yesterday went very well, I am pleased to say.  The weather was sunny and warm and people were generous in their contributions to the lunch, which was just as well as we had a lot of people turn up for it.  The service celebrating our Church's founding was also very well attended: our largest congregation this year.  So I start the week with a sense of gratitude as well as relief!

There has been much talk here about the Pope's recent overtures to disaffected Anglicans, especially those in the CofE.  I find the whole thing rather sad, not because I don't respect the Pope, but because I do.  This move seemed ill-timed and ill-conceived.

Anyway, I came across this flow chart and thought that while it too was sad, it, nevertheless, made the point in an amusing way.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

It's Saturday before our big event tomorrow for the Feast of Christ the King: our Patronal Festival, or, as I try to explain in our School Assemblies, our birthday celebration!

Christ Church was founded 76 years ago and has always been a Church rooted in the local community, while, at the same time, always open to people living in Hong Kong from abroad.

As you will know, I am very proud to be the Vicar of Christ Church, Kowloon Tong, while accepting the challenges it brings.  (See previous blogs!)

Nowadays, we are ethnically about 80% Chinese and 20% people from overseas (including me!)  In the past, our ex-pats would have been predominantly from the UK, as would befit a British Colony, but now, thankfully, our expats are from all over the world.  On a Sunday, we have people from Australia, Canada, the Philippines, the USA - and, of course, the UK - and many other places besides!  For me, we are living out what it means to be 'one body in Christ'.

The 'Feast of Christ the King' is much like a wedding: masses of preparations beforehand and then it is all over so quickly.  There is no point trying to explain: you either get it or you don't!  Our Bishop is coming and we will be: Confirming new members; Celebrating the Church's foundation; and having a Communal Banquet.

On the day itself, we begin with a Eucharist at 8.00am followed by the Confirmation Eucharist at 10.00am.  The Confirmation is taken by our Bishop.  Afterwards, we invite everyone back to the Vicarage for lunch!

The Banquet is on a 'bring and share basis'.  People are genuinley very generous!  Nevertheless, while most are happy to contribute, some need a little encouragement!

Anyway, we are a bit worried at the moment.

One year we had rain.  We coped.  This year the temperature has fallen.  It's not cold, but it is cooler.  It will be up the Obervatory tell us tomorrow.  But people the world over worry about the weather ...

I said it was like planning for a wedding!

Anyway, we are working hard to make sure everything goes well.

I will tell you next week whether it did or not.

Have a great Sunday wherever you are!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

President Obama is in China and has been given a warm welcome by people here. Upon arrival he used the occasion to lecture the Chinese people on the importance of 'universal rights' to free expression, worship, political participation and access to information.

What, of course, he did not say was that freedom of expression in the West has led to the most degrading pornography being freely available to even the youngest of children, that in some countries you are not allowed to display a crucifix in public, that most voters are so disillusioned with politicians that they won't even get out of bed to vote, and that western governments secretly keep their citizens under surveillance in a way that the KGB would have been proud of.

Western politicians need to deal with their own issues of freedom and democracy before lecturing others. I have to tell you that I feel a lot more 'free' walking around Chinese cities at night, for example, than I do in England. In England, I am far more likely to have my freedom taken away from me by muggers or drunken binge drinkers.

Anyway, back to the latest series of blogs!

The thing for me a
bout writing blogs is that while I may have a general idea for a series, the blogs themselves are not planned in advance, but develop as they go. The last few blogs on divorce have turned into a mini-series on its own within the one they were intended to be just a part of - if you see what I mean. Nevertheless, these blogs on divorce are meant primarily as a way of asking the bigger question of how we use the Bible to make ethical decisions today. I hope they are not becoming too rambling or repetitive!

8. Using the Bible in Ethics: Divorce (Part Three – Clarifying the Questions)

Let’s try and sum up what we do and do not know about what the Bible and Jesus, in particular, teach about divorce.

1. It is certain that Jesus taught about divorce. It is certain too that he took a strict approach and did not approve of frivolous divorces or divorce whenever someone happened to feel like it.

