I consider it a bittersweet honour to conduct funerals. I have the opportunity to model hope and love in the darkest of times. Today, upon visiting one of my church members who had lost her husband, I discovered that some decades ago she had been secretary to one of my theological heroes – Lesslie Newbigin. I was glad only to discover that at the end of the visit, otherwise I fear the time might have been derailed.
But also today, a friend who is an Anglican priest shared on Facebook this obituary of a Catholic woman from Wisconsin. Rarely have I come across an obit quite like this one. Whether or not you express your faith in the same way as this lady, I invite you to read it, enjoy it and be challenged by it.
Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. (Verses 25-27)
Various websites are reporting a study for the BBC in which 79% of respondents (27,000 people around the world) say that Internet access is a fundamental human right. The BBC report itself is here, and the full report in PDF is here. Tech sites such as PC Pro report it, too.
Much as I love techie stuff, I think we have to be careful about our language. I find it interesting that the lively comments on the PC Pro report are not all fawning agreement. The idea of net access as a fundamental right is described as ‘hogwash’ by one commenter and ‘a privilege’ by another.
The point in the report is one about communication. Here is one extract from the BBC news report:
“The right to communicate cannot be ignored,” Dr Hamadoun Toure, secretary-general of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), told BBC News.
“The internet is the most powerful potential source of enlightenment ever created.”
He said that governments must “regard the internet as basic infrastructure – just like roads, waste and water”.
“We have entered the knowledge society and everyone must have access to participate.”
We need to communicate. The Internet is now fundamental to that. Ergo, internet access is a fundamental human right.
‘Rights language’ is all around us. Have you noticed how politicians, when they describe some improvement in welfare or health provision, say it is what people deserve? Gordon Brown certainly does. It’s on a par with the execrable ‘Because I’m worth it’ adverts.
Am I alone in being bothered by the use of ‘human rights’ language? By the looks of those PC Pro comments, I’m not. Just to raise a doubt about human rights language today is to risk being labelled as an oppressor, but from a Christian perspective it needs challenging. In fact, I would argue such terms are used recklessly and thoughtlessly by Christians.
Why? Because – as the late Lesslie Newbigin argued – the language of human rights is secular. It arises in a post-Enlightenment society where faith in God had been relegated to the private sphere. In the public, ‘secular’ discourse, humankind was the highest rank of creature and virtually deified. Rights language is about what belongs to deities, Newbigin said. Therefore, to speak of human rights is to talk in idolatrous terms.
To many ears, this will be shocking. How else do we protect some basics of human existence? But would it not be better from a Christian perspective to speak of human dignity (because we are made in the image of God) and human need? Welfare and health provision – to return to the example of politicians – are issues of dignity and need. The ability to communicate – as Dr Touré indicates – is pretty basic to human life. Whether we all need to communicate in every which way is debatable, of course, but the fundamental need is there. If society becomes so dependent upon information via the Internet, then Christians may perceive that the gap between the information-rich and the information-poor could be a moral issue.
However, we probably need to qualify the link between the Internet and information. Firstly, it isn’t entirely the case – surely we’re not going to dignify everything from Facebook status updates to pornography with the label of ‘information’. Secondly, ‘information’ is an insufficient category for Christians. What we value is ‘wisdom’, which is more than a pile of facts: it is what moral choices we are going to make and live with those facts, in the light of God. And that is even more basic to human flourishing than information.
Last year, I made a series of posts about an alleged controversy regarding whether the Royal Mail was willing to sell religious Christmas stamps:
I have now received an email from a friend, telling the same story. The main Christmas stamps this year are on a pantomime theme, but you can get Madonna and Child stamps as an alternative. He says he went to buy Christmas stamps and was only given the ‘secular’ stamps. Checking the Royal Mail site shows the panto stamps are the main ones, but the Madonna and Child ones are available for those who want a more ‘traditional’ image – see here. What is unclear from the Royal Mail is whether it is compulsory for their staff to offer customers a choice. It may be that if they offer a choice, that makes both designs equal in importance. That would contradict their policy of alternating between a religious and a ‘secular’ theme for the stamps. However, the other side is that you have to be ‘in the know’ to ask for the explicitly Christian stamps.
My friend who emailed me today entitled his message ‘Keeping Christ in Christmas’, and that is a wider issue than stamps, although I can see why they are part of the concern. The danger is the continued relegation of Christianity to the private sphere, away from the arena of public truth. That trend has been continuing for centuries: since the Enlightenment, if you believe the late Lesslie Newbigin, and since Thomas Aquinas separated grace and nature, if you believe the late Francis Schaeffer.
Where Christ fits into society’s Christmas (if that is even a valid question) is one symptom of the wider problem: what is the public rôle, if any, of faith? A classic Anglican view, especially in the UK where it would often be linked with established status, would see secular stamps as a threat. It would be about taking the spiritual out of the public sphere. I recall that some years ago George Carey argued against disestablishment on the grounds that it would be a further privatisation of faith. Whether he was right is another matter, but that would be a typical Anglican approach.
