sermon

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.

 

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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.

 

Making the most of our talents

My heart sank when I looked up the lectionary reading today – the Parable of the Talents. The story is so familiar, how on earth could I think up anything novel to say about it. It’s so familiar that an English word has derived its meaning from it. The message is clear,  unmistakeable and above all simple – what can I say. I normally have some ideas of a direction to take a sermon but I was flawed on this one and turned to the Internet for inspiration. Most of the material followed the traditional understanding of this story but a couple of threads stimulated me to read further. Maybe the parable isn’t as simple as it first seems.

One of the first things you are taught as a trainee preacher is that it can be dangerous to preach from short isolated Biblical texts. If you do you run the risk of missing the context in whigh they are set and of delivering a message that fits the text but not the wider gospel message. Here, some people would suggest, is a whole parable that doesn’t fit that wider context.

Let’s start off with the conclusion that

for to every person who has something, even more will be given, and he will have more than enough; but the person who has nothing, even the little that he has will be taken away from him.

On the one hand this sounds obvious enough, indeed it is an obvious reflection of the economic environment in first century Palestine and 21st century Britain. Those who already have wealth generate more wealth, whilst those who are poor have it taken away. But how does this square with the wider gospel? In four weeks time one of the lectionary readings will be the Magnificat with those wonderful lines,

He has brought down mighty kings from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away with empty hands.

The early focus of Matthew’s own gospel is the Sermon on the Mount which contains the Beatitudes amongst which we find:

Happy are those who are humble;
    they will receive what God has promised!

and

Happy are those who are persecuted because they do what God requires;
    the Kingdom of heaven belongs to them!

The apparent message of the parable simply doesn’t fit with the core message in the wider gospel. What is going on?

There are also problems with the style of the parable. Jesus is reported as having told a number of parables to explain the Kingdom of Heaven and many of these take pride of place in Matthew’s gospel. In most of these the Kingdom of Heaven is envisaged as being radically different from any Kingdom on Earth. There is generally a twist in the parable. It is thus the Samaritan who is the good neighbour. It is the son who wastes his money and repents who is welcomed home effusively by his father. Workers will get the same pay regardless of the hours they work. As commented above, in the Parable of the Talents, the Kingdom of Heaven appears essentially similar to most Kingdoms on Earth. The expected twist never arrives.

A more general issue is in how we all tell stories. In most stories with three characters it is the final character to be introduced who is the hero. The Good Samaritan is the third person to pass the beaten man, in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins we read how the foolish virgins acted first and then how the wise virgins acted. In wider literature Bassanio is the third person to choose a casket in the Merchant of Venice, Cordelia is the last daughter to be asked her opinion of King Lear. Even in the Three Little Pigs it is the third pig who builds his house of brick. This is simply the way we tell stories. Yet in the Parable of the Talents it is the first and second characters who are the heroes and the third is cast out into the darkness to cry and gnash his teeth.

Another problem is the advocacy of lending money for interest.Jews are expressly forbidden to expect interest when they lend to fellow Jews in several places in the Old Testament.  Just one example is in Exodus (22:25)

If you lend money to any of my people who are poor, do not act like a moneylender and require him to pay interest.

The master is thus acting unlawfully in accepting interest from the first two servants. His reaction to the third servant that

Well, then, you should have deposited my money in the bank, and I would have received it all back with interest when I returned.

is demanding that he contravene Jewish law.

A historian called Duncan Derret (Quoted in Herzog, page 160) who has studied various legal codes operating in the Middle East in the first century suggests that the system described by Jesus is very similar to the one outlined in the Babylonian Law of Hammurabi. Long term loans would be given in the expectation of 100% interest accruing but above this the lender could keep any proceeds for himself. Why would Jesus be teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven in terms of a Bablylonian lending system that was contrary to Jewish law? Perhaps he is doing this intentionally to indicate to his Jewish listeners that the point of the parable is not that the first two servants have successfully served their master.