2. It is not clear whether he personally allowed any exceptions to this ‘no divorce’ rule. Certainly Matthew did, but scholars are unable to agree what Matthew’s exception is. The majority view seems to be that Matthew allows divorce in cases of ‘sexual immorality’.

3. Paul knows our Lord’s disapproval of divorce and repeats it. He finds himself having to apply it in a very different context, however, and distinguishes his teaching from that of Jesus, allowing divorce when an unbeliever who is married to a believer wants it.

4. It is clear that Jesus bases his criticism of divorce on God’s purpose in creation and on the fact that in marriage a man and woman become ‘one flesh’. It should be noted that this does not logically mean that the union is therefore automatically indissoluble. After all, Paul says that anyone who has sex with a prostitute becomes one flesh with her! He is not presumably arguing that an indissoluble union is formed with her.

So what happens when we try to interpret and apply Jesus’ teaching today? Some Christians think it is all very straightforward. Some such as John Piper, who is very influential amongst evangelicals in the States, argue that divorce is always wrong and remarriage is never permissible for a Christian. Other evangelicals would modify this to allow for divorce and even remarriage when one of the partners has committed adultery.

Other Christians argue that while permanent, lifelong marriage should be the norm and divorce discouraged and avoided as much as possible, marriages do breakdown for any number of reasons, not just sexual, and divorce then becomes a legitimate option with the possibility of remarriage.

In addition to the question then of what Jesus actually taught is a question that people don’t like asking. Is what Jesus taught then binding on us now? Christians don’t like to ask this because understandably they want to be loyal followers of Christ. Interestingly, they do not normally apply the same approach to other parts of the Bible. Simply put: because Paul, for example, forbids women to speak in Church would not mean for many that women shouldn’t speak in them to day.

When questioned about this difference of approach, they would, if pressed, argue that Jesus is different to Paul, and that it is one thing to ignore what Paul said today and another altogether to ignore what Jesus said. Actually, I think this is just plain wrong thinking. Not only was Paul an Apostle of our Lord, Jesus was himself incarnated in the society of his day and shared the same humanity as Paul. If there are good reasons for not following Paul’s teaching today, then there may be equally good reasons for not following our Lord’s, hard though this may be for some to accept. I am not arguing that we should not follow it today only that we need to be consistent in our approach.

We have two questions then:

1. What did Jesus teach?

2. What authority does his teaching have now and how do we apply it?

If all this isn’t hard enough, there is, I think, yet another question: what about what Jesus doesn’t teach? This is where Instone-Brewer would argue that we should assume that Jesus in keeping with others in his day would have allowed divorce in cases of abuse and abandonment. This is difficult because, in the first place, it is an argument from silence and, secondly, we don’t know if abuse and abandonment were specific grounds for divorce in Jesus’ day.

This does, however raise an important point. Jesus was asked a question about divorce in general. Many in his day favoured easy divorce; Jesus does not. That much is clear. But what if Jesus had been asked the more specific questions about abuse and abandonment, and, indeed, about adultery? Would he then have qualified his teaching? If he had qualified his original reply to the Pharisees, it would have dramatically lessened its impact, but does his reply admit to any qualification?

With some reluctance, I think we have to assume from what we have of Jesus teaching in the Gospels, as also reflected by Paul, that when Jesus spoke about divorce, he completely opposed it without qualification. There is the possibility, and it is no more than a possibility, that he made an exception in cases of adultery. We are left to speculate on how he would have answered the questions we would now like to ask.

So what authority does Jesus’ teaching have now and how do we apply it today?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

A long and difficult post to follow today, but I hope it is not impossibly so. It seeks to show how difficult it can be to understand what the ethical teaching of the Bible is even before we try to apply it today!

7. Using the Bible in Ethics: Divorce (Part Two - Trying to Understand the Teaching)

As if Jesus’ teaching on divorce is not hard enough, understanding it has been somewhat complicated, paradoxically, by a recent attempt to clarify it! Dr David Instone-Brewer, a senior researcher at Tyndale House in Cambridge, has researched and written extensively about divorce and marriage in Israel at the time of Jesus. His writing is scholarly and pastorally sensitive, and represents a genuine attempt to understand what Jesus taught.

