Wednesday, 25 April 2018

A talk for St Mark's day

Mark 13.5-13

Mark or John Mark is the writer of the gospel. He is not one of the 12 apostles, although he was probably personally associated with Jesus and his first followers. It is possible that he is the ‘young man’ who flees naked from the site of the arrest of Jesus. It is a strange incident only recorded in Mark’s gospel (Mark 14.51-52).

John Mark “was a Jew and, according to Paul’s letter to the Colossians, cousin to Barnabas. He accompanied Barnabas and Paul on their first missionary journey. Afterwards, he went to Cyprus with Barnabas and to Rome with first Paul and then Peter. Mark’s gospel is generally regarded as the earliest and was most likely written whilst he was in Rome. It was probably based as much on Peter’s preaching of the good news as on Mark’s own memory”.

It is an interesting gospel reading that has been chosen for today (Mark 13.5-13), but on reflection, it makes a lot of sense

Jesus is speaking here about how hard it will be to be a disciple - and Mark is personally very aware of that. If he was in Rome, then it is likely that he was writing at the same time that Christians were experiencing savage persecution. Nero had lined them up as the fall guys for the Great Fire of Rome
And Mark 13 is a call to the first Christians to persevere, to recognise that even if the political situation gets bad - and it got really bad in Israel with the siege, capture and destruction of Jerusalem; even if there is bitter opposition and persecution; and even if families are irreconcilably divided - the believers are not to be deceived. They are not to surrender to some sort of non-gospel, but to remain faithful to Christ and, through it all, they are to continue to witness.

It was hard then. It is hard now.

For 70 years in this country, believers suffered persecution - and at times it was savege.
But today it is also hard - in a different way
.
I find that it is so much easier in our secular society to speak to somebody about church, or about our services or about Anglicanism, or even about some forms of spirituality (being at peace, mindfulness, a sense of oneness with creation) - than it is to speak with someone about Jesus Christ.

It is hard to say that I believe in God who I cannot sin. That I live my life based on the assumption that the Palestinian peasant, Jesus Christ, is the eternal Son of God, that he died for my sin, that he rose from the dead, that he is alive now, and that he will one day return as judge and establish his kingdom.

If non-believers really hear what I am saying then they should look at me as if I am mad.

It is so far from the assumptions of our society: which treats religion as a leisure activity, something that is OK for you to do so long as it doesn’t impact on anybody else. A bit like Morris dancing, or train spotting. Although they have a bit more credibility.

And if people listen to what I am saying, they will realise that if what I believe is by any chance actually true, then it challenges everything that they put their trust in and how they live.

It is hard to be a witness to Jesus and a follower of Jesus, and Jesus throughout Mark’s gospel warns us that it is hard. Living as a Christian is about taking up our cross, denying ourselves and following him.

But these are good verses to summarise Mark’s gospel. Because they not only tell us that it will be hard. They also speak of hope.

1. Mark speaks of the political chaos, of the earthquakes and famines, as birth pangs. In other words, they are intensely painful, but it is - if those who have given birth allow me to speak in this way - a good pain. Out of it will come something amazing and wonderful. Out of this suffering will come new life and joy.

2. He speaks of how we will speak before rulers - and that the Holy Spirit will speak through us. I thought that meant that we would suddenly be inspired to preach a perfect sermon without any preparation. How I long for that! But actually I wonder whether what Mark is saying is that God will be glorified and we will witness to Jesus even in our stumbling words. God uses not our strengths but our weakness to bring him glory. So if you stand there and stumble over your words - whether you are standing before rulers or speaking with your hairdresser when they’ve asked you what you believe, and you lose all power of communication and stutter out the words ‘Jesus is my Lord’, the Holy Spirit will use that.

3. Mark tells us that the message of Jesus will be taken to all nations. It is a very simple verse: ‘And the good news must first be proclaimed to all nations’ (v10). That, if you think about it, is a staggering claim - especially in a day when there was no regional means of mass communication, let alone global mass media. And today, 2000 years later, this is a prophecy that has almost been fulfilled.

4. Mark tells us that the one who endures to the end will be saved.

So the message of the Mark, and the message of these verses, is that it will be hard - but that there is hope.

Sunday, 22 April 2018

Motives for giving

2 Corinthians 8:1-15



For the next four weeks we are going to be looking at what the bible teaches about giving. And I hope that what we discover will be both liberating, and life transforming. 

I’m always slightly nervous when I speak about giving, because most people think that the only thing that the church wants is your money.

Story of three men in the trenches. About to go over the top. The sergeant says to one of his men, ‘This is really bad. Tell us a bible verse, say a prayer’. The man replied, ‘I don’t know any bible verses and I don’t know any prayers, but if you want me to do something religious, I’ll pass the plate around’.

We quite like it like that. It makes God and religion manageable. It means that if we give our 50 or 100 roubles, or even our 1000 roubles, we think we’ve done our bit. I’ve put the money in the basket – so its OK and I’m OK.
But if that is our attitude, then we are not giving, but we are paying for a good conscience.

So, let’s look at 2 Corinthians 8.1-15. They teach us about a right motive for giving.

Paul is writing to the early Christian community in Corinth. They’ve said that they are willing to collect money for the church in Jerusalem and Judea, who are experiencing severe financial hardship. And Paul is writing to them to encourage them to do what they have said that they will do.

And the thing that strikes me about these verses is the emphasis on the freedom and the joy of giving.

Paul speaks of the giving of the Macedonian Churches.
Look at the words he uses: “their abundant joy; overflowed in a wealth of generousity; they voluntarily gave; begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry”.

This is about abundant voluntary generous giving.
It reminds me of the woman who took a jar of precious oil, equivalent to the value of a labourer’s wage for a year – about half a million roubles – and she poured it on Jesus.

This is about being voluntary, eager, earnest, willing and joyful givers. This is a million miles away from the guilt inducing campaigns of many charities and, for that matter, churches. And it is a million miles away from the scrabbling around inside our pocket or purse to see what we’ve got left over to put in the collection plate!  

