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!

Sunday, July 01, 2018

Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Establishment Day


I had the privilege of recording the 'Thought for the Week'  on RTHK Radio 3 this morning.  Today is the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Establishment Day.  This is the written version with a link at the end to the audio version on the RTHK website.

Thought for the Week: July 1, 2018
Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Establishment Day

I remember very clearly where I was on the day of the ‘Handover’ – as it was described by everyone at the time, although I realize the problems with that word now to describe what was happening.  I was the minister of a Church in the North-east of Scotland, and I had been invited to the home of my Church Warden to watch it with him on TV.  Stanley – or Professor Wilkinson as he was more formally known – had worked as an architect in Hong Kong and had a real love for the City.  To me, then, it was just a place on the map.  Little did I realize that, in just three years, I would be moving to Hong Kong to live.

Apart from being good friends, Stanley and I both had in common, as Englishmen, that we were expats in Scotland.  We also both came from Liverpool.  Well, I have now been in Hong Kong for nearly 18 years, and although I see Hong Kong as my home, I am still regarded as an expat, which, I suppose, is fair enough.  After all, we British were happy enough with the appellation before the ‘Handover’, so we can’t complain that it has stuck after it.

There is, however, a far deeper truth to this description of me than people who use it realize.  For while Hong Kong is my earthly place of residence, for me, as a Christian, it is not, and never can be, my true home, any more than Scotland, Liverpool, or wherever, can be.  St Paul in a letter to a church in a city that was a Roman colony wrote: ‘But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ.’  (Philippians 3:20)

Christians should always value their earthly homes and work for the good of the places where they live, but we should never forget, whatever our human origins, background, and ethnicity that Christians are all ‘expats’.  Our beliefs, values, and attitudes are, or should be, not those of the earthly city, but of the City that is above – the City of God that is our true home.  The writer of the Letter to Diognetus, one of the earliest Christian writings outside the New Testament, expresses it this way:

‘Christians are indistinguishable from other people either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in (wherever it may be) ... And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labour under all the disabilities of aliens.’

Our mission in this world is to invite people to join us and become members of the City that is above.  The benefits of citizenship are great: forgiveness of all the wrong we have done, liberation from all those forces that oppress us, eternal life, and, above all, a relationship with God himself.  The demands of citizenship, however, are also great: including a willingness to give up our own desires and to follow law of Christ in the service of God.

Christians look to Jesus as their Lord and Emperor – as their President.  Their allegiance is to Jesus as the Ruler of the heavenly City to which they belong, even though for now they are forced to live as aliens in the cities of this world.  This situation, St Paul again writes, must continue until Jesus has put all his ‘enemies under his feet’ and then when that day comes he will hand all rule back to God (1 Corinthians 15:24-28).  Until that time, we wait patiently, living as citizens of the City of God as exiles in the cities of this world, longing and praying for the Day of the Ultimate Handover.


Friday, March 30, 2018

Minutes that Matter: March, 2018 Good Friday

Talk Five: It's All About You

"There is a green hill far away, outside a city wall,
where the dear Lord was crucified, who died to save us all.’

Today is Good Friday, the day when we remember Jesus’ death on the Cross.  Life, however, will go on much as normal.  Churches will not be packed today.  We don’t want to dwell on the battered, bruised, and bloody figure dying on the Cross.  If we celebrate Easter at all, we will save our celebration until Sunday. 

But the Cross can’t be passed over so quickly, much as we would like to.  Faced with his death Jesus said: ‘Now my soul is troubled.  And what should I say - ‘Father, save me from this hour’?  No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.’  This was what it had all been about: his birth, his life, his teaching, his miracles.  The Cross wasn’t a means to an end.  It was the end.  Jesus continues, ‘Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.’ 

St Augustine wrote: ‘Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord. For the one seeks glory from men; but the greatest glory of the other is God, the witness of conscience.’

