The Patron Saint of Relational Evangelists

Reblogged from 2012.

In the church’s calendar we often celebrate special feast days to remember ‘saints’ – people from Bible times or afterwards whose lives have been especially Christlike. We do this not to worship them in any sense, but simply to thank God for their good examples and to learn from their faithful discipleship.

Today, November 30th, is the feast day of one of my all-time favourite biblical ‘saints’ – Andrew. Andrew is known today as the patron saint of Scotland, because of a dubious legend about his bones being taken there in the 8th century. I’m a bit doubtful about the whole idea of ‘patron saints’ myself – I really don’t hold with the idea of a saint giving particular care to one country or group of people – but we won’t get into that here.

However, if Andrew is the patron saint of any group of people, it is surely evangelists. This idea might come as a surprise to some, as he isn’t remembered in the church as a great preacher or as a missionary who pioneered whole new areas for the gospel. In fact, I get the impression from reading the stories of Andrew that he was the sort of guy who was quite happy to play second fiddle and fade into the background without drawing attention to himself. But Andrew had this great characteristic: he loved to introduce people to Jesus.

What do we know about Andrew? Well, he was the brother of Simon Peter who became the leader of the apostles, and the two of them were fishermen. We also know that Andrew had been a disciple of John the Baptist before he met Jesus; presumably he had heard John’s message about the kingdom of God and had been baptized by him. The first time we meet him he is standing with another disciple of John, a man called Philip. It’s the day after Jesus was baptized, and, as the crowd is milling around at the Jordan River, Jesus walks by. John the Baptist points him out, and he says to Andrew and Philip, ‘“Look, here is the lamb of God”. The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see”. They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day’ (John 1:36-39).

So John the Baptist points Andrew and Philip to Jesus, and they spend the rest of the day with him. What happens next? Well, John the gospel writer tells us that Andrew ‘first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah!” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter)’ (vv.41-42).

It’s interesting to me that John the gospel writer tells us that this was the first thing that Andrew did after he left Jesus’ company. Obviously what he had seen and heard in that day he spent with Jesus had really excited him: he had found a faith worth sharing! And he also had someone he loved who he thought was worth sharing that faith with – his dear brother Simon. Two of the most important questions we can ask ourselves as Christians are ‘Do I have a faith worth sharing?’ and ‘Do I have a friend worth sharing it with?’ For Andrew, the answer was obviously a resounding ‘Yes!’

Andrew goes on to become one of the inner circle around Jesus – the twelve who he chose to be his ‘apostles’ – the word means ‘ones who are sent’. They would spend the next three years with Jesus, watching and learning from him, and then he would send them out as his missionaries to spread the Gospel all over the world. But before that happens, there are a couple of other stories of Andrew bringing people to Jesus.

In John chapter six, Jesus is teaching a large crowd of people and they have nothing to eat. Jesus decides to test the disciples, so he says to Philip, Andrew’s friend, “Where are we to buy bread for all these people to eat?” Philip replies, “Six months’ wages would not be enough to buy food for each of them to get a little”. But then Andrew chimes in: “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” You know the rest of the story: Andrew brings the boy to Jesus, and Jesus takes the five loaves and two fish and uses them to feed a crowd of five thousand people.

Do you see how Andrew brings Jesus’ ‘raw material’ to him? Andrew’s brother Simon Peter went on to become the great leader of the early church, but it would never have happened if his brother –whose name is not so well-known – had not first brought him to Jesus. And Jesus did a great miracle when he used the five loaves and two fish to feed five thousand people, but Andrew was the one who gave him the materials to make that miracle happen, by introducing the boy to him.

I get the idea that Andrew was the sort of guy who would know who was in a crowd. I get the sense that he enjoyed being with people and was an approachable sort of guy. I remember a few years ago, when I used to lead services once a month at the Edmonton Young Offender Centre, that we had a girl on our team like Andrew. We would wait in the room we were using for services while the staff brought the kids down from the various units, but this girl would always be moving among the kids as they came down, asking them questions and chatting with them. She was really approachable, and afterwards, when the team went out for coffee on our way home, she would always be the one who would tell us that we needed to be praying for so and so, because they were getting out of jail this week, and so on.

I get the idea that Andrew was like that. It would be natural for him to be aware of the boy with the loaves and fishes, because he’d been moving through the crowd chatting with people. He loved people, and he loved Jesus, and most of all he loved bringing them together.

There’s one more story about Andrew in John’s Gospel. In John chapter twelve, Jesus and his disciples are going up to Jerusalem for a Jewish religious festival. We read that ‘among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks’ (v.20): we assume that they were what were known as ‘God-fearers’ – Greeks who had accepted the God of Israel and his laws, although they had not gone the whole way and been circumcised.

Anyway, these Greeks have heard of Jesus and they want to meet him, but they are a bit nervous about it so they approach Andrew’s friend Philip first – perhaps because he has a Greek name? They say to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus” (v.21). So Philip tells Andrew, and then Andrew and Philip together introduce the Greeks to Jesus.

That’s the end of the story – we don’t know how the conversation went – but I’d suggest to you that those words of the Greeks could well be the text of Andrew’s life: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus”. All that we know of Andrew suggests that he dedicated his life to helping others see – and meet – Jesus. Andrew has not gone down in history as a strong leader or a powerful preacher. Rather, we remember him for his personal witness; he is the one who speaks to people one at a time, the one who introduces a friend to Jesus. And so, as we think about what it means to be one of God’s saints – God’s people, the ones he is using to spread his love in the world – I want to suggest to you that Andrew is a good model for us.

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus”. How is that prayer going to be answered today? How are people who have not met Jesus, and perhaps don’t know anything about him, going to have the opportunity to see him and meet him? I think the answer to that question has two parts to it.

First, people are going to see Jesus when the Christian church, and the individuals like you and me who are its members, look more like Jesus. In other words, when we get really serious about putting the teaching and example of Jesus into practice in our everyday life, then people will see Jesus for themselves. When they see us loving our enemies and praying for those who hate us, caring for the poor and not dedicating our lives to getting richer and richer, seeking first God’s Kingdom and not worrying so much about material things or titles or fame or recognition in the sight of the world – when they see all this, then they’ll be able to see the face of Christ in his people. A tall order? Yes – but it’s always been part of our Christian calling, hasn’t it?

Second, people are going to see Jesus when we, the people of Jesus, introduce them to him, so that they can come to know him for themselves. I am a Christian today because of someone who did that – my Dad. My family went to church every week, of course, but my Dad was the one who lent me Christian books and who, at the crucial point in my life, challenged me to give my life to Jesus. I first met Jesus for myself because of that challenge.

