Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The Call to be Faithful

I have brought together some of my thoughts, talks, and sermons to create a Booklet on the occasion of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation.

It can be read or downloaded here:

The Call to be Faithful

All Saints' Eve 2017

Today is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. We have been thinking about it at Christ Church over the past few months. Over the past year, I have given three sets of talks for the radio programme Minutes that Matter on RTHK Radio 4.

In them, I have tried to reflect on the significance of the Reformation as well as looking at where the Church is today.

I have brought all three of them together in a booklet, which I will post here today. The following is the Preface I have written to them.


This booklet contains the lightly edited transcripts of three sets of talks that I have delivered this year for ‘Minutes that Matter’ on RTHK Radio 4. The format of the programme explains the form and length of the talks! Originally, a piece of music accompanied each of the talks, but I have left the details of the music out of the transcripts. Those who would like to listen to the audio version of the talks together with the music that originally went with them can still do so on the RTHK website in the Radio 4 Programme Archive.

The talks were written with the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in mind.

In the first set of talks for March, I address directly issues arising from the Reformation and the division it caused. I argue that while the Reformation emphasized important aspects of the Christian Gospel, it had ‘unintended consequences’ apart from the immediate divisions it caused. The Church is facing the full force of these consequences today.

In the second set for August, the subject is the Holy Trinity. In the talks, I discuss the importance and centrality of the Holy Trinity for the Christian faith and argue against attempts in the present day to see belief in the Holy Trinity as something peripheral, optional, or even to be abandoned altogether. I urge those who continue to believe in the Holy Trinity to lay aside their historical differences and unite in the face of attacks on the historic, orthodox faith of the Church.

Finally, in the third set of talks for November, I examine what it means for the Church to be ‘fruitful’ as Jesus commanded. I argue that the Church in the West, taken as a whole, has ceased to be ‘fruitful’, and has instead opened itself, both consciously and unconsciously, to the prevailing spirit in western society with fatal results. I express the hope that Churches outside the West will take up the challenge to be faithful to Christ and stand firm against the new paganism that, I believe, is threatening the Church.

The title for the combined sets of talks comes from the words of our Lord in Revelation:

‘Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.’ (Revelation 2:10)

Ross Royden

All Saints’ Eve, 2017

Monday, June 19, 2017

Trinity 1 (Corpus Christi)

John 6:51-58

Last Sunday was Trinity Sunday, the Festival of the Holy Trinity.  It was the last in a series of great festivals which began this church year back in November with Advent Sunday.  Except that just when we thought we had completed the cycle, some churches on Thursday just past, almost as a PS, had one more - Corpus Christi.  Corpus Christi is also known in the Anglican Church as a ‘Day of Thanksgiving for Holy Communion.  As this longer title suggests, Corpus Christi celebrates the service that is known in Churches by different names: the Mass, the Eucharist, Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper, Breaking of Bread, or simply, the Liturgy.  Whatever title is used, the service itself has its origin in our Lord’s Last Supper with his disciples on the night he was betrayed and arrested.

As with other festivals that fall on a weekday, many churches celebrate Corpus Christi today on the Sunday following and we are no exception.  It is appropriate that we are using a Mass setting today that was specially composed for us by a member of our church family, Canon Martin White.  And we would send our thanks and greetings to Martin and his wife, Noreen, this morning.

This year, as many will know, we are remembering what is seen as the symbolic beginning of the European Reformation when, on October 31, 1517, a monk who taught in a university in Germany nailed his ‘Ninety-fve Theses’ to the door of a church.  (At least, this is how the story has come to be told.)  It was a routine way at the time of inviting academic debate.  There was, however, nothing routine about what followed as a consequence.  The Church in the West was to be divided into Roman Catholic and Protestant.  The division is with us still.  As someone who is chronically sick often learns how to live with their sickness so we in the church have learnt how to live with ours.

The division between Catholic and Protestant was over several different issues, but it became focused on the doctrine of ‘justification by faith’.  Ironically, there is little disagreement between Catholics and Protestants over this now.  But the Reformation didn’t just result in division between Catholic and Protestant, equally serious and bitter was the division between Protestant and Protestant.  And that division was over how to understand the service we are celebrating today, and unlike justification by faith that disagreement remains today.  Thankfully, although still terrible, it is normally without the bitterness that often characterized the difference and disagreement in the past.

In our closing hymn, we will pray for ‘our sad divisions soon to cease’.  Sadly, there is no sign at the moment that they will.  Given our divisions, it is easy to forget how much we are actually agreed upon.  We in the Churches are all agreed that Jesus did share a Meal with his disciples on the night before his crucifixion and we are all agreed that he told his disciples that they should continue to do it after he had left them.  We are also all agreed that the Church did continue to do so and that this service we celebrate and give thanks for today is a gift to us from God to be received gratefully and thankfully.

We are, however, a bit like someone who has been given a gift only to unwrap it and say, ‘What is it?’  Because while there is much that we all agree on, there is much that we do not, and at the heart of our disagreements is the question of how to understand the gift we have been given in this service.

The divisions at the time of the Reformation all centred on whether and in what way Jesus was present in the Eucharist.  For Roman Catholics and for Luther, the monk who started it all, Christ was truly present in the bread and wine: ‘body and blood, soul and divinity’.  So that to eat the bread and to drink the wine was really to eat Christ’s flesh and to drink his blood.

For other Protestants, however, this was to take it all too literally and, indeed, to miss the point.  What Jesus meant at the Last Supper when he said, ‘This is my body’ and ‘This is my blood’ is that the bread and wine represent his body and blood.  After all, as a matter of fact, they couldn’t be his body and blood at the time he said the words!

For those who took this position and who take it today, the Lord’s Supper is a ‘commemorative meal’; one in which we remember what our Lord did for us in the past and think on what that means for us in the present.  Of course, our Lord is with us when we do this, just as he is with us when we meet on other occasions to worship and to pray.  The bread and the wine, however, they believe, remain exactly what they are: bread and wine.

Some took a middle way not comfortable with what they saw as the literalness of Roman Catholics and not happy with the ‘divine absence’ of the hard-line Protestants.  Christ might not be physically present in the bread and wine, they argued, but in eating and drinking the bread and wine we are doing more than remembering Christ, we are feeding on him spiritually.

Well, we are not going to solve the divisions of 500 years ago this morning.  I imagine that both those in the congregation here at Christ Church and those of you listening on air or online have your own ideas and understanding.  What I would say, however, is that as Christians we should begin by focusing on what we are agreed on.

And again, we are agreed that our Lord did this and wants us to do this.  In other words, it is important and it matters.  It is hardly conceivable that our Lord would have made this the last thing he did with his disciples if it were not.

All of which brings us to this morning’s Gospel reading.  In it, Jesus says, ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.’

At this point, many, including many Biblical scholars, would cry, ‘Foul!’.  They see it as illegitimate to link our Lord’s institution of the Eucharist with his use of very literal sounding language here in St John’s Gospel.  They argue that the eating and drinking our Lord is talking about here is not the eating and drinking we do in the Eucharist, but the spiritual feeding on Christ that takes place when we believe in him and make him and his teachings the basis of our lives.

And with this understanding of Jesus’ words, I would agree.  At least, this is what I think it means in the first place.  After all, in our reading, Jesus is physically present with those he is speaking to.  How could it mean anything less?  Jesus is challenging the crowd to make faith in him so integral a part of their life that they could not live without him.  Believing in him, knowing him, is to be more important to them than food and drink.

