Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Minutes that Matter: Tuesdays in July, 2019

This is the transcript for the third of my talks for RTHK Radio 4's Minutes that Matter programme on Tuesdays in July.

Talk Three: Jesus the Jewish Rabbi

Christians will only be able to combat antisemitism both in the Church and the world if we better understand where we ourselves come from.  In my last talk at this time, I pointed to how our history as a Church begins with the promises of God to Abraham, promises which are repeated throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, culminating in the promise of a ‘son of David’, the great King of Israel.  Such an understanding may not prevent us falling into the sin of antisemitism, but it may at least make us pause for thought.

While we pause to contemplate where we have come from, we may also like to consider the example of the Lord we follow.  Nowadays, most of those of us who are Christians are Gentiles.  We are not Jews.  Most of the work we do as a Church is directed towards other Gentiles.  Jesus himself told his disciples to ‘go into all the world and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit’.  No matter what mistakes we may have made in the process, we have, as a Church, sought to do this.

In our attempts to bring people to believe in Christ, we have sought to make him as attractive to people as possible, and this has resulted in us leaving out those bits that we ourselves find unattractive or those bits that we think they will find unattractive.  So, for example, today we seek to show people how welcoming, inclusive, and forgiving Jesus was - which is true, he was - but we leave out the fact that he said that anyone who didn’t leave all that he had could not be one of his followers.

We also don’t tell them that he was a Jewish Rabbi who saw his ministry as being to the Jewish people in fulfilment of the Jewish Scriptures.  Instead, we make Jesus into a universal religious teacher whose teaching is for all people whatever their background.  This, apart from making Jesus’ teaching sound no more than pious platitudes of the kind that you might find in a self-help manual, also distorts who Jesus really was.

His mother pointed out that Jesus’ birth was in accordance with the promise made to her Jewish ancestors.  Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, the one who was to prepare the way for Jesus, was told that John would ‘turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God.’  Rather than being a teacher of universal truths, Jesus’ teaching can only be understood in relation to the Hebrew Scriptures.  Jesus sought to explain and interpret them.  This may at times have been in a radical and shocking way, but he would have nothing to do with any suggestion that he had come to get rid of the Hebrew Scriptures:

‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets;’ he said, ‘I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.’

When asked by a lawyer what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus replied that the lawyer must keep the ten commandments.  When asked what is the greatest commandment, Jesus recites the Shema, which was and is at the heart of Jewish prayer and worship.  Jesus dressed as an observant Jew, prayed as an observant Jew, and lived as an observant Jew.  He also avoided contact with Gentiles and confined his ministry to the historic boundaries of Israel.  For the avoidance of any doubt, on one occasion he specifically states: ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’

[Music:
Gideon Klein, Duo pour violon and alto en 1/4 de ton: Lento]

Clearly Jesus’ life and ministry was to have significance for other than his own people.  But that was to come later.  First, he came to his own. 

After his resurrection from the dead, Jesus says to his disciples:

‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’

As Christians this is where we need to begin. We will only understand Jesus’ teaching and significance when we understand not only who he was, but also the people to whom he came. When St John in the Book of Revelation has a vision of the exalted Jesus in heaven, he sees: 

'the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David’

This is not only who Jesus was; it is who he still is.

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Minutes that Matter: Tuesdays in July, 2019

This is the transcript to the second talk in my talks for RTHK Radio 4's Minutes that Matter programme on Tuesdays in July.

Talk Two: Beginnings

How can Christians respond to the rise of antisemitism that we are witnessing at the present time?  How can we avoid being complicit in it as, to our shame, we were during the dark days of the third Reich?  How are we to avoid a repeat of the Shoah, the Holocaust in which six million Jews were murdered in concentration camps such as Auschwitz, while many endured unbearable pain and suffering?

Others are more competent than I am to describe the causes and events that led to the Holocaust.  The Yad Vashem website has many helpful resources for any who wish to know more.  Hopefully though, as a Christian leader, I am in a position to talk about the history of Christianity, and at least to express an opinion on how we should react to antisemitism today.  In what follows, then, I speak unashamedly as a Christian.  I am not a Jew, and I realize that my Jewish friends will not agree with some of what I have to say.  What I hope is that they will be able to see that in speaking about my faith, I am not speaking against theirs.  And, from the outset, I wish to distance myself as far as possible from the attitudes towards Judaism that have characterized many Christians in the past.

