Category Archives: Science

Sermon: Born Again

John 3:1-17

Jesus answered [Nicodemus], ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ (Verse 3)

What is it to be a ‘born again Christian’? We’ve become very used to hearing the phrase. The first time I remember hearing it was in my early teens, when a friend at school who went to a Baptist church invited me to a youth event. As my friend Andy brought me into the hall, someone greeted me and said, ‘Am I shaking hands with a born-again Christian?’ I said, ‘Yes,’ because as far as I knew I was a Christian. As I did so, Andy looked on quizzically. Clearly he doubted me. I didn’t understand at the time why he should doubt that I was a Christian. In later years, I would understand that he was right to be uncertain.

In popular parlance, we think of the phrase ‘born again Christian’ in connection with some American Christians. The first time I heard ‘born again’ used in the public domain was, I think, when Jimmy Carter ran for President in 1976. He would say, ‘My name is Jimmy Carter and I am a born-again Christian.’

Or we think that ‘born again Christians’ are those Christians we disparagingly refer to as ‘happy clappy’. I am sad when we disparage other Christians in this way, but what does remain is a sense that you can have two or more kinds of Christian: born again Christians, and other Christians.

So people have come to think that ‘born again Christians’ are one kind of Christian. But Jesus doesn’t put it like that. Either you’re born again (born from above, born anew) or you can’t see the kingdom of God. If you are born again, you are a Christian. If you are a Christian, you are born again. It’s not about the style of Christianity, it’s about the substance.

So we’d better know from Jesus what the substance of being one of his followers is. To explore what Jesus tells us, let’s look at the conversation he has with Nicodemus.

Except it’s not a conventional conversation. Three times Nicodemus asks Jesus something, or makes a statement to which he is seeking a reply. And three times, Jesus doesn’t answer him but says something else. If you’ve ever been frustrated that Jesus hasn’t answered the questions you’ve asked, you’re in good company. But Jesus has to do this here with Nicodemus, because otherwise he won’t get him to see the most important truths about the life of faith.

So let’s look at the three exchanges here, and see what they open up for us about true faith, about what it truly means to be ‘born again’.

Religion or Revelation
Nicodemus is religious. He is a Pharisee, which means at the very least he was devout and serious about following the heart of his religion. He was also ‘a leader of the Jews’, so whatever exactly that was, he held a responsible position and was probably respected for his faith (verse 1).

Furthermore, we have certain stereotypes of Pharisees from the New Testament as being regular opponents of Jesus, but it doesn’t look like Nicodemus can be lumped in with that description. He comes to see Jesus ‘by night’ (verse 2). I think that means he knew other Pharisees didn’t like Jesus, but he sincerely wanted to find out more. However, because of opposition from colleagues he comes under cover of darkness to avoid detection.

Not only that, he’s done his homework.

‘Rabbi,’ [he says,] ‘we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ (Verse 2)

In other words, he’s been part of a Pharisees’ committee that has looked into the early ministry of Jesus, just as we read two chapters earlier that a deputation of priests and Levites came to investigate John the Baptist (1:19). He would have been at home in the Methodist Church: working parties, committees and endless meetings would have been familiar to him!

Faithful, respected, sincere and devoted: that’s Nicodemus. Just the kind of person you want to join your church. Isn’t it?

It’s not far from the upbringing I had. My sister and I were taken to church in the womb. Our parents were active members of our Methodist church. Dad was a steward and was the Circuit Manses Secretary. Mum sang in the choir and taught in the Sunday School. You could hardly go out in the street with Mum without her bumping into someone and saying, ‘Didn’t I teach you Sunday School?’ In fact, it was so ingrained that my sister once worked out that she and I were fifth generation, same congregation.

And you know what? I wasn’t a Christian. It took a church membership class where at the last meeting our minister took us through the confirmation service when something clicked. I realised that Christianity wasn’t simply about believing in God and being good. It was about the grace of God reaching out to us, and us receiving it through repentance from our sins, faith in Christ and a grateful commitment to follow him in the world. I believe the ‘something’ that ‘clicked’ was the work of the Holy Spirit.

And Nicodemus has to learn that all his sincere religious belief and work counts for nothing. Religion gets you nowhere, Jesus says. Put in all the human effort you like, it’s a dead end. You need to hear from Jesus by his Spirit. You need to hear that it’s his work, not yours, that makes you a disciple of Jesus. It’s not what you’ve done for him. It’s what he’s done for you. That’s where the Gospel starts. Nowhere else.