Jesus was crucified as the hymn says ‘outside the city’ and today we see God’s verdict on it.  ‘It is finished’, were Jesus’ last words on the Cross.  And with them, God also passed his judgement on the earthly city: its rulers and its inhabitants.  On you and me.  The Cross condemns our ‘contempt of God’: our idolatry and love of self; our worship of false gods; our pursuit of lives and lifestyles that are contrary to God’s word; our arrogance and pride.

For most people, our Lord's death today is that of a martyr who died as a consequence of the exemplary life he lived and for what he believed in.  Thankfully, though, God made everything alright in the end!  Thank God, we think, for Easter Sunday!  But why would we rejoice?  We who have God’s judgement pronounced on us.  We who are members of the earthly city destined for destruction?

But surely, we ask, Jesus ‘died to save us all’, didn’t he?  Surely this means that the Gospel is good news?  It can be!  It all depends on what we see when we look on the Cross.  If we see just another man dying for what he believed in, then it is anything but good news.  If, however, we see God’s Son dying, not only because of our sin, but also for our sin.  Then we see not a martyr, but our Saviour.  One who can save us from the very judgement that his death pronounces on us.

But there is more.  If the Gospel is to be good news to us.  We need to see something else as we look at the Crucified Figure dying on the Cross.  We need to see ourselves hanging there dying with him.  Dying to the sin that nailed him there.  Dying to our love of self.  Dying to the worship of our false gods.  Dying to lives lived without thought of God.  Dying to our arrogance and pride.  For it is only if we die with him that we shall live with him.  Suddenly, then, today becomes important after all: today, it’s all about you.

St Paul writes: ‘For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.’ (1 Corinthians 1:18)  For many, the Cross is just another death.  A horrible death.  The death of a good man.  It is even possible that it is the death of a good man who God raised from the dead.  But it is foolishness to believe it is anything more; anything to do with us.  The truth is that it is foolishness not to.  It has everything to do with us.

On the Cross, we see God’s judgement on us, but we also see his love for us.  We see the means by which we can be saved from the judgement that is coming to us.  Today, Good Friday, we are offered hope.

Easter Sunday in three days’ time can indeed be a time to celebrate - not only our Lord being raised from the dead, but also our being raised with him. 

But before that, today, we must first die.

Minutes that Matter - Good Friday (audio)

This is the link to my talk for Minutes that Matter on RTHK Radio 4 for today, Good Friday.  I  have posted the transcript separately!

Minutes that Matter - Good Friday


Friday, March 23, 2018

Minutes that Matter: March, 2018

This is the link to the audio of my fourth talk for Minutes that Matter on RTHK Radio 4:

Talk Four: Hostile Minds

This is the transcript:

Talk Four: Hostile Minds

'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way ... '

This passage is taken, of course, from Charles Dickens' famous book: A Tale of Two Cities.  Dickens had in mind the cities of London and Paris in the late eighteenth century.  The New Testament also describes two cities and we are all citizens of one or the other of them.  One is the city of man in all his pride and arrogance, rebellion against God, and self-centredness; the other is the City of God, the home of all true believers.

For Christians, Dickens’ description, I think, applies very much to our own time also.  As society becomes increasingly secular and post-modern in its thinking, I believe that we are in a position now to see more clearly than we have at probably any time in my own ministry what God wants of us and what we should be doing as Christians in the world. 

Not only that, but when I think about the opportunities and resources Christians have today for living out and sharing our faith, I am overwhelmed by the 'abundance of riches' that has been offered to us.  For example, in the run-up to Christmas, my Church ran a campaign to encourage people to buy a Bible and read it.   I was struck by how the Bible and resources for understanding it are available now in a way that is almost embarrassing.  God has placed a great challenge before us, but he has provided for the task.  Direction, opportunity, and resources: it is, in that sense, the BEST of times.

In the society in which we live, however, there is increasing cause for Christians to be concerned.  Firstly, the developed world of which Hong Kong is a part, is getting increasingly hostile and antagonistic towards Christians and Biblical values.   This is the inevitable outcome of the collapse of Christendom in the West.  Even at the beginning of my ministry people still spoke of how the UK was a 'Christian' country; in America many harboured the idea that America was 'one nation under God'.  And here in Hong Kong, while we don't claim to ever have been a Christian city, the Church has been involved in the affairs of the City.  But this is all changing as society becomes more secular and diverse and embraces values and attitudes to which the Church historically has been opposed.