At our Edmonton diocesan synod a few years ago Bishop Jane Alexander ended her charge to the synod with this challenge: that before our diocesan centenary in 2013, every Anglican in our diocese would lead one other person to Christ. Doubtless Jane knew that this would be a daunting prospect to many people in the church, and so she continued, ‘And if you don’t know how to do that, will you agree to work together with other people to learn how to do it?”

I’ve had the joy, throughout my life, of helping people who were not Christians come to know Christ for themselves, and I have to tell you that there’s no joy like it. All of us are all called to be witnesses, as Andrew was. We’re not all great preachers or healers or miracle workers or church leaders, but I hope that we all have a faith worth sharing, and that we all have a friend worth sharing it with.

In the 1920s an Anglican priest called Sam Shoemaker wrote a poem about this ministry of introducing people to Jesus, and I want to close with it:

I stand by the door.

I stand by the door.
I neither go too far in, nor stay too far out,
The door is the most important door in the world-
It is the door through which people walk when they find God.
There’s no use my going way inside, and staying there,
When so many are still outside and they, as much as I,
Crave to know where the door is.
And all that so many ever find
Is only the wall where a door ought to be.
They creep along the wall like blind people,
With outstretched, groping hands.
Feeling for a door, knowing there must be a door,
Yet they never find it …
So I stand by the door.

The most tremendous thing in the world
Is for people to find that door – the door to God.
The most important thing any person can do
Is to take hold of one of those blind, groping hands,
And put it on the latch – the latch that only clicks
And opens to the person’s own touch.
People die outside that door, as starving beggars die
On cold nights in cruel cities in the dead of winter—
Die for want of what is within their grasp.
They live on the other side of it – live because they have not found it.
Nothing else matters compared to helping them find it,
And open it, and walk in, and find Him …
So I stand by the door.

Go in, great saints, go all the way in–
Go way down into the cavernous cellars,
And way up into the spacious attics–
It is a vast roomy house, this house where God is.
Go into the deepest of hidden casements,
Of withdrawal, of silence, of sainthood.
Some must inhabit those inner rooms.
And know the depths and heights of God,
And call outside to the rest of us how wonderful it is.
Sometimes I take a deeper look in,
Sometimes venture in a little farther;
But my place seems closer to the opening …
So I stand by the door.

There is another reason why I stand there.
Some people get part way in and become afraid
Lest God and the zeal of His house devour them
For God is so very great, and asks all of us.
And these people feel a cosmic claustrophobia,
And want to get out. “Let me out!” they cry,
And the people way inside only terrify them more.
Somebody must be by the door to tell them that they are spoiled
For the old life, they have seen too much:
Once taste God, and nothing but God will do any more.
Somebody must be watching for the frightened
Who seek to sneak out just where they came in,
To tell them how much better it is inside.
The people too far in do not see how near these are
To leaving – preoccupied with the wonder of it all.
Somebody must watch for those who have entered the door,
But would like to run away. So for them, too,
I stand by the door.

I admire the people who go way in.
But I wish they would not forget how it was
Before they got in. Then they would be able to help
The people who have not yet even found the door,
Or the people who want to run away again from God,
You can go in too deeply, and stay in too long,
And forget the people outside the door.
As for me, I shall take my old accustomed place,
Near enough to God to hear Him, and know He is there,
But not so far from people as not to hear them,
And remember they are there, too.
Where? Outside the door–
Thousands of them, millions of them.
But – more important for me –
One of them, two of them, ten of them,
Whose hands I am intended to put on the latch.
So I shall stand by the door and wait
For those who seek it.
“I had rather be a door-keeper …”
So I stand by the door.

Luke 1.76-79: ‘Into the Way of Peace’ (a sermon for Reign of Christ Sunday)

Sometime in 1984—I can’t remember the exact date—I became a Canadian citizen. I had to do a bit of preparation for it, of course, because there was a citizenship exam and I needed to make sure I knew the things I needed to know to pass that exam. When the day came, we drove down from Arborfield to Saskatoon, I took the exam and passed it, and I joined in the citizenship ceremony, swearing an oath of allegiance to the Queen and her heirs and successors, and promising to faithfully observe the laws of Canada and fulfil my duties as a Canadian citizen.

Of course, I was already a citizen of the UK, so strictly speaking I was already under the authority of the Queen. But I had never actually sworn an oath of allegiance to the Queen before—if you’re a natural-born citizen you’re never actually asked to do that—so it did feel a little different for me. And in later years I’ve pondered even more what it means for us as Christians to give our allegiance to an earthly ruler, when we are all committed to another king—the King of Kings—who we confess to be the true Lord of all.

In fact, a baptism service is a kind of citizenship ceremony. Adults who are being baptized are giving their first allegiance, above all else, to Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. Children who are being baptized are being brought into that allegiance by their parents—like natural-born citizens—and when they get older, they’ll be asked to affirm it of their own free will when they come to confirmation. In fact, the heart of the Christian Gospel is that Jesus Christ is Lord of all—Jesus Christ, not any earthly ruler or dictator or corporate CEO or celebrity superstar. The reason that’s good news is that Jesus loves us with an undying and indestructible love, whereas many earthly lords and authorities only want to exploit us to build their own empires and line their own pockets. But the Gospel tells us that on the last day, they will have to answer to the same Lord as us: Jesus the Messiah, the Lord of love.

Let’s think about our allegiance to Jesus for a few minutes. Most of us here were baptized as children; we had no choice in the matter. Many of us were brought up in Christian homes where Jesus was honoured and we were taught to follow him. But many of us were not. Some of us were brought up in churchgoing homes where, unfortunately, Jesus was never mentioned in an informal way from one week to the next. And some of us were brought up by parents who had us baptized because it was the thing you were supposed to do, but had no idea how to bring us up as Christians and no interest in learning how.

So for all of us, we had to go through a process by which we made this allegiance to Jesus a thing that was real for us, too. Some of us were confirmed, but perhaps we didn’t really have any choice about it; our parents decided it was time for us to do it, so we did. For others, confirmation was a real choice we made, and we were conscious of making our own personal commitment to Jesus as our Lord and King as we made our confirmation promises. Others of us had a more informal and personal conversion experience, short or long, a process by which we came to trust Jesus and decided to follow him. 