Jesus is challenging them to see him not as an optional extra in their lives, but as essential to their very existence.  They are not to see him simply as some teacher who they can turn to as a guide when they need some help, but as the centre and basis of their lives without whom they cannot go on living.

This is a challenge to all who would follow Christ now as well as then.

But imagine you were hearing these words in John’s Gospel for the first time not on the lips of Jesus during his earthly ministry, but when the Gospel was read during your gathering with other Christians as a Church.  We know that these gatherings, like ours this morning, centred on the Lord’s Supper.  Would it have been possible to hear Jesus saying that we must eat his flesh and drink his blood without also relating his words to what you were about to do?  And wouldn’t St John, the writer of the Gospel, have realized and intended this?

We may disagree as Christians on precisely how Jesus is present in our service this morning, but what we can and should agree on is our need to feed on him.  Whatever our understanding of what happens in the Eucharist, we aren’t simply remembering Jesus this morning nor are we simply remembering all that he has done for us, we are reminding ourselves of our need for him and of our dependence on him for life itself.

But it is not enough for a hungry and thirsty person to be reminded that they need food and drink to live.  They know that well enough.  They need to be given food and drink and that, I believe, is what Jesus offers us in himself and through this service for which we are giving thanks.

There is, however, one more thing that it is all too easy to forget because it seems so glaringly obvious.  All Christians are agreed that, at the very least, the bread and wine represent Christ’s body and blood, that is, they speak of his death and sacrifice: when he gave his flesh for the life of the world and poured out his blood as a sacrifice for sin so that we could be ‘justified by faith’ and ‘have peace with God.’

The trouble is that we don’t always want reminding of this.  We are comfortable with the idea of Jesus as our teacher and guide.  We like that he is our friend and brother, a companion in times of trouble and when we are sad or lonely.  We are not so comfortable with the idea of Jesus as the Lamb of God who was sacrificed for us and because of us.

At the heart of our faith and worship is a bloody sacrifice.  Jesus didn’t just die on the Cross as an event we look back on in the past, he very deliberately put his death at the very heart of what we do in the present every time we meet to celebrate the Eucharist and receive Holy Communion.

Many Christians refer to the sacrifice of the Mass.  At Christ Church and in many churches, we describe the piece of furniture at the front of our place of worship as the altar.  Christians have different ways of understanding how the sacrifice of Christ is experienced by us in this service. But let there be no disagreement over this: without Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, without the shedding of his blood, there would be no forgiveness of our sins, no possibility of us feeding on him or of us being able to follow him.

Christ’s death on the Cross is what makes our life as Christians possible and our worship of God acceptable.

So, this morning, we approach the altar to eat of this sacrifice, to partake in it, knowing that as Christ himself said: ‘Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you have no life in you.’  But we also know that the ‘one who eats this bread will live forever.

We come then this morning to him who gave his life for us knowing that he will not turn us away.  We bring our worries, fears, problems, needs, and, above all, our guilt and sin confident that the blood of Christ cleanses us from all sin.

As we kneel before the altar, we are reminded that ‘God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.’  And in faith, we feed on him whose ‘flesh is true food’ and whose ‘blood is true drink’.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Trinity Sunday

Today is Trinity Sunday.  This is the Sunday in the Christian year most dreaded by preachers.  As one preacher, not known normally for being lacking in words, said to me this week, ‘What do you say?’  It has been said that if you speak for more than five minutes on the subject of the Trinity, you end up saying something heretical.  As a result, many preachers shy away from talking about the Holy Trinity at all.  While this is understandable if those who are given the responsibility of preaching do this, what hope is there for congregations?  So, conscious of the dangers, this morning’s sermon is about the Holy Trinity.

First, though, a word about the Christian year and the Church’s calendar.  It is, at first sight, a bit strange.  Everything seems to happen in the first six months: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Ascension, and Pentecost.  All these seasons and festivals centre on Christ and what God has done in and through him.  This makes the Festival of the Holy Trinity the odd-one out.  It focuses, or so it seems, not on an event, but on a doctrine.

It is perhaps no surprise then that the Festival has had something of a chequered history.  It was only officially adopted as a Festival of the Church relatively late in the 14th century, although it was celebrated by churches locally before this.  It was often celebrated on the Sunday before Advent, the Sunday we now know as the Feast of Christ the King when we celebrate the founding of Christ Church.

The Church of England, when it adopted its prayer book in the 16th century, numbered the Sundays in the second half of the Church’s year after Trinity Sunday.  This was because it had previously been the practice to do so in the Liturgy used in a part of England.  (This Liturgy is known as the Sarum Rite.)  In the 1970s and 1980s, the Church of England undertook a major revision its Prayer Book and Liturgy, and the ‘Sundays after Trinity’ were dropped in favour of ‘Sundays after Pentecost’.

In the latest revision of its services, known as Common Worship, Sundays after Trinity have returned in the Church of England, although other churches, including Anglican, continue to refer to seasons at this time of year as the Sundays of Pentecost or simply, Sundays in Ordinary Time.  The materials we use for our Sunday School, for example, describe Sundays this way.  Here at Christ Church, however, we keep the old traditional ‘Sundays after Trinity’, even though most churches, both globally and locally in Hong Kong, do not.

So, the question I want to ask this Trinity Sunday is this: is the dropping of Trinity as a season in the Church’s calendar of symbolic significance?  To put it in another, more direct way:  do we still as Christians believe in the Holy Trinity?

In answer to this question, I would suggest that not only have we abandoned the season of Trinity, we have also abandoned the doctrine of the Trinity, and if not in theory, then at least in practice.  Not only do we find the doctrine of the Holy Trinity hard to understand, we are also either not sure whether we believe in it anymore or we are sure and don’t believe in it.  Even if we do still believe in it, we either go easy on it or do not see it as central to our faith.  It may be an interesting theological formulation, but it is not something fundamental to our Christian life.

The reasons for all this are many, but one important reason for this abandonment of the Trinity as the central doctrine of our faith is that it goes against the grain of present day Christianity.  I realize that this is a big subject and that much more needs to be said than can be said this morning, but I would single out three characteristics of the sort of Christianity we want today:

1. We do not want difficult ideas

The first characteristic is best expressed negatively by what we don’t want!  Life is both complex and challenging.  Most of us feel under a great deal of pressure as we seek to make a living and raise our families.  There is much in the world around us that clamours for our time and attention.  When we come to Church, the last thing we need is more complications.

Preachers, then, are under tremendous pressure to keep it simple: to present the Christian faith in an engaging and even entertaining way.  Social media has only served to reinforce this demand.  But whatever the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is, it is not easy.  It doesn’t lend itself to heart-warming quotes on Facebook.

We don’t like doctrines at the best of times.  The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is difficult and complex.  A difficult doctrine is at a double disadvantage.

2. We want a faith that is relevant to us

The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is first and foremost about God.  Yes, it does have much to say about the Church and about us as individuals, but first and foremost, it is about God and who He is in and of himself.  The focus of the Holy Trinity is on God.

But we are the ‘me’ generation.  You may have seen the posters: it is all about me.  I saw a fantastic birthday card the other day.  On the front it had: ‘HAPPY BIRTHDAY!  Today is all about you.’  Then when you opened it up it had: ‘No change there then!’

We are not too concerned with who God is in and of himself.  If we are concerned with God at all – and it’s a big ‘if’ - it is about the relevance of God to me.

