Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Is it just me?

Is it just me ...

My first Bible was the King James Version.  It is still the version that comes to mind whenever I think of a passage.  So, initially, I was quite excited to learn that celebrations were being planned for the 400th anniversary of its publication next year.  Excitement, however, turned to incredulity and then, I have to say, something bordering on anger, when I went on a website dedicated to the celebration. (

Here they have Richard Dawkins - a militant atheist, no less - extolling the KJV!

One of the biggest struggles I have had in the past has been with those who think that Church services should be in Shakespearian English.   Many who argue thus - not all, I accept - are more concerned with a cultural elitism than with hearing the Word of God.  Richard Dawkins sums it up in a phrase:  'The Bible doesn't have to be tied to religion.'

This website in its very promotion and celebration of the KJV has demonstrated why we can't any longer use it in public worship.  We simply cannot be identified with this sort of snobbery.

Here is another quote from the website:

Professor Dawkins was asked why he wanted to participate in the initiative. "You can't appreciate English literature unless you are steeped to some extent in the King James Bible", he replied, "people don't know that proverbial phrases which make echoes in their minds come from this Bible. We are a Christian culture, we come from a Christian culture and not to know the King James Bible, is to be in some small way, barbarian".

Holy Week is proceeding apace!  Hard to believe that tomorrow is Maundy Thursday.  Below I post the next in the series about God.  I will post the remainder over the next few days.  You may remember me writing that these were a series I did for Lent some time ago, but they are still what I would want to say on the subject now!

4. The Question of God: The Evidence of Revelation

In our thinking about God, I have been arguing that there is evidence all around us for his existence.  But many people do not see it or do not respond to it.  This raises the question of how people are to come to believe in God.  This question at once brings us to the heart of the problem.  The  assumption in much of the discussion about believing in God seems to be that it is us who have to do the work, that it is up to us to find God.

This assumption lies behind a lot of religious thinking both outside the church and in it.  In contemporary religious studies, religion is often portrayed as human beings’ search for God and for meaning in their lives.  The different religions in the world, then, are to be explained as the different stories of our quest for something beyond us.  Alternatively, from a Christian standpoint, people will be urged to believe in God, to think about the importance of faith, to consider the arguments, to see their need and to act.  This sort of understanding can result in a presentation of the Christian faith that is based on what we can discover about God.  It can also begin to seem that if we make the effort to think through the arguments, experiment and engage with religion then, eventually, we will find God.  God is there and it is up to us to find him.

From a Biblical point of view, this is not at all satisfactory.  First of all, it is not God who is lost, we are.  Secondly, spiritually, we lack the means to come to God.  Thirdly, even if the evidence were as bright as bright could be, we would not be able to see it because spiritually we are blind.  The theologian who has done most in the twentieth century to remind the church of this is Karl Barth (1886-1968).

Barth was born at Basel.  After studying theology at the universities of Bern, Berlin, Tubingen, and Marburg, he became a Reformed minister in Switzerland.  It was while pastoring a church in Switzerland that he wrote a commentary on St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.  It was to establish him as one of the major theologians of the twentieth century.  He was to become a professor at several German universities until, after conflict with Hitler, he was dismissed by Hitler in 1935, and became professor of theology at Basel until 1962.  Pope Pius XII described him as the greatest theologian since St Thomas Aquinas.

Barth rejected all theology that put the emphasis on human beings and what they did, and stressed, instead, what God has done and still does through revelation.  God, for Barth, is utterly transcendent and wholly other.  Stressing the sinfulness of human beings, he pointed out that men and women had failed to find God because of their sin, and so God, in the person of Christ had come to us, had sought us out, and had unconditionally welcomed us into a relationship with himself.  In the Gospels, after all, it is the shepherd who seeks the lost sheep, not the lost sheep who seek the shepherd.  In Christ, then, God reveals himself making it possible for people to believe in him.
And that said Barth is still how it is.  We do not now find God, not even in Christ, by our own reasoning and efforts.  It is not that God made the truth known in Christ, and it is now up to us to find it.  It is still necessary for God to reveal himself to each one of us separately.  This he does through the preaching of the good news of Jesus Christ.  In Christ, God calls each of us to himself and makes it possible for us to come to know him.  Left to ourselves we would only ever stumble around in the dark.

But what are the consequences of this for our examination of the evidence?  We have been arguing that there is evidence for God.  Well yes, indeed there is.  We, however, have chosen not to see it and now have become unable to see it.  St Paul describes human beings as being spiritually blind and therefore unable to see the light of the Gospel (2 Corinthians 4:4).  Does this mean, then, that considering the evidence is a wasted effort?  No, just not enough.  It is right to show people that there are good grounds for believing in God, but more is needed.  We must ask God to open people’s eyes to see the truth of the evidence.  We must ask God to draw people to himself through the message we proclaim.  Jesus said that no-one can come to him unless drawn by the Father who sent him (John 6:44).

So where does this leave human reason?  Firstly, it means that reason alone will never and can never bring people to God.  We need a spiritual renewal if we are to be able to enter into a relationship with God.  Secondly,  human reason is in any case limited because we as human beings are limited.  There are limits to what we can know and understand.  This is not a message that we like to hear.  We are encouraged to think that there are no limits to human understanding.  Sadly, the very fact that we are mortal, confined to a body and given over to death, with a brain that cannot absorb everything shows that there are limits.  When it comes to God, we are never going to have the mental capacities necessary to understand him fully.

Thirdly, however, there is a vast difference between saying, as I have been, that we cannot find God through reason and saying that belief in God is unreasonable.  Simply because something does not seem to make sense to us, does not mean that it does not make sense.  Furthermore, once we have come to faith, we are in a position to see and understand more than before.  Indeed, it should be an absolute priority for every Christian to grow in their understanding of God.

