Friday, December 09, 2011

I hope you are all enjoying the season of Advent and are looking forward to Christmas.

It may seem as though I have forgotten to post on Predestination, but there is an explanation!

I had wanted to read Matthew Levering's recently published book on Predestination first.  I had ordered it from Amazon, but when it arrived it was slightly damaged.  I wouldn't normally have worried as the damage was only superficial, but the book itself costs so much that I thought this time I would return it and get a perfect copy.

The replacement has just arrived an hour or so ago.  I have to confess to being a big Amazon fan.  If you are going to order online, they make it as straightforward as possible to do so.  Anyway, this is going to be my Christmas reading so Predestination is postponed until the New Year!

In the Church's Liturgical Year, we are now in Year B and we will be reading through Mark's Gospel.  Last Sunday the reading was the first eight verses.  This is the first in a series I am preparing for my Church introducing it.

St Mark's Gospel

The Gospel reading last Sunday was the beginning of Mark's Gospel (Mark 1:1-8), and I thought I might use the opportunity to introduce the Gospel that most scholars believe is the first of our New Testament Gospels to be written.

What we often forget is that while the Gospels would have been read by some, they would have been heard by most. That is, for all sorts of reasons, not least the cost of copying written texts, the Gospel would have been read out aloud in church groups, perhaps in the context of worship. In trying to understand then the message that Mark was intending to convey about our Lord, we need to ask how would it have been heard.

Sadly, our concentration is not such that we could cope with sitting and listening to Mark being read out in one sitting, although it only takes about an hour and half to do so. Some may remember how the actor Alex McCowan, in January 1978, devised and directed his own solo performance of the complete text of the Saint Mark's Gospel receiving much critical acclaim.

Today, we miss the impact that hearing the Gospel read out loud would have had on the first listeners. There are many recordings of the Bible available: if you get the chance, try listening to one. It opens up a new dimension in Biblical understanding. 

And remember: What is true of St Mark's Gospel is true also of the rest of the New Testament.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

I have just looked at my diary for the next few days and have realised that there is not going to be the time to work on the series of posts I had planned on predestination.  However, in my last post I referred to my friend Ben Witherington's blog and his discussion there of free-will. I tried to give a reponse to it both here and in the Comments section.  In the Comments section of Ben's blog, there has been further discussion between Ben.  I would like to take the discussion further here.

This is the link to the post:

Bible and Culture

This is what I wrote as a comment on Ben's post:

Hi Ben,

But even on your view of pre-venient grace, it still means that God chooses some and not others: those to whom He extends pre-venient grace to make it possible for them to make a choice. And once you allow God the right to decide who gets to make a choice, then you are vulnerable to exactly the same criticisms that you make against those of us who believe in predestination!

Thank you for your blog. It is always interesting and stimulating!

Ross

This is Ben's reply:

Hi Ross.

Wrong. God extends prevenient grace to everyone.

(Ben)

I did follow up with another comment, but that has not appeared in the Comments!

I was, I must confess, much surprised by Ben's response, not so much because he said I was wrong.  Being wrong, after all, is always a possibility in this life!  But rather by his assertion that God extends prevenient grace to everyone.  This means, on Ben's view, that everyone is being offered the grace they need to enable them to respond to the good news of Jesus Christ.  As Ben points out in his post, without it no-one can respond.

Thanks to God's generous pre-venient grace, then, every Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or whoever they may be, is being offered the chance to respond to the good news.  However, because in many cases no-one is telling them what the good news is, although they are now able to respond, there is nothing for them to respond to.  It also means that the grace of God has been offered them in vain, and it hardly seems to be their fault that it is!

This illustrates, I think, the problem faced by those who want to hold to free-will and a Biblical understanding of the human condition.  They need God to enable the will to be free to respond, but they cannot limit those whom God enables in this way for you then end up with a form of predestination because God is choosing whom to enable.  The problem occurs because it means that God is enabling people without also telling them what it is he is enabling them to do, which seems more than a trifle bizarre.  

The only way round this that I can see for those wanting to hold this position is to argue that God extends pre-venient grace when the Gospel is preached to all those hearing it preached. This inevitably means that God does not extend his pre-venient grace to all.  It also raises the question of who decides who gets to hear?  If it is us who decides, then that makes it all a bit of a lottery when it comes to salvation and gives us the power to decide not only who gets to hear, but also who gets to receive pre-venient grace.

Alternatively, you have to say God chooses whom we are sent to preach the good news to, which means, however generously, that God is still choosing some and not others, which brings us back to where we started.

What I am arguing is that you have the following choices: 

1.  that the grace of God is offered to all to enable the to respond, even though all will never get chance to respond simply because all will never get to hear, and so God's grace is, in the majority of cases, in vain

2.  that who receives the grace of God is made into a lottery dependent on whom we decide to offer it to

3.  you have a form of predestination in which God chooses, in some way, those who get to respond to his grace

For those taking the Bible seriously, I see no alternative to 3. Surely, it is only because we are so against the idea of God choosing some and not others and so addicted to the idea of human freedom that we resist it!  

In the series I have planned, I want to think about what such a belief in predestination should look like.  I hope to start after the weekend!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

I am a bit worried at the moment as the weather is not looking good for our parish lunch tomorrow.  Normally, we set up the tables and chairs this afternoon, they are all here, but we can't set them up because it looks very much like it is about to rain.  We have a Plan B, but it is very much a Plan B.

Anyway one of my favourite blogs is that of Ben Witherington's.  Interestingly, in his latest post, he writes on the subject I have been posting on lately.  I his post takes a very different line on predestination and free-will to my own.  Read it here: Bible and Culture

Ben totally disagrees with the idea that God chooses some and not others.  He accepts that the Bible teaches that as sinners we are unable to make a free choice to accept the Gospel, but argues that God's grace enables us to make a free choice, while preserving our right to right to say no and to refuse God's offer of salvation.  This is a quote from Ben's post:

'Back to pre-venient grace. This theology grows out of texts such as we have mentioned and the way it envisions the salvation process is exactly as it is described in the NT. Yes indeed God’s grace, administered by the Spirit must work in a person leading them to respond to the Gospel. No responsible Wesleyan theologian would suggest that its a matter of ‘us all having free will’. No indeed. Without grace no one responds to God for we are all in the thrall of sin and darkness.'

Readers of this blog will know that I have many problems with this.  On thing I keep coming back to is the fact that even on Ben's understanding, God still chooses some and not others: those to whom He extends pre-venient grace to make it possible for them to make a choice.  And once you allow God the right to decide who gets to make a choice then you are vulnerable to exactly the same criticisms that you make against those of us who believe in predestination!

Meanwhile to return from the sublime heights of theology, I now need to worry about the ridiculous question of the weather!

Thursday, November 17, 2011


6.  Whose Choice?

I have been posting some thoughts on predestination.  These have intentionally been limited to a few questions that I think arise when the subject is mentioned, and have not been an attempt to explain or even defend the idea.

Firstly, I have tried to make the point that there are huge problems with the concept of free-will that some think of as an alternative approach.  I have suggested that, in the first place, we human beings simply do not have free-will in the way that many of its proponents seem to think.  At best, we only have a limited ability in limited circumstances to make some choices and even then our choice is still largely the product of many forces over which we have no control.  As Paul puts it: 'the good that I would I do not, but the evil which I would not, that I do.' (Romans 7:19)  This is why Paul uses the language of enslavement to sin to describe the human predicament.  If I am not free to do good, it's hard to see how I am free to accept God.

