The Thomas experience

I preached this message at Dawlish Methodist Hall on Sunday 8th April 2018.

Last week we celebrated Easter, the main Christian festival, where we remember Jesus’ death and resurrection. Our bibles tell us what happened a week later, and I want to start by reminding ourselves of that and the preceding story:

Mary Magdalene came and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord, and that he had said these things to her. When therefore it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and when the doors were locked where the disciples were assembled, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the middle, and said to them, “Peace be to you.”

When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples therefore were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus therefore said to them again, “Peace be to you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit! If you forgive anyone’s sins, they have been forgiven them. If you retain anyone’s sins, they have been retained.”

But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, wasn’t with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore said to him, “We have seen the Lord!”

But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

After eight days again his disciples were inside and Thomas was with them. Jesus came, the doors being locked, and stood in the middle, and said, “Peace be to you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Reach here your finger, and see my hands. Reach here your hand, and put it into my side. Don’t be unbelieving, but believing.”

Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus said to him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen, and have believed.”

John 20:18-29 (WEB)

Just as the three days of Jesus’ in the tomb included Friday and Sunday, so eight days would normally designate the Sunday to the Sunday the following week. As such, today is the anniversary of when Jesus’ first appeared to Thomas.

I think Thomas unfairly gets a bad press over his so-called “lack of faith”. In fact, as a scientist, it seems perfectly reasonable to me that Thomas demands to see the “evidence” of his resurrected Lord before he is prepared to overturn his world view again. And let’s not forget that until Jesus’ resurrection appearances, the narrative had become that this was yet another dead Jew – a promising Messiah wannabe who had met the same end as the other Jewish revolutionaries in the preceding century. Thomas asks for no less than what the other disciples had been given: a personal encounter with the risen Jesus.

Before we consider what subsequently happened, it is worth spending a moment thinking about what isn’t written in that verse. All the disciples except Thomas see Jesus on that Easter Sunday, as well as some others such as Mary Magdalene. You can imagine the excitement as they tell Thomas, who is then pretty non-plussed that he has missed the big event. Thomas has to wait an entire week, before his wish is granted and he gets an audience with Jesus.

That must have been an excruciating time for Thomas. He must have struggled to share in their joy – left out, an outsider, who desperately wants to join the party, but who hasn’t had that same experience the other disciples had. Perhaps you would start to question yourself: whether you had done something wrong; whether you were ever really part of that inner circle; if you might be best letting the “chosen ones” get on with proclaiming the gospel while you just get out of the way. I can see Thomas battling against that despair, those feelings of inadequacy – but still hoping with whatever hope he has left that the rumours are true.

It is also a reminder to us of two things:

  1. Our not-yet Christian friends may feel that same way – that they can’t share in our joy because they don’t feel included in our group; outsiders like Thomas for that short while. We need to be sensitive to that – not that we shouldn’t proclaim the truth of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the invitation that is open to all to come see for themselves – but that we need to recognise that what we have experienced and are feeling is not yet what everyone else feels.

  1. There are many times as Christians when we feel outsiders, inadequate, and we question whether we really belong in the same group as our other Christian acquaintances. Perhaps we don’t really feel we have a testimony; perhaps we see giftings in others that we don’t see in ourselves; perhaps like Thomas, we have those nagging doubts about whether we really have what it takes to be a Christian. I want to reassure you that God works in all of that – he doesn’t want scores of identikit Christians, who come fully formed from the same mould. God’s church is diverse and broad; your story is unique and it is as much a vibrant part of the collage of discipleship as anyone else’s.

Jesus did come to Thomas, full of grace and inviting Thomas to partake in his joy. Tradition asserts that Thomas proceeded to go further afield in preaching the gospel than any of the other disciples, travelling to India and the Far East, establishing churches that later missionaries were astounded to find still in existence many centuries later.

The story of Thomas, exemplifies the struggle and transformation each of the disciples went through, and each of us goes through in our own spiritual journey. Each of the disciples had known Jesus, had spent years under his tutelage, living and working alongside him. Many people were healed during that ministry, many heard Jesus’ amazing teachings – yet the bible tells us that still many turned away, and even the disciples were scattered and forlorn at Jesus’ crucifixion. It took an encounter with the risen Jesus to transform their lives; to turn them into not just hearers of the word, but martyrs prepared to give their lives for the sake of the gospel. That same truth remains today as the centrepiece of the Christian faith – for all Jesus’ inspired teaching, and miracles in his ministry on Earth, it is a personal encounter with the risen Jesus that has the power to transform lives.

Jesus final words to Thomas in this encounter are also encouraging to us, living two millenia later: “Blessed are those who have not seen, and have believed.” Christian history is littered with examples of people who have not seen, but have believed. From the earliest patriarchs in Genesis, through Moses who never entered the promised land, and David who paid for and drew up the plans for God’s temple in Jerusalem, but never got to build it. This week we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death, who himself never got to see the emancipation of black people in America, but was certain it was coming. In his address, the night before he died, Martin Luther King told the assembled congregation:

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live – a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

“Blessed are those who have not seen, and have believed.”

The bible tells us more about what Jesus did between Easter Sunday and his ascension. Firstly, we are told that Jesus appears to many more people than just the disciples:

“he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to over five hundred brothers at once, most of whom remain until now, but some have also fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.”

1 Corinthians 15:5-7 (WEB)

That is quite some claim – Paul is effectively claiming that by the number of witnesses alone, Jesus’ resurrection is about as sure as anything can be – there are lots of people who saw him and everyone in Jerusalem knows someone who knows someone who saw Jesus risen.

But we are told also that Jesus wasn’t just popping up amongst people to prove that he had risen from the dead. In the opening verses of Acts we read:

“The first book I wrote, Theophilus, concerned all that Jesus began both to do and to teach, until the day in which he was received up, after he had given commandment through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. To these he also showed himself alive after he suffered, by many proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days, and speaking about God’s Kingdom.”

Acts 1:1-3 (WEB)

For forty days between his resurrection and ascension Jesus not only furnished many proofs of his resurrection, but continued to teach his disciples about the Kingdom of God.

That shouldn’t be a surprise to us because Jesus’ preaching in his ministry before Good Friday consisted almost entirely of preaching about God’s Kingdom: proclaiming its arrival and explaining its nature.

There has been much written and misunderstood about the Kingdom of God. According to Jesus’ own ministry, the Kingdom of God is not some far off utopia. Jesus’ message was urgent: “the Kingdom of God is at hand!” and even “the Kingdom of God is within you!”.

Jesus invites us to be people of the Kingdom, ambassadors for Him, the King, in our relationships with each other, in our relationships with not-yet Christians, in the way we live our lives as witnesses to His own resurrection power. Jesus’ Kingdom, whilst birthed violently in the defeat of death through Jesus’ resurrection on that first Easter Sunday, would be established on earth not by the sword, but through love. Jesus likened the growth of the Kingdom to a small amount of yeast working to rise a batch of dough. And it has been gradual: 50 years ago, Martin Luther King was assassinated for daring to hope that black Americans could have the same rights as white Americans. It took 1800 years for slavery to be abolished in the Western world. European empires that saw indigenous peoples denied their right to self-government crumbled only in the middle of the 20th century. We still have massive issues of gender discrimination in the workplace as the latest data published this week demonstrate that a significant majority of companies still pay women less than men for doing the same job.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.”

Matthew 5:6 (WEB)

Jesus’ message to us is the same message as he gives implicitly in that loving encounter with Thomas. Be transformed in me, your resurrected Lord and Saviour. You are among the people I have called to represent me to the world, and to usher in the Kingdom of God on earth.

Praise be to God!

The abundant life

I preached this message at Dawlish Methodist Hall on 7th January 2018 and at Hebron Gospel Hall, Torquay, on 4th February 2018.

I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep.”

John 10:10-11 (NKJV)

At least three times in John’s gospel, Jesus talks about similar things: the abundance of the life He intends for us or the completeness of that life and joy we can have in Him. That first is from Jesus’ conversation with the Pharisees; the other two appear in Jesus’ words to His disciples shortly before His arrest.

As the Father loved Me, I also have loved you; abide in My love. If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love.

These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full. This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends. You are My friends if you do whatever I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you. You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask the Father in My name He may give you. These things I command you, that you love one another.”

John 15:9-17 (NKJV)

A woman, when she is in labour, has sorrow because her hour has come; but as soon as she has given birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. Therefore you now have sorrow; but I will see you again and your heart will rejoice, and your joy no one will take from you.

And in that day you will ask Me nothing. Most assuredly, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in My name He will give you. Until now you have asked nothing in My name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.”

John 16:21-24 (NKJV)

I want to spend some time unpicking these promises of abundance and completeness Jesus promises us, in relation to other scriptures and Jesus’ ministry.

First, know that it is God’s plan for your life to have that abundant life, complete in joy. This is the same God who told Jeremiah

Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.   Before you were born, I sanctified you.’

Jeremiah 1:5 (WEB)

For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’

Jeremiah 29:11 (NIVUK)

I believe that God wants you to want more of Him – He wants you to think bigger in terms of your relationship with Him. For the Christian, Jesus first and foremost, represents renewal and points us to that deeper more intimate relationship with God that He wants for us.

The first passage, representing Jesus as the Good Shepherd foretells His sacrifice for our sins, dying on the cross on Good Friday, and through His resurrection on Easter Sunday giving us eternal hope for our future and our relationship with God. In effecting this renewal, it is important that Jesus is both sinless (so as not needing to atone for us own sins) and divine, so as to be able to pay an infinite price exceeding even the penalty for my sins, your sins, and the sins of everyone else past, present and future. Jesus Himself says to His disciples and to us

Rejoice that your names are written in heaven.’

Luke 10:20 (NIVUK)

That is an amazing promise, but it can also blind us to the further truth about Jesus’ sacrifice if we are not careful. That eternal life, that right relationship with God is not just about our destiny after we die, but is also about the here and now.

The Jewish sacrificial system that foreshadowed Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice was not really about one’s eternal destination – it was about putting our relationship with God right on that day, so that the transgressor could start afresh and continue in right relationship with God from that moment onwards. It was a serious, onerous task to bring a new sacrifice to God as an atonement for each sin. So it is also with Jesus’ sacrifice for us – we are called into right relationship with God today and each day and we shouldn’t think of it as a credit we have banked solely for the day of judgement.

If this was all Jesus came to do, then He took a long time about doing it. Jesus came not only as a sacrifice, but also to teach us about God and what it means to be in perfect relationship with God. Jesus teachings were (and some might say still are) controversial and are challenging. Probably we know many of them, but to what extent do we actually live them out in our own lives?

I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.’

Matthew 5:20 (NIVUK)

You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.” But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, “Raca,” is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, “You fool!” will be in danger of the fire of hell. Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.’

Matthew 5:21-24 (NIVUK)

 ‘You have heard that it was said, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.  And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.’

Matthew 5:38-42 (NIVUK)

 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Matthew 5:48 (NIVUK)

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way as you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

Matthew 7:1-2 (NIVUK)

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

Matthew 7:21-23 (NIVUK)

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

Matthew 7:24-27 (NIVUK)

That’s just a tiny fraction of Jesus’ teaching about what it means to love God and to love people. That’s difficult, challenging stuff to live out. Jesus Himself affirms that He comes not to condemn but to save, but He also leaves us in no doubt that He expects us to put His commands into practice. That is the content of the second passage we read about the “abundant life”, summarised by Jesus’ command to love one another.

However imperfectly we might achieve those standards, however many times we have to repent for our failings and be washed again in Jesus’ cleansing blood, putting Jesus’ words into action in our own lives is part of our journey of discipleship, it is part and parcel of living in right relationship in the here and now with God and all those people on earth who are made in His image – that is everyone!

Jesus may have reminded us of how we are to live our lives, but our responsibilities to God and to others are themes that run throughout scripture.