3. We want a human Christ

The Holy Trinity focuses on the relationship between Christ and the Father and the Spirit.  It asks questions about our Lord’s divinity and seeks to give an answer.  Our concern now though is with his humanity and how that affects his relationship with us.

This is, in part, a reaction against too great a stress on our Lord’s divinity in the past. The Church very early on came to the conclusion that our Lord was not only human, but also divine.  The doctrine of the Trinity was, amongst other things, an attempt to work out in what way he was divine.  Over the years, however, the emphasis often fell on his divinity rather than his humanity.  In Christian art, for example, he was often pictured with a gold halo (just in case you forgot and to avoid any misunderstanding).

However, to say that there has been a reaction against this is something of an understatement.  We don’t want someone who is, as St John’s Gospel puts it, ‘one with the Father’. We want someone who is ‘one with us’.  Not someone distant and mysterious, but someone close and relevant.  This is reflected in our worship and the hymns that we sing.  Whereas we used to sing:

‘Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
in light inaccessible hid from our eyes …’

We now prefer hymns and songs that stress how he is near and can be known and seen.  Hymns such as ‘Shine Jesus shine …’, for example!

The doctrine of the Holy Trinity then, like the season, has been quietly dropped or, at least, made something of an optional extra.  But, I would suggest, the Holy Trinity having been removed as an obstacle, we are - perhaps without even realizing it – witnesses to a reinterpretation of Christianity itself.  Christianity is being changed from a Trinitarian faith into a humanitarian philosophy.

This is to be seen in the way the other Festivals of the Church’s year are being subtly reinterpreted.  Taking the three characteristics of Christianity briefly outlined above, these give the criteria with which we now approach our faith and any aspect of it:

1. It must be easy to understand
2. It must be about us
3. It must focus on humanity and not divinity

So, very briefly, for example, Advent is about us getting ready for Christmas; Christmas is about the reaffirmation of the essential goodness of humanity; Easter is about what can be achieved by human self-giving; Ascension about humanity being affirmed and raised up; Pentecost about celebrating life.  You don’t even need God to celebrate the Festivals, though as we are the Church, we generally think it is perhaps a good idea to include him in the festivities.

Yes, I am parodying, but with this sort of emphasis on celebrating our humanity, there is little room at the party for the Holy Trinity.  We now have a very acceptable religion for today even if it is not quite clear where God fits in.

But we need to step back and see what has happened and, even more seriously, where it is all going:

First, we abandoned the Holy Trinity.  Secondly, we reinterpreted the central features of Christianity.  And now, a third stage in the reinvention of Christianity is underway.  Having reinterpreted Christianity as a religion focusing on humanity and human need, the way has now been opened for Christianity to take its place as one religion amongst many.  For some, it’s the best example, for others, even some in the Church, it is not even that.

Religion, in general, expresses humanity’s search for meaning and guidance as to how to live.  As Christians, we centre on Christ as our teacher, even as God’s messenger, but now that Christianity is also focused on humanity, our faith in Christ does not mean that we shouldn’t also acknowledge other teachers and messengers:  Moses, Mohammed, Buddha, and Krishna, for example.

And what if we do organize services of ‘inter-faith worship’, who but the intolerant and bigoted could possibly object to that?

There is more that could be said, and more that should be said, but then you may feel that I have already said far too much.  So, let me bring this sermon to a close by asking this question:

What is our purpose as a Church?  (And, I ask myself, what is my purpose as a clergyman?)

It is, I suggest, not to manage, to fund-raise, or to maintain.  It is not even to pastor and to counsel.  It is, keeping it simple, to make God known and to lead his worship.  But to do that we need to know who God is: who it is that we are worshipping and serving.  The Church, historically, despite all its many failures and failings, has believed that the God we worship has revealed himself in the life and person of Christ.  We have for the past six months been thinking of what he has done and celebrating it in our Festivals.

Today, however, on Trinity Sunday, we are celebrating what we have discovered in all this about who God is; who it is who has done all this for us.

The Holy Trinity tells us that God is 1 and 3, 3 and 1.  A simple enough formulation, but one with huge implications.  One that tells us that the baby whose birth we celebrated at Christmas was the one who brought creation itself to birth; that the one who died on the Cross at Easter was himself the Lord of life; that the one we proclaim in our message isn’t just a prophet, one messenger amongst others, but the eternally-begotten, divine Son of God in whom, uniquely, we see God himself: the God who reveals himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

And this God is worthy of our worship solely for who He is.  Not because of what he has done for us in the past, not because of his usefulness to us in the present, but simply because he is God and beside him there is no other.

This is Christianity as the Church has traditionally understood it.

The Catechism of the Roman Catholic in paragraph 234 has this:

‘The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the central mystery of Christian faith and life.  It is the mystery of God in himself.  It is therefore the source of all the other mysteries of faith, the light that enlightens them.  It is the most fundamental and essential teaching in the "hierarchy of the truths of faith".  The whole history of salvation is identical with the history of the way and the means by which the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, reveals himself to men "and reconciles and unites with himself those who turn away from sin".’

St Elizabeth of the Trinity prayed this prayer:

‘O my God, Trinity whom I adore, help me to become utterly forgetful of myself so that I may establish myself in you, as changeless and calm as though my soul were already in eternity.  Let nothing disturb my peace nor draw me forth f from you, O my unchanging God, but at every moment may I penetrate more deeply into the depths of your mystery.  Give peace to my soul; make it your heaven, your cherished dwelling-place and the place of your repose.  Let me never leave you there alone, but keep me there, wholly attentive, wholly alert in my faith, wholly adoring and fully given up to your creative action.’

The Anglican Bishop and hymn-writer, Bishop Ken, wrote what has become known as the Doxology:

Praise God, from whom all blessings flow,
praise him, all creatures here below,
praise him above, ye heavenly host,
praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.  Amen.

May we, this Trinity Sunday and throughout the season of Trinity, begin to rediscover the God we are called to worship and serve.

The God who reveals himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Easter 6

Acts 17:22-31

Our first reading this morning sees St Paul in Athens.  This was not where he had wanted to be and, indeed, he was only there because of circumstances.  St Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy had travelled from Asia Minor on what is commonly known as St Paul’s second missionary journey.  As a result of God’s leading, they had visited and established a Church in Philippi in Macedonia and then another in Thessalonica.

They had, however, encountered severe opposition.  In Thessalonica, this was mainly from the Jews, and they had had to leave Thessalonica because of it.  Unfortunately, moving did not solve the problem and they found that those Jews who had opposed them in Thessalonica had followed them to Beroea.  It was St Paul himself who was the focus of the opposition and in the end St Paul’s supporters put him on a boat and shipped him off to Athens leaving Silvanus and Timothy behind in Macedonia.  They were to join him later.

St Paul, then, was on his own in Athens and took the opportunity to look round.  He did not like what he saw.  Everywhere he went there were temples, shrines, and the worship of pagan gods.  This went against everything that St Paul believed both as a Jew and a Christian.  The Ten Commandments, for example, specifically forbade the worship of idols and here they were everywhere to be seen.

St Paul, however, didn’t simply disapprove or condemn, he engaged, arguing with anyone who would listen.  This included Greek philosophers.  His arguments proved interesting to those who heard them and he was invited to address the Areopagus, a formal gathering of the leading citizens of Athens.  It was so named because of the hill on which the gathering took place.  Over-shadowing it was the Parthenon, the Temple of the goddess Athena.