In the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 24:1 says that a man may divorce his wife ‘for a cause of indecency’. This was the text referred to in Jesus’ discussion with the Pharisees about divorce. Instone-Brewer argues that originally this phrase meant sexual immorality. However, at the time of Jesus, he continues, a new interpretation of the clause was taking it to mean that a man could divorce his wife ‘for any cause’. This was the interpretation favoured by the followers of a Rabbi called Hillel. Others following another Rabbi, Shammai, argued that the phrase was restricted to sexual immorality.

Instone-Brewer argues that by the time of Jesus this new ‘any cause divorce’ had become very popular. The Pharisees in the Gospels are asking Jesus, not about divorce in general, but about what he thought about this new type of divorce. Instone-Brewer’s interpretation is given some weight by the fact that in Matthew 19:3 the Pharisees ask Jesus whether it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause. Instone-Brewer further argues that in Mark’s formulation of the question in Mark 10:2 (‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’) while Mark does not have the words ‘for any cause’ most people at the time would have understood the question that way. In the same way as today when you ask someone if they drink, the question is readily understood to mean, ‘Do you drink alcohol?

Jesus, he concludes, is thus not giving a complete statement about divorce and remarriage, but about the narrower issue of a particular type of divorce that was becoming very popular.

In fact, says Instone-Brewer, in the Old Testament there are two texts governing the grounds for divorce not just one. In addition to Deuteronomy, which is quoted in the discussion between Jesus and the Pharisees, there is also Exodus 21:10f. Deuteronomy allowed divorce for immorality, but Exodus 21:10 allowed divorce on additional grounds: for a failure to provide love, for abuse and for abandonment. Jesus, he says, never revoked this text and these grounds for divorce were accepted by both schools of Pharisees and, more importantly for our purposes, implicitly by Jesus himself. Jesus gets rid of the ‘any cause’ type of divorce, but allows divorce on the four Old Testament grounds of sexual immorality, failure to provide love, abuse, and abandonment. This fits well, he also argues, with Paul allowing a Christian to divorce and remarry if abandoned by an unbelieving partner.

What are we to say about this?

1. If right, it means Biblical teaching becomes what most people think it should be! That is, that marriage is important and should be taken seriously, but that divorce is allowed when there is adultery or serious unreasonable behaviour by one of the partners in the marriage. Jesus thus sounds far more reasonable and less harsh. Rather like an Anglican, in fact.

This, however, should itself urge caution. Is Jesus’ otherwise strict teaching being re-interpreted to soften it? One can applaud the desire to be pastorally sensitive, but we need to be honest about what we are doing. We cannot solve the problem by refusing to admit it exists. We should not be tempted to adopt Instone-Brewer’s approach simply because we like the sound of it.

2. Instone-Brewer effectively sees Matthew as giving the more nuanced account of the discussion between the Pharisees and Jesus rather than Mark. This reverses the normal way of looking at it. As we noted in the previous post, most interpreters would see Mark as being the more accurate and original with Matthew trying to soften what Jesus said. Instone-Brewer may, however, be right and Matthew, because of his Jewishness, might have been in a better position to understand what was really going on.

But this means that whereas in the normal interpretation of the Gospels, Mark records the original and Matthew softens it, on Instone-Brewer’s interpretation, Matthew records the original meaning, if not the original words. Matthew, on this view, is not softening, but explaining. Mark, then, has either misunderstood what Jesus was saying or, as Instone-Brewer believes, has recorded it in such a way that Jesus’ words were misunderstood once read in a non-Jewish setting.

3. So is Instone-Brewer right in his interpretation of the passages in the Gospels? Quite simply, I don’t know! I just do not have the knowledge of the ancient sources to be able to make a judgement. A person who does have such a knowledge is J P Meier. Meier in the fourth volume of his consideration of the Historical Jesus, A Marginal Jew, specifically rejects this reconstruction of Instone-Brewer’s. Meier argues that ‘any cause’ divorces far from being new were the norm in mainstream Judaism and always had been. He also rejects a dispute between two rabbinical schools as being the context for Jesus’ teaching. In the way I lack the detailed knowledge to be able to assess Instone-Brewer’s position, so too I lack the knowledge to be able to asses Meier’s.