I have also pointed out that even if we did have the absolutely free-will that some think, it would sill leave God open to the accusation of unfairness as this would make the offer of salvation a very arbitrary thing, if for no other reason, than the simple fact that some get the chance to hear and respond and some don't.  Salvation really does become a lottery if God is not involved in some way in helping us to make a choice.

Secondly, however, other alternatives to the idea of predestination that try to combine human choice and God's involvement in it run, I have suggested, into exactly the same objections that are made against predestination, specifically its perceived unfairness.  I have not been arguing that these alternatives are necessarily wrong just that they don't overcome the main objection to predestination.

Why, then, are we so resistant to the idea of predestination?

Firstly, it is not I would venture to suggest because we have objectively come to the conclusion that it is wrong, but because we simply do not like the idea that something is being decided for us over which we have no control, even though that's true of most of the important issues our lives.  We don't get to choose our physical parents, why are so we so sure we get to choose our spiritual one?

Secondly, we do also recoil from the idea that God chooses some and not others.  Unless, however, you believe that God will eventually save all regardless - and what becomes of free-will then? - by definition some will be saved and some will not.  The Free-willers want it to be left to us to choose.  However, isn't there at least a case for handing the decision over to God!?

In future posts, I will attempt to show on a more positive note why I think predestination should, at least, be given a hearing.

Postscript

As we are now getting ready for the Feast of Christ the King my Church's birthday celebration, I probably won't have the time to start until next week.  Mind you, celebrating Christ as King reigning over all in heaven and earth is perhaps a good time to be thinking about how much freedom we have to rebel against him or to accept his rule!  Thank you for reading.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Help!

I would be really grateful if any readers of this blog could visit my Church's new facebook page and if you are so moved to 'Like' it.  I need another 11 likes to move on to the next stage in its creation!

This is the link:

Christ Church Kowloon Tong on Facebook

Thank you in advance!
6.  Whose Choice?

I have been posting some thoughts on predestination.  These have intentionally been limited to a few questions that I think arise when the subject is mentioned, and have not been an attempt to explain or even defend the idea.

Firstly, I have tried to make the point that there are huge problems with the concept of free-will that some think of as an alternative approach.  I have suggested that, in the first place, we human beings simply do not have free-will in the way that many of its proponents seem to think.  At best, we only have a limited ability in limited circumstances to make some choices and even then our choice is still largely the product of many forces over which we have no control.  As Paul puts it: 'the good that I would I do not, but the evil which I would not, that I do.' (Romans 7:19)  This is why Paul uses the language of enslavement to sin to describe the human predicament.  If I am not free to do good, it's hard to see how I am free to accept God.

I have also pointed out that even if we did have the absolutely free-will that some think, it would sill leave God open to the accusation of unfairness as this would make the offer of salvation a very arbitrary thing, if for no other reason, than the simple fact that some get the chance to hear and respond and some don't.  Salvation really does become a lottery if God is not involved in some way in helping us to make a choice.

Secondly, however, other alternatives to the idea of predestination that try to combine human choice and God's involvement in it run, I have suggested, into exactly the same objections that are made against predestination, specifically its perceived unfairness.  I have not been arguing that these alternatives are necessarily wrong just that they don't overcome the main objection to predestination.

Why, then, are we so resistant to the idea of predestination?

Firstly, it is not I would venture to suggest because we have objectively come to the conclusion that it is wrong, but because we simply do not like the idea that something is being decided for us over which we have no control, even though that's true of most of the important issues our lives.  We don't get to choose our physical parents, why are so we so sure we get to choose our spiritual one?

Secondly, we do also recoil from the idea that God chooses some and not others.  Unless, however, you believe that God will eventually save all regardless - and what becomes of free-will then? - by definition some will be saved and some will not.  The Free-willers want it to be left to us to choose.  However, isn't there at least a case for handing the decision over to God!?

In future posts, I will attempt to show on a more positive note why I think predestination should, at least, be given a hearing.

Postscript

As we are now getting ready for the Feast of Christ the King my Church's birthday celebration, I probably won't have the time to start until next week.  Mind you, celebrating Christ as King reigning over all in heaven and earth is perhaps a good time to be thinking about how much freedom we have to rebel against him or to accept his rule!  Thank you for reading.

5.  Whose Choice?

The Bible makes it very plain that God entrusts to the Church the work of preaching the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  What happens next?  We have broadly speaking the following four positions:

1.  God does not direct and guide us to those who are to hear the good news and make the choice of whether or not to accept it, that is left to chance, circumstance, and the commitment of the Church in telling people the good news.

2.  God directs and guides us to those who are to hear the good news and make the choice of whether or not to accept it.

3.  God directs and guides us to those who are to hear the good news and also helps them to make the choice to accept it.

4.  God directs and guides us to those who are to hear the good news and also enables them to make the choice, which he has already decided they should make, to accept it.

I am sure that many in the Church, especially I suspect in the Anglican Church, would go with a version of 1.  Of course, we will still pray about it and ask for God's strength and help, but the business of going and choosing is the responsibility of us human beings.  If you believe this, then 'good luck', and I use those words advisedly, and I wish you every success, but it is not a position that I personally can share. Whatever he may do with the universe, I can't believe God plays dice with people's salvation.

For others in the Church, and especially those trying to be faithful to the Bible's teaching, 2 and 3 seem to allow us to keep a commitment to allowing humans freedom of choice, while also involving God in the process - which is nice.  They also sound reasonable and spiritual: God and us working together for the salvation of humankind.

There are, however, questions that those holding either of these two positions have to answer.  With respect to 2, why does God direct and guide us to these particular people?  I suppose the best answer would have to be something like these are the spiritual equivalent of a football manager's choice of a squad for a game.  They are the ones most likely to play.

With respect to 3, however, why is God not only offering the Gospel to some and not others, but actually helping some and not others?

I am not, for the moment, saying that either 2 or 3 are wrong, simply that they don't escape the accusation of, at best, bias or, at worst, unfairness on the part of God.

That leaves 4.  Oh dear, we don't like this one at all do we?  But the reason we don't like it can't simply be because it makes God unfair.  On any view, but 1, he is still that.  And even then he can be accused of unfairness in leaving whether or not people hear the good news to chance.

So what's the real reason we don't like to think that 'God directs and guides us to those who are to hear the good news and also enables them to make the choice, which he has already decided they should make, to accept it.'?

Monday, November 14, 2011

When I was ordained I was required to swear assent to the 39 Articles of the Church of England. This is the one on Predestination:

XVII. Of Predestination and Election.
Predestination to Life is the everlasting purpose of God, whereby (before the foundations of the world were laid) he hath constantly decreed by his counsel secret to us, to deliver from curse and damnation those whom he hath chosen in Christ out of mankind, and to bring them by Christ to everlasting salvation, as vessels made to honour. Wherefore, they which be endued with so excellent a benefit of God, be called according to God's purpose by his Spirit working in due season: they through Grace obey the calling: they be justified freely: they be made sons of God by adoption: they be made like the image of his only-begotten Son Jesus Christ: they walk religiously in good works, and at length, by God's mercy, they attain to everlasting felicity.

I wonder how many Anglican priests still assent to this today?  I assume, of course, that those who did so swear assent  at their ordination weren't perjuring themselves.  What a wicked thought: Anglicans saying things they don't believe.  

After all, we do all mean it when we say the Creed each Sunday, don't we?

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Monday

It is Monday and I just about to set off for Ming Hua our theological college for my lecture.  It's Virtue Ethics today!  Quite a busy week this week.  Tonight it is the Church Council meeting with a very full agenda.