St Paul in his speech was courteous and avoided unnecessary rhetoric, but he was very much ‘on message’ and direct: ‘Athenians,’ he began, ‘I see how extremely religious you are in every way….’  They would not have disputed this.  God, however, he told them does not live in ‘shrines made by human hands’.

Now some of the philosophers present may have had some sympathy with this, but most would not.  The gods were everywhere in the first century, and it was axiomatic that they should have temples dedicated to their worship.

The gods of the first century were not, however, exclusive and just because you worshipped one that didn’t stop you from worshipping another.  I may have thought, for example, that my god was better than your god, but that didn’t mean your god didn’t exist.  The Athenians, in particular, revelled in the worship of many gods.  Something that St Paul makes use of in his argument.  It was to be one of the achievements of Christianity that it destroyed these gods and ended their worship. 

Christianity asserted what Jews had been asserting for years:

‘You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God …’ (Exodus 20:4-5)

There are still different religions today, but the pagan gods of St Paul’s day are just a historical memory, so much so that we find it hard to imagine what it must have been like in St Paul’s day.

So what is the situation today?

1. Today many people in our world still continue find themselves born into a religion.  So, if you live in one part of the world, you will be born a Muslim.  In another, a Hindu, or a Buddhist.  In some parts still, a Christian.  With the movement of people and travel, your religion may be determined by your family rather than the country you are in.  But it is birth still that determines it.

2. It is, however, also true today that many people are born into NO-religion.  The process of secularization in the West has resulted in the privatization of religion so that religion has become about what consenting adults do in private.  Religion has no or little place in the public arena.  Increasingly, it is not even done in private.  With the result that in the West most people are born and brought up believing that either there is no god or no god worth bothering with.

There may not be an outright denial of religious belief, but religion is not the key to existence.  It doesn’t make much difference to what people believe, to how they live their lives, and the decisions they make. 

If you think this is extreme, try asking yourself when your faith in God was the major factor in a decision or choice you made for you or your family.

This is very different to how it was in the past.  The secularist in the West is proud to have thrown off their medieval past when people were born Christians in the way they are still born into other religions in parts of our world today.

But note this: the modern liberal in westernized societies is in much the same position as the medievalist.  They have not made a choice about religion, birth has made their choice for them.  They have inherited a non-faith which they have grown up believing to be right in a way no different to the Christian medievalist or, for example, Muslims in the Middle East today.

Now, obviously, some do think about the way they have been brought up and either affirm or reject that upbringing.  Others, especially those born into No-faith, often seek a faith becoming dissatisfied with not having one and having been denied one by birth.  But many do not.  Like the citizens of Athens their non-faith is no more than a superstition, something they just believe without examining it or asking questions.

One of the things that really annoys me is the way many in the west and in westernized societies criticize those of us who are religious.  One of their major criticisms is that we indoctrinate our children.  They hate faith schools arguing that we teach intolerance and prejudice because for them simply to be religious is to be superstitious, intolerant, and prejudiced.

What they do not see, for they cannot see, is that they are doing exactly what they accuse us of.  They are bringing their children up not to have faith and to be intolerant of anyone who does have faith or, at least, of anyone who allows it to make a difference to how they live.  They have a superstitious fear of religion which they, in turn, pass on to their children.

Many schools have become places where faith is relativized, put in its place, if not rejected altogether.  Instead, the values of materialism are celebrated.  And you only have to go on social media to see the success they are having.  Aphorisms such as ‘you only have one life’, ‘when you are dead, you’re dead’, ‘life is not a dress rehearsal’ are taken as stating the obvious.  Videos telling us to ‘pursue our dreams’, that we can achieve ‘whatever we set our hearts on’ are prolific.  Happiness is assumed to be found in career, family, and friends.

In other words, the philosophers of our day are pursuing a ‘materialist’ philosophy.  A philosophy that just assumes that life is what happens here and now in the here and now: that success is to be evaluated by the job we do or the cars we drive or by the size of our bank balance or the number of brand labels we wear.

So what is to be done?

St Paul, we are told, argued in the ‘market-place’.  He got out there.  He debated with the philosophers of his day, the Stoics and the Epicureans.  At the Areopagus, he found a way to proclaim the truth in a way they would understand.  So superstitious were the Athenians that in case they missed a god, they built an altar to the god they didn’t know about.  It was an altar to the ‘Unknown god’.  St Paul told them that the god they worshipped as unknown, he proclaimed to them.  Despite all their religion, philosophy, and learning the true God remained unknown to them and it is he who is revealed in Jesus Christ.

All this presents a challenge to us who have chosen to believe in God through Christ.  We now live in a society which is as pagan in its way as was Athens in its.  The true God remains unknown.  So what are we to do and how are we to rise to this challenge?  Sadly, we can only touch on this this morning.

In the first place, we have a duty to our children to pass on our faith and values.

This is not as easy as it seems, and, I have to say, it is not enough simply to call some schools church schools and assume this is happening if all those schools do is mimic what goes on in secular schools.

Do not misunderstand me, it is great that we have schools that have a Church connection, that encourage the worship of God, and tell Bible stories, but it is not enough if they also promote the same material values and follow the same curriculum that transmits them as do secular schools.  We need faith schools not simply church schools, that is, schools that are not only connected to the Church and managed by it, but schools that actively promote the Christian faith and Christian values not only in separate religious lessons, but throughout the curriculum.

This is a view I have held for some time.  In July, 1989 I wrote a letter to the Christian magazine, Third Way, in response to the news that Christians were setting up a Christian faith school in an English village. 

This is the link to the letter, which, I discover, can still be read online:

There is much more that can and should be said about this, but let it be enough today to say simply that the upbringing of our children is too important a task to be left to today’s pagans.

Finally, for today, we too must get out into the market-place and like St Paul we must argue and debate.  It is wonderful that we have a renewed place of worship here at Christ Church.  A place that I hope people will want to come to and where they will be welcomed and where they will feel at home.

But that is not enough.  We cannot wait for people to come to us.  Like St Paul, we must go to them.  St Paul, when he went, proclaimed to them the God they worshipped as unknown.  Today we proclaim the God they refuse to worship, but who still remains unknown.

There is, however, a sting in this tale.  Our society may reject the Unknown God; it may have turned its back on our faith and values; it may think that that life is not a dress rehearsal and that when you are dead, you are dead; it is, however, in for a big shock.  St Paul closes his presentation to the Areopagus with these words:

‘While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.’ (Acts 17:30-31)

The message we proclaim is not a polite invitation.  It is not something to be accepted or rejected as people see fit or as suits them.  It is a divine command.  And how each person responds to this divine command will one day have consequences.  For God exists whether we believe in him or not, or follow him or not, and one day we will be judged on the basis of whether we have believed in or followed him or not.

So let us make a renewed commitment as we return to this renewed place of worship to proclaim the God we worship to those for whom he is as yet unknown and may this be a place where he is not only known and worshipped, but followed and obeyed.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Easter 4

1 Peter 2:19-25

If you were to do a top ten of the most popular Psalms, I am pretty sure that at number one would be the 23rd Psalm: ‘The Lord is my shepherd.’  This Psalm has been the inspiration for many hymn-writers, we have sung a version of it in our service today.  Perhaps more famous is the version that has as its first line: ‘The Lord’s my shepherd…’!  Like the Psalm itself, it is a hymn that is popular at many different services.  It is, for example, sung or said at both weddings and funerals.