As you look back on your own journey into Christian faith, I wonder how you would tell someone else about it? As I look back on my own story, three words come to mind: ‘preparation’, ‘encounter’, and ‘change’. I thought about these words as I was reading the Song of Zechariah in Luke 1:67-79, which is our psalm reading for today. This is the song that Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, sang over his baby son when he was given the name ‘John’. I want to start out by reminding you of a verse near the end of the song, verse 76:

“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.”

John the Baptist was the Lord’s forerunner—he went ahead of Jesus to prepare for his coming. He did that by telling people that the kingdom of God was coming, by calling them to turn from their sins, and by pointing to Jesus when he finally arrived. Once Jesus was on the scene, John couldn’t wait to get out of his way; “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30), he said. John’s role was to prepare the way for Jesus, to point people to him, and to rejoice when they made the decision to become followers of Jesus.

This was the first stage in my Christian journey, the stage of preparation.No-one just decides to become a follower of Jesus without something happening to prepare the way. It might be special people that God puts into our lives—parents, friends, ministers. It might be circumstances we go through that make it clear to us that without God we can’t make sense of our lives. It might be books we read or meetings we go to. It might be a combination of all those things and more besides.

When I ask myself ‘What people and events did God use to set meon the road to Jesus?’ I can think of several. Undoubtedly the first would be the influence of parents who knew and loved Jesus, and made it their business to teach me the Bible stories from my earliest years. Like many of you, I can’t remember the first time I heard the story of Jesus; I feel as if I’ve always known it. Nor can I remember my first prayer, although I’m sure I prayed it with my parents.

The Christian Church played a ‘John the Baptist’ role in my life too. I was carried to St. Barnabas’ Church, Leicester long before I could walk, I was baptized there before I was two months old, and from then on, I was taken to church every Sunday of my life. Undoubtedly this participation in worship from my earliest years helped lead me to Jesus. 

A third ‘John the Baptist’ figure in my life was a little paperback book, Nine O’clock in the Morning, by Dennis Bennett, that my Dad gave me to read when I was thirteen. In this book I read about personal experiences of the love of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit. I read about gifts of healing, dynamic and immediate experiences of God and so on. This book really whetted my appetite for God and got me on the fast track in my journey toward Jesus.

What about you? When you look back on your own life and ask yourself the question ‘How did God prepare the way for Jesus in my life?’ I wonder what story you can tell? Are there people who modeled the Christian faith for you and taught you about Jesus? Are there particular circumstances you went through—perhaps a difficult time, or maybe even a happy time—circumstances that pointed you to God? Who or what did the job of ‘John the Baptist’ for you – pointing you toward Jesus? Who or what did God use to ‘prepare the way of the Lord’ in your life?

If the first stage in my Christian journey was preparation; the second was encounter.Let’s look again at Luke 1:76-77:

“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.”

In the Old Testament, which would have been Zechariah’s Bible, the word ‘knowledge’ doesn’t very often refer to just knowing the facts in your head. Rather, it’s about experience. ‘The knowledge of salvation’ means the experience of salvation; in other words, the experience of God coming into your life and rescuing you from things you could never save yourself from, and restoring you to a living relationship with him. ‘Sins’ are mentioned here because they are one of the major barriers in the way of a living relationship with God. Before our relationship with God can be restored, our sins have to be forgiven, and this is what we experience through Jesus.

At the age of thirteen I had a quiet encounter with God, when I prayed a prayer giving my life to Jesus and asking him to come into my heart. I’m one of those who can remember the time and place when this happened for me: March 5th 1972, in my bedroom. Of course, there are many people who have made a living connection with God through Jesus who can’t remember when or how they did it. But there are also churchgoing people who have never made that connection, and so are desperately trying to get through their lives with only the institution of the church to help them, and not a living relationship with God. To people like that Jesus says. ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest’ (Matthew 11:28). ‘Come to me.’ Of course, there is no place that Jesus is not present, so ‘coming to him’ is simply a matter of intentionally turning to him and putting our lives in his hands.

I have no recollection myself of the words I prayed that night, but I’m sure they weren’t very sophisticated. I was hungry for God, and I’d been told that giving my life to Jesus was the next step on the journey. I’m sure that’s how I would have worded my prayer: a giving over of my life to Jesus as Lord. Very simple, but I can say now without a doubt that it was the most decisive moment of my life.

In the long history of Christian spirituality, some of our greatest teachers have often talked about this as an experience of surrender: the surrender of control over our own lives, and a submitting of ourselves to the loving will of God. It’s a happy accident that in the English language the word ‘sin’ has an ‘I’ at the centre of it, and when I’m at the centre of my own life—when I see myself as the lead character in my own play, with everyone else, including God, just there for my benefit—then that is really the essence of sin. But conversion involves intentionally getting off the throne of my own life and letting God’s anointed King, Jesus, take his rightful place there. In that moment—or process—of surrender, human beings often have profound experiences of encounter with the living God. 

I’ve said that the first stage of my story was preparation, and the second stage was encounter; I would call the third stage simply change ,ongoing change. Look at verses 78-79:

“By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

One of the earliest names for Christians was ‘Followers of the Way’. There was a way of life that went along with being a Christian, and Christians had to learn it. Zechariah calls this way of life ‘the way of peace’, and he tells us that Jesus will guide our feet into it.

As baptized followers of King Jesus we commit ourselves to following his example and obeying his teaching, and this certainly involves change for us all. It means that we are continually rebuilding our lives according to the blueprint Jesus gives us in the Gospels. Instead of living by the values of the materialistic world around us, we’re learning to live by the values of the Kingdom of God—love for God and love for our neighbours. 

I think it’s telling that Zechariah uses the word ‘peace’ to describe the Christian way. The word he would have used in his own language was ‘shalom’, which means far more than just ‘the absence of war’. It means wholeness, life on this planet as God originally intended it. It means an end to greed and violence, and the growth of a new world characterized by justice and peace. That’s the way of life Jesus is teaching us, and he is with us to help us as we grow and learn.

If I were to ask myself the question, “What difference is following Jesus making in mylife today?” I would think immediately of two main things. First, I pray every day, and in my times of prayer I often sense God’s quiet presence with me. I’d be totally lost without those prayer times. I’d feel completely rootless and abandoned in a scary world. But when I pray day by day, by myself and with Marci, I get a deep sense of the presence of God’s Holy Spirit in my heart, and the peace that comes from him. That’s what helps me make it through the rest of the day.