Reason or Spirit
All this talk about being born again (born from above) is befuddling to Nicodemus. He can’t get his head around it:

‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ he asks (verse 4).

It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t stand to reason. I don’t think he’s deliberately ridiculing Jesus, but he is saying that Jesus’ teaching makes no sense to him.

This is what happens when we privilege human reason over the work of the Spirit. There is an important place for human reason, and indeed Jesus elsewhere told us to love God with our minds. However, even the foolishness of God is wiser than our wisdom. And when we rely on our minds and our brains alone, we shall never discern the work of God and walk in the ways of Christ.

I’ve seen people do it, including in church circles. Often clever people, they ask all sorts of questions. They routinely criticise the preachers (not that we should be above criticism, mind). Unless they can intellectually justify something, they refuse to accept it. But the life of the Spirit doesn’t work like that, and I’ve seen such people make shipwreck of their lives, for all their brainpower. For it’s all very well using our minds, but even our thinking is fallen and sinful. Wernher von Braun, the greatest rocket scientist ever according to NASA, previously worked on inter-continental ballistic missiles for the USA and prior to that developed rockets such as the V2 for the Nazis.

Instead of limited and potentially sinful human intellect as our guide, Jesus calls us to follow the wild desert wind of the Holy Spirit. We must be born of water and the Spirit, he tells Nicodemus (verses 5-6). And just as you don’t know which way the wind blows, so it is with those born of the Spirit (verse 8). When we are born again, we don’t just pursue clinical logic, we submit to the Holy Spirit, who will take us into surprising places.

Being born again, then, is not just about the new birth. It is about the new life. A life empty of stale human prediction. A life where we ‘lean not on our own understanding’ but walk in obedience to the Holy Spirit, wherever we are led. Religion doesn’t understand that. Nor does reason. But the Spirit does.

Understanding or Faith
The last exchange, and Nicodemus still doesn’t get it: ‘How can these things be?’ he asks (verse 9).

Jesus replies, you still don’t understand –you, the teacher of Israel? If I talk about earthly things (birth, water and the wind), how will you ever believe in the things of heaven? (Verses 10-12) And he goes onto talk about that which most of all requires faith rather than human understanding: the Cross.

If you want to do everything by logic and understanding, you’ll never end up at the Cross. Yet Jesus knows it will be the central event in history. If you wanted good PR for a new religious movement in what we call the first century, you wouldn’t have picked the Cross. As Paul was to tell the Corinthians, it is foolishness to the Greeks and a scandal to Jews. Where is the fine-sounding rhetoric so beloved of Greeks at the Cross? Where is the wondrous miracle that conquers the enemies of God that Jews longed for?

Yet to those with faith in Christ, nothing speaks more eloquently than the agony of the Cross, where Christ dies in our place. And yes, it does conquer the enemies of God, as Jews would have hoped, but in a more radical way, dealing with the sin of the world by absorbing its cost, not lashing out.

And it’s as relevant today as it was two thousand years ago. The philosophers adored by the Greeks of the first century were the rock stars of their day. They were treated rather like the way our culture hangs on the words of celebrities. Those who are born again choose the wisdom of the Cross to guide their lives, not the vacuous pronouncements of the famous.

Likewise, those who are born again live at the Cross and are not persuaded that ‘might is right’. Killing abortion doctors – however evil abortion is – does not sit with life at the Cross. Nor do the recent statistics from America which showed church attendees as more likely to approve of torturing suspected terrorists. To be born again involves a commitment by faith to believe in the redeeming and transforming power of suffering love through Christ.

It’s not enough if we are born again to say that the Cross is where we find the forgiveness of sins – although we do. We must then allow Christ and his Cross to shape the way we live and speak.

Conclusion
We began by wondering what it means to be ‘born again’. Is it one particular style of Christian?

There is no evidence in Jesus’ teaching that this is the case. He applies the image of being born again to all who wish to be his followers. It is a challenging image.

For those who are born again reject the idea that religious devotion earns a ticket to heaven. Rather, we bow the knee and accept that God has done something for us in Christ. It isn’t about what we can offer. Is that us?

Those who are born again deny that we can proudly think our way to God. We depend, instead, on the work of the Spirit to reveal Christ and to lead our lives in unpredictable directions. Again – is that us?

Finally, those who are born again give short shrift to the empty example of the famous and the violent world of superior force. We find life at the Cross, and we continue to live at the Cross. Once more – is that us?

