Science and religion

As part of the Seasons of the Soul series it has been suggested that I talk about transitions in some sense this morning, but I’m also conscious that today is Bible Sunday, that Halloween is coming and that 31st October is the 500th Anniversary of Luther making public his 95 theses and thus starting the Protestant reformation. I’ll be making reference to all of these in what I say this morning but whether I address any of them appropriately will be up to you to decide.

As part of the Seasons of the Soul material we’ve been asked to reflect on transitions in our own faith lives. I’ve certainly been on a journey with God but it has generally been a process of gradual transition rather than any “blinding light” revelation. Perhaps the most fundamental transitions were early in my life. I was born into a church family with a father who was a local preacher and a mother who was Sunday school superintendent. In my early teens, however, I decided to stop going to church. There was probably an element of revolt against parental authority in this and it can’t have helped that I was one of very few boys of my age at the local church. At least equally important, however,   a growing awareness of a disconnect between what I was being taught in science lessons at school and what I was being taught at church and in Sunday school.

I didn’t go into a church after that for the best part of a decade. I completed a degree in physics and theoretical physics, then a PhD and embarked on a career of scientific practice and research ending up as a university professor. I am, to my very deepest roots, a scientist.

In my early twenties I felt something, something I would now describe as God, calling me back to the church. An important part of that transition was learning how to become a Christian and a scientist at the same time. It’s been a slow progress to feel truly comfortable being both. Sometimes I’ve been helped by the Christians I’ve encountered on my journey and sometimes, to be quite honest, I’ve found other Christians a particular hindrance. Eventually though I’m happy with the position I’ve arrived at and thought it might be worth sharing in case it is helpful to others.

The best way I can think of doing this is in the form of a mini lecture and I hope you’ll indulge me in this for a few minutes. (You can view this in the video below)

When presented like this the idea seems so obvious so why haven’t we started to think about things in this way a lot earlier. One answer of course is that many theologians have, but I think a large factor preventing others doing the same is that it requires theologians to have a better understanding of science than most do at present. In Britain at least we have a model of education that assumes  that you specialise in either the sciences or humanities from quite an early age and those who go on to study theology tend, as a consequence, to have a poor understanding of science.

I think another issue is that the amazing success of science can feel like a threat. It can feel as if religion will be overwhelmed by science. To face this we need confidence that science and religion address different questions. There are questions which in the modern world science answers much more convincingly than religion but the are other questions which science can give no insight into whatsoever.

Crib Goch ridge

This is a picture of Snowdon and the Crib Goch ridge. Science can tell us of how the mountains were created by geological processes and weathering over an unimaginably long period of time, but it cannot tell us that the result is beautiful, because science has no concept of beauty.

Syrian child

Science can tell us how this child in a Syrian hospital is suffering from malnutrition because he is not receiving the appropriate nutrients, but it cannot tell us how that child’s life is valued by his parents, because science has no concept of value.


This is a picture of my daughter and her friend at Windgather Rocks. Science can tell us that those variations in the colour of the sky arise because dust particles in the atmosphere scatter the sun’s light differentially depending on its wave length, but it can tell us nothing of the joy that is causing those two girls to leap into the air and celebrate, because science had no concept of joy.

Science and religion tell us very different things, and those of us who are religious need the confidence to assert that what relation tells us is far more important.

The final issue with this way of looking at theology is that, at times, it appears that science and scripture disagree. Given that it is Bible Sunday it is probably appropriate that we finish by looking at this in a little more detail. I think the key to this is to realise that the Scripture and Science have different objectives. The aim of science is to give an objective explanation of how the world is, something we might call literal scientific truth. Scripture on the other hand was written, primarily, to embody a vision of God, something we might call religious truth. If we approach the Bible looking for literal scientific truth then we are going to come away disappointed because even though it was inspired by God it was written by people in a pre-scientific age. On the other hand if we approach the Bible looking for religious truth then we are going to come away empowered by the writings of the most inspired religious geniuses that have ever lived.

Let’s illustrate this by the story I told you earlier, the story of creation. Scientists tall us that the universe was created about 14 billion years ago in unbelievably short event which we now call the Big Bang. The sun was created about 4.5 billion years ago when a great gas cloud condensed and earth was created a little later as a byproduct of this progress. Scientists are a little less sure about how the moon came into being but the most likely explanation is that it was produced when an object the size of Mars collided with earth. None of this maps on to what we read in Genesis but we shouldn’t expect it to. Genesis was not written by people who had any knowledge of astrophysics, it was written by people who wanted to express the significance of creation.

If we want to find out what that significance was we have to read the Bible in  a different way and seek out the religious truth that is embedded within the story. To do this we look at the text and find that one short phrase is repeated seven times, “and God saw that it was good”. The religious truth embedded in Genesis is not that the universe was created in six days but that the universe is Good. Science has no perspective on the universe as good, bad or indifferent. Only religion can tell us that the universe is good. If we free ourselves from the expectation that the Bible must be literally and scientifically true then we are liberated to appreciate the religious purpose for which it was written. Not only that but we reach a conclusion that almost all humans on this planet can agree with instead of setting ourselves up for losing another battle with science.

There is a tendency to think that if we admit that the Bible is not literally and scientifically true that it is diminished in some way, that it is less than true. My favourite theologian, Marcus Borg, states this differently. He sees the writings of scripture as “more than true“. The significance of the religious claims in the Bible is far more important than the question of whether the stories are literally and scientifically true or not and it is only if we can free ourselves to concentrate on this that we will be able to appreciate what those claims are.

So over the next weeks and months, when you pick up your Bibles and come across those passages where what is written seems to contradict a scientific understanding of how the world is, pause for a moment and seek out the religious inspiration of the original author. Don’t worry about what is less than true, focus on what is more than true. Problems in Biblical interpretation will dissolve in front of your eyes which will be opened to a new and fresh understanding of our faith which speaks powerfully to the modern world out of the experience of the ancient world. That understanding is based on justice, mercy, faith, hope and love, five concepts which science can tell us absolutely nothing about, but which are infinitely more important to us as humans than any of the 2.5 million scientific papers published each year.