Someone who is very helpful when it comes to understanding the relationship between faith and reason is St Anselm (1033-1109).  Anselm was born in Italy.  At the age of 26, he entered the Benedictine monastery at Bec in Normandy.  Shortly after, in 1063, he became the prior of the monastery.  He was prior for about 15 years and then became the abbot.  In 1093, he became the archbishop of Canterbury.  Anselm believed that it was revelation, not reason or experience, that gives us the content of the Christian faith, but the believer can then seek, by the use of his or her reason, to understand more fully what he or she believes.  By examining the Christian faith in this way, we can come to see how rational it really is. 

In a famous passage Anselm wrote:

‘I am not trying, Lord, to penetrate your sublimity, for my understanding is not up to that.  But I long in some measure to understand your truth, which my heart believes and loves.  For I am not seeking to understand in order to believe, but I believe in order that I may understand.  For this too I believe: that unless I believe I shall not understand.’  (Prosologion 1)

May God grant us the faith to believe so that we too may understand.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Five were wise, five were foolish ...

I feel a bit sad now that the Lenten Bible Studies have finished.  I have enjoyed studying the five parables over the past five weeks.  On Wednesday, we studied the Parable of the Ten Girls, five of whom were wise and five foolish.  As I said on Wednesday, I don’t remember having spoken on this parable before.  There is indeed a first time for everything!

The context of the parable is Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 24 about the destruction of the Temple and the Coming of the Son of Man.  At the beginning of chapter 24, Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple.  His disciples say to him:

‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’ (Matthew 24:3)

I think in their mind this was really one question.  The Temple was so important and of such significance that its destruction must surely signal the end of the age.  We now know that it should have been two questions: the first, when will the Temple be destroyed? and, secondly, when will you return?  The Temple was destroyed in AD70 possibly accidentally (from a human point of view, that is).  It is not clear that the Roman General and future Emperor wanted it destroyed.  If it was an unintended destruction it makes it all the more poignant.  No matter how terrible and how much of an end of an age it was, it was not the end and the Son of Man did not return.

Jesus taught that, in fact, no-one knew when his return would be, not even Jesus himself.  What was certain was that it would be sudden and unexpected.  It was vital, therefore, that people were ready for it.  There then follow in Matthew 25 three parables: this one about the Ten Girls, the one about the Talents, and the one about the separation of the sheep and goats.  They each address how we should live in the time before the Son of Man returns.

In the Parable of the Ten Girls, five are wise and five are foolish.  The foolish girls are not prepared for the delay of the bridegroom and run out of oil.  The wise are prepared and bring extra oil.  The foolish have to go looking for oil and suffer exclusion from the wedding banquet as a consequence.  The message is clear: we are to be prepared for the coming of the Lord.

What has struck me this year as we have been studying the parables is how strong the theme of judgement is in them.  The Tax-collector went home from the Temple justified, but the Pharisee did not.  The King sends his army to destroy the city of those who refused to come to the wedding banquet for his son.  The Unforgiving Servant is tortured for failing to forgive.  The Rich Man is tormented after his death.  The Foolish Girls are excluded from the banquet.  And it is not just in these parables that the theme of judgement is to be found.  It runs through all Jesus’ teaching. 

All this suggests that many of us need to revise our understanding of the message of Jesus.  We have gotten away from the Victorian sentimentalized picture of ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’, but in its place have put the liberal Jesus who accepts everyone and is always there for us.  This replacement Jesus seems just as false and unreal.  Jesus announces the judgement of God and calls upon people to repent.  Those who do so he accepts unconditionally.  But those who don’t are excluded and have to face their fate.

This is not the picture of Jesus that we readily recognize and it certainly is not one that is often portrayed in our Churches.  We find it hard to believe that Jesus would exclude anyone.  If, however, the parables of Jesus are anything to go by we need to wake up soon or we are in danger of finding ourselves amongst the excluded!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Our AGM passed smoothly and peacefully on Sunday.  It may seem strange that I say peacefully, fortunately at Christ Church, at least, they usually are.  It is not always the case in Churches though and nor has it always been the case in my own experience.  I don't know why it is, but Christians aren't always very good at being nice to one another.  Thankfully, on Sunday we were.

I am now preparing for tomorrow night's Bible Study.  It is the last in the current series for Lent.  The parables of Jesus continue to enlighten and surprise.  They have a habit of hitting you just when you least expect it.  This week we are studying the Parable of the Ten Virgins.  I will share some of my thoughts on this parable later in the week.

Tonight, however, I am going to the ballet.  It is the Hong Kong Arts Festival at the moment: an annual month long event that sees musicians from all over the world visiting Hong Kong.  Among them this year are the Mariinsky Ballet and the Mariinsky Opera.  The ballet company used to be known as the Kirov Ballet in Soviet times.  It is based in St Petersburg.  St Petersburg is a magnificent city.  One of my biggest disappointments when visiting it some years ago was not being able to see the ballet or opera so tonight is a treat I am looking forward to.

The ballet they are performing is Don Quixote and the reviews have all been positive.  So for a few hours tonight all thoughts of church politics, meetings, and the like will be forgotten.  Well, perhaps not quite forgotten ...

Have a good week.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Rich Man and Lazarus - Part Two

As I said in my last post, the Rich Man and Lazarus is a truly shocking parable.  Shocking because it is the rich, powerful, and successful man that ends up being tortured in the after-life and the loser, who can only lie all day at his gate, who gets to be with Abraham.  What is more, Abraham refuses to let the Rich Man even have a drop of water to ease his pain.

What would Jesus' hearers have made of it?  That he wasn't too keen on rich people would seem one thing.  As I was preparing, however, I was struck by the following historical details.

The High Priest at the time was Caiaphas.  He was the son-in-law of a previous High Priest, Annas.  Both of whom are mentioned in the Gospels (Luke 3:2, John 18:13, Acts 4:6).  Annas had been deposed by the Romans for over-stepping his authority, but he remained extremely powerful and influential.  Annas had five sons of his own all of whom went on to become High Priests as did Caiaphas' own son.  Josephus tells us that this was one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in Judea in the first century.