The other thing is that Jesus is teaching me how to live. I struggle with the same sins as most other people. The temptations of a materialistic world are all around me, and I get sucked into believing that buying and owning more stuff will make me happy, just like everyone else does. But then I come back to the Gospels, and I read what Jesus has to say there, and then I look at my life and I say, “Yes, it looks like you’re right again, Lord!” And so, with the Holy Spirit’s help, I’m trying to bring my life into line with what I read there.

I wonder what difference being a follower of Jesus is making in your life at this point? It doesn’t have to be something dramatic. Perhaps you find yourself thinking sometimes ‘Well, God must have helped me through that difficult time, because I sure couldn’t have got through it by myself.’ Or, perhaps there’s an issue in your life, some habit or behaviour pattern that Jesus is helping you to change right now, in order to bring you more in line with his teaching. Maybe there’s a particular command of Jesus you’re working on, trying to learn to obey it. What difference is it making to you right now to be a follower of Jesus? And if the honest answer to that question is “not really very much”, then is it time to pray about that, and to ask God what he wants to do in your life, in a practical, concrete way?

So these are three stages I have gone through on my journey as a citizen of the Kingdom of God, a follower of King Jesus: preparation, encounter, and change. I suspect I’m not alone in that. I suspect many of us go through these kinds of experiences as we journey on the way of Christ.

Let’s close this morning by asking ourselves what the next step on that journey might be for us. Perhaps we haven’t yet had a moment of genuine encounter with the living God; maybe we need to ask someone to help us with that. Maybe there are some questions that are still troubling us that we need to talk to someone about. Maybe we’re aware of a change that God wants us to make in our lives, and we’ve been resisting it for one reason or another. Or maybe we realize that we’re at the point where a simple prayer giving our lives to Jesus would make all the difference in our journey with God.

Let’s close by taking a moment of silence. In that silence, let’s each of us talk to God in our hearts about what the next step in our journey might be, and let’s make the response to which we feel God is calling us. Don’t worry about getting the words right; God knows what’s on your heart. Let’s pray.

Clive Staples Lewis, November 29th 1898 – November 22nd 1963

(Repost from previous years, slightly adapted)

On this day fifty-six years ago, the great C.S. Lewis died.

Because of the assassination of President Kennedy on the same day, the death of Lewis has always been somewhat overshadowed. Far be it from me to downplay Kennedy and what he stood for, but for me, Lewis was by far the more influential man.

In the early 1990s I lent a United Church minister friend a copy of Lewis’ Mere Christianity; when he gave it back to me, he said, “Do you have any idea how much this man has influenced you?” Mere Christianity came along at just the right time for me; I was seventeen and had begun to feel the lack of a rigorous intellectual basis for my faith. In this book, Lewis gave me just that. I went on to read pretty well everything he had written, including the various editions of his letters which seem to me to contain some of the best common-sense spiritual direction I’ve ever read. I’ve parted company with Lewis on a few issues (pacifism, Conservative politics, the ordination of women), but for the most part I still consider him to be one of the most reliable guides available to a rigorous, full-orbed, common-sense Christianity.

Lewis was a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, and, later, of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and in his professional career he taught English literature. Brought up in Ireland in a conventionally religious home, he became an atheist in his teens. Later, in his late twenties and early thirties, he gradually came back to Christianity (he told the story himself in his book Surprised by Joy) and went on to become a popular writer and speaker on Christian faith. He claimed for himself Richard Baxter’s phrase ‘Mere Christianity’; although he lived and died entirely content to be a member of the Church of England (‘neither especially high, nor especially low, nor especially anything else’, as he said in his introduction to Mere Christianity), he had no interest in interdenominational controversy, preferring to serve as an apologist for the things that most Christians have in common.

Nowadays evangelicals (especially in the United States) have claimed Lewis as a defender of a rigorous Christian orthodoxy (despite the fact that he did not believe in the inerrancy of the Bible and was an enthusiastic smoker and imbiber of alcoholic beverages). Likewise, Roman Catholics have sometimes pointed out that many fans of Lewis have gone on to convert to Roman Catholicism (something he himself never did, because he believed that Roman Catholicism itself had parted company on some issues with the faith of the primitive church), and have resorted to blaming his Irish Protestant background as somehow giving him a phobia about Catholicism that made it psychologically impossible for him to convert to Rome. Lewis himself, I believe, would not have approved of these attempts to press him into the service of advancing a particular Christian tradition or denomination. I believe we should take him at his word: he was an Anglican by conviction, but was most comfortable with the label ‘Christian’.

What about his books? Well, there are so many of them! In his professional discipline of literary criticism he wrote several influential books, including The Allegory of Love (on the medieval allegorical love poem), The Discarded Image (an introduction to the world view of medieval and renaissance writers), An Experiment in Criticism (in which he examines what exactly it means to take pleasure from reading a book), A Preface to Paradise Lost (in which he introduces us to one of his favourite works of literature, John Milton’s famous poem Paradise Lost), and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama (this is only a selection of his works of literary criticism).

Turning to his more specifically ‘Christian’ works, in The Screwtape Letters Lewis gave us an imaginary series of letters from a senior to a junior demon on the art of temptation; along the way, as Lewis intended, we get some penetrating insights into practical, unpretentious, daily holiness. Miracles and The Problem of Pain are intellectual defences of Christian truth (the first examining the question of whether miracles are possible, the second dealing with the issue of evil and the goodness of God). Reflections on the Psalms is a series of meditations on the issues raised by the psalms (including an excellent chapter on the ‘cursing’ psalms), while Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer gives us accurate guidance on what a life of prayer is really all about. In the ‘Narnia’ stories and the Space Trilogy, Lewis baptizes our imagination, using the genre of fairy story and science fiction to present Christian truth in a fresh and compelling way. And in Mere Christianity he presents his case for the truth of Christianity and a good explanation of its central ideas.

These are just a few of his books; there are many websites that give exhaustive lists.

This website by Lewis’ publishers is of course focussed on trying to sell books – Lewis’ own books, collections of his writings published since his death, and many of the books that have been since written about him. Personally, I like Into the Wardrobe better; it isn’t trying to sell me anything, but includes a biography, a collection of papers, articles, and archives, and some excellent links.

Since his death Lewis has become almost a cult figure, especially in the U.S., and the number of books and articles about him continues to grow. He himself was uncomfortable with the trappings of fame, and I believe he would have been horrified with the growth of the C.S. Lewis ‘industry’ today. It seems to me that the best way to observe the  anniversary of his death is to go back to his books, read them again (or perhaps for the first time), ponder what he had to say, and pray that his work will lead us closer to Christ, as he would have wanted.

