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