Commentators rightly note how the Rich Man isn't named in the parable.  (More about which in a moment.)  But is it possible that Jesus is, at least, basing his picture of the Rich Man on Caiaphas?  High Priests wore purple and fine linen as did the Rich Man.  The Rich Man had five brothers.  Why five?  OK the five brothers were brothers-in-law, but the figure five is surely suggestive.  Then there is the fact that normally the High Priests were Sadducees, Caiaphas certainly was (Acts 5:17), and the one certain thing that we know about the Sadducees is that they did not believe in resurrection and they did not believe, and this is important, that there were rewards and punishments after this life.

Their wealth and views on the after-life then provide a perfect explanation for the background to the parable.  By having the Rich Man tormented and Lazarus in the bosom of Abraham, Jesus is challenging their confidence that there will be no reckoning for their behaviour in the present.  It may also explain Abraham's rather strange comment that if the Rich Man's brother's did not believe 'Moses and the prophets', then neither would they believe if someone was to rise from the dead.  Why wouldn't the Rich Man's brothers believe if someone rose from the dead?  Is Jesus simply saying they are set in their unbelief or is he making an allusion to the Sadducees stance on life after death?  Something, indeed, that Jesus has an argument with them over.

If this sounds a little fanciful, we know that they didn't believe when it actually happened that someone did rise from the dead.  In John 12, Jesus raises Lazarus, yes Lazarus, from the dead and the reaction of the chief priests, which would have included Caiaphas' 5 brothers-in-law, is not to believe him, but to try to kill him:

'So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.'  (John 12:10-11)

This is precisely how Abraham says they would react.

If I was to tell a story in a sermon and began it, 'There was a certain black President who was the leader of a powerful country ...'or, 'There was a certain leader of a city who always wore bow-ties ... ' Wouldn't people make associations with either President Obama of the United States or Donald Tsang, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong?

Now nothing depends on this as far as the interpretation of the parable is concerned, but if it is in anyway on the right lines then it would have added even more dramatically to the impact of the parable when Jesus told it.  Its shock value would have been even greater.

And it is shocking even if we manage not to be shocked by it.  The Rich Man is not given a name.  He is known by his wealth.  Money does this it possesses and take over the personality of the person concerned so that they become known by their possessions.  What matters is the brand labels they wear, the places they are seen in, the addresses they live at.  The Rich Man, because of his love of money, has become anonymous, defined now by his wealth and not by who he is.

Riches also pervert.  Abraham says how in his life the Rich Man received good things and Lazarus evil things.  The parable is not glorifying poverty as, sadly, Christians sometimes are tempted to do.  Lazarus' poverty was evil.  But what the rich man owned was also good.  Jesus is not dualistic.  He is not suggesting that material things are wrong.  The Rich Man's clothes were beautiful.  His food was no doubt a tribute to his chef's skill and creativity.  The problem is good things too easily become gods rather than simply goods.  In our lust and desire for them, we give them a role they should not have perverting them and corrupting them.

We live in a society that from the earliest age encourages children to get an education so they can embark on a well-paid career and acquire as a result all the trappings of success.  Doesn't this parable challenge this philosophy of life and call into question our attitudes and values?  By encouraging our children to think like this, we are not preparing them so much for life after college as for hell after death.

Jesus speaks about a reversal of fortunes after death in such graphic terms not to frighten us by what will happen to us in the future, but to encourage us to change in the present.

The Rich Man and Lazarus - Part One

I was intending to write a few comments about last night's lent parable, but I have just read a report on the Telegraph online web-site about Lady GaGa's latest pop video.  It is nine and a half minutes long.  I have just watched it on Vevo.  As the warning above it says, 'it may contain material which may offend', which, of course, is its whole point.

What I found especially interesting, however, was what the Telegraph report said.  I quote:

'Most debate has focused on whether the video could be considered a work of pop art or just salacious sensationalism threatening the moral fabric of society. Lady GaGa herself claims it is a “commentary on the kind of country that we are”.

In which case, as GaGa and Beyoncé ride off into the sunset following a series of semi-naked dance routines, random outfit changes, B-movie locations, clunking product placement and a near-incoherent plot centring on infidelity and mass poisoning, one might be forced to conclude that America is a nation straining under its own decadence, producing a jaded, thrill-seeking, attention-deficit generation who can communicate only through irony. It is certainly not the state-of-the-nation message that President Obama would like to be sending out.'

The thing is that it had had 20 million hits when I watched it.  There is a whole generation growing up that connects with this.  What's my point?  Well only that unless we start connecting with it too we are going to lose a whole generation for Christ.  I am not advocating making shocking videos (or am I?), but I am sure we have to do better than I have to confess I do each Sunday.

This is also my link to the theme of parables: Jesus' parables did connect and did shock.  Last night, we heard about a rich and successful man being tortured in hell and being refused even a drop of water to relieve his pain by a righteous hero.  Lady Gaga connects because she believes in what she is doing and knows how to project both it and herself.  We had better start learning to do the same.

More on the parable itself later ...

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

It is the third study in my Church's Lent series on the parables tonight and I will talking about the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.  It is also our Church AGM this week and I have been busy getting the AGM Reports ready for printing ahead of the meeting.  Anyway they have gone off and should be ready in time!  I will write more about my thoughts on the parable after tonight's study, but for today here is the third in the series about God!

3. The Question of God: The Argument from Experience

So far, in these talks, I have been arguing that believing in God is rational. It is reasonable to believe in God.There are, however, dangers with this approach.  It can begin to sound as if all that matters is the mind, or that human reason on its own is sufficient to lead us to God.  That is certainly not what I am arguing, although I do think that reason is greatly under-valued by many Christians today.  This week, I want us to think about the evidence from experience, and then, next week, as we think about revelation, examine the limits of reason.  What I am arguing is not that reason is a substitute for faith, but that faith is reasonable.  Reason alone may not bring us to faith, but that is not the same as saying that our faith is not reasonable. Indeed, if it is not reasonable, then it is not faith in the Biblical sense of the word.

