Saturday, 21 May 2011

on Glory

We are people who crave glory.

It is very hard to define glory. But if it is hard to define, we have an intuitive understanding of what it is. We can glimpse it and we want it. It is about having your name in lights. It is about receiving honour and recognition and praise and worship and adulation – all rolled into one.

We love it when others recognise us – when they recognise our value, our uniqueness, our achievement, our success, our victory.
We love it when we are lifted up and honoured.

It is why people dedicate hours of their life to training. So, for instance, swimmers will spend 6 or more hours each day in the pool. Why? For the possibility of the glory of winning.
It is why we put ourselves forward for competitions or auditions: so that we might get the chance to shine and to be recognised.
It is also why 22 million of us will watch something like the final of the X factor: the glory for the winner at the end. And the thing that makes us really sad, is that we support one or other of the contestants - so that if they win, we share in their glory – even though we have done nothing apart from slob on a sofa with beer and kebab, or some cheese and wine (depending on your taste!).
It is the same as when we support a team - we share in the glory of the goal, or the victory (although that doesn’t explain why people support Ipswich). Tomorrow there will an open top bus parade through the city of Manchester: people will be on the streets glorifying their team and sharing in that glory.
It is also why we don’t put ourselves forward on the public stage. I’m OK when I have a role to play, but in other contexts I’m a bit of a disaster. And if we are honest, it is not that those of us who are shy, who don’t like the limelight, are not putting ourselves forward to avoid glory. Far from it. We just fear that if we were in the limelight they would laugh at us and not praise us. So we play safe.

We crave glory – and yet, the strange thing is, when glory comes, it is so short, so brief. We are on top of the world for an hour, a day, even several days – and then .. reality hits.

Or putting this in a different way, I wonder what you glory in?

It is the thing you take most pride in, the thing that you really want to most talk about (even if you don’t).  For some, it is themselves – their appearance, their ability, their stuff, their career, their achievement. Others glory in something outside of them: whether it is their beloved or their children, their team, their business, their church, their teacher or leader, their country. Others will glory in physical power and status, in their ability to get what they want, in wealth.

When it comes to what we glory in, we need to be careful of a double danger.
i. The danger that we will only stand if that in which we glory stands. If it falls we fall. 
ii. The far more serious danger, which is that we become like our gods. We become like the thing in which we glory.

So what is going on here when Jesus prays, at the beginning of this prayer in John 17, ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you … And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed’?

Is he simply doing what we do: seeking glory for himself? Or is there something else going on. And if Jesus prays to be glorified, can we pray to be glorified?

  • The Bible teaches that God is the source of all glory. All glory comes from Him and belongs to him: 1 Chron 29:11 “Yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty, for all that is in the heavens and in the earth is yours”..
CS Lewis said, “A man can no more diminish God's glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word, 'darkness' on the walls of his cell.”

  • The Bible teaches us that God’s glory fills the earth – if only we would open our eyes and see. When Isaiah has a vision, he sees the angels. “And they were calling to one another: "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory."Isaiah 6:3)
Thomas Merton wrote, ‘By reading the scriptures I am so renewed that all nature seems renewed around me and with me. The sky seems to be a pure, a cooler blue, the trees a deeper green. The whole world is charged with the glory of God and I feel fire and music under my feet.’

And John 12:41 says that the Prophet Isaiah was able to speak of God because he saw God’s glory.

  • And the Bible teaches us that God’s glory is, at times, so real that it can be touched. 
Ex 16:10  While Aaron was speaking to the whole Israelite community, they looked toward the desert, and there was the glory of the LORD appearing in the cloud.

Ex 24:16 To the Israelites the glory of the LORD looked like a consuming fire on top of the mountain.

Ex 33:18  Then Moses said, "Now show me your glory."
And the LORD said, "I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the LORD, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But," he said, "you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live."

Ex 40:35 Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud had settled upon it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. (cf 1 Kings 8:11)

So what is Jesus doing, praying that his Father will glorify him?
Should he not simply be praying that God his Father will be glorified, that all people will see the glory of his Father?

But for Jesus, his hour has come.

  1. He is praying for something that he really did have. He is praying for the glory which he had with the Father in the beginning, before the world existed (John 17:5) 
Jesus Christ was a human being. If you analysed a sample of his DNA it would have been exactly like yours or mine. But Jesus Christ was different because there was a dimension to him which could never be analysed, but which controlled everything that he was and did, at a far deeper level than his DNA. He was the unique eternal Son of God – sent by the ‘only true God’.