The image of God as a shepherd is a popular one in the Old Testament, and it is one that is taken up in the New Testament by our Lord himself including in, but by no means limited to, our Gospel reading this morning.  Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd.  This is quite a daring move for as I have said in the Old Testament it is God who is the shepherd of his people.  Jesus is claiming now to be fulfilling God’s role on God’s behalf.

This idea of our Lord as a shepherd is behind our Lord’s understanding of his own mission.  He told people who were critical of his friendship with sinners that he had come to ‘seek and to save’ those who were lost.  In one of his parables, he implicitly compares himself to a shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep who are OK and goes off to search for the one sheep who has gone astray.

The image of the shepherd is taken up by St Peter in our second reading.  He writes to the recipients of his letter: ‘For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls’.

St Peter is writing, you may remember, to believers spread across several Roman provinces.  He describes them as ‘exiles in the dispersion’.  In chapter 2:11, he describes them as ‘aliens and exiles.’

Anyone who knew their Old Testament Scriptures would have immediately got the image of dispersion and exile.  In 8th century BC Assyria had conquered the Northern Kingdom belonging to ten tribes of Israel and had carried most of them off into exile.  This left just 2 tribes, those of Judah and Benjamin, in the south centred on Jerusalem. 

In 597 BC, these two were to suffer a similar fate, this time at the hands of Babylon who destroyed the Holy City and carried the inhabitants of the southern kingdom off to exile in Babylon.  Here they lived as ‘aliens and exiles’ remembering and longing for their home in the Promised Land.  Psalm 137 captures their sense of loneliness and longing for home: ‘By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.’

Some of the exiles returned having been given permission to do so by the Persian ruler, Cyrus.  But many stayed on and settled and made their homes outside of the Land of Israel.  Those so living away from Israel were known as the diaspora (or dispersion).

It shouldn’t be thought that those living in foreign lands were any less Jews or any less committed to their faith.  Quite the reverse, in fact.  What is quite incredible is the way they managed, over many centuries, to preserve both their faith and identity.  Generally speaking, they avoided being assimilated into the culture where they were living. 

Under the Romans, they were given special privileges that allowed them to go on practicing their religion even when it went against Roman Law.  They remained intensely loyal to Israel and to Jerusalem even paying an additional tax to the Temple on top of the taxes they paid to the authorities.  This was completely voluntary.

So, when St Peter writes to those who are in the dispersion, he takes up this idea.  Probably, in the first place, those he writes to were Christian Jews living outside of Israel.  But he extends this idea.  Those he writes to are ‘aliens and exiles’ not only in the historic sense, but in a new sense. 

Now that they have become Christians, they have been born again to a living hope: an inheritance that is ‘imperishable, undefiled, and unfading’.  This inheritance he tells them is kept in heaven for them.

They are aliens living as did the Jews of the diaspora in a foreign land.  They are exiles from their true home, but that home is not now an earthly city, but one that is to come.  In Revelation, St John describes that city as the New Jerusalem.  St Paul writes to the Philippians: ‘But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.’ (Philippians 3:20)

As Christians, we belong to the heavenly city.  We are exiles and living as aliens here in this earthly city. We are refugees if you will.  The New Testament draws a number of consequences out of this:

1. Our values and beliefs should be those of the heavenly city.

In the same way as the Jews of the dispersion looked to Zion and the Law for guidance, even though they were living in a foreign land, so too we Christians must seek guidance from the heavenly city to which even now we belong.  Our values, attitudes, and priorities are to be those of the heavenly city.  People should be able to tell where we belong to by the way we live and behave.  It is always difficult for those who have been exiled and find themselves living in a foreign land.  No matter how hard they try, they inevitably find themselves adopting the culture of the place where they live.  Sometimes this is harmless, but as we have seen all too graphically in recent years, there can be a clash of cultures and of values. 

One of the greatest dangers facing the Church as the moment is that of assimilation.  We have always been tempted as Christians to adopt the values and attitudes of the kingdom of this world rather than the values of the attitudes of the kingdom of God.  Often, we have done so.  As Anglicans, we ought to be aware of this as much as anyone.

Nevertheless, despite the temptation and pressure to conform and our failure to resist it, we have managed at least to preserve a distinctive theology and set of beliefs so that even when we have gone wrong in practice, there has still been a body of beliefs to challenge us and call us back to what should be our true identity.

There will always be arguments over what we should or should not believe as Christians, and Christians have and will disagree over this.  What I find a bit worrying, however, to put it mildly, is how at the moment Christians seem willing to compromise and even abandon what have in the past been beliefs that have been regarded as central to the faith.

If we are to survive our exiles as aliens in a foreign land not only are we to live the lives of the kingdom of God, we must know what we believe and value it.

2. As citizens of the heavenly city and members of the kingdom of God, we realize that God’s Kingdom is not going to come on earth by our own efforts. 

Or at least we should realize it.

The New Testament teaches that God’s kingdom is not going to be established by us, but by God.  But all this raises a question that has occupied the minds of some of the greatest thinkers of the Christian Church.  What is the relationship between the earthly and heavenly city?  And given that we are members of the heavenly city, what should be our attitude, as ‘aliens and exiles’, towards the earthly city in which we live?

The answer the New Testament gives is in some ways quite surprising.  In our own day, we are seeing groups who have a different culture to the culture of the place in which they live becoming radicalized and seeking to bring down the society in which they live, replacing it with one based on their own values and beliefs.

The New Testament instead urges Christian ‘to honour the Emperor’, to be submissive to those in authority, to pay their taxes, to live, as much as lies within their power, peaceably with those amongst whom they live.  St Peter tells slaves who are Christians that they should accept the authority of their masters ‘with all deference’.  In case they think they can be selective in this, he continues: ‘not only those who are kind and gentle, but also those who are harsh’. (1Peter 2:18)

Nowadays, St Peter and other New Testament writers, come in for much criticism for these words and others like them.  How could they support such a cruel and oppressive institution like slavery?  Why didn’t they do more to condemn and to change it?

This as much as anything, I think, shows the difference in perspective between them and us.  They did not see as a priority the transformation of a society to which they did not belong.  This is not to say that when they could make a difference they didn’t take the opportunity to do so.  They did.  It was just that their priorities were different.  They expected suffering in this world as part of God’s plan to prepare them for the next.  St Peter actually tells his readers when speaking of the suffering they face: ‘For to this you have been called …’

What is more, and this brings me onto my third and final point:

3. The role of Christians in the earthly city is to live as citizens of the city that is to come and to find those who belong to it.

I used to live in Bedford in the UK where my brother is now a Vicar – amongst other things – Bedford is very ethnically mixed city.  It has several different ethnic communities:  Italian, Polish, Pakistani to name but 3.  What is striking is how these communities have managed to keep their own identities while living in what is otherwise a typical English town.  Their grandparents may have been born in Italy, etc. but the vast majority were born in Bedford.  They still, however, regard themselves as primarily Italian, Polish, Pakistani, or whatever.  This is graphically illustrated when England plays Italy or Poland at football or Pakistan at cricket!

They have, for example, their own shops, community organizations, and travel agents.  They live in Bedford and partake in its life and vote in its elections, but their culture and lifestyle are that of Italy, Poland, or Pakistan.  They have kept their identity.

This is the image that the New Testament uses of the Church.  Yes, we are living in this world, but this world is ‘not our home’.  We follow the laws of the kingdom of God and maintain its values and attitudes even though it is a temptation and pressure to do otherwise.  We too must keep our identity or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that we should discover it.

