Sunday, 27 November 2016

Time to grow up

Please check out this article aimed at all those consumer Christians who love to change churches, looking for what excites and titillates them the most.

http://www.relevantmagazine.com/life/what-do-when-you-stop-liking-your-church 

An Advent Blessing

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Faith and knowledge

Luke 7:1-10

The climax of our account of the healing the centurion’s servant comes in verse 9 where Jesus says of the centurion: “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” Jesus receives a request to heal the faithful servant of a Roman officer but before he gets there is told by some friends sent by him that one word or command is enough and he knows his servant will be healed. Such faith startles Jesus. It was greater than anything he had found among God’s own people.

 But what is faith? Among other things, it is the capacity to believe and to trust in something or someone. But how can you believe or trust in something or someone without information. Listen to what Richard Bewes former Rector of All Souls Langham Place, London says about faith:

"What is faith? It is not some elusive commodity, available only to the lucky few. It is simply a response to a given set of factors. E.g. I look at a railway timetable and get on the train. I am offered a chair and I sit down. Faith has been exercised.”

 In other words, for someone to have faith, they must first have information upon which to base that faith. A "given set of factors". In the account of the healing the centurion knows something about Jesus that enables him to feel he can put his trust in him to heal his servant. Look at the text:

1. First as Jesus makes his way some friends, speaking in behalf of the say:

“Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you”. (v6)

The centurion was an officer serving with the occupying forces in Israel and therefore not subject to anyone except his commanding officer and the emperor. And yet here he speaks with great deference to Jesus calling him his “Lord” and expressing his unworthiness to have Jesus even step foot in his house. He obviously sees in Jesus someone who is his superior in every way.

2. Second he says: “But say the word” or in the KJV “say in a word” and let my servant be healed.”
Again this is a remarkable statement where he acknowledges Jesus’ power and ability to heal by just saying a word. One word from Jesus is sufficient for his servant who is sick and at the point of death (verse 2) to be restored to full health.

3. Finally, he says to Jesus: “For I also (NKJV) am a man under authority…”
Just as he has the authority invested in him by none other than the Roman Empire to give orders to those under him, so he sees in Jesus a far greater authority—the authority of the Kingdom of Heaven—to heal sickness and deliver from death. In other words the Centurion’s faith comes from the fact that he somehow knows who Jesus is—that he is Lord, he has the power to heal at a word, and has the authority of heaven. He has been given this information—this given set of factors—and on what he knows/has been revealed to him, he has made the decision to trust Jesus.

You see God does not expect us to conjure up faith for ourselves from the air. If we seek truly Him, then He will provide us the information that we need – what the Bible calls revelation—in order for us to exercise faith and trust.

Listen to what Paul writes to the Church in Corinth. We need to listen carefully to what he says:

7 The wisdom I proclaim is God's secret wisdom, which is hidden from human beings…..8 None of the rulers of this world knew this wisdom. If they had known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory …...10 But it was to us that God made known his secret by means of his Spirit. The Spirit searches everything, even the hidden depths of God's purposes. 11 It is only our own spirit within us that knows all about us; in the same way, only God's Spirit knows all about God.  12 We have not received this world's spirit; instead, we have received the Spirit sent by God, so that we may know all that God has given us.” 1 Corinthians 2:7-8 & 10-12


Basically what Paul is saying is this. Unless God reveals Himself to us through His Spirit, then we will not have access to the information we need—here he calls it wisdom—upon which to exercise faith. This is what we see here in Luke. God in some way revealed to the centurion who Jesus was. And it was on the basis of this information/revelation that the centurion was able to trust in Jesus as Lord, in his word as power and in his authority as absolute. God saw in the Centurion someone who was truly seeking him and so he revealed himself to him and he responded in faith.

If we truly seek God, he will do the same for us. It is up to us then, to respond in faith and find healing and deliverance from death. It is then by faith, we will be saved.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

The Bible and the Desert Fathers

The Bible will always be my primary source of inspiration, guidance and instruction, and the place where I most encounter God. However other writings have recently been challenging me called the writings of the desert fathers and mothers. If we think we live in an age of challenge and compromise, they were there first. For the first three centuries the early Church was persecuted relentlessly with early writings reporting the gruesome torture and death - often for public entertainment - of martyr after martyr. Amazingly the "blood of the martyrs was the seed of the Church" to quote Tertullian, an early Christian apologist (AD 155-240) and nothing that the successive rulers and emperors could do could stop the march of Christianity until early in the fourth century the emperor Constantine was converted and gave the Church the freedom to worship without fear.

