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.

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”.

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.

Bible genealogy

There is a wealth of historical data in the bible and as I teach network theory, I thought it might be fun to try to plot some of the genealogical data presented in the bible.  I have focused mostly on Genesis, 1 Chronicles, Matthew and Luke using the WEB translation and used graphviz to code the tree and to determine the layout.  There are probably lots of errors, misinterpretations and omissions, but as the product of a few evenings’ work, I am pretty happy with it!

You can view the .svg file at http://xianity.me/media/bible2.svg

P.S. It is very big, so you need either to zoom way out or scroll to the bottom when the page loads.

Stoke Canon Christian Fellowship

The following message was given by me at Stoke Canon Christian Fellowship on 14th June 2015. The accompanying reading was Colossians 1:12-20 & 2:6-13.

The letter to the Colossians is a masterly and majestic piece of literature. It is only short, so if you haven’t read it from beginning to end in one sitting, then I strongly encourage you to do so later this evening. It was written, scholars believe, in about AD 62, 30 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, when Paul was in prison in Rome.

The letter to the Colossians was written to counter a range of philosophies and ‘New Age’ ideas that had arisen about Jesus and who He was, and as such there are many parallels with the culture and ideas we see today. The Roman Empire of the time – although this would change dramatically only a couple of years later – was largely permissive and liberal with respect to religious belief. What you chose to believe in the comfort of your own home was largely up to you, provided you obeyed the rule of law. The empire was a melting pot of philosophies: worship of the old Greek and Roman gods for every occasion; eastern mysticism; Greek philosophies promoting ideals such as wisdom, stoicism, epicureanism, hedonism and anarchic tendencies. Judaism was a minor established religion and Islam was still several hundred years from being founded proper.

Into this heady mix came Paul and Christianity, and Paul wasn’t prepared to play the game of religious relativism – that might be true for you, but not for me. Paul steps in with an absolute conviction in a truth centred on the person and life of Jesus that was non-negotiable and would set the world free. It was and remains a joyous message – it is ‘good news’ – but to a world that does not want to hear that it is living a lie, it is also offensive. As such, Paul upset a lot of people and got into a lot of trouble, resulting in imprisonment.

In Colossians, Paul confronts us squarely with the central dilemma of faith: will we humbly accept all that Jesus is?  Or do we refuse to let go and try to mould Jesus to our worldview?

Today, and back then, there are many who would neuter Jesus, rob him either of his divinity or his humanity, tame him, or present his as a protagonist for their own favoured philosophy or movement.

Let’s look then at the Jesus that Paul describes in his letter to the Colossians.  Paul asserts that He is perfectly God and perfectly man:

He is the perfect likeness of the invisible God … He exists before everything else, and everything else holds together in Him … It is in Christ that godhead in all its completeness dwells in bodily form.

Paul emphasises that there is no other means of salvation than Jesus:

It was God’s decision to effect through Him an act of universal reconciliation to Himself of everything in heaven and on earth, and it was through His death on the cross that God did bring the whole universe into a right relationship with Himself … You were dead in sins; but God made you alive with Christ for He forgave us all our sins.

Paul talks about the transformation that marks out a true believer:

It is in your union with Him that your own life reaches perfect completeness … stripping off your lower sensual nature, for that is the circumcision which Christ effects on you.

Finally, Paul describes the hope we have:

In baptism you were buried with Him, and in baptism you were also raised with Him from the dead through your faith in the power of God, which was operative in raising Him from the dead.

What then is the application of this message for our lives today? First, I hope that everyone here knows Jesus as Paul did and can say ‘Hallelujah’ and ‘Amen’ to each of the fundamental statements:

  1. Jesus is perfectly God;
  2. Jesus was perfectly man during His ministry on earth;
  3. Jesus is our only means of salvation;
  4. A true faith in Jesus transforms lives;
  5. In Jesus is our hope of a new, resurrected life.

If there is any point there that you are not sure of then please talk to me or my colleagues after the service – it is too important to leave to another time.