So: are we born again?

Some Surprising Medical News

Anyone who ever watched that classic 1990s comedy programme The Fast Show might remember one of the minor characters, Bob Fleming. He’s the man with the persistent cough – Fleming, geddit? 

I am Bob Fleming.

It wasn’t until my early twenties when I went to see my GP about something else and she said, “Good grief, you’ve got a horrible cough there” that I realised it was abnormal not to spend the first two hours of every morning clearing my sinuses and coughing. I kept Kleenex in business – what was so unusual about that?

She sent me to see an ENT specialist. “What’s your problem?” he asked.

“I don’t think I’ve got a problem,” I replied.

The frustrated consultant questioned me more until I explained the back story. “Well,” he said, “the x-ray shows you have a polyp in your left nostril, but it’s clearly been there from birth and it’s evidently benign, so if you’re not worried I don’t see the point of surgery to remove it. Besides, it’s a rather messy operation.”

Now if a doctor says an operation is messy, I guess it’s very messy. Being offered the chance not to have a grotty procedure, I was glad to be discharged from the clinic. Later doctors put me on a repeat prescription of Beconase to keep the polyp down and deal with the allergic symptoms it gave me (it’s like having hay fever all year round).

And that was my situation until just before Christmas. At our current doctor’s practice, all repeat presscriptions are reviewed every six to twelve months. I had a review of my Beconase with one of the GPs. I said I wondered whether we ought to look at the question of my sinuses again. He assured me surgery had come a long way, and we might even just be looking at keyhole surgery by now to deal with the polyp.

So this morning, I had an out-patient appointment at the local hospital ENT clinic. A specialist inflicted local anaesthetic on both nostrils and then sent a camera up each of them in turn.

The verdict? There is no polyp. I don’t have a sinus problem, but I have a genuine breathing problem. The reason is that my nasal septum is out of shape on the left nostril side, and this makes gunk collect rather than dissipate easily. And no, you can’t explain my damaged septum by cocaine use. I’ve never been near the stuff. The doctor thought I had been this way since birth.

It’s possible that all the years of Beconase have shrunk the polyp out of existence. The curious question is why the consultant I saw in my twenties didn’t notice the out of shape septum. But that’s mucus under the bridge now.

I have been changed to a new nasal spray in place of Beconase. I await an x-ray appointment. Three weeks after that, I shall return to ENT and discuss whether to have surgery that will correct the kink in the septum.

All these years I have been living under a medical misapprehension. It’s amazing how often we do live under misconceptions in life. Only yesterday, our daughter wanted to have a conversation with me about Jamie Oliver the footballer.

“He’s not a footballer, he’s a chef,” I said.

“No, he’s a footballer,” insisted Rebekah.

“Well, you might have seen him kicking a ball on television and perhaps he enjoys football, but really he’s a chef,” I replied.

She wasn’t convinced, so I got Debbie’s copy of The Return Of The Naked Chef off the bookshelf. Showing her some pictures of recipés convinced her I was right.

The preacher in me can make a sermon illustration out of this – how people live under delusions and need convincing of the truth. Ultimately, it is the work of the Holy Spirit to do that work of convincing.

So people live under the delusion that their goodness will earn them a welcome from God. The Gospel shatters this with a message of grace and mercy. Richard Dawkins publishes ‘The God Delusion’ and only proves he is living under the greatest delusion of all, where even human wisdom is foolishnes in the eyes of God.

And we still live under delusions in the Church. We are on a lifelong (maybe even eternal) journey of having our delusions shattered, as the Light of the World shines into our darkness. When we receive and pass on a tradition without understanding it, we fall foul of the old maxim that the seven last words of a dying church are, “But we’ve always done it this way.” We practise Einstein’s definition of insanity, in which we keep doing the same things while expecting a different result.

The delusion-breaking work of regeneration is essential. But it is not the last word. It is God’s first word. He who began a good work in us will complete it on the day of Christ Jesus, says Paul in Philippians 1: the shattering has only just begun. We need to welcome it as it continues throughout our lives, for it is a critical component of discipleship.

Some Half-Baked Journalism About The Bethlehem Star And Jesus’ Date Of Birth

(Yes, I’m ditching the one-word post titles.)

There’s usually a story like this every December. This year, the Daily Telegraph reports that Australian astronomer Dave Reneke has calculated that Jesus was born on 17th June, 2 BC. I expect the science is all right, but what I do know is that the integration with the Bible – much vaunted in the article – is flawed.

