Saturday, December 08, 2018

Minutes that Matter: November, 2018

Here is the final part of my series of talks for RTHK's 'Minutes that Matter' programme.  The link to the audio is at the end.

Talk Five: Teach it to your children

Jesus, when asked what was the greatest commandment, replied: ‘The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’  This would have come as no surprise to the person asking the question.  Jesus was quoting from the book of Deuteronomy in the Bible and it was also part of people’s daily prayers.  The Bible continues by commanding that we teach these words to our children.

The education of children is a major part of my life and the life of my Church.  If, however, I judge the success or otherwise of what we are doing by how much it fulfils the command of the Bible, then I am forced to admit that we are failing terribly.  Failing, not because we don’t care about children and their education, we do.  But failing because we have got the focus of our education all wrong.  For the Bible, the beginning and end of education should be no less than God himself.  If children leave school not having learnt about God and not having had the opportunity to enter a relationship with him in the person of Jesus Christ, then as Christians we have failed no matter how much else the child may have learnt.

Sherlock Holmes, in one story, tells Dr Watson that you can tell what an adult is like by looking at their children.  It is also true that you can see what parents most value in their lives by observing what they want for their children.  What we prioritize in the upbringing and education of our children shows what we prioritize in our own lives.  The children are a mirror that reflects what is important to us and what really matters to us.  If we prioritize social standing and material wealth that will be reflected in the choices we make for our children.  If we prioritize knowing God and his commandments that too will be reflected in the choices we make and how we bring them up.  This, as they say, is not rocket science.

Given how we relegate God to the side-lines of our lives or, more often than not, ignore him completely, it is comes as no surprise that God does not play a particularly central role in the education of our children and the choices we make for them.  We will normally begin choosing a school for them, for example, by examining the school’s academic performance rather than asking what it teaches about God.

In the same way that the Church is tailoring its message in an attempt to make it more relevant and acceptable to the society in which we live, so too we Christians are tailoring the education we give our children to be like the education on offer in the society around us.  There is very little real difference in the curriculum pursued in church schools and that followed in any other school that children may attend.

But if God really is the one ‘in whom we live and move and have our being’, any education that leaves God out of it cannot be called Christian education.  Nor is any education that relegates learning about God to a few lessons of RE and a religious assembly each week - with perhaps the observance of a few festivals thrown in for good measure.  If we take God seriously, if we want to love him with all our ‘heart, soul, mind, and strength’, then we will want our children to do so as well.  This will mean radically revising our curricula to make God their central concern.  It means moving God from the periphery of our children’s education to its centre. 

The author Yuval Noah Harari has written: ‘If this generation lacks a comprehensive view of the cosmos, the future of life will be decided at random.’  As the One who created the cosmos, it is only God who can give them the comprehensive view of life that they need.  I am not for one moment suggesting that children don’t need to learn to read, write, and add-up.  Nor that we should neglect teaching them about the world in which we live.  It is to suggest that, as we do so, we must do so as people who believe that as it was God who created the world, it can only be properly studied if we include him in the picture.

An old Catholic catechism asks the question: ‘Why did God make me?’  The answer it gives is: ‘God made me to know him, love him and serve him in this world, and to be happy with him for ever in the next.’ 

Knowing God should be central both to how we educate our children and to how, as adults, we live our lives.

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Minutes that Matter: November, 2018

The link to the audio is at the end of this transcript of my fourth talk for RTHK's 'Minutes that Matter' programme.

Talk Four: Only the few

The nice thing about being God is that you don’t need anyone to believe in you.  By virtue of being God, you don’t need anyone or anything to validate your existence.  That is, by definition, what it means to be God.  So when, for example, Moses asked the voice from the burning bush who he should say was sending him to tell Pharaoh to ‘let his people go’, the reply he got was to tell them, ‘I Am Who I Am’ had sent him.  God is - whether people believe in him or not.

God does not need us, but the opposite is true for us.  We do need God.  I don’t mean that we need him in an emotional sense as we might need someone to love or to love us, although that is true too.  No, we need God in the literal sense that our very existence depends on him as does the physical world in which we live.  As St Paul said, ‘in him we live and move and have our being’.  

It is this dependence on God for our very existence that makes the idea that we should keep faith and science separate from each other so funny and ridiculous at the same time.  There would be no science without God.  God not only thought of the world the scientist studies in the first place, he brought it into being and, what is more, he keeps it in being as he does the scientist who studies it - whether he or she realizes it or not.

The reason why the Gospel message is so amazing is that despite not needing us, and despite everything we have done as individuals and as a race to either annoy or ignore him, he hasn’t lost interest in us.  More than that, he continues to love us and to offer us the chance not only of forgiveness for the mess we have made both of ourselves and his creation, but of knowing him and entering a relationship with him.  A relationship not simply of a creature to their creator, but of a child to their father.  Sadly, all too many of us don’t think it is worth the effort, and choose a cosy agnosticism rather than seeking him.  This agnosticism is no more than atheism by another name.  It is a convenient reason to exclude God from our lives.

Christians can get very worried about this.  God may not need anyone to believe in him, but we do.  We seem to need people to believe in God if only to reassure ourselves that we are not mistaken in our faith or because we need the approval that comes through popularity.  It is this, in part, that explains the present desire of many Christians to be relevant even at the cost of changing their message.

Christians, however, have nothing to lose by being unpopular and in a minority and everything to gain.  Jesus’ brother, James, said that to be friends with the society around us is to be an 'enemy with God'.  Having God as our friend is surely worth a little unpopularity and rejection?  

St Paul reassured the Christians in Rome who seemed powerless and irrelevant compared to might and splendour of Rome with these words: ‘If God is for us, who is against us?  He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?’  He continues to tell them that a little suffering - and he himself suffered more than a little - is ultimately of no consequence.  ‘Nothing’, he says, ‘in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’.