A more Radical Reformation (e.g., Mennonite?) view might be rather more ambivalent. Let the state and public sphere do what it will, Christians must get on with being faithful, even if there is opposition, hostility or apathy. We are the ones who keep Christ in Christmas. As we do so, it is part of our witness. Personally, I suspect this approach is more suited to the times we are in, where Christianity is largely out of favour in our society. We are being pushed to the margins. However, that is a potential advantage in the long term should generally postmodern conditions prevail for a long time. Postmodernity often welcomes the idea of truth coming not from powerful places but the margins. This is not the same as the privatisation of faith; it is about recognising that we are exiles in Babylon, a model that is increasingly important to many of us.
A third view might be that of the Revivalist. In a desire to see the Gospel command hearts and minds much more (or ‘as it used to’), there would be fierce protests against the secularisation of Christmas. This is one step on from the establishment view that ‘we are a Christian country’: it sees the issue as one of sin. I long to see a ‘revival’, but find this style unhelpful. Militant Christian protests backed by fervent intercession couched in terms of ‘praying against people’ will not help our cause.
There are other views we could explore, but it’s late in the evening and I need to finish this. I suggest there is no harm in us asking nicely about the stamps, but we must be careful about our tone and we should not make this a crusade or act as if some terrible injustice has been done to us. The majority non-Christian culture just won’t understand.
Those are my initial thoughts. What do you think?
This Sunday, my church at Broomfield is experimenting with bringing its annual Covenant Service forward to the beginning of the ‘Methodist year’ rather than the calendar year. Hence what follows is a sermon for a Covenant Service, rather than on one of the regular weekly Lectionary readings.
At my office, I worked with a Muslim guy. Javed (or ‘Suave Jave’ as we called him, for his attitude to the ladies) was more Muslim by upbringing than practice. But one day, he brought in to show us his mother’s copy of the Qur’an. It was edged and blocked in gold leaf. It came in a special tissue-like wrapper. One thing neither Javed nor his mother would have done with that book was write in it. Even touching it seemed risky, in case of damage.
But I don’t treat my copies of the Bible that way. In particular, I was taught as a young Christian to underline words in my Bible. Not only verses that struck me, but also some key words. ‘But’ was a good word to underline. It indicated an important change in Paul’s arguments.
And Romans 12 starts with another key word: ‘therefore’.
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)
‘I appeal to you therefore’: therefore indicates all that has preceded Romans 12. It indicates the first eleven chapters of Romans, summarised here as ‘the mercies of God’. We make and renew our covenant because of ‘the mercies of God’. All we offer today is in response to the mercies of God. Not just one-off mercy in initial forgiveness, but mercies. Over and over again, God is merciful to us. Our sins, our mistakes, our foolishness and weakness: for all these things God is merciful to us in Christ through the Cross. And because he is relentlessly merciful – his mercies are ‘new every morning, [so] great is [his] faithfulness’ (Lamentations 3:23) – we offer ourselves to him.
How does Paul ask his readers to respond to the mercies of God? In these two verses are two ways:
Paul urges Christians to ‘to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship’ (verse 1).
‘Spiritual worship’ here implies that it is reasonable, rational and true. This is the right and proper thing to do in light of God’s enduring mercies to us. The mercies of God come to us through the sacrifice of Christ: is it not appropriate, urges Paul, for us to make sacrifices as a grateful response?
But what are these sacrifices? ‘Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God’, he says. It’s not just something we do ‘spiritually’: we present our bodies. And if I might just re-order the words to reflect what many commentators think is the sense of the Greek, we make ‘sacrifices, living, holy and acceptable to God’. Those adjectives ‘living’, ‘holy’ and ‘acceptable to God’ illustrate the kinds of sacrifices we might make with our bodies.
‘Living’ – we freely offer our bodies to God, because of what he has done for us in Christ. It may cost us something. The author Robert J Morgan tells how one Sunday, the late Corrie ten Boom was preaching in Copenhagen on these very verses. She was eighty years old at the time. Two young nurses at the church invited her to lunch afterwards, but they lived in a tenth floor flat and there was no lift. Not what you want at eighty.
She struggled up the stairs as far as the fifth floor, but her heart was pounding and her legs buckled. Collapsing into a chair, she complained to the Lord. But she sensed God whispering to her that it was important she carried on.
When she finally made it to the tenth floor, she met the parents of one of the nurses. Neither was a Christian, but they were both interested in the Gospel. Corrie ten Boom led them to faith in Christ. All because she reluctantly followed her own sermon and made her life – her very body – a sacrifice in climbing ten flights. She was willing to go where God led her, despite the cost.
‘Holy’ – our dedication to God may also sometimes come at a price. The Covenant Service promises balances the way some parts of our discipleship are attractive and others are costly:
Christ has many services to be done: some are easy, others are difficult; some bring honour, others bring reproach; some are suitable to our natural inclinations and material interests, others are contrary to both; in some we may please Christ and please ourseleves, in others we cannot please Christ except by denying ourselves. Yet the power to do all these things is given to us in Christ, who strengthens us.’ (Methodist Worship Book, p288.)