Regular readers will know that I am at present posting a series on Predestination.  This is a reflection in the light of it on yesterday's second reading from Thessalonians.

Paul has already described the Thessalonian Christians using these words: ‘For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you …’ (1 Thessalonians 1:4) This is a very different perspective than that adopted by most Christians today. We are more likely to describe ourselves as those who have chosen God. While we focus on our choice to be a Christian, Paul here focuses on God’s choice of us. This leads him to write the words that are in are passage this Sunday: 'For God has destined us not for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ ...' (1 Thessalonians 5:9)

 Paul’s thinking is clear. God has chosen the Thessalonians to be his people and his plan for them is that rather than experiencing the wrath that others will experience on the Day of the Lord, they will instead obtain salvation. The obvious question (apart from whether we agree with him, of course) is in what sense does Paul think the Thessalonians are chosen?

This question immediately lands us in the debate about predestination: the idea that God choose some, and not others, to be Christians. Christians have, historically, been very divided over this issue. It is fair I think to say that many in former generations were more able to accept the idea than we are today, although there was still much argument over it. John Wesley famously disgreed strongly with his fellow evangelist George Whitefield in the eighteenth century over it.

There are a number of options when it comes to understanding what Paul means:

1. God chose the Thessalonians in the sense that he chose them to hear the message that Paul and his co-workers, Silvanus and Timothy, preached to them. This much, at least, is true. Paul had been prevented from preaching the Gospel in Asia Minor and had been lead to the Philippians and Thessalonians in Macedonia by a vision.

2. However, while 1 above is clearly true. It seems that Paul means more than just that the Thessalonians were chosen to hear the message. Consequently, others have argued in addition that God chose the Thessalonians, not only in the sense that he chose them to hear the Gospel, but that he chose them as a group, that is, as the Church, to be his people and to obtain salvation. It is, then, the Church that is chosen rather than individual Christians. This is the view taken by friend Ben Witherington in his commentary on Thessalonians.

3. Others have argued, though, that you can’t really choose a group without also, by implication, choosing those who are in the group. Those who take this position then divide into two:

a) Firstly, there are those who think that God chooses individuals because he knows in advance who will accept the message. The Thessalonian Christians, then, were singled out by God to become Christians because God knew in advance that they would accept the good news as preached by Paul and his co-workers.

b) Secondly, there are those who think that God chooses without pre-condition those whom he will bring to faith and that this choice is based solely on his own decision without any reference to us. The Thessalonian Christian, on this view, were chosen by God before they were even born. God then lead Paul to them and enabled them to come to faith in a way he didn’t with other people.

As I have said, this has caused much division in the Church in the past and it would be wrong of us to let it do so in the present. What discussion of this issue does do, however, is to remind us that salvation is God’s idea and whatever role we have to play in our becoming a Christian, the fact that God is willing to accept and save us is a much bigger deal than you and I deciding to become a Christian.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

4.  Whose Choice?

The main criticism of predestination, the belief that God chooses some and not others, is that it means that God chooses some and not others!  This, it is argued, is simply not fair or just.  In response to this perceived unfairness, Christians have resorted to the doctrine of free-will.  From this point of view, God freely offers and we freely accept or reject that offer.  The problem, I have suggested, is what decides who gets to make a choice.  Either it is a random opportunity depending on, amongst other things, where you are born and live.  Or God has a role to play in deciding who gets to choose.

However, once you allow God a role in deciding who gets to choose, you are up against all the same problems that those who believe in predestination have to face.  These are again summed up in the simple question: why some and not others?  Why does God choose to give some an opportunity to make a choice while leaving others with no opportunity for one?  The point I am making is that people reject predestination often on the grounds of its perceived unfairness, but fail to see that the alternatives run into exactly the same problem only from a different direction.

The idea of human free-will of necessity must die the death of a thousand qualifications.  At best, all we are left with is a very limited ability to choose to be a Christian if we are fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to do so.  At worst, we are left with the responsibility for making a choice without God's help we are incapable of making, even if we are fortunate enough to be given the opportunity.

The idea of predestination when put bluntly and starkly may sound unfair, but given the inherent weaknesses of alternative positions based on the idea of human free-will and choice, it at least deserves more consideration than nowadays it is given.
3. Whose Choice?

I started on this series as a result of thinking about the sermon for Sunday, which contains this verse: 'For God has destined us not for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ ...' (1 Thessalonians 5:9)

We have seen how verses in the Bible such as this, and there are many more, raise the question of free-will and predestination. I have suggested that although it is an idea beloved by many, if not most Christians, free-will in any meaningful sense simply does not and cannot exist in this world. Our life in this world is under too many external and internal constraints.

This doesn't necessarily mean we have no choice, although often it does mean that, but that our freedom to choose is severely limited. Indeed, when we think we are freely making a decision that is truly ours and ours alone, in fact, we are acting exactly as outside forces have determined we would act. That, after all, is the whole point of advertising.

The obvious question then for us as Christians is how much choice we have in whether we become Christians. Looking at it from a purely human point of view and leaving God out of it for a moment, it would seem that we do not have a lot of choice:

1. In the first place, to become a Christian we have to hear about Christ. And clearly you are more likely to hear about Christ in some parts of our world than in others.

2. Then, secondly, even in those parts of the world that Christ is spoken of openly, you still have to hear someone speaking. Even in the UK, where there is an established church many people haven't got the first idea of Christ and who he is.

3. And then, thirdly, even if you hear about Christ, you have to understand what it is the preacher is saying. Given that often the Gospel is expressed either in very difficult to understand terms or simply in such a boring manner that you have lost interest before the first sentence is finished, your chances of being in a position to make a meaningful choice have been reduced considerably.

From a human point of view then, while I may theoretically have a choice on whether or not to be a Christian, my opportunities for being able to exercise that choice are very limited indeed.

Now the obvious criticism of this is that it is from a human point of view and you may say, what about God? Can't God guide and over-rule human weakness? Well, yes, of course he can, but as soon as you involve God in the choice, you limit human choice even more. And once you involve God, you have to ask why he seems to help some to choose and not others.

Either becoming a Christian is a hit and miss affair, in which case it is hard to see how God can be just, or you are faced with the fact that God chooses some and not others, even it is simply to help them with their choice. And so we are back to the question with which we closed a previous post:

Is this how the Gospel comes to us: as an apple tossed randomly into a crowd?
2.  Whose Choice? 

Here is the full quote from Calvin that I mentioned in the last post:

'And, in fact, we shall find many that will grant freely enough that God was not moved to send us his gospel by any other motive than his own free grace; but, at the same time, they surmise that the reason why some receive it and some do not, is because their own free wills hold sway, and so, by that means, God’s grace is diminished. For God does not offer us his grace, as a man might offer an apple to little children, so that the best runner should come and have it. If God should thus toss it out, it is certain that the greatest part of our salvation would be the product of our own power and skill, and the praise of it would redound to ourselves.' (from the Fifth Sermon on the First Chapter of Sermons on Ephesians)

Calvin is often seen as having invented the doctrine of Predestination, whether we believe in it or not, it is, of course, simply not true that Calvin invented it or was unusual in his belief in it. Here is a quote from chapter 16 of Augustine On Predestination:

'Faith, then, as well in its beginning as in its completion, is God’s gift; and let no one have any doubt whatever, unless he desires to resist the plainest sacred writings, that this gift is given to some, while to some it is not given. But why it is not given to all ought not to disturb the believer, who believes that from one all have gone into a condemnation, which undoubtedly is most righteous; so that even if none were delivered therefrom, there would be no just cause for finding fault with God. Whence it is plain that it is a great grace for many to be delivered, and to acknowledge in those that are not delivered what would be due to themselves; so that he that glorieth may glory not in his own merits, which he sees to be equaled in those that are condemned, but in the Lord. But why He delivers one rather than another,—“His judgments are unsearchable, and His ways past finding out.” [Rom. 11.33.] For it is better in this case for us to hear or to say, “O man, who art thou that repliest against God?” [Rom. 9.20.] than to dare to speak as if we could know what He has chosen to be kept secret. Since, moreover, He could not will anything unrighteous.'

