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.

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.

“Life, love and praise” at the Strand Church, Dawlish

The following message was given by me during the “Life, love and praise” worship evening at the Strand Church, Dawlish on Friday 18th September 2015.

In our worship we’ve been focusing on who God is, the characteristics of God and His personality. Many of these we can relate to: He is the good, good Father; He loves and is loved; He is deeply relational; He is a Creator God, delighting in making things and giving life; He is emotional, feeling righteous anger and unbounded joy. We relate to these because we share these characteristics with God to some extent. Theologians refer to these as the communicable attributes of God.

On the other side of this coin, however, are the incommunicable attributes – characteristics that are very different when comparing God and man – and these often have long words to describe them. God is omnipotent, all-powerful, whereas our powers are very limited; God is omniscient, all-knowing, whereas there is much that we don’t understand; God is omnipresent, everywhere in space and time simultaneously, whereas our lives are bounded spatially and temporally; God is a trinity, three Persons in one Being, whereas we are only one person.

These incommunicable attributes are much harder to relate to and it can be useful to try to describe them by analogy. One model for the Trinity, for example, is that a triangle is made of 3 lines, each distinct but each equally and intimately forming a single triangle, and without any one of which the triangle ceases to exist. This explains in a sense how three things can be one object, but with all such analogies we get a better grasp on one attribute by minimising another: in this case our triangle is spatially bounded, for example. Ultimately, God is God and our limited experiences and language are insufficient to describe Him.

Arguably the attribute most difficult to grasp is God’s omnipresence. The difficulty is less the idea that God is present everywhere spatially – air is a little like that – but that God is everywhere temporally. More precisely, every moment is the present for God.

Understanding this solves many of the objections about how God acts in the world. For example, free will isn’t violated by God watching what you do in the future as you do it – it’s just that for God, that moment is as much the present as our “now” is. In this sense then, God stands outside the great vista of space and time whilst seeing it all and acting in it at every moment simultaneously.

And this again is where language fails us, because our very language of action is bound up in actions taking a certain amount of time and happening at specific moments in time. However, this cannot be true of God’s own actions as He stands outside of time. In a very real and literal sense, God is even now creating the world, and dying on the cross, and rising from the dead, and winning the final battle because He is acting presently in every moment in time and space.

We see therefore, for example, how the creation narrative in Genesis is imperfectly described by human language – because it doesn’t take God any length of time to do anything – but is also perfectly compatible with the scientific evidence for evolution. Both statements – either that God took 6 days or 14 billion years to create the universe – are equally wrong and fail to comprehend God’s omnipresence and the way in which He acts.

My favourite picture for the way that God acts in the universe is like a painter placing brushstrokes on the vast canvas of space-time, or perhaps a potter shaping the universe. Each interaction affects the past, present and future as space-time is moulded according to our Creator’s will. And as we live through it, God is dynamically creating his masterpiece, to which He is, even now, putting the finishing touches.

Unlike the characters in a painting, however, we can choose to cooperate with or oppose the will of the painter. If we let Him, God will patiently, painstakingly add the layers of detail that will result in us becoming that perfect image of Christ we are designed to be. But if we oppose Him, we will look grubby, smudged, crude and destined ultimately to be painted over as God completes His final heaven and earth. The choice is very much yours.