Like Reneke, I don’t see this as undermining faith, but as boosting it – if only the theological side were right. It has long been suggested that the star the Magi followed was some kind of planetary conjunction, so to posit such an event between Venus and Jupiter in the night skies over Palestine at around the right time is nothing new.

My problem comes in making an assumption about dating Jesus’ birth from it. The article claims (without substantiation) that the best guesses for Jesus’ birth are in the 3 BC to 1 AD region. This surprised me, but perhaps scholarship has moved on from what I previously learnt, where a date nearer 6 BC was thought likely. However, the real fault is using the appearance of the star as a marker for the actual birth.

Why? Well, it’s interesting that Mr Reneke claims to work from Matthew’s Gospel, which tells the story of the Magi. He wrongly assumes they arrive (just like children’s nativity plays) at the time of the birth, along with the shepherds. You’ve seen the tableaux of a crowded manger scene, you know what I mean.

However, there is clear evidence in Matthew 2 that the Magi arrive later. First of all, in the Greek Jesus is no longer described as a baby but as a young child – a toddler, perhaps. Moreover, when Herod the Great hears about the birth of a new ‘King of the Jews’, his psychopathic order is to slaughter all boys in Bethlehem under the age of two. It fits with the thought that Jesus had not been born in the immediately preceding time to the Magi’s arrival.

Others add further evidence that I don’t find convincing. They point out that in Matthew, Jesus, Mary and Joseph are now living in a house, not at the back of an inn, as when he was born, according to Luke. This implies they have moved on to a home, probably belonging to one of Joseph’s relatives. This evidence is unnecessary and also flawed. As Kenneth Bailey pointed out many years ago, Luke doesn’t use the Greek word for ‘inn’ in chapter 2 of his Gospel – he uses that later, when he recounts the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The word in chapter 2 isn’t the normal one for ‘house’ either, but it is more likely meant to be that, given the importance of hospitality in the culture. It would have been unthinkable for Joseph’s family not to put up him and his pregnant wife, even if it meant sharing the space with the family animals. It then appears from Matthew 2 that they remain there for a considerable season after the birth, rather than moving in with the relatives from a commercial inn. I suspect the KJV translators were too enamoured with the coaching inns of their day, and it became a traditional English translation.

But either way, I am convinced Jesus was more like a toddler by the time the Magi arrived. Dave Reneke may put the conjunction at 17 June 2 BC, but that theologically presupposes a birth a year or two earlier than that. If the science is right, then my old 6 BC date is out of the window – although one would need to bear in mind what we know about the regularity of the Roman taxation census every fourteen years, so I’m not ready to ditch it completely yet.

The real problem with the findings and the reporting of the research is a failure of dialogue between science and theology. The last thing I would do is question Reneke’s credibility as an astronomer, and I have no problem whatsoever with his motives. However, a little conversation with a New Testament scholar would have got us away from sensational claims about finding Jesus’ date of birth. We know it wasn’t 25th December, but Reneke’s research brings us no nearer knowing the actual date.

Worse than this – and this is not Reneke’s fault – is a glaring example of dumbing-down in the Telegraph. It’s a newspaper that usually rails against such attitudes, but the article contains a terrible example of it. Paragraph 3 reads:

If the team is correct, it would mean Jesus was a Gemini, not a Capricorn as previously believed.

Oh, spare me. Not only does this pander to contemporary credulity about astrology, it also risks the popular idiocy of muddling astronomy and astrology. My father reads the Telegraph. He is a member of the British Astronomical Association. If he has seen this piece, he will suddenly find himself in need of medication for hypertension.

Links

Here are some more places I stopped on my electronic travels this week. Several of these links come from Leadership Journal, because I’ve been catching up on a few weeks’ worth of the Leadership Weekly email they send out over the last couple of days.

Science 
Some pictures from the Hubble telescope. Get beyond the first few and you’ll see some amazing ones. I’ve just made the image of the Sombrero Galaxy my desktop background. 

Spirituality 
Take seven minutes and forty seconds of your time to listen to Archbishop John Sentamu speak on the Advent theme of waiting.

A moving description of happiness from Ben Witherington III.

In Bedside Manner, Matt Lumpkin offers advice on caring for the sick and for yourself during pastoral visiting in hospital.

Mission 
David Keen looks at Back To Church Sunday and considers what proportion of the population is open to evangelism of a ‘come to us’ approach, compared with the need for a ‘missional’ strategy. (Via blogs4god.)