So how can we become eager, earnest, willing and joyful givers?

1.      We give ourselves first to God

Paul writes of the Macedonian Christians, “They gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us” (v5)

This is so important. If we wish to discover the joy of giving, then before we give our money, we need to have first given our life to Jesus Christ. It is about saying to the Lord Jesus, ‘I love you and I trust you, and I commit my life to you. I will go where you want me to go, I will do what you want me to do. I will live for you and I will live with you. I will die for you and I will die with you’.

Jesus is the heavenly highwayman who stops us in our tracks and who doesn’t say, ‘Your money or your life’, but says ‘Your money and your life’.

Of course, we need to constantly surrender ourselves to God.
If you’re anything like me, you have moments of conviction when you hear the call and you respond: Yes. You kneel down before him – literally or metaphorically - and offer everything to Jesus.
I’ve told of how Archbishop Burnett of South Africa speaks of how he went through every part of his body – beginning with the toes on his feet and ending with the hair on his head - dedicating each part to Christ’s service.
But then the circumstances of life overtake us, and temptations overwhelm us – and we need to renew that commitment. That’s why communion is so precious. We come again to receive the love of Jesus, to ask him to fill us with his Holy Spirit, and to offer ourselves afresh to him.

And when we give ourselves to Jesus, he will begin to transform our desires. We discover a new place to put our identity and our security.
Some of the things that we thought it so important to have will become far less important. And there will be new and different motivations.

And of course, if we give ourselves first to Christ, it means that we give all we have.

People sometimes ask, ‘Well how much should I give?’
The answer is, ‘everything’.
I think of the rich young ruler who asked Jesus what he should do to gain eternal life, and Jesus said to him, ‘Sell all that you have, and give to the poor, and come follow me’.
And maybe that is the radical calling for some, to sell all they have and join a monastic community.

But for most of us, we are called to live in this world.
And so God gave his people in the Old Testament the command to tithe – to give a tenth of everything you receive.

It is something that Jesus speaks about (Matthew 23.23), and it is a very good principle to follow. It is one that I have followed all my life: literally the very first thing that comes out of my salary is the tithe that I will give. When I was in the UK it was by standing order. Here we go to Sperbank and take the money out, and put it aside for Sunday.
But I emphasise that in the New Testament, everything we have belongs to God, and so all our money belongs to him – and tithing is only a principle, a suggestion, and it is not a law.
I note that here Paul doesn’t tell the Corinthian Christians to tithe. Instead he tells them of the Macedonian Christians who gave ‘according to their means’ (v3).
He is far more concerned with motive that amount: ‘For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has – not according to what one does not have’ (v12)
And that means that some people should not be tithing, and others should be tithing and then giving far more.  

The important point here is that before we give our money, we need to have first given to the Lord Jesus our life.

2.      We give because giving is the logic of the gospel

At the very heart of the Christian gospel is the supreme act of giving: “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich”. (v9)

Everything that we have is a gift. Life is gift. This world is gift. Our place in this world is gift. Our upbringing, talents, opportunities we are given, and the ability to make use of those opportunities is gift. Our possessions are gifts. We did nothing to deserve them.

And how much more is the gift of a relationship with God, of forgiveness, of his word spoken to us, of the Holy Spirit and His presence with us, of membership in his family, of the promise of eternal life, of the kingdom of God and ultimate fulfilment and joy. Not only did we do nothing to deserve that – we actually did everything we could to dis-deserve that.

But because of the love of God, Jesus left heaven and came to earth.
He gave up intimacy and peace with God so that we who were alienated from God could become intimate and have peace with God.
He gave up his life, and died, so that we who will die, might have life. 
He gave up heaven for earth, so that we who were destined to go under the earth, might have heaven.
He gave up everything for us, so that we who had nothing, might be eternally united to him and have everything.

It is all gift. The logic of the gospel is gift

And when a person gets gripped by the logic of the gospel, when they realise all that God has given for them, and when they receive the gift, then they will begin to live by the logic of the gospel. They will be eager to give – and they will give.
Why? Because the Spirit of Jesus, who was rich but became poor so that we might become rich, lives in them.
Why? Because we want to become like Jesus, who was rich but became poor so that others might become rich.  

Let me put this very simply.
If you are a believer, if the Spirit of God lives in you, and if you are being guided by the Spirit, then you will want to give.

And if you do not have that desire to give, or if when the plate comes round you give simply because you feel you ought to, then I’m going to make the radical suggestion that you do not give, at least to the work of the ministry of the church. God won't love you any the less, and you will feel much happier about it.

I like the story that is told of the mother who wanted her daughter to learn about giving. As they went to church she gave her a R10 coin and a R100 note. She said, 'You can put either into the collection and keep the other'. As they were going home, mum asked her which she had put in. She said, 'Well at first I thought I would put in the R100, but then the preacher said that God loved a cheerful giver, and I thought I would be much more cheerful if I had the R100. So I put in the R10'.

But the astonishing thing is that if you decide not to give, and you then realise that God still loves you, and that you are absolutely welcome here, you might begin to realise a little of what grace actually means. And you might discover that what you really desire to do is to give yourself to him. He really does want your life.

And if you do desire to give:
1.      Be wise! Tithing is a great principle, guideline for giving, but nobody should be overburdened.  
2.      If you want to give, don’t let things come in that stop you from doing what you really want to do, from what you were made to do. Don't let forgetfulness, or laziness, or procrastination, or fear or spiritual drowsiness get in the way. Go home, even today, and put aside the money that you want to give. Do it.

A man called Richard Stearns writes, "In 1987, one of the largest, single-day stock market crashes since 1929 took place. In one day my wife, Renee and I lost more than one-third of our life's savings and the money we had put aside for our kids' university education. I was horrified and became like a man obsessed, each night working past midnight, analysing on spreadsheets all that we had lost, and the next day calling in orders to sell our remaining stocks and mutual funds to prevent further losses. (Of course that turned out to be the absolute worst thing I could have done.)

