2018 RLT#24: Faith and Familiarity

We’re used to thinking of doubt as the opposite of faith, but for long time Christians, I wonder if familiarity isn’t a more pressing concern.

Today I read this passage:

‘Jesus left there and went to his hometown, accompanied by his disciples. When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed.

‘“Where did this man get these things?” they asked. “What’s this wisdom that has been given him? What are these remarkable miracles he is performing? Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.

‘Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.” He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. He was amazed at their lack of faith.’ (Mark 6:1-6a NIV)

“Who does he think he is, claiming to be a wisdom teacher and a wonder worker? We watched him grow up and we saw all the things he got up to! He’s just the carpenter’s son; we see his family in the coffee shop every day! Nothing special about him”.

Familiarity breeds contempt – or just boredom. Every Sunday I stand up in church and say ‘On the third day he rose again’ and it barely registers. But for the first disciples it changed everything – absolutely everything – about their lives. The Jesus project went from abject failure to stunning victory in the space of twenty-four hours. They were shocked, afraid, excited, thrilled, awestruck – but they definitely weren’t bored.

Familiarity breeds contempt – but not automatically. I see here a list of family members of Jesus; so far in the Gospel of Mark all they’ve done in response to Jesus’ mission is call him a madman and tried to take him home before he harms himself (3:31-35). But thirty years later, one of these names, James, will be the revered leader of the Jerusalem church – a devout Jewish disciple of his brother Jesus, and one of the most radical teachers of faith and works in the New Testament.

So here’s my Lent thought for today. I need to learn to be like James: to grow old as a follower of Jesus, but not to grow bored.



2018 Random Lent Thought #12: Faith and Unbelief

Just a short RLT this morning. As part of my One Year Bible readings today I read Mark 9:2-9, which ends with the story of Jesus delivering a boy from an impure spirit when the disciples have not been able to do this. After the boy’s father describes his symptoms to Jesus, he says “But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help u!” “‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”  Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:23-24 NIV).

This is my favourite prayer in the Bible, because I often have a problem with faith. When I read Jesus saying “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11:24), my heart sinks and I know there’s no hope for me because I have never at any time in my life been able to summon up faith like that. Some may be able to do it, but I can’t.

So I’m encouraged by the raw honesty of the father in today’s story. “I believe and I don’t believe – please help me move forward, Lord!” And the amazing thing is that it’s enough; Jesus immediately turns and delivers the boy, and he is set free from his troubles.

Does this mean that the father’s faith was enough? I think I would prefer to believe it means Jesus‘ faith is enough. The father may not have strong faith, but Jesus has absolute faith in his Father in heaven, and so he is able to deliver the boy.

Growing in faith is something we sometimes think about during Lent, but I suspect that to many of us it’s even more difficult than fasting and self-denial! How would we even begin to grow in faith? It’s easy to become discouraged when, year after year, we can see only negligible movement on that score. “Lord, I believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” remains our prayer as the years go by – maybe even more so.

Today when I’m faced with desperate situations that need fervent, faithful prayer, I know I’m going to feel inadequate about addressing them. But I’m going to try to remind myself that although my faith feels weak, Jesus’ faith is strong, and the letter to the Hebrews tells us that he is always praying to the Father for us. And that will be enough.


2018 Random Lent Thought #7: Faith

“Do I have enough faith?” When I was a young Christian, that was often an agonizing – and paralyzing – question.

I came to conscious faith in Christ – there’s that word again, we use it in so many ways! – as a young teenager in the context of what we then called ‘the Pentecostal Movement’ in Anglicanism (not long afterwards we started calling it ‘the Charismatic Renewal’). ‘Faith’ was a huge issue for us charismatics, because of our emphasis on healing and supernatural intervention. We paid a lot of attention to verses like Mark 11:22-24:

‘Have faith in God,’ Jesus answered. ‘Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, “Go, throw yourself into the sea,” and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours’.

‘Heart’, to us, meant ‘the feelings’ (as it self-evidently does to all modern people); we didn’t know that the New Testament writers thought the feelings were centred in another organ of the body, the intestines (hence the King James Version’s translation of ‘compassion’ as ‘bowels of mercy’). ‘Heart’, in the New Testament, covers a much bigger portion of the inner life – the emotions, the thoughts, and especially the will, the choices we make.

What I missed when I read the New Testament was how active the words ‘faith’ and ‘believe’ are.

Four friends bring a paralyzed man to Jesus so that he can heal him. The house is too crowded and they can’t get to Jesus, so they climb up and dig a hole in the mud roof, and lower their friend down on his stretcher, right in front of Jesus. Mark says, ‘When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralysed man, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven’ (Mark 2:5).

But note this: what Jesus actually saw was their actions. Their ‘faith’ was a decision to act on trust. The action made it concrete – but also, somehow, easier to practice. They didn’t spend much time agonizing over whether they ‘had enough faith in their ‘hearts’. They were too busy digging a hole in the roof.

Matthew tells the famous miracle story of Jesus walking on the water, but he adds a detail not included in Mark:

But Jesus immediately said to them: ‘Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.’

‘Lord, if it’s you,’ Peter replied, ‘tell me to come to you on the water.’

‘Come,’ he said.

Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came towards Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’

Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. ‘You of little faith,’ he said, ‘why did you doubt?’ (Matthew 14:27-31).

What did ‘faith’ feel like for Peter? It felt like wet feet! Faith was a decision to act in a concrete way – to swing his feet over the side and step out, his eyes fixed on Jesus. Peter was already familiar with this kind of faith. A few months earlier, he had heard the invitation of Jesus, “Follow me”, and he had left his old life behind with his fishing nets and stepped out into the unknown, following wherever Jesus went – surely another example of ‘walking on water’!