Second, we need to take a leaf out of Paul’s book and be bolder at stepping up and correcting those whose beliefs are at variance with those Paul affirms.  We have all been guilty of staying silent when listening to someone explain their faith or beliefs about Jesus, simply because we don’t want to cause trouble or upset – that wasn’t Paul’s way, or Jesus’ way, and it shouldn’t be ours either.

Finally, this message is the difference between life and death – it is our duty to make our lives a little less comfortable and to proclaim the ‘good news’ to our neighbours.  Don’t leave it to someone else – their salvation depends on it.

Christianity is not a ‘personal choice’; it is not something we practise behind closed doors at home and in church.  Our lives must be a witness to our faith in Jesus.

Gender equality in the church

I belong to an evangelical church with a fairly conservative tradition. Recently the Senior Leadership Team have been deliberating over the role of women in the church. At present, women are permitted to lead parts of the service, such as prayer, worship (music), the children’s slot, junior church, but they do so “under the authority” of the man who is leading the service itself. Women are not permitted to preach, lead communion or be a service leader.

As I understand the theological debate, the present position is based essentially on the Pauline doctrine espoused in 1 Timothy 2:12 “I allow no woman to teach or have authority over men”, but it seems that any argument from insistence on the literal interpretation of scripture falls to the charge of hypocrisy when one reads the second half of that same verse: “she is to remain in quietness and keep silence in religious assemblies”.

Whilst I concur that the bible is the inspired word of God, I would argue that it has to be substantially reinterpreted in recognition of the differences between the cultures in the first and twenty-first centuries AD.  In his evangelism of the Roman empire and in light of the considerable Jewish heritage and makeup of the early Christian church, I can see perfectly well how Paul’s ever-practical approach ensured credibility in a hostile culture that equated women in ministry with temple prostitution. But do we really contend that those social norms hold today?

So, ultimately it comes down to a matter of interpretation – where you draw the line. But surely, the only correct response to the question “Where should we draw the line on gender discrimination?” is that we should not be drawing a line at all.

Wordclouds of the New Testament letters

I thought it would be interesting to create wordclouds of the New Testament letters using Tagxedo and the World English Bible.

Romans
romans

1 Corinthians
1Corinthians

2 Corinthians
2Corinthians

Galatians
galatians

Ephesians
ephesians

Philippians
philippians

Colossians
colossians

1 Thessalonians
1thessalonians

2 Thessalonians
2thessalonians

1 Timothy
1timothy

2 Timothy
2timothy

Titus
titus

Philemon
philemon

Hebrews
hebrews

James
james

1 Peter
1peter

2 Peter
2peter

1 John
1john

2 John
2john

3 John
3john

Jude
jude

Hebron Gospel Hall, Torquay, 9th June 2013

The following is my message at Hebron Gospel Hall in Torquay on the evening of 9th June 2013.  The readings accompanying the message were

Malachi 3:6-18
Hebrews 3:1-19

and we sang “Great is Thy faithfulness” as one of our hymns.

What a faithful and ever-loving God we have.  I love the old hymns – the sincerity of the words.  Music plays a special role in my relationship with God – it was the way He kept me close, hearing His word, when I was making my own plans, living my own life that I believed didn’t include Him.

God gave us song to convict us of our sins; to remind us that God is God and we are not; that God pours out innumerable blessings and we take them ungratefully, believing that we have earned them and deserve them; reminding us that God is faithful and we are faithless.  The first recorded song in the bible is the Song of Moses and we read the following in Deuteronomy 31:19-22

“Now therefore write this song, and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for me against the people of Israel.  For when I have brought them into the land flowing with milk and honey, which I swore to give to their fathers, and they have eaten and are full and grown fat, they will turn to other gods and serve them, and despise me and break my covenant.  And when many evils and troubles have come upon them, this song shall confront them as a witness (for it will live unforgotten in the mouths of their descendants); for I know the purposes which they are already forming, before I have brought them into the land that I swore to give.”  So Moses wrote this song the same day, and taught it to the people of Israel.

If there is a single message running through the bible it is this: Trust in Me, the Lord, your God.  In our first reading we heard God’s challenge to His people: Trust in Me, give Me what belongs to Me, and see how abundantly I will pour My blessings out on you.  The tithe, of course, is symbolic – after all, the whole world is the Lord’s and everything in it.  God’s call is for us to trust Him, to trust His plan, not to keep anything back for ourselves – He calls us to give nothing short of our whole lives to Him.  We might hear the words of the psalmist in this call:

Taste and see that the Lord is good!

The bible is a record of God’s faithfulness, of the promises God has made, and kept for His people.  We might think of:

    • God’s promise to Noah that He would keep Noah and his family safe as a watery apocalypse engulfed the Earth;
    • God’s promise to Abraham that He would lead Abraham’s descendants into the promised land of Canaan;
    • God’s promise to Moses that He would deliver His people from slavery in Egypt and give them peace and prosperity in the promised land;
    • God’s promise that He would send His messiah to redeem the world from sin, fulfilled in Jesus Christ;
    • God’s promise that He would vanquish death, fulfilled in Christ’s resurrection.

    Our God is a faithful God.  There are those who would say that the God in which we believe is fickle; vengeful one moment, craving intimacy the next.  But I say, look again – read how God has stood by those who trust in Him; how He has kept the promises He has made.  As we read in Malachi, God is unchanging – it is we who are fickle.

    If the bible is a love story, it is also a tragedy because it records time and again man’s faithlessness – of how we needed no excuse to go our own way, to follow our own plans, to live for ourselves rather than living as God would have us live.  Sin is not really about doing bad things; it is about not trusting in God’s plan for us and believing that we need to take control of our own lives.

    The times when it has “all gone wrong” in the biblical narrative are those occasions when man feels he knows better than God:

      • the fall from grace was not the result of murder or adultery – it was about wanting to do things in our own wisdom;
      • the failure of the Jews to acknowledge Jesus as their messiah was because He didn’t “fit the bill” – they thought that they knew better;
      • we heard about the faithless Hebrews led by Moses to the promised land – the reason they ended up in the wilderness for forty years, rather than two weeks, was because they did not trust that God would deliver the land to them so they sent scouts fearful that their strength would not be enough.

      Even the disciples, who spent three years with Jesus, day in and day out, are regularly scolded for their lack of faith.  It is only when the apostles saw the risen Lord, that they really understood and trusted in the Lord’s plans.  We read in 2 Timothy 2:11-13 what must have been one of the early affirmations in the early Christian church:

      The saying is sure:
      “If we have died with Him, we shall also live with Him;
      If we endure, we shall also reign with Him;
      If we deny Him, He also will deny us;
      If we are faithless, He remains faithful –
      for He cannot deny Himself.”

      I want to finish by considering two things:

      • knowing that God is faithful I want to reassure you of the promises God has given us, because He will fulfil them;
      • knowing that we are faithless I want to consider what our response should be to God’s call to trust Him and his plans for each of us.

      God promises us:

      • that if we trust in Him He will transform our hearts, pouring out His Holy Spirit into us so that we might show our faith and love of God through the fruits of the spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fidelity. But He tells us truthfully that we will endure difficulties as Christians, but trusting in God these trials will purify our hearts.
      • He promises that He will come again to bring in His new kingdom and claiming the faithful as His people.
      • He promises that we will rise again with Him into everlasting life.
      • He promises that we shall dwell with Him in heaven, where there is no sadness, no tears, no hatred or hurt, just unbridled joy and love for our unchanging ever-faithful God.

      God is faithful – these things will come to pass.

      Like David, it remains for us to ask God to search our hearts so that we can cast out any part of our lives that is contrary to God’s will. We must examine ourselves and ask if we really trust in God’s plan for us, or do we cling on to areas in our life where we long to remain in control. We need to ask God to renew us; renew our hearts; renew our faith and breathe His Holy Spirit back into every aspect of our lives.