It is, of course, sad that people don’t believe in God.  Sad that they prefer to worship the creature rather the Creator.  Sad that they prefer material wealth to spiritual riches.  Sad that they think themselves clever not believing in God when all it shows is their foolishness.  But it doesn’t change anything, God still is.

On one occasion, Jesus was asked whether only a few will be saved.  It can feel like that at times, especially in the society in which we find ourselves.  The temptation is to doubt or despair or to change our message to make it easier for people to believe so that we won’t be so few and alone.  However, in his most famous sermon, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned against such an approach:

‘Enter’, he said, ‘through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it.  For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.’

Believing in God may be hard in the age in which we live, yet God never said it would be easy.  But then, nothing worth having ever is.

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Minutes that Matter: November, 2018

The link to the audio is at the end of this transcript of my third talk for RTHK's 'Minutes that Matter' programme.

Talk Three: Continuing without God

When I first entered the Church’s ministry, the Church had the reputation for often being cold and unfriendly; unwelcoming to newcomers.  I am pleased to say that this has changed.  Go to most Churches on a Sunday and the problem won’t be a lack of welcome.  If anything, you are more likely to be put off by the enthusiasm of the welcome you receive!  There is nothing insincere about this.  Churches genuinely want to welcome people and make them feel comfortable.  The cynic might say that this is because congregation numbers are falling and so churches are grateful for anyone who wants to join. 

While there might be an element of this in some cases, I think the motives are sincere enough, and most Christians believe that welcoming people is more than about increasing numbers.  The realisation that it is important to welcome people has gone alongside an increasing emphasis in the Church’s message on inclusivity.  If you go to Church on a Sunday, as well as receiving a welcome, you are likely to hear a message that stresses how Jesus reached out to all members of society; that he included all in his welcome whether they were rich or poor, high or lowly.  The Church, you will hear, welcomes people regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, colour, social background, or sexuality - without distinction.

And again, this is sincerely meant.  The Church may not always live up to its ideal, but there is on the whole a real desire to do so, and most Churches would be very upset if they felt that they had failed to do so.  Nor is inclusivity limited to the initial welcome.  The Church has sought to reinvent itself theologically to meet the challenges of a secular society that has little time for God.  In addition to being inclusive in its welcome, it seeks to stress forgiveness, tolerance, understanding, open-mindedness, and social justice.  In any Church, you are as likely to find activities the purpose of which is to work for a fairer society as you are those to bring people to faith in God.

This welcoming inclusivity combined with a non-judgemental theology stressing social justice, equality, and fairness seeks to be the Gospel for the 21st century. An update of the Christian message to get away from the perceived failings of the past when, alongside a lack of welcome, there was much talk of sin and judgement alongside a failure to address social exclusion and unfairness. The new Gospel has been enthusiastically embraced across the Churches, and you are as likely to hear it on the lips of Catholic and Anglican bishops as you are Presbyterian ministers and Baptist pastors. The only problem with it is that it is wrong.

Wrong, that is, if the aim is a faithful presentation of the message of Jesus Christ.  The 21st Century Gospel certainly includes bits of Jesus’ teaching in it, but it is highly selective in which bits it includes.  So, for example, parables such as the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son are popular.  And passages in which Jesus eats and drinks with sinners are freely quoted.  As are any in which Jesus shows a positive attitude to women and those discriminated against in the society of his day.

Parables, however, such as those in which the King comes and murders those who refused to welcome his son or where the people are thrown into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth are not very popular.  And passages where Jesus speaks of judgement and the punishment in hell of those who refuse to accept his message are rarely quoted.  Nor are any where Jesus himself seems to discriminate.  There was, after all, very little gender balance in his choice of the twelve apostles.

In the previous two talks at this time, I have spoken of how people in our society have very little interest in God.  Many Christians seem to think that the best way to reach people in our society is by having very little interest in him ourselves.  Far better to come up with a message that addresses the concerns of the day and is in harmony with the political agenda of our time.  I am not questioning people’s sincerity, nor arguing for a return to the past – there were many failings, who could deny it?  But in seeking to welcome people, we need to have something to welcome them to.  And people are unlikely to be attracted to a watered-down version of something that they can get elsewhere.

It is time to bring back God.

Monday, December 03, 2018

Minutes that Matter: November, 2018

The link to the audio is at the end of this transcript of the second talk for RTHK's 'Minutes that Matter' programme.

Talk Two: We are all atheists now

Most people in our society are not atheists.  Instead, most people, if asked whether there was a God, would say that it is impossible to be sure one way or another.  This means that whether or not there is a God is simply a question that has no real relevance to them in how they live their lives and go about their daily existence.  If it is impossible to know, why waste time trying to find out?  For most people, the question of how to afford somewhere to live or which to school to send their child to are far more troubling and pressing issues than whether there is a God or not.

This is true even for those who are convinced there is a God or suspect that there might be.  Try taking this simple test: Imagine that it was suddenly announced that it had been conclusively shown that there was not a God of any kind; that the universe and the physical world as we know it just is.  What difference would that make to your life on a daily basis?

The answer for most of us is that it would make little or no difference at all.  It would have no impact on what we think and believe, who we enter a relationship with, how we bring up our children, what we eat or wear, where we go on holiday, or how we spend what little free time we have after doing all the things we have to do each day.  And this is as true for most Christians and theists, in general, as it is for those who belong to no religion, in particular.

We all know people who claim to be atheists.  People who are certain that there is no God of any kind.  We have all heard of famous celebrity atheists such as Richard Dawkins, who make a point of sharing their atheism and tying to convince people to join them in their unbelief.  But what is the difference between how an atheist lives his or her life and how a theist lives theirs?

For many churchgoers, being a Christian is mainly about subscribing to Jesus’ ethical teaching about how we treat each other as it is about anything else.  Much of the doctrinal stuff that clergy go on about in their sermons, frankly, just goes over our heads.  This is not for one moment to say that people don’t enjoy going to Church, or that the Church isn’t important to them, or even that they don’t find the idea of God reassuring.  It is just that God makes very little real difference to the choices and decisions they make in their daily lives.  Life would go on much the same without God.