This is why faith and action are not opposed to each other. As Christians we’re called to act in faith. Faith looks like giving generously to the poor and needy. It looks like taking your courage in your hands and speaking your word of testimony to a friend. It looks like loving your enemies and praying for those who hate you. It looks like giving your hungry enemy a plate of stew and a cup of coffee. It looks like getting out of your seat, coming to the front of the church and stretching out your hands to receive the bread and wine of Holy Communion.

In his book ‘Prayer’, Ole Hallesby says that the two essentials for prayer are faith and desperation. Most of us don’t have too much trouble with the desperation; the older we get, the more we realize that (contrary to Paul McCartney!) the ‘movement we need’ is emphatically not ‘on our shoulder’! It’s beyond us! We need help from outside, or we’re not going to get anywhere.

Faith, Hallesby says, can seem more intimidating, but it doesn’t need to. If you have enough faith to turn to Jesus and ask for help, then you have enough faith. That’s the ‘faith the size of a grain of mustard seed’ that Jesus was talking about.

In Lent, we seek to grow in faith. But we sometimes make this too complicated. Growing in faith means simply (a) asking what Jesus is calling us to do next, and then (b) getting out of the boat and starting to do it, trusting that he will be there to hold us up.

Carry on.


God our Refuge (a sermon on Psalm 62)

I wonder what you think about when you hear the word ‘refuge’?

A few years ago, Marci and I were up in Jasper and we decided to ride the tramway up Whistler’s Mountain. For those of you who haven’t been there, the tramway takes you about 80% of the way to the top. There are great views from the upper tramway station and if all you’re looking for is a good photo opportunity and a chance for a coffee in a restaurant near the top of a mountain, you’ll probably be happy with that!

But if you want to, you can also hike up from the station to the actual summit of the mountain; it takes me about an hour, although of course some people are faster than me. On this particular occasion the weather up there was a little iffy; the clouds kept coming down and then lifting again, and those clouds had snow in them. At one point the snow began to fly furiously and the wind was wickedly cold, and Marci and I decided to take shelter until the weather blew over. We found a nice big rock and hunkered down on the lee side of it, where we sat and munched on granola bars for a few minutes until the clouds lifted and the sun came out again!

‘Refuge’. That rock was a place of refuge for us. Move away from the rock, and we were subject to the battering of the wind and the cold. Move into the shelter of the rock, and we experienced protection. In the words of today’s psalm, it was ‘our mighty rock, our refuge’ (see Psalm 62:7b).

The theme of Psalm 62 is trust in God. And not just ‘trust in God’ in general – trust in God when the wind blows and the snow flies and life gets hard. Trust in God when you need shelter, when you need protection. In other words, this wasn’t just an academic exercise for the psalmist. When he wrote these words, he wasn’t just taking part in a poetry exercise. He was going through a battering of some kind, and he had discovered from his own personal experience that God was a place of refuge for him in times of trouble.

Before we go any further, let me remind you of a couple of things about the psalms.

First – and I say this because some of us here are very new to church and may not know this – the psalms that we read together each week as part of our service are very old. They were originally written in Hebrew and are included in what we call the Old Testament or Hebrew scriptures. We don’t know for sure who wrote them or when they were written, although some of them may go back to the time of King David, about a thousand years before Christ. Many of them are probably not be that old, but all of them come from well before the time of Christ. They were collected and used as the prayer book and hymn book of the Jewish people, and Jesus would have been very familiar with them – indeed, he probably had many of them memorized, just like some of you have favourite hymns and songs memorized. So when we pray the psalms together, we’re actually joining in the prayers of the Old Testament people and of Jesus himself.

Second, the psalms are different from the rest of the Bible. In the rest of the Bible what we often get is God speaking to his people – and through them, to us today. But the psalms don’t speak to us – they speak for us. First and foremost, they’re prayers, and very honest prayers too. So we don’t read them in the same way we would read a letter of Paul or a prophecy of Isaiah. The best way to use the psalms is to pray them – and as we pray them, we’ll learn to understand them better.

Third, the psalms are poetry. Poetry isn’t meant to be understood literally – it uses imagery and metaphor to draw us into its world of feeling and experience. When philosophy tries to describe God, it uses words like ‘omniscient’ (he knows everything), or ‘omnipresent’ (he’s present everywhere), or ‘almighty’ (he can do anything). But the psalms don’t tend to use philosophical language for God; they call God ‘my shepherd’, ‘my rock’, ‘my fortress’, ‘my refuge’. These aren’t literal statements – they’re powerful metaphors to help us enter into an experience of God.

So let’s look for a few minutes at Psalm 62. As I said the psalms were written in ancient Hebrew, and sometimes it’s a tricky language to translate into modern English. Archeologists have discovered quite a lot of ancient manuscripts, and sometimes there are differences between them. If you look at different English translations like the New Revised Standard Version or the New International Version, you’re going to see some differences. I’m going to base my thoughts today on the NRSV, which is a little different from the version we read a few minutes ago in our Book of Alternative Services.

As I said, the theme of this psalm is trusting in God in the time of trouble. The first thing I want you to notice is the structure of the psalm; it jumps back and forth from God, to people, to God, to people, and finally to God again. Turn to it in your pew Bible and look at it on the page. Notice that there are basically five sections. Verses 1-2 are about trusting God. Verses 3-4 are about the actions of the enemies. Verses 5-8 are about trusting God again. Verses 9-10 are about the attributes of humans. And finally, verses 11-12 return to the theme of trusting God. Neat, isn’t it?

So why does the psalmist write this prayer? Apparently, because he was being assailed in some way by people who were out to get him. Look at verses 3-4:

‘How long will you assail a person, will you batter your victim, all of you, as you would a leaning wall, a tottering fence? Their only plan is to bring down a person of prominence. They take pleasure in falsehood; they bless with their mouths, but inwardly they curse’.

I love that image of the wall: ‘How long will you assail a person, will you batter a victim, all of you, as you would a leaning wall, a tottering fence?’ We can imagine a rickety old wall, in such poor shape that a little gust of wind could bring it down! And we get the point right away: the writer of the psalm is feeling fragile, because he’s being persecuted.