But with that new found freedom came what some people see as the inevitable compromise. As Christianity became the 'in thing' and popular among the people it started to become more and more watered down. The disciplines of the Christian life which has sustained the faith of the Church and strengthened people to face the prospect of ridicule, arrest, torture and death, were no longer practised with the same commitment and vigour, and those who had dedicated their lives to Christ's cause and took His commands seriously, started to search for ways of keeping the fire of their faith burning bright. They became hermits or monks, many seeking out men and women known for their sanctity of life and joining communities of followers who listened and put into practice their teaching. These saints became known as the Desert Fathers - and Mothers - and we have a collection of their sayings and stories which have been collected together and are available today. They make challenging reading and continue to be the source of instruction and inspiration for Christians today who seek to lead an authentic Christian life.

One of the best collections can be found in a book of sayings and stories collated and translated by Benedict Ward SLG. Here are a few that I have selected. What stands out is how thoroughly Biblical, short and memorable they are. The following are from the life of the greatest desert father Anthony of Egypt who lived from Ad 251-356:


Someone asked Abba Anthony, "What must one do in order to please God?" The old man replied, "Pay attention to what I tell you: whoever you may be, always have God before your eyes, whatever you do, do it according to the testimony of the holy Scriptures; in whatever place you live, do not easily leave it. Keep these three precepts and you will be saved."

Abba Anthony said to Abba Poemen, "This is the great work of man: always to take the blame for his own sins before God and to expect temptation to his last breath.

He also said, "Whoever has not experienced temptation cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven." He even added, "Without temptations no-one can be saved."

Abba Pambo asked Abba Anthony, "What ought I to do?" and the old man said to him, "Do not trust in your own righteousness, do not worry about the past, but control your tongue and your stomach."

Abba Anthony said, "I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, "What can get through from such snares?" Then I heard a voice saying to me, 'Humility.'" 

Another personal favourite is Mark the Monk:

“Think nothing and do nothing without a purpose directed to God. For to journey without direction is wasted effort.”

“Understand the words of Holy Scripture by putting them into practice, and do not fill yourself with conceit by elaborating on theoretical ideas.”

“A humble man who lives a spiritual life, when he reads the Holy Scriptures, will relate all things to himself and not to others.”

Arsenius - born in Rome about AD 360 - was a well-educated man of senatorial rank, who was appointed by the Emperor Theodosius as tutor to the princes Arcadius and Honorius. He left the palace in 394 and became an anchorite (a religious recluse). He died in AD 449.

"I have often repented of having spoken, but never of having been silent."

One of the emperor's officers brought him the will of a senator, his relation, who was lately dead, and had left him his heir. The saint took the will and would have torn it to pieces, but the officer begged him not to, saying such an accident would get him in trouble. Arsenius, however, refused the estate, saying "I died eleven years ago and cannot be his heir".
Finally from a Desert Mother Amma Syncletica (Fifth-century)

“There are many who live in the mountains and behave as if they were in the town, and they are wasting their time. It is possible to be a solitary in one’s mind while living in a crowd, and it is possible for one who is a solitary to live in the crowd of one’s own thoughts.”

“Just as it is impossible to be at the same moment both a plant and a seed, so it is impossible for us to be surrounded by worldly honor and at the same time to bear heavenly fruit.”

“All must endure great travail and conflict when they are first converted to the Lord, but later they have unspeakable joy. They are like people trying to light a fire, the smoke gets in their eyes, their eyes begin to water, but they succeed in what they want. It is written ‘our God is a consuming fire’ (Heb. 12:29), and so we must kindle divine fire with tears and trouble.”

There are many many more that continue to inspire and challenge me. How we need such people and examples today.

Faith and obedience

5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6 He replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you. 

7 “Suppose one of you has a servant ploughing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? 8 Won’t he rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? 9 Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? 10 So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’”  Luke 17:5-10

At first glance those two passages don't seem to fit together. In the first part Jesus is answering a question about how to increase faith. The reason the disciples had asked the question is because they didn’t think that their faith could meet the demands of Jesus’ command to forgive. And so they asked Jesus to show how they could have a faith strong enough/big enough to forgive as he commanded them to do.

It is a reminder to us that in order to truly live the Christian life we need Christ. We need his help, his wisdom and his grace. Without Him we will fail and become disillusioned. How can we love our enemies without Jesus’ help? How can we forgive those who hurt us without His grace? The disciples are showing us how to be disciples, by leaning on Jesus.