Praying with hope – I do believe, help me overcome my unbelief!

I was the third preacher ask to addressed the issue of prayer and given the title Praying with hope and the text, “I do believe, help me overcome my unbelief”  (Mark 9:24). You can read this in context at Bible Gateway.

This is a sermon in a short series on prayer. Philip has asked me to preach this morning on how we can pray with hope. Given the gospel story and specific text he has suggested he would appear to be expecting the emphasis to be on situations where it is difficult to have hope. The issue is particularly important because many of us will go through times when it feels difficult to maintain hope.

The story I shared with the children earlier (Sally’s place) is principally the story of two parents coming to terms with the death of an adult child to disease. Put yourself in their position, where is the hope in that situation? What about people who are facing death themselves or the death of a spouse? Moving away from death many people in our contemporary world are struggling so hard to find employment that pays sufficiently well to support their families, where is the hope in that situation? What about the people sleeping rough on our streets, people who may once have held down a secure job and lived in the heart of a loving family but have fallen off the rails for some reason, where is the hope in that situation? All of us, yes all of us, know directly or indirectly of someone who is living in a situation which appears desperate, where hope is difficult if not impossible. I’m just going to stop for a few seconds to allow you to focus on someone who you know, or know of, who’s situation appears desperate and beyond hope.

It is not just at a personal level that we have a problem. There are so many aspects of our society that seem desperate. A glance at the papers, or a short time listening to the news on television or radio is all that we need to be reminded of this. Our planet is being degraded at an alarming rate and we are already in a period of mass extinction that hasn’t been experienced since the dinosaurs died out. There is an epidemic of obesity across the world which is threatening to overwhelm the health care resources of even the most advanced economies. Floods and hurricanes devastate parts of the planet in one way whilst forest fires and drought destroy others. A madman opens fire on people enjoying a music concert for no apparent reason.

In considering a Christian response to such situations we have to start off with an acknowledgement that they are real. Many individuals are living through truly bleak experiences. Our physical world is really threatened. Our society, from many different perspectives, is progressing in the wrong direction. Glib prayers that pretend that God is good and that all will be well if we only trust in him sufficiently are not appropriate. How does it help a parent who has just lost a child to be told to focus on how loving God is? Despair, in many cases, is not a failure to see how wonderful God is, it is a rationale response to the desperate situations that we find ourselves in.

This is a sermon about prayer, how should we respond?

I think it can help to ask where God is in such situations. We can be helped here by a modern understanding of the world. So often in the modern world we see science as an enemy of religion but I think it is more appropriate to see it as an ally. We can use what we now know of how the world is through science to inform how we think about God.

For most of human existence people have simply now known what causes disease or earthquakes or drought and it was assumed that these were, in a very literal sense, acts of God. We now know better. Cancer is not caused by God, it is caused by defects in the DNA within the nucleus of cells within our body. Earthquakes are not caused by God, they are caused by stresses that build up in the earth’s crust as a result of tectonic activity. At a societal level, global warming is not caused by God, it is caused by humanity generating too much carbon dioxide and methane. The obesity epidemic is not caused by God, it is caused by people eating too much inappropriate food as they become more affluent. Even mental illness, the focus of our gospel story, is not caused by God, or evil spirits either, but by a dysfunction in the biochemistry of the brain.

Modern science let’s God off the hook. We do not need to see God as the cause of the ills of the world, as the source of our despair, we now have alternative and much more convincing explanations. I am with Isaiah, God is not in the earthquake, the wind, or the fire.

But, of course, if God isn’t causing these things in the first place then it is illogical for us to pray for him to stop them. If cancer is caused by defects in DNA or earthquakes by seismic forces (literally) then it doesn’t make sense to pray to God and expect these things to stop or even to change.

So what can we pray for? If God, isn’t in the cause of the ills of the world, where is he?

I believe that God is not in the cause of those things that challenge us but in our response to them. God is not in the cancer, he is in the loving response of those affected by cancer. Nothing will ever convince me in the story that I told earlier that Sally’s cancer was in any way ordained by God for any reason that we couldn’t understand then and still don’t understand now. But I know that God was in the way Ray and Barbara and the rest of that family responded and in the building of that creche in Africa.

Nothing will ever convince me that the hurricanes that have recently ravaged the islands of the Caribbean and parts of the United States were summoned by God. But I know that God is in the way that governmental and no-governmental age agencies have responded to the crisis, are providing emergency relief and are re-building communities.

Nothing will ever convince me that God had anything to do with that madman who sat in an upper room at a hotel shooting indiscriminately at peaceful people attending a music concert. But I know that across Las Vegas and beyond, God is in the way that families and churches and communities are comforting the families of those that died and allowing them to come to terms with their loss, and eventually to overcome this and be re-born into new life.

So, if God is in our response, both individually and collectively, to the events that assail us and others in life, how should we pray. We should pray, of course, to allow God into our lives so that we can be agents of that response.

There is a tendency, in many parts of Christianity, which is mistaken in my belief, to see prayer as a passive activity. We can see prayer as a way of handing problems over to God and assuming that this is enough, that, in handing over the problem to God, we have been absolved for taking any responsibility ourselves. In my view prayer is much more an opportunity for God to hand responsibility to us.

Another way of looking at this is of the absolute arrogance of the Christian who expects prayer to be a time when God should listen to them. Maybe we should be more humble and see prayer as a time when we should listen to God. When we pray “thy Kingdom come, thy will be done” we are not making a demand of God, we are accepting a purpose and discipline for ourselves.

And this should give us hope, even in the most desperate situations, because however bad any situation becomes, however, bleak the future looks, there is always something we can do to make it better. In the face of personal tragedy there will always be a word of comfort we can offer or a loving embrace or a time simply to sit in silence with a person who cannot face the future. We cannot remove the cause of the tragedy but we can be part of the response.