Some Christians, though, both past and present, have despaired of ever getting anywhere with human reason, and have turned instead to human experience.  One such was Blaise Pascal (1623-1662).  He was a scientist, a mathematician, and a Christian thinker.  You will have probably have used one of his inventions this week: the calculator. Pascal allowed only a limited role for philosophy and reason.  ‘The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing’ is a famous quote.  Also famous is ‘Pascal’s wager’.  When considering whether or not there is God, we need to consider, said Pascal, the stakes.  If we believe in God, we stand to gain much both in this life and the next.  Even if we are wrong, we will lose nothing for we will be dead and never know.  There is nothing to be gained by not believing in God.  It is better, then, to bet your life on God!

As an emotional appeal, I find this very effective, and it has to be remembered that many of the decisions we make in life are based on what we feel to be right for us.  Some people will dismiss emotion when it comes to religion, but when it comes to almost every other decision that they have to make, whether it be whom they marry or which brand of cola they buy, they will let emotion play an important part.  Our emotions are essential to our lives as humans.  Nevertheless, when it comes to God, it has to be admitted that individual spiritual experience is of only limited value
as evidence.  Furthermore, it also has to be conceded that Christians often try to prove too much from their own experience. 

Frequently, Christians will point to things that have happened in their life and experience as proof that there is a God or that Christianity is true.  An appeal will be made to alleged miracles or supernatural occurrences.  Sadly, rarely will these bare the weight that is put on them.  This is not to deny their importance, nor their importance for the person who experiences them, but as evidence they do not carry much conviction.
In the first place, miracles and the like, which Christians often use in an attempt to establish the truth of their faith, are, in fact, often universal phenomena experienced by people of different religions and none.  Secondly, on many occasions, the phenomena are perfectly susceptible to physical explanations.

So does this mean that, in thinking about God, evidence from experience has no value?  I do not think so.  Individual experiences may not count much as evidence, but religious experience taken as a whole may have something important to teach us.  Rudolf Otto (1869-1937) has been very influential in the way people think about religion.  In 1917, he became a professor at Marburg University in Germany.  He is best known for his book, The Idea of the Holy.  He stressed the universality of religious experience.  No matter how much they may differ on just about everything else, what people have in common is what Otto called the numinous. 

To put it plainly, people, wherever they may be, have an innate sense that there is something else out there, something bigger than them that goes beyond their physical senses and experiences.  Human beings want to worship something.  Sometimes what they worship may seem strange, but there can be no doubting their desire to worship.  In this, we are very different to other animals.  However much we may be related to them through the evolutionary process, animals of the non-human type do not go in for worship.  Why are we as humans so religious?

Feuerbach (1804-1872) argued that our worship of God (or whatever) was a projection of our own feelings and emotions.  We have created the sort of being that we wanted to believe in.  Rather than man being created in the image of God, God was created in the image of man.  Feuerbach was followed by Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Sigmund Freud (1865-1939).  Marx saw religion as a drug used by the rich and powerful to keep the oppressed happy with their conditions.  Freud saw religion as an illusion, a crutch for weak people.  We needed a father figure, someone to turn to and to depend on, and so we invented God.  It is a bit like a child with an imaginary friend.  Well, possibly.  As before, that is one interpretation of the evidence.  Again though, is it the most likely or the most reasonable?

The undisputed father of Western Christianity is Saint Augustine (354-430).  Aurelius Augustine was born in Thagaste in Roman North Africa (modern Algeria).  He had a pagan father and a Christian mother, St Monica.  In his student days, at Carthage, he decided to devote himself to a life of philosophy.  He turned away from Christianity finding the Old Testament crude and unspiritual.   He taught in Africa and Rome.  Then, in 384, he became a professor in Milan.  It was here he came under the influence of St Ambrose and, in 386, was converted.  He was press-ganged into becoming a priest in 391, at Hippo, in North Africa, and, in 396, became its bishop.  He remained there until his death.  Augustine wrote extensively.  Sadly, he is not so popular nowadays.  Some of his views are now somewhat politically incorrect.  This does not alter the fact that his influence on the church and western civilization has been immense.  He has been more influential, and still is, than either Marx or Freud.

Augustine said in a famous prayer, ‘you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you’.  Augustine’s point is that God made you and I in his image, and we naturally want to worship our maker.  St Paul tells us that while we have turned away from the worship of the one true God, we have not stopped wanting to worship, and have turned instead to the worship of other things.  As has been said, there is a God-shaped hole in all of us.  It is a hole that we are constantly trying to fill, but which only God can.  When in difficulty, often almost as an unconscious reflex, we find ourselves praying, even if we do not normally engage in such superstitious behaviour.  Our desire to worship and to pray strongly suggests the truth of what instinctively we feel: that there is something, someone out there.  

That someone is God.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Mothering Sunday

As I write this, we have just celebrated Mothering Sunday.  The Church was packed and, as is our custom, we distributed posies to all our mothers.  It was a very happy occasion.  Mothering Sunday occurs on the fourth Sunday of Lent and so falls on a different date each year.  In the UK, Mothering Sunday is also known as Mother’s Day, largely due to the influence of the United States, which celebrates its Mother’s Day on the second Sunday in May.  This is also the day on which it is mainly celebrated in Hong Kong.

In fact, however, Mothering Sunday, traditionally, has a meaning that goes much deeper than that of simply Mother’s Day.  In the past in the UK, people would return to their mother churches; normally, a large parish Church or a Cathedral.  Inevitably, the return to the 'mother' Church became an occasion for family reunions as children who were working away returned home.  (It was quite common in those days for children to leave home for work once they were ten years old.)  As they walked along the country lanes, children would pick wild flowers or violets to take to church or give to their mother as a small gift.  Our giving of posies to our mothers keeps this tradition alive.

The Gospel reading for yesterday was that of the so-called Parable of the Prodigal Son.  (I wrote a little about this last year. See under: Lent)

I say, ‘so-called’ because the parable as Jesus tells it is about two sons not just one.  The parable is the third in a series of three parables.  St Luke introduces them like this:

‘Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.  And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’’  (Luke 15:1-2)

So Jesus tells first the Parable of the Lost Sheep and then the Parable of the Lost Coin.  The shepherd who finds his lost sheep asks his friends and neighbours to join him in celebrating finding his sheep.  The woman who has lost the coin also invites her friends and neighbours to join her in celebrating her finding her coin.