But that I think is the problem. As Instone-Brewer readily admits, on his position Jesus has been misunderstood as forbidding all divorce from the very beginning of the Church: as soon as his teaching was taken out of a Palestinian setting, in fact. This means for years the Church has sentenced people to a life of misery, refusing to allow divorce, and causing all sort of guilt and hang-ups, because it believed it was being faithful to Jesus’ teaching and because that seemed to be the obvious way of understanding it. The truth for Instone-Brewer, however, was that Jesus never intended such a blanket restriction on divorce in the first place.

It wasn’t that the Church was being cruel. And nor was it that the Church was being stupid. It just couldn’t have been expected to know that Jesus was only dealing with a question about a specific type of divorce and the interpretation of a specific text. To understand Jesus’ teaching, if Instone-Brewer is right, needed the resources only now available to us through modern scholarship and even then two respected specialists, Instone-Brewer himself and Meier, reach opposite conclusions! If the Bible is so hard to understand on something so basic and important to all our lives, what use is it? If we cannot know for sure what it means on something upon which it appears to speak directly, how on earth can we know what it teaches on issues about which it is less direct?

4. Even if Instone-Brewer is right and the context of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels is a question about ‘any cause’ divorces, Jesus’ reply to the Pharisees does seem to go beyond this question. Jesus, on any understanding, has a very high view of marriage and opposes divorce using very black and white language. Instone-Brewer argues that had Jesus been asked about what happens in cases of abuse and abandonment, he would have allowed divorce. This is an argument from silence and such arguments are always dangerous.

For our purposes, though, this brings us back to the conclusion in the last post. We today still have to answer questions Jesus did not address and we have to do so in a much changed context. If this were not difficult enough, apparently we have to do it without even being sure what Jesus said and meant in the first place!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Today I post the final in my series on Calvin (for previous posts see under Calvin).

Talk Five: God’s love is inclusive

God is in control and God loves us in Christ. These are two of the themes that I have identified in the theology of John Calvin, the 500th anniversary of whose birth is celebrated this year. The third, and the last one in these talks that I want to focus on, is that God’s love is inclusive.

This is not, perhaps, a theme that many people would associate with Calvin’s teaching. Calvin is all too often portrayed as stern and harsh: someone more likely to exclude and reject people than include and accept them. The most controversial aspect of Calvin’s theology and the one that many think, wrongly as it happens, was his main emphasis is the idea that God chooses some and not others. As I have been trying to argue, there is much more to Calvin than this particular idea. Equally, there can be no doubt that Calvin believed and taught it as one idea amongst many.

Now whatever you may think of this idea, and I imagine that many may find it difficult, to put it mildly, there is no question that it has its roots in the Bible and in Biblical language. No-one would dispute that the word, elect, meaning chosen, is a Biblical word used in the Gospels by Jesus himself. It is used throughout the New Testament to describe those who believe.

Calvin, in other words, did not invent the idea that God’s people were chosen, he was simply trying to understand and explain it. Many before and after Calvin thought along similar lines. It may be repugnant in our own day and age when we hate the idea of anyone making decisions on our behalf and like to deceive ourselves into thinking that we are in control of our own destiny. Previous ages have been more realistic about the limits of human freedom and power.

Still, even if we don’t want to go all the way with Calvin, it is perhaps worth seeing the positive side to what Calvin is saying rather than focusing all the time on what his critics see as the negative side. Calvin asserts God’s freedom of choice. God’s choice is not dependent on human standards and is not in any way influenced by them. In fact more than this, God’s choice, challenges and contradicts human wisdom and prejudice.

To put it another way: God’s elect opposes human elites. The alternative to God choosing is us choosing, and human choice always gravitates to those who are powerful and popular, rich and connected, famous and fabulous. It is not God who rejects people, but us, even us who claim to be God’s people who follow the example and teaching of Christ.