Rest in peace and rise in glory, Jack. And once again, thank you.

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St. Margaret of Scotland (sermon for the Feast of St. Margaret 2019)

Toward the end of November every year, we celebrate the feast day of the saint our church is named for, St. Margaret of Scotland. Margaret died on November 16th 1093, nine hundred and twenty-six years ago this year. She’s not one of the well-known saints. Most people who join this church don’t have any idea who she was or what she did, but as we learn about her and get to know her story better, most of us come to love her and admire her, and maybe even see her as a role model for our community and our life as followers of Jesus.

Every year on this day I tell her story, and some of you have heard it many times; you could maybe even tell it for me, if you wanted to! But other people have joined our church since the last time we did this, and many of you will have been away on this Sunday in previous years, for one reason or another. So I’m going to tell the story again today, and then focus on one particular lesson I want us to think about as we put Margaret’s example into practice.

Who was St. Margaret? She was the granddaughter of the English king Edmund Ironside, but because of dynastic disputes she was born in Hungary, in the year 1047. She had one brother, Edgar, and a sister, Christian, and many people in England saw her father Edward Ætheling as the rightful heir to the throne of England. Edward the Confessor became King of England in 1042, but he never had children, and in 1054 the parliament of Anglo-Saxon England decided to bring Margaret’s family back from Hungary so that her father could inherit the throne when King Edward died. So the three siblings were brought up at the Anglo-Saxon court under the supervision of Benedictine monks and nuns, who trained the young people according to the Benedictine ideal of a life of work and prayer.

It’s hard to overstate the influence of those Benedictines in Margaret’s life. From them she learned the importance of balancing times of prayer and times of working for the good of others; this would be a good description of her later life as Queen of Scotland. We know she learned to read the scriptures in Latin, and she also knew the teachings of the church fathers from the early Christian centuries. Her sister Christian went on to become a Benedictine nun herself.

Margaret’s father died in 1057, and her brother Edgar became heir to the throne. But it was not to be. King Edward the Confessor died in 1066, and soon afterwards William the Conqueror invaded England and claimed the throne for himself. Edgar and his sisters were advised to go back to Hungary for their own safety, but on the way their ship was blown far off course by a fierce gale. They spent some time in northern England and then sailed up the coast to the Firth of Forth in Scotland, where King Malcolm gave them a warm welcome to his kingdom.

Margaret was now about twenty years old; Malcolm was forty, and unmarried, and he soon became attracted to her. But she took a lot of persuading; she wanted to become a Benedictine nun, and Malcolm had a very stormy temperament, despite his other virtues. It was only after long consideration that she finally agreed to marry him, and their wedding took place in the year 1070, when she was twenty-three. In the end, although she was much younger than him, she was the one who changed him; under her influence, he became a much wiser and godlier king.

Margaret was now in a high position in society, and very wealthy according to the standard of the day. But she continued to live in the spirit of inward poverty. She saw nothing she possessed as belonging to her; everything was to be used for the purposes of God. As Queen, she continued to live the ordered life of prayer and work that she had learned from the Benedictines. In a very male-dominated society she was only the wife of the king, but nevertheless she came to have the leading voice in making changes that affected the social and spiritual life of Scotland. She had this influence because of the depth of her husband’s love for her. Malcolm didn’t share his wife’s contemplative temperament, but he was strongly influenced by her godly character, so he tended to follow her advice a lot—not only for his own life, but also for the life of the church and people in Scotland.

It’s actually quite remarkable that the Scots accepted the church reforms that this foreign queen proposed, but she herself lived such a simple and Christ-like life that they seemed to feel instinctively that her way must be a good way. Let’s think about the sort of life she lived as Queen of Scotland.

Margaret would begin each day with a prolonged time of prayer, especially singing the psalms. In this she was following the example of the Benedictine nuns; the Rule of St. Benedict prescribes seven prayer services a day, and in this way the whole book of one hundred and fifty psalms would be prayed through once a week!

After her prayer time, we’re told that orphan children would be brought to her, and she would prepare their food herself and serve it to them. It also became the custom that any destitute poor people would come every morning to the royal hall; when they were seated around it, the King and Queen would enter and ‘serve Christ in the person of his poor’. Before they did this, it was their custom to send out of the room all other spectators except for the chaplains and a few attendants; it was important to Margaret that what they did was done for the love of God and the poor, not to win spiritual brownie points from admiring onlookers.

In those days there were basically two traditions of Christianity in the British Isles. The older way was preserved in Ireland, Scotland and northern England, and today we would probably refer to it as ‘Celtic’. The newer way had been brought from Rome when St. Augustine of Canterbury arrived in England in 597, and it had quickly spread around southern England. The two ways were agreed on the teachings of Christianity but they had different emphases, different calendars and different customs. You might think, “Well if they agreed on the teachings, what’s the problem?” but you and I know that’s not how things work! People get used to their customs and traditions and feel very strongly about resisting change!

In those days the church in Scotland had been formed in the Celtic way of Christianity. But Margaret had been raised in the way of Rome, and she was keen to bring Scotland into unity with the rest of the world. However, she didn’t do it in a domineering or authoritarian way. She often visited the Celtic hermits in their lonely cells, offering them gifts and caring for their churches. But she also held many conferences with the leaders of the Church, putting forward the Roman point of view about things like the date of Lent and the proper customs for celebrating the liturgy and so on. In the end she convinced them—not so much because of the strength of her arguments, but by the power of her holy life.

In those days many people in Scotland used to go on pilgrimages to see the relics of St. Andrew at the place now called ‘St. Andrew’s’. Margaret wanted to help the pilgrims, so she had little houses built on either shore of the sea that divided Lothian from Scotland, so that poor people and pilgrims could shelter there and rest after their journeys. She also provided ships to transport them across the water. Interestingly enough, that place in eastern Scotland is still called ‘Queensferry’!

I think it’s fair to say that most people recognized as saints today by the Catholic Church were monks and nuns who lived lives of celibacy, far removed from the demands of the world and the pressures of family life. But Margaret is remembered as having a happy family life. She had eight children—six sons and two daughters. Her oldest son Edward was killed in battle, Ethelred died young, and we’re told that Edmund didn’t turn out too well. But the three youngest, Edgar, Alexander, and David, are remembered as among the best kings Scotland ever had. David I, the youngest son, had a peaceful reign of twenty-nine years in which he developed and extended the work his mother had begun. The two daughters, Matilda and Mary, were both brought up under the guidance of Margaret’s sister Christian in the Abbey of Romsey, and both went on to marry into the English royal family.