It doesn’t sound to me as if the persecution is imprisonment or torture or danger of death – at least, not yet. What seems to be happening is that people are spreading lies about him. To his face, they’re being nice to him: “Well, hello there, my friend! How are you doing these days! It’s so good to see you!” But he’s not deceived by these greetings, because he’s heard rumours about what they’re saying behind his back. ‘Their only plan is to bring down a person of prominence. They take pleasure in falsehood’ (v.4) – or, as the B.A.S. version says, ‘lies are their chief delight’.

I’ve got a couple of things to say about this. First of all, this is a form of persecution most of us can identify with. Most of us here haven’t been imprisoned or tortured for our faith. Most of us haven’t had to flee our homes as refugees. But all of us, from time to time, have been the victims of gossip campaigns. We’ve all experienced those who greeted us warmly but whose greetings made our skin crawl, because we knew what they were saying about us behind our backs.

Second, let’s not minimize this form of persecution as if it wasn’t serious. Sometimes it can be devastating. A person’s reputation – and their entire life – can be destroyed by a false story. Sometimes it doesn’t even have to be a story; sometimes it can just be a question raised about their character or their history. It doesn’t matter – the damage is done. A lie once told can’t be recalled. Even if it’s later disproved, the victim will still be affected by it.

So what do we do about this situation? What does the psalmist recommend?

Negatively, we’re not to be surprised by it. People are not saints. People are complicated. We’re a bag of contradictions: joys and fears, loves and resentments, strengths and weaknesses. Good people do bad things sometimes; none of us is completely without our skeletons in the closet. The psalmist has a lovely poetic way of describing the human condition: look at verse 9:

‘Those of low estate are but a breath, those of high estate are a delusion; in the balances they go up; they are together lighter than a breath’.

I love the way the New Living Translation puts this verse:

‘Common people are as worthless as a puff of wind, and the powerful are not what they appear to be. If you weigh them on the scales, together they are lighter than a breath of air’.

So human beings might be able to give us a little help, the writer says, but in the end they’re strictly limited. Even the powerful, the rich, the movers and shakers, are ‘a delusion’. All their grandeur and their wealth and their fine clothes can’t change the fact that underneath, they’re just fallible human brings with the same weaknesses and frailties as the rest of us. They make mistakes, their projects fail, and one day – like everyone else – they die.

No, the psalmist tells us – trust in God. In the long run, God is the one who can be trusted.

Look at these poetic images the psalmist uses for God: ‘He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall never be shaken’ (v.2) – ‘My mighty rock, my refuge is in God’ (v.7) – ‘God is a refuge for us’ (v.8) – ‘Once God has spoken, twice have I heard this: that power belongs to God, and steadfast love belongs to you, O Lord’ (vv.11-12a). We get the message: when the wind is blowing on the top of the mountain, threatening to freeze your bones, God is the rock you can get behind for shelter. “Rock of ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee”.

How does that work? What do we actually do to take refuge in God? The psalmist offers us two insights that seem at first to be contradicting each other.

First, he seems to counsel silence. Verse 1 says ‘For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation’. Verse 5 returns to the theme: ‘For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him’. The idea seems to be ‘Wait for God to help you, and while you’re waiting, keep your mouth shut!’

But this can’t be what the verse means, because verse 8 goes on to counsel speaking! ‘Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us’. This makes sense to us; as someone once said, ‘A problem shared is a problem halved’ How many of us have had the experience of carrying around a heavy load on our hearts, and then finally being able to tell someone about it. The load was lifted! The problem hadn’t gone away, but just the fact that we could pour out our hearts to someone else made us feel better! We weren’t alone any more!

How do we resolve this contradiction?

As I mentioned at the beginning, the psalms were written in ancient Hebrew, and it isn’t always easy to translate into English. Many words don’t have exact English equivalents. With some words, scholars aren’t completely sure what they mean. And sometimes archeologists have found many manuscript copies of a particular passage, and they aren’t exactly the same – a copyist has made an error and transmitted it to others.

So ‘waiting on God in silence’ might not be the best translation of what the author originally wrote in verses 1 and 7. One of the commentaries I read suggests this translation: ‘Truly my soul is at rest in God; from him is my salvation’. I love that! I get the picture of someone who has cultivated a close relationship with God: they’ve spent time with God in prayer, speaking and listening. They’ve learned from God’s commandments and God’s teachings and tried to shape their lives by what God says. And the result is this feeling of restfulness. Couples with good marriages know what this is about! It’s not that you don’t try to please each other; of course you do! But you’re not anxious about it; you’ve been together for a long time and you feel totally secure in each other’s love. That’s the way the psalmist is in his relationship with God. ‘Truly my soul is at rest in God; from him is my salvation’.

Our NRSV translates verse 7 in exactly the same way, but some other ancient versions put it slightly differently: ‘Truly, my soul, take rest in God’. In verse 1 his soul is at rest in God, but in verse 7 he’s encouraging himself to stay there. He’s just had this huge shock of discovering this awful gossip campaign that his friend has started against him; he feels like a leaning wall, a tottering fence, as if his life is shaken to the foundations. But then he stops, takes a deep breath, remembers his experience of the love of God, and says to himself, ‘Truly, my soul take rest in God’.

When we understand the verses in this way, verse 8 flows right along: ‘Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us’. This is part of resting in God: sharing with him what’s on our hearts. Sometimes that’s an experience of joy, sometimes it’s an experience of anguish. Whatever is on our hearts, we’re encouraged to ‘pour it out to God’.

I experienced this for myself in a powerful way a few years ago when my friend Joe Walker died. Some of you knew Joe; he was forty-seven when he died of cancer; he left behind a wife and four children under the age of twelve. He was a great priest, a great evangelist, a thoughtful and genuine Christian. And I was mightily annoyed at God when he died.