And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe the Lord’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good?

To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it. Yet the Lord set his affection on your ancestors and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations – as it is today. Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer. For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. Fear the Lord your God and serve him.

Deuteronomy 10:12-20 (NIVUK)

Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom; listen to the instruction of our God, you people of Gomorrah! ‘The multitude of your sacrifices – what are they to me?’ says the Lord. ‘I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts?

Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations – I cannot bear your worthless assemblies. Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals I hate with all my being. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening. Your hands are full of blood!

Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.

Come now, let us settle the matter,’ says the Lord. ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the good things of the land; but if you resist and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.’ For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

Isaiah 1:10-20 (NIVUK)

God’s plan remains for us to live in right relationship with Him and with others. Jesus’ sacrifice clears the way for that to happen now and every time we fail, and Jesus’ teachings remind us of what that right relationship means in practice.

But Jesus came also to show us in the example of His own life how we are to live in perfect relationship with God and others. I think it is important here to understand precisely in what manner Jesus lived his earthly life. Philippians 2 declares that

Jesus, who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross!

Philippians 2:6-8 (NIVUK)

The Revised Standard Version reads “emptied Himself” and the New Living Translation has “gave up His divine privileges”. The church has long argued over exactly how this can be reconciled with Jesus being fully God and fully human and I don’t intend to go into the detail of that debate. But what seems clear to me is that Jesus lived His life on earth without the use of His divine powers or privileges.

This has important consequences for our interpretation of scripture and implications for our own walk with God. Jesus’ miracles, His teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven do not stem from His divine power – they stem from His perfect relationship with God. Jesus Himself says

Truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.’

John 5:19 (NIVUK)

In His earthly life, Jesus is continually being shown what the Father wants Him to say and do and He is equipped with the wisdom, power and abilities to do so through the Holy Spirit. There are times when Jesus cannot do something or does not know something precisely because He is not using His own divine powers but is utterly dependent on His relationship with His heavenly Father who shows Jesus what He needs to know and what He needs to do at that moment:

He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few people who were ill and heal them.

Mark 6:5 (NIVUK)

But about that day or hour [of the end times] no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

Mark 13:32 (NIVUK)

In case you need further convincing, miracles and powerful teaching are not the sole preserve of Jesus throughout scripture – they are also features of the ministry of the prophets and apostles and many others empowered through their relationship with God. Jesus Himself affirms

It is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves. Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.

John 14:10-12 (NIVUK)

The key message for us is that we too can do all the things that Jesus did in His earthly ministry – and more – if we live in right relationship with God. That is the essential message also in the third passage we considered about the “abundant life”: “ask and receive that your joy may be complete”. Precisely because Jesus lived His earthly life as a human without His divine privileges and powers and dependent solely on His relationship with God the Father, aspiring to do the same in our own lives is not some fantasy on a par with pretending we are Superman – rather it is the call to discipleship of every Christian believer.

I believe that God is calling us to think bigger, to desire a deeper relationship with Him and to aspire to that perfect relationship and abundant life that Jesus leads us to through His sacrifice, His teaching and the example of His own life.

Engaging in the science-religion debate

I preached this message at the 5:30pm fellowship at Dawlish Methodist Hall on Sunday 1st October 2017.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’

(Mark 12:30)

I read with interest an article in the Guardian this week, discussing the findings of a survey on science and religion.  What was most intriguing was not what Christians believe – we know there is considerable diversity of opinion there – but what non-Christians think we believe, and here there is a massive gap between reality and perception.  You see, most of the Christians interviewed in the survey saw no conflict between the findings of science and their faith; but most non-Christians perceived that the opposite must be true – that there is no way that the Christian faith and the results of scientific inquiry can be reconciled in the minds of a Christian believer.  As a scientist and a Christian, I was also interested to read that there are many more theists among scientists, than atheists – people whose expertise and profession is in science are more likely to believe in God, than not believe.

As you might expect, the Guardian article received quite a lot of comment in the readers’ letters a day or two later, two of which I will read to you.  The first letter reads as follows:

While I am sure that there are many people working in scientific fields who would claim to be religious, it always seems to me that there really is a basic conflict here, rather than a “misunderstanding”.

How can any ultimately “supernatural” explanation (whatever that means) for a phenomenon ever be a “scientific” answer? At what point can any dedicated scientist investigating a difficult problem decide that there is no scientific answer to it and that it can be explained only as an act of God? How would such results be presented for scientific peer review and in what terms would they be couched?

Exactly what “specific steps in the universe’s history must be the direct result of divine intervention”? Isn’t this supernatural view just a resort to mystery? And isn’t it the job of science to defy, examine and explain mystery?

And now the second letter:

You quote Lord Williams as saying: “Christians and scientists need to… recognise that their supposed ‘war’ is just fiction … The Apostles’ Creed (which is still regularly recited in church on Sunday) appears to require the faithful to believe that Christ died and was physically resurrected, that in turn our bodies will be resurrected and that we will have eternal life (“the life everlasting”).

If we take these injunctions literally, I would expect that many, if not most, scientists would find difficulty in accepting them. If they are not to be taken literally (and why not?), then their acceptance by the majority of scientists would depend crucially on how they are to be interpreted. The same observation could be made about other religious concepts, including that of miracles. Unless the church can clarify just what is meant by these important elements of religious faith (are they literally true or, if not, what do they mean?) it would appear that the “war” is emphatically not fiction.

As an evangelist seeking ways of communicating the gospel and opportunities to do so, three things seem immediately clear to me:

  1. For non-Christians such as the authors of these letters, the perceived conflict (whether real or not) is a significant barrier to faith;
  2. Non-Christians have very little idea as to what we really believe and what we really mean when we say it;
  3. There is a very poor understanding (universally) of the scientific method and the conclusions it can produce.

I’m going to start therefore by discussing the scientific method.  There are various competing philosophies of science, but all seem to agree on the following basics:

  • Science cannot prove anything incontrovertibly – it operates by accumulating evidence through repeated experimentation;
  • Scientists develop theories to explain what is observed, make predictions based on those theories, and then design further experiments to test those predictions.

An immediate consequence of this is that scientific theories can only ever be prefaced with phrases such as “In the normal course of things …” or “All things being equal …”.  Scientists know and understand those limitations, so mostly we don’t bother to include those phrases in our scientific statements, because they are unnecessary.

Water boils at 100°C is a scientific statement and everyone would know what you mean, but it is not universally true.  At normal pressures, pure water boils at 100°C – in fact, that’s the definition of 100°C.  But if the pressure is significantly lower, then water will boil before it reaches 100°C; if there are impurities in the water, then the boiling point of water may be further altered.  The scientific statement we started with isn’t wrong, but it is far from complete.

Scientists are so used to the sensitivity of their results to the environment, that experiments are performed in tightly controlled conditions – laboratories, for example, where the precise temperature, pressure, air composition, background radiation, can all be precisely determined.  Moreover, scientists learn to distrust results that cannot be replicated.  If I take a thousand readings from a scientific instrument, not only am I unlikely to get 1000 identical results, I will get some variability around the correct answer, but I may also get something completely unexpected – a wildly inaccurate reading.  If this can be replicated, those anomalies are often the first tentative steps to discovering a new scientific result.  But if they cannot be replicated – no matter what you try and how close you try to get the conditions to when the anomaly happened – then when analysing the data, a scientist will typically disregard the result as an error.

This robustness that comes from repeated experimentation and replication of results is what gives the scientific method its power.  But only when we respect the limitations of such a methodology also.

Christians claim that Jesus, who lived 2000 years ago, died and then lived again.  The claim concerns a one-off event in history, which by definition cannot be the subject of repeated scientific experimentation.  The truth of Jesus’ death and resurrection is a question concerning historical evidence – by its very nature it cannot be a question concerning scientific evidence.

Moreover, Christians agree absolutely with scientists who would argue that “people don’t rise again from the dead”.  Absolutely, as a correctly interpreted scientific statement “in the normal course of things, people don’t rise again from the dead” – we would all agree.  In fact, this scientific truth confirms that if the historical evidence points to the fact that Jesus rose from the dead, then something extremely unusual has happened – supernatural in the correct sense of the word, in being beyond what one would expect to occur naturally.  Science cannot adjudicate on the truth of a one-off historical event, only historical enquiry can, but it can affirm that the event would have been an amazing, unusual, unexpected, spectacular, supernatural occurrence.

And that is precisely why it is recorded in the bible and why it caused such a stir. Jesus’ resurrection was no less a surprise to his contemporaries, than it would be today.  In fact, throughout its pages, the bible is a record of miraculous events – by definition, supernatural occurrences that are recorded precisely because they are unexpected and not part of mundane everyday life.  Just as with Jesus’ resurrection, science can make no claim regarding their truth … it can only affirm their miraculous nature.

And let’s be honest, do we really want to read an account of the Exodus say, that goes “Day 500 in the wilderness: weather hot; ate manna again; we’re still lost and no-one is speaking to Moses.  Day 501 in the wilderness: weather hot … etc”?

So let’s now return to my 3 points from earlier:

  1. For non-Christians such as the authors of these letters, the perceived conflict (whether real or not) is a significant barrier to faith;
  2. Non-Christians have very little idea as to what we really believe and what we really mean when we say it;
  3. There is a very poor understanding (universally) of the scientific method and the conclusions it can produce.

How do we deal with these issues?  To me, it appears that the solution has two parts:

a) We have to engage in that debate as true evangelists;

We are told in scripture:

“But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect,”

(1 Peter 3:15)

It is incumbent upon us to enter the arena of public debate and to give a good account of our faith.  That is quite a challenging thing to do and so first we need to really engage in those debates with each other:

As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.

(Proverbs 27:17)

b) The church must equip us to engage in that debate.

We are used to letting our church leaders do the hard work for us, wrestling with scripture and telling us what we should believe and how we should put it into practice.  We’re complicit in allowing that to be the standard model of church preaching.  But often that just leaves us knowing certain “truths” without really knowing how those truths have been arrived at, because we’ve let our preacher do that for us.

As a teacher, I could just tell my maths students the answers to the problems that I’ve set them – but all that does is leave them knowing the answers, which has little value in itself.  If I really want them to learn, I need to explain clearly and carefully how I’ve got to those answers, and give my students those same tools to be able to tackle similar problems on their own.

Without that training, Christians are left wide-open to having their faith shaken any time they encounter something they haven’t heard before.  We are being left to fend for ourselves:

Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.

(1 Peter 5:8)

Those tools of bible exposition are much more subtle than the ordinary Christian might believe from the certainties espoused each Sunday from the pulpit and they require a great deal of practice and inquiry in a safe friendly environment to master.

Some of the following are definitely not stupid questions and require more than just a pat answer:

  1. How do we know Jesus lived, died and rose from the dead?
  2. What does it mean to say that Jesus is God? Or the Son of God?  Or the Son of Man?
  3. Is the bible inerrant? Divinely inspired?  What do those terms mean?
  4. Why do the genealogies for Jesus in Matthew and Luke differ from each other?
  5. How can cosmology and evolutionary science be reconciled with the creation as described in Genesis?
  6. How can we be sure that women can/not be permitted to preach in our churches?
  7. God declares eating shellfish to be “an abomination” in the Old Testament, so is it permissible now?
  8. Consuming blood is prohibited both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. Is it ok to eat black pudding?  What about rare steak?
  9. What actually does the bible teach on divorce?

I’m not saying that coherent responses to those questions don’t exist, but how confidently could you justify your answer for each?

When Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to a church door, 500 years ago at the start of the Reformation, he was inviting the Catholic church to a theological debate to work through the contradictions he saw in church doctrine.  The response of the church was to excommunicate him, rather than have the authority of its leaders questioned.  Unfortunately, we have yet to learn those lessons today with preaching and small group study often being more about asserting the will and authority of the leadership, than genuinely seeking together.

Just as the emergence of the printing press was the essential tool that ensured that the Catholic church leaders could no longer maintain control by restricting access to scripture, so the emergence and ubiquity of the internet have sown the seeds of a New Reformation.  Everyone now has access to a plurality of views, sources, debates and the underpinning arguments on their phone or computer.  It is no longer sufficient for the church to teach “truths” without teaching also the tools to derive these.  Rather than trying to hold back the tide by teaching obedience to church doctrine, leaders need to teach critical thinking and discernment.  The result will be better theology and a better Christian witness.

This could start tomorrow – the first step is to bring together congregations from different denominations to discuss belief and theology: the common ground and the differences between our churches in Dawlish.  Real discussion and debate, practised in love and grace so that we can understand each other more and develop those tools of critical analysis and good biblical exposition.

We have nothing to fear from engaging in these debates and discussions, either with atheists declaring that science precludes our faith, or with each other seeking to create better understanding across the denominational and theological divides.  Our gospel is big enough and broad enough to embrace everyone.

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.

(Matthew 7:7)

Living in our kingdom identity

I preached this message at ‘The Gathering’ in the Strand Centre at 6:30pm on Sunday 23rd July 2017.

The last time I spoke, about a month ago, we explored 1 Corinthians 12-14 so that we could understand more about  the spiritual gifts as “learner charismatics”.  Among other things we discussed were:

  • In the Greek, these spiritual gifts are called “charismata” meaning “gifts given by grace”, hence they are undeserved and are not markers of being a particularly “good” Christian!
  • These gifts are given to build us up individually and collectively, and sometimes to help us in our ministry to others who are not yet Christian.
  • Paul exhorts us to desire spiritual gifts and particularly those that are of most use in our ministry roles, such as the gifts of healing and prophecy.

I have been tremendously encouraged by the prophecy day where many of us started to learn to use that gift, and more generally since then as we’ve shared prophecies, interpretations, experienced healings and prayed for others in turn.

In Romans 12:6-8, Paul writes:

6 In his grace, God has given us different gifts for doing certain things well. So if God has given you the ability to prophesy, speak out with as much faith as God has given you. 7 If your gift is serving others, serve them well. If you are a teacher, teach well. 8 If your gift is to encourage others, be encouraging. If it is giving, give generously. If God has given you leadership ability, take the responsibility seriously. And if you have a gift for showing kindness to others, do it gladly.

I encourage you to read the whole chapter because it is a wonderful summary of how we are to live as God’s people under His grace, but this passage in particular indicates how God is teaching us, discipling us as we use the gifts he has given us.  The translation doesn’t quite capture the sense of the original Greek, because this is another example of the Greek present continuous tense.  Last time, we saw this in the verse:

Seek [and keep on seeking], knock [and keep on knocking] …

This time the sense is

If God has given you the ability to prophesy, speak out [and keep on speaking out] with as much faith as God has given you.

The reason I equate this with discipling is because faith itself is a gift from God, as is made clear in the passage.  As we operate in that faith and are encouraged in small ways, God enlarges our faith encouraging us to explore our gifts further.  It is a continual process of being apprenticed in the ways of God.

I want us to look ahead a little to the mission in September.  We are going to see healings, amazing prophecies, confirmation of God working tremendously in people’s lives – and most importantly souls being saved as people respond to the gospel message.  And ahead of us we have this time of prayer and preparation, as we practise using our gifts and are built up in our faith in turn.

I know however, there is still some lingering doubt that each of us is somehow not good enough or are not special enough to be able to heal, or prophesy, or teach, or speak in tongues.  I know that because that was Rach’s response when she received an answer to prayer for healing someone else.  I want to spend a little time tonight dissecting that.

God, in his infinite wisdom, has a history of using the most unlikely people – often seriously broken people – to perform tremendous deeds, in order that God might be glorified.  We are not worthy in and of ourselves, but that is the point, that is grace in operation, and it ensures that neither we nor those who experience what God does can be in any doubt that it is God acting powerfully through us as imperfect conduits of his love.  Indeed, one of the themes of the Old Testament is how God chooses the Hebrews whom He describes as “the least of all the peoples” and yet through them does wonderful things, including building them into a powerful nation.  And yet, repeatedly they forget their humble beginnings as slaves and grow arrogant and are punished for turning away from God.

And there are similarly unlikely individuals whom God uses mightily, such as David who wasn’t even deemed important enough to be presented to Samuel – a real-life Cinderella story, yet David was anointed king.  I am sure that you have heard it many times before, but it is worth reading the following prose again to you:

The next time you feel like GOD can’t use you, just remember…

Noah was a drunk

Abraham was too old

Isaac was a daydreamer

Jacob was a liar

Leah was ugly

Joseph was abused

Moses had a stuttering problem

Gideon was afraid

Samson had long hair and was a womanizer

Rahab was a prostitute

Jeremiah and Timothy were too young

David had an affair and was a murderer

Elijah was suicidal

Isaiah preached naked

Jonah ran from God

Naomi was a widow

Job went bankrupt

Peter denied Christ

The Disciples fell asleep while praying

Martha worried about everything

The Samaritan woman was divorced, more than once

Zaccheus was too small

Paul was too religious

Timothy had an ulcer..AND

Lazarus was dead!

I want to focus a little more on Paul and Peter because they reveal something important to us about how God operates in our lives.

Paul, humanly speaking, was everything that we might equate with a spiritual Godly person.  He was a devout Jew, studying under the most prominent Jewish teacher of his age, who knew scripture thoroughly, was unrivalled in zeal for his faith, and who was obedient to his leaders in preaching the true faith and correcting those who were leading others astray.  And yet in striving for religious perfection, he had got it all so wrong.  Miracle-working, Spirit-filled preachers of the gospel were not sufficient to persuade him of that – it took an encounter with the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus to shake him to his core and to reveal through all that brokenness, who God was raising him up to be.  And even after that encounter, we see throughout his letters the continual process of discipleship that followed under the guidance of the Holy Spirit – a process that continued throughout his life.  He talks openly about his struggles in Romans 7:

21 I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. 22 I love God’s law with all my heart. 23 But there is another power[e] within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. 24 Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? 25 Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord. So you see how it is: In my mind I really want to obey God’s law, but because of my sinful nature I am a slave to sin.

Some of the most memorable passages in Paul’s letters deal, directly or indirectly, with the battle within.

Peter, in many ways, is the polar opposite of Paul.  Peter knows he is a worldly and sinful man, and says as much to Jesus.  He is rash, acting on impulse in every situation and yet is almost post-modern in his complexity and contradictions: bold on the surface, but deeply fearful within; an alpha-male lost in the world, but inwardly aware of a deeper truth and cautiously open to spiritual enlightenment.  If you want to understand young men and teenagers of today, studying Peter will reveal a great deal.

Peter, this big-hearted brash but fragile creature, is broken utterly by his denial of Jesus and Jesus’ death on the cross.  But shortly after, he is restored in his encounter with the risen Jesus, and after being filled with the Holy Spirit at that first Pentecost he is able to walk in his new kingdom identity.

And I think this is an important pattern for us to recognise as we think ahead to the mission and the evangelism and ministry of which we will be a part.  For all the miracles Jesus performed during his earthly ministry, for all the great preaching and enigmatic insights into the nature of God, many walked away – perhaps encouraged with a warm fuzzy feeling that they should do better.  The disciples even, having spent years at the centre of Jesus’ ministry were spent, shattered, broken at the cross.  It took an encounter with the resurrected Jesus to really convince them of who they were destined to be.  Even then, in Matthew 28, just before Jesus’ gives the disciples their Great Commission we read:

16 Then the eleven disciples left for Galilee, going to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him—but some of them doubted!

It took the Holy Spirit poured out upon them for the disciples to live the resurrected life they had been called to.

The cross reveals our brokenness to us.

It takes an encounter with the resurrected Jesus to restore us and reveal who we are made to be.

It requires the Holy Spirit to enable us to walk in our kingdom identity.

As we think ahead to the mission in September, for me that highlights a pressure-free approach to evangelism.  Just as I can’t give you directly an experience of being me on my wedding day or the birth of my sons, we can’t give anyone directly an encounter with the resurrected Jesus.  As imperfect as we are, God will use each of us to break down the barriers that make that encounter possible, but whether in healing, prophesying or preaching, there is no pressure on us to perform.  Because the healing is not the thing; the prophecy is not the thing; how well we speak is not the thing – God is in control of the only thing that matters: namely revealing the resurrected Jesus to whomever he chooses and following that with his gift of the Holy Spirit.  I can’t do that for anyone; you can’t do that for anyone; only God can.

Spiritual gifts

This message was preached by me at ‘The Gathering’ in The Strand Centre, Dawlish, at 6:30pm on Sunday 18th June 2017.

Those of you who have been to a church service this morning have probably heard enough about Father’s Day, so I am not going to speak about that.  But I am going to speak on a related topic – that of gifts.  Jesus tells us (Matthew 7:7-11) that our Father in heaven desires to give us good gifts, provided we keep on asking, keep on seeking, keep on knocking.

God blesses us in myriad ways, practically as well as spiritually, but this evening I am going to focus on spiritual gifts.  We are experiencing, here on Sunday evenings, the development of a charismatic fellowship – and I, as much as anyone else here, am on that journey of discovering what that means for me and how God wants to bless me with spiritual gifts and to use me for His glory.

As you would expect, scripture teaches us a great deal about spiritual gifts, why they are given, what they are to be used for, and what our response should be.  I am going to turn to Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthian church and consider what chapters 12-14 tell us about all this.  It is a long passage, but I really encourage you to read through it all and pray through it over the week, as a whole, so that you get a coherent sense of what Paul is saying.  There is often so much to say about even a small part of scripture that we can easily end up isolating sections – and 1st Corinthians 13 is a prime example – without seeing them in their wider context.  So I am certainly not going to say everything that could be said about this section, but I hope by treating the three chapters together, we get a coherent picture of the message Paul writes about the gifts of the Spirit.  As you pray it through during the week, note down anything that God lays on your heart and bring it back to us here on Sunday evening, so we can all benefit from God speaking through you.

In 1 Corinthians 12:1-3, Paul writes:

Now concerning spiritual things, brothers, I don’t want you to be ignorant.  You know that when you were heathen, or Gentiles you were led away to those mute idols, however you might be led.  Therefore I make known to you that no man speaking by God’s Spirit says, “Jesus is accursed.” No one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” but by the Holy Spirit.

Note first that spiritual gifts were, and still are, misunderstood.  One of the things I hope to do tonight is to encourage anyone who feels that they haven’t got a spiritual gift, or don’t know what those gifts are yet, or how to use them.  Know however that the Holy Spirit is working in you – Paul affirms that everyone who declares “Jesus is Lord” does so by the power of the Holy Spirit.  It is the Holy Spirit alone who can reveal that truth to you.

We read on in 1 Corinthians 12:4-7

Now there are various kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit.  There are various kinds of service, and the same Lord.  There are various kinds of workings, but the same God, who works all things in all.  But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the profit of all.

Paul starts here a theme that he will expand on shortly. God has not designed us to all be the same and have identical experiences and roles.  He treats us as individuals and we should rejoice in that individuality.  In respect of our spiritual gifts, our ministries and the way in which God works in our lives, we are all different.  That is not something God intends to divide us and breed resentment – it is something to be celebrated and to be used to build up the church.  As an example, compared to some of the testimonies we sometimes hear – of lives transformed from drug addiction, gang warfare, miraculous healings, audible or visible encounters with Jesus – my testimony is rather mundane … boring even.  But God still uses that in conversations with not-yet Christians and sometimes that is precisely the message they need to hear.  Most people we speak to have not had those sort of dramatic experiences either; but they have experienced difficulties and low points, they have asked searching questions about the meaning of life, they have experienced a yearning for something more.  And however boring your testimony might seem to you, it might be exactly what is needed to speak meaningfully to them.

My Greek is not good enough to know whether the final sentence is declaring whether “A spiritual gift is given to each of us, and it is given as a means of helping the entire church” or “To those who have a spiritual gift, it is given as a means of helping the entire church”.  I’ve looked at it in a number of translations and they all seem to retain the ambiguity.  What is clear however is the purpose of each spiritual gift: it is given for the benefit of others – the whole church in fact.  It is to be used and shared, not hidden away.

Paul goes on to describe the spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12:8-11

For to one is given through the Spirit the word of wisdom, and to another the word of knowledge, according to the same Spirit;  to another faith, by the same Spirit; and to another gifts of healings, by the same Spirit;  and to another workings of miracles; and to another prophecy; and to another discerning of spirits; to another different kinds of languages; and to another the interpretation of languages.  But the one and the same Spirit produces all of these, distributing to each one separately as he desires.

Notice first the breadth and diversity within that list.  We tend to focus on the spiritual gifts we think are most dramatic – such as healing, prophecy and speaking in tongues.  But Paul starts with things that we might not even think of as spiritual gifts: giving sage Spirit-filled advice – how important that is; the word of knowledge – a special insight into someone’s life, revealed to us by the Holy Spirit; special faith – there are people here whose gift is that you have endured difficult times and your faith has emerged strengthened, or that everyone knows that they can go to you for encouragement, love and support, whose smile or hug lifts even the darkest mood – that is a really special gift.

The last sentence is really important: spiritual gifts are precisely that – they are gifts given by the Holy Spirit, not something we have earned or deserve or are markers of devoutness or holiness – and this is something that the Corinthian church needed correction on.  The Greek word for spiritual gifts is charismata, from charis meaning grace.  From this we get charisma meaning [a thing] given by grace and charismata is the plural, hence gifts given by grace.  Grace is undeserved favour, so by definition you cannot be deserving of a gift given by grace, otherwise it wouldn’t be God’s grace that is operating!

The Holy Spirit gives these gifts for specific purposes – they may be temporary or may stay with us, but they are given for a specific function in order to build up the body of believers that is Christ’s church – to encourage one another, to speak into each other’s lives, to teach, to help others and to heal.  As you may have heard it put before: God doesn’t call the qualified; he qualifies the called.  He alone sees how it all fits together in His grand scheme of building His church on earth.

This is a theme that Paul continues in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31

For as the body is one, and has many members, and all the members of the body, being many, are one body; so also is Christ.  For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether bond or free; and were all given to drink into one Spirit.  For the body is not one member, but many.  If the foot would say, “Because I’m not the hand, I’m not part of the body,” it is not therefore not part of the body.  If the ear would say, “Because I’m not the eye, I’m not part of the body,” it’s not therefore not part of the body.  If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the smelling be?  But now God has set the members, each one of them, in the body, just as he desired.  If they were all one member, where would the body be?  But now they are many members, but one body.  The eye can’t tell the hand, “I have no need for you,” or again the head to the feet, “I have no need for you.”  No, much rather, those members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary.  Those parts of the body which we think to be less honorable, on those we bestow more abundant honor; and our unpresentable parts have more abundant propriety;  whereas our presentable parts have no such need. But God composed the body together, giving more abundant honor to the inferior part,  that there should be no division in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another.  When one member suffers, all the members suffer with it. When one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.

Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually.  God has set some in the assembly: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracle workers, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, and various kinds of languages.  Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Are all miracle workers?  Do all have gifts of healings? Do all speak with various languages? Do all interpret?  But earnestly desire the best gifts.

Notice again the diversity of functions that Paul describes including those who can help others and those who can get others to work together (or gifts of administration or government in various translations), which are crucial to the effective functioning of the church.  To expand on Paul’s simile, who here has heard of mitochondria?  These are little bacteria that live in the cells of our body, millions of them.  They are tiny and are so insignificant that most of you have never heard of them.  Yet if our mitochondria disappeared we would die almost instantly – within a couple of seconds.  You see, they convert the sugars in our body into the energy needed to keep each cell of our body working.  They are astonishing, vitally important and yet outside of cell biologists, get little credit for the critical role they play in the working of our bodies.  God is amazing – he supplies the body with all the bits it needs, in order that it can function properly and so it is with His church.

Here it is worth spending a moment to understand more fully what is meant by the church.  Certainly, each of us have different functions in this fellowship of believers on Sunday evening and we are given relevant gifts to perform those functions.  But God recognises only one church – the entire body of believers with Christ as its head.  In fact, it is not even as simple as saying that all the Christian congregations put together comprise the church in Dawlish.  In part, the Great Reformation saw that argument played out with the Protestant Reformers insisting that the church visible and God’s church invisible are not necessarily the same thing: it is not up to the church or its earthly leaders to decide who is in and who is out; that is up to God and some who count themselves as inside the church are not in the book of life, and others who we might not consider as being part of the church, are, in fact.

The relevance for us, however, is to recognise that our functions are not exclusively within this fellowship, but we are called to serve the wider church.  Many of us are part of other congregations and this is an important aspect of our function within the church.  It may be that your reason for being part of this fellowship on Sunday evenings is to be encouraged and built up and filled by the Spirit, in order that you can take that love, joy, discernment and spiritual gifts back to build up another congregation in turn.  Or the opposite may be true: that you bring teaching and encouragement from other congregations here so that we can learn and grow from that.

Paul’s next passage on love is widely known, but is frequently preached out of context.  It is, at its heart, a rebuke of the Corinthian church and extols how we are to use our spiritual gifts responsibly (1 Corinthians 12:31-13:3):

Moreover, I show a most excellent way to you.  If I speak with the languages of men and of angels, but don’t have love, I have become sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal.  If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but don’t have love, I am nothing.  If I give away all my goods to feed the poor, and if I give my body to be burned, but don’t have love, it profits me nothing.

Here Paul works his way through some of the spiritual gifts listed and explains how they can only be exercised effectively when they are expressed lovingly to encourage others.

He continues in 1 Corinthians 13:4-13

Love is patient and is kind. Love doesn’t envy. Love doesn’t brag, is not proud,  doesn’t behave itself inappropriately, doesn’t seek its own way, is not provoked, takes no account of evil;  doesn’t rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth;  bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.  Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will be done away with. Where there are various languages, they will cease. Where there is knowledge, it will be done away with.  For we know in part and we prophesy in part;  but when that which is complete has come, then that which is partial will be done away with.  When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I felt as a child, I thought as a child. Now that I have become a man, I have put away childish things.  For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, even as I was also fully known.  But now faith, hope, and love remain—these three. The greatest of these is love. 

Again, Paul reminds us that our spiritual gifts are, in effect, temporary.  Once the new heaven and new earth are established and we see our Lord Jesus face to face, there will be no more need of these gifts.  This again points to the purpose of our gifts as building up the church on earth – they are given for a time, for a specific purpose and for a specific person to use them to the benefit of the entire church.

The New Living Translation expresses this as “Now we see things imperfectly as in a poor mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity”, whereas the King James version renders this as “see through a glass, darkly”.  To understand this, we need to realise that silver-backed glass mirrors, such as we have, are a relatively modern invention.  In Paul’s time, mirrors would tend to be a polished surface, such as a bronze sheet.  Imagine trying to fix your hair staring at your reflection in a bronze tea-tray and you get some idea of the contrast that Paul is drawing between our understanding now and how it will be at Christ’s return.

This should also be an encouragement to those of us who are just starting out trying to understand our spiritual gifts – learner charismatics as it were.  Even if we have the gift of prophecy or the word of knowledge, say, no-one exercises that gift with perfect understanding or crystal clarity.  It might just be a nagging impression, or a poorly-defined image, and as you pray it through, the Holy Spirit will guide you in what to reveal and when is the right time.  Often it might not mean something to you, but it may mean something to someone else – or it may have no immediate relevance but subsequently the meaning is revealed.

I am not going to read through chapter 14, but I am going to pick out a couple of key passages for us in 1 Corinthians 14:1 & 13

Follow after love and earnestly desire spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy.  

Therefore let him who speaks in another language pray that he may interpret.

Paul exhorts us to pray both to receive spiritual gifts and to help us to exercise them effectively.  In the spirit of chapter 13, we are to do so selflessly, so that we can use those gifts in love to encourage others.

This perhaps is something that we don’t do as much as we perhaps should.  It is often easier to pray for others that to pray for ourselves, yet it is important that we don’t neglect our own spiritual development.  Jesus, our perfect example on earth, prayed for himself and teaches us in the Lord’s prayer to pray for ourselves – so we couldn’t want for a better example!

We return then to the words Jesus spoke that I began with in Matthew 7:7-11

“Ask [and keep on asking], and it will be given you. Seek [and keep on seeking], and you will find. Knock [and keep on knocking], and it will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives. He who seeks finds. To him who knocks it will be opened. Or who is there among you, who, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? 10  Or if he asks for a fish, who will give him a serpent? 11  If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

I’m going to ask you just to sit silently for a couple of minutes and just to reflect and pray through what the Holy Spirit has put on your heart.

Now I want you to talk to each other about that in pairs of threes.  Perhaps you are not sure what gift you have; perhaps you are nervous using that gift; perhaps you have lots of experience of your gift to share with others.  As you talk, let that lead you into prayer with each other: prayer to receive more spiritual gifts; prayers to help you use them wisely and lovingly.

Christian responsibility in a multi-cultural society

This message was first preached on Sunday 26th March 2017 at the 5:30pm fellowship in the Methodist Hall, Dawlish.  I later preached this message on Sunday 23rd April at the 6:30pm meeting in Hebron Gospel Hall, Torquay.  In addition to the verses quoted, the message was prefaced by a reading from Isaiah 59:1-60:3.

The world was shocked on Wednesday 22nd March when a lone man caused devastation in central London by driving his car through pedestrians and then attempting to gain access to parliament, killing a police officer and being shot dead himself.  In that one act and its aftermath, we saw humanity at its worst – a calculated plot to spread terror and panic with scores injured and five dead – and humanity at its best, as the public raced to help the injured, our emergency services leaping into action and a policeman selflessly sacrificing his life to protect others.  Since the incident, we have heard from political and religious leaders around the world, condemning the act and declaring that we will not be afraid and that we will not be diverted from our way of life.

This has become almost a stock response to tragedy – particularly terrorism – over the decades, that it is easy to get swept up in the public mood of defiance, but as a Christian I know that it is the complete opposite to what we should be doing … asking deep questions about life and how we live it.  However, noble the sentiment, ultimately our leaders are declaring that we have got it right, that the way we live our lives is the correct way.  Having been wakened from our slumber as a complicit public, our leaders are desperately begging us to fall back asleep while they continue at the wheel.

Whatever our personal political or ethical views, as Christians we know in our hearts that there is a great deal wrong with the path on which the world is headed.  We live globally and locally in an incredibly unequal society, in which the richest people have more money, power and influence than many nations and the majority of the world’s population are either on the breadline or are one missing paycheck away from financial disaster.  We live in a society of broken homes, where increasingly children are growing up with one parent; a society riven with addiction to drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex, food, television, shopping – a society rampant with idolatry.  It is no surprise that a broken society creates broken and disturbed people and statistical analysis of the ills in society, from teenage pregnancy, through criminal offences, to suicide are all correlated strongly with social inequality.

For all the “business as usual” messages, however, many people will be asking those deep questions about why such a tragedy could have occurred, and will be pondering the fragility of a life where ordinary people can go to work or go sightseeing in the morning and not return home in the evening.

Many people will be angry, in private if not in public, that God – if He exists – could allow such tragic events to happen with the associated heartache and grief.  Indeed, suffering of this kind is one of the chief objections against the existence of God – or at least of an all-powerful loving God.  We are familiar with the argument: if God cannot prevent the tragedy, then He cannot be all-powerful, yet if He chooses not to prevent it, then He cannot be loving.

As Christians, we know this to be a false dichotomy and that God, thankfully, does not have to measure up to our standards of perfection.  We know that such evil is the product of human arrogance, sinfulness and the broken world that we have created – our plan, not God’s and an act of free will that He allows whilst weeping with us in our suffering.  Scripture is littered with such examples, notably Job, but Jesus also pulls His disciples up in their erroneous thinking when discussing a local tragedy:

Luke 13:2-5 Jesus answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered such things? 3  I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all perish in the same way. 4  Or those eighteen, on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them; do you think that they were worse offenders than all the men who dwell in Jerusalem? 5  I tell you, no, but, unless you repent, you will all perish in the same way.”

Such objections are not only often hypocritical – imploring God to intervene when anything inconveniences us, but otherwise begging him to leave us to get on with our Godless, idolatrous lives – but they also fundamentally misunderstand how God operates within the world, and it is worth stepping back for a moment and understanding the theology and science underpinning the reality of this.

Science has wonderfully confirmed the basic creation narrative in the last century.  Nothing could look more like a Creator God stretching out the heavens, than the Big Bang that cosmologists now believe marks the start of the universe – everything created out of nothing in an instant.  More than this, we understand better than ever, thanks to Einstein, the nature of space and time.  In particular, time is also part of the created universe and is inextricably intertwined with space.  I can only glimpse the faintest shadow of truth relating to the nature of space and time and the implications for how God operates, but two things strike me as immediately apparent.

1.       God stands outside space and time, present at every moment simultaneously.  This means that God can intervene at any moment including in our past, present and future.  God is like the film director who can see every frame of the showreel and can choose to cut out a scene, replace it, introduce a new character or plotline – at any point in the story He chooses.  Or, if you prefer, God is like a painter seeing the canvas of space-time and the dog’s dinner of a picture that we have created, but is now painstakingly reworking the whole image according to His design, painting over areas of the canvas, adding in painstaking detail in places – gradually transforming our stories into His masterpiece.

2.       God is not constrained by time, but we are, as is evil.  Far be it for me to judge God’s work, but time strikes me as a brilliant invention.  It is the means by which God contains the effects of evil and apostasy, whilst allowing Him to build a relationship with us and disciple us.  Time biases the rules of engagement, ensuring that God, not Satan, wins.  It strikes me as tremendously important that from God’s viewpoint, Jesus is even now, simultaneously being crucified for our sins, rising from the dead and seated on His throne.

 Thus, objections that God hasn’t intervened to prevent this or that event, forget that He is not constrained to do so by our timescale.  It is like looking at a rough cut of a film, or the first wash on a watercolour painting and complaining that it is not very good yet!  God is perfecting us, if we let Him, and He will act decisively to establish the new heaven and earth … perhaps the objectors should be careful what they wish for!

Whilst there are those who will seek the opportunity to bash God, there will be many others who will reflect on the transient nature of life.  And the true tragedy of the event on that Wednesday is not the loss of life so much as that at least one and probably more of those dead, have died in their sins.  And this underscores how much more work we need to do to fulfil the Great Commission to preach the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection to the world.  I don’t know whether they ever heard the gospel message preached powerfully, but we have a generation growing up who don’t know even the basics of Christian faith because their parents have never been taught it.

The risk is that, following the events on that Wednesday and anticipating a backlash against religion, Christians and Christian leaders will withdraw even further from visible mainstream society for fear of offending and will increasingly preach their message to believers behind the closed doors of the churches.  This then is the second tragedy  that multiculturalism, instead of being a battleground of ideas and ideologies, where faith and faithlessness are openly debated and in which Christianity holds all the cards  today’s multiculturalism emphasises a private faith and a right not to be offended.

The Christian response to this has to be to reject such a definition of multiculturalism and to refuse to be complicit in playing the role society would have us play – good Christians in the privacy of our own homes and churches, and good citizens in our engagements with wider society.  The early Christians faced a no less difficult task in preaching the gospel to a similarly multicultural Roman empire – we probably do not face the risk of being martyred – and from that small but faithful group of followers, Christianity swiftly spread and dominated Western thought for nearly two millennia.  We have the advantage over the early Apostles in almost every way, but we need to be willing to follow their pattern in engaging with people in the marketplaces and public squares, offering to the world an explanation for the hope that we have and allowing the Holy Spirit the opportunity to convict those with whom we speak.

Contrary to the assertions of our politicians, the world does not need to carry on as usual in the wake of an act of terrorism – the world needs Jesus and it is our Christian duty to be the hands and feet that take the Christian message in word and deed to all those who need to hear it.  This is not something that can be done within the safety of our own churches, or that we can leave for our church leaders to get on with on our behalf.  Most of the people we need to engage with have no intention of setting foot in our churches, or coming along to the annual Churches Together open-air service.  How then will they know the message of God’s love for them, if we are not to be the ones who speak that truth into their lives through our everyday relationships?  Jesus calls us to be a light to the world and that we are not to hide that light away:

Matthew 5:13-16  “You are the salt of the earth, but if the salt has lost its flavor, with what will it be salted? It is then good for nothing, but to be cast out and trodden under the feet of men. 14  You are the light of the world. A city located on a hill can’t be hidden. 15  Neither do you light a lamp, and put it under a measuring basket, but on a stand; and it shines to all who are in the house. 16  Even so, let your light shine before men; that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.

We need to put ourselves in positions where we can be sensitive to the Holy Spirit guiding our conversation, and we need to learn to be effective evangelists, individually and collectively.  A couple of years ago, I picked up a book in the Oxfam bookshop in Teignmouth called “How to make evangelism slightly less difficult”.  It appealed to me because the title itself acknowledged that it is no easy task, humanly speaking, to speak about faith with others.  One of the central tenets of the book is that for people to be open to receiving the gospel, first their existing set of beliefs needs to be destabilised.  In a postmodern world that is increasingly difficult to do – people segment parts of their lives, thoughts and beliefs and are able to hold contradictory viewpoints without too much concern, primarily because they don’t question anything too hard, or perhaps maintain that there is no such thing as truth.  This creates a shell that can be difficult to penetrate and it is through loving everyday relationships that we are able to encourage people to let down their guard.

We are all called to have an answer for the hope that we have and each of us Christians has a unique and complementary message, covering the vista of ways in which God calls us and transforms lives.  Hence the importance of understanding each other’s stories and being witnesses together.  Some people need to hear about the evidence for the historicity of the gospels, some need to hear about lives transformed, some need to experience the warmth of Christian love and generosity, others need to be swept away by music.  Jesus sent out his disciples in pairs at least in part so that their strengths and witnesses complemented each other.

The last time I spoke with you was in October, when my message was about returning to a new way of doing church – small local networks of people, flexible and agile enough to respond to local situations and the needs of those we engage with.  Since then, a small group of Christians has met faithfully on Saturday afternoons 4-6pm on the Lawn in Dawlish, complementing the work that goes on in the Inspire café and at the Open Daw here in the Methodist church.  We take food and hot drinks to share, play Christian music and welcome anyone who wants to come to talk or eat with us.  We’ve been richly blessed over the last 5 months and have come to know many of the people marginalised by society and that are so in need of God’s love and hope in their lives.  Some folks come for the food, some for conversation, some to just listen to the music, but all find a peace, a love, and an acceptance that they don’t seem to find elsewhere.

We are witnessing some remarkable transformations and it begins with that destabilisation of their world view and identity.  For many of these folk, their life-story is one of being uncared for, unlovable, unwanted even by society to whom they are deemed a nuisance.  The public protection order on the Lawn is testimony to how little Dawlish wants to do with these people and the fact that the council deny the existence of any homeless individuals, whilst the police deal with rocks being dropped on their shelter and their blankets and sleeping bags are stolen during the day.  As I said, we are living in a postmodern world where people happily hold contradictory viewpoints without ever questioning them too hard.

And yet, we can see the self-esteem and self-care of these individuals grow as they come to know a small group of people who love them.  And as we come to know them, we learn also about who is best to walk alongside them.  I don’t want to give the impression that we are doing anything special – it is God bringing folk each week and the Holy Spirit that is guiding our interactions and conversations – but we need to put ourselves in a position whereby the Holy Spirit can work through us.

The last thing therefore that I want to put to you is a challenge.  In what ways are you engaging with people who need to hear the gospel message?  In what ways are you putting yourself in a situation whereby the Holy Spirit can work through you to reveal God’s glory to others?  And if you are not doing this yet, what is stopping you?  You may know the old saying:

“For want of a nail, the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe the horse was lost; for want of a horse the rider was lost; for want of a rider the message was lost; for want of a message the battle was lost; for want of a battle the kingdom was lost.  And all for the want of a horseshoe nail!”

We know that spiritually speaking, the battle is won and the kingdom can never be lost.  Yet each individual still needs to be won for the kingdom.  You are the rider with the message – what is the nail preventing you from delivering that message to the intended recipient?

For want of a rider, the perpetrator of Wednesday’s atrocity was lost and with him any of his victims who had not accepted God’s message of love and reconciliation through Jesus.

The great cloud of Christian witnesses

I preached this message at Hebron Gospel Hall, Torquay on Sunday 7th August 2016.  Our readings were 2 Chronicles 7:11-22, Hebrews 11:1-12:2 and Matthew 13:44-45.  We sang three hymns: “Immortal, invisible”; “Just as I am”; and “Stand up, stand up for Jesus”.

I want to talk to you today about the importance of our witness for Christ, both to the not-yet-Christians in wider society and to fellow Christians within our community.

I regret that we appear to be living in a period that is very hostile to the preaching of the gospel message, and that somehow it is seen by wider society that being a Christian is somehow anti-intellectual.  As both a Christian and a scientist, I can assure you that it is possible to be both, as many of my colleagues are, and I know that you will agree with me that we don’t need to suspend our mental faculties in order to believe the gospel – indeed, we are called to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength – yet this is not a message the world wishes to hear.

Perhaps the best example of how the western world wishes to view Christianity – and religion more generally – is exemplified in the book “The Life of Pi” by Yann Martel, which is an award-winning book and film.  The hero is a young Indian boy who decides as a child that he likes elements of Hinduism, Islam and Christianity and that he can take the parts that he likes of each as his religion.  The story is told with him many years later narrating an incredible voyage across the open sea after the cargo ship he is on sinks, but he also provides a more believable but less compelling tale of his journey and asks the reader explicitly to decide which story we prefer – explaining that we have that same choice with respect to our religious beliefs.  Thus, Christianity is seen as one possible alternative amongst equals on a supermarket shelf of innumerable possible alternative beliefs and all we need to do is to choose the one we like best.

It is a nice fairytale, perhaps, to believe that we need simply to choose the lens through which we view life, but as Christians, we know that the fairytale is simply not true.  We know that Christianity is not simply a choice amongst equals, but that Christianity has a historical, intellectual, emotional, experiential truth and explanatory power that none of the alternatives possess.  But the myth pervades society and has damaging consequences for our Christian witness.

I am going to relate to you an example from my community of Dawlish that shocks me and I am sure will shock you also.  In two weeks’ time, there will be an event in Dawlish organised by the owner of a local New Age shop that includes mediums, healers and selling magical items – and a significant portion of that event is taking place in one of our local church buildings.  Now I agree that we have to engage with the wider community, as Jesus did.  But while Jesus associated with prostitutes, he did not invite them to ply their trade in the temple.  Indeed, he overturned tables and expelled unscrupulous traders from the temple, declaring that it was not to be turned into a den of thieves.

Such apostasy by wider society in general and the church in particular is nothing new – indeed, it has been a sad feature of the history of God’s people that we regularly turn away from God and are deceived into compromising on God’s principles and standards for us.  The Israeli nation repeatedly took up sorcery and the worship of idols and was repeatedly punished for it.  And here we must not read our bible with rose-tinted spectacles – as our reading from 2 Chronicles declares, God promises great blessings for his faithful people, but there are accompanying curses for the apostate and those who seek to compromise on God’s holy standards.

As Christians we have an individual and collective responsibility to be good witnesses for God’s perfect holiness; that whilst promoting the gospel message of unbounded love, mercy and grace, we are called also to be a “holy nation”, “set apart” and “a perfect offering acceptable to God”.  One way or another, God will demonstrate his holiness through us – either by the good witness we make to His glory, or by making an example of us to others.

In our witness to both Christians and not-yet-Christians, we need to live out the standards God declares for our lives.  If through the use of our church buildings, or our bodies we are deceiving people into believing that unholy practices are acceptable to God, then we are not fulfilling our duty as witnesses.  Paul, in his letters to the Corinthians stresses the importance of being good witnesses in order not to lead the people around us astray.  Paul gives the example of eating meat sacrificed to idols – if our fellow Christians find it intolerable and likely to lead those weaker in the faith astray, then we should refrain from an inadvertent public witness that seemingly declares idolatry to be inconsequential.

In our second reading from the letter to the Hebrews, the author indicates how we are part of a great tradition of faithful witnesses to the glory of God and that, just as they provide examples of that faithful witness to us, we are to play our part in being faithful witnesses to others.  Many of the witnesses mentioned – Abel, Abraham, Moses – did not live to see the full fruits of their faith, which was bestowed on others.  But their faithful witness speaks clearly and reassuringly to us now through the ages, perhaps more so to us given the passage of time than to their contemporaries.

We are part of that same witness to generations of Christians to come – perhaps to our children and grand-children, to members of our church, to the next generation of preachers and church leaders.  What will the testimony to our faith say?

One of my church leaders used the following simile recently, which I find to be quite instructive.  I think we have probably all heard of the term “our Carbon footprint” … it is an indication of how much energy we use in our daily lives.  From switching on a light or a kettle, watching the television, using the car or public transport, heating our home, cooking our meals – they all use energy mostly derived from gas or coal or oil, or other carbon-based fuels.  It is called a “footprint” because it leaves a mark, and as a global population that mark can be detected quite easily by measuring the amount of carbon dioxide being put back into the atmosphere.  So the corresponding question is: “What is our Jesus footprint?”  What are the visible, measurable signs for all to see that Jesus is at work in our lives, that we are His and that we are working for His glory.

Even though they hadn’t yet seen the fulfilment of God’s promise to send a Saviour to crush the serpent once and for all, it was Noah’s faith that led him to build the ark despite the mockery of his contemporaries and his “Jesus footprint” is the preservation of humanity and the animal kingdom in the face of the devastating effects of the flood.  Abraham’s “Jesus footprint” consists of his many descendants both physically and spiritually, even though he was prepared through faith to sacrifice his only son at the altar.  Moses’ faith led the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt and into freedom and his “Jesus footprint” was the nations of Israel and Judah, from whose line David and eventually Jesus was to come.

Much more recently, Martin Luther’s “Jesus footprint” is the existence of the Protestant churches, and the recognition that we are saved by grace alone.  Wycliffe and Tyndale’s “Jesus footprints” are our English bibles.  My “Jesus footprint” is unlikely to be as large as those I have mentioned, but whether it is the impact on our family and friends, or wider still, we all have a “Jesus footprint” – what is yours?

Analogous with our “Jesus footprint” are our “Jesus fingerprints”.  Fingerprints are personal, unique to every individual and much harder to spot – you have to get close up and examine them carefully.  “What do your Jesus fingerprints say”?  What is the personal impact of Jesus Christ in your life?  The things that people can’t see easily, but that are there just as importantly in private – sometimes these are things that matter more to us personally than what is visible as our “Jesus footprint”.  Perhaps it is that personal relationship we have with God, that closeness we feel in our times of private devotion to Him.  Perhaps it’s the way we feel and experience His Holy Spirit when we sing praises to Him, perhaps it is the part we know He has played time after time in our lives that everyone else just puts down to good fortune.

Footprints and fingerprints are those public and private witnesses to Jesus working in our lives.

I have this lovely little book by William Barclay titled “The Master’s Men”.  It tells the story of each of Jesus’ disciples and the witness they are to His life and works.  What came through for me most clearly as I read through their stories, was how “ordinary” they were, but how powerfully Jesus worked to transform their lives.  The gospels and other books of the New Testament don’t hide their human flaws – their pride and selfish ambition, their lack of faith, their cowardice, their inability to comprehend what they are witnessing despite living and working with Jesus on a daily basis.  And yet, in His presence and particularly in the presence of the risen Lord, they are transformed.  Peter, who denies Jesus three times at His hour of greatest need, becomes a warrior for His new church, fearlessly proclaiming Jesus’ divinity to his own martyrdom; John, previously dubbed one of the “thunder twins” for their fierce, argumentative nature, becomes known to his own followers and to us as the apostle of love; Thomas, firmly sceptical of the testimony of the other disciples, collapses to his knees in the presence of the risen Jesus and proceeds to proclaim Him further afield than any of the other apostles.

We too are flawed people – in ourselves unworthy witnesses to the glory of Christ – but He transforms us and our witness, making something remarkable out of something dearly loved but otherwise unremarkable.  Whenever we feel that we are not “good enough” to do God’s work, it is worth reminding ourselves of who He chose as His disciples – none of them “good enough” in their own strength, but transformed by the power of His Holy Spirit.

When we are feeling insecure in our own witness, it is sometimes tempting to leave everything to God in His infinite power and wisdom – and of course, we have to acknowledge that God is sovereign over all.  But we are called also to be Jesus’ hands and feet – Jesus asks us not only to pray for the hungry and destitute, but to feed and clothe them – our ministry for Jesus is to be practical, as well as spiritual, just as His was during His time on earth.  Teresa of Avila wrote a beautiful verse indicating our witness:

Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which He looks compassion on this world.
Yours are the feet with which He walks to do good,
Yours are the hands with which He blesses all the world,
Yours are the hands, Yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, You are His body.
Christ has no body now but yours.

As we read in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus offers us this incredible trade but it is an “all or nothing” deal.  He promises all of Himself, in return for all of ourselves, including our bodies to be His hands and feet on this earth.

Perhaps you’ve seen one of those “life swap” programmes on television, where for a day or a week two people trade places to experience life as the other person.  They are most dramatic and instructive when the people involved have very different lives to begin with – perhaps one poor and the other rich, or a hard labourer swapping with an office clerk.  Perhaps we’ve wondered ourselves what it would be like to experience unbounded wealth for one day.  Jesus offers us the most incredible trade – His perfect and spotless life, the infinite riches of His inheritance and a life forever in God’s presence, in return for our imperfect, grubby, broken lives.  There is no catch, but it is an “all or nothing” deal – we can have the pearl of great price, but the great price is all of ourselves, our ambitions for ourselves, putting our bodies at His service.

It is difficult, because we have a tendency to cling onto parts of our life that we don’t want to trade, particularly as we feel the Holy Spirit transforming us from within.  I find it helpful to remind myself of what it must have been like for a blind man healed by Jesus.  He has spent his entire life in darkness and so, when those first glimpses of daylight enter his healed eyes it must have been exciting, but very quickly become extremely painful.  In the hours and days after the healing, the light itself may have seemed unbearable – perhaps all his body and his mind could think of was to close his eyes and shut out the burning light, to hide in a dark corner somewhere.  You see, whilst we know that in healing him, Jesus was restoring his body perfectly to its intended form and function, it would have been very easy for the blind man subsequently to wish for less – for a half-life of blurred vision that was less intense and more familiar, for a little of Jesus’ power to have fallen on him, rather than a lot.  But Jesus will have it no other way – perfectly restored as He intended, not as we desire.

The strapline for my church in Dawlish is “More people, more like Jesus”, but often we represent Jesus only in terms that we think the wider world will find acceptable.  Dorothy Sayers is dismissive of the church’s tendency to gloss over certain aspects of Jesus’ ministry:

We have very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified him “meek and mild,” and recommended him as a fitting household pet for curates and pious old ladies.  To those who knew him, however, he in no way suggests a milk-and-water person; they objected to him as a dangerous firebrand.  True, he was tender to the unfortunate, patient with honest inquirers, and humble before heaven; but he insulted respectable clergymen by calling them hypocrites.  He referred to King Herod as “that fox”; he went to parties in disreputable company and was looked upon as a “gluttonous man and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners”; he assaulted indignant tradesmen and threw them and their belongings out of the temple; he drove a coach-and-horses through a number of sacrosanct and hoary regulations; he cured diseases by any means that came handy, with a shocking casualness in the matter of other people’s pigs and property; he showed no proper deference for wealth or social position; when confronted with neat dialectical traps, he displayed a paradoxical humour that affronted serious-minded people, and he retorted by asking disagreeably searching questions that could not be answered by rule of thumb.  He was emphatically not a dull man in his human lifetime, and if he was God, there can be nothing dull about God either.

“More people, more like Jesus” – do we really understand what it is we are asking for?  I welcome this vision wholeheartedly, but the results will be a loving, but fiery ministry as we embrace all that Jesus is and represent him faithfully both in what we say and what we do.

As Jesus’ representatives on earth, we have an obligation also to preach Jesus’ word powerfully and prayerfully to those who don’t yet know about the wonderful offer He has for us – of His life for ours.  And just as different parts of the body have their own function, we will have our different roles in that witness – some through personal testimony, some through acts of charity and love, some through singing praise and worship, some through prayer, and each according to our different giftings, which will often be a mixture of these ministries in varying proportions.

Just as Paul, when confronted with the altar to the unknown God in Athens, preached who it was the Athenians were called to worship, so we must be preaching the truth of who we were made to worship to a world that wants to believe in the fairytale of religious free choice.  Not a coercive witness – that was never Jesus’ way – but a persuasive witness in all its fullness and glory.  Jesus promises us that this will not be without its troubles – we will be mocked and persecuted – but Jesus endured worse for our sakes without complaint.

We all have our part to play and your lives are a testimony to God’s glory and power.  And part of your role is to remind me and my generation of what the gospel powerfully preached is like.  I don’t know what “revival” looks like – I am too young to remember the last time God’s Holy Spirit flooded powerfully through our nation – but I know this isn’t it; there is more to come.  I don’t know what God’s plans are for our local communities, but I know that the present situation where His church is fearful of preaching His gospel message to a hostile society isn’t it; there is more to come.  To those proclaiming that what we see now is God’s kingdom come in power and glory, I say this isn’t it; there is more to come – Jesus is coming back and will establish His eternal rule.  I don’t know what the new heaven and new earth will look like, but I know this isn’t it; there is more to come.  I don’t know what our heavenly bodies will be like, other than being glorious; but this flesh and blood body isn’t it; there’s more.

We know there is more; we long for more; Lord come in power and glory; “Sir, we would see Jesus”.

The hierarchy of propositional truths

The following message was given by me on Sunday 24th July at St Mary’s Café Church in Portreath.

In my professional training I am a mathematician at the University of Exeter and I have a wider interest in quantum physics, the universe and evolutionary biology.  Music is an incredibly important part of my life and I am fortunate enough to be the worship leader for Dawlish Christian Fellowship, which is my church back home in Devon.  Through my professional training, I have had to learn what constitutes proof and make professional judgements about what constitutes appropriate evidence to demonstrate any given statement.  This is an analytical approach that I seek to bring to my understanding of the Christian faith also and I will talk more about this later.