Indeed, there is no reason why, with a little adjustment, the Church itself couldn’t continue without God.  After all, it’s nice for people to have somewhere to meet and socialize.  And who doesn’t like a good sing song?  All it needs is for the clergy to make a few changes to their sermons to focus on life in the here and now, and church life could go on much as before.  In fact, this is something that many clergy have done already.

Sermons are often no more than encouraging thoughts about how we should live our lives or else they are a poor parody of self-help manuals.  When they do get serious, the theme is more likely to be what we need to do to improve life in the here and now of this world rather than how we can obtain life in the there and then of the next. 

Am I being unfair and unduly cynical?  I don’t think I am.  The fact is that God has become in the life of many, churchgoers included, something of an optional extra.  Nice to have, maybe, but not really necessary.  Practically speaking, we are all atheists now.

St Paul wrote that if Jesus was not raised from the dead, then believers are of all people most to be pitied and, of course, for Jesus to have been raised from the dead requires that there is a God to have raised him.

Biblical Christianity is not simply about following those bits of Jesus’ teaching that we find nice or congenial.  Nor is it about belonging to a religious club with like-minded people; it is something that has God at its heart.  And God changes everything.  Furthermore, if the Bible is right, then the existence of God becomes something that, ultimately, no-one will be able ignore - whether we want to or not.

Minutes that Matter: Talk Two

Sunday, December 02, 2018

Minutes that Matter: November, 2018

I gave the talks for the Minutes that Matter programme on RTHK Radio 4 for Fridays in November.  This is the transcript of the first with a link to the audio on the RTHK website.

Talk One: Moving on

October 31 was for many Churches the day that they marked the European Reformation of the 16th Century, the 500th Anniversary of which has been commemorated during the past year.  The Reformation was about many things, but one idea stands out: the doctrine of ‘justification by faith’.  This is the belief that human beings are saved not by anything they do, but solely by the grace of God through faith.  Human works cannot earn favour with God.  As Luther himself put it, ‘If faith is not without all, even the smallest, works, it does not justify.’

This was an important insight and a corrective to much thinking at the time.  Pendulums, however, swing from side to side and this particular pendulum swung quickly to the other side with the result that the question for many protestants, who adopted ‘justification by faith as their core belief, was about the place human works.  If doing good works doesn’t count towards our salvation, what then is the point of good works?  And what to make of all those parts of the Bible that seem to suggest that they do make a difference and a very real difference at that?

For many Protestants, the answer was quite simple: either get rid of them or just ignore them.  For example, in the letter of St James, the writer tells us that ‘faith without works is dead’.  For St James, who, incidentally, was the brother of Jesus, faith is, of course, important but it has to translate into action.  For Luther, however, the mere suggestion that works were of value led him to dismiss St James’ epistle as ‘a right strawy epistle’ – as he famously called it.  This was unfortunate, and lead to people playing off St Paul, who was believed to teach ‘justification by faith’, with St James, who was thought to teach ‘justification by works’.

The argument over this, and related issues, continued for many years causing much division, bitterness, and hurt until the Churches came to their senses and saw that, in fact, both were true.  We cannot earn God’s grace and forgiveness, but having received it as a gift, we need to show it in how we live.  Or, as St Paul puts it, what counts is ‘faith working through love’.  The sad thing is that it takes more than the realisation that it has been a false argument to heal the divisions of centuries, and 500 years of division are not going to end any time soon.

The argument over how we receive the grace and forgiveness of God was an issue that needed talking about and there were problems in the Church that needed dealing with.  The argument and division that resulted is, however, something that Christians should both repent and be ashamed of.  Incredibly, there are still those who, not only are not ashamed of the division and hatred of the past, but who want to perpetuate it and continue to fight the battles of five hundred years ago.

However, while we perpetuate and even enjoy re-enacting the battles of the past, the world has simply moved on - as, indeed, to be fair, have most Christians.  Again, this is not for one moment to suggest that these issues are unimportant or those involved 500 years ago were not sincere in their faith.  It is to suggest that Christians need to realize that the issues that were so important 500 years ago are not issues today.  In the past, the issue that troubled people may have been how they could receive God’s grace and forgiveness.  It is, however, not so much an issue for most people in the present.  Even those nations that regarded themselves as Christian nations 500 years ago, regard themselves as such no longer.  They have not only moved on, they have moved away – a long way away from the Church and Christian faith. 

Most people in our society are not atheists who deny the existence of God, they are agnostics who think that it impossible to know one way or another.  And make no mistake, many who come to Church each Sunday are not paid up believers, they too are agnostics!

Christians believe that God is a God of grace who freely offers forgiveness to those who come to him in faith.  The challenge for Christians today is how to answer those for whom the question is not, ‘How can I, a sinner, stand before a righteous God?’, but whether there is a God to stand before.  And, perhaps even more challenging, for Christians to show that they have an answer that matters to people in their daily lives.  For it is one thing to believe there is a God; seeing how that belief affects us in our daily lives another altogether.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Thought for the Week: November 25, 2018

I gave the Thought for the Week on RTHK Radio 3 this week.  This is the transcript with a link to the audio in the RTHK Programme Archive.

Thought for the Week: November 25, 2018

Jesus, when questioned by Pilate as to whether he was a King, replied, ‘My kingdom is not of this world.’  Pilate, in an attempt to get Jesus to be more forthcoming, continued his questioning by asking, ‘So you are a King then.’  ‘You say that I am,' replied Jesus.

We can perhaps understand Pilate’s exasperation and frustration and even share it.  After all, scholars are all agreed that central to Jesus’ message and ministry was his proclamation of the kingdom of God.  It is hardly surprising, therefore, that he was brought before Pilate accused of claiming to be the King of the Jews – a charge, if proven, that meant the death sentence.  Pilate realized, however, that whatever Jesus may or may not have been, he was not a threat to the authority of Rome.  Jesus’ accusers persisted, however.  The rest, as they say, is history.

