Wednesday, 19 October 2016
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
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.
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
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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
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
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."
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
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. 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?
 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).
 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).
have to confess that over the last 13 years, I have never re-read a presidential address that I have given to this Governing Body. Good job too, some of you may be thinking, once is more than enough for anyone!! Before writing this one however, I decided to re-read the first one I ever gave as the new Archbishop and was amazed to discover that I had spoken about the authority and interpretation of Scripture, the nature of Anglicanism, decision making within the Anglican Communion, and the place of Lambeth Resolutions, all in one address. It smacked a bit of the first sermon of someone newly ordained, when the person includes all the theological insights they have in one go.
The reason I re-read it was because I wanted to see if I had spoken about discerning God’s will through reading Holy Scripture especially in relation to human sexuality. The discussion we had on that at a recent GB was one of the most eirenic, constructive, balanced and prayerful discussions we have ever had in this Body. There was no consensus about how we should handle same-sex relationships and marriage but there was a respectful listening to what each person had to say.
Since that debate, the bishops, as you know, have issued prayers that can be said with those in same-sex relationships and as you might expect, there has been criticism from those who say we have exceeded our authority and ignored biblical injunctions and from those who say that we have not gone nearly far enough in exercising that authority. Be that as it may, the essential question I want to address this afternoon is the place of Scripture in discerning God’s will. And I will try not to repeat anything I said in 2003.
One letter sums up a view held by some people. It began “My Lord Archbishop”. You know you are in trouble when letters begin like that. It went on to say “I write to express my profoundest disappointment and disillusionment with the moral integrity of your office on the issue of same-sex relationships. The church needs to be guided on this matter by the authoritative voice of Scripture.”
The implication of that statement was that the bishops had ignored the Bible and were swayed by the liberal culture of our age and were not therefore taking Holy Scripture seriously. And I want to reply that far from ignoring Holy Scripture, the bishops have taken the step they have because we took seriously what the Bible has to say in trying to discern the will of God.
I don’t want to confine what I have to say to the issue of same-sex relationships. There is a far wider question here about how one discerns God’s will as revealed by Holy Scripture more generally. First, let me state the obvious. The Bible is not one book but a series of books and within those books, written by a variety of authors, are a number of different perspectives but also shifts in perspective about particular topics. Biblical texts are not God’s words, dictated by Him to human authors, but are the inspired response to revelation. The response is a human response however and cannot be regarded as being identical with that revelation especially since parts of the Bible are at variance with other parts.
Let me give you some examples.
The Second Book of Kings records the massacre by Jehu of the Royal House of Ahab at Jezreel. The massacre of the whole of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel’s family and anyone associated with them is said to have been done by Jehu at the behest of the prophet Elisha, who in turn is said to have been anointed by God to carry out such a massacre.
In other words, Elisha and God are seen to be endorsing a policy of mass murder. I realise of course that this is not the first story of murder and massacre in the Old Testament, but writing much later about this incident, the prophet Hosea 14 says that Jehu behaved atrociously and should have been punished for what he did.
In other words there was a shift in perspective within Scripture about the same incident. +Rowan writing about this incident says “Hosea would have said “I am sure my prophetic forebear Elisha was certain he was doing the will of God and I am sure that the tyranny and idolatry of the Royal House of Ahab was a scandal that needed to be ended, but was it right for Jehu to murder them in that way?” And +Rowan goes on to say that Hosea’s observation was a very powerful moment in the writing of the Old Testament – a recognition that it was possible to grow in understanding of God’s will and to re-think the past.
Something in Hosea’s world, a prophet who writes so movingly about the overwhelming love of God for His people, had opened his heart to a new understanding of God as a being who would not sanction mass murder. Jesus takes the matter much further when He says “You have heard that it was said, an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. Forgive your enemies. Do good to those who hate you.”
Both Hosea and Jesus therefore talk about God and see Him in a totally different way from that of other books in the Old Testament and they show that Elisha’s endorsement of Jehu’s massacre was not to be the last word on this topic. So if we were to ask ourselves which viewpoint do we think reflects God’s will, how would we answer?
Let’s look at another example, this time from the Book of Deuteronomy.
In Deuteronomy 23 1-4 we read:
“No Ammonite or Moabite should be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. And those born from an illicit union, will also not be admitted to the assembly of the Lord even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted.”
What Deuteronomy is stating is that all those who were products of illicit or incestuous unions or who were descended from Moabites and Ammonites were in perpetuity to be banned from worship since they were not deemed acceptable to God.
But there are at least two stories of incest in the Old Testament which ignore these prohibitions. First, Lot with his daughters, unions which generate Ammonites and Moabites, and then there is the incest of Judah with his daughter-in-law Tamar. Lot’s daughters and Tamar give birth to sons who form part of the genealogical line which eventually leads to David and then Jesus. Ruth, a Moabite, is an ancestor of David’s. If she and her descendants, and Lot’s daughter’s sons and Tamar’s son are banned from the worshipping community, where does that leave King David?