Now, as an individual, it is very hard to do this.  As an individual, the pressure will always to be to fit in.  The reason why the different ethnic communities I have spoken of have been able to keep their identity is precisely because they are a community with community networks that support each other and enable them to preserve their shared culture and values.

This brings us at last to our first reading today.  If we are to maintain our identity as citizens of heaven.  If we are to hold out against the pressure to conform to the values, attitudes and priorities of society around us, we too need our support networks, we need to belong to a community of fellow citizens.  This community God has given us in the Church.  We are told that the first believers devoted themselves: ‘to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship to the breaking of bread and the prayers’.  Luke tells us that all who believed were together and had all things in common.

The role of the Church is to offer support and to foster our identity as Christians.  We cannot live as ‘aliens and exile’ on our own.  We need each other.  The Church is not an optional extra.

Finally, returning to the image of the Shepherd, St Peter writes: ‘For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls’.  We have returned and for that we thank God and all those who were used by him to bring us back.  Many, however, remain lost and God wants to use us to find them and bring them back to the city to which they belong.

In our reading from Acts, Luke writes that the ‘Lord added daily to their number those who were being saved’.  Our beliefs and values, our behavior and lifestyle, should draw people to us.  Some sheep, however, are so lost that they need shepherds to go out in search of them.  While we must be ready to welcome all who come to us seeking their true home, we must also go in search of those who are so lost that not only do they not know their way home, they don’t yet realize they have a home to go to.

In conclusion, I think I can do no better than quote the writer of the letter to the Hebrews who puts it this way:

‘For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.’ (Hebrews 13:14)

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Easter 2

1 Peter 1:3-9

Today is often referred to as ‘Low Sunday’.  It contrasts with the ‘high’ of last Sunday, Easter Sunday.  Congregations also tend to be lower after it!  We are now in the Easter season, however, and, for the next few weeks, we will be thinking about what the events of Easter mean as we move towards Ascension Day and Pentecost.

One of the amazing things about the Early Church was how quickly it worked out the implications of Easter for its life and belief.  It is often said that it was St Paul who did this and that the beliefs of the early church were relatively primitive and unformulated until St Paul came along and gave the Church a developed and sophisticated theology.

The reality is that the theology of the Early Church was already in place when St Paul came along: a fact that he himself acknowledges.  What St Paul did do was to draw out the implications of it for the Gentiles especially - as we saw during our Lent Bible studies on Ephesians.

Before his crucifixion, our Lord had told his disciples that the Holy Spirit would lead them into all truth.  He wasted no time in doing so.  The resurrection might have come as a complete shock to the disciples, but they seem to have got what it meant almost immediately.  Which, it has to be said, is more than most Christians today. 

I would venture to suggest that the first disciples’ understanding of the importance and significance of the events of Easter was more advanced than our own, and we have the benefit of 2,000 years of Christian thinking about it.  I don’t want to be offensive, but most of us understand our phones better than we do our faith.  Dare I say that this may in part be because our phones matter more to us than our faith?

Now you may think that I am being a bit harsh in saying this.  So let me ask you what would upset you most: losing your phone or losing your Bible?  Now I realize that as I write this some of you will say, ‘But Ross, my Bible is on my phone!’  So, for you, a different question: what would upset you most: not being able to access Facebook or not being able to access your Bible?  I think you get my point.  There are a number of reasons for this and perhaps we will have an opportunity to think about them over the next few weeks.  But one at least emerges from this morning’s second reading from the first letter of St Peter.

The first letter of St Peter is a circular letter written to Christians in several different Roman provinces including Galatia.  The reason St Peter had for writing it is that the Christians to whom he wrote were experiencing suffering and persecution for their faith.  St Peter writes that they rejoice in their salvation:

‘even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials so that the genuineness of your faith – being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire – maybe found to result in praise and glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.’ (1 Peter 1:4)

These were Christians who were facing suffering for no other reason than they believed that Jesus Christ was alive and sought to serve him.  St Peter says that their faith is more precious than gold.  What was it about their faith that led them to value it more highly than the most highly valued commodity on earth?

I think the first thing to be said about it is that it was more than a theoretical belief.  By this I mean that they didn’t just think that Jesus was alive.  I believe many things that have absolutely no impact on my daily life and which certainly I would not be willing to suffer for.  To take a comparatively trivial example:  I believe Mount Everest to be one of the highest mountains in the world, but it may as well not exist for all the difference it makes to me.  For some people, however, it does make a difference and a very real difference.  They can’t wait to attempt to climb it even though doing so involves much effort, cost, and even pain.

The Christians that St Peter wrote to didn’t just believe that Jesus had risen, it was something that they lived for and were prepared to die for: something that they were already suffering for, but valued so much that couldn’t be persuaded to abandon it. 

Their faith was real and intensely personal.  It wasn’t just something that they believed, it was something that they experienced.  Listen to how St Peter describes it:

‘Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy’ (1 Paul 1:8)

The reason why we wouldn’t want to lose our phones is that they have become a part of our lives in a way, sadly, that our faith has not.  You don’t willingly suffer for something that has little personal value to you.

Perhaps the greatest challenge of this Easter season is not whether we believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, but whether we experience it and are willing to allow it to become an integral part of our daily lives. 

St Peter’s Christians were prepared to suffer because their faith mattered to them and had become part of them.  But what was it about it that had led to it becoming so important to them?  Why did they value it above gold?

St Peter in just a few verses sums it up.  He describes what they experience as a ‘new birth to a living hope’.  This is through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  It is into an inheritance that is ‘imperishable, undefiled, and unfading’.

This is exciting stuff.  We live in a world of ‘change and decay’ as the hymn describes it.  We ourselves age, get sick, and die.  What we have in Christ, however, is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.  Not only have we new birth in Christ, not only do we experience the Risen Lord, the inheritance he gives us is everything that we do not have at the moment. 

Despite this, it may not seem immediately attractive to us.  Perhaps we are doing quite well for ourselves.  We have a good job, a nice apartment, a happy family with our children at good schools.  Talk of an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading may seem remote, abstract, and irrelevant. 

It is, though, anything but.

There is an old Christian hymn that we do not sing very often now as its language is a bit dated: ‘Will your anchor hold in the storms of life?’

Yes, talk of an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading can indeed seem remote and abstract; something that is not really relevant to our daily lives.  Until, that is, we encounter one of the storms of life.  It only takes a visit to the doctors to make it very relevant or an accident or a bereavement.  Or any one of the storms of life that waken us from our easy complacency and challenge us to see what really matters in life.  What it is that is secure in life.  What we have that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.

It is not a coincidence that many people come to faith during one of life’s storms – through a personal crisis of some kind.  Sometimes that’s what it takes to challenge us and make us think about what really matters.  And God certainly respects that and doesn’t turn us away just because we are being opportunistic in our coming to him.

The question, however, for us today is why wait?

I am a big fan of the stories of Sherlock Holmes, the original ones by Conan Doyle, that is, not the modern imitations.  Conan Doyle wrote 56 short stories, the first of which, and one of Conan Doyle’s own favourites, was ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’. 

In the story, the King of Bohemia had, some years earlier, had a fling with a beautiful opera singer, one Irene Adler.  In his passion, he had written her letters and had his photograph taken with her.  Now he wants to marry, but not someone as lowly as an opera singer.  He intends to marry someone in his own class, a princess.