My kingdom is not of this world,' he had told Pilate, and yet he had taught his disciples to pray, ‘Your kingdom come - on earth as it is in heaven.’  At first sight, at least, there seems to be something of a problem here.  How can we pray for something to come ‘on earth’ that we are also told is ‘not of this world’?

Many Christians think that the prayer for God’s kingdom to come on earth is to be answered by Christians themselves.  We are to establish God’s kingdom by working for peace and justice.  The idea, however, that God’s kingdom on earth is to be established by human effort, apart from being mistaken in its optimism – as previous attempts in history have shown all too clearly – although being well-intentioned, are a form of blasphemy.

There is only one person who can establish God’s kingdom on earth and that is God himself.  Christians don’t – or shouldn’t – work to make it happen in the present; they are to pray for it to come in the future.  Again, as Jesus said, the kingdom is not of this world; it must come from another world.  Of this other worldly kingdom, Christians are even now citizens, and, like the kingdom itself, they themselves are not to be of this world either.  The accusation, of course, is that this makes them too heavenly minded to be of any earthly use.  Would that that were true!  The problem with Christians is that they are not heavenly enough.

The reason I am talking about this is that today in the Church’s calendar is the last Sunday of the Church’s year.  It is the Sunday when the Church celebrates the Feast of Christ the King.  Next Sunday is the start of Advent when we will begin to prepare for Christmas and the birthday of the ‘One born to be King’.  Traditionally, however, Advent is first and foremost not about events in the past, but of that time in the future when God’s other worldly kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven.

Pilate in his exasperation said to Jesus, ‘Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?’ Jesus answered him, ‘You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.’  Many earthly rulers have thought that their power was absolute and all-encompassing.  Christians know that it is not.  They wait for God’s kingdom to come, but they also know that even now rulers on earth only rule with God’s permission.  It is a permission that is temporary and comes with an expiry date.  We may not now see all things subject to him, but we will.  Until then, we pray as Jesus taught us, ‘Your kingdom come.’

‘Amen.  Even so, come, Lord Jesus.’

Thought for the Week

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Synod Sermon - Part Four: 'We also believe and so we speak'

Part Four: ‘We also believe and so we speak’

It matters that Milly hears about God.  For although Milly doesn’t realize it, Milly is perishing.  Milly doesn’t see God as important because the Devil has blinded her so she can’t see.  Bright, well-educated, professional Milly thinks she is alive with all her life ahead of her.  She doesn’t know how dark and desperate her situation is.  Milly needs the God who said ‘let light shine out of darkness’ to shine into her heart ‘to give the light of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’ (2 Corinthians 4:6).

How is that light to shine?  How is the light of God to shine into Milly’s life?  What was it that St Paul said in our reading?

‘We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God.’ (2 Corinthians 4:2)

How are we going to commend ourselves to the conscience of Milly in the sight of God?

Synod, St Paul writes:

‘But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture — “I believed, and so I spoke”—we also believe, and so we speak … ’ (2 Corinthians 4:13)

The only hope for Milly, and for millions like her, is if we speak to her of God.  Again, not because she wants to hear, but because she needs to hear.  Because if she doesn’t hear, then she will perish, whatever else the future may hold for her.

This means that whether we know God personally for ourselves and know God collectively as a Church is of immense significance, although she does not know it, for Milly.  For it is only when God is absolutely and completely at the centre of all that we do that we will be able to speak to her of and for God.

Synod, may we, like St Paul, be able to say: ‘we too believe and so we speak’.

May our Synod be first and last about God.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Synod Sermon - Part Three: We are All Atheists Now

Part Three: We are All Atheists Now

In a recent talk, I invited people to take the PRACTICAL ATHEIST TEST.  You might like to take it yourself.

IMAGINE that it was suddenly been announced that it has been shown conclusively that there was not a God of any kind and that the Universe and the physical world as we know it just is.  What difference would that make to your life on a daily basis?

For most people, it would have no impact on what they think and believe; who they enter a relationship with; how they bring up their children; what they eat and wear; where they work, go on holiday, or spend what little free time they have after doing all the things that they have to do each day.  The reality is that for many the news that there was not a God would make very little real difference at all.  And this is as true for many Christians and church goers as it is for those who have no religion.  Practically speaking, we are all atheists now.  Indeed, I suggested, that with just a little adjustment the Church itself could continue without God.

So, what about us as Synod?  Could we continue without God?  Or, to put it another way, what would we do differently in our Synod if there wasn’t a God?

Now you may answer that we wouldn’t be here in the first place if there wasn’t a God.  But suppose, having discovered that there wasn’t a God, the Church decided to keep going as a spiritual club or society; one which believed in certain ethical or spiritual values without believing in a specific deity, would much change?  To put it bluntly: what difference does God make to what we are doing and the way that we do it?

Christianity in our world finds itself at something of a crossroads.  This is true for all the Churches, but it is particularly true for Anglicanism.  On the one side, there are Churches such as those belonging to GAFCON urging us to go one way.  Then there are those such as the Episcopal Church in the US urging us to go the other.  (While those in the centre try to go in both directions at the same time!)

It is not for me, and certainly not for me now, to say which direction I think we should go in.  But there is one decision we do need to make.  Are we going to be just a religious welfare agency?  One agency amongst many working for the good of the City and those who live in it alongside other agencies, albeit with our own take on things, but working essentially for the same thing?

Or are we going to speak of God and for God?

Here, especially as members of Synod, we will, of course, say that we want to be on the side of God.  But there is a price to be paid for being on the side of God.  It may mean that instead of being ‘for the City’ that we find ourselves ‘against the City’.  I am not now thinking primarily of its political, financial, social, and cultural institutions.  I take it as read that they, like the people in them, are both sinful and transient.  But against the worldview of the City.  A worldview that is opposed to God and the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.  As St James writes: ‘whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God’ (James 4:4 )’.