Societal problems can be more challenging but are still fundamentally something we can respond to through the way we live and the way we give. We may feel that as an individual our actions are worthless but we need a vision of ourselves as part of the people of God. There are two billion Christians on this planet and a further four billion followers of other religions who are all, fundamentally, seeking a better world. Imagine how much could be achieved if, rather, than using prayers as a time to tell God what to do, we all used them as a time to listen to what he is telling us to do.

Go, in peace, to love and serve the Lord.

This was followed by my hymn “God of Love, where are you?

The Great Commission

This is the final Sunday of our Holy Habits year and again I’ve been given instruction as to the topic I should be preaching on. John wants me to focus on the Great Commission,

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.

I’ve been asked more specifically to focus on the word “Go”. The whole point of the Holy Habits programme is to explore what the early church was doing at a time of rapid growth and reflect on what we can learn form this at a time when the church, in Western Europe at least, is declining. The only surviving history of the very early church is that recorded in the Acts of the Apostles and it is very clear from that book that the disciples travelled across the Eastern Mediterranean with the primary intention of fulfilling that Commission. Although there are records that they healed, cast out demons, forgave sins it is clear that the primary purpose of those early journeys was to make disciples.

There can be no doubt that they were successful. The impression is of churches starting off slowly, Paul refers in his letters to individual by name and it is clear that they met primarily in each others’ homes. The groups grew in numbers and influence however. By the mid 60s AD the Christian community in Rome was sufficiently large and influential for Nero to feel a necessity to order a programme of state persecution (during which Paul is thought to have died). That and the wider community continued to grow both in numbers and influence. It was accepted as a legal religion within the Roman Empire in 313 and became the state religion in 380. This is quite amazing growth for a movement that had burst into life only after its leader had been executed as a criminal.

Since then the history of the church, in global terms, has been one of growth. Sometimes this has been driven by the pure evangelistic power of the gospel message at other times by cultural, political and economic factors which had very little to do with that message. There’s no doubt for example that emperor Constantine’s acceptance of Christianity was largely because he thought that having God on his side would give him a major advantage in his extensive military campaigns. For whatever reasons, whether good or bad the history of Christianity has undoubtedly been one of growth and, on an international scale that story of growth is continuing today.

… but not now in Western Europe. Data from the 2011 census shows that the number of people identifying as Christian has dropped by about 12% over ten years. If you’ve picked up the “Conference Business Digest” from the table outside the worship area over the last couple of weeks you will have read that membership of the Methodist Church has dropped by 3.5% a year over the last decade. Since we arrived in this circuit, seven years ago, two churches have closed and none of the remaining 5 are showing any signs of significant growth

So what can we do about this? I haven’t got time in one morning to analyse what makes effective mission so I’m going to stick to the simplest possible recommendation that is that we need to “go” and make disciples. I think the fundamental assumption of most mainline British churches is that we can “stay” and make disciples. We tend to assume that what we need to do is make the church more attractive and then people will come to us. The early church didn’t spend its energies re-arranging the furniture within the worship area, or changing the songs it sang or upgrading the signage outside its buildings (it didn’t have any). It put its energy into travelling across the known world and proclaiming the gospel.

Perhaps more importantly when the early Christian missionaries, particularly Paul, arrived in a new community they adapted their message for that community. “To the Jews, I become a Jew, to win Jews. To those not under the law I become like one not under the law to win those not having the law.” The message from the early church is clear. If we want the early church to grow we must go to new communities and adapt what we say to make it relevant to them. The emphasis is on adapting what we have to what they need, not on assuming that we can change them so that they need what we already have.

So far this is following pretty much in the steps of what John talked about in his sermon at beginning of this theme. After that service, however, I was having a chat with Ray and he commented, “You know what the elephant in the room is, the elephant in the room is that we, as a congregation, are too old”. Mission of the kind I’ve been describing takes energy. The apostles going on all those journeys were young men filled with energy. We are not, as a congregation, young and energetic. Many of us have put a lifetime of service into the church and have now reached a time in our life when we want someone else to take over.

But society has changed, working patterns have changed, employers expectations have changed. The generation that could be taking over have no energy for mission because they are expected to pour their energy into different things. Anyone with a professional career in the modern world has to work long hours to develop that career and maintain it and, of course, it is those people who have most to offer to in leading the world outside the church who have most to offer in terms of leadership within it.

For a variety of reasons, in most couples of employment age both partners now work. Their surplus energy is ploughed into the tasks of keeping the household running and family relationships healthy. That energy is not available for mission activity of the church.

So it’s all very well to talk about the necessity for mission and for us to go into the world and make disciples but who is going to do this?

Here, as on so many issues that we have addressed this year, it might be useful to look to the experience of the early church. For all that the Book of Acts is dominated by accounts of heroic missionary endeavours, it is clear that only a relatively small number of individuals were involved in this aspect of ministry. It is clear from what we read in the letters that most of the early Christian community stayed at home. Maybe mission should be seen as the responsibility of a small number of people who are particularly suited to it than a broader responsibility shared amongst all of us. If we reflect on the Great Commission literally, it is perhaps useful to recognise that it was given to a very select group of individuals (Jesus’s Disciples). There doesn’t seem to be any particular reason to generalise this and take it as an obligation on us all.

I’ve changed career. Friday was my last day working for the University. On Sunday next week I start a new role as a Lay Pastor at Bramhall Methodist Church. As with all life decisions it has been driven by a complex web of interacting factors but one of those has been that I’ve been one of those people in a modern professional role who hasn’t had the energy to engage in mission for the church. It’s partly about time, but it’s much more about having the headspace. If I’m struggling with the demands of a leadership role in a large modern corporation, whether it be a university, school, hospital, or company, I simply haven’t got the emotional energy to do so for the Church as well.

By supporting the Lay Pastor role, the congregation at Bramhall are offering an opportunity for me to step aside from my career (possibly for just a few years, possibly for longer) and focus on how I would like to express my faith. Although the job title is Lay Pastor, the one phrase in the person specification for that post that really really caught my imagination is for someone with a “heart to work with people at the margins of church life”. It is essentially an invitation for someone to engage in mission within their community.

So is this the future? Do ageing congregations, and Bramhall has its fair share of ageing members, need to think less of engaging in mission themselves and more in making opportunities available for others to do so with their blessing?   How many other people are out there like me who would love an opportunity to refocus their lives either for a defined period of permanently? Perhaps there is a middle ground. Perhaps an employee’s energy can be used to direct the mission and set out a vision. Perhaps once this has been established it might be easier for others to commit to their time and what reserves of energy remain to share in the realisation of that vision.

We also need to think more imaginatively about how we use resources. A time of closing churches is also a time of opportunity? Selling churches frees up capital making it available for other uses. This circuit has sold one church recently and is in the process of selling another. Those funds are being held for future mission activity. Perhaps we need to engage with more urgency in a discussion about what that activity should be. Perhaps we could use that money to create an opportunity for someone to engage in mission within this community. The money is lodged in the circuit rather than this church but let’s start a conversation about how it is going to be used. Doing so now while we still have a church to act as a base for this must be better than waiting for ten years until it is too late.

We are also in the process of looking for a new minister. What should his or her priorities be? I’m sure that there will be an initial assumption that we are looking for someone to minister to us and look after our needs. On reflection though I think we are very good at looking after our own needs. We have very strong formal and informal networks of support within our congregation. Maybe we could look to the future and say that we will take responsibility for our own pastoral needs and free up the time of the new minister to engage in mission within the local community. Maybe we could look for someone who could spend two days a week ministering to a local school, or to people in this commuter suburb who suffer from work-related stress, or to the incoming families to the new housing estate in Woodford. Again this is a circuit rather than congregational decision but if we want to change someone is going to have to initiate that discussion.

This needn’t be only outward looking. There is currently a rather small pool of ministers within the Methodist church and a large number of churches from which to choose. If you are a dynamic forward looking minister are you going to want to focus on the internal needs of an ageing congregation – or would you relish the opportunity to be blessed to engage in mission to the community within which they are situated? How we view our future may well have an important influence on the type of minister who might be attracted to come here, or indeed whether anyone wants to come at all.

This isn’t just a personal vision. It mirrors the path that the Methodist church as a whole is starting to journey along. Conference this year adopted a motion that every church council be encouraged to address and answer the question “do you have a growth plan or an end of life plan”. The starkness of this choice takes the breath away but once we have got over the initial shock we recognise that it is real. If we don’t grow we will die. I don’t know how long that “encouragement” will take to filter through but maybe we could start now and get ahead of the game. Are we, as a congregation and circuit, going to develop a growth plan or an end of life plan?




The Newer Testament

Introduction to the theme

We are following a programme called Holy Habits over the course of this year. The programme studies 10 aspects of life in the early church. The early years of the church were characterised spiritual renewal, incredible dynamism and above all growth. These appear to be lacking in contemporary Western Christianity and the the hope is that by recapturing some of the habits of the early church we may also to be able to reinvigorate ourselves with some of that dynamism. We are asked to study how the early church lived and contrast it with how we live today. If what we do differs form what the early church did then we are invited whether there is a better way for us to live now. This month we have been thinking about scripture in this context. Did the early church relate to scripture in a different way to how we do today?

The answer is an answer of two halves – the Old Testament and the New Testament. As far as I can see the attitude of the early church to the Old Testament is very similar to ours today. They saw it as a sacred document that had been written in the past collating a wide range of literature that was regarded as the primary record of how their ancestors had experienced God. The relationship with the New Testament was entirely different to ours. Put most succinctly – while we read the New Testament the early church wrote it.

I’m at a bit of a disadvantage preaching in the fifth of this series of services as for one reason or another I’ve not been present for any of the previous four. I’m not sure what the other preachers have covered but I assume that there has been some reflection on how the Bible was written. There have been considerable advances in our understanding of this in theological colleges over the last fifty years, and it sometimes surprises me how little of this understanding has been passed on to congregations. At least some of it is finally filtering through. To recap:

No one set out to write the New Testament – in a sense it just happened. It is a collection of letters of early church leaders, accounts of activities of both Jesus (the Gospels) and the leaders of the early church (Acts) and a book of apocalyptic poetry (Revelation).

What we know of how the Bible was written is largely inspired guesswork. While there is general agreement amongst biblical scholars on the general principles,very little of the detail is known for certain and different scholars, at times, hold quite radically different views about those details.

There is general agreement that the letters (particularly those attributed to Paul) were the first documents to be written. We can guess the dates of these by correlating what is written with the stories of Paul’s journey’s in Acts. First Thessalonians may have been the first to be written but was still written about 20 years after Jesus’ death. The other letters from Paul were probably written over the ensuing 10 to 15 years. As I’ve said they were not written in order to become part of the Bible they were written in a particular context generally to support the growth of churches Paul had established and then moved on from. they are a mix of thanks and encouragement for the good things that Paul has heard about their acts and chastisement for the bad things.

It looks as if stories about Jesus’ life circulated in the early church by world of mouth and were only collated into what we now know as the gospels much later on. Mark is regarded as the earliest but appears to make references to the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and of the Temple so cannot have been committed to paper (or papyrus) before 70 AD. The others probably followed in later decades. Recent scholarship shows how many of the stories we read as prose today where written as quite exquisite poetry and have obviously been amended and polished as part of this process but nobody knows when or by who.

The other letters in the Bible (Peter, John, James and several others) were written later. 2nd Peter which may have been written as late as 120AD. Somewhere in the middle of this the Book of Revelation, which is quite different to anything else in the New Testament was written. Acts of the Apostles was also added as a history of the early church after Jesus’ death and resurrection.