He is worried, however, that Irene will use what is in her possession to blackmail him threatening him with a scandal if his relationship with Irene became public knowledge.  He has tried everything to get the letters and photograph back, but to no avail.  In desperation, he turns to Sherlock Holmes.

Sherlock Holmes reasons that, in a crisis, when a person is threatened with the loss of everything, they will try to save what matters most to them.  He plans a scheme then to convince Irene that her house is on fire, disguising himself so he can be there at the time to see how she reacts.  As he anticipated, Irene reveals where she keeps the letters and photograph.

As it happens, however, Irene realizes what she has done and acts accordingly to protect herself.  She earns the admiration and respect of Holmes for whom from henceforth she will always be THE woman.  It turns out that she never had any intention of blackmail, but feared – justifiably – that the King might do her harm and kept the letters and photograph for her own protection.

In the end, Holmes convinces the King that Irene is no threat to his marriage and will not cause any scandal.  The King expresses his admiration for Irene saying he only wished she was on his level.  Holmes replies:

‘From what I have seen of the lady, she seems, indeed, to be on a very different level to Your Majesty’.

Irene revealed what mattered to her most when she thought she was going to lose it in a fire.

What would we grab in the fires of life?

St Peter talks about the ‘fiery ordeal’ facing those to whom he writes.  Their faith was sometimes, quite literally, to be tried by fire.  Most of us won’t have to face such an ordeal, but we will be tried by the fires of life.

Is our faith what matters most to us?

If it is, we can have confidence for ours is a living hope in a living Lord.  One who gives us an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Easter Sunday

On Good Friday, we left Jesus dead on the Cross.  His dead body was taken by two secret disciples for burial after one of them, Joseph of Arimathea, obtained permission to do so from the Roman Governor Pilate.  Jesus’ last words on the Cross had stressed the finality of it all:

‘After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfil the scripture), ‘I am thirsty.’’ (John 19:28)

‘When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.’ (John 19:30)

‘Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ Having said this, he breathed his last.’ (Luke 23:46)

Now today we interpret these words in the light of subsequent events, but to his mother and brother who, we are told, were at the Cross and able to hear his words, there would be no mistaking their significance.  This was the end.  Not only, ‘It is finished’, but ‘I am finished.’  Whatever it was that Jesus had intended to accomplish when he submitted to baptism by John and began his ministry, it was all over now.

We need to realize that for those there at the Cross, there could be no other possibility.  It is hard for us knowing there is more to come to put ourselves in the shoes of those who were there.  What is certain is that as far as those who were there were concerned: death was death.  As good Jews, they would have been under no illusion about that.

In the Old Testament, there is little by way of hope for life after death.  The grave was a place of darkness to be avoided for as long as possible.  ‘Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die’ is the attitude, for example, of the author of Ecclesiastes.  Such hope as there is, is for the nation rather than the individual.

During the time between the Testaments, and as a result of the intense suffering that many Jews had to endure, there developed the hope that one day there would be a resurrection and God would reward the righteous and punish the wickedness.  This, however, would also be the Last Day of this present world order.  Until then, there was nothing to look forward to.  Even this limited hope for the future was too much for many Jews and most of the Priests did not accept it.  So the best hope was that maybe Jesus would be counted amongst the righteous on the Last Day, but even that was only a distant hope - for now there was no hope.

In the Greek world, when it came to the possibility of life beyond death, while a significant number of Greeks believed that the soul would survive the body, this could be a somewhat vague and abstract notion.  There was, however, no expectation of resurrection.

You may remember when St Paul went to Athens and spoke to the Areopagus, the City Council, they were very receptive to his message until he spoke about the ‘resurrection from the dead’.  Then we are told: ‘some scoffed.’  For many Greeks, it was far from obvious that this was such a good idea.

The Cross, then, was to all intents and purposes the end.  How could it be anything else?  It is only when we grasp this that we can begin to understand the sadness the followers of Jesus must have felt.

They had had such high hopes, but these weren’t ignorant idealists.  They had truly believed in him.  Jesus himself acknowledged both their sacrifice and friendship.  Even in the garden of Gethsemane, they had been prepared to die to support him.  What was harder for them was watching him die.  For in their eyes, this meant that he died a failure.  What had it all been for?  They had been as deluded as apparently he had been.

It is only when we get this that we can get some of the shock of Easter Sunday.  The disciples weren’t gathered together behind closed doors waiting for something to happen.  There was nothing that could happen.  This also goes some way to explain their bewilderment when something did happen!  It took them a while to take it in.

But something amazing and unexpected did happen.  Something that was to change their lives and which was to go on to change many more lives, and which is still changing lives today.

It all began when the women went to the tomb to attend to his body.  It was gone.  Notice their reaction is to assume that someone must have moved the body.  Their thought is not that Jesus is alive.  Mark’s Gospel, as it now is, finishes with them being terrified.  They realize something has happened, they just don’t quite know what.  It is only after Jesus explains it to Mary Magdalene that things begin to become clear.

After Jesus appears to the disciples, his followers realize that it wasn’t the end after all.  Jesus is risen.  Jesus is alive.  And they are to go on to be his witnesses, proclaiming his resurrection to others.  The story has a happy ending after all!

So what was it all about?  What has been the point of all the events that we have been thinking about over the past few days?  Why did Jesus say, ‘It is finished’, when now it seems that it was anything but?  Was Jesus as surprised as everyone else to be alive?  Apparently not, at least not according to what the Gospels record Jesus as having said to his disciples after his resurrection. 

So what was it all about?  Jesus surely has some explaining to do.  The Gospels tell us that Jesus said to them that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and die.  And that is how they came to understand it.  Excited and delighted though they were that Jesus was risen and alive, in seeking to explain it all, they focused on his death and on the Cross.

Just look at how much space the Gospels devote to the events of the crucifixion compared to the resurrection.  Mark’s Gospel has 5 chapters in our Bibles describing the crucifixion and 8 verses on the resurrection.  St Paul writes to the Corinthians that he preaches Christ crucified.

This is not for one moment to suggest that they didn’t see the resurrection as important.  Of course, they did.  The resurrection, however, was inextricably bound up with the crucifixion and what it meant.  The resurrection established that Jesus’ death was of significance. 

This, I would suggest, is not quite how we approach it today.  The message coming from most churches at Easter and throughout the year goes something like this:

‘Jesus lived a good and exemplary life.  In his teaching and by his example, he taught us how God wants us to live.  This made him enemies and for this he suffered and died.  But God intervened and raised him from the dead.  He now offers life to all who believe in him and who seek to live as he lived and taught.  This life begins now and will continue after death.  We are a resurrection people.’

The problem is that this sounds very believable and contains sufficient truth to make it so.  It fails however, to explain one thing: why the Cross was so important to the disciples.  You would think that they would want to move on.

Instead, the more they thought about it, the more convinced they became that the Cross and the death of Jesus were the key to everything.  It wasn’t simply an accident or the result of historical forces and circumstances.

The question the New Testament asks is: who crucified Christ?

The answer is both simple and complicated.  Obviously, legally, it was the Romans.  The Jews didn’t have the legal authority to do so.  However, the Jewish authorities both instigated and demanded it.  As St Peter puts it to them: they crucified Christ by the hands of sinful men.  They got the Romans to do what they could not do.  The crowds who called for his crucifixion and those who betrayed and deserted him all also had their share in the guilt.