We are not, Synod, called to preach a Gospel that the world finds relevant and wants to hear, but one that it needs and God wants it to hear.  My fear today is that having ‘done God’ in our Eucharist, it will be ‘business as usual’ with God making little real difference.  Instead of ‘business as usual’, we need to make it our business to know God for ourselves.

For if we don’t know God, how are we going to tell Milly about God?


Part Four: ‘We also believe, and so we speak’

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Synod Sermon - Part Two: Meet Milly

Part Two: Meet Milly

An observation frequently made by historians is that generals are always preparing to fight the last war they fought in.  The next war when it comes, however, is never like the war that went before.  As a Church, we are often planning and preparing to minister to the society of the past rather than the one that is to come.  As a Church, we need to leave behind the preoccupations of the past and look to the future.  In a fast-changing world, it simply cannot be ‘business as usual’.

So, what about our ministry to today’s generation?  Millennials, that is, those born between 1981 and 1996 get a bad press.  But it is to this generation that the task of wrestling with the changes and challenges facing us all is going to fall.

What, Synod, do we have to say to them?

Let me make it more personal.  What do we have to say to the Girl with the Tattoo having coffee in Starbucks.  Let’s call her Milly.

Milly is in her twenties.  She is bright, well-educated, with a professional career.  She isn’t married, and has no intention of having children any time soon.  She does have a boyfriend, who, of course, she has sex with regularly.  She wouldn’t understand why anyone would have a problem with that.  Just as she doesn’t understand why I still get excited about ‘skyping’ with family and friends.

Now you may be thinking that Milly is western and that perhaps the Starbucks is in New York or London.  But no, we are in Festival Walk, and Milly is Chinese.  She went to Heep Yunn – or was it DGS?  She does not go to Church, and has no interest in going.

What, Synod, do we have to offer Milly that may make her interested in going?

It is no good telling her how we are ‘for the City’ or how we run schools and welfare agencies.  That’s all very nice, but it is unlikely to interest her.  After all, if we didn’t, others would.  They already do.  Please don’t misunderstand me.  These are all important, but what makes us different?  What can we offer Milly that she can’t get elsewhere?

I was ordained the year that the first millennial was born.  During my ministry, the Church has striven to be relevant.  It still does.  This desire to be seen as relevant, however, hasn’t attracted people to our Churches.  Quite the reverse.  And the quest for relevance has been at the cost of our message.  We have failed to see the difference between speaking in a way that is relevant and changing our message in the hope of making it seem relevant.  The desire for relevance has been at the cost of who we are.  In our desire to be relevant, we have sacrificed being authentic.  The terrible irony is that millennials like Milly are more likely to be attracted by authenticity than they are by an institution that changes its message in the hope of gaining popularity. 

Now I am not suggesting that we should be authentic to be relevant!  We will, however, never be relevant unless we ourselves are authentic with a message that is authentic – whether people believe in it or not, like it or not, or are attracted to it or not.

And what could be more authentic than God, the One ‘in whom we live and move and have our being’?  Surely, we in the Church should be able to offer Milly God?  But can we?


Part Three: We are All Atheists Now

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Synod Sermon - Part One: All Change

Last Sunday, November 11, 2018, I was invited to give the sermon at the Eucharist for the Synod of the Diocese of Eastern Kowloon.  I am posting it here in a series of four posts.

Part One: All Change

Exactly one hundred years ago, at the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the guns ceased firing in what was known at the time as the Great War.  Today, we know it as the first world war.  It was supposed to have been the war to end all wars.  It was, of course, nothing of the sort.  It was, however, the end of an era.  Not that most people saw it that way at the time, and afterwards much continued as before when the men returned from the trenches.  Those that did return, that is - some 40 million didn’t.

In the hundred years that have followed, however, we have seen great changes affecting and transforming every aspect of life on the planet.  Thanks to many of those changes, a child born today can expect to live for a hundred years.  What will life be like for him or her in the next hundred years?

Some years ago now, I went for the first time to India.  I visited, as you do, the Taj Mahal, and still remember how amazing I found it that I could phone my mum and tell her where I was.  A child born today simply will not be able to understand what was so amazing about it.  Just over ten years ago, smartphones made their first appearance.  There are now more smartphones on the planet than there are people.

What sort of a world is today’s child entering?

Charles Dickens, in his famous novel, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, set at the time of the French Revolution in the late eighteenth century, begins it with the words, ‘It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.’  That, I think, is a good description of the time in which we live.  Depending on how you look at it, today is both.

A few examples may serve to make the point.

As a species, we have made huge advances in the past one hundred years.  We are well on our way to eradicating famine and mass starvation.  A person born today is more likely to die from obesity than malnutrition.

For most of us, war itself is comparatively rare compared to the past.  Despite our fear of terrorism, you are more likely to be killed, for example, in London by a car in a traffic accident than you are by a bomb in a terrorist attack.  Thankfully, today thousands are not killed in a single battle as they were during the Great War at the Somme or in any of the many other senseless battles of that terrible war.

Many deadly diseases have been either eradicated or else can be treated.  We are now living longer.  And while there may still be a way to go, as a species, in many ways, we have never had it so good.

We have, however, created new threats for ourselves.

We now have the power not only to kill thousands with our weapons, but to destroy the planet itself.  While we have become somewhat complacent about the threat of nuclear war, it is as real as ever.  Different to the days of the Cold War, certainly, but real, nevertheless.  The United States, for example, has recently pulled out of the deal over nuclear weapons with Iran.  And China has made its position with regard to Taiwan all too clear.  In 1914, it only took an assassin’s bullet to set the world on fire.  It needs only a similar event in one of the many flash points around our world for the same to happen today.

Economic growth has made us all materially better off, but it has been at the cost of huge environmental damage.  A recent United Nations Report concluded that we have only 12 years left until the point of no return on climate change.  And a WWF Report, just published, concludes that this is the last generation that can save the planet.