It’s not only Jews who outlawed lending for interest. Through most of Christian history it has been illegal for Christians to charge interest either. The main reason why Jews, like Shylock, became involved in money-lending in late mediaeval Europe was because Christians, who were barred from charging interest, were reluctant to lend money. Jews, who were permitted to charge interest on loans to non-Jews, were much more willing to do so. Yet this story, as we read it today, seems to be a ringing endoresement of interest bearing loans. If the mediaeval papacy, with its strong, and often corrupt, links to the great financiers of Northern Italy, had read the parable in this way, surely they would have used it to reverse the Jewish teaching and allow the use of interest. Maybe there is a way of telling this parable, which gives it a different meaning, but which we have lost in the church today?

The final problem I want to draw your attention to is the proclamation that the third servant makes in front of his master (vs 24 and 25):

Sir, I know you are a hard man; you reap harvests where you did not plant, and you gather crops where you did not scatter seed.  I was afraid, so I went off and hid your money in the ground. 

Why on earth, given the understanding of the parable with which we are all familiar, would the third servant say this? He must be expecting to be punished and we might expet him to be apologetic to ameleiorate that punishment, but no, he is defiant and even accuses his master of wrongdoing. This is despite the point of the story appearing to depend on the master and the first two servants being taken as examples of how we are required to behave. The sentence simply doesn’t fit.

The parable isn’t as simple as I’d first assumed is it. It’s almost as if we are missing something – that we are perhaps telling the story in the wrong way. Is there another way of telling this story in a way that does make sense? Well my browsing led me to some references  (Parables of Subversive Speech, W.R Herzog) to the interpretation placed on this story by a group of poor Latin American farmers when they were first told this story. They recognised, from their own experience, that returns of 100% can only be made if someone has been exploited and they were used to being exploited. They rebelled at the idea that God would give to those already have. They wrestled with the same issues that I’ve been wrestling with and came up with a radically different interpretation.

Then I found a sermon by an Australian Baptist pastor called Alison Sampson which retold this imaginatively in a contemporary context. I’ve chosen to re-tell it differently, using my own words, but acknowledge my debt to her. I’ve also chosen to add a little extra section at the end which goes beyond a direct interpretation of the parable but which reminds us that Matthew groups this with several other parables and sayings which Jesus shares with his disciples in Jerusalem in Holy Week and concludes with predicting that in two days time he will be handed over to be crucified (Matthew 26:1-2).

I’ve actually publiushed my version as a separate post so that people can read it without the preamble, you can read it at this link.

 

Tutus and tiaras

A sermon preached on 16th November 2017.

“Let boys wear tutus says Church of England” was a headline on the front page the  Daily Telegraph on Monday with a similar one in the Daily Mail. Both referred to a report from the Church of England entitled “Valuing all God’s children” (link is actually to a previous version as the most recent seems to have got lost  in cyberspace – last seen at this link) which provides guidance for its 4,700 schools on challenging homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying. The theme was picked up in the Thought for the Day on the BBC today programme on Radio 4 on Tuesday and was the subject discussed in the Moral Maze last night. Louis Theroux has also explored the issues in a recent TV documentary (although I admit that I haven’t yet seen that).

It’s tempting to think this is an issue for other people but there are now two trans-gender people in my circle of acquaintance. One, a teenager, has derived considerable support from the love and acceptance that she (who was born he) has received from her grand-parents in particular.

The world is much more complicated than the one we grew up in isn’t it? When I was at school there were girls and boys and that was that. Boys and girls did different things. Nothing could have been clearer to me growing up in South Liverpool. The boys played football all the time and the girls, well I don’t know what the girls did because I was playing football.