Secondly, Christianity at the moment is itself is facing something of an existential crisis.  There are many in the Church who sincerely want to follow the social and moral trends in wider society and, to a greater or lesser degree, wish to change Christianity in the process.  For those who think in this way, everything is up for grabs: from the doctrine of God to our understanding of ourselves and our identity as individuals.  At the moment, those who believe we should hold fast to the orthodox faith as expressed in the Bible and Creeds of the Church, on the one hand, and those who believe that our faith needs reinterpreting as a faith for today, on the other, are co-existing in a somewhat uneasy peace.  This is unlikely to last.  Opposition, division, and confusion: it is, in this sense, the WORST of times.

And yet curiously, in all this, rather than feeling either optimism or pessimism, I surprise myself by feeling something else: a sense of challenge and call.

It is going to get harder and harder, especially for orthodox Christians, to live out their faith lovingly and faithfully in a society which is hostile to Christian values and beliefs.

This is the challenge.

But in the midst of this challenge, I sense that God is calling us in the way he has called Christians at similar times in the past.  Calling us to be 'faithful unto death’ certainly, but calling us to rediscover who we are and what it means to be his Church living in the world.  As Christians we are to live in and look forward to God's time.

This is the call.

Whether these are the best or the worst of times, or both at the same time, Christians can be sure that the best time is yet to come.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Minutes that Matter: March 2018

Here is the transcript and the link to the third of my talks for RTHK Radio 4's Minutes that Matter programme on Fridays in March.

Talk Three: Clear Thinking

St Paul writes that the 'god of this world has blinded the MINDS of unbelievers to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ’ (2 Corinthians 4:4).  Our minds matter.  How we think affects how we act and how we see the world around us. If we are to live the Christian life, we need to get our minds sorted out.  St Paul urges believers to be 'transformed by the renewing of their MINDS' (Romans 12:2).  In his letter to the Philippians, he writes that we should let the 'same MIND be in us that was in Christ Jesus' (Philippians 2:5).

This doesn't just refer to what we believe, although that's important.  Nor is it to suggest that church sermons should be more intellectual, although that wouldn't do us any harm either.  It means in the first instance getting our worldview right.  How we see the world and approach our daily lives needs to be re-orientated so that our lives are centred on God and his priorities and concerns rather than those of the society in which we live.  This will affect every aspect of our lives: our beliefs, our relationships, our values and attitudes, as well as our behaviour.

This is not to argue for a dry, cerebral style of Christianity.  It is, however, to argue that as Christians we need to concentrate and focus our thoughts and thinking.  If we don't, then we will simply find ourselves following the prevailing thinking in the world around us; adopting its values, attitudes, and concerns.  All of which come from its rebellion against God.

St Paul writes, in his most famous letter to the Romans, that as a consequence of the human refusal to honour God and give thanks to him for our existence, we became ‘futile’ in our thinking (Romans 1:21).  Instead of worshipping the one true God, we now worship gods of our own creation and replace the service of God with the pursuit of power, pleasure, and prosperity.

God’s reaction to this, says St Paul, is simply to let us get on with it.  If this is what we want, this is what we can have.  But let there be no misunderstanding: rather than this all being a sign of independent and original thinking, it only serves to show how debased our minds have become and how corrupt our behaviour.

Ironically, the world accuses Christians of being the ones who are brainwashed; of being unable to think for ourselves; of being irrational and gullible; of having blind faith despite the overwhelming evidence against it.  All this because we refuse to go along with the prevailing climate of opinion and all this from the most brainwashed generation in history.  A generation that is constantly having its mind made up for it and is constantly being told what to do, what to buy, and how to live through advertising, social media, and the many forms of thought control that are now a characteristic of life in the developed world.