John has made that very clear as we read through the gospel: ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God .. the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory of the only Son from the Father’.

John the Baptist says, ‘I have seen and borne witness that this is the Son of God’

And Thomas, the doubting disciple, declares, ‘My Lord and my God’.

And just keeping to these 5 verses, Jesus, we are told, has authority over all flesh.
He even has it in him to grant life: he is the source of life and he gives eternal life to all who the Father has given him

And so when Jesus prays to be glorified, he is asking his Father to give to him that which he had at the beginning.
It was the glory that the disciples glimpsed when Jesus turned water into wine (John 2:11).
It was the glory that the disciples glimpsed when he raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11:4).
It was the glory that the disciples began to see at the transfiguration (2 Peter 1:16-17)
It was the glory that the world was going to see when he rose from the dead.

Now, now that Jesus hour has come, now that he has done all that he was called to do, he prays that his Father will glorify him with the glory that he had with him before the world existed.

  1. Jesus can pray to be glorified because he has glorified the Father on earth by ‘accomplishing the work’ which the Father had given him (John 17:4) 
Jesus lived the life that God had called him to live. He accomplished the work. It is the same word that Jesus uses when he talks about doing the work that God had given him to do (John 4:34; 5:36). It is the same word that Jesus uses just before he dies, when he cries out, ‘it is accomplished’ (John 19:30 – although most of our translations use the English word ‘finished’). And in living a completely God centred, God directed, God focused, God driven life Jesus both gave glory to the one to whom all glory belongs, and he reflected that glory.

You see people and things are glorified to the extent that they fulfil their purposes with relation to God.

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul speaks of the glory of different bodies: He talks of the glory of the sun and of the moon and of the stars; the glory of heavenly bodies and the glory of earthly bodies (1 Corinthians 15:40-41).

Everything that God has made has its own glory. It is a reflected glory, just as the moon reflects the light of the sun, so each created thing reflects the glory of its creator. A stone has its own glory. A big stone, a mountain, has its own glory. A tree has its own glory. Animals have their own glory. And human beings have their own glory: ‘What is man that you are mindful of him .. you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honour’.

And we make known that glory when we recognise that our glory depends on him. As Augustine said, “We give glory to God when we say, ‘You made me and not I’”.

We make known that glory when we live in the way that we were made to live.
When the sun shines it shows the glory of God; when grass grows and gives off its CO2 it shows the glory of God; when new born lambs jump in the fields they show the glory of God; when we live – when we really live, in the way that we were created to - praising God for his glory, responding to his love with love, joyfully submitting to him, trusting him in dependence, loving and serving him and one another and his creation - recognising that all glory belongs to him – we show the glory of God. That is why Irenaeus said that ‘the glory of God is a human being fully alive, with their face turned to God’.

And that is why the Bible tells us that we can share in the glory of God – by looking at the glory of God, by looking at the man who did do that, who did live the fully human life, by looking at Jesus Christ. “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit”. (2 Corinthians 3:18) 

  1. He asks the Father to glorify him, so that he might glorify the Father (John 17:1) 
All glory belongs to the Trinity, to Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And in John 17 we get a glimpse into the inner life of the Trinity. Obviously this is far beyond our human understanding. But what it seems in the Trinity is not that the Father says, ‘I’m the main one and the Son and the Spirit need to glorify me’, but that it is so arranged that when one of the Trinity glorifies the other, then they themselves are glorified.

So Jesus seeks the glory of the one who sent him (John 7:19 cf John 8:50-54).

And listen to this: John 13:31 ‘Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and glorify him at once’.

And Jesus talks of the Spirit, how the Spirit ‘will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you’.

It is very hard to separate the love of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, from the glory of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Father loves the Son and so wants glory for the Son. The Son loves the Father and so longs for glory to go to the Father. The Spirit loves the Son and longs for glory to go to the Son. And in seeking the glory of the other, the one who they love, they find their own glory.

And so Jesus says, a little later in this prayer, ‘The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one ..’ (John 17:22)

So do we begin to see it?

Do you crave glory? It is OK to crave glory. But whose glory do you crave, and from whom do you crave glory?

Glory is like all the gifts of God. It is like life, or love, or possessions, or peace, or joy. If you try to grab hold of it for yourself, you will lose it. If you give it away you will gain it.

The world tries to gain glory by seeking its own glory, when in fact the way to gain true glory is to give glory to another.

That is why churches should be marked by people who are not seeking their own glory, their own interest, but the interest and the glory of others.
But above all churches should be marked by people who are seeking the glory of the Father, and the Son and the Spirit, who is the source of Glory and who is the most Glorious.