After each parable, Jesus speaks of the joy in heaven over a sinner who repents.  He then tells the parable we know as the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  It is Jesus’ longest parable and one of the most popular.  The younger son behaves scandalously by asking for his share of the inheritance before his father is dead.  He then wastes it in dissolute living.  It takes a famine that reduces him to near starvation to bring him to his senses.  Sometimes it takes a crisis or tragedy to do the same for us!

The Prodigal decides to go home and to ask to be taken on as a hired servant.  He knows he no longer deserves to be called a son.  His father sees him from a distance and runs out to meet him.  The father won’t hear of him being a hired servant and orders for him to be restored and a party to be held to celebrate his return.

This is often where we stop when thinking about this parable.  It is easy to see why.  It is a message to us of the love and forgiveness of God who ‘when we were still far off’ met us in his Son.  It reassures us that God runs to meet us and welcome us back to him if after we have strayed and failed him, we return to him.

But this is not where Jesus stops in his original telling of the parable.  Jesus continues to describe the anger of the elder son on hearing that his father is giving a party for the lost son who has retuned.  The father goes out to him as he had gone out to meet his younger son.  Jesus concludes the parable with the words of the father:

‘But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’  (Luke 15:32)

In the same way that the shepherd rejoiced over finding his lost coin and the woman her coin, so the father and the elder son should rejoice that the prodigal has returned.  Jesus is speaking directly to the scribes and Pharisees.  They are like them the elder son who refused by refusing to rejoice that sinners are responding to his message.  Jesus has come to seek and to save the lost.  The reaction when they are found should be one of joy and celebration.

The Church should be a ‘community of celebration’: places where people not only discover the forgiveness of God, but can celebrate finding it with others who also have found it.  Our services should be occasions of celebration.  And anyone coming to our Church for the first time should get a sense that a party is going on.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Last year, I found revisiting 5 of Jesus' better known parables for Lent surprisingly profitable.  I say surprisingly for familiarity can breed - well, if not contempt exactly, then at least a feeling that there is little new to be discovered.  As it turned out, that certainly wasn't the case last year and nor is it proving to be so this year as we look at 5 more.

Last night, it was the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant.  You probably will all know it.  A servant having been forgiven a massive debt by the King goes out and demands a relatively small one from a fellow servant.  When the  fellow servant can't pay, the first servant has him thrown into gaol.  The King on hearing of it from other servants, distressed at what has happened, has the first servant handed over to be tortured until he pays his debt, something he could never hope to do.

Jesus' punch-line is unambiguous: 'So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.'  (Matthew 18:35)

In my thoughts on the parable, I talked about three stages of forgiveness:

1.  Taking sin seriously.  The parable is about real debt, not imaginary debt.  In my preparation beforehand, I puzzled over the amount of the debt Jesus uses in the story.  10,000 talents is a huge figure.  The problem is that it is if taken literally, it is unrealistically so.  Commentators try to calculate how much it is with figures such as 60,000,000 denarii being used, meaning it would take a day labourer 164,000 years to repay.  I rather suspect that Jesus is not expecting the figure to be calculated in this way.  What I think he is saying is that the debt was so great, you couldn't put a realistic figure on it.  It was unimaginably great.

2.  Taking our own sin seriously.  The parable challenges to see that our debt to God is beyond imagination.  It is, however, a real debt and not an imaginary one, one that we can never hope to repay.  Taking our own sin seriously is not something we are encouraged to do either in the Church or out.  It goes against the emphasis of much preaching and teaching.  Reading older hymns and sermons gives you an idea of the difference in emphasis:  'Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.'

Today's sermons are more likely to encourage people to think that they are not wretches, but valuable and loved by God.  The aim of the sermon being more to build people up than to bring them down in their estimation of themselves.  But surely if we do not think there is anything much that we need forgiving for, we are not going to appreciate Jesus' message of forgiveness.  This message is not that the debt does not matter.  It does.  More than we can ever comprehend.

We are I think in danger of confusing welcome and acceptance with forgiveness.  Because we rightly want to welcome and accept people, regardless of who they are or what they are like, we think we should not in anyway been seen to suggest that anything they have done is unacceptable to God.  Forgiveness thus verges on being about condoning and not challenging people's lifestyles.

Surely the Gospel message is one that challenges us in the first place to see how bad we are, but then offers us the good news that if we turn from our wickedness, God will out of his boundless love and mercy forgive us.  We may know this in our minds, but seldom nowadays, I think, do we feel it in our hearts.  Certainly not with the intensity of a John Newton, who wrote Amazing Grace, or of a Charlotte Elliott, who wrote these words:

Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind;
sight, riches, healing of the mind,
yea, all I need, in thee to find,
O Lamb of God, I come.

3.  Forgiving other people their sin.  Jesus made forgiving others a central part of his teaching. Hence our promise to forgive others every time we say the Lord's Prayer.  But it is hard, isn't it?  We are very good at forgiving ourselves, largely because we don't think we have done anything particularly wrong.  But even the smallest of hurts or sleights causes us to come down heavily on other people.  I know that many of us have suffered great wrongs at the hands of others.  But Jesus' point is that even they are nothing compared to our debt to God.  Last night, I think the few of us who studied this parable together felt its challenge to forgive very clearly.

As we all agreed, however, doing it is much harder.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Our Lord was known as a 'glutton and drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners' (Luke 7:34).  There can be no doubting that he was a friend to sinners and to tax-collectors, but those of us who follow him today would not accept that he was either a glutton or drunkard.  And yet you can't be accused of being either if you don't like food or wine.  Jesus clearly did.  His first miracle, as we have noted here, was to turn water to wine and when the guests clearly had already had a lot.  Presumably that was why they had run out in the first place!

And he was so concerned that the crowds had not eaten all day that he performed his greatest miracle feeding the five thousand.  The last thing he did was have a meal with his disciples, and it is a meal that he left as the central act of Christian worship.