I was consumed with anguish over our lost money—and it showed. One night when I was burning the midnight oil, Renee came and sat beside me. "Honey," she said, "this thing is consuming you in an unhealthy way. It's only money. We have our marriage, our health, our friends, our children, and a good income—so much to be thankful for. You need to let go of this and trust God." Don't you hate it when someone crashes your pity party? I didn't want to let go of it. I told her I felt responsible for our family and that she didn't understand. It was my job to worry about things like this.

She suggested we pray about it—something that hadn't occurred to me—so we did. At the end of the prayer, to my bewilderment, Renee said, "Now I think we need to get out the chequebook and write some big cheques to our church and ministries we support. We need to show God that we know this is his money and not ours." I was flabbergasted at the audacity of this suggestion, but in my heart I knew she was right. So that night we wrote some sizeable cheques, put them in envelopes addressed to various ministries, and sealed them. And that's when I felt the wave of relief. We had broken the spell that money had cast over me. It freed me from the worries that had consumed me. I actually felt reckless and giddy—"God, please catch us, because we just took a crazy leap of faith."

Saturday, 31 March 2018

Happily ever after?



I wrote to Mike to let him know what I was thinking of saying: that the resurrection of Jesus is the ultimate happy ending. This is the fairy tale on which all fairy tales are based. Jesus is the knight who turns the scullery maid into a princess, who rescues the princess shut up in a tower, who wakes her with a kiss. And Jesus is the princess who saves the prince, enchanted by a wicked witch, from their life as a beast or a bear or a frog. And here is a story in which they do all ultimately live ‘happily ever after’. And it is a story that is based on a historical fact – the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

It is a great idea, nicked in my case from Tim Keller who, I believe, stole it from CS Lewis.

But Mike pointed out to me that Mark 16 doesn’t end with the ‘happily ever after’. It ends with some serious confused, scared and silent women.

It is a very odd ending, and the reason that we ended there is because most people think that Mark ended his gospel with these words: 
“So they [the women] went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid”.
 It is very human.

They come to the grave because they want to anoint Jesus' body with the burial spices. They didn’t have time to do that on Friday evening or on Saturday, because it was the Sabbath. And they are trying to work out how they will move the stone. Maybe they are hoping that some people will be around.

But when they get there, they find:
·         the stone has been rolled away
·         there is literally no body in the tomb
·         and a man dressed in white tells them that Jesus has risen from the dead.

Do they believe?
Do they leap up and down with joy?
Do they begin to work out the implications of what it means to say that Jesus has risen from the dead?
Of course not. ‘Terror and amazement had seized them’ (16.8)

We know the story. They didn’t.
For them this is weird. This is off the scale weird.
And one can imagine them at first walking away from the tomb. They start slow and they then get quicker. They’re not going to see the disciples. They are going anywhere. They just need to get away from that place, to get to normality. And the walk breaks into a run. And as they run, people call out to them: ‘What’s the matter?’ Do they tell them, ‘Jesus has risen from the dead’? Of course not. They say nothing.

And then, maybe, then they stop. They stop to get their breath back. They begin to think ..
Maybe that is the moment when, as Matthew tells us, Jesus appears to them (Matthew 28.9). 
And only after that, do they then go to the disciples.

Mark does not give us a happily ever after ending.

And I think that the reason for that is because when he sat down to write his gospel, about 30 or so years after Jesus rose from the dead, he was probably a member of the church in Rome. And that church was facing terrifying persecution.

Nero had decided to blame the Christians for the devastating fire that broke out in Rome in AD64.
Tacitus, the historian writes, ‘First then the confessed members of the sect (of Christians) were arrested; next, on their disclosures, vast numbers were convicted, not so much on the count of arson as for hatred of the human race. And derision accompanied their end: they were covered with wild beasts’ skins and torn to death by dogs; or they were fastened on crosses, and when daylight failed were burned to serve as lamps by night.’

So when Mark writes his gospel, he is emphasizing the fact that to follow Jesus is not about a life of constant success or happiness. It is not about having one great spiritual experience after another. Instead he is saying that if you follow Jesus, you need to be prepared to walk the way of the cross, your own via dolorosa, and that there will be times when you are seriously amazed, confused, terrified and out of your depth.

But if Mark’s ending warns of difficulties to come, and if it is not happily ever after then, there are still hints that in the end it will be happily ever after:

1.      It is ‘the first day of the week’ (Mark 16.2): the day of creation, the day of the beginning – and the resurrection of Jesus is the day of the new creation, of the new beginning. It is a new dawn, not just of a new day, but of a new epoch in the divine history of time.
This is the story which means that Christians, whatever they are experiencing today, can always live with hope. The past has gone and the new has come. Today it may feel like Good Friday, but Easter Sunday, a new beginning, has come and it is coming.

2.      The stone has gone, the tomb is empty, and Jesus is alive. It is a simple message, with earth shaking consequences. It means that, whatever the appearances, however hard it is, however desperate the situation, however savage and evil the opposition, truth conquers lies, hope conquers despair, courage conquers fear and the politics of love triumph over the politics of violence. Satan, sin and death do not have the final word. Love and life do win. Jesus Christ conquers all.

3.      The women have been told that if they go to Galilee, they will meet Jesus.
And if we are prepared to put aside time to listen to his word, to hear his word and to obey his word, we will meet him. We may meet him in those completely unpredictable, extraordinary moments, those touches of grace, when heaven brushes earth, and he is there, he is so close that we can reach out and touch him.
It happens – even here! Someone wrote to me last week to say how last week’s service, and I quote “reawakened my knowledge of the power of prayer given by the Holy Spirit and this gift from God”.
But if we do not meet Jesus in such ways, and yet we have listened to him and been obedient, we do not need to despair. We live in hope, in a certain hope, that we will one day meet him – in our Galilee. Maybe here, but certainly there.

And that is when there will be ‘happily ever after’

Alleluia, Christ is risen!