And if, with Jesus, we do choose to glorify – through our words and our actions - the One who is most glorious, we begin to share in that glory. We begin to share that glory today. But we can look forward to that day when we will be fully glorified. We will stand in front of him, and we will receive the highest of accolades. It comes from the One who really matters, the one who loves us. And he will say, ‘Well done you good and faithful servant. Come and share your master’s happiness’. Or perhaps that could be reworded: ‘Come and share your master’s glory’.

Paul writes in Romans 8:30, ‘And those whom God predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified’.

For those who wish to consider this subject further, CS Lewis preached an exceptional sermon, called The Weight of Glory.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

The Fountain of Living Water

Over the next few weeks we will be looking at the book of Jeremiah in the Bible

Jeremiah lived about 600 years before Jesus.

If you remember, ancient Israel at the time had been divided into two. In the North was Israel and in the South was Judah. The North, Israel, had been crushed. The Assyrians had come, conquered them  and taken many of their people into exile. So all that was left was the small community in the South, Judah, with its capital Jerusalem.

Jeremiah was the son of a priest, but more importantly, he was a prophet. That is, he spoke the word of God. He speaks God’s word for about 40 years, during one of the most dramatic times in Judah’s history.

Jeremiah sees a religious revival. They’re looking through the temple and they discover, in one of the old chests, the first five books of the Bible. They read them to King Josiah. He realises that the people have forgotten God and are doing things that they should not do. So he brings in big reforms. But as you know, changes are not always welcome, and after his death the new rulers take Judah back to the old ways.
Jeremiah warns the people that if they reject God, God will reject them. But they do not listen. And so when the Babylonian army appears, Jeremiah tells the people that this army is God’s judgement on them, and that they must receive it as such, and not resist the Babylonians. If we do, he says, it will be dreadful for us. He is accused of being a traitor, thrown into a pit and then locked up, but he is proved correct. Judah falls and many of the leading people are taken into exile.
Jeremiah however remains behind in the land. But even when he was preaching judgement, he also did preach a message with a glimmer of hope. And now, after the disaster, he says to those in exile, ‘God has not completely abandoned you. Recognise God’s judgement, settle where you are, be obedient to God and in 70 years time your children's children will come back to Judah. God will do a remarkable new thing’.

Today we read Jeremiah 2, in which Jeremiah accuses the people of turning their backs on God.

He reminds them that their great great grandparents were faithful to God: Jeremiah 2:2, ‘I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness’.  He reminds them of what God did for them: how he led them through that wilderness: ‘a land of deserts and pits in a land of drought and deep darkness, in a land that none passes through’ (Jeremiah 2:6). He reminds them that God brought them into the land in which they were now living. It is a good land, and God was good to you.

But, he says, you forgot God.

You defiled the land (v7): you did things that God did not want you to do.

And he goes through a whole list of people who should have turned to God but who did not turn to God:

        The priests. Priests are in the God-business. Their job, in the Old Testament, is to bring God to people and people to God (That is still true, but in the New Testament all believers are priests). But, says Jeremiah, the priests show no concern for God.
        The lawyers/teachers ‘do not know me’. They teach laws but they do not teach about a relationship. In other words they are telling people to obey something, but they are not telling them to know and obey someone.
        The shepherds, the rulers, broke the laws of God. Much more is said about them later!
        The prophets, who should have been listening to God and speaking his words, were not speaking his words. They had turned to other authorities.  At their heart was not God but other gods. They did not speak what God wanted them to say. They spoke what they wanted to say - the things that would make them popular and rich and respected.

And, says God, my people have turned from me.

There is a great verse here: ‘Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for that which does not profit’.

God was their glory. He loved them. He cared for them. He provided for them. At first they loved him. But now they have turned away. And they have turned to that which is ultimately worthless.

And God says to the people, through Jeremiah, ‘I was like a fountain of life giving water to you. In the past you came and drank from me. I gave you life. But now you have turned your back on me. You have hollowed out big caves (you can still see some of the cisterns that they built) and you have filled them with water. And even though those cisterns leak and the water is stagnant, you drink from them rather than from the living fountain’.

If I gave you a choice between this lemonade (which is fresh), or this lemonade (which has been in our cupboard, half opened for over a month now) which would you prefer? The flat stuff or the sparkling stuff?

God says to the Israelites: ‘you’ve rejected me and chosen the flat stuff’.

I’m only going to draw one application from this.

It is easy to love God in the beginning and then to lose it.