I found it difficult to pray. I couldn’t make all the usual affirmations about God’s goodness and love. They rang hollow for me. I would go for my morning walk around Blue Quill park, and the only thing I could do was yell at God. I told him that if he’d wanted a list of people to snuff out, I could have given him one, but Joe definitely wouldn’t have been on it. I asked him what sort of loving care it was for Joe’s kids to do this to them. It wasn’t rational; it was visceral. But it was honest; it was how I felt.

The funny thing was: it helped. When I came back from those walks, I felt better. More than better: I had the sense that God was with me much more than when I tried to mouth platitudes I couldn’t bring myself to believe. I was pouring out my heart to God, and God heard my prayer. I didn’t get answers, but I did get God.

So this is the experience the psalmist is inviting us into this morning. Have you experienced it?

We all go through blizzards of one kind or another. Relationships are tough and sometimes people let us down; sometimes they hurt us badly. The good news is: God can be a place of refuge for us. God can be a fortress, a mighty rock.

But it doesn’t happen instantly; it takes time to cultivate that sort of relationship with God. ‘Truly my soul is at rest in God…Truly, my soul, take rest in God’. This is a daily decision: to turn to God, to listen to God, to be quiet in God’s presence, to listen for God’s word, to trust in God. This is a lifetime’s journey, but it begins tonight, or tomorrow morning, when you make the decision to open your Bible and read, and to say your prayers.

And say your prayers honestly. ‘Pour out your heart before him’. There’s no point in trying to deceive God; he knows what’s in your heart! So be the real ‘you’ when you pray. Tell God the truth, warts and all. He can take it! Martin Luther apparently once said ‘It’s better to shake your fist at God than turn your back on God’. So let’s turn to God, pour out our hearts to him, and find rest in him, so that we can learn to say from our own experience, ‘Truly my soul is at rest in God; from him is my salvation’.


Religion in Decline – finding the reasons why

Survey after survey has indicated that religious affiliation and practice are in decline in much of the western world. Over the last twenty years the statistics are quite dramatic.

Responses to this in churchland vary. Some are in denial (‘My church is doing fine, so I can’t see how it can be true’). Some are pointing fingers at changes (or lack of changes) in the church (‘We’re too homophobic’, ‘We don’t believe in the Bible any more’, ‘We gave up the old prayer book’ etc. etc.). Some think we should just retreat into our ghetto and accept that this is just the way things are.

It seems to me that we need some hard data as to why people are either dropping away, or (in the case of the young) not joining in the first place. I don’t know if we have that data.

In the absence of it, all kinds of solutions are being floated. We should bring contemporary music into the church (actually, we’ve been doing that since the 1970s). We should make the church more seeker-friendly. We should make it more like Starbucks. We should have more invitation Sundays. We should get out in mission more etc. etc.

None of these ideas are necessarily bad, but are they addressing the actual reasons for decline and disinterest? I suspect not.

I have no statistical evidence for the idea I’m about to float, but conversations with lapsed churchgoers and with people outside the church lead me to believe it’s a bigger factor than we would like to admit. I would suggest that one of the major reasons for the decline in religious faith and practice is that people are actually finding it a lot harder to believe in Christianity (or Islam, or Judaism, etc. etc.) these days.

People are steeped in science from their early school days. Science purports to have a totally satisfactory answer to the universe that doesn’t require the God hypothesis. And as Isaac Asimov observed years ago in his Foundation novels, science has this huge advantage: it obviously works. Planes fly. Computers buzz. Cells divide. Medicine heals (way more effectively than it did fifty years ago). You don’t have to take science on faith; it’s empirically provable.

People are also very aware of all the crap that’s going on in the world. Natural disasters are proliferating. We just conquer one deadly disease and another one comes along. Wars and rumours of wars continue, with ever more deadly weapons. Terrorism spreads. Human beings kill and exploit and oppress one another. And God seems to do nothing. People cry to God, but there seems to be no answer. Hurricanes don’t appear to change course in answer to prayer. People continue to die because of diseases based on genetic factors (‘they were made that way’). All of this is a huge challenge to faith.

And, quite frankly, people outside the Christian community don’t seem to notice an obvious difference in the quality of lives being lived by Christians. Divorce and family breakup seem just as prevalent among people of faith. Greed and materialism and racism and support for war and violence don’t seem to be seriously impacted by faith.

For these and other reasons, people are finding it harder to believe the religious view of the universe these days. If there is a God, why would he choose to work through such a weird system as evolution (which works by genetic mutations, which lead to suffering way more often than they lead to positive changes)? If there is a loving and powerful God, how come he isn’t rescuing us from the various kinds of mess we’re in? And if there’s a God, how come his followers don’t seem to be actually putting his teachings into practice (you know: “Sell your possessions and give to the poor”, “Love your enemies and pray for those who hate you”, “Do not refuse one who asks for help” etc. etc.)?

If I’m right, we surely have to address this. And I think there are a number of avenues we can explore.

First, we need smart people who can engage with the arguments raised by atheists and agnostics. A strong case can be made for the existence of a powerful and loving creator God, and many intelligent writers over the years have made it and continue to make it (C.S. Lewis, Alister McGrath, Tim Keller, Francis Collins, to name just a few). Some of these people have also investigated the intellectual foundations of atheism and secularism and found them just as wanting (I think especially of Tim Keller’s ‘Making Sense of God’, which he said was not so much answering people’s questions as questioning people’s answers). And in order for these discussions to be fruitful, they can’t be belligerent; people of faith need to make friends with atheists and agnostics, find out why they believe what they believe and how the world looks from their point of view. This is a risk, but we have to do it.