Then the New Testament writers also teach that we too share in the blame as it was the sin of humanity that led people to crucify Christ.  As sinful human beings, we share humanity’s guilt.

The Romans, the Jewish authorities, the crowds, those alive at the time, you and I, all share in the responsibility for Jesus’ death.

But the shocking and surprising answer the New Testament gives to the question of who was ultimately responsible for our Lord’s death is: God.

This will come as no surprise to anyone at the Lent Bible Studies.  During them, we saw how St Paul teaches that Christians were ‘chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world.’  St John describes Jesus as the ‘Lamb slain before the foundation of the world’.

The resurrection led the disciples to see the Cross in a new light.  Not now was Jesus crucified as a result of historical forces or human choice, Jesus was crucified according to the direct plan of God, and this plan was a plan for our salvation.  This shouldn’t surprise us.  It is something we remind ourselves of at each Eucharist.  For example, in the ‘comfortable words’ we hear:

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.’ (John 3:16)

Or as our Easter card has it:

‘But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’ (Romans 5:8)

The Cross was no accident, but a demonstration of God’s love for us, but without the resurrection, it would be a meaningless and empty gesture.  The resurrection, however, changes everything.  The One who died for us, now lives for us.  It is significant that the symbol of Christianity became not the empty tomb, but the Cross.

The Cross makes it possible for us to be forgiven, but more than that we can now have the life of Christ in us.  Today because of the resurrection we can see the Cross for what it is - not now a sign of defeat, but a sign of victory.  A place where we find forgiveness and peace.  An opportunity to put an end to our old life and in the power of Christ’s resurrection to begin a new one.

Alleluia, Christ is Risen.
He is risen indeed.  Alleluia!

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Lent 5

Romans 8:6-11

Today is traditionally known as Passion Sunday.  In the modern lectionary, this term is reserved now for Palm Sunday, but the lectionary helpfully notes that today is the beginning of Passiontide, which is rather like wanting to have your lectionary cake and eat it!

Regardless of what we call it, today our thinking turns towards the Cross and Jesus’ passion, that is, his suffering.  Before, we do, however, our readings finish our Lenten preparations for it by finishing on a high note.  The Gospel gives us the Raising of Lazarus, which looks forward to our Lord’s own conquering of death.  Our Epistle, continuing the theme, speaks of the life that will be given to our mortal bodies by the Spirit. 

Our resurrection, however, is still in the future.  We can look forward to it with confidence, but in the meantime, we have to live out our lives here in our existing bodies in this world.  In our reading from Romans, St Paul gives us teaching on how this can be done. 

He writes that to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.  At least that is how it is translated in the version we use.  And certainly, St Paul would agree with the sentiment.  The point he is making however, is rather more basic.  What St Paul is talking about is not in the first place where we set our minds, but on the mindset of the flesh and the Spirit. 

The ‘mindset’ of the flesh is death and the ‘mindset’ of the Spirit is life and peace.  What St Paul is contrasting here are two completely different and opposed outlooks.  What St Paul wants us to understand is that the outlook of the flesh, that is, its values, attitudes, and priorities are death.  We are talking about world views and how we look at and approach life.  And the way that the ‘flesh’ does that results in death: not simply physical death when we die, but spiritual death that we experience even now and which continues beyond death.

There is amongst Christians at present a real anti-intellectualism.  This expresses itself in a variety of ways.  At its most basic, it expresses itself in a lack of interest in Christian teaching and Bible study.  Sermons have to be short and entertaining.  We don’t want to have to think for too long.  We are not very interested in doctrine and all that sort of thing.  We prefer messages that are simple and don’t require us to think too much. 

The problem is our minds do matter and if we don’t make an effort to control and use them, we will just find ourselves following the fashion and outlook of our day.  St Paul in Romans sees the corruption of our minds as the first consequence of our rejection of God.  He writes in Romans 1: 20-22:

‘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.  So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened.  Claiming to be wise, they became fools …’

Sin and all that comes with it is the result of our rejection of God and the corruption of our minds and thinking.  There are those, described in the media as the new atheists, who like to portray anyone believing in God as a fool, someone who is deluded.  The Psalmist said that on the contrary, it is the fool who has said in his heart, there is no God.  It is those who reject God who are the fools not those of us who have faith. 

Once our thinking became futile so our behavior followed.  What we describe as sin stems from our corrupt minds.  But not just what we can all see and agree on as sin, but a way of living and behaving that centres on ourselves and what we can get out of life regardless of the consequences.

St Paul describes this way of living as living according to the flesh.  The ‘flesh’ in the New Testament can be a neutral term meaning simply to be human, but it can also take on a far more negative sense to mean human beings in rebellion against God and cut off from him.  It refers to way humans live when they no longer have God in their lives. 

St Paul writes in Galatians that the works of the flesh are obvious; the works of the flesh, however, are a consequence of us being in the flesh and living according to the flesh.  In other words, following its outlook and way of looking at the world.

In our reading this morning, St Paul tells us bluntly that those who are in the flesh cannot please God.  However, he continues: ‘but you are in the Spirit, you are not in the flesh.’  The Holy Spirit is given to us to enable us to see things from God’s point of view, to enable us to follow a different path with different values, attitude, and priorities.

St Paul again writes in Galatians that those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.  But, and here, St Paul would agree with the way our passage is translated, this is something we need to go on doing.  We need to consciously follow the outlook and mindset of the Spirit and reject that of the flesh. 

And that is easier said than done.  For the outlook of the Spirit is the outlook of the Cross.  It is by the Cross that we crucify the flesh, the Cross is also to be the basis for how we live.  Jesus tells us in the Gospels that we are to take up our crosses daily.  Our lives are to be characterized by the Cross.  We don’t simply wear the Cross as a symbol, we live it as our way of life. 

Adopting the Cross as our way of life would you might think be uncontroversial amongst Christians.  Surely both as a Church and as individuals this is something we can agree on?

If only.

In AD312 the future Emperor, Constantine, was about to fight his enemy for control of the Empire at the Battle of Milvian Bridge.  Before it, he had a vision of a Cross and heard the words ‘in this sign conquer’.  He did and as a consequence made Christianity the official religion of the Empire.  Christianity went from being the faith of the weak and persecuted to that of the strong and powerful.

Christians today divide on whether this was a good or bad thing, but there can be little doubt that, as a result, the Church often found itself hopelessly compromised.  The fortunes of the Church became bound up in what happened on a social and political level.  The Church tried to influence the values of society, but society in turn and inevitably influenced the values of the Chruch.

It still does.  (This will be a subject for future sermons!)

However we view the relationship between the Church and the society in which we live, the call for Christians to develop a distinctive lifestyle based on the values of the Cross is one that we can and should all unite around.  We need to set our minds on the Spirit.  And this needs to begin with each one of us.

We need to ask ourselves in each and every area of our life what it means to take up our Cross.  It won’t necessarily mean the same actions for each of us, but it will mean the same attitudes.  For too long we have wanted to have all that comes from living in the flesh with all the promises that come from living in the Spirit.  The two, however, are incompatible.  The flesh and the Spirt are, as St Paul puts it, opposed to each other. 

The challenge then as we enter Passiontide is to assess our lives in the light of the Cross and commit ourselves to life in the Spirit.  It will mean death for the flesh and even the loss of many things we hold dear in this life, but it will bring true life and peace.

The way of the Cross is the way we are going to follow our Lord walking as we enter Passiontide.  May we ourselves walk it each day in our lives.