Jesus' response is to say that all they need is a little faith and they would be able to achieve all kinds of seemingly impossible things. Speaking to a mulberry tree and commanding it to be uprooted and planted in the sea is here a metaphor for the impossible.

But then Jesus seems to change tack. He talks about the unquestioning obedience of a servant who always puts the needs of the master before their own. When a servant comes in from a hard day’s work the master doesn't say “sit down and have something to eat”. Instead he asks them to prepare him supper. Only after they have finished serving are they then able to sit down and see to themselves.

Two questions then. First, what is the point Jesus is making here in verses 7-10. And second, what, if anything, has this to do with faith?

First, Jesus is talking about what it means to be one of his followers. To be a follower of Jesus and to call him Lord and mean it, is to be his servant. And that flies in the face of what many think being a Christian is about today. Many—all too many—think its just about believing in God/Jesus and going to Church on a Sunday—usually the occasional Sunday if there is nothing else pressing to do—or keeping the commandments etc. Not many—if any—would describe themselves as servants of Jesus Christ. And yet this is exactly how the first Christians understood themselves. Take Paul, the great Apostle. He introduces himself in several letters in exactly this way. To the Romans he writes:

“Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God.” (Romans 1:1)

Or in his letter to the Philippians:

“Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all God's holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi…” (Phil 1:1)

Peter and James and Jude do the same. How could they see themselves any differently when Jesus refers to himself as one:

“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45)

So a follower of Jesus is one who serves the servant-king.

Second, what then has this got to do with faith? We have just touched on it. Faith is about being faithful. To exercise faith isn't merely just to believe it is to put into practice the commands of the one you have believed in or on.

So what Jesus is saying is that for their faith - and ours -  to be the real and genuine article, and if that faith is to be increased or sufficient to meet his commands, it must be exercised and expressed through our obedient response to His commands. Just as a servant would obey his/her master.

Faith is so misunderstood isn't it. We often see it as merely believing something. And so people believe that their faith will increase if they read their Bible more or study it often, or listen to as many sermons as possible. Like myself, they read books and commentaries on the Bible or study the famous lives of Christians trough the centuries or tune into Premier Radio or subscribe to podcasts from by well-known Bible expositors and preachers. None of this, is of course bad, but it does not increase faith only knowledge. And knowledge on it's own "puffs up" (1 Corinthians 8:1). Only love - expressed in obedience to the lover, Jesus, "builds up".

So Bible study etc is only as good as your willingness to put it into practice. It is to be read to ensure that you know AND obey God’s commands. Faith is a ‘doing’ word.

There is a story told of one of one of the early Christians who fled to the desert to pursue a more authentic Christian life - knows as the desert fathers and mothers - called Abba Pambo (AD 303-375) He was like many of them, illiterate, so he asked another desert dweller to teach him a psalm. When he heard the first words of Psalm 39: “I will guard my ways, that I may not sin with my tongue,” he asked the other monk to stop reading. He then meditated on that verse alone—for 19 years! Asked whether he was ready to hear at least the remainder of the verse, he replied that he had not mastered the first part yet!

In other words because he had not managed to put into practice what the psalm demanded and guarded his ways or mastered his speaking so that it honoured God, he saw no reason to continue learning the rest of the psalm. Wow!

That may seem a little extreme to us but the point being made here is that Scripture—the Word or words/commands of God are not just there to be believed but to be acted upon. To be carried out. In fact there is a danger in reading too much of the Bible if all we are going to do is accumulate knowledge/show off how much we can quote it. It is an instruction book and a means to the end of loving and serving God and not an end to itself.

In that long roll call of people of faith in Hebrews 11 this connection between faith and obedience comes over and over again:

Noah: "By faith Noah….prepared an Ark for the saving of his household.” (Heb 11:7)

Noah built the ark in response to God’s command.

Abraham: "By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance" (Heb 11:8)

Preachers make much of his faith but that faith was incomplete until he put his foot through the door and started his journey.

Moses: "By faith he forsook Egypt….and passed through the Red Sea.”(Hebrews 11:27)

There is an old Jewish legend that tells that the Red Sea did not actually part until Moses first stepped into it in obedience to God's command.

Joshua: "By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they were circled for seven days.” (Heb 11:31)

The walls only fell down once Joshua/the people of Israel had obeyed the Lord’s command to march round it for seven days.