Ours is an age in which dissent from society's values is met with intolerance and even persecution. Western society claims to value freedom; however try going against society's adopted norms when it comes to belief and behaviour and see what happens.  Try expressing orthodox Christian faith publicly and see what happens.  Biblical faith is up against it and those who hold it need to wake up and gather our thoughts.  We can either follow society's thinking, changing our faith to fit in, as is happening in many parts of the Church at the moment, or we can insist on having the mind of Christ.

Post-modernist thinking currently dominating our culture pours scorn on the idea of there being any authority outside of ourselves and rejects the idea of there being any external source of objective truth; truth is believed to be personal and relative.  Truth, in other words, is whatever is true to me.

Jesus, however, claimed himself to be the truth.  He said that his followers would know the truth and the truth would set them free; his Spirit, he promised, would lead them into all truth; and St Paul writes that God has shone in believers’ hearts to give the ‘light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.’

Questions of truth are difficult. Christians believe they have their answer in Jesus Christ.


This is the link to the audio of the Talk:



Friday, March 16, 2018

A Message for Lent

For our Lent Studies at Christ Church this year, I have been taking a different theme each week from what our Lord said in the letters to the seven Churches of Asia in the book of Revelation.  The four themes I have selected are:

1. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches

2. Be faithful unto death

3. I have this against you

4. I know your works

Last night, we were looking at the third theme which is to do with false teaching and the need to hold fast to the truth.

Warnings against false teaching abound in the New Testament, and they are a major theme in the letters to the seven Churches.  Interestingly, Ephesus, one of the seven Churches, emerges in the New Testament as a centre of false teaching. St Luke, for example, tells us that St Paul warned the leaders of the Ephesian Church of what would happen after he left them:

'I know that after I have gone, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock.  Some even from your own group will come distorting the truth in order to entice the disciples to follow them.' (Acts 20:29-30)

St Paul sees the attack on the Church as coming both from outside the Church and from within it.  It is the job of Church leaders to protect those whom God has entrusted to their care from false teaching.

So how does this apply to us?

In the Book of Revelation, and indeed the New Testament in general, the Devil appears as a major player in the attacks on God's people and as the One who deceives.  St Paul writes in 2 Corinthians that 'we are not ignorant of his designs' (2 Corinthians 4:11).

I think we have to admit that we have been very ignorant of his designs and that the Devil has been very successful in deceiving the Church - so much so that not only are we not now in a position to recognize false teaching, we are even unhappy with the concept itself.  As a result, we are largely defenceless against the attacks that are being made on us today as a Church and as Christians.

We are like people being attacked in a dark room: we know we are suffering injury, but we have no idea where the blows are coming from or when we are going to be struck.

The attack has been carefully planned and orchestrated:

Firstly, we have been encouraged in the Church, for many years now, to be open in our thinking.  We have been persuaded to see dogma as bigotry; certainty in matters of faith as narrow-mindedness; and insistence on the importance of doctrinal assent as intolerance of the worst kind.

The real seeker after truth is one who is prepared to doubt; who values the beliefs of those outside the Church who also seek meaning in life; who engages in open-ended dialogue with those of different faiths; and who does not insist on one interpretation of the truth.

Secondly, we have been urged to be relevant to the world in which we live.  Implied in this, of course, is that the way we have understood and expressed our faith in the past is not relevant any longer - if ever it was.

Everything has been up for reconsideration from the fundamental teaching of the faith, such as the Virgin Birth and the resurrection of our Lord, to the Creeds themselves.  The very need for doctrine has itself been questioned in the process.  Surely what matters more is what we experience as individuals and how we engage with the world around us?

Thirdly, having got us in the Church to the point where we are unwilling to be dogmatic about our faith and are unhappy with traditional formulations of it, and where what matters most to us is how we are perceived by the world around us, we are now being encouraged to move to the next stage in our departure from the truth.

What form this stage will take is only just beginning to take shape, but already there are some hints.  This week, I suggested three areas in particular:

1. Our understanding of God as expressed in the historic Creeds of the Church.

The Devil doesn't have to do much to persuade us to abandon these Creeds as most Christians have already been persuaded to think that they are either no longer relevant or are incomprehensible or both.  Having got rid of the Creeds, the way is open to convince Christians that they now need to change the way they think about God.