Thinking about this has made me realize that I should tackle in broad terms this subject of predestination.  I generally avoid doing so because I am aware that it can be very divisive.  I think now, however, is the time to attempt some thoughts on the subject.  So I am relabeling the last post to start the series!

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

1.  Whose Choice?

I am continuing my preparation for Sunday.  I wrote in my last post of how we downplay the New Testament theme of the Wrath of God.  In 1 Thessalonians 5:9 Paul writes: 'For God has destined us not for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ ...'  This touches on another theme that is rarely discussed nowadays, although it used to be a major pre-occupation in previous generations, that of predestination and free-will.  What does Paul mean when he writes that God has destined us?

For most Christians, it is axiomatic that we human beings have free-will.  Part of the reason we are so committed to the idea of free-will is simple human pride.  We hate the idea that we are not masters of our own destiny and that our decisions are not our own.  Part of it, though, is that it fits our sincerely held view of how the Gospel works.  God offers his grace freely and we freely decide whether to accept it or not.

Personally, I have never bought the idea of free-will.  It seems to me to be patently obvious that none of us have free-will in any meaningful sense.  This doesn't mean that we can't make choices, but that our choices are never really free.  We are conditioned by all sorts of things: our history, our culture, our upbringing, our experiences, our physical and emotional make-up - in fact, the list of things that influence and affect our choices is a long one.  For the Christian not only are there historical, social, cultural, personal, and financial limitations on human freedom and choice, there are spiritual ones as well.  The Bible tells us that we are trapped in sin, held captive by the world, the flesh and the Devil.

An old joke about the Judge who said that every Englishman is free to have tea at the Ritz makes the point.  I may be free to buy tea at the Ritz, but if I am poor and homeless I do not have the ability to take advantage of that freedom.

All this raises interesting questions about how we become Christians.  If God leaves it to us to choose whether or not to accept the Gospel, then isn't that being a bit random?  Won't some of us be in a better position to make that choice than others?  Calvin uses the example of an apple tossed into a crowd of young boys. Won't the tallest and fittest have a better chance of catching it than all the rest?

Is this how the Gospel comes to us: as an apple tossed randomly into a crowd?

Monday, November 07, 2011

The Wrath of the Lamb

I am now preparing for the sermon on Sunday.

I am particularly drawn to Paul's statement in 1 Thessalonians 5:

'While people are saying, "Peace and safety," destruction will come on them suddenly ...'

Those who know their classical history will know what this is a reference to.  As fortune would have it, I am listening at the moment to a dramatisation of Robert Graves' book, I, Claudius, by the BBC. It details some of the struggles of the Roman Empire - and Emperors - in the time of the New Testament.

It was Rome's precise boast, or, more especially that of the Emperor Augustus, that he had brought 'peace and safety'.

However, the Empire of God always challenges the Empires, and Emperors, of this world.

I love the way this verse from the Book of Revelation challenges are present day prejudices and conceptions:

'And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?' (Revelation 6:10)

For most Christians, this is just so not where they are. They forget the Wrath of the Lamb who over-turned the tables in the Temple and talked of people being banished to outer darkness.

As Paul says, 'Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.' (Romans 12:19)

Christians have interpreted this to mean that there will be no vengeance, no Day of Wrath.  That is not what the New Testament says.  It tells us simply to leave Wrath to him who alone can judge the motives and hearts of all. But the certainty that vengeance will come is a given in the Bible and we should prepare for it - as our Lord consistently warns us in the Gospel.

This is the message of the season of Advent that we are now approaching.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Since I wrote the post about excessive meetings, I have been both encouraged by the number of people who have said they agree and discouraged by the relentless number of meetings that keep popping up.  The need is for discernment to know which are important and which are not.

I have been working on the sermon for this week and next, which will both be based on the second reading for the day from 1 Thessalonians.  The theme will be the same for both: death and the future.  Readers of this blog and those who know me will know that I am not a big fan of death.  I really dislike the flippancy with which some Christians discuss it.

Anyway, looking at what the New Testament writers, in general, and Paul, in particular, have to say about it, I am struck more and more by difference in perspective between us and them.  The emphasis in most Christian preaching and pastoral care today is on the destiny of believers once they die.  Understandably, we want to reassure bereaved families and those facing death - whether that of their own or a loved one - that the deceased or dying are going to heaven to be with Jesus.  Hope is expressed very much in terms of what happens when we die.

In the New Testament, however, this is not the emphasis.  The emphasis is not on what happens to us when we die, but on what will happen to us when Christ returns.  Now given that Christ's return has been delayed, from our point of view, for a very long time, it is understandable that we should focus on what happens at the point of death and not at some apparently very far off moment when Christ comes again - if we still believe he will, which many do not.

The problem reflected in the passage from Thessalonians for this coming Sunday seems to be that the Thessalonians were very worried about what would happen to those who had died before Christ came again. Paul writes at the start of the letter:

'...how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.'
(1 Thessalonians 1:9-10)

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy in their preaching of the Gospel seem to have stressed the fact that Jesus will return and we are to wait expectantly and be ready for Him.  Perhaps because of the relatively short time they were in Thessalonica, they did not deal with the issue of what happened to someone who died before Jesus returned and it is this question that they are now answering in their letter.

Their answer is interesting: they do not say, don't worry those who have died are safe with Christ, but, don't worry those who have died won't miss out when he returns.  In other words, they remain focused on the return of Christ as the ground of Christian hope.  It is then, and only then, that we will be raised and forever be with the Lord.

This still leaves hanging the question of what happens to the dead in the meantime.  Some people think that Paul either changed or developed his theology in his future letters.  Personally, I think it is a case of him explaining it in the light of different situations and questions.  But more on that in another post!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

It's Saturday and I can't believe, I have at last the time to sit down to write.

I was asked this week why I didn't want to go to various Christian conferences, clergy meetings and special services.  (Not true, BTW: I just happen to limit them to a few hundred a year).  The answer I wanted to give was: 'Because I have a life and a ministry'.  Although, hopefully, I managed something better and kinder than that.

But really, do we need all these conferences and special services?  Don't get me wrong.  If someone wants to organize something and then take their chances on people turning up because it sound s interesting and exciting, I am very happy.

But what happens in the Church is that people (normally, clergy) organize meetings, services, whatever, and then tell people they have a duty to turn up.

Well I, at least, am on the payroll and so there is the 'it's your duty argument', but what about families where both partners are working and where attending means having to sit through, let's face it, very boring meetings?  It just means that their kids are being neglected and deprived and their marriages put at risk.

I keep hearing that the Church believes in the family, wants to support marriages, and disapproves of divorce.  So what do we do to offer support?  We organize a conference, meeting, or service that takes people away from their families.

So we believe in the family, do we?  Really?  Then let's instead organize a movement to protest against unnecessary gatherings, services, and un-needed meetings in our churches.

Just say, No!

I volunteer to Chair the first meeting - oops!