Now I know all the theological and alleged theological significances of all this, but meals, real meals, were a focus of our Lord's ministry.

I find this something of an encouragement.  I rather like food myself.  I came to cooking itself rather late in life, and am a rather amateur, albeit enthusiastic, cook for my own pleasure as much as anything else.  I am a massive fan of Elizabeth David and won't cook anything without checking whether Jane Grigson has a recipe for it first.  One modern cook I especially like is Vivek Singh, whom I have actually had the privilege of meeting and watching cook!  He brings to Indian cookery this sense of passion and depth that you find in Elizabeth and Jane.

What is sometimes lacking in modern cookery writing, I think, is a sense of spontaneity and sheer love of food.  It is all very professional and well-researched, beautifully photographed, and fool-proof if you follow the instructions.  What is lacking, however, is the sheer sense of thrill and inspiration that you cannot miss in Elizabeth David's writing.  One of my favourite pieces of hers is where she talks of how a stock cube won't do!  Indeed, one of the very first dishes I ever cooked was a Tomato Consommé using a recipe of hers.  The recipe calls for chicken stock.  She gives alternatives, but then writes:

'A non-alternative, I'll repeat that, a non-alternative is a bouillon cube.  Water is a preferable one. (ED, Is there a Nutmeg in the House, pp.30-31)

Her point being that it is the final flavour that counts!

Which brings me back to Christian worship.  We have all sorts of modern liturgies and liturgical aids.  I use Visual Liturgy myself.  It is a piece of software to help clergy plan services.  It produces beautifully laid out services, which if you follow are also fool-proof.  It provides lots of alternatives and choices of hymns, prayers, and readings.  Much like modern cookbooks or cookery web-sites.  Yet one of the ironies of cookery at present is that the number of people actually cooking is declining as the number of books being produced about it are increasing.

As with food so with worship.  We need a sense of enthusiasm and excitement that focuses not on celebrity, glamour, and show, but on the flavour of the real thing.

Monday, March 08, 2010

The start of a new week.

Tonight I have the Church Council meeting - always a challenge!  I am hoping beforehand to spend some time preparing for the Lent Bible Study on Wednesday.  This week it is the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant.  The one where a servant who is forgiven a massive debt goes out and insists on collecting a relatively small one.  We Christians are not always the most forgiving of people.  The key I am sure is to have a better sense of just how much we have been forgiven.  Not easy in a cultural climate that minimizes the seriousness of personal sin.  It is unlikely we will ever appreciate how much we have been forgiven when we have no sense that what we have done was all that wrong in the first place.

But before that there is a mound of stuff from the weekend that must be dealt with as must the people who are coming to do the annual maintenance of the air-conditioning system.

Church Council, administration, building maintenance, and thinking about forgiveness.  It's one way to start the week!  I hope yours is good.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

I am getting ready for tomorrow and thought I would take a break to post the second in the Lenten series I called the Question of God.  I hope you are having a good weekend.

2.  The Question of God: The Evidence of the Cosmos

Last week, we saw that the question of whether there is a God, or not, is a real one in the society in which we live.  We noted that there were, in this world, problems with the idea of ‘proof’ and that this applied to everything, not just to God.  Nevertheless, we concluded, belief in God still needed to be rational.  There should be evidence for believing.  We are now going to think about some of the evidence for God as well as some of the objections to it.  Time, sadly, prevents us devoting as much attention to it as we should.  We can, at least, make a start.

October 23, 1996 was a special anniversary.  On that day, the world was 6,000 years old.  At least, it would have been if you accepted Archbishop Ussher’s dating of creation.  Archbishop James Ussher (1581-1656) calculated that, according to the Bible, the world was created in the year 4004BC.  Bishop John Lightfoot (1602-1675) further refined it to 9.00am on October 23.  While people would not necessarily have gone along with that precise dating, there was a time when most would have accepted the basic point, namely, that it was God who had created the heavens and earth.

Then came Charles Darwin (1809-1882).  Suddenly, God did not seem necessary anymore.  We arrived here not by the supernatural, creative act of God, but by the natural, selective process of evolution.  Human beings were not the result of the plan of God, but an accident of nature.  This was excellent news for those who wanted to get rid of God.  At last, they had an alternative explanation for the origins of life.  No more did we have to resort to God to explain where we came from.  Goodbye, God.

Except that God has not quite gone away.  Indeed, the very persistence of faith in God is itself evidence for God.  Despite all that the 20th century has thrown at him, God is still here and still very much on the agenda.  But we will return to this.  Those who want to argue for chance, and chance alone, have not had things all their own way.  Firstly, not everyone is completely happy with the theory of evolution.  This is not to say that I am siding with those who still stick to a belief in six day creation.  I simply note a fact.  Secondly, and more importantly, even if right, evolution only describes a process.  It still begs the question of whether it was a chance or purely natural process.  As a method, it is fine, but did it simply happen, or was there a mind behind it?  Evolution as a theory cannot answer that.

Many of us think that rather than undermining belief in God, the descriptions that scientists themselves give us of the evolutionary process seem rather to reinforce such a belief.  Indeed, have you noticed the way some people talk about evolution?  They set out to describe what they believe to be a natural process and end up attributing to evolution intelligent, thinking characteristics.  They will talk about evolution doing this or that, deciding and determining this or that, so that evolution starts to sound, not so much like a process, but more like a person. 
Now, of course, they do not intend to do this, and would be horrified to know that this is what they are doing.  However, when faced with the fact of the natural order, is it the case, perhaps, that we are compelled by the evidence to think that it could only have got here if there had been a thinking, intelligent mind behind it.  A mind which decided and determined that this is how it should turn out.  And if the natural world as we see it compels us to think and talk like this, could it be because that is precisely how it is?  Is it that in the very evolutionary process we see the work of God? 

This seems to be a good point to introduce Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).  Aquinas lived long before evolution as an idea was ever thought of.  He went to the University of Naples, and, while there, in 1244, at the age of 19, joined the relatively new Order of Preachers, the Dominican friars.  His family wanted him to become a Benedictine, and kidnapped him, locking him in the family castle for a year.  He got his way, and continued his studies at Paris and Cologne.  In 1252, he returned to lecture in Paris, thereafter lecturing at Paris and in Italy.  In 1323, he was made a saint.  In time, he came to be hailed as the Common Doctor of the Catholic Church and as the Angelic Doctor. 