Faith only ‘works’ and grows if “by faith” we obey the Lord’s commands and do what he says. That is that we are faithful.

Faith and obedience are husband and wife. And those whom God has joined together no one should separate. But in our time there has been a divorce. This is partly down to a misunderstanding of what faith looks like. This was something James addresses in his letter. He writes in  2:14-17:

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead."

Jesus said “If you love me you will keep my commands.” (John 14:15). By saying that he wasn’t inviting us to merely believe in his commands but to put them into practice. Only by doing what he says will we truly grow as his disciples and be a blessing to ourselves and to others.

Maybe that is why there is such a crisis of faith in the lives of Christians today. As the Danish Philosopher Sore Kierkegaard once noted:

“It is so hard to believe because it is so hard to obey.”

Is that why people are falling away from faith because they never really understood that being a follower of Jesus is about doing what he says? Is that the reason there are so many christian 'consumers' but all too few Christian 'doers'? how many Christians fall away when the storms of life batter them or some crisis seems to all too easily overwhelm them?

Is that why the Church is in decline because people are merely believing but not practising their faith so that it shrivels and dies and falls at the first challenge.

To use Jesus’ metaphor, how many Christian lives are built on sand and how many on rock (see Matthew 7:24-29)?

We talk about the reward of faith. What about the reward of obedience that comes from faith? Let me close with these words from Paul as he comes to the end of his letter to the Romans:

"Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith — to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen. Romans 16:25

The obedience of faith. True faith - as opposed to mere belief, no matter how sound or orthodox that belief is - is bound up with obedience. Without obedience - by which James means 'works' i.e. that which is 'worked out' then faith is dead.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Same sex Marriage

I have long been pondering the subject of same sex marriage and the continuing opposition of Christians in the face of accusations of homophobia and sometimes outright persecution.  I have concluded that as much as people want to call the union of two people of the same sex, marriage, calling it such does not make it so. If I call my dog a cat, no matter how many times I call her a cat, and even change the law in order to compel her to be addressed as, and treated as, a cat, it does not nor can it ever make her a cat. She is a dog. So with same sex marriage. You can call it marriage, compel everyone to address it, and treat it as such, but that will not make it a marriage. It never will be, because in the eyes of God - and Jesus - marriage is between two members of the opposite sex (Genesis 1:24, Matthew 19:5). And the Law of God the Creator, is the only law that really counts.

So the Christian faith may well lose the battle to prevent same sex marriage being acknowledged as such in the face of the capitulation of church after church, but in the eyes of God, marriage, in the truest sense of the word, will always be between a man and a woman. Just as a dog will always  be a dog and a cat a cat.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Inside my heart

Stumbled across this track by Iona, a progressive Christian band who write some wonderful songs including the one below:Inside my heart:

Quietly You arrived
Never forcing me to choose
Bringing Your perfect light
Into this sunless room of mine

So make Your home inside my heart
Fill this empty house of stone
Make Your home inside my heart
Let me dance in the brightness of Your throne
Of Your throne

Looking through stained windows
I see a rose on the wall
Thorns that draw blood from Your face
I hear the agony of Your call to me

So make Your home inside my heart
Fill this empty house of stone
Make Your home inside my heart
Let me dance in the brightness of Your throne

In the stillness of moonlight
I am awakened by Your grace
And the love that glistens
In the tears on Your face for me

So make Your home inside my heart
Fill this empty house of stone
Make Your home inside my heart
Let me dance in the brightness
Let me dance in the brightness of Your throne
Of Your throne...

Monday, 19 September 2016

Something missing

I realise as I write this blogpost that there are very few, if any, who will read it judging from the fact that, to date, I only have three 'followers' (i.e. that is those how have signed up to have notification that I have written another post). But although I would prefer more readers, I have to be honest and say that, a bit like my composing, the principle reader (listener) is really me. The blog has become my way of thinking out loud about my faith and my ministry. Of course I can't divulge everything about what I am thinking as there is a danger in this instance that someone WILL actually read it and perhaps misunderstand what I have said. I have had my hand burned in the past about this and so I am anxious not to repeat it. For example I can't share exactly what I think about the Church in Wales at the moment, or how I feel about my ministry and my perception of its success/failures now that I have reached my 60th year. Besides who would really be that interested anyway. So what you read - if you are reading this - are topics which interest and challenge me, but which hopefully will avoid getting into stuff that is too personal.