Friday, August 12, 2011

Thinking Ahead

I am now getting back into the swing of things after coming back from holiday earlier this month.  This week I have been going over the diary for the next few months having acquired a new one for 2012 while away.  While visiting the UK, I saw party venues advertising for Christmas - scary!

This is the time of they year when requests for assemblies and dates for events and meetings start pouring in for the next year.  It is a little depressing watching the diary fill up so quickly!  I got so used to filling in dates for 2012 that I signed something with the date 2012 instead of 2011!

Last Sunday, I was preaching on the set reading: Romans 10:5-15 and, in particular, on the theme of preaching itself.  Preaching and teaching the Christian faith were what I originally felt myself called to do.  I have always felt dissatisfied that it hasn't been more of a focus of my ministry.  Like other ordained ministers, I give regular Sunday sermons, but there are so many other other tasks also demanding time and attention as the diary illustrates all too clearly that it can only be one thing among many others.  Sadly.

Yesterday I talked about a TV programme popular in the UK to illustrate what I saw as a problem with preaching in the Church.  The programme is Dragon's Den.  In it would-be entrepreneurs make a pitch to 5 multi-millionaire investors - the Dragons - hoping that the Dragons will make an offer to invest in their company.

Many of the pitches are extremely professional and entertaining.  After the pitch, however, comes the questioning from the Dragons.  At this point, many of the ideas and companies that seemed brilliant in the pitch are exposed as not nearly as good as they originally sounded.  They are shown to be lacking in substance.

Congregations increasingly expect their sermons to be short and entertaining.  Like the pitches made to the dragons.  The trouble with short and entertaining is that, again like the pitches to the dragons, they can also be lacking in substance.

I have just started preparing for the sermon a week on Sunday.  This will be on Romans 12:1-8.  It has struck me how much weight Paul puts on the mind and thinking.  I have always believed that a sermon which fails to make people think has failed as a sermon, no matter how entertaining it may have been.  But more about that in the next post! 

Friday, July 15, 2011

A very wet Hong Kong indeed today.  I thought I would bring the posts 'Introducing Romans' to a close with the following Postscript.  The posts 'Introducing Romans' really belong together, but that would have made the post very long indeed.  Hence the need to break them up.  Anyone wishing to access it as an unbroken whole can do so clicking on the label Romans or on the following link:

Introducing Romans

Have a good weekend!

Postscript to Introducing Romans

We have noted how Paul was spending the Winter in Corinth when he wrote Romans, reflecting on his past work in the East and preparing for his future work in Rome and the West.  Before that however, he was off on what he saw as a crucial journey to Jerusalem.  The last thoughts we have from Paul before he set off on this journey were of those who caused division and opposed his teaching.  Doubtless, he was worried that they may get to Rome before him.  After all, his opponents had caused him trouble enough in the past 10 years or so.

He was also worried that he might meet opposition in Jerusalem when he arrived with the collection.  Paul was well aware that so controversial was his preaching to many Jewish-Christians that they might simply refuse to accept the gift no matter how badly they needed it.  He was right to be worried.  Acts 21 records Paul’s arrival in Jerusalem with the collection.  The day after his arrival, he goes to meet James, the brother of Jesus, and the other leaders of the Jerusalem Church.

Paul gives them a report of his ministry amongst the Gentiles.  They seem to have received it well enough, but what really mattered to them can be seen from how they reply to his report.  Luke tells us: ‘Then they said to him, ‘You see, brother, how many thousands of believers there are among the Jews, and they are all zealous for the law.  They have been told about you that you teach all the Jews living among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, and that you tell them not to circumcise their children or observe the customs.’ (Acts 21:20-21)

Their answer to this concern is for Paul to go to the Temple and demonstrate his loyalty to Judaism and the Law.  It was either a set up or a terrible miscalculation.  When Paul is recognized in the temple led instead to a riot and Paul nearly being killed.  Instead, he was arrested a riot breaks out and Paul is nearly killed.  Instead he is arrested.  We do not hear of him as a free man again.  He is imprisoned in Caesarea for two years before being sent at his own insistence for trial in Rome where we know he was also a prisoner for two years.  What happened to him after that we do not know because this is where Luke finishes his account of Paul’s ministry.

Paul had planned three journeys and had written of his desire to see the Roman Christians.  He was to make two of those journeys and did eventually get to Rome, but not in the way he had hoped.  As for the journey he had planned to Spain, we simply don’t know whether he made it there or not.  Some think that Paul was released after the imprisonment in Rome recorded at the end of Acts and went on to Spain.  Some think he was released, but didn’t make it to Spain.  Others still think that he was not released.  The truth is we will never know!

In Christian mission and ministry, we have to make plans.  God expects it of us.  Otherwise, there is a danger that we will just drift.  Churches, dioceses and provinces often have five year plans for what they will do and often these are formulated with the best will and intentions.  Just as Paul’s plans had been.

It can then be very disappointing when our plans do not work out as we either wanted or expected as frequently they do not.  Coping with disappointment can be hard.  On the occasion of my 25 years in the priesthood, I preached a sermon on some of my own disappointments.  One person who heard it declared afterward that she was disappointed in me.  Disappointment doesn’t always fit with some Christians’ world-view!

But in Romans itself Paul wrote of his sufferings and yet despite them he knew that ‘all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose’ (Romans 8:28).  Paul had learnt through years of ministry that although God wants us to plan ahead, God is greater than our plans and has a plan of his own.  Paul was to write to the Philippians about his imprisonment:

‘I want you to know, beloved that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ; and most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear.’  (Philippians 1:12-13)
No matter how much we may be committed to the Church and to the Gospel, God is more so.  We need in our planning and thinking not only to be open to God’s guidance, but to God overruling and changing our plans.  As the saying has it: ‘man proposes, but God disposes’.

And what is true in mission and ministry is true for us personally.  We all have our hopes and dreams.  We plan for the large and small things in our lives: for our careers, partners, and families.  We plan where we shall live and what we shall do.  We plan for our children and their schooling.  And the big plans give rise to the little plans that govern what we do each week and day.

As Christians, we need to see that our lives are in God’s hands.  This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t plan, but that we should not be so attached to our plans that we are not open to God changing them.  At times, we will find this frightening and we will be afraid.  There would be something wrong with us if we were not.  Paul believed, however, that not only did ‘all things work together for good for those who loved God’, he also believed, as he again says in Romans, that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39).

Yes, our plans will change or even fail altogether – that is a fact of life.  For the Christian, however, there is the promise of God that, no matter how much we may be disappointed or how bad things may get, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  As Paul discovered, not only is God greater than our plans, he is greater than our failure and, no matter what, he remains firmly in control. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

This post deals with the other two journeys that Paul was planning at the time of writing Romans.

2. A Journey to Spain

However, while he was reflecting on the phase of his ministry now coming to a close, Paul was also reflecting on what would happen next.  Having preached in the east of the Empire, Paul now wanted to go west and his attention turned to Spain.  He informs the Roman Christians: ‘So, when I have completed this, and have delivered to them what has been collected, I will set out by way of you to Spain …’ (Romans 15:28 NRSV).

Why Spain?  This cannot be answered with certainty.  Paul could have gone east from Jerusalem into the Parthian Empire where we know there were Jewish communities or even as far as India.  Even if Paul wanted to stay within the boundaries of the Roman Empire, then there was the north coast of Africa, which again had established Jewish communities.  There were in other words plenty of places that Paul could have visited.  The answer probably lies in the principles Paul gives for deciding where to preach.  In Romans 15:20, he writes:  ‘Thus I make it my ambition to proclaim the good news, not where Christ has already been named, so that I do not build on someone else’s foundation …’

By this he doesn’t mean that everyone in a specific region has heard the Gospel, but that the Gospel is established there.  Spain obviously struck him as a region that had not been evangelized.  It also fitted with other ambitions.