Coming and going is an interview that contrasts the attractional and missional approaches to evangelism and church. In the attractional corner, Ed Young, ‘the dude with the food’, ‘the worship event is the port of entry to the church’, ‘I believe God gives one person the vision – the pastor.’ In the missional corner, Neil Cole, ‘Using traditional [church] planting methods, it would cost $80 billion to reach Atlanta’, ‘Three things deter spontaneous multiplication: buildings, budgets, and big shots’, ‘We have to think in terms of mobilizing the kingdom to go where people are. Too many Christians are passive and unengaged.’

Walt Kallestad gave up on attractional with the big show and transitioned to a discipleship model.

On the other hand, Dan Kimball (of all people) has expressed missional misgivings and particularly urged missional churches not to criticise attractional congregations.

Credit Crunch 
According to Christian Aid, ethical giving hasn’t been hit by the credit crunch.

Also on the credit crunch, Gordon Macdonald says this is no time to cower for the Christian church. His fifth and sixth ideas sound very close to what many ‘missional’ Christians have been advocating.

Christmas 
Think tank Theos has published research showing that one in three Britons believes in the virgin birth. Of course, just believing a doctrine isn’t enough … 

Communion wine from Bethlehem is being stopped at checkpoints by Israeli soldiers who deem it – wait for it – a security risk.

Philip Yancey on observing a mellow, domesticated Christmas.

Links

Here is what I have found in the last week of touring the Internet. Not as much as previous weeks – you’ll see I’ve struggled to publish much of substance in recent days, apart from the Damaris videos. Anyway, I think these are all worthwhile – a mixture of theological and techie stuff.

Theology 
Is the missional approach to church good or not? Helen Lee surveys the question of missional shift or drift.

A superb Paul Vallely article from The Independent lays out the different perspectives lucidly back in October: Religion vs science: can the divide between God and rationality be reconciled?

Ruth Haley Barton describes Advent as training in waiting.

After four years of blogging, Brother Maynard has discovered a new God.

Whoopee, John and Olive Drane are blogging together.

Alan Hirsch is putting the adventure back into the venture.

Techie 
 Google’s advice for bloggers. Looks like I’d better drop the style of one-word post titles I’ve been pursuing in recent weeks!

TechRepublic has ten classic clueless-user stories: entertainment for the geeky among you.

Links

OK, here’s another round-up of links I found during the last week. Have fun.

A Theremin (remember Good Vibrations?) inside a Russian doll. (Via Mojo.)

A friend of mine once rewrote Monty Python’s Dead Parrot Sketch as the Dead Church Sketch. But now we learn that the ancient Greeks pre-empted the dead parrot sketch.

Jesus spoke about lust as ‘adultery of the heart’. Now, a ‘virtual affair’ in Second Life has led to a divorce.

The Today programme on BBC Radio 4 ponders great drum solos.

Remember the Johnny Cash song ‘One piece at a time’? Well, a Russian Orthodox church has been stolen, brick by brick.

Once it was pizzas looking like Jesus, now it’s Buddha bee hives.

You want a prayer movement – how about this? Artist creates ‘public prayer booths’ in NYC. They look like phone booths, apparently.

If only this were true: hoax New York Times newspaper proclaims end of Iraq war.

My father has a life-long interest in astronomy. Doubtless he will have been excited to read about the Hubble Telescope spotting a planet orbiting the star Fomalhaut and the planetary system discovered by the Gemini Observatory in Chile. (Both links via Personal Computer World‘s weekly email.)

Ruth Haley Barton has written on the loneliness of leadership: loneliness drives us to seek the presence of God rather than any notion of the Promised Land.

Unhappy people watch more TV. ‘TV doesn’t really seem to satisfy people over the long haul the way that social involvement or reading a newspaper does,’ says researcher John P. Robinson.

Go on, you want to make cake in a mug.

MyBloop – unlimited free online storage, max file size 1 GB. Via Chris Pirillo.

Twenty hated clichés. In contrast, here are James Emery White’s top five irritating Christian phrases.

Climate

You might like to see this from an email today sent by Avaaz

Dear friends around Europe,

Put your name to the urgent letter calling on Europe’s heads of state to support the European Parliament’s bold action plan to tackle climate change.

Tell Them Now!