The other thing that modern scholarship has taught us is that what we know as the New Testament is just a small selection of documents that were revered by the early church. We now know of the existence of over 50 Gospels including a gospel of Thomas and of Mary. There were also many other letters including a third letter of the Corinthians, a letter form the Corinthians and letters of later church leaders such as St Clement. There were other records of miracle stories and other apocalyptic visions.

There was quite a long period where different churches in different regions revered different texts. It was probably sometime in the 3rd century that a consensus began to emerge on which of these were most important but it was not until 367 that we have the first record of the 27 books we accept today. It was until after the reformation that an official list was declared.

So there you are the Bible is now closed. It is not particularly clear when it was closed but it was an awful long time ago. What I want to explore this morning is what  Christianity would be like today if the Bible had not been closed, if we had continued to add to it, if we were still adding to it today. If we are to live as the early church lived, as our Holy Habits programme would suggest, then we should be continuing to write scripture. Let’s assume that as well as an Old Testament and a New Testament that there was also a Newer Testament then what would we include within it?

Following the early church it would be made of a variety of documents. None of the books of the Bible were written with the intention of becoming the Bible so we need documents that have been written for other purposes. We need to scavenge around for documents from a range of sources which we believe inspire, encourage of correct us. It’s clear that only a small number of people actually wrote these documents so we should perhaps be looking for pieces that other people have written. The Bible includes history,. poetry, religious songs, letters, visions and prophesy (at least) so we should look for literature of range of different types. At the time the early church was living the only option to record anything was to write it down but now we could include music or video or pictures of works of art. Above all we wouldn’t put it in a book would we we’d put it on the Internet. This opens up a wonderful possibility of the Newer Testament changing over time to reflect the world we live in. New material would continue to be added and older material, if it was felt to be losing relevance could be deleted.

Following the early church we would collate a wide range of articles that appealed to a wide range of people. Having done this, however, we would sift through this as a group to select the items that spoke most powerfully to the Christian community as a whole.

Have a think. Reflect on what you have read over the last couple of years, or heard on the television or he radio, or seen in an art gallery or stumbled across on the Internet. Of all that rich experience, which items would you propose for the Newer Testament. Do more than think, e-mail me your ideas and I’ll collate the suggestions for the Church web-site. If you are savvy with a computer then cut and paste links and send them to me. If you are not then leave a message on my answering machine and I’ll pop around and make a copy of what you have to offer. Try and keep things recent and I suggest limiting passages to something that can be read in three or four minutes at most. Other than that break free -there are no rules – there don’t appear to have been any particular rules in the early church.

To get you started here is a piece I would include. It is a video from Meg Cannon a young Christian woman telling the story of an even younger African girl. To me it merges the telling of a story as in one of the gospels or Old Testament history with the sense of inspiration and urgency that we find in many of Paul’s letters.


Enemy of Apathy is one of the range of modern hymns that I would add to the Newer Testament. You can here a clip of it at this link (though I’m not sure how legit this is).


Rather than select two Bible readings I’ve chosen an excerpt from the Pope’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly in 2015 (full text here) which is another document I might submit for the Newer Testament.

First, it must be stated that a true “right of the environment” does exist, for two reasons. First, because we human beings are part of the environment. We live in communion with it, since the environment itself entails ethical limits which human activity must acknowledge and respect. Man, for all his remarkable gifts, which “are signs of a uniqueness which transcends the spheres of physics and biology”, is at the same time a part of these spheres. He possesses a body shaped by physical, chemical and biological elements, and can only survive and develop if the ecological environment is favourable. Any harm done to the environment, therefore, is harm done to humanity. Second, because every creature, particularly a living creature, has an intrinsic value, in its existence, its life, its beauty and its interdependence with other creatures. We Christians, together with the other monotheistic religions, believe that the universe is the fruit of a loving decision by the Creator, who permits man respectfully to use creation for the good of his fellow men and for the glory of the Creator; he is not authorized to abuse it, much less to destroy it. In all religions, the environment is a fundamental good.

The misuse and destruction of the environment are also accompanied by a relentless process of exclusion. In effect, a selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity leads both to the misuse of available natural resources and to the exclusion of the weak and disadvantaged, either because they are differently abled (handicapped), or because they lack adequate information and technical expertise, or are incapable of decisive political action. Economic and social exclusion is a complete denial of human fraternity and a grave offense against human rights and the environment. The poorest are those who suffer most from such offenses, for three serious reasons: they are cast off by society, forced to live off what is discarded and suffer unjustly from the abuse of the environment. They are part of today’s widespread and quietly growing “culture of waste”.

and the second reading is an example of something that is written in the Bible but I believe requires very cautious interpretation in the modern world:

2: 1 Corinthians 14:34 and 35.

34 Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 35 If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.


I think everything I talked about earlier in the service, the history of how the Bible was written by the early church, is pretty much accepted by most theologians. There may still be debate about details but generally speaking we now have a reasonable picture of how the Bible, particularly the New Testament, was written. It was written by a variety of people writing for a variety of different purposes, but none of them, as far as we know, was intending to write a book of the Bible.

If the Church, or at least its theologians, has come to accept this view, however, I’m not convinced that it has yet faced up to the implications. For most of the life of the Church there has been an assumption that the Bible is the infallible word of God – a belief that every word that has been written in the Bible must take equal weight and that the messages its conveys are valid for all time. Our current understanding of how the Bible was written must challenge that view. The Bible may be inspired by God (as the Bible itself claims in the 2nd letter to Timothy) but it was written by men (and we should note is was written by men, there is no evidence of any female involvement in the writing of any of the books of the Bible). It was written by men who were struggling to come to terms with how God was manifested in their lives. It had its origins in the memories of disciples who had lived through the pain of the Jesus’ execution, who had experienced something completely beyond their understanding in the resurrection, and were now inspired and emboldened by a new power in their lives. They were struggling to understand what all this meant and the writings that now form the New Testament are the record of that struggle. When we read what they wrote we have to read it with this understanding of how it was written.