3.  A Journey to Rome

The third journey that explains Paul’s reason for writing to the Roman Church is that Paul specifically wanted to visit the Church in Rome.  In Romans 1:11 at the start of the letter he writes of his longing to see them and tells them in 1:13 that he has often intended to come to them, but has been prevented from doing so.

The reason for Paul now wanting to go to Rome is probably two-fold:

1.  The first reason is one that is frequently commented on.  It is normally linked with Paul’s intended journey to Spain.  Paul speaks of how he intends to make this first visit to Rome on his way to Spain: ‘For I do hope to see you on my journey and to be sent on by you, once I have enjoyed your company for a little while.’ (Romans 15:24)  What Paul probably means by this is that he is hoping Rome will be come a base for his mission in the west as Antioch was for his mission in the east.  Paul originally was ‘sent out’ by Antioch to preach the Gospel (Acts 13:2)  This sending out would involve the Romans in providing support in terms of money, prayer, and personnel – many of whom, as we have seen, were already known to him.

2.  All the above is undoubtedly true and important.  There may have been a second reason, however, and that is that Paul wanted to bring Rome within the orbit of his authority.  We have seen that Paul made a point of principle not to preach where Christ had already been named.  And yet, at the beginning of the letter, he tells them that he has wanted to visit them, as he puts it, ‘in order that I may reap some harvest among you as I have among the rest of the Gentiles.’  (Romans 1:13)

There is an apparent contradiction here.  Paul will tell them at the end of the letter that he is going to Spain because he doesn’t want to preach Christ anywhere that Christ is named, but here at the beginning of the letter he tells them he wants to come to Rome so that he may preach the Gospel and reap a harvest among them as he has the other Gentiles.

The answer to this apparent contradiction lies in the fact that, as we have previously observed, the Roman Church was not established by an apostle.  Paul clearly feels that this means it ought to come under his authority as the apostle to the Gentiles.  He actually is quite explicit about this.  His Gospel, he tells them, is about Jesus Christ our Lord ‘through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ …’ (Romans 1:5-6) 

These two reasons are, in fact, closely linked.  If Paul is to be able to use Rome as a base, it is essential that Rome recognizes that he is a genuine apostle, with all the authority that implies, preaching a message that he received from God.

In Romans then he sets out his Gospel, that is what is distinctive about his Gospel as the apostle to the Gentiles and seeks to explain it to the Romans in the hope that they will feel able to embrace both it and himself as the person preaching it.  Paul was not certain that they would any more than he was that the Jerusalem Church would accept the collection.  Paul was only too aware of those who would oppose it.  Paul writes at the very end of the letter: ‘I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned.  Keep away from them.’  (Romans 16:17)

Romans 16:16-20 are sometimes considered to be an afterthought to the letter, coming as they do after all the greetings in that chapter.  It is worth reminding ourselves, however, that Paul having dictated a letter to a scribe, in this case as we have seen to Tertius, then adds a greeting in his own hand to authenticate the letter (see Galatians 6:11, 2 Thessalonians 3:17, 1 Corinthians 16:21, Colossians 4:18).  What is more he tells the Thessalonians that this is his practice in every letter he writes.  This would suggest that 16:17-20 are verses that Paul has added in his own hand.

If this is so, and the verses are there in any case whether in Paul’s own hand or not, they suggest that Paul feels he will have the same battle for the Gospel in the years to come as he had in the years just past.  Romans lays the groundwork for what Paul hopes will be future ministry in Rome in the years ahead.

In Romans, Paul writes about the themes that he believed to be essential in his preaching of the Gospel to the Gentiles.  He goes into more detail and deals with the objections with more care than in any of his other letters.  He wants to be well prepared for the journeys that lie ahead.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Today I want to look at the first journey that Paul was planning at the time he wrote Romans.

1.  A Journey to Jerusalem

In the winter of 57, Paul felt that his work in the eastern part of the Roman Empire was complete.  He writes in Romans 16:19: ‘from Jerusalem and as far around as Illyricum I have fully proclaimed the good news of Christ.’  In 16:23, he states that there is now no role for him in these regions.  Except that is for one.

Paul has for some years been collecting money from his Gentile churches to take as a gift to the Christians in Jerusalem.  As he puts it to the Romans: ‘At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem in a ministry to the saints; for Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to share their resources with the poor among the saints at Jerusalem.’  (Romans 16:25-26).  Paul didn’t, however, see this simply as a charitable gesture.  For him, this was an expression of fellowship between the Gentile Christians and the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem and a sign of unity between the two branches of the Church.

Incredible though it may seem, Paul was worried that this generous collection and ‘sign of peace’ would be rejected by the Church in Jerusalem.  He writes to the Roman Christians: ‘I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in earnest prayer to God on my behalf, that I may be rescued from the unbelievers in Judea, and that my ministry to Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints …’ (Romans 16:30-31)

In these three months, it is likely that Paul was reflecting on how his ministry had gone now that this chapter had come to an end.  Inevitably, he would remember the opposition he had encountered so far, the arguments he had had and be thinking about the questions he would be asked in Jerusalem especially by those who were suspicious of him and his message.  The letter to the Romans is the outcome of this reflection.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A Milestone of Sorts

Only time for a short blog today as I need to put the finishing touches to 5 short talks I am recording this afternoon for the radio.

I wanted to blog today because 30 years ago on June 28 I was ordained deacon in the Cathedral Church of Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary in Chester in the UK.  Not having any other opportunity to mark the occasion I thought I could at least remember it here.

I have just been on the Cathedral website and was intrigued to discover, and not a little disappointed, that it makes very little mention of the name preferring just Chester Cathedral.  I wonder why this is!

Monday, June 27, 2011

It's the start of a new week so before I get sucked into all the stuff that awaits, I thought that I would post the
second in this new series on Romans!

Introducing Romans - Part 2: A Letter from Corinth

So what can we be certain of?

Well you would think that the first thing would be that Paul wrote it!  In fact, in Romans 16:22 we read these words: ‘I Tertius, the writer of this letter, greet you in the Lord.’  Tertius means by this that he wrote it down, that he was the person that Paul dictated it to.  Does this matter?  Well, it is, perhaps, a gentle reminder that Paul wrote the letter according to the writing conventions of the day and that when trying to understand what it means it needs to be read as a first century letter not a modern piece of theological writing.

It seems likely that it was written during the Winter of 57 to 58 from Corinth, a church closely associated with Paul and one which he did establish.  Romans is unique amongst Paul’s letters in that all his other letters were written either to churches he himself had established or to people he knew well.  Although Paul hadn’t established the Church in Rome and hadn’t even been there at the time of writing the letter, this didn’t mean he didn’t know about the Church there.

He writes at the beginning of the letter:  ‘First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world.’  (Romans 1:8)  This could be taken as hyperbole or mere flattery were it not for the fact in Romans 16, at the end of the letter, Paul sends greetings to a long list of people at Rome whom he obviously knows well including Priscilla and Aquilla, who were his co-workers in Asia, as well as close friends and relatives.

But why write it?