Last week, we flooded the European Parliament with tens of thousands of emails and phone calls in the hours before the crucial vote on the EU climate and energy package — and it worked! Congratulations! We successfully beat back the industry lobbyists and won a package better than many had hoped for.[1]

But incredibly this victory could be short lived — sign off by the heads of Europe’s governments is required at this Wednesday’s EU summit. And with the financial crisis topping the agenda, there are worrying signs that Europe’s leaders will step back from both the Parliament’s vote and their own earlier commitments.[2]

Europe’s national leaders need to hear from us over the next 48 hours, before they make their final decision. So let’s send them a flood of emails and phone-calls. Click here to find your own leader’s email address — and phone numbers if you feel like ringing as well — and suggestions about what to say. We know it works:

http://www.avaaz.org/en/europe_climate_summit/

Far from being an excuse to water down our shift to a cleaner, greener economy, the financial crisis gives us good reason to accelerate this change. Massive investment in the transport, power infrastructure and industries of the future will help to revive our economies, cut our energy bills and prepare us better for the challenges ahead. Delays will cost us more down the track, whereas ambitious action now will fuel Europe’s economy.

But we are also up against another mighty force — lobbyists are at work, demanding massive free permits to pollute and delays which will threaten the global deal to stop climate catastrophe. They are using the financial crisis to put fear into governments, predicting economic catastrophe if energy intensive industries are not protected and if governments proceed with plans to mandate investment in renewable energy.[3]

We have only a limited time before the heads of nations meet to determine Europe’s climate and energy package. If watered down now, our chances of success in securing a bold global deal next year will be severely undermined. We’ve shown we can change minds before, now’s time to strongly advocate for the positive impact a bold package will have on both our planet and our climate.

http://www.avaaz.org/en/europe_climate_summit/

With hope and determination,

Brett, Paul, Pascal, Veronique, Graziela, Ricken, Ben, Iain, Milena and the whole Avaaz team

Sources:
[1] Main points of the plan approved by Parliament: faster pricing of emissions allowances to encourage cleaner, greener industry — all power stations will have to buy their pollution allowances from 2013 instead of getting anything for free, and heavy industry permits will be phased out from 2013. Offsets were cut significantly, and bold new longer-term targets of 50% emissions reductions by 2035 and 60-80% by 2050 were set. For the first time, an emissions ceiling was set to stop dirty coal-fired power – though it will need to be strengthened — and significant funds were allocated for helping developing countries go green, as well as research into carbon capture. There’s much more to do, but this package is a real advance. See setback for industry on green “Super Tuesday”:
http://www.europeanvoice.com/article/2008/10/setback-for-industry-on-green-super-tuesday-/62578.aspx

[2] On the concerns about Wednesday’s summit:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/oct/09/energy.climatechange

[3] E3G — Ten Reasons Why Giving Free ETS Allowances will Not Protect EU Jobs or Competitiveness:
http://avaazpress.s3.amazonaws.com/66_Ten%20Reasons%20Why%20Free%20Allowances%20Will%20Not%20Preserve%20EU%20Competitiveness%20and%20Jobs.pdf

Maundy Thursday Sermon: Holy Communion As Time Travel

Matthew
26:17-30

Introduction
In my childhood, I was captivated by scientific developments: that phase of my
life was punctuated by Apollo
space missions
and moon landings. At primary school, we were summoned into
the hall to watch a large black and white television on the stage show a
recording of Neil
Armstrong
and Buzz Aldrin on the
surface of the moon. (Contrast me with my wife, who believes Buzz Lightyear walked on
the moon!) I idolised television presenters such as James Burke.
I thought Patrick Moore
was wonderful. My father took me to a meeting of the British Astronomical Association in
London where he was speaking, and he treated the children’s questions
afterwards with the same importance as the adults’. I later learned I shared a
birthday with him.

This love of science fact was paired with a love of science
fiction. (It was about the only fiction that ever interested me, once I’d
outgrown Enid Blyton.) I read novels
such as ‘The
Sands Of Mars
’ by Arthur
C Clarke
, and went to the cinema to watch ‘2001:
A Space Odyssey
’, instead of watching Princess Anne’s first wedding on TV. There
was a children’s television series called ‘The Time Tunnel’. Scientists
entered what I would now call a vortex, and travel either to the past or to the
future. I didn’t enjoy Doctor Who,
though: it was too scary for my over-active imagination, as was a film I once
saw on TV about the end of the world.

But time travel – that fascinated me. Maybe that’s why in my
twenties, I enjoyed the Back
To The Future films
.

And ‘time travel’ forms a theme to introduce my thoughts
tonight. On this Maundy Thursday, when we remember Jesus’ institution of the
Lord’s Supper, I want us to reflect on its place in time. Because Holy
Communion touches past, present and future.