So Deuteronomy passes a sentence of perpetual exclusion on Moabites and products of incest from becoming part of the worshipping community but these people are David and Jesus’ ancestors. The law in Deuteronomy tells us one thing but the stories of the Old Testament tell us something completely different.
David is a descendant of incest twice over with Moabite blood in his veins and yet he is the King of Israel and the voice of Israel’s prayer to God. In the Gospel of Matthew, Tamar and Ruth are named in the lineage of the Messiah, with no hint that incest and Moabite blood should exclude Jesus from participating in the worshipping community, still less from being the Messiah. In other words, Scripture itself supports the radical inclusion of those whom other scriptural texts have identified as being an abomination.
When in the Book of Acts, Peter begins to associate with Gentiles and baptises them, he is directly disobeying the biblical prohibition in Leviticus to have nothing to do with people of other races because they are impure. The Holiness Code of Leviticus is set aside in favour of belief in a God who accepts impure people.
Let me give you another example which I have alluded to before.
Deuteronomy 231-4 says:
“No eunuch shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord”.
But in Isaiah 564-5 the prophet says:
“Eunuchs who keep my Sabbath and choose the things that please me and hold fast my Covenant, I will welcome to my house and give them within my walls a monument and a name better than my own sons and daughters”.
Finally in the Book of Acts chapter 838 there is a story of the apostle Philip who baptises an Ethiopian eunuch.
Deuteronomy says that eunuchs are an abomination to God and are not welcome at worship because of their sexual ambivalence and because of their reputation for having passive sex with other men. The prophet Isaiah disagrees and says they will be accepted and blessed by God, even more than the Jews, God’s chosen people. And all of that comes to pass in the Book of Acts when Philip baptises an Ethiopian eunuch who has been up to Jerusalem to Mount Zion to worship. The eunuch, a figure to be cast out according to Deuteronomy, now becomes acceptable to both Judaism and the emerging Christian Church.
Foreigners were hated by the Jews and sexual deviants even more so because they did not produce children. Yet an Ethiopian eunuch is accepted by Philip and valued as a person in his own right and his race and his sexuality do not count against him. Isaiah puts aside the prohibitions of Deuteronomy with its purity and holiness laws and the New Testament goes a step further and is willing in the person of Philip to offer baptism to the eunuch.
What all this shows is that within the Scriptures themselves, there are radical shifts in understanding in what it means to discern the will of God. It absolutely will not do to quote texts from parts of the Bible in a simplistic way without reference to their contexts. One has to treat the Bible as a whole and discern, often through stories, the direction in which it is leading. Holy Scripture, in other words, contains not just ethical injunctions but stories, and stories convey truth about peoples’ understanding of God. After all, Jesus spent most of His life telling stories to get people to understand the nature and character of God.
George Herbert, writing on the Scriptures in one of his poems says:
“Oh that I knew how all thy lights combine,
And the configurations of their glory!
Seeing not only how each verse doth shine,
But all the constellations of the story.”
All the constellations of the story have to be taken into consideration.
All the examples I have given show that there is no one settled understanding of what the Bible says about a number of subjects and that reading it as a whole can alter one’s total perspective.
Let me give you another example which is even more arresting.
The Bible has a great deal to say about slavery. Abraham had slaves and according to Genesis 24 35, God blessed him by giving him male and female slaves. Joshua, David, and Solomon took captive people as slaves at God’s command. The Ten Commandments take for granted that people will have slaves and the prophets speak about the need to treat slaves fairly. There is nothing in the Old Testament to indicate that slavery is somehow immoral or should be abolished. Nor did Jesus condemn slavery and He speaks about slaves in His parables as if they were a totally natural phenomenon. Paul tells slaves to obey their masters.
There is therefore overwhelming biblical support for slavery. Yes, masters are exhorted to treat them fairly but as an institution it is regarded as being a good thing. Indeed, during the American Civil War, some Christians advanced arguments based on biblical texts for owning slaves.
Why then was slavery abolished given overwhelming scriptural support for it? Why – because if you read the Scriptures in their totality, they are opposed to oppression, domination and abuse. “I have come” says the Jesus of Luke’s Gospel “to set free those who are in prison, to loose those who are bound, to deliver those who are oppressed”.
So in spite of all the passages in favour of slavery, when you examine the Scriptures as a whole and the ministry of Jesus in particular, you realise it is about freedom from all that diminishes and dehumanises people. No Christian I hope would today argue that slavery is good, but for nineteen centuries the Church accepted it and defended it, God through His Holy Spirit has led us into the truth of seeing things in a totally different way today and we are rightly horrified when we read about people who have been kept as slaves by others.