Saturday, 10 March 2018

A sermon on John 3.16




John 3.16 is probably the most famous verse in the Bible.  

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him, should not perish but have eternal life”.

If you only ever learn one verse by heart from the Bible, then apart from the Lord’s Prayer, this is that verse

Billy Graham, whose funeral was a week ago, and who was one of the most influential Christian evangelists and preachers of the C20th (he even preached here in Moscow in Soviet as well as post-Soviet times) used to quote John 3.16 when asked to do a sound check before speaking. He said that even if the sound operator was too busy to listen to what he had to say during the actual event, if he heard John 3.16 then he will have heard the gospel: the good news about Jesus.

For God
There are a few people who would claim to be out and out atheists, and a few more who would claim to be agnostics, but most people are aware that there is something or someone that is beyond themselves, that cannot be seen, heard or touched, but that is bigger than them.
That is why things like Star Wars and the idea of the Force that is out there touches something deep in here.
It is why, as someone put it, there is no such think as an atheist in a rubber dinghy in a storm in the middle of the Pacific

And it all begins with God.
Creation begins with God - ‘In the beginning, God ..’  (Gen 1.1);
Revelation begins with God - ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God’ (John 1.1)
Salvation begins with God - 'For God so loved ..' (John 3.16)

so loved
We have devalued the word ‘love’. I recently read an article by a Member of Parliament in the UK saying that the Church of England should forget about all the faith stuff, because that divided people, and simply preach a message of love and peace.
But when people say that, and quite a few do, they haven’t really thought through what they mean by ‘love’. The deepest it goes is that they think that we should tolerate each other and be nice to each other. It is a good message, and an important message, I guess, but what orthodox biblical Christianity has to preach is so much richer.

Biblical love is so much more.
It is about delight in the other
– seeing the other as created in the image of the divine, with the potential to become like the divine, and delighting in them.
Zephaniah 3.17 says, “The LORD your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you but will rejoice over you with singing.”
One thinks of a mother holding her baby in her arms and singing over her child.

And it is about desire for the other
– a deep heart desire to be united, in the right way, with the other. It is a longing for union. Not just that they can get on and live their life while we live our life, but that we can be part of them, just as they are part of us, and that if we are without them, then we are not whole. And so, Jesus, for instance, speaks of how like a mother hen he would gather his children under his wings (Luke 13.31-35)

And it is about blessing the other
– that is not about simply wishing them well but seeking the absolute best for them. It is blessing them so that they can become the person who God made them to be.
It is why God blesses us with his law – to show us the sort of life that is good and true and perfect.
It is why God blesses us with his discipline – to draw us back to himself, to show us that if we pursue the things of this world we are not pursuing the absolute best for us.
It is why God blesses us by giving us himself.

For God so loved .. At the very heart of God there is not anger, not rejection but this rich deep love: a love that delights in us, that desires us and that would bless us.

the world
And it is not just about love for you or me, or even the church.
God created this world of matter, and he loves it.
At the very beginning, after creation, he looks at the world and he saw that ‘it was very good’.
And the reason that he acted to save us was not simply because he delights in us, but because in some mysterious way the destiny of humanity is tied in with the destiny of this planet and, dare I say, even of this universe. And the day that will see the final public revelation, the making known, of the sons and daughters of God will be the day that this creation is set from what the bible calls ‘its bondage’ to decay and death.

that he gave his only son
If we truly delight in the other, desire union – fellowship - friendship with the other, and seek blessing for the other, then we will give. We will give sacrificially. We will even be prepared to give the most precious thing that we have for the sake of the other.

And God gave his only Son for us, the Son who was absolutely one with him and part of himself and without whom he could not be Father; the Son who he had delighted in, and who delighted in him, from before the beginning of time.

The story is told that Martin Luther was reading to Mrs Luther the account of how God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son. And Mrs Luther interrupted, ‘God would never ask that of a person; God would never ask them to sacrifice their child for him’.

But actually parents do, in some sort of way, sacrifice their children.
We love them, we cherish them, we grow them to give them away, to let them go.
You see the consequences when a parent refuses to let go of their child and tries to cling on to them.
That is why one of the very traditional rituals in a wedding is when a father, or someone from the family, ‘gives away’ their daughter. And as someone who has stood at the front and watched this happen on many occasions, I can see how bitter sweet that is for the parents. There are tears of joy at weddings, but there are also tears of pain as you emotionally give away, let go of your child.
And what of parents, for instance, who give away their children to go and fight for their country – knowing that they might suffer and die, knowing that they are potentially giving them up to death?  

As parents we don’t really have the choice of letting our children go.
But Father God loved us and the world so much that he chose to give his only Son.
And he knew that his son would choose to take onto himself our sin and the sin of the world, that his son would suffer and die. There was no question about what would happen.
And yes, there would ultimately be joy, but he knew that in sending his Son he was allowing into his heart the wrenching pain of separation and overwhelming grief, a pain and grief that would be with him for eternity.

I can’t really explain it, and I’m using words – probably foolish words - to try and describe a reality that is far beyond the reach of words.
But what John 3.16 tells us is that the love of God, and the love of God for you, is unimaginable. We will need all of eternity simply to begin to understand the love that God has for us in giving up his only son.

that whoever
This is really simple.
‘Whoever’ potentially includes everybody. It includes everybody who currently lives on this planet who has had a birth mother!
It includes atheists and agnostics; Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs; Methodists and Roman Catholics and Orthodox and free Church and Evangelicals and Pentecostals. It includes Anglicans! It is for people who have been coming to church for many years. It is for people who have only just started coming along
It even includes you.
This is an invitation that is open to everyone

believes in him
That is, who believes in Jesus, who puts their trust in him.

It speaks of the moment when we put our trust in him and are saved.     