1. Past
Have you ever had an experience where your mind recalls a vivid incident from
your past, and you are so caught up in it, you feel as if you were back there? I
have had it, and often when listening to boring preachers, so I hope it isn’t occurring
now! My mind will go off on tangents, and I might find myself thinking about a
particularly happy family holiday. The memory will be so vivid that it is
almost as if smell the sea air and taste the ice cream. If you have had such an
experience, you will probably have said something like this: ‘I was right back
there.’ Of course you weren’t, and neither was I, but it is as if we have gone
back in time to that special moment. Once the daydream breaks, we land back in
mundane present with a bump.

‘Do this in remembrance of me,’ says Jesus in some accounts.
Alternatively, his statements that the bread represents his body and the wine
his blood point to an event that was then about to happen, but which is now
located nearly two thousand years in the past. For us, Holy Communion is a
looking back to the past. It takes us back – albeit, unlike our daydreaming, to
an event at which we were not present. So how is it relevant for us? Authors
have written entire books in attempts to explain the mystery, but let me offer
the odd simple pointer.

One is this: while we were not historically present at
Calvary or the Upper Room, we were representatively. We stand in union with the
entire human race in its separation from God due to sin. We also stand as
disciples of Jesus in union with him. Our salvation did not simply come when we
encountered Jesus for the first time in the here and now: it happened in a land
under Roman occupation, on a hill outside Jerusalem. Physically and individually,
we were not there, but representatively we were. This connects us to the past.

Then, if that is too hard, try this: I think we would all
agree that the events of the past have an effect upon the present. Indeed, the
most important historical events shape
the present. Take the Second World War as a clear example of this. It led to
the creation of the Russian-led Eastern communist bloc, and to the later
freedoms in that region. Germany and Japan went from humiliation to economic,
rather than military resurgence. It led to the formation of what we now call
the European Union, as nations sought to prevent another international war. It led
to interventions in the former Yugoslavia, as the West feared more ethnic
cleansing and genocide. It affected our national politics.

And so on. This is what a powerful international event in
history does. It cannot be hermetically sealed in the past. Rather, a past
event shapes the present. It is the same, only more so, with the Cross of
Christ. When we remember that past event, as we do at Holy Communion, not only
are we connected in a representative way, we are changed in the here and now. It
is not for nothing that John Wesley called the Lord’s Supper a ‘converting
ordinance’.

We cannot come away from the Lord’s Table unchanged. At least,
Jesus does not mean us to do so. In the words of one book, it is about ‘Past
Event And Present Salvation
’. Jesus died for the sins of the world, he died
to conquer the forces of evil, and he did this in love to set us free. The
events of this weekend changed all history. At the very least, when we come in
faith to the sacrament, the expectation is that all he accomplished at the
Cross is made available to us. That past event brings us forgiveness, confidence
to face the darkness, freedom from the things that bind us and an assurance of
God’s love.

2. Present
‘This is my body … this is my blood of the covenant,’ says Jesus: simple words
that have divided his disciples for centuries. At risk of over-simplification, I
think there have been four broad strands of thinking about them.

First, you can take them literally. If so, then the bread
and wine truly become the body and blood of Christ. I think this view fails to
take seriously the fact that Jesus was using a typically Jewish heightened
version of metaphor in his speech here.

Secondly, at the other extreme, you can say that the Lord’s
Supper is just an ordinance, something Jesus commanded. It is purely a memorial
meal. But that is not to take seriously other New Testament texts, particularly
in 1 Corinthians 10, that speak of Holy Communion as a ‘communion’ or ‘fellowship’
in the body and blood of Christ.

That leaves two other views. One says that the bread and
wine don’t change, but Jesus is really present in them. The other – and the one
I personally favour – also says that the elements don’t change, but it doesn’t
try to locate Jesus in a particular place. Rather, when we follow Christ’s last
command here in obedient faith, we commune with him in our lives. Obeying Jesus
in faith by taking bread and wine in his memory leads us to an experience of
him at his table.

How many of us can say that when we take the sacrament, we
have encountered Christ? I think a show of hands would have most of us
indicating ‘yes’. If that is so, then Holy Communion is not simply a memory of
the past, it is an experience of Christ in the present.