What all this amounts to is that one cannot argue that there is one accepted traditional way of interpreting Scripture that is true and orthodox and all else is modern revisionism, culturally conditioned. Scripture itself is diverse and theological views held in some biblical books are reshaped in the light of experience by other writers.
As the Jesus of St John’s Gospel says: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come”. John 16 12-13
Or to quote Pope Francis at last year’s Synod of Bishops: “The temptation is to hostile inflexibility, of closing oneself within the written word (the letter) and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God, the God of surprises, the Spirit”.
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. I don’t want to look in detail here at the texts that are said to deal with this topic – in any case there aren’t many of them. All I would say is that as you examine them, they are not about committed, loving, faithful monogamous relationships with persons of the same sex but about something totally different.
The stories of Sodom and Gomorrah for example, associated with homosexuality and which have given rise to the pejorative word “Sodomite”, is in fact about an abuse of hospitality and what one writer calls “an attempted gang rape by a mob against two outsiders who are Lot’s guests”. Indeed Ezekiel says Lot’s relatives were punished primarily because they refused to help the poor and needy.
In the New Testament too, some of the passages often cited are not about loving, committed, faithful relationships between people of the same sex, but about pederasty and male prostitution. But all that apart, and given that each of the passages purported to be about homosexuality can be interpreted in more than one way, we come to the fundamental question as to whether taking the Bible as a whole, we can come to the same conclusions about committed, faithful, loving, same-sex relationships as we did about slavery.
We are not thereby abandoning the Bible but trying to interpret it in a way that is consistent with the main thrust of the ministry of Jesus, who went out of His way to minister to those who were excluded, marginalised, and abandoned by His society because they were regarded as impure and unholy by the religious leaders of His day, either because of their gender, age, morality or sexuality. Taking Holy Scripture seriously means paying attention to Jesus’ ministry of inclusivity.
And all of that without bringing into the reckoning what we now know about same-sex attraction in terms of psychology and biology and the experience of homosexual people. And surely if God is the creator, He reveals Himself to us through new knowledge and insights so that, for example, we no longer believe the world was created in six days. As I have tried to show, in the Bible there are a number of totally different perspectives on the same issue. What was responsible for this shift was a growth in understanding about the issue in question.
So 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 and that ought to make a huge difference to the way we view things.
Andrew Davison, who has edited a marvellous book entitled “Amazing Love” has this passage within it:
“We are most truly ourselves when we live for others and we gain life not by clutching to it but by giving it away. Living for others underlines the truest meaning of sexuality. Christians have discovered that most people flourish best when this living for others finds its focus in a commitment to one other person: when a couple make a lifelong commitment within which sex properly belongs”.
Those of us who were or are married have found that to be the case. Why would we want to deny such a possibility for those who are attracted to their own gender?
Thursday, 15 September 2016
Bishop Hilarion is the representative of a Church which has consistently - along with the Roman Catholic Church and most evangelical churches - stood resolutely against gay marriage, something sadly that more and more churches in the West are giving way to.
During his visit the Metropolitan also delivered this speech to a group of Evangelical leaders gathered in North Carolina. He spoke of the Russian Orthodox Church’s history of good relations with North American churches, but said that it will not have anything to do with churches that make fundamental compromises on Christian morality.
He said this is why Moscow broke relations with the Episcopal Church after it ordained the gay and uncelibate V. Gene Robinson as bishop.
"The Russian Orthodox Church consistently states that for her any double standards with regard to Christian ethics or any experiments with the ethical component of our faith are unacceptable.
The so-called ‘liberal theology’ clearly conflicts with the apostolic heritage. First of all, it concerns the introduction of the practice of prayer for so-called ‘same-sex couples’, even if such a prayer is not formally equated with the celebration of marriage, which in the Church’s view can be concluded only between a man and a woman.
Liberal Christians have often maintained that society needs to preserve stability. However, what stability can be preserved by ‘blessing’ a sin? The Church has always been called to proclaim the truth of Christ and condemn sin, even in defiance of the demands of the society and ‘the powers that be’.
Did Christ try to adapt His message to the standards of this world? Did He promise the apostles stability and comfort? Did he promise them that their preaching would be a success? Let us listen to what He says to the apostles, when he sends them out to preach: ‘I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves. But beware of men: for they will deliver you up to the councils, and they will scourge you in their synagogues; And ye shall be brought before governors and kings for my sake, for a testimony against them and the Gentiles.
But when they deliver you up, take no thought how or what ye shall speak: for it shall be given you in that same hour what ye shall speak. For it is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father which speaketh in you. And the brother shall deliver up the brother to death, and the father the child: and the children shall rise up against their parents, and cause them to be put to death. And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake: but he that endureth to the end shall be saved’. (Mt. 10:16-22)
How little does this resemble the discourse of today’s liberal Christians who seek to adapt the Church to the standards of this world, to make it tolerant, not towards people, not towards sinners, but towards sin. Sin is elevated to the dignity of a norm and to this end even the words of Jesus and His apostles are rewritten and re-interpreted.