Ask most Christians to give a potted history of Christianity and they will, as likely as not, begin with Jesus’ baptism and his ministry in Galilee.  This is not unreasonable.  It is how St Mark, the first to write an account of Jesus’ life, begins his Gospel.  Others will perhaps go back to the appearance of the Angel Gabriel to the Blessed Virgin Mary and to the announcement to her that she is to give birth.  Again, it is not an unreasonable place to begin.  However, it is the Blessed Virgin Mary herself who gives us a clue as to where we should begin.  In giving thanks to God for what has happened to her, she says:

‘He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.’

These words are part of what has become known as the Magnificat, a hymn which is said or sung in Church services all over the world as part of Christian daily worship.  We listen to many famous musical settings of it by the great composers here on Radio 4.  Of course, Christianity centres on Christ.  The clue is in the name.  But it doesn’t begin with Christ, at least not in the sense that this is normally understood.  Its specific earthly history at least begins with God’s promise to Abraham and with his dealings with Israel.

This, indeed, is how St Matthew explains it in his Gospel.  St Matthew’s opening words are: ‘An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.’  He identifies Jesus using a Jewish title that comes from the great King of Israel, David, and traces Jesus’ ancestry back to the father of the Jewish people, Abraham.

Once Summer is over, we will start to look forward to Christmas.  Christians believe that in the history of the Jewish people as recounted in the Hebrew Scriptures, there is a looking forward to the coming of Christ.  This is why readings from the Hebrew Scriptures feature so prominently both in the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ birth and in the services that will take place in a few months’ time.

[Music: 
Gideon Klein, Divertimento: Tempo di marcia]

The Christian name for the Hebrew Scriptures, the Tanakh, is the Old Testament.  Most Bibles are divided using this title.  Fair enough.  Christians believe that God did something new when Christ came.  But old can also be understood in the sense of being no longer relevant, out of date, or even wrong.  That is not how the first Christians thought of these writings.  These were their Scriptures, they were all Jews themselves after all.  They believed that what God was doing in their midst, through the person in whom they believed, could only be understood by studying and learning from these Scriptures.

Christians can only hope to understand their history by going back to where it all began in what we may call the Old Testament, but which remains strangely new and relevant to us today.

Monday, July 08, 2019

Minutes that Matter: Tuesdays in July, 2019

I am giving the talks for RTHK Radio 4's Minutes that Matter programme on Tuesdays in July.  This is the transcript of the first talk with a link to the audio on the RTHK website.

Talk One: Antisemitism

Recently, I had the very great privilege of being invited to attend a Seminar organized by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.  Yad Vashem is the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem whose mission is not only to inform people about what happened in those terrible days of the Third Reich in Germany, but also, through education and outreach, to help people learn the lessons of the Holocaust and to combat the rise of antisemitism today.  There were 30 of us there, Christian leaders from 13 different nationalities, with the majority from America.  We all shared a commitment to Christ and a desire to learn more about what had led people, brought up in a Christian culture, to take part in such an unprecedented programme of hate and mass murder.

We all felt deep shame at our part as Christians in the horrors that we were studying, moved both to tears and, hopefully, repentance.  We also felt, I think, a sense of responsibility to join with our Jewish brothers and sisters to work together to make sure that it could never happen again, while seeing with horror that antisemitism refuses to go away.  Sadly, there seems to be truth in the saying that ‘the only thing history seems to teach us, is that history doesn’t teach us anything’.

Since returning from Jerusalem, I have read headlines reporting acts of violence against Jews in America, Nazi swastikas painted on photographs of Holocaust survivors in Vienna, and the toleration of antisemitism in one of the two major British political parties in the UK – the country I come from.  And this is to give just three examples from many.

One of the observations that has been made of Jeremy Corbyn, the present leader of the political party in the UK that I have referred to, is, that when asked to condemn antisemitism, he always replies that he condemns antisemitism and all other forms of racism.  At first, this seems entirely reasonable.  Christians, in particular, should surely be against all forms of discrimination.  The problem is that this response, while it cannot be faulted for what it affirms, gives the impression that the person responding in this way wants not so much to condemn racism as to minimize the seriousness of antisemitism.  It is, after all, just one form of racism.  That may be unfair, and not what is intended, but it remains an impression, nevertheless.