And for that reason, it is more than a memorial meal or a
memorial service. It is a funny kind of memorial service where the deceased is
present! For although there is a primary reference to the death of Christ when
he instituted the Lord’s Supper – ‘my blood … which is poured out for many’ –
it is also about his resurrection. Holy Communion holds together both the death
and the resurrection of Christ.

Tonight, then, like every sacramental service, is a time to
come to the communion rail with expectation. Here, on Maundy Thursday, not only
do we anticipate with sorrow the betrayal, suffering and death of our Lord, we
also anticipate Easter morning, when we shout with joy, ‘Christ is risen! He is
risen indeed!’ As the disciples recognised the risen Lord in the breaking of
the bread at Emmaus, so we meet him here. He strengthens us, and fills us with
his love. Sometimes we just need to know he’s there; other times, we need the
experience of his presence to thrust us back into active Christian service. What
is it we need from Christ this evening? Whatever it is, let us come to the
table expecting to meet him.

Which leads us onto the third piece of time travel:

3. Future
Verse 29 of our reading is a mysterious one that we easily overlook. Jesus
says,

‘I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the
vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.’

But Paul too saw a future aspect to the Lord’s Supper when
he told the Corinthians that whenever they ate the bread and drank the wine in
memory of Jesus, they proclaimed his death until
he comes
.

However, although we can overlook this, we build this future
hope into our liturgies. The post-communion prayer is a common place to hear
it. One Methodist prayer (based on some Catholic thought from Vatican 2, trivia
fans!) thanks God for feeding us with the sacrament and giving us a foretaste
of the heavenly banquet prepared for all people.

Now I don’t know how good we are at foretastes of heavenly
banquets. In some Methodist circles there seems to be a competition to cut up
the pieces of bread as small as possible. The chance of having a foretaste of a
banquet seems remote!

There is a sense, though, in which Jesus will go thirsty
until the kingdom of God comes in all its fullness, until the new heavens and
new earth come. He will not drink the fruit of the vine again until he drinks
it new with his friends in his Father’s kingdom. Jesus is thirsty for the
kingdom of God.

And Holy Communion is designed to make us hungry and thirsty
for the kingdom of God, too. While connecting with Christ’s death in the past
and his risen presence in the here and now bring us comfort and hope, the Lord’s
Supper also brings us restlessness and challenge. It gives us a vision of how
the world is meant to be, and leaves us impatient for change. Holy Communion
makes us ask: who else should be at the table? It asks: who is going hungry,
because God’s will is not being done? For it reminds us of how things will be
in the Father’s kingdom. The bread will be plentiful, and the wine will flow –
however hard we Methodists pray to turn the wine back into water, it will be
poured out liberally! As we anticipate the generosity of God the Father who
will host the kingdom banquet, we notice the searing discrepancies with life
now. Holy Communion sends us out to share the Gospel in word and deed. It cannot
leave us in our spiritual enclave.

There is a section of the Bayeux Tapestry, depicting the
Battle of Hastings in 1066. The legend beneath it, when translated into
English, says, ‘King William comforteth his soldiers.’ How is William the
Conqueror comforting them? He is prodding them up the backside with his sword! So
too, a true celebration of the Lord’s Supper prods us into action. The vision
of God’s kingdom gives us not a placid hope, but a divinely inspired
restlessness that thrusts us back into the world as Gospel people.

Conclusion
Someone once said that the job of the preacher was to comfort the afflicted,
and to afflict the comfortable. Might it be that Holy Communion has the same
task?

What do we need tonight – comfort or affliction? May God
grant us our deepest needs in Christ, as we gather at his Table.

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The Atheist Delusion

I don’t need to agree with all John Gray’s conclusions and values to recognise this as a powerful attack on the contemporary atheist and anti-religious brigade:

The atheist delusion | By genre | guardian.co.uk Books

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Taking The Pulse

is the name of a Bible Society survey of attitudes to the Bible by leaders and non-leaders in the British church. The Executive Summary is available here. It covers the following topics:

1. The Bible in terms of society and churches;
2. The Bible and spiritual growth;
3. Bible resources;
4. Bible literacy and application.

Overall, church leaders are more positive about the Bible than non-leaders. The most sceptical leaders, though (generally Liberal, Catholic, Methodist and URC), are also those most dissatisfied with congregational understanding.

Blood and gore makes the Old Testament the biggest challenge to teaching the Bible, and more resources are needed here. The OT seems to be a greater concern for affecting faith than Richard Dawkins is.

There is a welcoming of multimedia approaches, but a scepticism about the reliability of Internet sources.

For more, click the link above.

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