Jesus, in John 3.14, has reminded Nicodemus of an event that happened when the people of Israel were wandering through the wilderness. God had rescued them from slavery in Egypt, and yet they grumbled against God. They said, ‘You only brought us out into the desert to kill us – oh, and by the way, we hate the food you have given us to eat’. They had stopped trusting in God.
And so God sends – and it is God who sends – the plague of serpents. There are snakes everywhere: in their tents, in their rucksacks, in their shoes. Whoever is bitten by one of these snakes will die. There was no medicine, no antidote, no treatment.
And the people cry out to God, and they ask him to have mercy. They realise that they have turned from God, that they are perishing and they repent. So God tells Moses to make a bronze serpent and to put it on a pole, and whoever turns and looks at the snake is saved.

That is all that they need to do.
I can imagine some saying, ‘But that is stupid. That can’t do anything. I’m not going humiliate myself in that way.’
But others said, ‘God says that if we look at the serpent on the pole we will live. I’ve got nothing else to depend on. I’m going to trust him and do it’.

Listen, says Jesus to Nicodemus. Just as Moses lifted the serpent on the pole and the people were saved by looking at it, so I am going to be lifted up – and whoever believes in me, whoever puts their trust in me, will be saved, and will have eternal life.

But ‘believes in him’ or ‘trusts in him’ speaks also of an ongoing relationship.

In verses 19-21, Jesus speaks of how he is the light who has come into the world, and that if we believe in him as the eternal Son of God, if we listen to his words and daily put our trust in him, then we will be people who come to the light and allow the light of God to shine in our lives.

‘Philosopher Nicholas Beale and scientist John Polkinghorne use the following story to illustrate the nature of biblical faith:
A philosopher, a scientist, and a simple man—none of whom could swim—were trapped in a cove with sheer cliff faces. They split up, but the tide kept coming in. Rescuers lowered a rope with a safety harness. The philosopher said, "Ah, this looks like a rope, but I might be mistaken—it could be wishful thinking or an illusion." So he didn't attach himself, and he was drowned. The scientist said, "Ah, this is an 11 mm polyester rope with a breaking strain of 2800 kg. It conforms to the MR 10-81 standard," and then proceeded to give an exhaustive, and entirely correct, analysis of the rope's physical and chemical properties. But he didn't attach himself, and he was drowned. The simple man said, "Ah, I'm not sure if it's a rope or a python tail, but it's my only chance, so I'm grabbing it and holding on with my whole life." He was saved.

should not perish
This is the bit that people find difficult. It is hard.
It means that without Jesus we are without God.        

We’ve chosen to cut ourselves off from the source of life, of truth.
It is, if you forgive me for twisting an illustration adapted from current news stories, a bit like a country choosing itself to cut off the pipeline that brings the oil that it needs into the country. For a long time, there doesn’t seem to be a problem because it is living on reserves. But there will come a day when the reserves run out.
And although we’ve cut ourselves off from God, there are sufficient reserves of the goodness and blessing of God in this creation for us to carry on as if nothing has changed. But there will come a day when the reserve runs out. And we will perish.

Without God we are building a wall around ourselves. We’re cutting ourselves off from light and life. And it is not only our physical bodies that will die. Our souls are shrinking and shrivelling up. JK Rowling’s description of Voldemort when his soul has become an eternal whimpering foetus-like baby discarded under a railway station seat is one of the most chilling metaphors of what we are becoming without God.

but have eternal life
God loves us, and he does not want that to be our destiny.
He does not want anyone to perish.
Instead he delights in us and desires for us to come into communion with him, to know him; and he longs to bless us, so that we begin to live as we were made to live. Because that is life.
Eternal life in the bible begins when a person turns to Jesus in trust, when they look to him, when they receive him, invite him to come and be their friend, even to come right deep within their lives and to shape what they desire and how they think.
That is when the connection is made, that is when the pipeline is turned on.
And this life is so rich that not even physical death can destroy it.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him, should not perish but have eternal life”.

So, my dear friends, learn that verse, reflect on the verse.
But of even more importance, please I beg you to receive the gift.


When I was a vicar in inner-city London, in Holloway, we ran a mission. We invited an evangelist called Andy Economides to speak to different groups that we already ran. One of those was a Wednesday afternoon service, mainly for people who were older. Frank used to come to those services. In fact, he had come to St Mary Magdalene for most of his life, and he was in his late 80s. But as Andy spoke, I don’t know what it was, but something just clicked. He heard the message. He heard that it wasn’t church going that would save him, it wasn’t receiving communion that would save him, it wasn’t even being good – and don’t get me wrong, Frank was a good man – that would save him. He heard that what he needed to do was to look to Jesus and put his trust in him. Trust him that he was the Son of God; trust him that he had died for him; trust him enough to live for him. And for the first time, Frank asked Jesus into his life.

I hate it when that happens. I’d been vicar of St Mary Magdalene for 10 years. I’d been preaching that same message for 10 years, and Frank had been there for 10 years. And nothing happened. And then someone else comes along, says the same thing as me, and Frank hears and is converted!

But the reason that Frank sticks so clearly in my mind is that 3 days later I received a phone call from Avril his daughter telling me that Frank had died in his sleep. Talk about leaving it to the last minute! And at his funeral we were able with great thanksgiving and with great confidence to say that Frank had gone to be with the Lord Jesus? Why? Because he had heard about Jesus, he had looked at Jesus, and he had believed Jesus. He had received God’s gift of eternal life.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

What is Anglicanism?


The Anglican Church has about 85 million members in 39 Provinces across 165 countries. The average Anglican, as the current Archbishop of Canterbury often says, is not someone from the UK, but a 30-year-old woman in Africa who is earning under $1 a day.

It is a family of Churches, a fellowship or communion of Churches, which grew out of the Church of England, with shared saints, linked histories, theology, worship and a shared relationship to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

So what is Anglicanism? What does it mean to be an Anglican?