We meet with God, we discover that he loves us, that he forgives us, that he provides for us, that he promises to go with us through everything in life, that he gives us great promises about the future (but not necessarily about our future here on this earth). We begin to get to know him, and his love. We start reading the Bible, and it comes alive for us. We spend time in prayer because we desire to get to know him better. We begin to learn to receive from him. And we do love him. We begin to live the sparkling life with God.

But then, for whatever reason, it is very easy to turn from him. We turn our backs on him. We forget him and again start to seek the things that offer us profit here and now. We pursue wealth and power and pleasure. We try to make things safe. We build systems to contain and control the living water, and we lose the sparkling life and exchange it for something incredibly flat.

Like the priests, we do not ask where God is. We do not seek him.
Like the lawyers or teachers, we teach morality without relationship. Religion becomes all about being good. It is not about knowing God
Like the shepherds, we make decisions without referring to God.
Like the prophets, we speak what we think will make us popular, cool, respected and rich.

And there are times when we need a Jeremiah: times when we are reminded of what we were and what we have become.

But I need to add one more thing. Whether we have known God and fallen away, or whether we have never known God, the fountain of living water is still flowing. And when Jesus came he said, ‘If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’.

And if we realise we are thirsty: thirsty for the sparkling stuff, for the life that really matters, we can always put our trust in him, come to him and drink - allow him to come deep into us. 

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

On Women Bishops and the Bible

In June, our Diocesan synod will be discussing the issue of whether we should have women bishops. At some point in the near future General Synod (the national body of the Church of England) will be making a decision. 

For today’s society, the debate seems archaic. Women hold positions of the highest authority in all areas of our society. So why is it still an issue for the church?

As Christians we are called not to simply follow society, but to be people under authority. We do not do something simply because everybody else is doing it, or even because it seems the right thing to do. Of course those are really important factors, but when we call Jesus ‘Lord’ we place ourselves under his authority, and under the authority of his Word. We need to work out what the teaching of the Bible is on the issue of women exercising, in human terms, the highest authority in the church.

There are many who argue that the Bible teaches clearly that headship should be male. Adam was created before Eve, and therefore has primacy (1 Timothy 2:13). It was Eve that fell first and then Adam (1 Timothy 2:14). In 1 Corinthians 11:3ff Paul writes, ‘But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God’. Ephesians 5:22-33 talks about the marriage relationship, in which the wife is called to submit to her husband, ‘For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its saviour’. That passage is immediately followed by the call to husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church. The submission/love pattern is repeated in Colossians 3:18-19, and in 1 Peter 3:1-7. There husbands are called to ‘show honour to the woman as the weaker vessel’, a verse which is - in the context - simply referring to the general fact that men are usually physically stronger than women and, as the stories of most domestic violence so tragically tell us, often throw their weight around to get what they want.

Going wider than the marriage relationship, male headship is assumed in several passages. In 1 Corinthians Paul instructs that women are to be silent in the assembly (1 Corinthians 14:33-35), and  to wear a covering on their heads when they pray in order to denote that they are under authority (1 Corinthians 11:10). In 1 Timothy 2:12, Paul writes that in the church a woman is not to teach or to have authority over a man in church. They are permitted to teach, but only other women and children. As such, the idea that women should exercise headship in the church, through episcopacy, is seen to be directly counter to the teaching of scripture as it has been understood by the Church for the last 2000 years.

People who hold this view are often accused of mysogeny. That is extremely unfair. Many women defend a traditional understanding of the texts. They would argue that the traditional view offers a respect to women, and a recognition of women as women, which secular society has lost. They affirm the value of womanhood and of the idea of complementarity, and they refuse to accept the idea that women must become like men in order to gain fulfilment. We need both the male and female dimensions, and we confuse those dimensions at our peril. It should also be said that many men who hold this view will work for women in the secular world and have no issues or problems about that. It is simply that their understanding of scripture and their acceptance of the authority of scripture leads them to the conclusion that in the church and in the family, headship must be male.

However, I would argue that there is another way of reading scripture which both affirms the complementarity of the sexes and which leads to egalitarianism. This still begins with the idea that Adam came first and then Eve, but that inequality was a consequence of the fall. As a result of the fall, God says to Eve, ‘Your desire will be for your husband and he will rule over you’ (Genesis 3:16). Interestingly Adam only names Eve after the fall (Genesis 3:20). But the death and resurrection of Christ has reversed the fall, and so in Galatians 3:28 we read that ‘In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek (racial distinctions), slave nor free (social distinctions), there is no male or female’. It states that we are all ‘sons of God, through faith’ (Galatians 3:26). Interestingly Jesus says that in the Kingdom of God there will be no marriage for ‘we will be like the angels’ (Matthew 22:30). Virtually all commentators agree that this implies that in heaven we will be beyond sexuality.