If you were here last year when I spoke, then you may recall that we discussed at length science and religion, the nature of “knowledge” and what constitutes “evidence” to determine the truth of any given statement.  For example:

  • If I want to know why the sky is blue, then I will find more suitable evidence by appealing to science, than to creation mythology;
  • If I want to know how you feel, or what you received for your last birthday, then I am better off asking you than plugging electrodes into your brain;
  • If I want to know what a historical person such as Jesus did and who he is, then I am better off looking at historical documents detailing his life and impact on those around him than appealing to the result of one or other scientific experiment.

In short, the question you ask may give you a clue as to what is an appropriate methodology for answering it.  Of course, it is not always simple and straightforward … the question “Does God exist?” might admit evidence from scientific methods, historical methods, sociological methods, philosophical methods and perhaps many other areas.

What I want to talk to you about today is what I will call the “hierarchy of propositional truths” and I will try to explain what I mean by that.  As a mathematician, part of what I study is logic and in particular I am interested in the following questions:

  1. If I have a collection of statements I assume to be true (my premises) what new statements can I derive from them that must also be true (my conclusions)?
  2. If I change my premises, how do my conclusions need to change?
  3. If I am interested in a particular conclusion, what is the smallest collection of premises for which that conclusion is true?

Let me try to illustrate this with an example.  A prime number is a number that is divisible perfectly only by itself and 1; if a number isn’t prime it is called composite.  So 2 is prime, 3 is prime, 4 is composite because you can divide it by 2, 5 is prime, 6 is composite (you can divide it by 2 and 3), 7 is prime, 8 is composite (divisible by 2 and 4), 9 is composite (divisible by 3), 10 is composite.  Primes get rarer the further you go along the number line (there are more things that you can be divisible by), but I can prove that there are infinitely many primes (if you are interested in the proof, then ask me afterwards).  We know that every composite number can be written as a product of primes in a unique way, so 4 = 2 x 2, and 6 = 2 x 3, and 8 = 2 x 2 x 2, and 9 = 3 x 3, and 10 = 2 x 5.  This is called the Fundamental Theorem of Arithmetic.  Now the interesting question is not just why is this true, but what properties of arithmetic does it depend on.  For example, it clearly doesn’t depend on whether or not the sky is blue.  More interestingly, it also doesn’t depend on using fractions – you need to know how to multiply, and add, and subtract, but you don’t need to know how to divide.

Now the Fundamental Theorem of Arithmetic is an interesting conclusion if you start with the rules of arithmetic as your premises, and you can even purge the rules for division from your premises and the Fundamental Theorem of Arithmetic remains true.  Not all conclusions are interesting however … for example, if I take the Fundamental Theorem of Arithmetic as my premise, then the conclusion that 6 is a unique product of primes is not really interesting, because it is now a particular example of something more general.  If all numbers are a unique product of primes, the statement that some numbers are a unique product of primes is simply not interesting.

Now proving the Fundamental Theorem of Arithmetic is a little like climbing Everest.  You have to tackle it in stages, setting intermediate goals instead of heading straight for the summit.  Each of these intermediate goals is a conclusion (endpoint) in its own right, and then becomes the premise (starting point) for the next stage.  This is the “hierarchy of propositional truths” – given a set of premises, certain new statements are arrived at in a certain order.  It’s a bit like, if I fly to Nepal, then certain things have to happen along the way and there are constraints on how they are arranged:

  • So I have to leave Cornwall;
  • And I have to leave the UK;
  • And I have to get on a plane;
  • And I have to travel over the sea;
  • And I have to leave Europe …

There is a certain hierarchy to those statements, but they are not strictly linear (I don’t have to board the plane in the UK, for example).  With any given set of premises, there is a tangled hierarchy of conclusions that can result from them and part of the job of the mathematician is to understand how all the bits depend on each other.

Now, how does this relate to Christianity?  I think this has a really interesting parallel with the Christian journey and by extension how Christians can evangelise effectively.

If I can speak to the mature Christians here, I hope we all feel that the upper slopes are exhilarating, as we see the summit more clearly and ever closer.  But I think we forget quite a lot of detail about what it was like taking those first steps in the foothills of Mount Everest.  In fact, we may have spent so much time figuratively above the clouds, that we’ve forgotten quite a lot about what the terrain of the foothills looks like.  We’ve forgotten perhaps that there are lots of routes up the mountain, some very different to the ones we explored.  Perhaps we spend a lot of our time now with like-minded explorers dissecting obscure passages from the bible, forgetting just how much of the knowledge and experience we’ve built up over the years this depends on.

Reciprocally, to those earlier in their journey ambling in the foothills, that’s exciting too.  Your fellow Christians are here to help you to navigate your way further up the mountain, but be patient with your guides – they have forgotten a lot since they did the journey themselves.  It may feel that they were just parachuted in somewhere higher up the mountain when they tell you to use a foothold that looks 10 metres higher than you can reach, but that’s because they’ve forgotten the route or took a different path to you.

Coming back to the language I used earlier, most of us (myself included) don’t have a good understanding of the hierarchy of propositional truths relating to Christianity – that tangled web that tells us how various statements about the faith relate to each other and in particular, which are “basic” truths and which sit much higher up the hierarchy.  And it is a difficult web to untangle: where, for example, does the question “Who is Jesus?” sit in relation to the question “Does God exist?”.  Does one sit higher than the other?  Or is there something more complicated going on e.g. a resonance whereby as you explore one, you find more evidence for the other until you can establish both are true simultaneously?

Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians describes this a different way: feeding babies milk, until they are mature enough to eat meat.  That’s not meant to be patronising or to say that the big challenging theological questions aren’t the ones to start with, but it recognises simply that there is an order of precedence, or a hierarchy to the questions one wishes to explore.

As a concrete example, one issue that many Christians misplace in this hierarchy is their statement of faith about the bible itself.  My church belongs to a tradition whose profession of faith in the bible declares that it is “the inspired and inerrant self-revelation of God”.  Now we can argue about what that means and I have deliberately not said whether or not I believe that personally.  What we can perhaps agree on is that this statement sits very high up in the hierarchy.

To be more specific, if you start with the premise “everything the bible says is true”, then the conclusion that “Jesus is God incarnate” is not very interesting, because that conclusion is simply one of the many statements that the bible makes.  What is much more interesting is the question, how little do we have to believe about the bible in order that the conclusion that “Jesus is God incarnate” is a valid inference.  Because no-one seeking to understand the Christian faith is going to accept “everything the bible says is true” as a starting point, and why should they?  But they might be prepared to start from the place of asking what historical documents exist from around the time of Jesus’ life and death, and whether or not these are credible sources.

If one were to try to establish that the bible is the “inspired and inerrant self-revelation of God”, then there are possible routes that one could take, but they are boot-strapping arguments, whereby you have to start with something much less ambitious.  For example:

1)      we might start from the point of view that the gospels are interesting historical documents that have something to tell us about Jesus;

2)      we might conclude that they provide convincing evidence that Jesus is God;

3)      we might ask what Jesus’ views were on scripture and how he used it;

4)      we might conclude because of how Jesus, who is God, viewed scripture that it is indeed more than a collection of interesting historical documents and perhaps we will find sufficient evidence to declare the bible the “inspired and inerrant self-revelation of God”.

Notice however that the crux of this, and in fact just about every other matter in the Christian faith, is the question Jesus poses to his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?”  And to answer that we need to appeal to historical documents about Jesus, questioning why we should accept them as a credible witness and identifying what evidence they can provide to answer that question.  That’s digging (or trekking) that everyone has to do for themselves, with help as necessary, but it is not a question you can answer without having given it serious consideration and research.  C.S. Lewis’ key observation on the question of “Who is Jesus?” is given on the handout:

A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

Dorothy Sayers, in her essay “The greatest drama ever staged” (pp 4-5), writes the following about our tendency to domesticate Jesus, rather than digging deeper to find out who he really is:

We have very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified him “meek and mild,” and recommended him as a fitting household pet for curates and pious old ladies.  To those who knew him, however, he in no way suggests a milk-and-water person; they objected to him as a dangerous firebrand.  True, he was tender to the unfortunate, patient with honest inquirers, and humble before heaven; but he insulted respectable clergymen by calling them hypocrites.  He referred to King Herod as “that fox”; he went to parties in disreputable company and was looked upon as a “gluttonous man and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners”; he assaulted indignant tradesmen and threw them and their belongings out of the temple; he drove a coach-and-horses through a number of sacrosanct and hoary regulations; he cured diseases by any means that came handy, with a shocking casualness in the matter of other people’s pigs and property; he showed no proper deference for wealth or social position; when confronted with neat dialectical traps, he displayed a paradoxical humour that affronted serious-minded people, and he retorted by asking disagreeably searching questions that could not be answered by rule of thumb.  He was emphatically not a dull man in his human lifetime, and if he was God, there can be nothing dull about God either.

It all depends on who this man is … and we have an obligation to pose the question, so that others can seek the answer in their turn.

In evangelising, we can only be effective evangelists for Jesus, however, if we are prepared to meet people where they are on their Christian journey, not where we are.  Otherwise, we are simply advising the traveller who is asking for directions, “Ooh, well I wouldn’t start from here”.

The Apostle Paul understood this well as he travelled the Roman Empire preaching about Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.  In the book of Acts (17:22-31), Paul comes to Athens and sees that they are deeply spiritual people who have an altar inscribed “To an unknown God”.  So he proceeds to use this as the starting point to tell them the Good News about Jesus.  Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians, “I have become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some.”  By this he doesn’t mean that he has become unscrupulous in the way he preached Christ on the cross, but that he met people where they were.  If someone was a Jew, then he could discuss where their religion was pointing; if someone was seeking spiritually, he was able to engage them in explaining why they felt the need for something more and where to find it; if someone was poor or ill, he comforted and healed them, discussing the hope they have in Jesus.

We have to do the same, engaging people where they are and getting to know them in order that we can help them on their faith journey more effectively.  And lest I give the impression that the intellectual route is the only path up the mountain, we should be clear that it is not the most effective witness for everyone.  Some people want to hear the stories of lives transformed; some people want to see Christians stepping out and doing good works in the community; for some people it is prayer, or music, or art that draws them closer to Christ.

And recognising that I’m going to finish by presenting the gospel message in song.  Many of these words are drawn from Isaiah 53, which was written approximately 600-700 years before Jesus’ birth and we have manuscript copies from about 200 years before his birth.  It is called “Immanuel”, which means “God with us”.

Christian unity and Christian responsibility

This message was preached by me on Sunday 3rd July 2016, 5:30pm, at Dawlish Methodist Hall.

Church unity

1 Corinthians 1:10-13

My dear friends, as a follower of our Lord Jesus Christ, I beg you to get along with each other.  Don’t take sides.  Always try to agree in what you think.  Several people from Chloe’s family have already reported to me that you keep arguing with each other.  They have said that some of you claim to follow me, while others claim to follow Apollos or Peter or Christ.  Has Christ been divided up?  Was I nailed to a cross for you?  Were you baptised in my name?

1 Corinthians 3:4-9

Some of you say that you follow me, and others claim to follow Apollos.  Isn’t that how ordinary people behave?  Apollos and I are merely servants who helped you to have faith.  It was the Lord who made it all happen.  I planted the seeds, Apollos watered them, but God made them sprout and grow.  What matters isn’t those who planted or watered, but God who made the plants grow.  The one who plants is just as important as the one who waters.  And each one will be paid for what they do.  Apollos and I work together for God, and you are God’s garden and God’s building.

A hostile culture

When Paul is writing circa 55AD, Christianity as an organised religion is still to be established and it faces myriad existential threats.  Behind the remarkable numbers of people coming to faith, as we read through Acts, we can’t escape the sheer hostility of the culture into which the gospel message is being preached.  Paul, Peter and the Apostles are literally kicked from pillar to post as they proclaim the Good News of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  And their message is offensive to the religious sensibilities of the time: in Paul’s letters we see time and again the twin threats of Jewish legalism on the one hand, and a laissez-faire spiritualism practised by the masses and having as its heritage a fusion of paganism and Greek philosophy.

Into this heady mix step the Apostles, travelling from town to town, living and working in the community, and building and training self-sufficient networks of local believers.  And yet soon after they move on, we see Christian communities being torn apart by their “super-evangelist” status, as each Christian aligns themselves with one or other Christian superstar and boasts of being saved by Paul, or Apollos, or Peter.  Paul’s rebuke is clear and authoritative: he will not see Christians riven by factions – or denominations if you will – we are all to glory in being united as a single church under the headship of Christ.  This theme of unity in Christ runs through Paul’s letters whether talking about super-evangelists, socio-economic status, or theological differences.

Parallels today

The challenges we face as Christians in today’s society have certain parallels with those faced by the early church.  Despite centuries of being the established faith, Christianity now proclaims its message in a hostile environment, where religion and spirituality are personal choices about what I want to believe.  “The Life of Pi”, a brilliant book and film, sums this up perfectly as it invites the viewer to decide which story they like best – drawing explicitly a link to religious belief.  At the same time, there is enormous public distrust in authority and institutions: politics and government; bankers and economists; churches and their leaders.  Whilst Michael Gove’s comments that “the public have had enough of experts” are ridiculous on one level, they reflect a deep cynicism in trusting anyone with a vested interest.  And let’s be clear, we have significant vested interests in getting people through the doors of our churches: our buildings are large, expensive to maintain and to heat, and however meagrely our ministers have to be paid.  One consequence of “church as business” are that much of the fluctuation in church numbers comes from churchgoers changing allegiance from one local denomination to another – a bid for viewers in the prime-time Sunday morning slot to help pay the bills.  And the world sees this merry-go-round and believes rightly that it is better off without it.

Because the brutal truth is that the people of Dawlish do not need Evangelicals and Methodists, Anglicans and Catholics, Congregationalists and Baptists – they need Jesus, pure and simple.  Yet in our own ways, codifying what it means to belong to this church or another we revisit the arguments of the Corinthian church and reintroduce the sort of religious legalism that Jesus criticised so vehemently.

This is not a new situation and it is a lesson that we have to learn over and over again.  Just as arguments over which super-apostle you were baptised by threatened to tear apart the Corinthian church in Paul’s day, so Martin Luther during the Great Reformation had to remind us of the differences between the “church visible” and God’s “church invisible”.

Christian responsibility

Romans 14:13-23

We must stop judging others.  We must also make up our minds not to upset anyone’s faith.  The Lord Jesus has made it clear to me that God considers all foods fit to eat.  But if you think some foods are unfit to eat, then for you they are not fit.

If you are hurting others by the foods you eat, you are not guided by love.  Don’t let your appetite destroy someone Christ died for.  Don’t let your right to eat bring shame to Christ.  God’s kingdom is not about eating and drinking.  It is about pleasing God, about living in peace, and about true happiness.  All this comes from the Holy Spirit.  If you serve Christ in this way, you will please God and be respected by people.  We should try to live at peace and help each other have a strong faith.

1 Corinthians 8

Don’t cause problems for someone with a weak conscience, just because you have the right to eat anything.  You know all this, and so it doesn’t bother you to eat in the temple of an idol.  But suppose a person with a weak conscience sees you and decides to eat food that has been offered to idols.  Then what you know has destroyed someone Christ has died for.  When you sin by hurting a follower with a weak conscience, you sin against Christ.  So if I hurt one of the Lord’s followers by what I eat, I will never eat meat as long as I live.

1 Corinthians 10:23-24

Some of you say, “We can do whatever we want to!” But I tell you that not everything may be good or helpful.  We should think about others and not about ourselves.

Our responsibilities to each other

Alongside the calls for Christian unity, Paul stresses also the theme of Christian responsibility.  We are not merely to bear with each other, we are to build each other up; whilst celebrating theological diversity we are also to refrain from practices that offend others or threaten to lead others astray.  The view that what happens in my home, or my church, is my business and no-one else’s, has never been a Christian doctrine – our duties of Christian responsibility to each other do not permit that.  In Paul’s day we see Christian communities divided not just by a notional alignment with one or other apostle, but also by their practices.  It is easy to build walls around our beliefs and withdraw into the community of followers that believe and behave as we do, but this does not glorify God.  Paul describes his rebuke of Peter when he withdraws into his comfort zone, in the following way:

Galatians 2:11-13

When Peter came to Antioch, I told him face to face that he was wrong.  He used to eat with Gentile followers of the Lord, until James sent some Jewish followers.  Peter was afraid of the Jews and soon stopped eating with Gentiles.  He and the other Jews hid their true feelings so well that even Barnabas was fooled.

Avoid leading others astray

We know that we are free in Christ, we know that the powers of darkness no longer have any hold on our lives, but there are Christian brothers and sisters still seeking, still young in the faith who need us to set a good example, beyond reproach, in order that they themselves are not led astray.  Nowhere is this more important than what we allow to take place within our own churches – how can we expect new believers to be discerning in their own lives, if we do not demonstrate discernment when it comes to the use of our own church buildings.

In addition to our responsibility to be good witnesses to each other, we have that same responsibility to be good witnesses to non-believers regarding the way Christ is working in our lives.  In Hebrews 12, the author writes about the witness our forefathers are to us and how we must give that same witness to those who may not yet be gathered into the kingdom.

Hebrews 12:1-3

Such a large crowd of witnesses is all around us!  So we must get rid of everything that slows us down, especially the sin that just won’t let go.  And we must be determined to run the race that is ahead of us.  We must keep our eyes on Jesus, who leads us and makes our faith complete.  He endured the shame of being nailed to a cross, because he knew that later on he would be glad he did.  Now he is seated at the right side of God’s throne!  So keep your mind on Jesus, who put up with many insults from sinners.  Then you won’t get discouraged and give up.

Our Christian responsibilities of witness

We are running that race together, side by side, pulling each other up and spurring each other on, rather than competing with each other for the prize.  And always we are to keep our eyes on Jesus, taking Christ as our example how to witness to others as we run the race.  Jesus who lived daily with his disciples, teaching them everything he knew and training them to be the next leaders of the church; Jesus who fed the hungry, healed the sick, cast out demons; Jesus who partied with untouchables and sought out the lost sheep.  This is the Jesus the world needs and we are the only people here to show him to the masses.  In the words of Teresa d’Avila:

“Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which He looks compassion on the world.
Yours are the feet with which He walks to do good,
Yours are the hands with which He blesses all the world,
Yours are the hands; yours are the feet; yours are the eyes; you are His body.
Christ has no body now but yours.”

What’s clear is that we can’t do that from within the silos of our own churches – we can’t be witnesses to the glory of Christ if when we feel threatened in our beliefs our response is to withdraw to the community of believers who share our practices.  Churches Together and UCADD are a good start in that rapprochement between denominations and believers, but the real onus lies with us as grassroots Christians to bridge the divide between congregations.  That’s why fellowships such as this one are so important and we need to be doing more together.  Where are the small groups where Anglicans, Catholics, Methodists and Baptists learn side by side, building each other up?  How can we evangelise Dawlish and offer an answer for the hope that we have, if we can’t discuss the fundamentals of faith with each other?  How can you hold your own in debate with an atheist, if you haven’t first sharpened your faith in debate with other Christians who interpret scripture differently?  Because the Christian believer’s message is not “trust me”, but “seek together with me”.

In the days of the early church, the apostles moved from town to town teaching, correcting errors, drawing together communities of believers, and training the next generation of leaders.  It was precisely by engaging with different communities that saving faith was worked out in practice – the “church militant” in Reformation terminology.  Where are those spanners working across denominational divides to patch together the fractured Christian community?  Who are the next generation of leaders in Dawlish working together and building each other up in the faith?

Guerilla warfare

In today’s hostile society, monolithic church institutions are not the solution to spreading the gospel message far and wide.  There will always be a place for believers to come together en masse to learn from God’s word and to glorify God together.  But the hard yards need to be done by a more extensive inter-connected network of believers: studying, living and working across denominational divides; ready to respond as witnesses in the community through good works and bold testimonies.  In some sense, like the spread of the gospel in Paul’s day, we are fighting a guerrilla war on hostile terrain and we need to flexible, agile networks of believers to respond to the corresponding challenges.

Yet, there is a yearning, a hunger within society that we need to learn to respond to also.  Church membership is on the wane and an increasing atheistic spiritualism is on the rise, precisely because the established church has vacated the spiritual battlefield.  If Christian believers are on the Lawn healing the sick, people won’t be turning to alternative methods; if Christian believers are out in the community witnessing to the plan God has for every life, people won’t seek distractions through drink, drugs or extra-marital relationships; and as Jesus frees person after person from the slavery of sin, we need an integrated, responsive network of believers to support, love and train them in turn as soldiers for Christ.

As believers, it is tempting to leave the responsibilities of spreading the faith and building up the community of believers to our church leaders – and sometimes they are complicit in letting us do that.  But that was never the plan, it wasn’t how the early church worked and throughout history, it is not the grand schemes of Christian institutions that have brought salvation to the masses.  It is when ordinary believers have sought to make a difference alongside their brothers and sisters, within and across denominational divides, taking personal and corporate responsibility for the state of Christian life in their community that change happens.  And as we honour God in seeking to glorify Him in every aspect of our own lives, so He brings spiritual blessings and a harvest to those communities who are closest to Him.

When His word becomes an idol

In man’s tendency to religiosity, we are capable of making anything an idol.  Worship music, for example, is wonderful insofar as it points us to God and facilitates worship in all its diversity, but becomes a barrier when it draws our attention to it, the music, rather than Him, our God.

So it is, somewhat controversially, with scripture. It worries me when a church seems to have as its first article of faith the infallibility and inerrancy of the bible. Because, for all its remarkable properties, the role of scripture is to point us to God, His character, works and in particular, to the person of Jesus. Inerrancy and infallibility are not essential properties of the bible to do that, just as perfect church leaders and perfect worship leaders are not necessary to bring people to Christ (thankfully!). A priori declarations of this sort establish the bible as an idol, ultimately hindering us in seeking to do His will and serving as faithful and credible witnesses to the resurrection life offered through union with Christ.

It is reasonable, however, to attempt to establish such an article of faith on an a posteriori basis – what is the evidence for the inerrancy of scripture? As Christians, we accept the truth of who Jesus is and His teaching, and certainly Jesus had high regard for scripture – indeed, we see Jesus respond to questions by quoting scripture or by asking His questioner what scripture says. Historically, the gospels and scripture generally have a good record in terms of accuracy and modern scholarship of previously “devastating” critiques of biblical historical accuracy from ages past persistently finds in the favour of the bible. For anyone who has seen the bible at work in their own and other people’s lives, it has remarkable powers of healing, conviction and transformation, mediated through the Holy Spirit.

But for all these remarkable properties, it still seems to me to be far from establishing the inerrancy of scripture – that is a leap of faith that seems entirely unwarranted.

The fear of abandoning the claim to the infallibility of the bible is that we have to give up also our claims for Jesus. But this is a non sequitur – the bible doesn’t need to be literally true in every respect to establish the truth of the gospel narrative. Yes, we lose an uncritical shortcut to that truth, but those gospel documents stand up to a more rigorous scrutiny and still yield the same conclusions. Christianity has nothing to fear from detailed historical, literary and scientific analysis of its claims for Christ. We don’t need to bias the rules of engagement and we lose credibility by attempting to do so.

What we do lose is the ability to quote the bible uncritically to support our own prejudices – but that can only be a good thing. “The bible says … so that’s the end of the matter” is no longer a valid argument, and I for one welcome that.