We need to remind ourselves that Paul was a controversial figure in the early Church as he still is today.  Jewish Christians in particular were deeply suspicious of him and he faced severe opposition from some of them.  The intensity of this opposition can be seen particularly clearly in his letter to the Galatians and his second letter to the Corinthians.  Essentially, the accusation of his opponents was that he had sold out on Judaism.  You can see why they thought this.  Paul did not require his Gentile converts to be circumcised, as God had commanded in the Old Testament, and he didn’t require them to keep the Law of Moses, which all Jews, Christian and non-Christian alike, believed to be the Law of God.

Paul felt that in some cases his teaching was being misrepresented, that it was certainly being misunderstood, and that some of his opponents were simply false teachers responsible for leading people astray and compromising the Gospel.  In Romans, then, Paul doesn’t seek to give a complete statement of Christian theology, rather he seeks to explain those elements of it that were particularly characteristic of his preaching and to answer some of the questions and objections that had been raised because of it.

This explains why the letter deals especially with such themes as justification by faith, the relationship between Jews and Gentiles, the Law, God’s relationship with Israel, and what you can and cannot eat as a Christian!  It was Paul’s teaching on these themes that got him into the most trouble with other Christians.  He doesn’t need to talk about the resurrection of Christ, for example, because this was something he and his opponents were all agreed on!

Given, then, that Romans is an explanation and exposition of that which was distinctive in Paul’s teaching: why send it to Rome where, as Paul himself acknowledges in the letter, he had never been before?

The answer to this question lies in three journeys Paul was planning to make at the time he wrote Romans.  

Saturday, June 25, 2011

It is that time of year again.  No, I don't mean the Summer, but the end of term with all its many events!  Tomorrow in Church we start reading through Romans and I have been working on a simple introduction to it.  This is the first part!

Introducing Romans - Part 1: An Independent Church

June 29 is the feast day of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, Apostles. 

The Feast of St Peter and St Paul is an important reminder that Christianity isn’t simply about Paul.  (In the light of Anonymous' comment below, I think this should read: the spread of Christianity isn't simply about Paul!)  There were other important Christian leaders and teachers, not least Saint Peter.  Paul was, of course, hugely important, but it is possible to overdo it.  In both non-Christian and Christian circles, Paul is often seen as having effectively created what we now know as Christianity. 

For some, this is a negative thing: Jesus preached the pure Gospel and Paul came along and changed it, making it into a religion to rival those of the pagans.  For others, it is a positive thing: Paul is seen as having provided the much needed theological and intellectual basis for the new movement.

The truth is, as Paul himself acknowledges, that Paul received a great deal from those who were Christians before him.  Much early Christian theology was in place before Paul became a Christian.  The reason that the picture of Christian origins is distorted is because much of the New Testament was written by Paul and the only early history of the Church, the Book of Acts, focuses on the mission and ministry of Paul.

It doesn’t do any harm, then, to remind ourselves that there were important centres of Christianity that neither Paul nor for that matter Peter founded.  Egypt, and Alexandria in particular, was an important centre and there is certainly no evidence that either Peter or Paul went there, although our Lord did, of course, albeit as a baby!  Rome itself is another example.

Both Peter and Paul are linked with Rome.  Peter is believed by Roman Catholic Christians to have been the first Bishop of Rome and by some to have founded the Church there.  While it is probable that both Peter and Paul died in Rome, they didn’t found the Church there.  The Church was already in existence in Rome before either of them went there.  So how did it come to be in existence?

We are told that on the Day of Pentecost that there were in Jerusalem ‘visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes’ (Acts 2:10).  They were amongst those who heard the disciples speaking in ‘other languages as the Spirit gave them utterance’.  It is likely that some of these became believers and took the Christian Gospel back to Rome where it seems to have thrived.

Despite its independent origins as a Church, Rome was to become closely associated with both apostles.  Apart from Rome being the place where the two apostles were martyred under Nero’s persecution of the Church, St Peter was claimed as its first Bishop, and it was to give its name to the greatest piece of Christian writing in the history of the Church: Paul’s letter to the Romans.  In this letter, Paul, undoubtedly, does show his theological genius and the letter has been of phenomenal influence on people who were themselves great theologians of the Church: Augustine in the fifth century; Luther, in the sixteenth; and Barth in the twentieth.  These and many more like them were all indebted to it.  There have been many, many books and commentaries written on it.  It is certainly the one I personally have the most books and commentaries on.

Even though it has been so closely studied, Paul’s letter to the Romans still manages to challenge and perplex. Scholars argue over the meaning of almost every verse, often reaching dramatically different conclusions. In the next post, we will begin by asking whether there is anything we can be certain of.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Returning to Romans

I recently ordered a copy of a book just published on Romans.  It is Richard Longenecker, Introducing Romans.  Like many, the more I read Romans and the more I read books and commentaries on Romans, the less I seem to understand it.  This book is in anticipation of a commentary on Romans that Longenecker is in the process of writing.

It deals with all the issues surrounding Romans such as when was it written, to whom, and why.  It gives a very good overview of where scholars are at when it comes to understanding and interpreting Romans.  If you would like to read a short review I have written on it, this is the link: Longenecker, Introducing Romans

Scroll down for the review.

Preparing the hymns for Sunday worship for the next few weeks (see the last post) has alerted me to the fact that we will be reading through Romans over the Summer starting at chapter 6.  Longenecker's book arrived at the right time!  Coincidentally, I have 5 short talks for the radio to prepare to be broadcast in August.  Added to the fact that June 29 celebrates Peter and Paul, Apostles, it looks like this is a good time to return to Romans.  The last time I preached and wrote on Romans was back in 2008 (see the label: Romans).  I don't want simply to repeat what I wrote then, but it will be quite fun to be able to pick up where I left off, and I am grateful that this new book has helped me to do that.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Communication

I realize that it has been a little while since I last blogged.  My blogging does tend to go in spurts.  On the one hand, I don't want to get into the habit of just saying something for the sake of it; on the other, I realize it gets a bit pointless if I don't post anything for too long.  So my apologies for the erratic character of my blogging!

Here in Hong Kong, the Summer season is now well and truly upon us.  Temperatures are well into the 30 degrees centigrade.  Strangely, there hasn't been too much rain.  No doubt it will come!  We have had some heavy rainfall, though, and as usual we have new leaks in the Church.  They are not too serious at the moment, but it can get depressing, nevertheless.  Those reading this outside of Hong Kong may be interested in the following which has just been published on news website:

'Shelters have been opened across the territory for people to seek refuge from the heat after the Observatory issued the very hot weather warning. It is forecasting more sweltering weather over the next couple of days and is urging people to take precautions and avoid prolonged exposure to the sun.'

June is always busy both with the Schools and with events and meetings before people go away over the Summer.  Yesterday, however, was a public holiday in Hong Kong so I took advantage of the phone not ringing and fewer emails coming in to choose the hymns for the Sunday services until mid-September.  Apart from feeling very pleased with myself, it is good to know that there is now one less thing to worry about!

Being able to work in relative peace made me realize how much of a distraction email can be.  It is now a fact of life, of course, and it can be very useful, but it does mean that people expect instant responses.  I am reading Tim Challies book, The Next Story: Life and Faith after the Digital Explosion, and he makes the point that any new technology brings advantages and disadvantages.  I remember embracing the email when it was still a relatively new method of communication.  It seemed to offer nothing but advantages over the old postal system.

Even in Banchory a significant part of my day would be spent writing or answering letters, and then walking to the Post Office to catch the last post so that they would arrive - hopefully - in a couple of days so that with any luck I would get a reply if required within a week or so.

The change that email has made not just in speed, but in expectation, was brought home to me last week.