One of the greatest philosophers and theologians ever, Aquinas wanted to demonstrate that the Christian faith was in every way a rational faith and belief in God thoroughly reasonable.  Aquinas defined five ways by which we could know there was a God.  Behind each of them is the idea that the world itself reveals God as its creator.  If you read a book, look at a picture, listen to a piece of music, you can often immediately tell who its author, painter, or composer is simply from the style.  Aquinas’ five ways have been subject to many criticisms.  Certainly the way he expressed his arguments reflects the language and thinking of his day, just as the way we express ourselves reflects the age we are living in.  His basic point is, though, a good one.  When we examine the cosmos, and ask how it got here and how it got to being the way it is, is not the most reasonable explanation not that it just did, but because someone wanted it to and purposed that it should?

Aquinas, in his fifth way, also pointed to the nature of the cosmos.  It is extremely intricate and ordered.  If we were talking about anything else, we would say it is well designed.  But does not design suggest a designer? William Paley (1743-1805) taking up the argument used the example of a watch.  If someone was to find a watch, even if they had never seen a watch before, would not they know, simply from examining it, that it could not have just got like that by chance, but must have been made by someone.  The complexity of the design argues for a designer.  If we can see it with a watch, why not with the cosmos which shows even more evidence of design?

That Aquinas was right to argue like this receives support from the Bible itself.  St. Paul, in the Epistle to the Romans, writes of human beings:
‘For what can be known about God is plain to them.  Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.’ (1:20)

All this proves nothing.  If you want to persist in believing that the universe just happened and that we are a result of chance or purely natural processes, then you are perfectly entitled to do so, that is one interpretation of the evidence.  However, I would like to ask you to consider whether, in all honesty, it is the most reasonable one. 

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Last night was the second of our Lent Studies.  We were looking at the Parable of the Wedding Banquet in Matthew 22:1-10.  It is not the easiest of parables.  One writer, Klyne Snodgrass, in his magisterial work on parables, says he has finds it the hardest parable to interpret.  Having said that, the overall meaning of the first part  seems clear enough.  The Kingdom of God was offered originally to Israel who has rejected it so it will now be offered to others.  It is in the second part that it gets especially tricky.

The King comes into the room where the guests who have been gathered in by his slaves are congregated.  We have already been told that they consisted of people who were both bad and good.  The King asks one of them why he not wearing the correct clothes - a wedding robe.  The man is speechless and the King has him tied up and thrown into outer darkness.

Jesus is telling this parable to the chief priests and Pharisees.  They would probably have got the point of the first part, but what would they have made of the second part?  What does the wedding robe stand for?  Christians have interpreted it in various ways.  A common interpretation is that it refers to Christ's righteousness, which we all must be clothed with if we are to come into God's presence.  Unfortunately, whatever the truth or otherwise of this idea, it does seem to be reading later Christian theology back into the story.  As I said last night, whatever we think the parable means to us today, it had to mean something to them then.

Others such as Tom Wright take the wedding robe to mean the good works we now do as Christians and that while we are freely called by God we must respond with acts worthy of that call.  Again, this is doubtless true, but would that had been something that the chief priests and Pharisees would have been in a position to work out?

The best I can come up with which I offer as a suggestion is this:

Guests at a wedding, whoever they might be would be expected to dress appropriately both as a sign of respect and to show they were entering into the spirit of the occasion.  The banquet for the King's Son was a time of rejoicing and celebration.  The un-robed guest, although he finds himself called to the banquet, refuses to take part in it.

This parable is in fact the third of three parables Jesus tells the chief priests and Pharisees, all making similar points.  Jesus uses the first in Matthew 21:28-32 to tell them that tax-collectors and prostitutes were going into the kingdom of God ahead of them.  Jesus ate many meals with people during his ministry, meals at which tax-collectors and prostitutes respond with faith and enthusiasm.  In Luke 7 we are told that on one occasion a Pharisee holds a dinner for Jesus, but is then shocked when Jesus allows a prostitute to his anoint his feet.  Jesus says this to him:

'Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair.  You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet.  You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. (Luke 7:44-46)'

Although he had invited Jesus to dinner, the Pharisees treatment of Jesus shows a refusal to respond to Jesus in the way he should, whereas the prostitute responds with love and generosity.

The man who doesn't wear a wedding garment does not respond to the generosity of the King in the way he should.  It is not so much that the garment represents something, such as Christ's righteousness or good works.  It is rather the man's attitude demonstrated by his refusal to dress properly that is significant.  It is not the wedding robe that represents something so much as the lack of it.  Jesus is saying the chief priests and Pharisees, and those like them, will miss out on the salvation God offers because they have not responded with faith and enthusiasm to God's call.

God calls all both bad and good, but it is how we respond that shows whether we are amongst those who are his chosen ones.  As the parable ends:

'For many are called, but few are chosen.'

Monday, March 01, 2010

The first thing I came back to after Chinese New Year was Lent!  This year, for our Lent Bible Studies at my Church, we are looking at five more parables of Jesus to add to the five we studied last year.  The first which we studied last week was the one about the tax-collector and the Pharisee (Luke ).  Jesus told this parable Luke tells us to those who 'trusted in themselves that they were righteous'.  The implication, of course, being that we can only be righteous by trusting in God.  Regular readers of this blog will know that this is a question I often find myself turning back to.  It also raises the issue of the link between being righteous in God's eyes and how we live our lives.

As it happens, I also found myself last week back at Ming Hua, our theological college, teaching Christian Ethics.  This is the second module where we consider specific issues: abortion, sex, euthanasia, war, etc, etc  I intend to pick up on the blog where I left off a few months ago about this.  But as far as I can see it is very hard to be as dogmatic as some would like us to be on these issues - as class discussion often illustrates.