BEING PART OF THE ONE CATHOLIC CHURCH

There is a continuity with the past
  • A maintenance of the three-fold order of bishops, priests and deacons. An unbroken link through time and space with the apostles, and a very early ordering of the Church.
  • Confession of the historic creeds: Apostles, Nicene and Athanasian
  • Celebration of the sacraments: and particularly Baptism and Holy Communion
  • Use of liturgy, rites and prayers which reach back to the very beginning of the Christian period
  • Buildings: some Church buildings in England are about 1400 years old
  • Saints: both the saints of the Church, and also national saints – St Alban, Venerable Bede, St Hilda – and more local saints often only remembered in church names: eg. St Botolph, St Wulfstan
But what about the break with Rome?

The conflict between the Pope and the King

The break with Rome was a rejection of Papal authority on English soil. It was not a rejection of the faith of the Catholic church or of the saints of the Catholic Church. It was the culmination of a long conflict between papal jurisdiction and royal jurisdiction
1170: Conflict between Henry II and Church over who had authority over clergy who committed crimes led to the murder of Thomas a Becket
1353: Statute of Praemunire declared that the King’s subjects could not be tried ‘out of the realm’ or appeal to a court ‘out of the realm’
1393: A statute stated that the Pope had caused the laws of the realm ‘to be defeated and avoided at his will, in perpetual destruction of the sovereignty of the King’
So when Henry VIII wants his divorce, and the Pope is politically unable to give him a divorce, Henry decides to take all authority into his own hands
1532: Act in Restraint of Appeals:
‘This realm of England is an empire .. governed by one supreme head and king .. instituted and furnished by the goodness and sufferance of Almighty God, with plenary whole and entire power, pre-eminence, authority, prerogative and jurisdiction to render and yield all justice and final determination to all manner of folk in all causes’. 
1534: the Act of Supremacy declared that the king was ‘the only supreme head in earth of the Church of England’.
‘We thought that the clergy of our realm had been our subjects wholly. But now we have well perceived that they be half our subjects, yea and scarce our subjects. For all the prelates at their consecration make an oath to the pope clean contrary to the oath they make to us, so that they seem his subjects and not ours’.
1534: Henry determines to appoint the Bishops

Again, this was nothing new. Usually episcopal appointments had been a question of negotiation between the papacy and the crown, but the crown took upon itself the right to appoint.
1173, Henry II writes to the canons of Winchester Cathedral, ‘I order you to hold a free election, but nevertheless, I forbid you to elect anyone except Richard my clerk, the archdeacon of Poitiers’ 
1351: Statute of Provisors, repealed in 1390, forbade the pope to ‘provide’ a candidate to any appointment
The situation has little changed, although power passed from the Crown to Parliament and the Prime Minister. However, in July 2007, the Prime Minister of the day, Gordon Brown stated that he was giving up his right to choose a particular person for the post of a bishop from the two names given to him by the Crown Appointments Commission. Instead he would simply accept a single name that was given to him.

BEING PART OF A LOCAL/NATIONAL CHURCH

The Church of England for all people
  1. Conviction that the Church was for all people. Anybody who was not a member was potentially guilty of treason. Penalties ranged from execution, imprisonment and fines.
Whitgift (Archbishop 1583-1604), applied significant pressure to Puritans. Many were deprived, some imprisoned and a few executed.
Archbishop Laud was even more aggressive in his persecution of Puritans. In 1630, Alexander Leighton, who wrote Zion’s Pleas against Prelacy, was fined £10000, imprisoned for life, but first whipped, had his nose slit, was branded on face by SS (sower of sedition) and had his ears cut off.  
  1. Conviction that worship should be in the common tongue. In 1544 some prayers, including the litany, were permitted in the common language. In 1549 the first fully English prayer book was published.
  1. Conviction that the national/regional church has the authority to introduce ‘traditions’, ‘ceremonies and rites’, provided that these innovations do not contravene God’s Word and are introduced to build up God’s people.
Article XXXIV.
It is not necessary that Traditions and Ceremonies be in all places one, or utterly like; for at all times they have been divers, and may be changed according to the diversity of countries, times, and men's manners, so that nothing be ordained against God's Word.
Whosoever, through his private judgment, willingly and purposely, doth openly break the Traditions and Ceremonies of the Church, which be not repugnant to the Word of God, and be ordained and approved by common authority, ought to be rebuked openly, (that others may fear to do the like,) as he that offendeth against the common order of the Church, and hurteth the authority of the Magistrate, and woundeth the consciences of the weak brethren.
Every particular or national Church hath authority to ordain, change, and abolish, Ceremonies or Rites of the Church ordained only by man's authority, so that all things be done to edifying.
The [state] Church in England.
In 1662 with the restoration of the monarchy after the commonwealth, and the accession of Charles II, over 1700 puritan ministers in the Church of England were deprived, mainly because they could not accept the need for episcopal ordination.

However, the Toleration act of 1689 recognised that there could not only be one Church in England, and gave legal recognition to Protestant groups outside the Church of England. Persecutions of puritans continued, but gradually lessened.

(Roman Catholics were not given equal civic rights until 1829, with passing of Roman Catholic Relief act)

Today in the Church of England:
The Queen is head of State and supreme governor of the Church. For the time being the State still plays a role in the appointment of bishops (through representatives on the Crown Appointments commission), some bishops sit in the House of Lords, there are prayers before the beginning of parliamentary sessions, and some civic events are marked by church services.

BEING PART OF A REFORMED CHURCH

The Church of England has been shaped by the convictions rediscovered at the Reformation, expressed in the 42 Articles of Religion (1553) reduced to 39  in 1571, the homilies of 1547 and 1571, and in the Prayer book of 1662 (preceded by the Prayer books of 1549, 1552, 1559)

A look at three convictions
1. The bible
“Article VI. Of the Sufficiency of the holy Scriptures for salvation. Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation”
Archbishop Cranmer was convinced that if the people are allowed to read the Bible then it would change their lives.
  • from 1540 an open bible in the common language was placed in each church
  • the Church of England lectionary: “In no other church anywhere is the bible read in public worship so regularly, with such order, and at such length, as in the Anglican fellowship of Churches.” Stephen Neil.
The Psalms were read each month, the Old Testament once a year and the New Testament three times a year (this pattern has been modified in more recent lectionaries).