I received an email with a question in it at about 10.00am.  As there was information I needed to gather to answer it, I thought I would leave it until lunch-time to reply.  Meanwhile, the sender grew so anxious that I had not replied immediately, and not being able to get me by phone, phoned a third party to contact someone who would be seeing me later that day to ask me to reply!

Now the business people out there would probably tell me that if I think this is bad, I should try having a Blackberry and see the expectation that this raises.  Which is I suppose my point: do we really need this speed of communication?  Aren't we in danger of sacrificing thoughtful communication for instant communication?  And what is this doing when it comes to prayer and meditating on God's word?

I wouldn't want to be without email.  Forgive me, however, for not rushing out to buy an iphone or Blackberry!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Good Friday

It's rather busy here at the moment, so please forgive a very short blog!  I just wanted to say to you, my faithful readers, that I hope you have a very Happy and Blessed Easter.

My love to you all.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Real Presence of Christ

Last Wednesday was the last in our series of Lenten Studies on the Eucharist.  We were looking at the different approaches to the Eucharist developed at the time of the European reformation and then thinking about how we understand what is happening in the Eucharist when we celebrate it today.

It has become customary to contrast the Roman Catholic belief with the approaches of Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin and despite some of the limitations of this approach and the generalizations that it leads to, this approach does have the merit of defining four broad views of the Eucharist.

The Roman Catholic view we discussed last week.  Essentially, at the start of the 16th century, Roman Catholics believed in the sacrifice of the Mass and the real presence of Christ in the Eucharistic elements of bread and wine.  It was this that the reformers in their different ways were reacting to.

All three reformers were agreed in rejecting the idea of Christ being sacrificed in the Mass.  They also rejected the restriction of communion to one kind, that is to the bread, for the laity.  After this, as is well-known, there was much disagreement.

Luther was nearer Roman Catholic Church in the way he believed in the real presence of Christ in the sacrament.  While rejecting transubstantiation, he developed an idea that was much like it.  Transubstantiation is the belief that the outward appearance of the bread and wine remain the same, but that the substance, the inner reality, are changed into the body and blood of Christ.  Luther suggested, as an alternative, consubstantiation.  In this the outward appearance of the bread and the wine remain the same, as with transubstantiation, but the substance, the inner reality, is BOTH that of the body and blood of Christ AND the bread and wine.  Luther was extremely insistent on the real presence of Christ's body and blood in the sacrament and took the word 'is', when our Lord said at the Last Supper, 'This my body' and 'This is my blood', quite literally.

Zwingli in his rejection of Roman Catholic teaching went to the opposite extreme and opposed any real presence of Christ's body and blood in the bread and the wine.  In his initial teaching, at least, the Lord's Supper was for Zwingli a symbolic meal.  The word 'is' for Zwingli in our Lord's words at the Last Supper meant, 'This signifies my body' and 'This signifies my blood'.  There is evidence of a more positive view of the Lord's Supper in his later teaching, but it is fair to say that Zwingli and Luther fell out over this in a big way with the result that Protestants were to be seriously divided over the meaning of the Lord's Supper, a division which remains to this day.

Zwingli's view has been caricatured as belief in the real absence of Jesus, which is unfair to Zwingli, but not to many of those who followed him.  It is a reminder that it is one thing to say what you are against, another to say what you are for!

It is to Calvin's great credit that he spent so much time in his writings trying to develop a positive doctrine of the Eucharist, focusing as much on what was happening as on what was not.  Like Zwingli, Calvin rejected the idea that Christ is in anyway physically present in the bread and the wine and so disagreed with Luther and his followers on this.  Furthermore, he was not afraid to say so!  Calvin, however, also worked hard to reach agreement over the meaning of the Lord's Supper with those who succeeded Zwingli and followed Zwingli's teaching.  His efforts were met with some success.

Reading Calvin, what comes across, to me at least, is that the Lord's Supper meant something to him on a more than intellectual level.  You get the impression that the Lord's Supper is very much part of his spiritual life and that without it he would feel spiritually impoverished.  He is not just writing in a theoretical way about Christian doctrine, but about something that is central to his experience of the Christian life.  This explains why for Calvin frequent participation in the Lord's Supper is so important.  Calvin alone in his day believed that the Eucharist should be celebrated and the sacrament received by believers on a weekly basis.  The Lord's Supper is something that for Calvin truly matters.

While Calvin agreed with Zwingli that Christ is not physically present in the bread and the wine, he rejected any idea that the bread and the wine were empty symbols.  He says that what they 'represent, they also present'.  He believed that Christ's body and blood are truly offered to us in the sacrament and that when we partake of the sacrament by faith, we spiritually feed on the body and blood of Christ.  Christ is thus really present in the sacrament albeit spiritually by faith.  We can describe the bread as Christ's body and the wine as Christ's blood because that is what they represent and what they offer the believer who by faith wants to feed on Christ.

I have said here before that for me this is the most helpful way of looking at the Lord's Supper.  If I may be so bold, however, I think I would like to go a little farther than Calvin at least in trying to explain our use of language.  At the reformation, the argument was very much over whether Christ's body and blood were present in the sacrament.  Again, at the risk of over-simplifying, some such as Luther said they were present physically and some such as Calvin, spiritually. There is still, however, a tendency to suggest that we must literally eat Christ's actual body and drink his actual blood whether we do this physically (Luther) or spiritually (Calvin).  Where I think Zwingli was on to something was in feeling uncomfortable with this understanding of the Biblical language.  I think his own understanding went in the wrong direction, but he is right to ask what the language means.

Surely the language of eating and drinking Christ's body and blood is metaphorical, that is, that what we are being invited to do when we are offered the body and blood of Christ is to participate in the benefits that Christ's death and sacrifice have obtained and made possible for us.  To focus on eating the body and drinking the blood whether we do this physically or spiritually is surely to stop at the sign and not to move on to where the sign is pointing.

Not for one moment do I want to suggest that nothing is happening in the Eucharist.  I believe absolutely in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist and, to put it bluntly, that Christ is offered to us in the Eucharist in a way that he is not offered to us elsewhere.  The bread and wine by representing the body and blood of Christ, are presenting to us all the benefits of Christ's passion.  What we are being offered is not simply Christ's body and blood, in whatever sense, but an intimate communion with the person of Christ himself made possible by the body and blood of Christ.

In other words to stop at the idea of eating Christ's body and blood, perversely, is to limit the presence of Christ in the sacrament.  When Christ said in John 6:57 'whoever eats me, will live because of me' he meant far more than 'whoever believes in me will live because of me', but, surely, he also meant more than 'whoever has bite of my flesh and sucks my blood, will live because of me'.  Surely what he is referring to is a union between himself and the believer that is so real and intense that only the language of feeding on him is powerful enough to express it.

For this reason, I have no problem whatsoever in saying that, in the Lord's Supper, I eat Christ's body and drink his blood, but in saying this what I am saying is that Christ is so really and truly present that I am able to encounter him and receive him in way that transcends all speech and doctrine.

As Calvin said, 'I would rather experience it than understand it.'

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Fourth Lent Study: Audio

After a short delay, I can now post the audio for last week's talk on the Eucharist: From Real Meal to Medieval Mass.  I should say that these are not live recordings, but recordings made after the talk.  Actually, they are recorded by me here in my study!  This means they sound more read than delivered!  In the version delivered on the night, I take breaks to explain and develop points more than I feel able to here.  I hope that they are, nevertheless, reasonably clear.

I am quite pleased that I am at least getting hold of the technology of doing this.  Please let me know if there are any technical problems - as well as, of course, any comments you may have.

This is the link:

The Eucharist - Study 4: From Real Meal To Medieval Mass