So what do I want to write about today? Yesterday's sermon on Matthew 7 which is below:

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’

24 “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. 26 But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”

28 When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, 29 because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law."
Matthew 7:21-29
Without wanting to reproduce the whole sermon text here I just want to highlight several important points and observations:

First, Jesus is concerned about meaningless words, even if they are, as in this instance, correctly applied to him. He is indeed 'Lord' and therefore God. But how far 'down' do those words go in the lives of those who utter them. Towards the beginning of the last century the perceptive Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple wrote:

"It is not so much the words we say with our lips that produce inner peace, but the thoughts that we carry deep within our heart. It is down there - in the heart (note: the heart being the totality of who we are) - that the real changes take place. If the thoughts in our hearts do not really correspond with the words on our lips, then we are just whistling in the dark."
Although Temple is primarily talking about words and thoughts, he is making the same point as Jesus is making in our text. Words in and of themselves - even if they are meaningful and powerful words as above - are really empty unless they connect with the totality of who we are. Only then do they become authentic and truly powerful because they arise out of an inner change that expresses itself in action. Without that connection however they lose their meaning, at least to those who utter them.

"Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven."
Second, Jesus is also concerned that the religion He has come to express and promote is, at its very foundation, built upon a dynamic, active and real relationship with Him and with God as Father.

Those who listen at any length or with any concentration or focus to my sermons will recognise this as a recurring theme which I tend to make ad nauseam. And so well worn phrases crop up every now and again like "Christianity is about Christ" or "Christianity is not a religion but a relationship" (actually is it both as the word 'religion' is from a Latin word which at its root means "to bind" in relation to two individuals or persons0.

Here then Jesus emphasises this relationship - modelled by Him - with "my Father who is in heaven" with it's echoes of the Lord's Prayer where He teaches his followers to make that relationship the basis of their prayer/conversation with "our Father who art in heaven".

And this relationship is not merely one of acquaintance only. It runs deep, deep enough to trust one's salvation to, and deep enough to see that salvation being worked out or worked 'on' in terms of carrying through the Father's will for our lives. (See Paul in Philipians 2:12, Ephesians 2:10).

Jesus of course is our example par excellance here. His relationship with God in his humanity - remember he had left the advantages of divinity and the innate oneness with God behind when He was born of Mary (cf Philippians 2:6-11)) - meant that He had to remain in constant contact with God through prayer and the companionship of the Holy Spirit. this led him to make the following observations in John 5:19 and John 12:49: “I only do what I see my father doing” and “I only say what I hear my Father say”. Later in John 15:1-7 he teaches how this can be true for his disciples and every Christian as long as they "abide in me".

And third, which is the telling point for me, the Christian Faith is about action not talk. This comes across forcefully here in the last verses of the Sermn on the Mount where Jesus differentiates between the two subjects of his parable and their respective foundations - one sand and the other rock. This differentiation is not between what the two people believe - although it is pretty insecapable that the reference to 'rock' is almost certainly a reference to Jesus Himelf (see Isaiah 8:14, 1 Peter 2:8,  1Corinthians 10:4) or at least faith in and obedinece to Him (see Matthew 16:18). No the way in which Jesus differentiates is between the response that each person makes to His teaching. According to what is done in response to Jesus determines whether the person's house/life collapses (sand) or stands (rock).

Here at the climax of some of Jesus' greatest teaching is His concern that people do not just sit around and have a Bible study about what He means, but that they go and put it into practice. They act upon, or in response, to it.

At this point everyone will be nodding in agreement, muttering an affirmative 'amen' and saying "yeh, we all knew that." But as we all recognise there is a world of difference between acknowledging something and KNOWING it in the depths and centre of their being. Anyone who has read the Bible for any length of time will tell you that they have read the same passage for years with understanding - so they thought - until, on the 50th reading they suddenly 'get it'.

Let me put this into some kind of personal context. I have been a student of the Bible ever since my conversion to Christianity when wise friends told me that in order to sustain this new life I should read the Bible and pray every day. This love for the Bible followed me into full time Christian ministry, finding expression first in an emphasis on Biblical preaching and second on encouraging personal and communal Bible study groups. This has led me to explain or expound a passage of the Bible - short of long - on every occasion the Scriptures are read. And so every baptism, wedding, funeral, mid-week service or early morning Holy Communion on Sunday, I deliver a sermon, homily or reflection. Every week I run one of two Bible study groups and short courses on related topics with the aim of inculcating a love of the Scriptures in others.