2. How we worship and talk of God.

Worship has already become more about what we experience and the effect it has on us than about giving honour and praise to God.  In some Churches, worship is as much about entertainment and giving people a good time as it is about anything else.  And, for the record, this applies equally to those Churches who insist on great liturgy because they love the language it uses as it does to those who like hi-tech and bands.

3. Our understanding of ourselves and what it means to be human.

Most of the arguments so far in this area have been about sex and who does what, with whom.  The freedom of the individual to make these decisions for themselves without fear of being questioned or judged is now just accepted and understood.  What we now face is a questioning of how humans for all their history have seen and understood themselves and, in particular, of what it means to be a man or a woman.

Having got to where we now are as Church, we simply lack either the ability or the resources to tackle these issues effectively.  What St Paul said would happen at Ephesus, and what was happening in some of the seven churches in Asia, is happening to us, that is, that the distortion of the truth is happening from within.

Given how we have been deceived into thinking that we should be open and accepting of any idea or opinion no matter how contrary it may be to what the Church has believed in the past, our Lord's words in Revelation come as a total shock.

He talks about how he hates (and yes, he does use the word 'hate') what some in the Church are doing and teaching.  He condemns those who tolerate teaching that is wrong.  He tells them that unless they repent and do something about it - and quickly - he will bring to an end their existence as Church.

And that, I believe, is our Lord's message to us this Lent.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Minutes that Matter: 2018

Below is the transcript of the second talk in the series I have recorded for Minutes that Matter on RTHK Radio 4.  They are being broadcast on Fridays in March.

This is the link to the audio of the talk!


Talk Two: Talk of the Devil

In Lent, we think of the time Jesus spent in the wilderness, where, we are told, he was tempted, or tested, by the devil. 

Talk of the devil raises a subject that is not much discussed in Church or polite society. The reality is that many of us do not believe in the devil and those of us who do are frightened of what will be said about us if we admit to it.

Clergy especially also worry, understandably, about those who believe in the devil too much and who take an unhealthy interest in the subject. There are also those who like to make a big a drama out of their belief in the devil. Popular films about the devil and the supernatural do a lot of damage, though not necessarily in the way you might imagine. One of the unexpected damaging consequences is that it results in church leaders being less willing to talk about the devil. We don't want to be associated with this sort of thing. The truth is that it's just a whole lot easier not to talk about the devil at all.

The trouble is, however, for clergy particularly, avoiding talk of the devil is not always as easy as it might seem. One of the few things New Testament scholars agree on is that Jesus was himself an exorcist. That is, he freed people from demonic possession. 

The normal way we often deal with this is simply to read what the Bible says and then just not to comment on it. If pressed, however, many, if not most, will say that the devil is a vivid way of describing the power of evil in the world. It is the personification of evil for dramatic effect. And so while we don't believe literally in the devil nowadays, we can still can learn from the vivid portrayal of evil using this dramatic device.

Personally, I do believe in the devil. I don't want to spend a lot of time in talking about him. I actually think that to be quite dangerous. But I think it is even more dangerous to deny his existence.

The Bible describes both a spiritual and a physical dimension to the world we live in. God remains all-powerful; there is no suggestion in the Bible that the devil in any way rivals God. But that does not mean that the devil has no power at all. When, for example, the devil offers our Lord 'all the kingdoms of this world' if he will worship him, the Lord does not reply that they are not the devil’s to offer. In fact, the New Testament works on the assumption that the devil's power is real and to be taken seriously.

If there is one thing that Christians and non-Christians alike cling to, it is the idea of free-will. It is like a small child holding on to a teddy bear. It comforts us. We like to think we are in control of our lives and are able to make our own decisions, that we are free to choose what we do and do not believe.