Experience teaches that any picture of the future is likely to be wrong.  What we can be certain of, however, is that with the development of artificial intelligence and bio-engineering, what time we do have left on the planet is going to be as much a time of change as the past one hundred years have been.

So where do we as Christians fit into all this?  Where do we as a Church fit into this?

Where does our Synod meeting fit into this?


Part Two: Meet Milly

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Mary Magdalene (Part Five)

Part Five: Mary Magdalene in the Gospels

Too often, in all the controversy surrounding Mary Magdalene - controversy which is largely invented to serve people's own agendas - it is important to step back and see the very real message that St Mary has for us.

What we know for certain about St Mary is that she was a woman from Magdala, a town in Galilee, and that, when she first met Jesus, she was a deeply troubled woman. We don't know quite what form the possession she suffered took, but that St Luke tells us she had seven demons cast out of her suggests that it was quite severe. 

Her encounter with Jesus brought her deliverance and healing. So complete was her healing that she was to become prominent amongst the women who followed Jesus, so much so that St John in his Gospel singles her out as the first person to see Jesus after his resurrection. 

The first lesson then that we can learn from Mary is that meeting Jesus is life-changing. Being a Christian is first and foremost about coming to know God in Jesus Christ. It is about a relationship with him. Yes, this will later involve us believing certain things about him and doing certain things for him, but it all begins by coming to know him for ourselves. 

It is quite simply impossible that a meeting with the God who created us in the person of Christ can leave us the same as we were before. 

However, a meeting with Jesus can leave us worst off than we were before. 

Meeting Jesus can bring forgiveness and healing to those who need it, but it also brings a challenge. It is a challenge to let Jesus change us. Sometimes we prefer to hold on to our demons - if I can put it like that. We certainly prefer to hold on to our sin. 

The rich man famously went away 'sorrowful' after meeting Jesus. Jesus had invited him to become one of his disciples, but he turned down the opportunity of a lifetime because he was very rich and following Jesus would have required sacrifice and a change of priorities. 

Others want the healing that Jesus can bring, but don't want the commitment that Jesus asks us to make. With Mary, Jesus didn't have to ask twice. She followed him faithfully to the Cross and beyond. She was one of those who ministered to Jesus and his disciples. She was prepared to serve. 

So secondly, Mary challenges us to leave ourselves and our demons behind and to commit ourselves to following and serving Jesus. And serving Jesus will mean serving others who follow Jesus. There is no discipleship without service of others. 

Thirdly, Mary was one of those who watched Jesus being crucified. Meeting Jesus is not a happy ever-after story. I believe it will always be a story that has a happy ending, but that ending may not come for many of us until after this life is over. In this life, there will be pain, tears, and suffering. Jesus told all who followed that they should expect to suffer because of him. There is no escaping suffering for those who follow Jesus. 

But Mary never stopped loving Jesus. Even when she was convinced he was dead, she kept on loving. That, after all, was why she was in the garden on the third day in the first place. 

Finally, Mary shows that for those who commit themselves to Jesus then no matter how great the pain - and the pain will sometimes be very great - there will always be hope. 

But this is not something we can keep to ourselves. Mary was sent to tell Jesus' disciples that he was alive and they were then sent to tell others. 

When Jesus has changed our lives as he did Mary's, and we have come to know him, not as a dead teacher, but as our Living Lord, then of course we will want to tell people. 

And when we do that I like to think we wipe away Mary's tears and bring a smile to her face. 

Thank you Mary for showing us what it means to love Jesus.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Mary Magdalene (Part Four)

Part Four: Mary Magdalene in the Gospels

When thinking about Mary Magdalene and what she means for us today, we need to try to step back from the disputes of the present and from our desire to make her represent what we ourselves believe, and see her instead as she is portrayed in the Gospels themselves.

The first thing to note is that we are not told that much! So what are we told?

1. St Luke tells us (Luke 8:1-3) that Mary was someone from whom the Lord had cast out ‘seven demons’. That she was ‘demon possessed’ does not mean that she was a bad woman, a prostitute, or any such thing. It does mean that she had been a deeply troubled person who found liberation and healing through Jesus.

2. That she is described consistently in the Gospels as Mary ‘Magdalene’ means that she most probably came from the town of Magdala on west bank of the Sea of Galilee. That she is described using the name of a place rather than a person also means, in all probability, that she was not married, which, given her former condition before meeting Jesus, is hardly surprising.

3. St Luke tells us that after her deliverance and healing, she became one of many women who accompanied Jesus as he went through the cities and villages proclaiming and bringing the good news of the Kingdom of God and who ministered to Jesus and the twelve apostles ‘out of their resources’. We are given the names of three of these women, Mary herself; Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward, Chuza; and Susanna. This implies that these women had financial resources they could draw on. This may also indicate that Mary too was a person of financial means. How she came to have them we are, again, not told.

4. All the Gospels describe Mary Magdalene as having been present at the crucifixion together with other women, some of whom are named. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke it is Mary Magdalene and other women with her who are the first witnesses of the resurrection. St John, in his Gospel, also describes the women, including Mary Magdalene, as having been present at the crucifixion (John 19:25). In describing the discovery of the empty tomb and the events following it, however, St John only describes Mary Magdalene's visit to the tomb. After she has told the disciples about the empty tomb and they see it for themselves, St John goes on to describe Mary meeting Jesus and being told by him to take a message to his disciples in the same way as St Matthew describes the Risen Jesus telling the women to take a message to the disciples in his Gospel.

5. St John, however, records that when Mary first reports the discovery of the empty tomb to the disciples that she says, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we do not know where they have laid him’ (John 20:2). That Mary uses the word 'we' would seem to suggest that there were others with Mary and that St John realized that Mary was not alone in the events he is describing. However, by singling out Mary in this way, he confirms the impression that we get from the other Gospels that Mary Magdalene was prominent amongst the women who followed Jesus.