Second, we have to be quite clear that the point of the whole thing is to help people meet God – the real God, the creator of the universe, the one who is far above our understanding, who we can’t control or get to know in three easy steps because he’s always the senior partner in the relationship. People can’t share what they don’t have, and if we can’t share a relationship with the living God, why would people bother with us? They can get everything we’re offering somewhere else, at a much cheaper price! Unless we can say, “Yes, it is possible to meet with the living God, and I can help you do that”, what do we have to offer?

Third, we need to address the quality of our lives. Quite frankly, we are the only Sermon on the Mount our friends are reading. Is the Sermon clear in our behaviour? If not, why would they bother to read the original for themselves? Unless we Christians (individually and as a community) are living lives that surprise our neighbours, those neighbours aren’t going to be interested in hearing about our weird religious theories. Billy Bragg (no friend to organized religion) has said many times that the reason he doesn’t dismiss religion is because of all the people of faith he sees volunteering at the local food bank. Boom! There it is!

In this blog post I’m not proposing exact answers; I’m just attempting to identify the major issues. Quite honestly, I don’t think changing the church’s music or running invitation Sundays or – well, add your favourite solution here – is going to have much of a long term effect. Why? Because we’re still assuming that our neighbours are basically lapsed Christians who still believe the basics of the Christian faith, and would still attend if… (we invited them, or our music was better, or the pastor wore jeans and had a goatee, etc. etc.).

This may be true of some of our neighbours, but for a growing number of them, it’s not true at all. They aren’t lapsed Christians; they’re people for whom Christianity doesn’t make sense. They may believe in a vague god out there somewhere; they may not believe in a god at all, or they may think it’s not possible to know one way or the other.

What they are not is Christian believers; they find Christianity too hard to believe. And I think we have to accept that, and find a way to address it.



Faith in the Risen Lord (a sermon on John 20:29-31)

At some time or other, most of us have probably used the phrase ‘Get a life’. If you’re a literal thinker, that’s actually a rather strange thing to say. All the people we say it to are, in fact, already alive: their hearts are beating, the blood is coursing through their veins, and their brains are more or less in working order.

But of course, that’s not what the phrase is all about. We all know instinctively that it’s possible to be biologically alive – ‘alive’ in the medical sense – and yet not to be enjoying everything life has to offer. It’s possible to get so caught up in foolishness and deception that we’re missing out on the most important things. And so we say ‘Get a life’, meaning ‘Smarten up! Don’t sweat the small stuff! Make sure you concentrate on the best things, the most important things’. After all, as my friend Harold Percy says, no one wants to be in the situation where God writes on their tombstone the words ‘Brilliant performance, but she missed the whole point!’

This is what John is talking about in our gospel reading for today:

‘Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name’ (John 20:30-31).

John wants us to ‘get a life’, and he says the way to do that is to put your faith in Jesus as the Messiah. If we believe in him and follow him, we will experience life to the full, the way God intended when he created us in the first place.

But there was a problem with ‘believing in Jesus as the Messiah’ for the first followers of Jesus. The word ‘Messiah’ (or ‘Christ’ in Greek) meant ‘the king God promised to send to set his people free’. In popular Jewish belief in the time of Jesus, ‘Messiah’ didn’t mean ‘someone who came to die on a cross so we could be forgiven’. It meant King Arthur, or Aragorn son of Arathorn, or King David – a powerful military leader who would raise an army in the name of God, drive out the forces of evil and set up God’s kingdom on earth by force. If you were the true Messiah, God would help you do this. On the other hand, if you were defeated – if you were killed by your enemies – that was a pretty good sign that you were faking it: you weren’t the true Messiah.

That’s why the Resurrection was so vital to the faith of those early Christians. If Jesus had stayed dead, they would probably have abandoned their belief in him as God’s Messiah. The Christian movement would never have gotten started, and Jesus would have been an interesting character studied by historians, but certainly not worshipped as the Son of God by two billion people around the world today.

But the New Testament witness is that those early Christians saw Jesus again in the flesh, alive and well, after they had seen him die. All four gospels record eyewitness stories. So does Paul in 1 Corinthians. Mary Magdalene saw him. So did Peter. So did the couple who met Jesus on the road to Emmaus, and the ten disciples in the Upper Room (and probably a few more with them), and Thomas the doubter, and a group of them fishing on the lake of Galilee, and another group of five hundred of them all together at once. These are some of the eyewitness stories recorded, or alluded to, in the New Testament.

One of them especially stands out in the Gospel for today. We all love ‘doubting Thomas’, because he’s so much like us. “I’d like to believe, Lord, but I just can’t! Just let me see with my eyes – let me touch your wounds – then I’ll believe!” He’s so honest; he’s unwilling to pretend he has one ounce more faith than he actually has! And incredibly, Jesus loves him so much that he gives him what he asks for.

‘Jesus came among them and said “Peace be with you”. Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe” (vv.26b-27).

The story doesn’t record that Thomas actually did that – reached out his hands to touch Jesus. Instead he falls at his feet and exclaims “My Lord and my God!” (v.28). And then Jesus says something tremendously significant:

“Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (v.29).

That’s us, you see! Verse 20 says ‘Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord’ – but how can that verse apply to us? We’ve never seen the risen Lord. Like Thomas, we long to see him and touch him. If only he’d appear to us like he did to Paul on the road to Damascus! And so when it comes to faith we think of ourselves as second class Christians. We can’t really share the fullness of joy of those first witnesses; we can’t enjoy ‘life in his name’ in the same way they did.

Not so, says Jesus. The same blessing applies to us as to them; “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe”. As St. Paul says in one of his letters, we walk by faith, not by sight.

Which, by the way, is a perfectly reasonable thing to do – and something we all do in certain areas of our lives. For instance, I believe in the existence of a planet called Pluto. I’ve never seen it with my own eyes, and I don’t expect to either. I don’t have the time or money to undertake the astronomical study I’d need to do. But credible astronomers have told me that Pluto exists; I believe their testimony, and so when someone asks me, I say, “Yes, I believe in Pluto”.

I also believe my wife loves me. I can’t see love or quantify it, but she tells me she loves me, and her actions seem to confirm the fact.

Well, that’s self-evident, you might say. To which I reply, not necessarily so. She might just have pretended to love me, and married me so she could get rich! All right, I admit that in our case that’s unlikely – but you can see that in some cases it would be an issue. Does Kate Middleton really love Prince William – or does she just enjoy all the attention she gets as Duchess of Cambridge? You see, evidence can sometimes be read in more than one way. In Shakespeare’s play ‘Othello’ a man is persuaded to believe in the infidelity of his wife by the lies of a false friend. We, the audience, can’t believe he’s falling for it; Desdemona so obviously loves and is faithful to her husband. But Othello is persuaded to read the evidence differently, and the result is a very sad end for them both.

It’s the same with Pluto; apparently the evidence can be read more than one way. I was raised to believe that there were nine planets, but a few years ago astronomers changed their minds – no, Pluto’s not really a planet after all! And then a few years later, some of them said “Well, it depends how you define ‘planet’!” So again, the evidence can be read in more than one way. It might be persuasive, but it’s not conclusive. In the end, we make a choice about things like this.

So why do we modern Christians, who have not seen the Risen Lord with our own eyes, choose to believe he is alive today? Let me suggest some answers to that question.

Some would say, “I believe it because that’s what I was taught when I was growing up”. And that’s undoubtedly very common and very valid. Many of us Christian parents hope that’s what will happen with our kids. Christ is very important to us – the most important part of our lives, many of us would say – and we want our kids to know and love him as well. So we pray for them, and bring them to church, and teach them the Bible story and the Christian way of life.

But lots of kids part company with things their parents teach them; it’s a natural part of growing up. As we get older, we learn to think for ourselves and make our own decisions. As adults, we decide which parts of our parents’ belief systems ring true for us, and which don’t. I’m a Christian today, but my Christian faith is not exactly the same as the faith of my parents. And that’s as it should be; otherwise it wouldn’t be my faith, it would be their faith, one step removed.

And that’s why I don’t think this can be an adequate answer in the long run. If the only reason I continue to believe in the resurrection is because that’s what my parents taught me, I think sooner or later that faith will fail. We have to go through a process of making that faith our own, and inevitably this will involve questioning and rethinking things.

Why do we believe in the resurrection today? Some would say, “I’ve examined the evidence and I find it compelling”. This was the approach of Frank Morison, a British writer who published a well-known book in 1930 called Who Moved the Stone? The first chapter was entitled, ‘The Book that Refused to be Written’. In it he described how he had been sceptical about the resurrection of Jesus and had set out to write a short paper disproving it. However, the more he read and researched and sifted through the evidence, the more he came to believe that the resurrection was well-founded. The book has been reprinted many times since then, and apparently many people have become Christians as a result of reading it.

Again, this can be very valuable, and I have to say I share Morison’s view. How do we explain the empty tomb? How do we explain the eyewitness stories? How do we explain the change in the disciples? I don’t have time to go into it this morning, but suffice it to say that many of us find the weight of evidence to be very firmly on the side of the truth of the resurrection. It’s not conclusive of course – if it was, everyone would believe – but it’s a lot more persuasive than many people think.

So some believe because that’s what their parents taught them, and some believe because they’ve examined the evidence and been convinced by it. Some, however, are impatient with all these logical arguments. They would say, “I believe because I’ve met the risen Jesus myself”. Archbishop Anthony Bloom was one of those people. He was a medical student in Paris during World War Two, and not a believer. One day, however. he went to hear a talk about the gospels given by a priest, and he was surprised and disturbed to find himself attracted by what the man said. This made him angry, but he couldn’t dismiss it. So when he went home, he sat down at his desk to read the gospel of Mark. He had only just begun to read, he said, when he became strongly aware of a presence in the room with him; he couldn’t see anyone, but he was as sure that there was someone there as he was of his own existence, and he knew instinctively that it was the risen Christ. This experience – not logical argument – was powerful enough to turn this agnostic into a Christian.

Some Christians do have experiences like that. Most of us don’t; our sense of the presence of Christ is more subtle. For me, I find that most of the time he’s there quietly in the background; I don’t tend to notice him unless I stop and pay attention, and then I realize he’s been there all the time. And I find that intriguing. Once again, I can choose to ignore him if I want, and the more I do that, the less obvious he is. But if I choose to pay attention to him, over time, my sense of him seems to grow.

But there’s one more reason for faith I’d like to share with you this morning. For me, this is the most powerful one. There’s a scene in John chapter six where disciples start leaving Jesus because they can’t make sense of what he’s saying about eating his flesh and drinking his blood; its offensive and revolting to them.

‘So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God”’ (John 6:67-69).

These verses really ring true for me. I believe in Jesus because I find his life and teaching so compelling. When he says, ‘What good is it to you to gain the whole world and lose your soul?’ my heart is shouting out a big ‘Amen!’ When he says, ‘a person’s life doesn’t consist of the abundance of their possessions’, it’s obvious to me that that’s true. When he says that the most important things in life are to love God and love your neighbour, I think, “Well, duh! Of course! Why can’t everyone see that?”

And it’s not just his words – it’s his life too. The way he reaches out to everyone, rich and poor, men and women, sinners and saints. The way he loves the people no one else loves. The way he includes women and children. The way he refuses to hate people his society tells him he should hate, like enemy soldiers or tax collectors. Hebrews tells us that Jesus is ‘the image of the invisible God’, and I believe that to be profoundly true; I just know in my heart that if there is a God, he has to be like Jesus. ‘Like Father, like Son’.

‘These (things) are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name’. Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). To put your faith in Jesus and follow him is to have life, abundant life. The disciples rejoiced when they saw the risen Lord, but we rejoice too, even though we have not seen him with our eyes, because we believe he is alive and we are doing our best to walk with him day by day.