Margaret was not yet fifty when she died. As she lay dying, her son Edgar brought her the sad news that her husband and her oldest son had been killed in battle. Despite this grief, we’re told that her last words were of praise and thanksgiving to God, and her death was calm and tranquil.

Now—what lesson do we want to draw from the story of Margaret this year?

Last week when Sylvia was preaching, she mentioned the importance of ‘taking a stand for Christ’. As I listened, I found myself wondering “What would that look like in daily life?’ And I came to the conclusion that the most important part of taking a stand for Christ is simply to obey the teachings Jesus gave us.

In John 14 Jesus says very clearly, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14.15) And what’s the best way of summing up Jesus’ commandments? I’m sure I don’t have to remind anyone here of the answer to that question. Jesus himself was asked which commandments were the most important of all, and he replied,

“The first is, ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12.28-31)

I’ve quoted these commandments in the form Mark gives them to us. But in Luke’s Gospel it’s actually a scribe who quotes them to Jesus; Jesus commends him for his answer, and then he says, “Do this, and you will live.” I don’t think he means, “Do this, and God will let you go to heaven as a reward.” I think he means, “If you learn to live a life of love for God and your neighbour, you will discover the sort of joyful and fulfilling life you were designed for in the first place. This is really the best and most wonderful way to live. This is life as God intended it.”

The Benedictine nuns who taught Margaret to live as a Christian had a long tradition of balancing work and prayer—loving your neighbour and loving God. I first came across this myself in the early 1990s when I encountered the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine. These Sisters are Anglican nuns who follow the way of St. Benedict, and they used to have a priory in Edmonton, up near Alberta Avenue. I stayed there a few times, and I was always impressed with the way their day was punctuated by prayer. They were always busy; individual sisters travelled and gave retreats and conferences, and there were often events happening at the Priory itself, or individuals coming for spiritual help and guidance. But the sisters were also strict about observing their Rule, and that included praying Morning Prayer, the Eucharist, Mid-Day Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Compline every day. They did it together in their chapel, with any friends who were there and wanted to join them, including their two full-sized poodles, Phoebe and Caspian!

So they gathered for four prayer services and a Eucharist every day. As I mentioned earlier on, St. Benedict’s Rule for his monks prescribes sevendaily services, with names like Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce and Compline. Modern Benedictines have softened this expectation a bit, and in the 16thCentury Archbishop Thomas Cranmer combined bits of all the daily services into two: Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, sometimes called ‘Matins’ and ‘Evensong’, which he included in the first Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Many of us older Anglicans grew up with Morning Prayer as a Sunday service, but it wasn’t originally designed for that; it was a daily service, to be said with others if possible, but if not, then alone.

We Anglican clergy still follow this discipline, and many lay people find it valuable as well. This past week it was reading week at the University of Alberta. I follow our Anglican chaplain, Heather Liddell, on Instagram, and on Tuesday morning I saw she posted a picture of her Bible and Book of Alternative Services. The caption was, ‘Morning Prayer continues all reading week at 9am in HUB 176 – why not join us in prayer?’ So you see, over fourteen hundred years after St. Benedict died, and over four hundred and fifty years after Thomas Cranmer died, their vision of daily prayer based on the psalms and scriptures is still being practiced in Edmonton—not just at the U of A, but in many other places too.

This is probably the discipline Margaret followed. I doubt if she prayed all seven Benedictine daily offices, but she certainly joined in some of them, and we know she also spent time in silent prayer, fasting and contemplation. Strengthened by this life of prayer, she was then able to get up and go about her daily work—the work of following Christ and trying to make Scotland a better place for the people who lived there.

What about us? We’re all busy people. Many of us work long hours at demanding jobs. Some of us are students with worries about student debt, working various jobs to try to make ends meet, wondering what sort of world we’re going to be working in. Some of us are retired and spend a lot of time looking after our grandchildren and doing what we can to support our kids in the busy world they live in.

How can we avoid burnout? Where can we find strength from God to deal with the things life sends our way?

Surely the Christian answer is that we need to stay in touch with God so we can know his presence in our daily lives. God loves us and wants each of us to experience his love. And prayer is one of the best ways of doing that. In prayer, we can lay down our burdens in God’s presence. We can bring our requests—for others and ourselves—to the one person who’s best able to deal with them. We can thank God for the blessings we receive and ask God’s forgiveness for our sins and shortcomings. We can listen to the voice of God in Scripture and in silence, and seek a word from God to guide us through our day.

Seven times a day is a bit much for us! But maybe, like Thomas Cranmer, we can manage once or twice? At the beginning and end of the day, we can turn to God for strength and peace.

Last Lent we did a five-session course called ‘Prayer Smorgasbord’, exploring five different styles of prayer. One of them was ‘the daily office’, the sort of prayer I’ve described, based on the way of St. Benedict and Archbishop Cranmer. As part of that course I made available a condensed version of Morning and Evening Prayer for people to try out, just using one folded page. I’ve put some copies of it on the table in the foyer; I encourage you to take them, and if you need help with it, feel free to contact me. I’d be delighted to help you.

‘Love God with all your heart and love your neighbour as yourself’. Jesus’ vision is a life of loving relationship with God and our neighbour. Many of us in this church are doing a lot to help our neighbour, but let’s not forget about our relationship with God. Margaret of Scotland was a very busy person, but she never forgot her daily time with God in prayer. Let’s follow her example, and be people of prayer as well as people of good deeds. The two belong together, and when we combine them, we’ll find the life we were made for.

What I remember on Remembrance Day (annual post)

There are some pieces I repost every year, because I really can’t improve on them and still want to say what they say. This is one of them.

386302_10150434245270400_1399354246_nRemembrance Day is often promoted these days as a day to remember the sacrifices of military personnel who served our country in time of war.

In fact, the original Armistice Day, after World War One (the ‘Great War’ which was also called, optimistically, ‘the War to end all Wars’), had a wider focus; it was a thanksgiving that the guns had fallen silent after four years of butchery and carnage on a scale the world had never seen before, and a silent remembrance of all who had lost their lives, military or civilian. It was also a day to pray fervently for peace and to commit oneself to a simple message: ‘Never Again!’

So on Remembrance Day this year there will be many things I will remember.

First and foremost, of course, I will remember family members who were impacted by the ravages of war.