Things are very different now.  We are now very conscious that just assuming that boys will be boys and girls will be girls may be oversimplifying things. Growing evidence from genetics, endocrinology and psychology has made this very clear. Most people are born with either two XX chromosomes or an X and a Y chromosomes which determines whether they are female or male. We now know however that some people are born with different combinations of chromosomes and don’t fall into this neat categorisation. On top of this there are people who are born chromosomally normal but have different levels of hormones which can cause them to take on characteristics of the opposite gender both physically and psychologically. A final group are those who have no apparent genetic or hormonal issues but simply feel they are a man trapped in a woman’s body or vice versa.

Although things feel different there is no scientific evidence that things actually are different. It is virtually certain that the people I’ve described above has always been born into society but that this has been hidden by the way society has behaved towards them. Further, particularly, with regard to those trapped in the body of someone of the opposite gender, the growing evidence is that this is the way that people have been born and is often apparent from very early childhood. This is not something that has developed from the way children have been brought up or as the result of some illness, it is simply the way they were born.

As with many advances in our scientific understanding of the world, this is something that challenges some Christians. In this morning’s Bible reading (Genesis 1:20-31) we read that “he created them male and female” there is no mention that there might be any alternative or that some of those males may desperately want to be females or some of those females might desperately want to be males. Then again, of course, the Bible only says that God created animals “domestic and wild, large and small”, it doesn’t feel a need to list every single type of animal within this category. Just because the full gender spectrum of humanity is not listed in Genesis does not mean that they are not part of God’s creation.

The verse that the Archbishop of Canterbury draws attention to in his introduction to the report is the previous verse, “And now we will make human beings; they will be like us and resemble us” in the Good News Bible or “so God created man in his own image”, in old money. All humans are created in God’s own image, all humans, not just some. We are called to celebrate the paradox that that whole rainbow of humanity, different races, different talents, different personalities, different expressions of gender, are created in the image of a single God.

What follows from that is the simple understanding that what God has created we are called to love. Our role is not to change those who God has created into our own likeness, it is to allow them to flourish into their own likeness to God. The other text the Archbishop cites is the one that I include in my e-mail signature. John 10:10, “I come that they may have life and have it more abundantly”. If children are born with a psychological gender that is different to their physical gender then they are going to have much less chance of living life abundantly if they are forced to conform to our stereotypes of how they should behave than if their natural inclination is accepted, nurtured and the valued.

The statistics on this are stark. 84% of trans-gender young people have self-harmed. 45% of them have attempted to take their own life (all statistics in this seromon are taken from the Valuing all God’s Children report). This issue is not a trivial one about whether little boys should be allowed to wear tutus and tiaras from the dressing up box – it is a matter of life and death. Part of this is because of the considerable psychological turmoil that being born feeling trapped in the body of the wrong gender causes, but this is augmented by the stigma that these people receive from wider society. Nearly 1 in 10 transgender children are subjected to death threats while still at school. Overt bullying is not the only problem. Transgender people are often made to feel different and unwelcome. Much of this is not intentional, it is simply that the rest of us are insensitive to who they are and how they need to be. We use language loosely without intending offense. We say the wrong thing simply because it may never occur to us that it is wrong.

So, I follow the Archbishop’s example and encourage you all this morning to celebrate the dazzling rainbow which is the full spectrum of humanity with all its many hues. I ask you to recognise that, whatever hue, we are all created in God’s image. I want to encourage you to do your part to ensure that all God’s people, whatever they feel about their own gender, are allowed to flourish on this earth and nurtured to live life as abundantly and fully as they are able.

This may feel like an agenda for a different generation but please acknowledge the importance of your own role as parents, grand-parents, great-grandparents, uncles and aunts. The wisdom of age is often honoured more within our family circles than we ever appreciate. And who knows? – your love, support and understanding may make the difference between a child who lives in anguish, turmoil and self-hate and one who is at peace with themselves, with you and with their God.

The sermon was followed by the hymn, Let love be real. I’d chosen this before I’d written my sermon and was amazed, when we sung it, just how well the words fitted with the message I’d preached. (In our hymn book it is set to the Londonderry Air).