I think God lets us think this if it makes us happy, but after a moment's thought, surely we can see that the idea of free will is fraught with difficulties? The choices we make are influenced by so many factors outside our control. Even the most basic, everyday choices we make, are influenced by external forces. As far as the New Testament is concerned we are slaves to sin and death. We are all addicts. It is only in Christ that we can find true freedom.

However, even coming to Christ is not something we can do on our own. Our minds, St Paul tells us, are blinded by the devil so that on our own we can't understand the Gospel. Christ can save us, but before that we need God to shine his light into our lives so we can see Christ and turn to him.

Of course, we prefer to believe that there is no devil and that we are free decide for ourselves whether we follow Christ or not. It plays to our pride and arrogance, but I think I prefer to trust my salvation to God rather than relying on myself and hoping that I am right in thinking there is no power of evil out there.

Evil is both personal and real. But the good news is that God is greater than evil and in Christ has defeated it.

Friday, March 09, 2018

Minutes that Matter: March 2018

I have the privilege of recording talks for broadcast on RTHK Radio 4 here in Hong Kong.  A series of talks I recorded recently for the Minutes that Matter programme are being broadcast on Fridays in March.

This is the transcript of the first with a link to the programme in the Radio 4 archives.

Talk One: Tested

We are in Lent and counting down to Easter.  Lent lasts 40 days based on our Lord's time in the wilderness.  St Mark tells us that after Jesus was baptized, the Spirit 'drove' him into the wilderness, where he was tempted by the devil (Mark 1:12).  The three temptations are well-known: to turn stones to bread, to throw himself off the pinnacle of the Temple, and to worship the devil to gain earthly power and glory.

We could say that our Lord was tempted to focus on material satisfaction, to show off, and to seek position and power.  Put like this, they are temptations that are common to us all.  For our Lord, however, they got at the heart of what sort of Messiah he would be.  If he had given into them, he would not have been thought a bad person necessarily, and may even in his time have been popular and successful.

For example, would our Lord have appeared to be bad, if he had made his priority feeding the hungry?  If he had demonstrated who he really was in an obvious and dramatic way?  If he had tried to gain influence politically to further his goals?

Our Lord, however, saw the temptations as coming from the devil.  We know this in advance, so when we read the account of them in the Gospels, we assume that he was tempted to do something that was clearly wrong.  The danger of our Lord's temptations, however, was not that he was tempted to do things that were obviously wrong - quite the reverse.  It could easily be argued that what he was being asked to do was right.  The danger in doing them lay in the fact that this was not God's way.

We all know that lying, cheating, and murder are wrong.  We may still be tempted to do such things, but we know we shouldn't.  The far greater temptation comes when we are asked to do something that is not necessarily wrong in itself, but which reflects an outlook and attitude that is wrong and not of God.

An alternative, and probably better translation of the word we translate as temptation, is 'test'.  In a test, the answer is often not obvious and certainly not one we can know in advance.  It requires us think and to work it out.  It is a test!

We can all expect to be tested.  The only way we can hope to pass is by revising hard beforehand.  Our Lord, in each of the test questions put to him, replied supporting his answer by quoting the Bible.  Knowing the Bible won't guarantee that we get the answer right when we are tested, but we won't get it right unless we do.

St Paul writes that naturally our minds are hostile to God.  We don't think the way God does or the way God wants us to.  We are conditioned to think the way the world around us thinks and has taught us to think.  And, of course, the world will naturally praise us, and even call us good, if we do what it wants.  This is what makes it so especially difficult to know what God's will is: doing what is wrong so often seems so right.   

If we are to pass the test, we need learn to think the way God wants us to.

St Paul writes in Romans 12:2:  'Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.'

For us to think the way we should, our minds need to be renewed.  This happens as we start to put God at the centre of our lives rather than ourselves.  It happens as we model our lives on Jesus Christ, who the Bible tells us, is the image of God.  It happens as God’s Spirit works in us.  For God does not leave us to get on with it by ourselves.  Jesus promised his disciples that while he was going to leave them physically he would return to them in the person of the Spirit.  The Spirit would dwell in them and lead them into all truth.

With the Spirit’s help, we can pass the test.

Here is the link to the audio of the talk: