Monthly Archives: August 2009

links for 2009-08-22

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links for 2009-08-17

Sermon: Offended By Jesus

John 6:56-69

I want to introduce you to a new religion. It will involve cannibalism, vampires and the overthrow of cherished ancient traditions. Are you interested?

Or are you shocked? Because that is what the first followers of Jesus thought he was proposing. ‘Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them,’ he said (verse 56). They were offended, and many on the fringes of belief turned away from him in this reading. They were scandalised by his claims.

He called people to eat his flesh – well, who wants cannibalism? And he said they were to drink his blood. Remember that Jews never drank the blood from a dead animal, because it was thought to contain the life of the creature.

Vampires? OK, actually no. I just wanted to underline the shocking nature of Jesus’ words about drinking his blood. But maybe you get a feeling for how Jesus’ first hearers felt scandalised by his teaching. We may find it hard to appreciate that, because two thousand years of familiarity have changed our perceptions. But in its original context, the person and message of Jesus were offensive.

And today, for all our familiarity with Jesus, it is just as possible to be offended by him, his words and his deeds. If we look at what upset those early disciples, we might get some clues to some issues today. Who knows? We might be the ones who need to change. Let’s see.

Firstly, Jesus himself and his teaching is offensive:

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ (Verse 60)

You might think that gentle Jesus, meek and mild would respond with a word of gentle explanation, but no:

But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, ‘Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?’ (Verses 61-62)

What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? This is not only about the Ascension itself, but also about what leads up to it, for in John’s Gospel, Jesus ascends to the Cross. This is therefore about the Cross, the Resurrection and the Ascension. This is about the deity of Jesus, and what he accomplished in his atoning death and resurrection before he returned to the Father’s right hand.

How is that offensive? Let me recount a story.

In one past church, an elderly couple joined the congregation. They began worshipping with us every week. After a while, I visited them and they raised the question of church membership. In the past, they had been active members of a Baptist church, but must have lapsed for a period of years. Having plied me with tea and cakes, they asked, “Are we good enough to join your church?”

That is a question that can only be asked by people who don’t understand the Cross, or who find the Cross offensive. Like a fool, I paid insufficient attention to it and chose to explain it away. I brought them into church membership, and it was a terrible mistake. The husband in particular spent every week’s home group ripping to shreds the previous Sunday’s preacher. Week after week, until the two leaders of the group could take it no more and resigned. We ended up having to close the group.

All because I didn’t pay attention to a couple who didn’t understand the Cross, and who later showed in their behaviour that they didn’t appreciate grace. I should have let them be offended by the Gospel.

The trouble is, a Jesus ascended on a Cross humbles us. We have to lay aside the pride of our respectable lives, and kneel before him as sinners needing forgiveness.

I’ve seen it not only in the respectable but also in the intellectual. People want to find God by their own cleverness, but God will not have that. I have seen such people harbour all kinds of destructive behaviour, all because they will not kneel at the Cross.

Those who are merely interested in Jesus may well fall away, like the crowds here. Those who are willing to meet him at the Cross are those who will be his true disciples.

Secondly, the work of the Holy Spirit is offensive to some. Jesus goes on to say:

‘It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.’ (Verses 63-64a)

We may only come to know God through the work of the Holy Spirit, who makes the presence of God real to us and the Word of God alive to us. Normal human abilities – ‘the flesh’ – are ‘useless’, says Jesus.

This too is an affront to many people. We have lived through several centuries of scientific discoveries, breakthroughs and advances. Human society has benefitted hugely from many of these things. The idea has arisen that the human mind will ultimately solve all problems. Thus today, leading atheists like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and others mock the thought of anything that cannot be perceived by human reason. If it does not originate from reason, then it is superstition.

But these ideas are false. Yes, society has seen great wonders, not least in medicine. But the same human reason is fallen through sin, and science has given us nuclear weapons and climate change. Ultimately, the thought that reason can solve everything is pure arrogance and idolatry. God is not against the use of the mind at all – in fact it can be properly used to his glory – but he knows how we idolise our reason and so,  in the words of John Arnott, ‘God offends our minds to reveal our hearts.’

And indeed the Gospel is not merely available to intellectuals – thank God! It is revealed by the Holy Spirit, whose work is available to all.

In our tradition of Christianity, we are so used to emphasising human free will (and I’m not saying we should ditch that!), but sometimes we stress it so much that we forget the life of faith is impossible without the prior work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit draws people to Christ; only then do we make response.

Listen for reference to that work of the Spirit in part of a testimony from a friend of mine:

‘I wasn’t raised in a Christian household, I was saved in a summer camp when I was 14….one night afterwards, I was dialing my radio around and found a Christian radio station. As I listened, I could feel the Spirit inside me awakening, and that station was basically how God “fed me” while I was at home. When I got old enough to drive myself, I was able to go to church myself.’

Once again, we see that it is our pride that gets offended – this time by the need to rely on the Holy Spirit for life in Christ. But also, this has implications for our evangelism. The prime need in our outreach is not the latest techniques, but prayer – prayer that the Holy Spirit will go ahead of us, working in people’s lives before we get there. Let us be released from having to think up new clever (and possibly manipulative) schemes, and instead remember that the Holy Spirit does the spadework. Let us call on the Spirit in prayer to do that in the lives of those who need Christ.

Well, if we’ve talked about the Cross of Christ and the ministry of the Spirit in the first two points, it won’t take a brain surgeon to work out that the third and final area in which people find the teaching of Jesus offensive is in what he says about God the Father.

And he said, ‘For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.’ (Verse 65)

Now again, that’s the kind of verse to make those of us in the Wesleyan Arminian tradition, who believe in the importance of human free will, to get rather nervous. It gladdens the hearts of Calvinists, who believe that some people are predestined by God to salvation, while he predestines the rest to damnation. But all it really stresses is another version of what we’ve just said about the Holy Spirit – namely that the first move in salvation is God’s.

It has always been the case. The first missionary in the Bible was God, walking in the Garden of Eden in the cool of the evening, calling, ‘Adam, where are you?’ God called Abraham and the patriarchs as he formed a people for himself. He called Moses, the Judges and the prophets. Finally, he sent his Son.

And how good it is that God has always made the first move. For as Leon Morris has put it, writing on this verse:

‘Left to himself, the sinner prefers his sin. Conversion is always a work of grace.’[1]

It is God’s work to bring us to the possibility of salvation. It does not mean he is capricious: he wants all to be saved. But remembering what we have already learned about the need for humility, that comes into play here again, for if God makes the first move, we must pay attention. John Wesley thus commented on this verse:

Unless it be given – And it is given to those only who will receive it on God’s own terms.’[2]

The Good News is that God sets out to rescue those who, by their own instincts, would always prefer to remain in sin. The Good Challenge is that we must accept God’s remedy. We must come on God’s own terms. Therefore that means not only welcoming Christ as God’s Saviour, but also bowing before him as Lord. If we can only come to Christ because God the Father makes the first move, then we end up coming to God not only for the blessings, but also for the obligations.

We can ask ‘What’s in it for me?’ and the answer will be about salvation from the penalty of sin, the practice of sin and the presence of sin. But to ask that question alone is to indulge in religious consumerism. Because the Father makes the first move there is another question: ‘What’s in it for God?’ And the answer involves him incorporating us into the People of God, because his desire has always been to form a people for himself, a new community that lives under his kingly reign. And therefore we must rise to the challenge and make the Church just such a community, instead of fighting and plotting against one another, and settling for cliques instead of community.

In Conclusion, then, God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit takes the initiative in saving the human race. This brings us to humility at the foot of the Cross and in dependence upon the grace of the Father and the power of the Spirit. We lay aside everything we trumpet about our respectability and intellect. But this news frees us from other tyrannies. No longer need we rack our brains for new methods of evangelism, when instead we begin in prayer for the Holy Spirit to move. And in the converted life, the Father who has graciously reached out to a world of persistent sinners not only saves us but makes us his subjects. Our only proper response is grateful obedience.