Friends in the Church I have shared my experience in Jerusalem with, interestingly, have had a similar reaction when I have talked with them about antisemitism.  Their first reaction hasn’t been to share my repulsion towards this specific evil and join in condemning it, but to ask me how I feel about other evils.  Why won’t we face up to this evil I wonder?  Could it be that we still don’t see how evil it is?  Could it be that the seeds of antisemitism still remain planted in the soil not only of Christianity, but of the culture of our own times?

I would like to think not.  But, if we want to avoid an enemy planting them there once more, we, and again particularly those of us who are Christians, have to face up to the reality of antisemitism and of the Church’s responsibility historically for it.  Bishop Otto Dibelius, who became the President of the World Council of Churches after the war, said in 1928:

‘Despite the evil ring that the word has acquired in many cases, I have always considered myself an antisemite.  It cannot be denied that Judaism plays a leading role in all the corruptive phenomena of modern civilization.’

[Music:
Gideon Klein, Mouvements pour quatuor à cordes, Op. 2: Largo]

Bishop Dibelius was by no means alone in thinking this way.  Thankfully, I know no Church leader or Christian who would say that today.  But, to quote Martin Niemoller, another Church leader from those dark days:

‘First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out —
     Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out —
     Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out —
     Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.’

It is not enough for us to be against antisemitism, we need both to speak and act.


Sunday, April 21, 2019


I had the privilege of giving the 'Thought for the Week' on RTHK Radio 3 today.  This is a transcript of the talk with a link to the broadcast in the Radio 3 archive.

Thought for the Week: April 21, 2019

Easter Sunday

Today is Easter Sunday.  This is the highlight of the Church’s Year.  It is the day when Christians all around the world celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  It all began when, nearly 2,000 years ago, a group of women who had followed him went to the tomb where he had been buried after his crucifixion by the Roman authorities.  They found it empty.  One of them, Mary Magdalene, claimed that Jesus had appeared to her.

His closest male disciples also claimed that he had appeared to them and other appearances followed.  It wasn’t long before the disciples were telling everyone that Jesus was alive and people were believing them.  The fact that the authorities couldn’t produce his body, which would have shut everyone up, only gave added credence to the reports that he was alive.

The rest, as they say, is history and the Christian Church was to go on to greater and greater success, eventually becoming the dominant force in the growth and development of western civilization although its influence has been felt all over the world and the Church today is strong in both Africa and Asia.

It’s a great story of success and the Church is right to celebrate it.  It’s just the sort of story for this time of year as well when, in the northern hemisphere, we are enjoying the arrival of Spring and looking forward to Summer.  In my own Church today, the Church will be decorated with lots of flowers as we celebrate Jesus being alive.

So far, so good; and far be it for me to say anything to spoil it.  However, it’s one thing to celebrate Jesus being alive and another thing altogether to understand what it means.  And this is where even Christians have some difficulty.  In the Bible, Jesus’ resurrection is linked inseparably to his death, not in the obvious sense that you can’t come back from the dead unless you first die, but in the sense that his death was for a purpose: it achieved something, something more than someone dying for what they believed.

This may be why Christmas, for most people, is the more popular Christian festival.  What’s not to like about celebrating the birth of a baby?  We can all get our minds around this and get together because of it.  And this too may be why Christians prefer to focus on the events of Easter Sunday rather than the events of Good Friday.  My Church will be full today.  It wasn’t full on Friday.

This isn’t just because death is something that we don’t want to think about – although there is that in it – but because of the Bible’s unremitting message that the responsibility for Jesus’ death isn’t down to those like Pilate and the governing authorities who arranged it, but because of you and me.  How on earth can we be held responsible is the obvious question?  The answer lies in the earliest explanation of Jesus’ death given by his first followers.  Their message quite simply was that: ‘Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures’.  In other words, that Jesus’ death was an event designed and determined by God to bring forgiveness for sin: yours and mine.

The universal symbol of Christianity is a plain Cross.  Jesus may have died on the Cross, but the Cross is now empty.  Christ is alive!  At the front of my Church, however, is a large Crucifix – a wooden Cross with the figure of Christ nailed to it.  A reminder that there is no escaping the death of Christ as much as we might like to.  The Risen Christ who Christians celebrate today is the Christ who died for us and who now today invites us to find forgiveness through his death for us.

And that really is something worth celebrating.