All this is simply a description of what the Gospels say about Mary. The Gospels themselves do not use the word 'disciple' or 'apostle' to describe either Mary or the other women associated with Jesus. This may or may not be significant and there are legitimate arguments to be had over the significance or otherwise of this. Many would argue that the mere fact that the women are described as following Jesus would suggest that they are regarded as ‘disciples’, but this is something that the Gospels themselves stop short of saying.

This is not to devalue the role of the women or for that matter the role of others in the Gospels, both men and women, who are not described using the word 'disciple', but who were clearly devoted to Jesus and loved by him. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus of Bethany come to mind. We may want to broaden the meaning of the word today, and it may, indeed, be legitimate to do so, but for now I am simply trying to describe what the Gospels themselves actually say.

Now I realize that many want to take what is said about Mary Magdalene and draw lessons from it beyond what the Gospels say. And again, it may be legitimate to do so, but this then is about how we how we apply what the Gospels say to today. We will, however, only get our application right if we are clear about what is actually said rather than what we want to be said.

What is clear from the Gospels is that Mary was prominent amongst the women who followed Jesus, that she loved him very much, and that Jesus valued her and the other women with her highly.

In the next and final post, I will attempt to write about what I think Mary can teach all of us today.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Mary Magdalene (Part Three)

Part Three: Moving Beyond Prejudice

In my previous post, I wrote of how Mary Magdalene has become for many the saint for our times; the de facto saint of the #metoomovement.  Traditionally, of course, another Mary has been the role model for both men and women: the Blessed Virgin Mary.  In what is a startling reversal of fortunes, it is Mary Magdalene who is now in favour and the Blessed Virgin Mary who is seen as problematic.

For many, the Blessed Virgin Mary – or, at least, the traditional image of her – is regarded with suspicion.  She is seen as patriarchy’s archetypal female: sexually pure, passive, submissive, and obedient.  In disgust at this image, many have rejected the Blessed Virgin Mary and turned instead to Mary Magdalene.  In contrast, she is seen as sexually ambiguous, active, dangerous, and rebellious.

Quite what St Mary herself would make of this is another matter altogether.  Her sexual reputation is based, as I have said previously, on a papal misunderstanding and the preferred contemporary description of her as the ‘apostle to the apostles’, while complimentary and doubtless well-intentioned, goes way beyond how she is described in the Gospels.

Ironically, it is again a Pope – the present Pope no less – who in recent pronouncements has confirmed her in her new exalted status.  While what the Gospels actually say is that she was amongst the women who looked after Jesus and his male disciples (see Luke 8:1-3), which is not exactly what many are looking for in a female icon.

So what are we to do if we want both to be faithful to Scripture and Tradition and also to treat women equally as in the image of God?  Needless to say, I am not going to be able to answer this in a short sermon (not even in this extended version of it!).  And I would probably upset everyone and please no-one, whatever your views, if I was to elaborate on my own thoughts on the subject.  So let me limit myself to saying what I think we should all agree on, regardless of our own personal take on the subject.

1. Firstly, we need to be honest.  We really can’t go on pretending or claiming that we believe in gender equality and, for example, the ordination of women and then acting as if we don’t.  We need to make our minds up.  I suspect that there are those in the Church who deep down do not want to see too many women in positions of leadership, but who feel that they have to go along with the idea in theory.  But it’s really not good enough, and we must come clean about what we do or do not believe and act accordingly.

2.  Secondly, there needs to be mutual respect between men and women in the Church.  The Church has to acknowledge that it has failed to treat women with respect in the past and, in many cases, is failing to do so in the present.  Whatever we may believe about the roles of the sexes, there can be no justification for the abuse that women have suffered and are suffering both in and out of the Church.  Being in the image of God demands minimum standards of behavior regardless of what we think about the roles of men and women.

3.  Thirdly, we need to stop the name calling.  The incontrovertible fact that the Church has been guilty of abusing women and defending that abuse in the past does not mean that all in the past were abusers or even that they were wrong in their thinking.  Equally, just because some in the Church today still believe in different roles for men and women does not necessarily mean they are bad people or anti-women.  Respect is a two-way street.  As Christians, we should respect both those who believe that men and women should have exactly the same roles and those who don’t.

4.  Fourthly, the Church in thinking through its attitudes to gender and the roles of men and women needs to do better than simply conforming its thinking and behaviour to that of the world around it.  We are called to follow Christ not trends in society.  We are called to confess Jesus as Lord not to parrot the slogans of a godless society, no matter how popular they may be on social media.

5.  Fifthly, while the Church needs to be critical of itself and its past failings in its treatment of women, it also needs to be critical of the society in which it lives.  Much that passes at the moment as the championing of ‘freedom, liberty, and equality’ for women is nothing of the sort, but is just the Devil’s old trick of masquerading as an ‘angel of light’ to promote values, attitudes, and actions that are as destructive and abusive as those being criticized.

In my next and penultimate post in this series of posts, I will write of how St Mary can show us, both men and women, the way forward as we seek to be faithful to Christ.

Mary Magdalene (Part Two)

Part Two: How to Solve the Problem?

In the previous post, I began to describe what I have called the Church’s ‘women problem’.  I closed the post with these words:

‘The difficulty in trying to respond to the problem is knowing and agreeing on what should be the basis on which we come to an opinion.  How, as Christians, are we to determine what it means to be male or female in today’s world?

The Church, in the past, has sought to answer this question and questions like it by appealing to Scripture and the Tradition of the Church.  The difficulty for many is that both the Bible and Tradition are seen as irredeemably patriarchal and biased against women.  For those who wish to appeal to the Bible to support men and women being treated the same, with all roles equally open to all, the Bible, at the very least, has to be interpreted creatively.

There is nothing wrong with this in principle.  Interpreting the Bible for today is a challenge at the best of times, but it does mean that it leaves room for legitimate differences in interpretation and approach.