We also need to remember that these men were products of their time. They had a very different worldview to the one we have today. Paul was brought up a strict Jew and trained as a Rabbi. He had only ever experienced worship in which the men stood at the front and worshipped and the women stood at the back and watched. Paul had clearly never met a woman like Meg Cannon, a women with uncovered hair and a message as powerful as that of any man. Similarly, the early church just assumed that slavery was a part of the natural order. When Paul instructed a runaway slave to return to his master in Philemon it was because he could not conceive of the world being any other way. Going further it is virtually certain that Paul had never met a gay or lesbian person in a committed, faithful and loving relationship. The only homosexual practices he had any knowledge of where those of the e prostitutes in a variety of pagan temples in the ports around the Eastern Mediterranean.

We also need to read the Gospels with an understanding of who wrote them and when. They were written by men who didn’t distinguish between religious poetry and fact-based journalism in the way we do today. If we are concerned that we are moving in the current world into a post-factual era we should remember that the New Testament was written in a pre-factual era. The Gospels were also written by men who had no understanding whatsoever that the way the world behaves is governed by the immutable laws of physics, chemistry and biology. They lived in a society in which people were far more willing to believe in a miraculous happenings and supernatural explanations than we are today. Their purpose wasn’t to write historically and scientifically verifiable journalism, it was to embed the truth of their lived religious experiences in the words that would best convey this to their contemporaries.

I don’t see that any of this would be a problem if the Bible had remained open (as far as writing is concerned) but it didn’t, it was closed in  practical sense about 150 years after Jesus’ death. It means that the only scripture we acknowledge today was written by people with very different world-views to ours.

The way the church has got around this over the years is to invent theology. This means that we read one thing in the Bible and then we interpret in the light both of our understanding of how the Bible was written and of our knowledge from other spheres. Thus although the Bible remains constant and unchanging how we interpret it has developed considerably over time.

For centuries references to slavery within the Old Testament and Paul’s letter to Philemon reinforced the general view that slavery was an inevitable consequence of how society was structured. It wasn’t really until the Enlightenment and the emergence of the concept of the human rights of all individuals that this began to be questioned. As with many societal changes, the church was quite slow to respond but eventually Christians came to realise that slavery is an abomination in the eyes of God and to campaign for its abolition. No one in today’s church would follow Paul in advising an escaped slave to return to his master.

Attitudes to women within society have changed and the churches theology has followed. We now recognise that Paul wrote at a particular time, in a particular context and from a particular background. Very few people within our denomination are now prepared to take what he wrote in Corinthians at face value and it continues to be a source of considerable pain that our Carholic brothers and sisters (and to a lesser extent the Anglicans as well) continue to struggle with these passages.

So how do we deal with these issues? At one level the sensible approach is to continue what the church has always done and develop a theological framework through which we can interpret the Bible in the light of our current worldview. I’m not however, convinced that this is enough. It satisfies us within the church, but it is extremely confusing to those outside the Church. They see us revering the Bible as the word of God and then choosing to reinterpret those sections that we don’t like. although some people do,  I would be extremely unwilling to give a non-Christian a Bible and just leave them to read it. Whilst we do hear some stories of people doing this and individuals coming to faith I’m sure that a much more common response, in the modern world, is for people to be put-off by what they find written in its pages. Imagine giving a Bible to a non-Christian woman and her opening at random to read the words of Paul we have heard read out this morning.

So is there an alternative. I think there is, or rather that there are things we can do as well. What we can do, as well as revering the Bible, is to revere contemporary writings and video and music and art that speaks to us of our ongoing relationship with God. I think we should revere videos like those produced by Meg Cannon, I think we should revere the rich variety of modern Christian songs whether they be from the Iona Community or the Rend Collective, I think we should revere the speeches that made by our leaders to make take the Christian message to the contemporary world.

So this morning I encourage you all to think about what you think we should revere in the contemporary world. Which writings and songs and art works speak most powerfully to you of your relationship with God? The idea of collating this material on a web-site is of course a bit of a gimmick, but I hope that it is the sort of gimmick that will get you thinking and change the way you look at the world.

John saw Christ as the Word. Let’s see the Word of God not as something that was entombed within the Bible 2,000 years ago but as the living Word unleashed through the Resurrection to speak to all people for all time.

Harvest hymn

Our church band has a limited repertoire of music which has created a challenge to write new words to old tunes. This hymn was written to the tune Cwm Rhondda (Guide me O, though great Jehovah) for our recent harvest festival. It was inspired by a sermon preached by a friend a couple of weeks earlier about the need to cherish the food we eat and remain appreciative of where it came from. It is a little edgier than I thought it would be when I set out to write it (but not quite as edgy as the first draft which my wife thought it would be wise to revise!).

We give thanks for food and drink this harvest,
conscious of our luck and wealth.
Help us to consume in moderation,
only what we need for health.
May we cherish, May we cherish,
All the food we have to eat, all the food we have to eat

On a green but threatened little planet,
we know what we need to do,
Care for soil and atmosphere and water,
farm to grow and to renew.
May we cherish, May we cherish,
All the food we have to eat, all the food we have to eat

Animals are mass produced for slaughter,
often treated with disdain.
Can this be the way that you intended
when you made them our domain?
May we cherish, May we cherish,
All the food we have to eat, all the food we have to eat

We rely on agro-economics,
to supply the food we need.
Help us not forget the end-producer
enslaved by our blinkered greed.
May we cherish, May we cherish,
All the food we have to eat, all the food we have to eat

If we chose to banish wasteful habits
we could eat with food to spare,
Bread of heaven and crystal fountains,
Heaven on earth for all to share.
Bread of heaven, Bread of Heaven.
Feed me now and evermore, feed me now and ever more.

Eating Together

Our Church has adopted the Holy Habits programme  for this year and will be looking at one of the ten themes each month. This month the theme is Eating Together and all preachers have been asked to follow the theme.


This sermon is based around the parable of the Great Banquet (Luke 14) and also draws on the story of Abraham’s hospitality (Genesis 18:1-8). It was preceded by the worship song Come to the banquet, there’s a place for you and followed by another Walls, mark out boundaries, both of which I learned whilst living in Australia.

Out theme for this month has been “Eating together” and so far the focus has been on eating and on food. This morning I’d like us to focus on the “together” bit. Who, as Christians, should we be eating together with?

Earlier on a retold the parable of the Great Banquet. At face value that parable is about food, about who to invite to a feast. Except of course it isn’t really is it? It’s allegorical – an extended metaphor. The story isn’t really about a banquet, it is about the Kingdom of God. It’s not really about the rich man’s friends, it’s about a religious establishment that pays lip service to God love but then ignores him  when he challenges them to take action.  It’s not really about the poor and starving town’s people, it’s about those who are seen as outside the religious establishment but truly understand what it would be like to be loved by God, people who have never been invited to share that love in terms that are meaningful to them.

The older I get the more and more important I consider this parable to be. I have no memory of it being given any particular emphasis in my earlier experiences of faith. I can remember being taught about the parables of the Prodigal Son, or the Lost Sheep, or the Good Samaritan. I remember being taught about the miracles and healing acts of Jesus, but I don’t remember this particular parable making any particular impact on me until my time in Australia. There it was foundational to the ministry of the Uniting Church minister who happened to be at the church that we joined. I don’t remember him preaching about it specifically, but I do remember the two songs that we sang on many occasions – the one we sung earlier and the other that we will sing after this sermon. Since that experience this parable has shot up the league table of important passages within the Bible in my mind and now maintains a place pretty near the top.

Its power, as in so many of the parables, comes from its allegorical nature. As I’ve said it is not really a story about food. It is about how we view religion. In Jesus’ day religion was defined by the observance of a number of religious practices – only eating certain foods, washing yourself in a particular way before eating, saying prayers at a particular time in a particular way. Those who observed these rules saw themselves as righteous and assumed they would inherit the Kingdom of God. When a group starts to identify itself as righteous, of course, it will automatically start to identify everyone else as unrighteous and this is what had happened by the time Jesus came along.

But of course we are often guilty of this ourselves both superficially and at a much deeper level. We tend to assume that the church is composed of that group of people that want to come to church for an hour on Sunday mornings and sing hymns and say prayers and drink cups of tea or coffee afterwards don’t we? If people don’t want to do that then we’re at a bit of a loss to know what to do with them aren’t we? What would you do with someone who said I want to learn how to love Jesus but I’m not particularly keen on singing hymns or sitting still?

At a deeper level protestant theology is rooted in the division of people into those who have been saved and those who haven’t. More aggressive Protestants tend to assume that it is obvious which is which, more generous ones may admit that this may not be so clear. But most of us here, deep within our religious psyche, hold to an assumption that God’s salvation is restricted to a certain number of people. Many of us can be rather lazy and put these two concepts together and assume that the saved are those that want to come to church and sing hymns and share a cup of tea afterwards. If we are even lazier we extend this to the assumption that those who do not want to live like this are the unsaved.

When we read the story of the Great Banquet and remember the context in which it was told then we often appreciate the absurdity of how those within Judaism in Jesus day viewed the world. What’s really important though, and what makes this story so relevant to the modern world, is that it should also alert us to what is absurd in how we view the world. It tells us that we need a broader view than we have at present of where value lies in this world. We need to move away from the assumption that all that God values in the world is tied up in the church and those who choose to attend. We need to open ourselves to the truth that there is much of value within this world that lies outside these doors, both literally and metaphorically.

One of the issues that came up in our house group the other day was that of how we relate to the spouses and families of many of our church members who choose not to come to church themselves. Maybe a theology that seeks out the good in anyone, whether they identify themselves as Christian or not, provides a basis for such a ministry. How this works out practically isn’t clear in my mind but maybe just thinking in this way might open doors.

Going back to our Bible story though we may get clues. Jesus clearly spent considerable time eating with this disciples, he also spent considerable time eating with other people as well. The context of this story is a meal at a prominent pharisee’s house. Jesus has chosen to dine with someone with whom he disagrees quite fundamentally. Not only this, but we are told explicitly that Jesus was being “carefully watched”. He has chosen to dine with someone who is suspicious of him, who is spying on him, who may be plotting against him. The first lesson we can learn from this story is that when we talk about eating together we need to think about eating together with others as well as eating together amongst ourselves. The heavenly banquet is laid out for all people, not just for us; however we choose to define “us”.

But Jesus goes further than this he chooses not only to dine with others but to talk seriously with them about things that matter. He goes into a potentially hostile situation and presents his vision of the world. We’ve got a convention in Britain haven’t we that at a dinner party the conversation should steer clear of sex, politics or religion. Even if we regard such formal guidance as a little old-fashioned, a lot of our conversations, when dining out, particularly with people we may not know so well, do tend to the superficial and ignore the issues that really matter. Jesus is demonstrating the opposite, he is choosing not only to dine with people who have different views to him but to engage in a meaningful conversation with them. He is choosing topics that might bring about a difference of opinion, that might challenge. Indeed we can go further, he is choosing topics that will bring about a difference of opinion, that will challenge. He is doing his hosts the honour of taking them seriously, of talking about things that matter rather than the merely superficial.

For want of a concrete example of this I want to turn the tables on their heads and tell of a time when I was invited to a meal by people of another faith. It was shortly after the September 11th attacks in 2001. We had been living in Melbourne for just over a year. As in so much of the world there had been a wave of anti-muslim feeling. In response the Islamic community in Melbourne chose to invite people from the local churches to share with them in their Iftar feast. Most of us think of Ramadan as a time of fasting but the fast is only for daylight hours and on the evening after the sun has set the tradition is for Muslim families to share a celebratory meal called Iftar.

So I drove across Melbourne to large house in the northwest suburbs. There I met a muslim family and small group of Christians drawn from from across the city. A young woman welcomed us in and made us welcome. She told us about the feast and how it is a Muslim characteristic to be hospitable. She traced this back to the example in the Quran of Abraham who invited three strangers into his house, the story we have read earlier from our scriptures this morning. We started the meal with a date – apparently it is not good to break the fast to quickly, and then moved on to more substantial fare. Having shared some of her tradition with us and something of the fear that her community had for the future, she invited us to tell stories of our traditions and to share our hopes and fears for our communities. Over the meal we talked of things that mattered. We learned to understand, we made friends with people we had never met.

I left that meal in a state of grace. I remember driving back through the dark with a feeling of elation and filled with the spirit. We had some special experiences in the nine years we were in Melbourne but I don’t think there was a night when my heart was moved as much as it was that night. I felt truly blessed.

So let’s not just think this month about what we can and should eat. Let’s not just use it as an excuse to dine with old friends. Let’s look around us and see if there is anyone we can invite to our table as an act of outreach and mission. Let’s look out for people in  our community who are different to us and who might disagree with what we think. Let’s look for opportunities to invite them to a table to talk about things that matter, to seek what is of value in their lives as well as expressing what is of value in ours. Who knows? God’s grace may settle on our table in the same way it did on the table I dined at on that evening fifteen years ago on the other side of the planet.

Christ the Redeemer

This sermon was preached on the last Sunday during the Olympic Games, 2016. A picture of the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio standing against a bright blue sky was projected onto the screen behind the preacher throughout the sermon. Earlier in the sermon we had listened to the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32).


This Sunday feels a little bit different. It’s the last but one Sunday and the church’s year and numbers are down in the middle of the summer holidays. It just feels an opportunity to do something a little bit different. So instead of being led in our thoughts by a passage from scripture I want us to be led by a work of engineering and art.

I think this can be very useful every so often. When most of us, who’ve been in the church for some time, read the Bible we do so with some theological baggage. We have conceptions about what the passage should mean and how we should approach it. When we approach God through a work of art we can be liberated from some of that baggage and maybe think a little more broadly and creatively. Any of you who have been to John’s film based discussions will know that those films provoke very different conversations to those that arise in most Bible study sessions.

So as you’ll have gathered from the time we’ve already shared with the children we are going to reflect on the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio. It was proposed in the early 1920s by a Catholic church that was beginning to feel its influence wane partly as a result of the increasing influence of Protestantism, and partly through a trend to a more secular society. It was also a reaction to the horrors of the previous decade in Europe and a desire to provide a focus for Catholicism within Brazil. After several design changes and a major engineering challenge it was officially opened on 12th October 1931.

Christ the redeemer is about redemption. Having commented earlier on about theological baggage there can be no more baggage laden word in the whole of theology, particularly for Protestants. We are all fallen, needing salvation, we can only receive this through faith in Jesus. If we do we are saved. Different people will have a different view of what it means to be saved but the majority of Christians probably still relate this to a promise of eternal life. Many of us will also claim a strong association between faith in Jesus and coming to church and we thus end up in the rather comfortable position that those of us who have faith and come to church will be saved whereas all those who don’t and stay away won’t.

Except it’s not that comfortable is it? Almost all of us will have close friends and relations who we love but who don’t share our faith in Christ. We may be saved but what will happen to them?

Many of us will have tried to raise our children to know Jesus and have faith in him. Many of us, to put it bluntly, have failed in this (including myself). It is difficult to rejoice in your own salvation and still worry about that of you children.

There is an opposite challenge of course for those of us who come to faith from non-Christian families. They will know the joy of faith in Jesus but will almost certainly have parents or siblings who have no interest in Jesus and his offer of redemption.

All of us here, no matter how sure we may be of our own salvation, will have doubts and concerns about that of people we love. This may be exacerbated if we’ve got specific views about what might happen in any afterlife. In extreme if we believe that those who have been saved will pass to one place and those who have not may pass to another.

I’m just going to pause and let you reflect on the people that you love in your life yet who do not share your faith.

But then look at this statue – Do we see judgement? Do we see a division of the population of the world into those who have been saved and those who have not been saved? I don’t think so. I think we see love and acceptance for all. Those arms don’t offer a different welcome for the saint and the sinner, they offer the same welcome.

I’ve picked the parable for this morning’s reading partly because it is a work of art. It is a story that someone (presumably Jesus) made up. There is absolutely no pretence that it is true in any historical sense. It has been created in the same sense that a statue has been created – it is work of fiction and a work of art. Yet it embodies truth – it speaks to us.

It speaks the same message as the statue. It is a message of unconditional love of the father. In protestant theology we tend to think that the young man is saved because he come home. But he isn’t really – his father loves him, and will continue to love him, whether he comes home or not. If the son had not come home, the father would still be waiting. While the story is traditionally known as the parable of the Prodigal Son it is also known as that of the Loving Father, I know which I prefer.

The father’s love was so deep that every day he went and looked down the road, waiting, with arms outstretched for a son he loved. The son is saved not because of anything that the son has done but because of the father’s love. Those open arms, have been replicated to perfection, in this statue.

So let’s pause again and reflect on all those people who we love yet do not recognise the love of God.

Let’s be guided by the truth embedded in this statue. They are not excluded from God’s love, no-one is excluded from God’s love, they have just failed to recognise it. Those of us who do recognise that love, live in a different way. We live in relationship with God and our lives are blessed by this. We can feel sorrow for our unbelieving family and friends that the do not experience the joy of the relationship with God that we have, but let us not be concerned that anything awful is going to happen to them. It cannot because God loves them every bit as much as he loves us. His arms, like those of this stature, are open to all, and always will be. For this we give thanks – Amen.