I will remember my grandfather, George Edgar Chesterton (1895-1963), who served with the Leicestershire Tigers from 1914-18. He was eventually captured and spent eighteen months as a P.O.W. before returning home after the armistice.

I will remember my Dad’s uncle, Charles Hodkinson (1912-1941), shot down and killed in a bomber over the Netherlands in 1941.

I will remember my great grand uncle, Horace Arthur Thornton (1896-1917), killed in action in France July 27th 1917.

I will remember Brian Edgar Fogerty (1924-1941), related to me through my grandfather’s sister, who served in the merchant navy during WW2 and died at sea Feb. 22nd 1941; he was just 17.

I will remember Brian’s uncles, Harold Edgar Fogerty (1892-1919) and Edward Ernest Vernon Fogerty (1901-1920), both of whom served in the Great War. They died of illnesses after the war ended, but are remembered on the war memorial in Cheltenham because it is felt that war injuries contributed to their deaths.

I will remember the many other relatives who served in the military in the two great world wars of the twentieth century, many of whom would never speak of their experiences when they returned, and lived with the trauma for the rest of their lives.

I will also remember the brave men and women who served in the enemy armies, many of whom were conscripted and had no choice unless they were willing to be shot. I will remember the people who died because of the bombs my Dad’s uncle Charles dropped. I will remember the U-Boat men who fired the torpedoes that killed Brian Fogerty; the U-Boat arm had the highest casualty incidence of any unit of the German military in WW2, and I expect that most of them died in terror as they heard the explosions of depth charges getting closer and closer; no doubt those who were religious prayed that God would save them, just as my relatives prayed to be saved.

I will remember the civilians whose lives were lost in carpet bombing: in the Blitz in London and other cities in Britain, in the fire-bombing of Dresden, in the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I will remember the residents of the towns and cities of Europe, Africa, and Asia, whose homes became battlegrounds and who lost everything they had, including (in millions of cases) their lives. I will remember the millions of children who became orphans, many of whom were institutionalized for the rest of their lives.

I will remember the ridiculous sibling rivalry between King Edward VII and Kaiser Wilhelm I, which was a primary cause of the arms race between their two countries in the lead up to World War I, and thus arguably contributed to the outbreak of the war. Britain and Germany had no history of aggression, but the Kaiser wanted battleships like his cousin King Edward, and the only excuse he could offer was to create the illusion that Britain was a threat to him. On such stupidity hung the lives of millions of young men.

I will remember the millions of people in eastern Europe who were condemned to forty years of communist tyranny because Britain and the U.S.A. needed the support of Russia to win the Second World War. Our victory was thus won on the backs of the freedom of millions; who were the ‘winners’ here?

I will remember the lies that have been told to justify war, from the lie that Polish soldiers had invaded Germany and killed men at a border post in 1939 (told by Hitler to justify his invasion of Poland) to the lie that Iran had weapons of mass destruction. I will also remember the appalling arrogance of western nations who assume that we have the right to impose our ideas of government on people who obviously do not want them.

I will remember how the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, ”greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”, have been taken out of the context in which he spoke them – in which he was about to lay down his life without resisting, loving his enemies and praying for those who hated him – and have been used to honour and glorify the deaths of those who were killed while they were fighting and killing others.

I will remember all of this on Remembrance Day. I will pray that this madness will end, that human beings may find better ways to resolve their conflicts than sending young people out to butcher each other, and that those who profit from war will have their eyes opened to their own wickedness, and repent. And I will pray that the Christian Church throughout the world may be alive to the call it has received from its master, to love our enemies and pray for those who hate us.

And, as always, I will find Wilfred Owen’s immortal poem ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ to be a penetrating aid to true remembrance of what war is all about:

Dulce Et Decorum Est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;

Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

– Wilfred Owen, 1917

A Community of Saints (a sermon for the Feast of All Saints’)

Today in the church year we celebrate the Feast of All Saints’. Well, actually we celebrated it on Friday, which was November 1st, which also happens to be my birthday! But All Saints’ Day is considered to be a major feast, and so it commonly gets celebrated on the closest Sunday, so that as many people as possible can join in.

Why would we want to join in? Possibly because, of all the saints’ days in the Church calendar, this one is the one we’re all involved in. We celebrate many famous saints throughout the year: St. Paul on January 25th, for instance, or St. Luke on October 18th, or St. John the Baptist on June 25th, or our own St Margaret on November 16th, and so on. But All Saints’ Day is a day that celebrates all of us. Why do I say that? Because in the Bible, we are ‘all saints’.

It’s true that in popular usage the word ‘saint’ usually gets applied to a particularly good or holy person. Right now in the Roman Catholic Church, the Pope is in the process of declaring John Henry Newman a saint. Newman was an Anglican priest who lived in the nineteenth century; he was one of the leaders of a movement that led the Anglican Church back to its Catholic roots. But Newman wasn’t satisfied with this, and so eventually he left the Church of England and was received into the Roman Catholic Church. He went on to become a cardinal.

I’m not sure if the Pope is declaring Newman to be a saint in order to congratulate him on his smart move away from Anglicanism, but I’d like to think not! And anyway, that’s not the point I’m focussing on today. What I’m interested in is this idea that a saint is a special kind of Christian: one who is a particularly good example of holiness or heroism. Ordinary rank and file Christians like you and me aren’t included in this description. “I’m no saint!” we say.

But the apostle Paul would disagree. When he writes his letters in the New Testament, he commonly addresses them to ‘the saints of God in such and such a town’. And when he started a fundraising campaign in the Gentile churches to help the Christians in Jerusalem through a difficult time, he just called the project ‘this ministry to the saints’ (2 Corinthians 8.4). A good example of his usage is the beginning of Second Corinthians:

‘Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother. To the church of God that is in Corinth, including all the saints throughout Achaia.’ (2 Corinthians 1.1)

Ephesians is similar:

‘Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, to the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus.’  (Ephesians 1.1)

Paul’s meaning is clear. To him, you don’t become a saint by being canonised by the Pope. John Henry Newman became a saint by being baptized and putting his faith in Jesus. Or rather, I should say, that’s how Newman joined the company of the saints. That’s another difference between our usage and the Bible. We tend to use ‘saint’ in the singular: “Saint Paul” or “Saint Matthew”. “She’s a real saint”, we say. But in the Bible the word is most commonly used in the plural. It’s not about individual spiritual superstars; it’s about a community God has chosen for a special purpose: to do his work in the world.