St Paul wrote the following words to Christians who were making judgements about people based on appearances and background:

‘Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.’ (1Corinthians 1:26-29 NRSV)

All too often we exclude people on the basis of human wisdom and prejudice. We create churches where your face has to fit if you want to belong. Calvin would encourage us not to worry about what other people think. It doesn’t matter if you are poor or socially insignificant, unconnected or uneducated, weak or ugly, it only matters what God thinks of you. But it also follows from this that all that should matter to us is what God thinks. It shouldn’t matter to us what school a person did or did not go to, how they speak or do not speak, what job they may or may not have, whether they are rich or poor. All that matters is that they belong to Christ.

This then is the teaching and theology of John Calvin: belief in an all-powerful God who loves us unconditionally in Christ and whose choice challenges the false values of power, position, and prestige embracing us – just as we are.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

In my series on Using the Bible in Ethics, I now turn as promised to the difficult issue of divorce. In this the first part, I want to look at the texts in the New Testament. In the second, I want to look at suggestions that we have misunderstood Jesus' teaching. Finally, I want to move on to how we should apply Jesus' teaching, whatever it was, today.

6. Using the Bible in Ethics: Divorce (Part One - Texts)

I have been contrasting two types of approach amongst those who wish to give the Bible a prominent role in arriving at ethical decisions. The first focuses on the actual text of the Bible, while the second seeks to identify broad themes within it that are then applied to specific ethical issues. This is done even if the application contradicts or appears to contradict individual texts. (See previous posts in this series under Using the Bible in Ethics)

One area where these two - texts and themes - would seem to come together is over the subject of divorce. In the New Testament, at least, our Lord no less, seems explicitly to forbid divorce giving the theme or principle upon which he bases his prohibition (see Matthew 5:27-32, 19:3-11; Mark 10:2-12; Luke 16:18). Even the more sceptical scholars seem to agree that Jesus took a strict, rigorist stance when it came to divorce based on his understanding of God’s intention in creation.

There is one problem, of course, the so-called ‘exceptive clause’ in Matthew (Matthew 5:32, 19:9). Jesus forbids divorce ‘except for unchastity’. Mark and Luke, however, do not allow any exceptions in their version of the text as it stands. So did Jesus say it, or is it, as many argue, an addition by Matthew to soften Jesus’ otherwise strict demands?

And then there is the problem of what the word translated in the NRSV as ‘unchastity’ actually means. Some take it very narrowly to mean something like marriage within the forbidden decrees of the Old Testament, so that the text would mean that you could only divorce if you discovered you had married a close relative. The obvious question is why you would only find out you were closely related after you got married! Others take it more broadly to mean that divorce is allowed if the partner has sex outside of the marriage.

So even though we may conclude that Jesus was strict in his approach to divorce, we are still not sure how strict he was. If we take the position that he allowed divorce for adultery, then it is interesting that Mark does not include the permission! If he did not allow divorce at all, then we have the interesting position within the Bible itself of one evangelist feeling able to modify Jesus’ teaching, perhaps in the light of pastoral realities in his own church community.

Again, the text based approach runs into some difficulty and may have done so from the beginning. Jesus’ theme seems clear enough: that God’s original purpose in creation was that man and woman should live together as one flesh. Given that God has joined the man and the woman together, no-one should now divide them. The problem remains of how rigorously to apply it: strictly, as in Mark or Luke, or less so, as in Matthew.

This ‘no divorce’ teaching has, of course, led the Church into difficult pastoral situations. What do you do when one of the partners in the marriage – usually the woman – is physically abused by their husband? Even Christians wanting to stick to the letter of what Jesus said, have accepted that the wife should separate from her husband, even if they would not let her marry again. But why stop with physical abuse, what about mental cruelty? And what constitutes evidence of mental cruelty?

Jesus’ teaching was found to need further explanation from the very first. Even if Matthew does have Jesus’ original words, Paul found in Corinth that he had to do some serious pastoral thinking about separation, divorce and re-marriage (see 1 Corinthians 7:10-16). Jesus’ context was that of Israel, where people were expected to keep God’s law. He was, after all, speaking to those who historically were God’s people. Paul, however, is dealing with a Gentile context. Paul seems to have been asked by the Corinthians about separation and divorce, in general, and more particularly about separation and divorce when one of the partners was not a Christian. In some of the marriages one of the partners in the marriage is an unbeliever. In general terms, Paul feels it is clear. Paul repeats the Lord’s teaching, making it plain that he is quoting Jesus: believers should not divorce, but if they do separate they should not remarry.