I thought, however, that I would get back into posting here by posting today the first in a series of Lenten Studies I gave during my time in Banchory in the 1990s.  They were on the 'Question of God'.  I have to confess that I don't remember them exactly filling the pews, but reading them again at the end of the first decade of the 21st Century, I am Pharisaical enough to think there is some merit in them!  I must have done at the time as these are the only ones that I kept and only recently rediscovered them on my computer.

Indeed, the questions:

whether there is a God or not
how, if there is, we can know and be acceptable to him
and what happens when we die 

have always seemed to me to be three of the most important questions in life.  I don't think we always manage as Christians to give convincing answers to them.  But that is another matter.

Anyway, it's good to be back in cyberspace!  Thank you to all who keep visiting and reading.

1. The Question of God: Introduction

Today we begin a series on God.  Am I alone in thinking that sermons and talks matter?  Well, whatever we may think about sermons, there should be no doubting the importance of our subject.  I have always found it strange that we do not worry about God.  We are rather casual about God, and this irrespective of whether we are believers or not.  I do worry about God, and have done for as long as I can remember.  Surely the issue of whether there is a God, or not, is one that must have profound implications for us all?

Of course, for most of our history there has been no question about it.  That there was a God was as obvious to people as was the sun, wind, and rain.  It still is to many in other parts of our world.  We forget the extent to which true atheism is a minority opinion.  But the question of God is a very real one to us living in the West today.  Nietzsche, at the turn of the century, said that God was dead.  However, throughout the 20th century we have seen that rumours of God’s death have been greatly exaggerated.  Nevertheless, for most people there is, at least, a question about it.

The question is expressed well in a book I was given to read over the summer.  It is by Jill Paton Walsh and called, ‘Knowledge of Angels’.  This was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1994, and some of you may know it.  Now let me say I dislike the book and certainly would not recommend it to you.  I refer to it only because it seems to sum up where many liberal intellectuals are when it comes to God and where they would like us to be.

The book is set in the 15th Century at a time when Christianity was undivided in the West and when people believed in God as a matter of course.  A stranger is washed up on the shore of a Mediterranean island.  The stranger, whose name is Palinor, declares that he has no religion and does not believe in God.  The Cardinal responsible for religion on the island takes pity on him and arranges for him to discuss the claims of faith with Beneditx, one of the holiest and wisest men in Christendom.  This is in the hope that Palinor will come to see the error of his ways and believe in God.  The stranger turns out to be cultured, sensitive, wise, and accomplished.  Instead of Beneditx convincing him with his arguments for the existence of God,  Palinor succeeds in undermining Beneditx’s faith.  Towards the end of their discussions, Palinor says:

‘For I think that it is in principle impossible to know whether there is a God or not.  I know therefore with immovable certainty that I shall never know that God exists.  Likewise I shall never know that he does not.  Such knowledge is always, and in principle out of  reach.’

So there you have it.  Doubt as a religious principle!  You cannot prove God one way or another.  You cannot prove he does not exist, but you cannot prove he does either.  So best not to worry about it.  Celebrate, not divine intervention, but human achievement.  Nowadays, in matters of faith, doubt has become the order of the day, both inside the church and out.

The father of modern philosophy - and in many people’s minds the father of doubt - is one René Descartes (1596-1650).  Descartes was a French mathematician, scientist, and philosopher.  He was a contemporary of Oliver Cromwell and Charles 1.  Descartes asked what it was possible to know for certain, beyond any doubt.  If you were to doubt what you could not prove, what would you be left with?  Many of us know the answer he came up with.  Descartes concluded that we could be certain of our own existence.  Why?  ‘Cogito, ergo sum’.  I think, therefore I am.  Not much of which to be certain maybe, but something.  What is not generally known, perhaps because it suits modern philosophers not to make it known, was that Descartes also believed it was possible to be certain of God’s existence.

But that was all.  I can only be certain of my own existence and God’s.  Now whatever you think of this, Descartes has a point.  Modern thinking has tended to follow Descartes in demanding proof and doubting what cannot be proven.  This is what lies behind what is believed to be science’s rejection of God.  God cannot be proven in the laboratory, so we cannot believe in him.  Yet Descartes reminds us that it is very hard to prove anything with absolute certainty.  It does not lie in our power to be that sure.  Given the way scientific theory changes so rapidly, you would have thought that people would have grasped that.

What we normally ask for is not proof in an absolute sense, but evidence.  Reasonable evidence.  We do not want life to be based on blind leaps in the dark.  We can accept that an argument cannot be infallibly proven as long as there is sufficient evidence in its favour for us to believe that it is true.  We want to be rational.  We want what we believe to be reasonable: not mere superstition or wishful thinking.  In this series of talks, I am going to disagree with the father of modern philosophy.  I do not think God’s existence can be proven.  But, as Descartes showed, in the sense people often use the word, very little can. 

I do, however, think that belief in God’s existence is rational.  There is sufficient evidence for God to make believing in him reasonable.  If, however, this is the case, it follows that it is UN-reasonable to do nothing about it.  If we can establish that there is good evidence for believing in God, then not to act, not to do something about it, can only be to do with either a determined, self-destructive rebellion or blind prejudice.  What you cannot claim is that you are acting in a rational and reasonable way.

The question of whether God’s existence can be established by rational enquiry as opposed to simply having faith is one that has exercised some of the greatest minds in the church.  In the next few weeks, I hope to introduce you to one or two of them.  We should not turn our backs on the teachers of the past.  They have much to teach us today.  They demonstrate that it is possible to be a Christian without having to abandon your intellect. 

Some believers have believed unbelievers’ propaganda.  They are frightened to think too seriously about God in case it turns out that either he does not exist after all or that there is no evidence for his existence.  They have believed people like Walsh’s Palinor that if you look at the arguments you have to surrender your faith.  We have nothing to fear from honest enquiry.  If it were the case that belief in God was not rational, then we would be wrong to persist in believing in him.  As we shall see, however, the Psalmist is right in affirming that it is fools who say that there is no God (Psalm 14:1).  It is atheism that is unreasonable.