2. Justification by faith
 “Article XI. Of the justification of Man. We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings”
 3On Holy Communion:
“Article XXVIII. Of the Lord's Supper.
The Supper of the Lord is not only a sign of the love that Christians ought to have among themselves one to another, but rather it is a Sacrament of our Redemption by Christ's death: insomuch that to such as rightly, worthily, and with faith, receive the same, the Bread which we break is a partaking of the Body of Christ; and likewise the Cup of Blessing is a partaking of the Blood of Christ.
Transubstantiation (or the change of the substance of Bread and Wine) in the Supper of the Lord, cannot be proved by Holy Writ; but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions.
The Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner. And the mean whereby the Body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper, is Faith.
The Sacrament of the Lord's Supper was not by Christ's ordinance reserved, carried about, lifted up, or worshipped.”
Anglican teaching on Holy Communion
a) Emphasis on the once and for all time all sufficient sacrifice of Christ on the Cross.
b) Conviction that the receiving of the bread and wine is a spiritual receiving of Christ – clarified in the words used at the distribution of communion in the 1662 prayer book:
This was a combination of the words in the 1549 prayer book: ‘The body of our Lord Jesus Christ which was given for you preserve your body and soul unto everlasting life’, and the more (Zwinglian) words used in the 1552 prayer book: ‘Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for you and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving’. In the 1559 and 1662 prayer books, the two sets of words were combined.
c) Linking of consecration and reception into a single act
d) Rejection of transubstantiation, and removal of language of ‘accident’ and ‘substance’ when speaking of presence of Christ in communion
e) Denial that the presence of Christ is a local presence

It was for these teachings, and their rejection of the doctrines of purgatory and indulgences that Archbishop Cranmer, and Bishops Latimer and Ridley were burnt at the stake (1555).

How far would the reformers go?
There was a constant battle over vestments (the surplice) and the need for the episcopacy.
Many Reformers wanted the Church of England to go much further than it did, but Queen Elizabeth I, needing to hold her kingdom together after the reformation of Edward VI's reign and counter reformation of Mary's reign, tried to draw the competing factions together in the 1559 prayer book.
“By 1593 the Church of England had shown plainly that it would not walk in the ways either of Geneva or of Rome. This is the origin of the famous Via Media, the middle way, of the Church of England…Anglicanism is a very positive form of Christian belief; it affirms that it teaches the whole of Catholic faith, free from the distortions, the exaggerations, the over-definitions both of the Protestant left wing and of the right wing of Tridentine Catholicism. Its challenge can be summed up in the phrases, ‘Show us anything clearly set forth in Holy Scripture that we do not teach, and we will teach it; show us anything in our teaching and practice that is plainly contrary to Holy Scripture, and we will abandon it.” (Stephen Neill, Anglicanism p. 119)
During the Commonwealth period (1649-1660), under Oliver Cromwell, with the defeat of the monarchy and the ascendency of the Puritans, episcopacy was abolished and the prayer book was declared illegal.

However, with the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, the bishops, prayer book (of 1559) and vestments were reinstated. In 1662 the prayer book was revised, introducing a few 'catholic' elements (for example, the blessing of the water at baptism), but in principal holding fast to the theology expressed in the 1559 prayer book.

Declarations of assent
Up to 1865 in England, any ordained minister was required to state,
‘I assent to the 39 articles and to the Book of Common Prayer and the ordering of Bishops, priests and deacons. I believe the doctrine of the Church of England as therein set forth to be agreeable to the Word of God’.
A new formula was introduced in 1865 with the wording:
I A B do solemnly make the following declaration:
I assent to the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion...
I believe the doctrine of the United Church of England and Ireland, as therein set forth, to be agreeable to the Word of God...
Since 1975, Church of England ministers state
“The Church of England is part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, worshipping the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It professes the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds, which faith the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation. Led by the Holy Spirit, it has borne witness to Christian truth in its historic formularies, the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, The Book of Common Prayer and the Ordering of Bishops, Priests and Deacons. In the declaration you are about to make, will you affirm your loyalty to this inheritance of faith as your inspiration and guidance under God in bringing the grace and truth of Christ to this generation and making Him known to those in your care?
Declaration of Assent
I, A B, do so affirm, and accordingly declare my belief in the faith which is revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds and to which the historic formularies of the Church of England bear witness; and in public prayer and administration of the sacraments, I will use only the forms of service which are authorized or allowed by Canon.”

BEING PART OF A MISSIONARY CHURCH

An overseas mission that grew initially with chaplains going to serve the communities who lived overseas as part of the colonial expansion. Initially they focussed on the English-speaking communities, but in time began to reach out to the local populations.

Formation of missionary societies: Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (1701) and the Church Missionary Society (1799)

The Church of England, as a rule, never sought to proselytise where other national Christian churches already existed.

In the last 40 years there has been a movement within the Church of England from a maintenance model of ministry to a mission model of ministry. There is a recognition that the people in England need to hear the gospel.

 

BEING PART OF A GLOBAL CHURCH: THE ANGLICAN COMMUNION (‘FELLOWSHIP’)

Today there are Anglican communities in Scotland, Wales, Ireland, United States, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, West Indies, throughout the African continent, India, Japan, Korea, South America.

There is a presence in Jerusalem, the Middle East, the far East. There are also Anglican chaplaincies in Europe

The Anglican communion is a family of Churches – with inter-connecting histories, shared saints, theology, worship and a shared relationship with the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Archbishop of Canterbury is 'primus inter pares' (first among equals) but has no jurisdiction over other Provinces. The Archbishop of Canterbury can only invite bishops to gather together for Lambeth conferences.

At the Lambeth conference in 1920, people accepted the Lambeth Quadrilateral as the theological basis of Anglican unity

Lambeth Quadrilateral        
  • Acceptance of Holy Scripture as containing all things necessary for salvation’
  • Nicene creed as the sufficient statement of the faith
  • Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion as instituted by Christ himself
  • The Historic episcopate locally adapted to the needs of various regions and peoples
There are major tensions within the Anglican communion today, particularly given that some Provinces in the Anglican communion (not the Church of England) bless gay marriage, and this is seen by many as a rejection of the authority of Scripture.

BEING PART OF A FAITHFUL AND GENEROUS CHURCH

The Church, after the turmoil of the reformation, the counter-reformation of Mary’s reign and the civil war, seeks to be as generous as possible. It sought to avoid the excesses of medieval Catholicism and of the extreme puritans.

Some significant Anglican theologians:
John Jewel (1522-1571). Apologia Ecclesia Anglicana. He takes his stand on scripture and the primitive church of the first six centuries. His accusation is that the Popes are the innovators and that there is no evidence in early church history for the supremacy of the Pope, or some of the later innovations.

Richard Hooker (1554-1600). Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. He discusses the Order of the Church and argues for the freedom for regional churches within the fellowship of the one Church. The basis of his argument is the Word of God, found in Scripture but also in the established order/laws and traditions.
His main opposition is the Puritan extreme. He accepts what is given as good, provided it is not forbidden in scripture, and if it builds up people in their faith. For instance, church music is helpful because it can move the emotions. We need to trust the sovereignty of God who works through time. He defends episcopacy, because this has been the pattern of church government from the beginning, and although it is not commanded in scripture, there is nothing in scripture which proscribes episcopacy as practised in the Church of England.

Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626). He was a strong defender of episcopacy, but he writes, “Even if our order be admitted to be of divine authority it does not follow that without it there can be no salvation, or that without it a church cannot stand. Only a blind man could fail to see churches standing without it. Only a man of iron could deny that salvation is to be found within them”.
He is most well known for his Preces Privatae, his personal prayers and devotions

Cambridge Platonists (Period between 1630-1670): Convinced of compatibility between reason and faith. Benjamin Whichcote, ‘God is the most knowable of any thing in the world’ (Patrides, 1969, p.58).
S Neil, ‘They loved the constitution of the Church, and the liturgy, and could well live under them; but they did not think it unlawful to live under another form’. They became known as Latitudinarians, and they are the forerunners of the low church, and then broad church traditions. They focussed on pluralism, diversity of opinion and diffusion of clerical power.

A CLASSIC UNDERSTANDING OF THE THREE MAIN TRADITIONS

Anglo-Catholics – emphasis on the visible church, sacraments and apostolic succession. Find their roots in the tradition of Laud (who became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633 and was executed in 1645) with his emphasis on the continuity between the Church of England and the ancient Church.  Reshaped and given new impetus by the Oxford Movement in the 1830’s (John Henry Newman, 1802-1890)

Evangelicals – emphasis on the authority of Scripture, preaching, justification by faith and personal conversion. Find roots in reformers and puritans, but leaders like Charles Simeon (1759-1836) were also influenced by John Wesley (1703-1791) and the Methodist movement. The evangelical movement did make some significant political difference, the most well known examples of which were the anti-slavery work of William Wilberforce, and the working condition reforms introduced by Lord Shaftsbury, both members of the evangelical 'Clapham sect'.

Liberals – emphasis on faithfulness to reason. 'Reason' is, of course, also important for those who wish to be faithful to tradition and scripture. It all depends on the assumptions that we make at the beginning, and the focus of the liberal tradition is the humanity of Jesus, and his moral commandments as presented in the gospels.  There have been recent times, in the name of reason, when the divinity of Christ, his resurrection and the eternal have been denied. They have a commitment to justice, to inclusion and to social and political action to promote God’s Kingdom.

THE CHURCH OF ENGLAND TODAY

There are many encouraging signs in the Church of England today.
Yes, we do live in a society that is increasingly materialist, atheist and which is opposed to any form of institutionalised religion. We face significant new moral issues raised by the remarkable developments in the fields of artificial intelligence and genetics. We are divided on major issues such as human sexuality, how we respond to people of other faiths and prayers for the dead. Church attendance is continuing to fall, although it does seem that the decline is being halted, and in some areas there is now growth.
But as Christian believers take their faith more seriously, so new churches are being planted and new Christian communities formed. The numbers of people offering for ministry are increasing. People are meeting with God, and as they encounter God, some of the old party labels are becoming less significant. Evangelicals are discovering the power of the Eucharist. Those who consider themselves more catholic are running Alpha courses and bible studies. In many communities, Christian believers from different churches and traditions are working together on projects to run food banks, football clubs, town or street pastors, projects that offer support to the homeless, unemployed or those in debt.

And specifically, as members of the Church of England we are united by:
  • a common legacy which has at its heart the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but which has been shaped by our own national history, culture and language.
  • a faith as expressed in the historic creeds
  • our buildings and particularly our cathedrals
  • our willingness to listen to scripture, and to recognise its authority, even if we disagree as to how to interpret it.
  • our baptism (and our desire to live our baptism)
  • our shared experience of receiving communion according to the rites of either the Book of Common Prayer or of Common Worship.
  • our sense that a historic episcopacy means that there is some sort of connection with Christ and his people through time and space in our confirmations and ordinations.
  • the fact that our ministers make oaths of allegiance and obedience to their bishop
  • And for many there is the common experience of (at the least) praying morning prayer with its daily bible readings
Love ‘delights in the truth’, and for the sake of the truth ‘it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things’ (1 Cor 13.6-7). While my neighbour is prepared to make the official declarations, to say the creeds, to read the scriptures, to receive Baptism and Holy Communion and the laying on of hands at confirmation and ordination, and to make their declarations of canonical obedience to their bishops, then – for the sake of Christ, for the sake of love and the truth, for the sake of the gospel, and for the sake of peace – our obligation is to believe them, to see them as a brother or sister in Christ and to live with, learn with, at times to challenge, and serve with them as members of One Church.

For further Reading
SC Neill, Anglicanism
Rowan Williams, Anglican Identities
https://www.churchofengland.org/more/media-centre/church-england-glance/history-church-england