May we have the grace not to be offended, but to become God’s loyal servants and friends.


[1] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, p387. Exclusive language unchanged from the source.

[2] John Wesley, Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament, p330.

Mark

Our son Mark is five years old today. He was born as a ‘Monday to Firday, 9 to 5’ baby – that is, by elective Caesarean Section after Debbie had a rough final trimester in the pregnancy. (Seventeen months earlier, Rebekah had been an emergency Caesarean.) Debbie went into the hospital at seven in the morning while I took Rebekah to her childminder. But the planned trip to theatre at nine never happened, due to crises. Eventually, Mark was born at 2:21 pm.

A scheduled date for August had bothered me. It always would have been tight for him to stay in the womb until September, but I was bothered about him being one of the youngest in his school classes. (The school year begins in September in the UK.) I need not have worried, he has turned out to be the brightest child in his class by a distance. Amazingly, he is also one of the tallest. And had he been a September birth and had to wait until next month to begin school, I don’t know how he would have coped. I’m a proud Dad, in case you hadn’t noticed.

Having no brothers myself, I had always wanted to have a son, to keep the family name going. I know, it’s a guy thing. Not that I love our daughter any less – far from it, I feel a similar special father-daughter bond with her, compared with that my Dad has always had with my sister. And as our firstborn, she holds a special place in my heart. Besides, she is the most beautiful girl in the world!

Mark has certainly inherited my love of all things academic. He devours books, and has even started writing his own. Yesterday, he started writing his own Bible! He gets fixated on one thing and won’t let go. I call it tenacity and perseverance, Debbie calls it an obsession. It will stand him in good stead as he learns more.

He does have a redhead’s temper, though, and combined with the stocky build (that’s not from me) he’s developed in recent months, I don’t think he’ll have the trouble with bullies that I suffered for many years. I won’t be sorry if that’s the case, although he’ll need to improve his social skills in terms of conflict resolution as he gets older!

For some months now, he has compiled a list of girlfriends – especially one girl called Lily, but there are about thirty names on the list. They go on the list whether they consent or not – they just have to be girls he likes. One day he will learn that one woman is (more than) enough! But yesterday on the beach, Rebekah made friends with a five-year-old called Carla. Mark joined in, chatting the hind legs of a donkey. When Carla had to say goodbye, she came up to him and planter two smackers on his face. He looked so happy!

So – happy birthday, son!

links for 2009-08-15

We Love The NHS

I may have been critical of our current Labour Government again on Wednesday, but I am generally supportive of them when it comes to the NHS. Some of the recent attacks from the States (and even here) look dumb in the extreme. Can we just remind the Investor’s Business Daily that Stephen Hawking is both British and alive, for example? (Even the corrected version of the article, to which I have just linked, doesn’t fully correct all the facts and still leaves room for doubt about the role of the NHS with respect to the brilliant scientist’s health.) And as for the views of Conservative MEPs Daniel Hannan and Roger Helmer that we should abolish it because 80% of Americans get better health care, well hang on: for all the faults of the NHS (and I’ll come to some of them), a Christian has to remember not just the 80% but the 20% – that is, the poor. Oh, and twice as much GDP is spent on health care in the US than here. Who is going to campaign to double our spending, even on top of the rises under the current administration?

So it’s not surprising that Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister who ‘got down wiv da kids’ by making policy announcements on YouTube, has now sent a message of support to the Twitter campaign #welovethenhs. Of course it’s political that he does so, but – hey – I actually agree with him here. (Just as I do on his concern for the welfare of the poorest nations in the world.)

Why? For theological reasons. We are our brother’s and sister’s keepers. That has to be seen corporately. I have had it argued to me in the past by conservative American Christians that it is the sole preserve of the church to offer healthcare and healing to society. Yeah, right. Because that is going to cover everyone, isn’t it?

Less cynically, although I come from the Arminian theological tradition and am therefore meant to view almost everything John Calvin said with suspicion, I find value in his concept of ‘common grace’ – that the sun shines on the righteous and unrighteous, as Jesus said. Surely health and healing would be among such common blessings.

Personally, I have benefitted from the NHS. Most recently in major terms, it was the nasal surgery I had in May (a septoplasty and submucus resection, for those who like the medical swearwords). That surgery corrected a lifetime’s breathing problem. Nobody questioned me about the level of my medical cover, or whether my premiums were paid. I was simply treated. Then, a week ago, on the night before going away on holiday, I began to suffer pain in the right rib area. A phone call to NHS Direct led to advice that I should attend our nearest Accident and Emergency unit at a nearby hospital. They soon reassured me I didn’t have the feared spontaneous pneumothorax (OK, I’m showing off, that’s a collapsed lung) but had something close to a torn abdominal muscle. Triage, chest x-ray, time with a doctor, all without question, through until 2 am from dedicated professionals. Then away on holiday the next morning. First class.

No, it isn’t perfect, and I have some issues with it. The ‘postcode lottery’ is a common concern. For the uninitiated, this refers to differing policies in different areas, resulting in some people being eligible for treatment in their location but others in another area not being, perhaps due to age or general priorities.

Then there are issues of the budget being used up for causes that give me moral problems. The widespread use of abortion is the obvious one. Some uses of cosmetic surgery might be another. I could easily add othercontentious treatments to this list, and I apologise for just brief comments – however, the purpose of this paragraph is not to go into fine detail, but simply to mark up the fact that I have concerns about several significant areas.

But let’s get it straight. Supporting the NHS does not make you a Marxist, so let’s ditch that bit of ignorant propaganda that seeks to label people rather than engage with the issues. That kind of nonsense makes it sound like McCarthyism is back from the dead. Most Christians in the UK of various political and theological persuasions would concur that being in general favour of the NHS (whatever particular quibbles we have) is thoroughly consistent with Christian principles.

links for 2009-08-14

links for 2009-08-13

Winning

Rebekah playing the camel derby

Rebekah playing the camel derby

One joy of our holiday in Great Yarmouth has been the children’s discovery of the camel derby attraction on the Britannia Pier. Not a real one, as held in Kenya and other places, but a mechanical-electrical game where contestants thrown balls into holes to propel their camels along the track.

Rebekah takes great delight in it, win or lose. It’s all good fun. She competes to the best of her ability, and accepts the verdict, wherever she comes in the race. She has even been known to give her winning token away to her little brother. Although the first time she won, she was delighted to use that token in order to gain the prize of a jigsaw that had to be made up and coloured in.

DSC_0073Mark is totally different. If he wins, he is ecstatic. So when he beat about fifteen others one evening, he nearly went into orbit. But if he loses, he isn’t just disappointed. He goes into the hugest strops imaginable. Old cliches about redheads and tempers come into play. He is inconsolable. Winning is everything to him. For Rebekah, playing the game is the be all and end all.

So who is right? The Brit in me sides with Rebekah. Play the game and enjoy it, but don’t be crushed by defeat. However, that can be just a coping mechanism to stave off the pain of losing. I guess (going by stereotypes) that if I were American or Australian, I might be more likely to side with Mark. The competitive spirit means the world.

And maybe we’re too British like this in the church. We can play the game and not worry about how we are doing. We rationalise away failure with slogans about faithfulness. (Not that faithfulness itself should be denigrated.) We dislike certain emphases on ‘success’ that rely heavily on manipulation, and I have preached and written against such things before. But sometimes we do so in such a way that we forget the New Testament injunction to ‘run in such a way as to win the prize’. Granted, it’s a different kind of prize, but sometimes the passion isn’t there, and we aren’t devastated when things haven’t gone as they should have done, according to the Gospel. Could we do with a bit more passion and devastation in the church?