All this is well and good but I have noticed that I revel in sharing knowledge of the Bible and addressing slightly controversial issues. I also talk a lot and tend to dominate sessions, sharing some insight I have picked up on the way. Discussions therefore tend to be rather cerebral and taken up with accumulating knowledge or deepening understanding. Now I am not saying any of this is bad, even if rather self-indulgent on my part (that comes under the 'personal' part of what I was referring to above). But reading the words of Jesus above I do feel rather convicted and challenged by what He is saying and it does raise a whole raft of questions in respect of how we 'do' Church.

First, it raises the question as to what is Bible Study for? Yes it is to look at and ensure that we understand and correctly interpret the passage before us. But - and it is a significant 'but' - we have to avoid the danger of merely accumulating knowledge without actually acting on it.

Second, and related to the above, what has this got to do with God's intentions for our Christian lives. Where are we headed as Christians and what is the goal of the Christian life, and where does Bible study come in?

John Stott at the end of an illustrious life as leader, preacher, writer and teacher, delivered a very honest and, I believe, insightful sermon in which I thought I sensed a slight tinge of regret. In particular the following passage struck me right at the start of his last address:

"I remember very vividly, some years ago, that the question which perplexed me as a younger Christian (and some of my friends as well) was this: what is God’s purpose for His people? Granted that we have been converted, granted that we have been saved and received new life in Jesus Christ, what comes next? Of course, we knew the famous statement of the Westminster Shorter Catechism: that man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever: we knew that, and we believed it. We also toyed with some briefer statements, like one of only five words— love God, love your neighbor. But somehow neither of these, nor some others that we could mention, seemed wholly satisfactory. So I want to share with you where my mind has come to rest as I approach the end of my pilgrimage on earth, and it is—God wants His people to become like Christ. Christlikeness is the will of God for the people of God." (see full sermon here)
Taking Stott's words as read, how does Bible Study help that process of becoming like Jesus? How can it make us more Christlike? It is interesting to look at Stott's 5 part advice on becoming like Christ. We are to become like Christ

1. "...in his Incarnation in the amazing self-humbling which lies behind the Incarnation.
2. "....(in) regard(ing) no task too menial or degrading to undertake for each other."
3. "....in his death, to love with self-giving Calvary love
4. "....in suffering unjustly..."
5. (through mission as we) enter other people’s worlds (with the Good News).

What is striking about each one of the above is that they all entail action, acting upon what we know as a priority in enabling us to grow in Christlikeness.

Lastly, is this perhaps the reason why God is not blessing us with growth, beause our Bible Study groups have become mere talking shops where we have a good discussion, share some knowledge with one another, have an argument on whether babies sin or not, then go home?  Is this the reason why we can go to church, read our Bibles and say our prayers for years and yet stay the same people we were at the start? Is this the reason why the church is having such little imapct on the world becasue people want to SEE Christianity working rather than join a class and accumulate knowldge - even right knowldge - which makes no visible difference to people's lives or the world in which we live.

Let me end with this. At the moment I am very impressed with what i read about the Eastern Orthodox Church. Not so much with its worship - which is pretty awesome and strange - or it's dcotrine and beliefs - although I am warming to their understanding of the Cross/resurrection in respect on how Christ saves us. No what impresses me is the changed lives of so many of its adherents, some of whom are declared saints by the Church. The same goes, I guess, for the Roman Catholic Church. We may not agree with the veneration of these people or some of the stuff associated with this, but one thing impresses itself on me. The bottom line is that these people lived lives of Christlikeness. All the Church is doing in making them saints is acknowledging this and raising them up as examples for the faithful to follow and emulate. Where do we see any of this in the evangelical churches? How many people can we - I speak as an evangelical - point to and say "that man/woman is or was a saint. How can I become like them?"

And so Jesus' call at the end of his Sermon on the Mount is a call to become Christlike through DOING what He calls us to do. To build the house of our lives on obedience to Him is to become rock-like, like Him. Is that where my life is headed? Is it an intention of mine to do this? Do I read the Bible and lead Bible studies to that end?

Friday, 16 September 2016

Barry Morgan's last address and a response - Part 2 A response

The following is not a response by me but from Rev Dr Rollin Grams Associate Professor of New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary who has co-authored a book on the subject of the Church's consistent approach to homosexuality through the centuries.

Let us consider the logic of the outgoing Archbishop of Wales, Barry Morgan’s, recent defense of homosexual relationships.