Holy sacrifices are about being willing to pay the price of unpopularity and difficulty for the sake of dedication to the right thing. It is also a matter of doing so graciously, rather than with complaint, self-righteousness or attention-seeking.
‘Acceptable’ – this probes our motives. Other translations say, ‘well-pleasing to God’. It’s about a desire to please God. In marriage and other human relationships, we make it our first goal not to please ourselves but our spouse, or whoever it is we love. So too with God. When we know how merciful he has been to us and how regularly he has been merciful, the fitting response is to set our minds and hearts on doing the things that bring him joy.
There is a story told in the Old Testament that gives a small illustration of what I am talking about King David wanted to buy some land from a subject and use it for worship. The owner says he can have it free of charge, but David says, no: he insists on paying. Why? ‘I will not give to the Lord that which has cost me nothing,’ he says. Discipleship and giving need to cost us something to be genuine. It may be financial, material, emotional, psychological, even social. If we realise just how merciful God continually is to us, then out of joy we shall be willing to show love in return, even if it comes at a price.
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
‘Do not be conformed to this world’ – or, as J B Phillips famously translated this passage, ‘Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould’. Do not be conformed, be transformed, says Paul. Don’t be squeezed by the world, ‘let God re-mould your minds from within’ (Phillips).
Yet how easy it is to conform to the world, to let it squeeze us into its mould. Often we don’t notice. The late Lesslie Newbigin once observed that just as a goldfish is not consciously aware of the water in which it swims, so we are often unconscious of the culture we live in and its values.
In our society’s case, think about how we easily use popular words such as ‘tolerance’. It is presented as a quality that everybody must have. Woe betide the intolerant! But the word ‘tolerance’ carries with it overtones of a benign attitude to things that are wrong, enduring wrong things or having no deep convictions oneself. It’s a slippery slope towards tolerating sin. All these shades of meaning are therefore anathema to the Christian, but we refer to tolerance as much as anyone! The world is squeezing us into its mould, if we are not careful. I could give examples from other apparently innocent or positive words such as ‘inclusiveness’ and ‘community cohesion’.
So how do we resist social pressures to adopt ways of thinking that are inimical to the Gospel? Paul exhorts us to ‘be transformed by the renewing of [our] minds’, or to let God re-mould us from within, as Phillips puts it. Spiritual transformation involves a battle for the mind, because what we think affects our attitudes and our actions.
This doesn’t mean we all have to be intellectuals. Any Jesus-follower can develop Gospel thinking, Gospel attitudes and Gospel actions. That is Paul’s vision. Where do we begin?
We start with reading and reflecting on the Bible and its great story from the Garden to the New Jerusalem. It is Scripture above all that will help us to be Gospel thinkers. However, we don’t do so alone. Private Bible reading is good and worthy, but most of the books in the Bible itself were written or dictated to be heard less by individuals than by groups of disciples. It’s important, therefore, to get to grips with the Gospel together. If you’re not part of a small group that does that, you’re missing out! For starters, join the Living Faith course! It will help us get to grips with the big picture of our faith together.
But it’s not enough just to read the biblical message and discuss it. There are many people in churches who know their Bibles well, but who are harsh, unloving and judgmental. (Not that any of us is perfect – least of all, me.) So just reading the Bible and talking about it isn’t enough.
In other words, the biblical authors didn’t write their books just to be read or heard. They wrote them to generate action. The Bible isn’t just to be read, it’s to be done.
In my final year as a student minister, I spent half my time on placement in a circuit. At one of the two churches where I worked, I led a Bible study every week. However, the minister who supervised that group had been very frustrated with it. ‘When are they going to stop talking about the Bible and start doing something?’ he said to me once. ‘They’re more interested in the maps on the inside covers of their Bibles than in putting the teaching into practice.’
And that’s what I’m on about. Spiritual formation in Christ – the transformation of our minds to which Paul calls us – involves Bible reading, reflecting on it together where we support and challenge each other, and then getting on with what we’ve learned. It’s when the thinking leads to action that we truly learn. If I were a betting man, I would wager that Katie learned more about God’s love for the poor through her trip to Kenya with Hand In Hand than I would have done simply by reading about the poor.
One famous preacher said, ‘Never finish your sermon without telling your congregation what you want them to do about it.’ I suggest you might almost say, ‘Never finish your Bible reading without deciding what you are going to do about it.’
If God has been so persistently merciful to us, then what might we give him as a present? It would be appropriate if our offering involved sacrifice, when we recall all that he has done for us in Christ.
Transformation is also appropriate: Christ did not die on the Cross only for our forgiveness: he died that we might be saved from sin in every way. Not only the penalty of sin, but the practice of sin (which involves us co-operating with the Holy Spirit in being transformed) but also the presence of sin (as we anticipate God’s New Creation by being colonies of God’s Kingdom).
This Covenant Service, let us pledge ourselves again – in promise and in action – to the God of abundant mercy.