Church Tradition, however, leaves little room for differences in opinion.  Church Tradition is quite unambiguous in its attitude to the roles men and women, which is precisely the problem that feminists are seeking to address.  Feminists argue that that Church Tradition is this way because the Church in the past, like the society of which it has been a part, has been largely patriarchal and biased against women.  The Church, they argue, must free itself from the patriarchal culture that has blinded it to the truth of the Gospel, which reason and a commitment to justice can help us to see.

This sounds great in theory.  It is certainly a popular approach and one that creates the least problems in today’s world.  But before enthusiastically adopting this approach and privileging Reason above the Church’s Tradition and, as some believe, the Bible itself, it is worth reminding ourselves that feminism is itself a cultural phenomenon.  This does not necessarily mean it is wrong, but rather that Christians should be cautious of following any path just because it is popular.  It was, after all, popular opinion that got our Lord crucified.

Feminists in the Church will respond to this by arguing that what they are demanding is not for the Church to follow popular opinion or adopt the culture of the world, but justice and what is right.  This means treating all people equally and recognizing that men and women are both created in the image of God.

I personally would respond to this by saying that this is not in dispute.  What is in dispute is what this means in practice.  Does the fact that men and women are both equally in the image of God mean that they must have the same roles?  For feminists the answer to this is obvious and men and women must be allowed the same rights, roles, and opportunities.  For others, this is not something that automatically follows – or, at the least, it doesn’t follow logically.

So what, you may ask, has all this to do with St Mary Magdalene, who has prompted these posts?  Well, quite simply, St Mary has been adopted by many as the role model for those who are campaigning against what they see as bias against women and for men and women to be treated the same.  She is the person seen as best suited for the role of Patron Saint of the #metoomovement and all it represents.

Whether she fits this role will be the subject of the next post!

Friday, July 27, 2018

Mary Magdalene (Part One)

The next few posts will be an extended version of the sermon I preached for the Feast Day of Mary Magdalene.

Part One: The Feast Day of Mary Magdalene

July 22, just past, was the Feast Day of Mary Magdalene.  St Mary is one of the most famous women in the Bible, but who exactly was she?  She has been seen in many different ways since her first appearance in the Gospels: sinner, witness, saint, prostitute, and wife – to name but a few!

The most common image of her remains that of the ‘reformed prostitute’.  This image comes not from the Gospels, but from Pope Gregory 1.  Pope Gregory, in a sermon in 591, identified her with the unnamed ‘sinful woman’ in Luke 7 who washed Jesus’s feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair.  This identification has no warrant from the Gospel itself.  It was quietly dropped by the Roman Catholic Church in 1969 and it is one that the Church no longer makes.  It is an identification, however, that has stuck in the popular imagination being repeated in art, books, and films.

While in the past the emphasis has been on Mary the prostitute, in recent years there have also been those who claim that she was Jesus’ ‘love interest’ and even his wife.  The Da Vinci Code popularized this view claiming that Jesus fathered a child by her.

On historical grounds, most scholars reject both the image of Mary as prostitute and as Jesus’ wife.  That, however, doesn’t stop people from continuing to believe in either or both images.

At the moment, however, she is enjoying a more exalted status being cast in the role of the ‘apostle to the apostles’.  This image of her has the support of no less a figure than Pope Francis.  St Mary has become the saint who appeals to those campaigning for the rights of women and fighting what they see as discrimination and male oppression.

The problem with all these images of St Mary is that they say very little about the real Mary.  They do, however, say a great deal about what can be described as the church’s ‘women problem’ (with apologies to women!).

The problem, quite simply, is this: historically much of the Church’s work has been done by women, a situation that is still true today.  Some of the Church’s most devoted and outstanding members have been women.  I have talked here of people like Saints Perpetua and Felicity and Saint Hildegard and there are many more women besides.  However, all positions of power and leadership in the Church have been occupied by, and restricted to, men.  In an age when it is believed that the same opportunities and roles should be equally open to women, this creates a real challenge to the Church.

Some Churches have sought to address the problem by ordaining women and allowing them to become pastors and preachers, priests and bishops.  This is the case, for example, in the Anglican Church.  It is not the case, however, in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches to which the majority of the world’s Christians belong.

But, even in some of those Churches that ordain women and permit them to take on teaching and leadership roles, the problem has still not gone away.  Churches often claim to believe in gender equality while the majority of leadership roles in the Church are still predominantly taken by men.

I am simply at the moment describing the situation as it exists and not arguing either for or against women’s ordination and appointment to leadership roles in the Church.  What I would suggest, though, is that we can’t claim to believe in gender equality and the ordination of women and then act as though we don’t.  To do so gives the impression of inconsistency at best, and hypocrisy at worst.

While some Churches agree to ordain women and to treat men and women the same and then don’t, many other Churches and Christians are seeking to tackle the problem by going further than simply opening up leadership roles to women.  They are also actively and consciously embracing the attitudes and approach of many in society at large who are campaigning and working for women’s rights.  For them, this means seeking to remove what is perceived as bias against women at every level of the Church and fighting any suggestion that men and women should have different roles in either society or the Church based on their biological sex.  To suggest otherwise, they argue, is to be guilty of the sin of supporting patriarchy.  Patriarchy being for many the cardinal sin in today’s world.

This way of thinking is having radical consequences in the Church and for the Church.  So, for example, the Episcopal Church in the United States is, at the moment, revising its Prayer Book with a view to removing all gender specific language not only when referring to the worshipper, but also when referring to God.  No longer will God be described in predominantly male terms.

This is very much the way the wind is blowing in many Churches.  It is, after all, very hard to argue that men and women should be treated the same in society, with the same rights and opportunities as men, and then to argue that they should be treated differently in the Church.  And it would be a very brave person today who would argue for different roles for men and women in society in general.

The difficulty in trying to respond to the problem is knowing and agreeing on what should be the basis on which we come to an opinion. How as Christians are we to determine what it means to be male or female in today’s world?

It is with this question that I will begin the next post, and no, I haven’t forgotten that I am meant to be writing about St Mary Magdalene!