Let me close with an invitation; two invitations, in fact.

First, let me to invite you to ask yourself, “Why do I believe in the risen Lord? Is it just because that’s what my parents taught me? Is it because I’ve thought things through, examined the evidence and been convinced by it? Is it because I’ve had an experience of his presence in my life? Is it because I find his life and teaching so compelling? Or is it some other reason?” Probably, for most of us, the answer to that question will include a story of some kind – the story of our faith journey.

Second, let me invite you to make a fresh commitment of faith today. In a few minutes we’re going to join with the parents and godparents of Sloane, Steven and Kai as they make the baptismal covenant with God on behalf of their kids. I will ask them, “Do you believe in God…in Jesus…in the Holy Spirit” and ‘will you commit yourself to the Christian way of life as a member of the Church of Christ?’  Those promises can basically be summed up in the words “Jesus is my Lord, and I will follow him along with my fellow Christians”.

So make that commitment of faith again today. Say the words along with the parents and godparents. And then when we come to communion, dip your fingers in the water of the baptismal font and make the sign of the cross as a symbol of your faith and commitment to Jesus. And then, when our service is over, you can leave this place with joy, knowing that Jesus is alive, that he is Lord of all, and that your life is in his hands.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.


How to Amaze Jesus (a sermon on Luke 7:1-10)

I don’t know about you, but I think it would be pretty hard to amaze Jesus. I get the sense from the gospels that he’s usually got a pretty good grasp of any situation he’s in. He seems to find it easy to see through people; he knows their motivations, he knows when they’re being sincere and when they’re trying to trick him. John’s Gospel says of him that ‘Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone’ (John 2:24-25).

Nevertheless, there are one or two occasions in the gospels when Jesus seems to have been genuinely surprised, and one of them is in our gospel reading for today. This reading comes from a chapter which is full of stories of Jesus reaching out to outsiders, to marginalized people, to widows and orphans, and to notorious sinners who are meant to be beyond the pale, beyond the reach of God’s love. And it’s one of these outsiders – a Roman army officer – who astonishes Jesus by the strength of his faith.

Let’s explore the story for a minute. Jesus has just returned to the Galilean fishing town of Capernaum on the western shore of the Lake of Galilee. It’s a town where he is well known, and it’s the most natural thing in the world that a Roman soldier, a member of the occupying army, has heard of him. What isn’t so natural is that this soldier should reach out to a Jewish man and ask for help. Imagine a German officer in World War Two asking for help from a Jewish rabbi! That’s the sort of thing we’re talking about here.

Centurions were the non-commissioned officers of the Roman Army; they led a ‘century’, which was a unit of approximately one hundred soldiers. They were the professional soldiers, the backbone of the Roman army. Interestingly enough, there are no bad stories about centurions in the New Testament. Every time a centurion appears, he’s seen in a good light, and this man is no exception.

What do we know about him? The Jewish elders come to Jesus and ask him to help this man, saying ‘He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us’ (v.5). This is unusual: a Roman soldier who took an interest in the people of Israel and went so far as to finance the building of a local synagogue out of his own pocket. Why would he do that? We’re not told, but it seems reasonable to believe that he was one of those in the ancient world who had gotten tired of the stories of the Greek and Roman gods and had been attracted to the idea of one true creator God – a God who called his people to follow him by obeying the strict ethical standards of the ten commandments.

It’s also noticeable that he takes an interest in the welfare of his slaves. Of course, the institution of slavery was taken for granted in the ancient world, and there’s no hint of reproach in Luke’s mention of the fact that this man owned slaves, but it is noticeable that, to him, this slave is not just a tool to be discarded when he gets worn out. A lot of people in the ancient world would have seen a slave in that way, but not this centurion. He values this slave highly, and so he’s willing to take the unusual step of humbling himself before Jesus in order to ask him for a healing.

Note that at first the centurion does not presume to talk to Jesus himself; he sends the Jewish elders to speak on his behalf. He’s well aware of his position as an outsider in Judaism: he’s a foreigner, a Gentile, an enemy soldier, and he thinks it’s very likely that Jesus will rebuff him. In the normal run of things, this centurion has all the power, but in this situation the roles are reversed, and he needs some intercessors to plead his case, so he sends the local elders. They, of course, are very gratified that this soldier has taken an interest in their synagogue; he’s a good donor to the local church and they want to stay on good terms with him, so they’re more than happy to go and speak to Jesus on his behalf!

To their surprise – and, probably, to the centurion’s surprise too – Jesus not only agrees to heal the slave, but immediately sets out to visit the centurion in his house! This is completely against Jewish law and tradition: he will be going into a Gentile house, where protocol will require that his host give him a meal, so he will be eating non-kosher food in fellowship with a soldier of the occupying army. This is far beyond anything that the centurion was expecting! When he hears that Jesus is on the way, he quickly sends more messengers – this time not Jewish elders, but personal friends. “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word and let my servant be healed” (v.7). It’s interesting, isn’t it, that the centurion has a completely different view of himself than the synagogue elders? They said, “he is worthy”, but the centurion says, “I am not worthy”. We’ll explore that a little more in a minute.

But then comes the money quote, where the centurion explains the ground of his faith.

“For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go’, and he goes, and to another, ‘Come’, and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this’, and the slave does it” (v.8).

Jesus is astounded at the strength of this man’s faith.

‘When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith”. When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health’ (vv.9-10).

What has this story got to say to us today? Well, I think we all know that we could use a little help with our faith. All too often we feel like that other man in the gospels, who in a moment of honesty said to Jesus, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). We’d like our faith to be stronger, but we know that it often isn’t. Is there anything we can learn from this man who amazed Jesus by the strength of his faith? Let me point out two things to you.