We first run into this idea very early in the story of the Bible. In Genesis chapter 12 God calls Abram and his family to leave their home in Haran and go to a country God will show them. Why is he doing this?

‘Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”’ (Genesis 12.1-3).

In other words, God didn’t call Abram and his family because he thought they were more special than anyone else, or because he loved them more. No: he called them to be a blessing to all the families of the earth. He was going to teach them to know and love and follow him, so that they could shine as a light to everyone else. That’s what the saints are here for: to be a channel of God’s blessing to everyone else in the world.

As Christians today, we share in that call. Jesus told us that we are the ‘salt of the earth’ and the ‘light of the world’. Salt and light are called to have an influence on their environment. In the ancient world salt wasn’t so much a flavouring as it is today; it was mainly applied to meat to prevent it from going bad. And of course we all know what happens to darkness when a light is brought in. Even a very small light can transform a dark and scary place into a warm and cozy room. So Jesus says, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5.16). He says this near the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount; the ‘good works’ he’s talking about are the works he sets out in the rest of the Sermon. It’s found in Matthew chapters 5-7 and there’s a different version in the passage today’s Gospel reading was taken from, Luke 6. It would be good to read and reflect on them today as we think about how we saints can be faithful to our call to let our light shine.

It’s actually quite important for us to do this, because at different times in history, religious communities have had very different ideas about how to live as the saints of God. We can see one example of this in today’s Psalm, 149. In the first part of the psalm the Israelites are encouraged to praise God with dancing and singing and the banging of tambourines and playing of lyres. It all sounds very festive and joyful. But then the mood changes in the second half of the psalm:

‘Let the high praises of God be in their throats,
and two-edged swords in their hands,
to execute vengeance on the nations
and punishment on the peoples,
to bind their kings with fetters
and their nobles with chains of iron,
to execute on them the judgement decreed.
This is glory for all his faithful ones.
Praise the Lord!’ (Psalm 149:6-9).

I expect that when we were praying the psalm a few minutes ago some of you felt a bit awkward about saying these words. They don’t feel very Christian, do they? They feel more like the words that would come out of the mouths of terrorists preparing to go on a bombing mission.

What’s the theology that’s being expressed in these verses? I think the people who wrote them have forgotten their call to be a light to the world. To them, the darkness around them is absolute. You can’t change it; the only thing you can do is fight against it and destroy it. The enemies of God are the enemies of God and they will always be the enemies of God. God is angry at them, and he wants you to wipe them out as a sign of his judgement on them.

What’s behind this theology? I think it’s mainly fear. And not just fear of foreign superpowers, although that was always a factor; we should never forget that Old Testament Israel was situated between three superpowers—Egypt, Babylon, and Assyria—and was always in danger from at least one of them. But it’s also the fear of idolatry. God’s Old Testament people had many examples in their history of times when they’d been led astray to worship false gods. Those stories had never ended well for them. You can’t trust those idol worshippers, they would have said. Better to avoid them, or wipe them out.

Are there Christians who believe this? There certainly have been in our history. There have been many times when we’ve used violence and coercion ‘to advance the cause of Christ’—or so we’ve mistakenly believed. The Crusades is the obvious example, or the conquest of South America by the Conquistadores, in which the indigenous peoples were often given a stark choice: baptism or death. And certainly many so-called Christian countries have gone to war with their neighbours ‘For God and for Country’, as they would have put it.

But I think it’s even more subtle today. Since the 1980s, many Christians in the western world have spent a lot of time and energy engaging in what are sometimes called ‘culture wars’. Should our culture be secular, or should it reflect the Christian heritage it comes from? The various battles waged in these culture wars range all the way from issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, to rather minor and silly things like whether or not we can say ‘Merry Christmas’ or have prayer in state schools (neither of which were issues that Jesus lost a lot of sleep over!).

I think it can be said with some confidence that these culture wars have been a complete failure in advancing the gospel of Jesus Christ. Why? Because they’ve gotten non-Christians used to the idea that Christians are their opponents, and how willing are you to listen to the ideas of your opponents? What that means is that when Christians get around to doing what we’ve actually been commanded to do by Jesus—share the gospel and make new disciples—the potential new disciples don’t want to listen to us, because we’ve squandered all the good will we might have had on secondary issues like school prayer and Merry Christmas.

Culture wars teach us to view the people around us as enemies. We can’t trust them; we need to defeat them, or force them to accept our point of view. But Jesus has an entirely different strategy. Did you notice these words from today’s gospel reading?

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6:27-31)

Why do we saints act like this? Because we believe in a God who acts like this. In Matthew’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus expands on this a bit:

“But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5.44-45).

We’re called to imitate our heavenly Father, who loves all people with a stubborn and indestructible love. And Jesus imitates his heavenly Father in this. When his enemies nailed him to the Cross, everyone knew what any self-respecting god in the ancient world would do: send down thunderbolts to fry them! But Jesus doesn’t do that; he prays that God will forgive them.

So there’s a discontinuity between Jesus and certain strands of the Old Testament here. And this shouldn’t surprise us. Jesus was a devout Jew and observed the Law; he loves the Old Testament Scriptures and stands in continuity with them, but he doesn’t unconditionally endorse everything in them. Sometimes he makes a change; he says things like, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times…but I say to you…” He contradicts the Old Testament food laws by declaring all foods clean; he’s not too happy with how easy Moses makes it for men to divorce their wives, and he’s got no time for ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’.

We Christians believe that the title ‘the Word of God’ is most applicable to Jesus himself. That’s how John uses it in his Gospel; ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth’ (John 1.1,14). Jesus is the clearest statement we have of God’s word, God’s thoughts, God’s message. We interpret everything else in the Bible by the standard of Jesus’ words and actions.

So how are we saints to live? God told Abram that through him all the families of the earth would be blessed. God wants to reach out to all the people of the earth through us, his saints. He wants us to love enemies, give generously to the poor, share the gospel at every opportunity, and live by the teaching and example of Jesus.

There’s a blessing my dad sometimes used at the end of services, and a few years ago (before he died), I asked him to send me a copy of it. Apparently it comes from the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England as proposed in 1928. It goes like this:

Go forth into the world in peace; be of good courage; hold fast to that which is good; do not repay anyone evil for evil; encourage the fainthearted; support the weak; help the afflicted; honour all people; love and serve the Lord, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit. And the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be upon you and remain with you always.

That sounds to me like a good blessing for the saints of God: half blessing and half commission, in fact! May God give us the strength to go out and put it into practice, so we can be the community of saints he’s calling us to be.