When it comes to marriages in which one of the couple is not a believer, Paul makes it clear that what he has to say is his teaching and not that of Jesus. He doesn’t mean by this that what he says isn’t authoritative, but rather that this is his teaching in the light of what he knows Jesus to have said. He is applying Jesus’ teaching to a situation and context that Jesus had not addressed.

His teaching is that in marriages where one of the partners is an unbeliever, the believer should still stay married and not divorce his or her partner. However, if the unbeliever separates from the believing partner, says Paul, the believer is not bound. Divorce, in other words, in this situation is allowed. A new pastoral reality, not addressed by our Lord allows Paul to adapt our Lord’s teaching to the changed context. Now it is clear that Paul isn’t keen on divorce and wants to avoid deviating from our Lord’s teaching, but he does recognize, as may have Matthew, that changed pastoral realities may require an interpretation and application of it.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The weather here in Hong Kong is at last a little bit cooler! We are now getting ready for some big events over the next few weeks not least our Feast of Christ the King on November 22 when we celebrate the founding of our Church.

Today I post the fourth in my series of radio talks about Calvin.

Talk Four: Loved in Christ

Calvin’s theology defies easy summary despite attempts in the past to do so. Certain themes do occur regularly, however, themes which are often neglected in the preaching and teaching of the Church today. One theme is that God is in control. No matter how hard life may seem and how bad things may get, God remains in charge and is able to bring good out of evil.

People often accuse Calvin of being hard and cruel and of projecting these characteristics onto to God himself. So that, it is said, in Calvin’s theology, God becomes distant and unforgiving. I think, sadly, that this may have been true of some versions of Calvinism, but it is certainly not the God of Calvin himself, the God he devoted his life to serving and worshipping. The God who is in control is for Calvin the God who loves us in Christ.

When was it that God first loved us? Scientists tell us that the universe came into existence some 13 billion years ago. St Paul in his letter to the Ephesian Christians writes that God chose us in Christ before the creation of the world. It is all too easy to read words like this without grasping what they are saying. Think for a moment about this means. It means that before everything went bang, before the stars were born, before the dinosaurs roamed this earth, before the emergence of human life, before we were even a thought in our parents’ mind, God loved us.

Jesus said that ‘no-one could come to him unless the father drew them’. We didn’t choose God, he chose us in Christ before we were born, and then, at the right time, he called us to himself. This ought to give us massive reassurance. God loves us absolutely and unconditionally. He knew from before the universe began what we would look like, think like, and behave like. He know everything there is to know about us. He knows even those things about us that we don’t want to admit to ourselves and certainly not to other people.

And yet knowing all this, he still loves us and goes on loving us. No wonder then that St Paul asks, ‘if God be for us, who can be against us?’ We need have no fear of being rejected by God and no fear of anything getting in the way of us being loved by God. This is the point of that wonderful passage in chapter 8 of St Paul’s letter to the Romans:

‘For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ (Romans 8:38-39 NRSV)

The Bridget Jones books and films have deservedly been very popular, and I am delighted to learn that another is in production. Renee Zellweger is brilliant as Bridget. Bridget is very susceptible to the opinions of others. She is constantly trying to please people. She worries about how she looks, what she wears, what she weighs and tries, normally unsuccessfully, to change to win approval. An amazing moment for her comes when Mark Darcy, played by Colin Firth, tells her that he loves her just as she is. Just as she is. She doesn’t have to be someone else or pretend to be someone she isn’t. He loves her just as she is.

If we wonder whether God loves us and accepts us or not, the absolute assurance that we have is that he did so a long time ago and nothing can change this acceptance. Jesus in his life showed us the love of God. He accepted the very people that the society of his day marginalized and rejected. He reached out to them no matter who they were, where they came from, or what they had done. God knows us better than we know ourselves and in Christ he reaches out to us still – just as we are!