The First Argument in Two Parts
The bulk of his argument—over half—is this: Since there are ‘different perspectives’ and ‘shifts in perspective’ within Scripture on several matters—parts of the Bible are at variance with other parts—‘there is no one settled understanding of what the Bible says about a number of subjects and … reading it as a whole can alter one’s total perspective.’  This argument has two parts—apart from any assessment of the examples of ‘variance’ that the Archbishop gives.

First, it commits the fallacy of claiming that, because Scripture has different perspectives on several other topics, it also has different perspectives on the topic at hand.  Must one really have to respond to this sort of argument?  Surely one should simply look at the topic itself to determine whether there is any shift in perspective rather than examine possible shifts in other perspectives.  One can imagine an analogous argument for, say, adultery in Scripture.  The Archbishop’s logic suggests that, because Scripture offers different perspectives on certain other issues, it therefore must have different perspectives on adultery, or bestiality, or incest.  As it happens, Scripture uniformly condemns all these as well as homosexual acts.

The second part of the Archbishops first argument is that we need to interpret Biblical texts with principles rather than follow the teaching of concrete texts.  (He might have said this more directly.) He will later in his speech argue in favour of a particular principle, which will be addressed anon. Here, we simply need to note that his argument is simply an assertion.  How would one go about arguing the point, though?  Surely one dimension of the discussion should be how the New Testament handles differences from the Old Testament.  This would amount to coming to an understanding of how the early Christians in apostolic times interpreted their Scriptures.  We might note that
(1) the early Church affirmed the sexual ethic they found in their (Old Testament) Scriptures rather than reform it as they did some other issues (like circumcision, Jewish holy days, food laws, and sacrificial practices);
(2) they appealed to specific Scriptures of the Old Testament on the issue of homosexuality rather than apply a general principle to them.  On this second point, note that Jude 7 mentions Sodom’s sexual sin—not, by the way, inhospitality or failing to care for the poor and needy—in Gen. 19; Paul coins a compound word for homosexuality (arsenokoitos in 1 Cor. 6.9 and 1 Tim. 1.10) that can only come from the Greek version of Lev. 20.13’s use of two words side by side (hence he was affirming Mosaic Law on the issue); and Jesus and Paul both appeal to Gen. 2.24 to affirm that the ground for sex and marriage is the ‘one flesh’ union of a male and female.

The Second Argument
A second of his arguments is that slavery is nowhere condemned in Scripture.  There is ‘overwhelming biblical support for slavery,’ he claims, and ‘as an institution it is regarded [in Scripture] as being a good thing.’  Yet Christians have come to oppose slavery because, the Archbishop claims, Scripture stands against ‘oppression, domination and abuse.’  We see that ‘the Scriptures as a whole and the ministry of Jesus in particular … is about freedom from all that diminishes and dehumanizes people.’

There are several problems with this argument, however.
First, the claims that slavery is nowhere condemned in Scripture and that the institution is regarded as a good thing are far too simplistic and are not accurate.  Would the fact that the slave trade is condemned in the New Testament pose a problem for the Archbishop’s case (cf. Rev. 18.13 and 1 Tim. 1.10)?  Would Paul’s encouragement to slaves to take advantage of the opportunity to gain their freedom pose a challenge to his conclusion (1 Cor. 7.21, reading the text as the ESV translates it in a way consistent with what Paul says in v. 23)?  Would knowing a little about Roman slavery—that is, that manumission was not always as easy as one might wish and may even not have been possible in certain cases—not shed light on how unhelpful this comparison to homosexuality is?  Would it be important to note how Paul’s reconfiguring the master-slave relationship (e.g., Philemon, Eph. 6.5-9; Col. 3.22-4.1) amounts to a challenge to the institution of slavery in fundamental ways?  One does not have to appeal to a liberationist reading of Scripture in order to read against specific texts, for there are specific texts that raise questions about slavery.  The matter is far more complicated than the Archbishop allows.
Furthermore, there are no qualifications of homosexuality in Scripture, such as saying that it is to be approved in one form and not in another.  Same-sex acts are out and out condemned as sinful.  If the issue of slavery proves anything for Biblical interpretation, it is that one should guard against the pressure to read Scripture in service of the reigning culture—whether in service of slavery in the 19th century or homosexuality in the 21st century.