The first one is humility. I read a story this week about a Christian writer called Dallas Willard who died a year or two ago. Dallas was being interviewed for a Christian magazine, and he was asked, ‘Do you believe in the total depravity of human beings?’ Dallas replied, ‘I believe in sufficient depravity’. ‘What does that mean?’ ‘I believe that every human being is sufficiently depraved that, when we get to heaven, no one will be able to say, “I deserve this”’.

Interestingly enough, the Jewish elders have a different take on this than the centurion. The elders say to Jesus, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us” (vv.4-5). But when the centurion himself sends a message to Jesus, he says, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof” – a remarkable thing for a soldier of the occupying army to say to one of the people under his power.

Why this difference? Well, I would suggest to you that we know all about this in our personal lives. How many times have we heard people being described by their family and friends as ‘good’ or ‘kind’ or ‘respectable’, but when we hear them talk about themselves, they’re all too aware of how much they fall short of what they’d like to be. I think that’s true for most of us; we’re very aware of our personal failings. We know all about our skeletons in the closet.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, once sent postcards to ten prominent British politicians; on each card he simply printed the words, “All is discovered; flee immediately!” He selected the politicians at random – he had no inside information about their sins and failings – but within twenty-four hours, all ten of them had fled the country!

Well, it’s easy to point a finger at politicians, but what about me? What about you? I know I would be totally mortified if information about the things I feel most guilty about was posted online, or spread on a screen in front of everyone in church today! Am I the only one who feels that way? I doubt it. Christian writer Adrian Plass used to be a heavy smoker; one day someone came up to him outside a church where he was speaking and said, “I see you’re still indulging in that dirty habit”. Adrian didn’t know the man, but he quickly replied, “It’s a lot better than your dirty habit!” The man’s face went white, and he quickly turned away.

So yes, we’re all familiar with the difference between the way others see us and the way we see ourselves; we’re all too aware of our sins and failings. We may even see them as a barrier keeping us away from God. But this man shows us that they aren’t a barrier, and that the way to get to God is to be honest about them. “Lord, I’m not worthy…” No, of course you’re not – neither am I – neither is anyone. According to St. Paul, the good news is that ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’ (1 Timothy 1:15). Are you a sinner? Then apparently you qualify! As the Apostle John says in his first letter, ‘If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness’ (1 John 1:8-9).

So that’s the first thing we learn from this man. Apparently it’s a really important part of faith not to be too puffed up about ourselves, not to be under the illusion that the whole show is being arranged for our benefit. Apparently it’s vital for us to be well aware of our own limitations. The first of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous says, ‘We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable’. In other words, we admitted our desperation; we turned from the illusion that we are worthy and capable, and admitted instead that in a host of ways we are unworthy and powerless.

Desperation, a strong sense of our own helplessness, is an indispensable part of faith. The Norwegian writer Ole Hallesby once wrote, ‘Prayer and helplessness are inseparable. Only those who are helpless can truly pray…Your helplessness is your best prayer. It calls from your heart to the heart of God with greater effect than all your uttered pleas…Prayer therefore consists simply in telling God day by day in what ways we feel that we are helpless’.

So here is the first thing we can learn from our centurion: we can learn to be honest with God about our own helplessness. Do you think you can do that?

Secondly, let’s think about the nature of this centurion’s faith. What is faith, according to this story? Faith is a proper understanding of how the authority structure of the universe works. This man was a soldier and so he understood all about authority:

“For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go’, and he goes, and to another, ‘Come’, and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this’, and the slave does it” (v.8).

The way the centurion saw it, God is the ruler of the entire universe, and Jesus was obviously in a special relationship with God, because he had been able to heal all sorts of diseases in Capernaum; the centurion had heard the stories about him, and may even have seen some of his healings himself. It was clear to him that Jesus spoke and acted with the authority of God. The slave’s illness was a serious problem, but the problem was not bigger than the authority of Jesus.

At this point we might feel a little wistful. We might think, “Well, that’s all very well for the centurion, but I’ve never seen Jesus do a miracle. I’ve never seen him lay his hands on someone and do a dramatic healing, and often when I ask him for things, I don’t seem to get them”.

This is true and I don’t want to deny it. But at the same time I want to point out to you that Luke might have had people like us in mind when he wrote this story. Matthew tells this story in his gospel too, but he tells it slightly differently; he gives the impression that the centurion came himself and spoke to Jesus. Very likely he’s just trying to make a long story short and so omits the details about the messengers who went between Jesus and the centurion.

But to Luke it’s very important to include those messengers in the story. It’s very important to include the detail that the centurion himself never actually saw Jesus, because most of Luke’s first readers would not have seen Jesus either! They would have heard the stories about Jesus, and perhaps sensed the touch of the Holy Spirit in their hearts, but they were not themselves eyewitnesses. Luke wanted to make it clear to them that this was not a disadvantage for them. They did not need to be able to see Jesus for Jesus to be able to help them. His authoritative word could still be spoken and could still bring them help and healing.

So Jesus reached out to this humble and honest centurion, and he’s reaching out to us too with the touch of God’s love. He calls us to come to him in humility, acknowledging our shortcomings and limitations and not trying to hide them, but coming to him nonetheless. In the same book I quoted from earlier, Ole Hallesby says that ‘The essence of faith is to come to Christ. Such a faith as this sees its own need, acknowledges its own helplessness, goes to Jesus, tells him just how bad things are and leaves everything with him… You and I can now tell how much faith we need in order to pray. We have faith enough when we in our helplessness turn to Jesus’.

That’s what the centurion did. It was a simple act, and perhaps it was its very simplicity that Jesus found so amazing. There’s a lovely old prayer that’s spoken in the Roman Catholic liturgy at the time of communion: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only speak the word, and my soul will be healed”. I find this a very moving prayer – not just when I’m about to receive communion, but at all times when I realize my need of the help of Jesus. So can I suggest we end with this prayer today?

Let us pray together: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only speak the word, and my soul will be healed. Amen”.