We do not at all insist that the Church should refuse to help sinners. Christians are obliged to pray for all sinners and to wish them salvation. The Church should treat any individual with pastoral responsibility regardless of his or her sexual orientation. But the Church cannot bless a vice. She cannot reform the norm of faith as sealed in the holy Gospel and the letters of the apostles."
In 2011, Hilarion spoke to a large group of Presbyterians in Dallas. He was warmly received, and talked about how Orthodox and morally conservative Protestants can and should work together to defend our common heritage under assault from secular liberalism — even within the churches.
Personally I can't help thinking that if the Church in Wales does go down this route it will be the straw that will finally break its back. Its decline will accelerate and spell the end for it. Here are the recent figures on attendance etc:
Wednesday, 14 September 2016
The Bible says once someone accepts Christ, he can never lose his salvation. All true Christians have eternal security.
The Bible says it is possible to fall away from grace. Even believers can turn away from God and be forever lost in their sins.
The Bible says homosexuality is a perversion of God's moral law and a deviation from natural human behavior.
The Bible says homosexuality is morally acceptable; it is a lifestyle as viable as any "traditional" concept of marriage or family.
The Bible says long ago God predestined some men and women to everlasting life, and some to everlasting judgment. We are not free to accept or reject His salvation.
The Bible says God Himself does not know who will choose Him. Salvation is a matter of free will. The decision is entirely up to us.
The Bible says Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God the Father, sharing fully in His divinity, and indivisibly united with the Holy Trinity.
The Bible says Jesus Christ is a created being. He is superior to the angels, but not eternal and not of the same nature as the Father.
The Bible says we should no longer use the terms "Father" and "Son" in relation to God. They are merely symbolic and were meant to be replaced with less sexist terminology.
The Bible says ...
Wait a minute!
How can so many contradictory statements be based on the teachings of one book? How can intelligent and sensible people read basically the same Old and New Testament text, yet arrive at such opposite conclusions? Is there any other book, ancient or modern, which has prompted such a vast and often incompatible array of interpretations and dogmas? Why can't anyone agree on what the Bible really teaches?
I believe the time has come for those who love the Holy Scriptures, no matter what their backgrounds may be, to address such questions earnestly and sincerely in the name of Christ. No one who takes seriously Christ's High Priestly Prayer for unity among His followers in John 17:20, 21 ("I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me") can look with indifference upon the divisions, factions, and schisms which have become synonymous with contemporary Christianity. Nor can we ignore the crisis of biblical interpretation which is bringing so much of that division upon us.
In the Roman Catholic Church of the late twentieth century, an increasingly vocal and powerful contingent of theologians, clergy, and laity began to cry out for changes far more radical than those of the Reformation. Calling into question Church teachings concerning the most basic issues of morality, ethics, and traditional Church dogma, and fanned by the turbulent winds of nineteenth and early twentieth century liberalism, and furthered by a highly militant feminism, these factions tore away at the very core of traditional Catholic beliefs. What effect these forces will have in shaping Church doctrine in the twenty-first century remains to be seen.
In the Protestant world, what began as an attempt by early reformers such as Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli to purify the Church has now largely failed to lead God's people to doctrinal purity and biblical fidelity. Rather, it has resulted all too often in a narrow-minded and independent sectarianism on the one hand, or a progressive descent towards novel and often unrecognizably Christian liberalism on the other. Both elements now simultaneously wage war upon the modern Protestant Church and have cast her onto the shores of the twenty-first century divided, confused, and disoriented. While there are still many who cling faithfully to the essentials of their particular denomination, severe structural cracks are now becoming apparent everywhere. Should the Protestant Church survive the twenty-first century, many fear to think what appearance it will have assumed?
Never before in the history of the Christian Faith has there been such widespread confusion concerning foundational biblical doctrines such as the nature of the Church, the Holy Trinity, or the essence of the Christian life. Having lost a consistent approach to biblical interpretation, modern Christianity has been cut adrift from its moorings, and now appears to be rapidly drifting out to a tempestuous sea of subjectivity, shallowness, and heretical novelty. Like the disciples of Jesus' day who could not cast out the demons, modern Christianity has seemingly been outwitted and overpowered by the enemy. Divided and confused, it is rapidly losing its momentum, while the watching world either mocks openly, or begins to look elsewhere for answers.
If, for the most part, Christians are sincerely looking to the Scriptures for answers, yet are coming up with a discordant array of interpretations, there must be some explanation. I believe there is one and only one-but before discussing it, I would like to mention two commonly held views, which though understandable in light of the current chaotic scene, I believe must be rejected at the outset.
1) Unhealthy Skepticism. Some would say Christians disagree over the proper interpretation of Scripture because there is no proper interpretation. These people would claim, "The Bible is not divinely inspired and has no unified message." Frankly, who can blame people for being skeptical? With over 22,000 different Christian denominations and sects in existence today, and with an average of five new groups appearing each week, almost all claiming to base their beliefs on the teachings of the Bible, how could it not appear to those outside the Christian Faith that the Scriptures have no unity, no underlying theme, and no divinely inspired message?
To the skeptic, the spectacle of modern Christianity proves that the Bible is simply another book of history, a random collection of religious writings reflecting the sociological development of a portion of Middle Eastern culture. I obviously don't agree with that position, but in deference must admit that if I were on the outside looking in at all this chaos, I might be tempted to believe it. If you are reading this booklet as a skeptic, but one who would like to believe there is more to the message of the Bible than what you might have experienced so far, I wish to encourage you not to give up. There is more to the story-much more. Please, keep reading!
2) Unhealthy Optimism. Others would tell us that although Christians disagree over the meaning of Scripture, in the final analysis, doctrine is not really important anyway. They would look upon the current disharmony among Christians as not a weakness, but a strength-God's way of teaching us that what a person believes, or how someone interprets the Bible, is only a matter of personal, private opinion, and ultimately has little importance or bearing on one's relationship with God or fellow man. This view says, "Our responsibility is to make the best of whatever we have, to respect everyone else's opinion, and not to prefer our views, or anyone else's views, over our neighbor's. It doesn't really matter whether someone is Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Christian Scientist, fundamentalist, or Unitarian. We should simply live our lives, and stop trying to find out who is `right.'” This view is incompatible with a sincere search for truth.
Looking for Answers
All right, perhaps we are in agreement, at least in principle, that there is a serious crisis here. There can be no denying that the spectacle we modern Christians are presenting to the outside world bears very little resemblance to the picture of unity and oneness envisioned by Christ in John 17. The most sincere efforts of Christian biblical interpreters, no matter how intelligent, how charismatic, how gifted in biblical languages, how well-loved, or how eloquent, have not been sufficient to quell the confusion that now exists. In fact, most of them have only added to this confusion in their own way. Sectarianism, liberalism, and moral decay are running rampant, and at the present rate of decline, there will likely be no resemblance whatsoever between the Christianity we now hold, and Christianity one hundred years from now. (If you have been a Christian for many years, think back to the changes which have occurred in your own church since you were a child in Sunday School!)
Okay, so where do we go from here?
What I am about to say, I say with more conviction and firmness of belief than I have possessed in over thirty years as a student of the Scriptures. I wish to give a two-word answer to that question which represents what I unequivocally believe to be the one and only prospect for Christians who wish to return to the true message of Scripture and to understand its divine meaning. Apart from this priceless key to interpretation, the fragmentation we see around us will continue unabated until finally there is nothing left of the original Christian proclamation.
What I'm about to give you is not just another opinion or idea. It is our only hope! It's called Holy Tradition.
You Must Be Kidding!
"Tradition? Isn't that something the Catholics came up with to impose a system of non-biblical, authoritarian dogmas upon people so that they wouldn't read the Bible for themselves?"
If that statement sounds anywhere close to where you are coming from, please stay with me for at least the next few pages of this booklet. There are reasons why you feel that way, and some of them are valid. But not all of them. What I am about to say is not an indictment of godly pastors, teachers, parents, or friends who in sincerity taught you and me our beliefs about tradition. I was raised in the Baptist Church and in a godly Christian home, and have the greatest respect for those who taught me and sought to be examples of how to serve God and to put Him first in life. I love them, and I thank God for them.
But they only saw a part of the picture.
Holy Tradition: A Bad Rap
No one can deny that there is a dangerous and dark side to tradition. It does not take a Ph.D. in biblical studies to be aware of the harsh language used in Scripture
against the legalistic and man-centered traditions of the Pharisees, or the other empty traditions filtering around during the New Testament era, against which Saint Paul warns his readers to be on guard (Colossians 2:8).
Undoubtedly some of the most harsh language in all Scripture directed toward this aspect of tradition can be found coming from the mouth of Jesus Christ Himself in Matthew 15:3-9. He calls the Pharisees "hypocrites" for nullifying the commandments of God through their phony traditions, and then goes on to castigate them by quoting Isaiah's prophecy,
"These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men."
What Christian in his or her right mind would want to be involved with something that received such harsh treatment from our Lord Himself!
But wait! Are we seeing the whole picture? Because something can be misused and abused, does that necessarily mean it cannot possibly be used in a proper manner? Take, for instance, the Bible itself. As we will soon see, godless heretics from the earliest period of the Church's history, as well as virtually every heretical cult of our own day, use or have used the Bible as their source of proof-texts. Does this mean that we should shun the Holy Scriptures as many people shun Holy Tradition, because the possibility of misuse exists? I hardly think so!
To be quite honest, the Bible, while deprecating the dark side of tradition-that is, the tradition of men-speaks quite highly concerning tradition properly applied. Saint Paul, who in Colossians 2:8 warns his readers against the one aspect of tradition, applauds the Corinthian believers for keeping the traditions he delivered to them concerning conduct in Church worship (1 Corinthians 11:2). Elsewhere, he strongly exhorts believers to
"stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle" (2 Thessalonians 2:15).
Further on in that same book, he applies tradition to moral conduct in a favorable light when he says,
"We command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us" (2 Thessalonians 3:6).
What am I trying to say? That tradition, like the Bible itself, can be perverted and twisted into something unimaginably ugly and godless, if that is the intent of those who are using it. But if we as modern Christians have false preconceptions that go beyond that realization, and tell us that all tradition is evil, or that tradition is something to be avoided like the plague, we need to take a second look at Scripture itself. As we will soon see, the early Church had no such hang-ups about tradition-although Christians were most definitely concerned about differentiating between Holy Tradition and the traditions of men.
The Church followed Saint Paul's instruction to Timothy,
"the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also" (2 Timothy 2:2).
The word tradition means, literally, "to hand down."
Holy Tradition speaks of a careful passing on of correct belief and worship from generation to generation. I will tip my hand before moving into the next section by saying here that if the early Church had not been able to come to grips with tradition properly applied, and if the decay of our own day and age had spun out of control in the early history of Christianity, without the safeguard of Holy Tradition to keep the Church from slipping headlong into heresy, we would not have needed a Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century. Why? Because Christianity would have died in its infancy, wracked and torn apart by conflicting doctrines and perversions. The Church would have blown away like dust long before Martin Luther came onto the scene. Or at best, he would have needed way more than 95 Theses to get things straightened out!
But Isn't the Bible Sufficient By Itself?
Okay, how about another question, and a very valid one at that, which is often brought up in discussions about tradition. Isn't the Bible sufficient in and of itself without needing any help? What about the doctrine of sola scriptura?
To answer that question, I would like to introduce you to one of my favorite heroes from the Church's past. His name is Saint Vincent of Lerins, and he lived and wrote in the fifth century. Like us, he had a deep and enduring love of the Holy Scriptures. (Isn't it a shame we modern Christians so easily assume that we are the only ones to have an interest in God's Word?) Listen for a moment to his discussion of how to determine true doctrine:
I have often earnestly approached learned and holy men who knew Christian doctrine, asking how I can distinguish the truth of the catholic (universal) Faith from the falsehood of heresy. In almost every instance, they have told me that if I, or anyone else, want to detect heresy, avoid the traps set by heretics, and maintain the true Faith, I must, with the help of the Lord, reinforce my own belief with two things:
1) The authority of the Holy Scriptures;
2) The tradition of the Church.
At this point someone may wish to ask, "Since the canon of Scripture is complete and more than sufficient, what need is there to join the authority of the Church's interpretation to it?" Good question. But there is a simple answer we all know if we think a moment: Because of the depth of the Scriptures, they are not interpreted in the same sense by everyone. One understands a text to mean one thing, and another thinks it means another. Sometimes it seems there are as many interpretations as there are interpreters.... Consequently, because of the intricacies of all these heresies and incorrect doctrines, we must formulate our understanding of the writings of the Apostles and prophets in harmony with the standards of ecclesiastical and orthodox interpretation. (From The Commentaries, chapter 2, paraphrased by Fr. Jack N. Sparks).
Aside from the fact that this passage is so relevant to our contemporary scene it could have been written yesterday, Saint Vincent's work is vitally important because it so perfectly summarizes the need for tradition in the earlier period of the Church-earlier that is, even than Saint Vincent. It was because of the countless heresies seeking to pervert the Scriptures that Holy Tradition became so important!
Early "Scriptural" Heresies
Let's take a few steps farther back in time, starting in the first century, and listen to just a few of the heresies which started attacking the Church from her earliest times. To understand these heresies is to understand why the Church, from its inception, placed such a high degree of emphasis upon the role of Holy Tradition.
In the first century, the Cerinthians, a heretical cult, taught that the world was formed out of preexistent matter, possibly by angels. Jesus began His life as a mere man; the divine power descended upon Him at His baptism, and left Him before the crucifixion.
Also in the first century, the Ebionites taught that Jesus was only the son of Joseph and Mary. The Holy Spirit came upon Him at, but not prior to, His baptism.
In the second century, the Gnostics came into prominence. They taught a wide array of philosophical and pseudo-Christian doctrines, saying, among other things, that there was a distinction between the God who created matter, and the supreme and unknowable Divine Being. The world was therefore imperfect and unspiritual. True knowledge of God could only be obtained through mystical "gnosis" or knowledge.
Also in the second century, the Marcionites taught that the God of the Old Testament was different from the God of the New Testament. Jesus, who didn't really have a physical, human body, came to overthrow this cruel god of law and violence.
In the third century, the Novatians, a harsh and legalistic sect, taught, in part, that the human soul was preexistent, and that Jesus' soul was united to Jesus, the Word, somewhere in time prior to His human incarnation.
Also in the third century, Sabellius taught that the Godhead did not consist of three distinct Persons, but that there was only a succession of modes or operations of one Person.
In the fourth century, the infamous heretic Arius taught that the Son was not equal to or of the same substance as the Father.
What a mess! And that is only to name portions of the teachings of just a few early heresies. Other than the fact that some of these groups differed as to what books they believed composed the Old and New Testament, do you know one thing they all had in common? Just like the Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses of our day, they all claimed adamantly that these misbegotten views were the true teaching of Scripture!
Setting the Record Straight
Thank God, from the earliest period of the Church, going right back to the Apostles themselves, the true heroes of our Faith fought tooth and nail against such perversions. No one, not a single one of them, believed that the Bible needed additional help to somehow become God's Word. In view of the countless heresies attacking the Church from the beginning, all of them using Scripture to make their claims more palatable (in Saint Vincent's words, heretics sprinkle the perfume of heavenly language upon their doctrines, because they are "quite aware that the evil smell of their doctrines will never be accepted if their nasty vapors are released undisguised"), it was sincere Christians who needed the help-desperately. There had to be some way to distinguish truth from error in those crucially formative years of the Church. One thing wouldn't work, for sure: letting everyone draw his own conclusions about what the Bible really meant!
One of the earliest and most important "yardsticks" the early Christians used to determine precisely the core essentials of true doctrine was their baptismal formulations. What was it that catechumens coming for Christian baptism were proclaiming they believed? In the face of all that wrong doctrine, what were the essentials of the Church's saving and biblical Faith? Baptismal formulations-concise, carefully worded statements of faith (such as the Apostle's Creed, whose roots go back to the second century) -became one of the earliest forms of tradition. They were the Church's way of protecting new catechumens who came seeking salvation in Christ. Because of these baptismal creeds, the Church was able to say, "These are the essentials of apostolic teaching. This is how true Christians understand the Scriptures concerning vitally important points of belief. This is what you must believe to be a Christian."
I simply do not have time in the course of one short booklet to go into further depth concerning the history of tradition in the early Church. However, I will say that one of the most encouraging studies I have ever embarked upon in my entire life has been to examine the teachings of men like Irenaeus, Tertullian, Hilary of Poitiers, Athanasius, and Basil the Great concerning this subject. As one born "after the bomb," so to speak, someone whose only experience of biblical interpretation has been that of the contemporary din of conflicting and contradictory opinions, this study has been like discovering a sweet oasis in the midst of a parched desert. Finally, I have found godly men who agree on the essentials of interpretation!
I will also say by way of summary that for these men, and in fact for all the great heroes of the early Church, the Scriptures were never looked upon as something to be stripped away and interpreted in isolation from the Church. That is what the heretics did. For early Christians, the Bible was most naturally understood in the context of the Church, that community of believers, both living and departed, who believed, taught, and, most importantly, worshiped in accordance with what the Apostles had received from the Lord Himself. For early Christians, that kind of faithful tradition, that "Rule of Faith," was the interpretation of Scripture.
The Make-Up of Tradition
The most important aspect of Holy Tradition, the New Testament, was still in its developmental stage throughout the entire period of the first century. The Holy Scriptures, God's infallible and unerring word delivered through the Apostles, stand alone and without rival. Orthodox theologian Bishop Kallistos Ware speaks for all Christendom when he says,
"The Bible is the supreme expression of God's revelation to man."
People from my evangelical background have bent over backwards to "hold fast" to this vital facet of Holy Tradition. A person could not consider himself to be evangelical if he did not read the Scriptures regularly, attend a Bible-believing Church where the Scriptures were both preached and practiced, and spend time meditating upon the message of Holy Writ.
And who among the early Fathers would disagree with that sentiment? Saint Jerome wrote that "ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ." Saint Athanasius called those who neglect the Scriptures "worthy of utmost condemnation." And Saint John Chrysostom said that not knowing the Scriptures is "the cause of all evils."
But tragically, somewhere in the white-heat intensity of the " Battle for the Bible," many Christians have entirely overlooked the rest of Holy Tradition. Indeed, to badly misquote a verse in Acts, many evangelicals today would say in all honesty, "We have not even heard whether there is such a thing as Holy Tradition."
Besides the Scriptures, I've already mentioned one other important aspect of Holy Tradition, the early baptismal formulations. What are some of the other elements of tradition?
1) Councils and Creeds. As the Church grew and matured, the need often arose for local, regional, and even ecumenical-universal-gatherings of orthodox pastors, bishops, theologians, and godly leaders, to establish true biblical and historical doctrine in answer to heretical claims of the day. They gathered to decide, again with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, what the Bible really taught about those issues. And to make sure that their decisions were really biblical, they made extreme efforts to follow the consistent teaching of the godly faithful who had gone before. By far the most important of the creeds coming out of these councils is the Nicene Creed (or more technically, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed), which is recited at every celebration of the Liturgy in the Orthodox Church. It states the absolute essentials of Christian Faith and belief as understood by the unified early Church.
2) The Liturgical Life of the Church. It is fascinating to read a later Church Father, Saint Basil (fourth century), as he defends biblical Orthodoxy against the pseudo-Biblicism of the Arians, who were masters at twisting Scripture. Of course, Saint Basil reasons from Scripture. But knowing the craftiness of his enemies, and how treacherous they were at proof-texting their absurd teachings, Saint Basil also invokes another powerful witness to, in this case, the true teaching concerning the Holy Spirit: the liturgical formulations-the patterns of worship-of the Church from her inception. "Do you want to know what Christians believe about something?" to paraphrase Saint Basil's argument. "Take a look at what they do and proclaim in their worship." When you stop to think about it, isn't it not only logical, but even a matter of piety, to believe that the same Holy Spirit who guided the writers of Scripture should also guide the Church in the development of her worship? The Church's liturgical and prayer life is a powerful element of Holy Tradition.
3) The Teaching of the Fathers and Lives of the Saints. I have never witnessed a martyr being tortured and killed for his or her faith. The early Church, however, had abundant opportunity to witness such spectacles. Is it any wonder that the writings of these martyrs, along with the writings of those who "fought the good fight" to the finish, who maintained true belief while others fell away, were looked upon with reverence and respect? Evangelicals today look to and trust respected Church leaders of our own era for sound Bible teaching and worthwhile instruction and edification. Why is it so difficult to give that kind of respect and honor to early heroes of the Faith-men and women who started, and finished the race? I wish that more of our "modern heroes" would do what all early Fathers and saints did to warrant the respect and admiration of their followers: make absolutely sure that what they are teaching squares with what faithful Christians have believed throughout the years. To be a "hero" to someone, and to teach new and radically differing doctrine in the guise that this is what "the Bible says," is a cruel deception and a lie. G. K. Chesterton defined tradition as "giving your ancestors a vote."
4) Continuing Tradition. Also included under the banner of tradition could be mentioned, with varying degrees of importance and universality: the decisions of later councils, canon law, and finally the iconographic tradition of the Church. In fact, one of the most exciting things about tradition is that it never stops or remains static. Tradition is the continuing presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church. We do not simply observe tradition, we enter into it, are swept up by it, and in the process become a part of its ebb and flow.
Scripture and Tradition
For early Christians, there was no false dichotomy such as we see today between the Bible and Holy Tradition. In the intensity of unimaginably crucial battles for the Faith, when forces within and without were threatening to tear apart and silence forever the message proclaimed by Christ and passed down through His disciples, the Church looked gratefully to both Scripture and Holy Tradition to find balance and to maintain equilibrium. It was never an "either/or" option. Both Scripture and Holy Tradition were received as having been given to the Church by God Himself, the source of all wisdom, through the direct operation of the Holy Spirit.
The battles of our own era are no less fierce than those of the Church's early history. In the midst of a fragmented and hopelessly divided Christian proclamation of the early twenty-first century, with a myriad of groups and individuals claiming to know the true meaning of Scripture, yet disagreeing radically with one another and often proclaiming new and dangerously novel doctrines, the battle for faith is, in fact, intensifying on a daily basis. What will be the outcome of this tremendous struggle?
Thank God, there is still time for a return to the balanced and Spirit-filled understanding of the Holy Scriptures, as guided by the light of Holy Tradition. If we are willing to lay aside our modern prejudices and return to the consistent and clear message of the Bible, understood through the clarifying lens of Holy Tradition, our chances of surviving the current crisis increase tremendously. In fact, the very gates of hell will not prevail against us.
As the Bible says,
"Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle. Now may our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and our God and Father, who has loved us and given us everlasting consolation and good hope by grace, comfort your hearts and establish you in every good word and work" (2 Thessalonians 2:15-17).
And God's people answered: AMEN!
This article is available as a printed booklet from Conciliar Media, a department of the Antiochian Archdiocese, as part of their popular series of attractive and informative booklets and brochures about the basic teachings of the ancient Orthodox Christian faith. To learn more, visit Conciliar's online booklet catalog. This essay is copyrighted by Conciliar Press.