The Third Argument
The Archbishop then goes for checkmate.  ‘So taking the Bible as a whole and taking what it says very seriously may lead us into a very different view of same-sex relationships than the one traditionally upheld by the Church.’  The key move he wishes to make is the claim that Biblical passages addressing the issue of same-sex relationships ‘are not about committed, loving, faithful monogamous relationships with persons of the same sex but about something totally different.’ Thinking to illustrate the point, the Archbishop reserves three entire sentences in his speech to deal with the Biblical data.  In actual fact, he mentions but one passage, Gen. 19’s story of Sodom, which he takes to be about God’s destroying a city over improper hospitality or, more generally, failing to care for the poor and needy. He then asserts that the New Testament texts are really addressing pederasty and prostitution.

Let us suppose that the Archbishop has correctly interpreted the Biblical texts, even though no member of his audience has any reason to do so.  But he apparently thinks that he has understood the Biblical texts and, incredibly, he believes that the texts actually were speaking about bad things that we should continue to oppose—bad hospitality, not caring for the poor and needy, pederasty, and prostitution.  Why, then, does he spend the bulk of his argument trying to show that the Bible shifts perspectives and sometimes condones bad things like slavery?  If he agrees with what he believes these texts say, why undercut his own argument by insisting that the Bible has various perspectives and sometimes needs to be interpreted by principles that speak against what specific texts say? One might have thought that he would argue that condemnation of homosexuality is a similar error to approval of slavery from a past, inferior culture, and we, a now evolved and morally superior race, need to reject those Biblical texts and the Church’s teaching in the past.  But he instead argues that those texts actually were speaking about bad things that we should continue to oppose.  So, which is it?  Do we move on from inferior Biblical practices and views, or do we continue to affirm these Biblical texts because we like them?

To answer such a question, one would have to do more than what the Archbishop does.  One would have to argue not that there is diversity in Scripture or that there are practices the Church no longer endorses but why the Church might take a particular interpretation.  There are indications within the Archbishop’s talk that indicate how he would come to a conclusion, although he might have given real attention to these rather than develop contradictory arguments.  One has already been stated: Scripture stands against ‘oppression, domination and abuse.’  Relatedly, he avers, ‘taking Holy Scripture seriously means paying attention to Jesus’ ministry of inclusivity’ and his affirmation of a ‘freedom from all that diminishes and dehumanizes people.’  Thus, what we have is an indication of his hermeneutic: read Scripture from the perspective of the values of inclusivity and liberation from abusive power, and reject reading Scripture for its concrete commandments unless they relate to these values.

The Archbishop adds an additional argument, or, shall we rather say, makes an additional claim: ‘for past generations, homosexual practice was seen as a moral failure because people had no understanding of human sexuality and how humans are formed biologically, psychologically and socially.  For them, it was a disorder.  We now know that sexual orientation is not a matter of personal choice but of how people are….’  This essay is concerned with the Archbishop’s logic, so a response that would actually examine the claim in light of ancient texts or the various currents of psychology on the issue needs to be addressed elsewhere.[2]  What might be said here is that he gives no proof of this statement and actually shows no awareness of the issues.  Were he actually to investigate the matter, he would need to acknowledge that there was considerable discussion before and after the 1st century over whether same-sex attraction was a matter of nature or nurture.  That is, writers in New Testament times were very much interested in the question of sexual orientation.  Without any attempt to address the matter textually or historically, the Archbishop’s argument simply stands as an unsubstantiated claim.  His claim that the New Testament authors did not have the concept of ‘committed, loving, faithful monogamous relationships with persons of the same sex’ also remains unsubstantiated.  Does his view that such relationships are natural not conflict with his belief that people in antiquity did not engage in this?  (If natural, why only today?)  Would knowing that some ancient texts spoke of same-sex couples living together and even marrying affect his perspective that we have an advanced understanding in our day?

Could it possibly be that the reason for the Church’s interpretation through the centuries on the issue of homosexuality is that it has faithfully interpreted the Scriptures, that the authors of Scripture were of one mind on this issue and did speak directly to it, and that the basic conviction within Scripture about all sexual ethics is that the place for sex is within the marital union of a male and female?

[1] Barry Morgan, Presidential Address of the Archbishop of Wales to the Governing Body meeting at the University of Trinity Saint David, Lampeter, on 14 Sept 2016.  Online:http://www.anglican.ink/article/archbishop-wales-declares-scriptural-support-same-sex-marriage (accessed 15 September, 2016).
[2] See S. Donald Fortson and Rollin G. Grams, Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2016).
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