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: