sermon

Living life to the full with God

A sermon about the church’s response to the current mental health epidemic based on Luke 5:27-32 and Philippians 4:4-9.

31 Jesus answered them, “People who are well do not need a doctor, but only those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call respectable people to repent, but outcasts.”

Luke 5:27-32

These words of Jesus were considered to be important enough is recorded by Matthew and Mark as well as Luke.  Given this we assume that they were considered important by the early church. If you think about it, however, they run rather counter to the vision of mission that the church has adopted since that time.

For most of church history, however, the driving theology of Christian mission, which comes from many other parts of the Bible, is that all people need salvation. This is at the root of Methodism and summarised neatly by the first of the Four Alls, an early 20th century summary of the theology of John Wesley:

All need to be saved.
All may be saved.
All may know themselves saved.
All may be saved to the uttermost.

Can you see the difference? Jesus’ in the words we’ve heard read from Luke’s gospel,  defines his mission as to those who are sinners or outcasts, whereas the church from its very earliest days has generally assumed that its mission is to everyone. Of course you can pick other Bible passages to support this later view but if you look to the synoptic gospels (Mark, Luke and Matthew), which scholars generally assume were the first to be written and the most likely to reflect what Jesus actually said, then the focus of Jesus mission is definitely on the sinner and the outcast.

Of course the church has often got around this apparent contradiction by assuming that we are all sinners , the doctrine of original sin. Thus if the mission of the church is to save sinners then this must include everyone. I’m not convinced that this is what Jesus meant in these verses, however. He explicitly defines two categories of people, the healthy and the sick, or the respectable person and the outcast, and chooses to focus his mission on the latter rather than the former. If we really want to be inclusive, perhaps we come summarise it by saying that all need salvation but some need it more than others. Perhaps a more subtle variation might be that all people need salvation but some (the sinners and the outcasts) are more likely to appreciate it than others.

This is important because we have a problem with church growth in Western Europe, and have had for getting on for a hundred years now. Attendance at traditional churches and belief in Christianity within the population has been diminishing for a considerable period now. The Methodist church in the UK is facing a crisis as numbers fall and the age profile of those left behind increases. Bramhall has been able to buck the trend to a certain extent but we cannot be complacent about what the future holds. Considerable effort and resources have been put into mission over the years. There have been small pockets of success, but the overall picture has been unaffected.

Perhaps we’ve been focusing on the wrong people. Perhaps we’ve ignored these words of Jesus. Perhaps we’ve focussed our mission on the healthy and the respectable and ignored the sick and the outcast. Perhaps if we realigned ourselves with Jesus teaching and focussed our efforts on the sick and the outcast then we would find people who are more receptive to the gospel message, people who are more appreciative of the salvation that we offer.

But what does this look like in an affluent suburb like Bramhall? I’ve spent quite a lot of time recently looking at economic and health statistics that describe the two wards that this suburb is divided into (North and South) . This is one of the healthiest and most respectable places to live in Britain, certainly in Greater Manchester. If we want to focus our mission on the sick and the outcasts then how do we find them in Bramhall?

This is where we have to might benefit by looking at the one of the great challenges facing our society, the current mental health epidemic. I preached on this theme at a Thursday morning service in Mental Health Awareness Week in May and drew on figures that had been produced for a survey conducted by YouGov on behalf of the Mental Health Foundation. Three quarters of those questioned had been so stressed at some time over the last year that they had felt overwhelmed or unable to cope. Of those people nearly half reported depression, over half reported anxiety. About 1 in six had self-harmed at some point in their lives and almost a third had had suicidal thoughts or feelings. Around half a million people report clinical levels of work-related stress. If we look just at the National Service then 15 million working days were lost in 2016 to absences due to work-related stress.

Just pause, think of your own experiences at work, think of your colleagues, think of your family. These are not just statistics, this is a lived experience. If we want to take Jesus word’s seriously, if we believe that people who are well do not need a doctor but only those that are sick, then we have no shortage of people who are sick. The people of Bramhall may be wealthy and physically healthy, but there are plenty of people here who are struggling with their mental health.

Let’s extend that pause and reflect through the words of our next hymn: O Christ the healer, we have come, to pray for health to plead for friends.

So what would mission to people with work related stress and other health conditions look like? To work effectively here we need to marry our traditions and theology to the insights provided by modern medicine and clinical practice. If you go to the NHS Choices web-site you will find that contemporary approaches to mental wellbeing focus on five steps:

Connect
Be active
Keep learning
Give to others
Be mindful

With the exception of being active aren’t these the core activities of our church? What are we all doing in church, before church, after church, in our weekly activities if we are not connecting? The focal point of our worship is a sermon in which we also learn and teaching has always been a core focus of our Christian activities. We give to others monetarily and through our time. And Christianity has a traditional of meditative prayer which goes back two thousand years, well before the extremely recent secular alternative of being mindful. We don’t often wee physical activity as a core component of our faith lives but we can work on this. If you think about it the NHS is really advising people to go to church to look after their mental health (particularly if we can encourage them to walk to get there). Wouldn’t it be great if we could build on this and make this an explicit focus of our mission.

The only approach to treating people with mild and moderate mental health problems which has any serious evidence base is called cognitive behavioural therapy, CBT. It’s based around a simple theory of how our thinking, feeling, physical feeling and behaviour are inter-related. They are envisaged as being linked in a cycle.

CBT cycle

Starting off with our thoughts. If something happens us it might change the way we think about things. So for example if we lost a job we might think that this is because we are not good at that job or that we are useless. This can lead to altered thinking or emotions. We might feel guilty or ashamed or anxious or irritated. These emotions often lead to physical symptoms, anxiety can often lead to nausea or sleeplessness. This in itself can lead to altered behaviour. We might feel so tired from poor sleep that we stop doing things, even things we enjoy like going out, meeting people, getting to church. The really important thing is that this altered behaviour can then have a further effect on our thoughts. If we are not careful we get into a vicious cycle where things get worse and worse and worse.

The power of CBT is to recognise that whilst, if we allow ourselves to be altered in a negative sense we can get into a vicious circle, all our negative responses in each of these four areas will reinforce each other, if we can alter ourselves in a positive sense then those positive changes will also work in a reinforcing cycle. We will have a virtuous cycle which offers us a path our from where we are to a new life. We can choose to start this process at any part of this cycle and the most obvious is to start by altering our thinking.

Let’s go and look at that section of Paul’s letter to the Philippians that we heard read earlier:

In conclusion, my friends, fill your minds with those things that are good and that deserve praise: things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and honorable. Put into practice what you learned and received from me, both from my words and from my actions. And the God who gives us peace will be with you.

Paul didn’t know it at the time but he is effectively recommending that the people in Philippi undertake a programme of CBT. He is recommending that they start thinking about the world in a different way and promising that if they do this effectively, following his teaching, that the God who gives peace to all will be with them. If we want to focus our mission on the sick as Jesus suggested then Paul is providing a methodology for doing this which is very close to contemporary clinical recommendations.

This is why I’m looking for your support for an initiative I want to lead for the new Church year. It is to offer a programme called Living Life to the Full with God to our local community. The programme marries insights from modern CBT with the traditions and theology of Christianity. It’s a series of eight classes, designed for people who want to improve their mental wellbeing, or support those they love in doing so using these tools. I’m looking for your prayers. I hope that the explanation you’ve heard today for my motivation will support you in doing this. I’d love to have practical support for anyone who feels they have time to help me offer the programme either through helping lead sessions or in providing hospitality for those who attend. I’m also looking for help in promoting this. If you feel you would benefit please come along but perhaps more importantly if you have family members, friends, neighbours or colleagues who might be interested then please tell them about it encourage them to come along. Planning is at its early stages at the moment, look out for details in Contact and the Notices.

Let’s take those words both of Jesus and Paul seriously. Let’s offer new life and the peace that passes all understanding to a community that so desperately needs it.

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An end to child sacrifice?

A sermon for Action for Children Sunday when we remember the current and past links between the charity and the Methodist Church based on Genesis 22:1-19.

This morning’s reading, known in Jewish as the Akedah or binding of Isaac  is one that is shared and revered by Christians, Jews and Muslims. In Christian theology the take home message has often been considered to be that we should admire Abraham for having a faith so strong that he was prepared to sacrifice his own son when God told him to do this. In the Letter to the Hebrews it is listed in this light as of one of the great examples of the faith of the old testament patriarchs. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his own son is a precursor of the statement in John’s gospel that God so loved the world that he was prepared to give his one and only son that we might all be redeemed. At times, we are taught, it may be necessary to sacrifice everything we hold dear for the sake of a better world and we, as Christians, should have the faith to make this sacrifice.

I’ve preached on this reading several times now and have found that the congregations I have preached to do not share this admiration for Abraham. Let’s see what you think. I’m going to ask you to think about what you would do if God asked you to do what he asked Abraham to do. There are two options:

  1. I hope that I’d have enough faith to sacrifice a child if I was sure that God wanted me to do.
  2. I would never sacrifice a child even if I was certain that this is what God wanted me to do.

Just so that you aren’t influenced by what others think I’m going to ask you all to close your eyes and then ask for a show of hands for each option …

… Open your eyes now and I’ll share the result. Not one of you put your hands up for the first answer. No-one would sacrifice a child even if they were sure that this is what God wanted them to you. Almost all of you say that you would never sacrifice a child even if you were certain that God had asked for this. (A small number of you didn’t raise a hand for either option). If the intention of this story is to persuade modern Christians that we, like Abraham, should place blind faith in God, whatever he asks of us, then it is clearly failing (at least in this congregation). Given this should we simply ignore the story or is there a different way of understanding it?

To explore this we need to think a little more deeply about the story. Perhaps the first question that might arise is, “Why was Abraham so willing to even think about the prospect of sacrificing his own Son?”. There is no record of Abraham making any protest when he hears what God wants.  He goes directly from receiving the message from God to making preparations for the sacrifice. Doesn’t that strike you as strange? Even if you were convinced that God had asked you to sacrifice a child wouldn’t you first response to be to argue with Him and persuade Him otherwise.  Abraham’s silence here is perhaps even more surprising when we remember how he argued with God when he heard that He was intending to destroy Sodom in Chapter 18 of Genesis. Abraham seems more willing to accept God’s command that he should sacrifice his own son than he is to accept God’s intention to destroy a city of immoral strangers.

Part of the answer is almost certainly that this story took place in a different culture. Abraham was living in a middle-eastern iron age culture which was very different from our own. There is strong biblical evidence that child sacrifice was a part of that culture.  2 Kings 23:10 refers to Topheth, a site where children were sacrificed to the Canaanite god Moloch which is also mentioned in Jeremiah 7:31 and 19:4-52 Chronicles 28:2-3 gives an account of King Ahaz sacrificing his own son “imitating the disgusting practice of the people whom the Lord had driven out of the land as the Israelites advanced” and his Grandson Manasseh is remembered as performing similar acts (2 Chronicles 33:6). Pagans are also accused of child sacrifice in four passages in Deuteronomy and Leviticus (Deuteronomy 12:31 , 18:10, Leviticus 18:21, 20:1-3)  followed by commandments forbidding Jews to act similarly. There is an argument that such commandments would not have been necessary unless some of the early Israelite community where involved in child sacrifice. Backing this up there is some historical and archaeological evidence of child sacrifice around the eastern and southern Mediterranean, areas populated by the Phoenicians who originated in Canaan, until as late as the time of Jesus.

On balance child sacrifice may have been relatively common in the area at the time. In this case Abraham’s acceptance of what God was asking reflects that he was only being asked to do what many other people in the society in which he lived were doing anyway. (This might also go some way to explaining why Jephthat proceeds with the sacrifice of his daughter as recounted in Judges 11:34-40).

With this understanding of the context in which this story arose the startling thing about this story is not that Abraham thought that God required him to sacrifice his child but that God sends the Angel of the Lord to tell him he is wrong and to offer an alternative. God’s people do not have to follow the ways of the world, they do not have to sacrifice their children. God offers  an alternative. At the time the story was written that alternative was to sacrifice another animal, but later in the history of Judaism the prophets, particularly Micah came to realise that even sacrificing animals was missing the point. In  Micah 6:6-8 we read this most clearly:

What shall I bring to the Lord, the God of heaven, when I come to worship him? Shall I bring the best calves to burn as offerings to him? Will the Lord be pleased if I bring him thousands of sheep or endless streams of olive oil? Shall I offer him my first-born child to pay for my sins? No, the Lord has told us what is good. What he requires of us is this: to do what is just, to show constant love, and to live in humble fellowship with our God.

God does not want our sacrifices, God wants our love. He doesn’t want us to sacrifice our children, he wants us to love them.

So how can this story help us in understanding how to respond to the modern world. No-one in the modern world would dream of sacrificing a child would they? Unfortunately nothing could be further from the truth. We live in a society where we are prepared to sacrifice the basic needs of the poor for the general well being of the many. We live in an increasingly divided society and this has a greater impact on children than on any other sector of society (although the elderly and those with disabilities don’t come out well from the deal either). More than 1 in 3 children in the UK now live in poverty. Things are getting worse. When I first started preaching sermons like this, about 5 years ago, the figure was 1 in 4 but changes in government policy in general and the effects of how benefits are allocated in particular are leading making things worse. As Universal Credit is rolled out across the country the situation is predicted to get even worse. Although these figures sound bad they get even worse when we consider particular areas.

child poverty

We’re currently in Stockport which “only” has 27% of children in poverty, if we go to East Cheshire where I live the figure falls to 15%, but in Central Manchester it rises to 47.5%. Nearly half of all of children in Central Manchester are living in poverty. Child poverty is not only a consequence of unemployment. Two thirds of children living in poverty are growing up in a family in which at least one adult works. Poverty is being driven by the  low wages we pay people in low-skilled jobs, through contracts that only offer partial or casual employment and our progressive removal of in-work benefits that have partially compensated for these factors in the past.

It is not just through poverty that children are suffering. At any one time 1 in 10 children has a recognised mental health condition. The are strong correlations between poverty and mental health but even so many children from relatively wealthy backgrounds are struggling with their mental health. Most of us know of children, and perhaps more particularly adolescents, within our own families and friendship groups who struggle with their mental health. The causes of this are complex and multi-factorial but they are essential a consequence of how we choose to structure our society and of the false gods we worship within it.

We are living in such a way that we are sacrificing a generation of children. Some are being sacrificed to live in poverty, others to a life of despair, obsession and anxiety, many to all of these. They are being sacrificed by the way we live. Child sacrifice was so common in Abraham’s time that he showed no surprise when God asked him to sacrifice his own son. Child sacrifice is so common and endemic in our own culture that we no longer express surprise when we hear the statistics or are confronted with the facts. But this is wrong and it must stop. We need an Angel of the Lord to intervene, to tell us we are wrong and to offer an alternative.

To my mind organisations like Action for Children are the modern equivalent of that Angel. Through their campaigning, and that of organisations such as the Child Poverty Action Group and the Campaign to End Child Poverty, they are telling us that we, as a society are wrong and must change our ways. Through the services they, and other charities like the Children’s Society and Barnados, are showing us an alternative. Let’s hear the Angel of the Lord speaking to us through these organisations and let us take action.

Child sacrifice is never right, and never will be, we must fight against it whenever we see it. This morning we give thanks for the work of Action for Children in taking on the role of the Angel of the Lord and fighting for the coming of God’s Kingdom.

Notes

There are some important issues with the text of this story that continue to puzzle biblical scholars. Early on, the word Elohim, translated in the Good News Bible as God is used. Later on the word JHWH or Yahweh, translated the LORD is also used. Modern biblical scholars generally believe that these two words come from different traditions within early Judaism (the Elohist and the Yahwist) and that stories in the Old Testament using one or the other thus indicate that they come from different sources. There are also stylistic differences in the way the story is told at different points that reinforce the idea that material from different sources has been used.

Scholars generally agree that the basic story up to verse 10, “Then he picked up his knife to kill him”, comes from the Elohist source. After this the two appearances of the Angel of the LORD (and other verses) suggest that material from a Yahwist source has been added. There are, however, other verses in the later part of the story which may be from either source. We thus come to the conclusion that the story we read to day is a combination of material from two earlier stories. Unfortunately we don’t know what those earlier stories were, we don’t know exactly which parts come from which story and we don’t know why they were put together in this way.

Several theories have been proposed to address these issues (The Wikipedia article on the Binding of Isaac is a reasonable introduction to some of them). Possible explanations include:

  •  the original story was essentially as we read it today but has been embellished with  additional detail from a similar story from a different source,
  •  the original story had Abraham complete the sacrifice but the story has been modified as abhorrence of child sacrifice became rooted in Jewish culture,
  • the original story had Abraham make his own decision to sacrifice the ram when he saw it rather than Isaac, but the story has later been modified as otherwise Abraham would have been seen to be acting on his own volition rather than God’s

There is also a theory that the different usages of God and the LORD are intentional and do not reflect the use of different sources. In this case it is noted that the word translated as God can be used to refer to gods in general whereas the LORD is only ever used for the one true God of Israel. In this case Abraham is misled by a god (who is not the true God) into wanting to sacrifice Issac, but the Angel of the LORD then intervenes to prevent the sacrifice.

It should be noted that this discussion has been limited to the text as found in the Bible. If early but non-Biblical Jewish texts and Muslim versions of the story are also included then the picture becomes even more complicated!

In earlier versions of this sermon I have used some of these theories to try and justify the points I was trying to make but on reflection I’ve come to the conclusion that all of them are essentially conjectural. We will probably never know how or why this story took on its present form. We need to accept that this is a story that has probably been modified as it has been retold, and eventually written down, and thus be cautious in just accepting it at face value. On the other hand we also need to accept that attempts to explain that process are essentially conjectural and be even more cautious in using these to reinforce the points that we want to make.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All may know that they are saved (now!)

A sermon for Aldersgate Day 2018.

Two people had a word with me last week to point out that today is Aldersgate Day. They thought it would be good if I could preach on the topic, I suspect what they really meant was that it would be good to sing some of Charles’ well-known hymns. I hope I’ve been able to deliver at least on that front.

It has been quite a challenge for me. The Wesleys are, of course, the founders of our denomination and I had to learn a certain amount about who they were, what they did and what they believed when I trained as a local preacher . For all that, however,  I find even the modern translations of John’s sermons quite impenetrable. It’s not just the antiquated language. They are sermons addressed to a specific context which is very different to the context in which we live today. There is a huge gulf in culture and concerns between mid 18th century England and the present day.

I think if we want to look for contemporary resonance in the Wesley’s theology we need to look to broad themes rather than individual sermons. Perhaps the best starting point is the four alls.

All need to be saved

All may be saved

All may know that they are saved

All may be saved to the uttermost.

I’d always assumed that these were framed by John Wesley. I discover, however, in my reading preparing for this sermon that they weren’t. They were actually first written down  more than a hundred years after his death by a Methodist minister called William Fitzgerald who, like me, was trying to make sense of all those sermons that John had written addressed to a different time and in a different context.

I haven’t got time to do justice to all four of these so I want to focus on the third. I choose this one because I think it is perhaps most distinctive contribution of John Wesley’s theology and also because I feel it is most relevant to the present day.

For most theologians before Wesleys (and for many since) salvation was fundamentally about what happens to us when we die. There is no doubt that the Wesleys saw salvation in this context, but they didn’t just see it in this context. Salvation for them was something that we start to experience in this life. Experience is perhaps an understatement. Salvation is something that transforms our lives now. The experience is so remarkable that we are granted complete assurance that we are now living in the power of God’s Spirit.

This wasn’t book-learned theology. This was their lived experience. John and Charles had been ordained clergy in the Church or England for over a decade. By any judgement, they lived model Christian lives. They term Methodist was coined to reflect their meticulous approach to living out their faith. Yet both knew that something was lacking in their lives. On this day 180 years ago John, at a meeting in Aldersgate Street in London, felt his heart “strangely warmed” and, as he later wrote, “I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” This followed an uncannily similar experience that his brother Charles had had three days earlier. The point I want to emphasize today is that the Wesleys didn’t see this assurance as a promise of some salvation they would receive in the future, or confined to the question of what would happen to them after death. They saw it as a part of their lives from that time forwards.

The meeting John had been at in Aldersgate Street had been at a reading of Luther’s “Preface to the Epistle to the Romans”. If we read Romans we see the Apostle Paul describing this same experience that the Wesleys had had. Romans Chapter 8 verse 11, as we heard read from the Good News Bible earlier, says:

If the Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from death, lives in you, then he who raised Christ from death will also give life to your mortal bodies by the presence of his Spirit in you.

Just as in Wesley’s time, today we often assume that our salvation is primarily about what happens to us when we die. If we read this verse carefully though, we see a different picture, life is given to our mortal bodies, with the implication that it is given now, rather than to our immortal spirit (or whatever) after death.

Other translations make the point even more forcefully, take the Good as New Bible:

If God’s spirit has taken possession of you, then just as God brought back Jesus from the dead, so the same Spirit will give your humanity a new lease of life.

or JB Phillip’s translation:

Nevertheless once the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead lives within you he will, by that same Spirit, bring to your whole being new strength and vitality.

or the Message:

When God lives and breathes in you (and he does, as surely as he did in Jesus), you are delivered from that dead life. With his Spirit living in you, your body will be as alive as Christ’s.

In this text salvation is not about a transformation after death it is about a transformation in the midst of life. It is a transformation we can experience now and be assured of forever.

In many ways this message is even more relevant to the modern world than the people to whom the Wesleys were preaching. Most people in Europe at the time believed literally in heaven and hell and one of their primary concerns was where they were destined for themselves. Many of them came to Christianity primarily to protect the fate of their immortal souls.

beliefThe modern world is very different. Most people in the UK now do not believe in life after death as revealed in numerous surveys. The most recent I came across (conducted on behalf of the BBC in February last year) suggested that only 46% of people in the UK believe in life after death (and amongst those about a third believe in reincarnation rather than in an afterlife).

It follows from this that if we want to proclaim a Gospel that will draw people to faith then we need to emphasis the transformative power of that Gospel within life (which will be relevant to everyone in the population) and focus less on its impact on any after-life (which only about a third of the population believe in anyway). The Wesley’s doctrine of a faith through which all may know they are saved does just this.

life after death

As well as exploring the implications of this survey for our mission to those outside the church it is interesting to reflect on those for Christians within it. The large majority (85%) of “active Christians” believe in life after death and it is important to emphasize that so did the Welsleys. Their belief in spiritual transformation in the midst of life reinforced their belief in life after death, to them it was a foretaste of the feast that was in store.

But the survey suggests that about 1 in 7 “active Christians” do not believe in life after death. These, I assume, are people who in the light of a modern understanding of how the person, the mind and the brain are inter-related cannot believe that the person can persist once the brain has died. If we extrapolate this number to the current congregation then there are perhaps 7 or 8 of you here this morning in this position. The first message is to reassure you, if you think like this, that you are not alone, there are 6 or 7 like-minded people here today – it’s just that you don’t know who they are. But the more important consideration is that the Welsleys’ conviction that salvation can be experienced in the midst of life opens an avenue for how the Christian gospel can make sense to people who can’t believe in life after death. I suspect the number of these people will grow as the implications of modern science become more widely accepted. In saying this I must acknowledge that nothing could have been further from the minds of the Wesleys living right in what was still, essentially, a pre-scientific age.

The promise of transformation within life is also increasingly important to the modern world in the light of the epidemic of mental health problems that we are facing. I spent considerable time exploring this last Sunday at the end of Mental Health Awareness Week and don’t want to repeat what I said then, but we are facing an extraordinary rise in the number of people who are stressed, depressed, anxious, obsessed and even suicidal. In medical terms these are people who are ill, but in theological terms they are people in need of salvation. That salvation needs to be a lived experience offering transformative change now rather than just a promise of a better life to come once their current torment has been lived through. This is exactly what the Wesleys’ theology is offering. It is also what Jesus and the early disciples offered when they cast out demons -and offered wholeness to the broken-hearted. There can be no more pressing need today than for the church to cast out the demons that blight the current age and offer wholeness and meaning to those who can see no purpose in life.

In summary then, on Aldersgate Sunday, I invite you to embrace our Methodist heritage. Let’s celebrate the promise that we can all be assured of our salvation now. None of you who know of my passion for Christian Aid will be surprised to hear me conclude by stating that this aspect of the Wesleys’ theology can be summarised by the most powerful advertising slogan I have ever heard – “We believe in life before death”. Let’s go now, and offer this to our community and our broken world.

 

A short history of time?

This is a sermon preached to commemorate the death of Stephen Hawking and based on a reading from the first chapter of Genesis.

As I said in introducing the video we’ve just watched, the death of Stephen Hawking was announced yesterday. He was one of the iconic figures of the late 20th and early 21st century. This was partly because he had an extraordinarily brilliant mind, partly because of his passion to communicate his ideas with the general public and partly because he achieved so much despite the extent of his physical limitations.

In the popular imagination Hawking is linked to the quest for a scientific understanding of the origins of our universe. This probably comes more from his popular writing and his collaborative work than from his most creative individual work which was into our understanding of black holes. There have been remarkable advances in this area over his lifetime of which he was a part. We are now at a situation where the origins of the universe can be explained in terms of the same physical laws that we see operating in both the natural world and the highly artificial extreme environments created within facilities such as the Large Hadron Collider. The theory is, of course, now known as the Big Bang. It tells us that about 14 billion years ago the universe, both time and space, came into existence in an unbelievably immense burst of energy and has been expanding ever since.

Many Christians see this as a threat. Putting it bluntly, it allows the origins of the universe to be explained without any need for God to have been involved in the process at all. But it doesn’t have to be a threat, it can also be regarded as a revelation of how the universe is that needs to be worked into our theology, rather than fought against.

In some ways it is similar to the theory of evolution. This allows the origins of human life to be explained without any need for God to have been involved in that process either. Initially theologians saw that as a threat and fought doggedly against it. Some of course still do, but most mainstream theologians now accepted that man is the product of an evolutionary process and have woven that revelation into their theological thinking.

This process hasn’t been without casualties. Belief in Christianity in the affluent world has been falling dramatically over the last 100 years. There are many reasons for this, but I’m convinced that an important one is that the Church is still regarded as opposed to science. This is partly because there is a section of the contemporary church that is, essentially, opposed to that science, and partly because the section that is more willing to embrace science has not communicated that willingness convincingly. This is quite simply unacceptable to the majority of the educated population who see how successful science has been in explaining the natural world and allowing us to interact with it more constructively (and of course destructively on occasions). If we want a faith that is going to flourish in the affluent educated world in the 21st century then it is going to have to be one that embraces the revelations of science rather than fighting against them.

So how can we embrace the theory of the Big Bang and yet remain true to our faith? How can we both honour the reading we’ve heard from the first chapter of Genesis the morning and accept the insights of modern cosmology? Well the Big Bang theory is less than 50 years old and has only really been accepted universally within science for the last 25 (The name was originally coined as derisory term for such an outrageous theory). Mainstream theology is like a super tanker that takes centuries to alter its course, so it is far too early for there to have been definitive response. This is like other issues I’ve talked about from this pulpit; one in which individual Christians need to arrive at their own understanding  and where we have to acknowledge that different Christians have different opinions. Unlike those other occasions, however, I’m going to offer my own personal opinion this morning in the hope that it may help in others in that process. In offering my opinion, however, I openly acknowledge that other Christians may have different opinions.

To me, this progress in cosmology over the last fifty years confirms the opinions that many Biblical scholars have voiced for over two hundred years, that the account of the creation in Genesis was never intended as a scientific understanding of particular events. It is not a literal account of what happened. The Biblical account of creation was written in what we refer to in other contexts as the Iron Age. The authors can’t possibly have had a sufficient understanding of cosmology to write a scientific account of what happened at the beginning of time.

So what do I believe that first chapter of Genesis is? I believe it is one of the most powerful and significant poems that have ever been written. I believe it is powerful and significant not because it gives insight into how the world came into being but because it gives insight into how the world is today. At first, sight, and particularly if we view the universe through a purely objective scientific lens, our lives appear formless and desolate. It’s as if there is a raging ocean that is engulfed in darkness. For many of us this is an academic exercise but for some, the anxious and depressed, or those facing major challenges in their lives perhaps, this is a vision that tears at the very substance of who they are. At its extreme it is the scream in Edward Munch’s famous picture.

It is only when we acknowledge a sense of purpose in the Universe that it starts to take form and make sense. It is only when we acknowledge that sense of purpose that we start to distinguish between night and day, sun and moon, light and dark. It is only when we acknowledge that sense of purpose that we stand in awe before the wonders of natural world, the profusion of plants and the diversity of animals. It is only when we acknowledge that sense of purpose that we can value the gifts that each and every individual on this planet can offer to enrich our lives.

To me this poem doesn’t say anything about how that sense of purpose came into being (and I’m happy to leave that as one of the great mysteries of human existence) but it does scream from the rooftops that there is no point living, no point in us ever having been created, if we don’t acknowledge that sense of purpose.  Jews and Christians all attribute that that sense of purpose to God and understand that we express that acknowledgement through worship.  The first chapter of the first book of our shared scripture is, to me, a great hymn to God, that which gives our life purpose, and an invitation to all people to join in worshipping that God. It is a poetic statement of what it is that makes our lives worth living.

I thus find the cosmology of Steven Hawking and others liberating. By providing me with an alternative, and to my mind much more plausible, explanation of how the Universe was created, I am freed to appreciate this poem for what it really is, for what it tells us about what it is that makes my life worth living. Having read it in this way I am led to welcome the God into the heart of my life and to bow down before my God in worship.

This is my opinion though, and it is one opinion amongst many. Why don’t you discuss your opinions over a cup of tea of coffee after this service.

Choosing God

A sermon based on the temptation of Jesus (Luke 4:1-12)

We tend to describe what Jesus experienced in the wilderness as temptation but another word would be choice. Jesus is confronted at his baptism with a revelation of how special he was and is then faced with a choice. Does he follow the Devil, or does he follow God? In the accounts of Matthew and Luke this general question is distilled into three more specific questions, but I think we can take this as poetic license. If he was away for forty days then I’m sure that many more issues must have worked away at his mind alongside the three that we are told about.

It’s interesting that at the end of his ministry all three synoptic gospels have Jesus facing another choice, being tempted. He enters the Garden of Gethsemane and prays about whether he should allow himself to be captured with the virtual inevitability of this leading to torture and crucifixion. Again he needs to make a choice about whether to follow God or not.

Jesus ministry and later his crucifixion were the consequences of the choices that he made. He could have come out of the wilderness and gone back to the life of a village carpenter in Nazareth, he didn’t, he chose to proclaim the gospel, to heal the sick and to cast out demons. He could have run away from the Garden of Gethsemane, spent some time as a fugitive and then used his carpentry skills to earn a living anonymously in some provincial town. He didn’t, he chose to be true to the gospel of love and peace that he had been proclaiming throughout this ministry and to submit to the consequences, even if that included his own execution.

It’s interesting to speculate about how Jesus came to his decisions when confronted with these choices, I say speculated because of course it is impossible to know what was going through his mind. There is no mention of any external evidence, evidence in the sense that the modern scientific mind might look for when making a decision. Neither is there any evidence of any explicit revelation of God1. Jesus appeared to be struggling internally, searching deep within himself. What we do know, from the answers he gave, is that this internal struggle drew on his knowledge of the scriptures. The three answers he is reporting as giving to the Devil are each verses from the book of Deuteronomy.

Similarly in Gethsemane Jesus is left to himself 2. Surely this would have been a time for God to reveal himself and confirm Jesus faith, yet Jesus is left to himself. Again he has to search deep within himself to determine where the truth lies. It is his decision, from this examination of his inner self that leads him to conclude that “not my will but thy will be done”.

So how does this relate to us. Well, throughout our Christian lives, and particularly during Lent, we are called upon to make a decision about whether to follow God or not, whether to do his will. This decision cannot be evidence based, there is simply not enough evidence of who God is or what he wants to make an objective decision. Last week in church I preached on the healing miracles from the perspective of someone who has been involved in medical research for 25 years. I’ve conducted research, I’ve taught others to do research, I’ve spent a considerable time reviewing other people’s research, I’ve served as an associate editor for an international academic journal. I understand the scientific process by which evidence is used to construct our knowledge of the modern world and the evidence we have for who God is and what he wants falls way short of the standards of modern science.

This lack of objective evidence is confirmed by the fact that recent surveys show that less than half the people in this country now claim to be Christian. If the evidence was more clear cut surely this figure would be higher. It is also confirmed by attitudes within the church. If we went around this congregation and asked each of you about the specifics of who God is and what he requires we would receive a wide range of answers. If the evidence was clear cut surely we would be more consistent in our views. As we heard earlier in the discussion, even the writers of the gospels had perspectives on whether Jesus was primarily human or primarily divine3.

Neither are most of us lucky enough to have had some definitive revelation of God that provides a definitive answer to who he is and what he wants. Most of us would dearly love to have such concrete evidence on which to base our faith but few of us do.

Like Jesus we are forced to make our decisions in the absence of sufficient evidence for this to be an objective process. The decision has to be subjective, it has to come from an examination of who we are at the very deepest level of our being. Like Jesus we can draw on our knowledge of the scriptures and, unlike him, we can draw support and encouragement from fellow Christians. Ultimately, however, we have to make that decision ourselves, as individuals, from deep within.

But when we do make that choice to believe in God and to commit ourselves to do God’s will our lives are transformed. Before we make a choice for God the world seems a random place with as much bad as good, indeed it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the bad. After we choose God the good appears to dominate and we become so much more aware of the beauty and goodness in the world. We want to celebrate and give thanks.

Before we make a choice for God we view most people in the world as remote from ourselves. After we choose God we see every individual as a child of God and our passion for fairness and justice is ignited.

Before we make a choice for God our lives are merely a transition from birth to death. After we choose God our lives take on meaning, we share a desire with Christians all over this planet to work for the coming of the Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

The certainty of choosing God doesn’t come from the evidence provided to us before we make that choice. It comes from the affirmation that we are granted afterwards. Lent is a time to be reminded that we have made that choice and, through reflection, to rediscover the transformation it has worked within our live.

But that choice is not a single choice. Jesus faced explicit choices at both the start and end of his ministry but we can be certain that there were many times in between when he, like us had to make choices. His whole life and our whole lives are an ongoing series of choices. We need to make sure that whenever we make choices we choose God.

Oxfam has over 10,000 employees across the world. It is unarguably an organisation that, overall, is bringing God’s Kingdom closer on earth. Last year it supported 8.6 million people in 31 different international emergencies (both natural disasters and man-made conflicts). We can choose to focus on the actions of handful of its staff who have nevertheless behaved badly acts and the small number of executives who have failed to respond to this appropriately and turn against the organisation as urged by the current media frenzy. Alternatively we can celebrate the achievements of all the other staff working with passion for international development and justice and offer our continued support for one of our finest national and international institutions. The choice is ours.

In our personal lives we are constantly being confronted by individuals who behave badly towards us either intentionally or unintentionally. When this comes from those we only know slightly we can often shrug this off but when it comes from those we love this is far more difficult. When we confront this we can harbour resentment and allow ourselves to shrivel into a shell of defiance or we can choose to offer love and forgiveness and open our relationships to the potential for redemptive transformation. The choice is ours.

All of us will face bad news from time to time in our lives. Again we have a choice. We can choose to separate ourselves from God with a futile argument about “Why me?” Or we can move closer to God and open ourselves to the healing power of his grace. The choice is ours.

So this Lent, do give things up if you really want to, but more importantly try and create time to reflect on the choices you have made and continue making. Reflect on how your life has been transformed by the choices you have made for God in the past and dedicate yourself to continue to make choices for God in the future. Choose God – choose life.

Notes

1 Note that the angels referred to in Matthew 4:11 helped Jesus after the Devil had left him (and are not mentioned in Luke’s gospel at all).

2 Note that Luke mentions Jesus being strengthened by an angel as he prays in Gethsemane (Luke 22:43) but that the originality of this and the following are verse are disputed as they are missing form the earliest and most authoritative manuscripts of the Gospel (and the angel is not mentioned at all in Mark or Matthew’s account).

3 Earlier in the service we had talked about the fact that John’s gospel doesn’t include any reference to the temptations and how this reflects John’s emphasis on the divinity of Jesus – if Jesus was God how could he be tempted by the Devil? Matthew, Luke and Mark, however, tend to emphasise Jesus’ humanity of which vulnerability to temptation is a key element. These differences suggest that even the writers of the gospels had different understandings of God (and in this case of who Jesus was).

Unity through Diversity

A sermon preached at the start of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity based upon Romans 14:1-9.

Christian unity is quite an interesting concept. In theory most of us are in favour of it … but only if everyone starts believing and behaving the way we do. As soon as there is any suggestion that we might have to change then we start getting a lot more reticent. Of course there is a good reason for this. We are right and everyone else is wrong! The prospects for any significant movement towards unity from this background are quite limited. What I’d like to do today, however, is to challenge the assumption that just because we believe we are right we must necessarily assume that other people are wrong.

The underlying issue here is that many of have been taught that there is one true way to be a Christian. I think this has been rooted in the assumption that the Bible presents us with a single understanding of God – it’s just that different Christians have developed different ideas about what that understanding is. One of the insights of modern theology, however, with roots going back nearly two hundred years, but more intensely over the last fifty years, is that the Bible gives us multiple different ways of understanding God. In retrospect it is amazing that we ever thought anything else. The Bible is a collection of books written by different people, from different cultural perspectives, at different times.

The example we looked at in CentrePoint on Sunday (link to that sermon) was the question of why Jesus was crucified. Paul, in his letters, particularly to the Romans, sees Jesus’ death as God’s response to mankind’s sinfulness. “We were God’s enemies, but he made us his friends through the death of his Son.” This has been adopted as the predominant opinion for Protestants since the Reformation. It’s only fairly recently however, that Bible scholars have spotted that Luke writes virtually nothing, in either his Gospel or the Acts of the Apostles, that links the crucifixion with our sinfulness. In the parable of the Prodigal Son (which is only reported in Luke’s Gospel) the son’s sins are forgiven by a loving father rather than requiring the placation of a wrathful God. There has been some backlash to these ideas more recently, particularly from evangelical Christians,  but I think there is an emerging consensus that the theological perspectives of Paul and Luke, whilst not actually contradictory, are, at least, very different.

The simplest explanation of the very different ways in which Luke and Paul write is that they actually had a different understanding of the significance of Jesus’ death. We are thus seeing evidence from the Bible that even as early as the New Testament period different Christians writers had different ways of understanding God. Of course if we go back to the Old Testament the differences become even more apparent.

Paul himself picks up this theme towards the end of his Letter to the Romans in the passage we have heard read this morning. It is clear that within the early Christian community in Rome there were groups of people who believed different things and as a consequence behaved differently. There were at least two issues: what food Christians are permitted to eat and which days should be set aside as holy. Paul does not side with either group on either issue, in fact he specifically councils against Christians judging each other. He considers it important for us each to make up our own mind but not to assume that people’s whose opinions differ are necessarily wrong, they are just different. It is not important that we as humans judge who is right and who is wrong because that is ultimately for God to decide.

Here is a model for Christian unity. The model is not uniformity but the honouring, and even celebration, of diversity of beliefs and behaviours. If the modern theologians I referred to earlier are to be believed and the Bible does represent a collection of books written by authors with different understandings of who God is, then there is a solid Biblical foundation for this model.

This is not of course to claim that all beliefs and behaviours are tolerated, you don’t need to know very much about Paul’s writings to understand that he saw some beliefs and behaviours as completely unacceptable, but equally he is here quite dogmatic that there is more than one acceptable way of approaching and understanding God.

I think we can go further. Because if we can accept that just because people behave differently and believe different things to us that they are not necessarily wrong, then it may be that we can learn from them. The purpose of dialogue between different Christians who believe different things is not to convert them to our own opinion but to try and understand where their opinions come from. The result of that dialogue may not be that they are changed but that we are changed. The result of that dialogue may be our own growth and development as Christians.

That is certainly my experience. I’ve learnt and grown very little from discussing my faith with people who see things the same way that I do. Where I have learnt and grown most in faith has been where I have honoured those with different beliefs and engaged in conversation with them. The two people I have learnt most from in my home congregation, and would most like to emulate in my growth in discipleship, are both people whose theological opinions are quite different to mine.

In the past our prayers for Christian unity have focussed on inter-denominational unity but in the modern Methodism there is often as much diversity in what we believe within the congregation as there is between us and the local Anglican or United Reformed or Baptist churches. If we are going to honour, celebrate and explore that diversity, and grow as Christians through this process, then we have an opportunity to do this within the congregation as much as with other denominations. In many ways this is what excites me about small group discussion in general, and our rejuvenated life groups programme in specific. The groups gives us the opportunity to do just that. If we share, honour and celebrate our different perspectives then we grant ourselves an opportunity to grow and flourish rather than to shrink into our own hardened shells.

So I’d like to encourage you all to join a Life Group and through fellowship and discussion with people who have different perspective to yours to flourish into the abundance of life that we are promised through our faith in Jesus.

Why was Jesus crucified?

A sermon preached as part of a series looking at different hymns. This sermon is in response to Charles Wesley’s great hymn And can it be? (see video clip below to hear it sung). The Bible reading was Romans 5:1-11.

“Why was Jesus crucified?” is not the sort of question I would normally address in a sermon. The answers to this question provided by a most theologians get very complicated and very abstract and esoteric very quickly (if you don’t beleive me look up the Wikipedia article on The Atonement in Christianity). I much prefer more concrete theology – ideas that relate more to the way we live our lives in the world today.

There is, however, a particular reason for reflecting on this particular question within our congregation now. At Easter we are hosting an event call Risen! We’ll be inviting children from many of our local schools into our church to tell them the story of the crucifixion and resurrection. Imagine a child coming home to a parent and saying, “Mummy, mummy, what happened to Jesus was horrible wasn’t it? Why was he crucified?”

How do we prepare parents to answer that question? How do we answer it ourselves? Let’s just pause for a minute. Think about how you would answer that question to a 10 year old child born in the twenty-first century. “Daddy, daddy, why was Jesus crucified?”

I’d guess if we wrote those answers down secretly and then compared them that we’d get a wide range of responses. Those different answers would reflect the different ways that each of us think about God and Jesus. Some of us will feel very strongly that there is one correct answer and that the all Christians should share this. It wouldn’t surprise me if several of you felt there was only one correct answer but had different opinions about what that answer was! Some of us might feel less certain about our answers. Some of us might feel uncertain to the extent that we are unable to give a simple answer.

Some of us will have based our answers on particular Bible passages. Perhaps the passage like that we heard from Romans which suggests that Christ had to die to save sinful men and women from God’s anger. One of the hot topics in contemporary academic theology , however,  is whether the Bible presents a single consistent view of why Jesus had to die, or whether the different early Christians who wrote different chapters in the New Testament had a number of different views.  (To learn more try Googling  “Atonement in John” or “Atonement in Luke”. If you do though be aware that much of the content is a backlash from commentators who oppose the original ideas and thus that the material is rather one-sided – you’ll have to dig a bit deeper to get a more balanced argument).

Luke for example, writing in either his Gospel or the Acts of the Apostles, says virtualy nothing that links Jesus death to our sinful nature. Jesus was crucified because he offended the Jewish and Roman authorities. The central message of Luke’s gospel, epitomised in the story of the Prodigal Son, is not that we are saved from the anger of a wrathful God, but that we are forgiven by a loving Father. There is also considerable debate about the purpose of Jesus’ death as related in John’s gospel and letters. Many extremely authoritative scholars suggest that John saw Jesus’ death as a revelation of God’s love rather than as a specific response to our sinfulness.

So we need to be very careful about stating that the Bible provides us with a single explanation for why Jesus was crucified. It doesn’t, it provides us with a number of different explanations. Some of these link Jesus’ crucifixion to our redemption, and others don’t.

Explanations of why Jesus was crucified have changed within the church over time and these views have reflected the changing context in which Christians were living. In the very early days, when Christianity was still heavily influenced by Judaism, Jesus’ death came to be viewed in terms of an animal sacrifice. This is reflected in some of Paul’s letters and gives rise to the image of Christ as the Lamb of God who comes to take away the sins of the world. Slightly later Christians tended to see Jesus’ death primarily as an example of how we should live. This was at a time when the Church was very heavily persecuted and many Christians were being martyred. Jesus’ death became seen as something that Christians were called to share in, often literally.  (It’s interesting that neither the Apostles’ nor the Nicene creed make any reference to why Christ died. This suggests either that the issue was not seen as particularly important at the time or that the people writing the creed could not agree amongst themselves.)

Perhaps the most well known change in emphasis in our understanding of why Jesus was crucified came at the time of the Reformation. The significance of Jesus’ death was one of the major differences between the reformers and the Catholic church. By this time the established church (which we now know as the Catholic Church) was corrupt and raising money by selling the forgiveness of sins. The reformers’ response was to emphasise a view that the price of our sins had already been paid by Jesus’ death on the cross. It follows from this that  this is not an something that is under the control of contemporary church authorities.

So where is this getting us? We’ve found that the Bible presents us with a number of different ways of understanding the significance of Jesus’ death and that, over time Christians, have chosen to pick and choose between these depending on the time, place and context in which they have been living. The viewpoint that we have inherited from the Reformation is probably that most prevalent in Methodism today, but I’m personally not convinced that it is any more Biblical or fundamental than any of the others.

I find the variety of explanations useful. I respond extremely positively to some of the images – I’m particularly drawn to Luke’s ideas that our sins our forgiven by a loving father. I respond quite negatively to others – I am really put off by images of Jesus death as the sacrifice of the lamb of God. (I find the notion of being washed in the blood of the lamb particularly repellant). But that is just me, other people have come from different life experiences and find different images helpful.

If we drop our need to impose the particular explanation that appeals to us on other people and see these as a range of reasonable alternatives, then we open up the Gospel to be understood in different ways by different people. We can liken this to the day of Pentecost when Peter preached to people in one language and was understood by people speaking a range of different languages. The gospel message was for all, not just for those who spoke a particular language.  Similarly, Jesus died, most of us believe, for all people, not just those who think like us.

Behind everything I’ve said so far is the question, “Does it matter?”

The important thing is not whether or how we can explain our redemption but that we have experienced it. The central truth of our redemption is that we are liberated from the imperfection of our previous lives (call it sinfulness if it helps) to dedicate ourselves to living a God-filled life in the future. However much we have failed in the past we are offered a new opportunity in the future and no-one can take that away from us.

This can be truly liberating and life-changing. Many of us are imprisoned by what we have done or what has been done to us in the past. We carry the burdens of our life experience. In a few seconds silence just pause and reflect on what separates you from God. It may be guilt for something you have done or not done in the past. It might be pain from something that someone has done to you in the past. It might be disappointment that something that you hoped passionately for at one time has not coe to fruition. It might be grief for someone or something that used to be important in your life. Whatever it is, the liberating Gospel truth is that that is in the past and that all you need do to find God’s love is to live for him in the future.

All you need to know is that God is holding out his arms to embrace you. It doesn’t matter whether you see those arms as those of a dying saviour nailed to a cross to pay the price of your sins or the arms of a loving father who is willing to forgive them. What is important is that you know that those arms are always open – and that they are waiting for you, whoever you are and whatever you have done.

Amen

 

PS The more attentive will have spotted that, having been asked to preach on this hymn, I made absolutely no reference to it in the sermon! This is because it was the words of the hymn that inspired and are implicit in the whole sermon. Wesley’s hymns are often  prescriptive in their theology but this one isn’t. If you read the words carefully this is a powerful celebration of the redemption that Wesley (and his brother John) had experienced so powerfully without imposing any particular way of understanding it. Indeed the take home message of the second verse is that this is a mystery that is beyond our understanding.