We therefore read the texts about the silence of women or the submission of women in the light of Galatians 3:28, and so it is justifiable to read them within the context of the time. Indeed, 1 Timothy 2 speaks of how women will be saved ‘through childbearing - if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control’. It is a verse on which much ink has been spilt, and very odd given that we are all saved by faith alone in Jesus Christ. But certainly one interpretation is the idea that the salvation being spoken of here is a salvation from all the dimensions of the curse in Genesis 3.

In this understanding, man remains the ‘arche’, ‘source’, ‘head’ of woman, because in the beginning man came first. However, just as a parent, who is the ‘source’, ‘head’ of their child, longs for their child to have the full responsibility of an adult; and just as Christ, who is the ‘source’ and ‘head’ of the church, longs for the church to grow to full maturity, that we may be ‘partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Peter 1:4), and ‘be filled with all the fullness of God’ (Ephesians 3:19) - so the biblical vision is of a humanity which in Christ embraces both the male and female, and is fully equal. The passages that speak of women keeping silent, or being submissive to their husbands, are to be understood in a similar way to those passages urging slaves to be obedient to their masters. It was the way society was, and Christians were called to be salt and light in society, to change the world through love and not through revolution. The key is that, through the lives of believers, ‘the word of God may not be reviled’ (Titus 2:5).

On such a view, women bishops are to be welcomed, both as adding a complementary dimension to the college of bishops and overseers, so that it includes both male and female; but also as an anticipation of what is to come in the Kingdom when the curse is completely cancelled, and there will be no male or female in Christ. This is the position that I personally hold.

My hope for the forthcoming debate, and whatever settlement is agreed, is that grace is given on both sides. I suspect that General Synod will support women bishops, and those who interpret the scriptures through the lens of Genesis 3:16 and Galatians 3:28 cannot and must not dismiss those who hold to a traditional understanding of the biblical texts (complementarians) as ‘mysogenists’. Equally I would hope that those of us who hold to an egalitarian understanding of the texts are not simply dismissed as ’liberals’. We have a common recognition of the authority of the Bible as the Word of God, and that we are justified by faith in Christ alone, and I would sincerely hope that this is not something that causes evangelicals to break fellowship with each other. There is so much more we can agree on. However, if women bishops are appointed in the Church of England, then I do pray that there will be generous accommodation for those who have a more traditional understanding of the texts. Richard Hooker (1554-1600) famously said, ‘Think ye are men, deem it not impossible for you to err’. It is advice that those on both sides of this debate need to consider. 

Monday, 9 May 2011

Believing without seeing

John 20:29

I would like to talk this evening about the last beatitude: in many ways it is the great beatitude.

The beatitudes are those words that Jesus speaks when he calls certain people blessed: the poor in spirit, those who hunger for righteousness, the peace makers, those who are persecuted for the sake of Christ. You can find them in Matthew 5.

But this beatitude is different. Jesus says to Thomas: “You have believed because you have seen. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believed.”

I guess that in the early church one of the divisions might have been between those who had seen the risen Jesus and those who had not. You can imagine in the very early church - in Jerusalem - people telling stories about Jesus. ‘Do you remember when he ..’ And for those who had not been there, you could have felt a bit left out. The others were there. They were the special ones.

I wonder if we have ever thought: “If only I had been there. If I could get in my tardis and travel through time. I could see and hear him for myself. I’d have seen him after the resurrection. Then I would be released in my Christian life. I wouldn’t doubt. I’d do anything for him.”

But Jesus, as always, turns things on their head. And here is no different. He says that it is those who have not seen but believed are the ones who are blessed.

Why? Why were they, why are we, why are you so blessed?

1. Because we have to depend on the word of God

John 20 tells us about the morning of the resurrection. Mary has come to Peter and John and told them that the stone has been moved and that they (whoever ‘they’ are), have moved the body. Peter and John run to the tomb. They see it is empty and they also see the shrouds in which the body was wrapped. The main shroud and the head shroud. And, we are told, John sees and believes. He believes on the basis of an empty tomb and two pieces of cloth. It is not much to go on. 

Having said that, the evidence for the resurrection is pretty convincing. ‘Who moved the stone?is a book that started out when its authors decided to write a book to prove that the resurrection did not happen. It ended up becoming a book which argued why the resurrection had to happen.

Lord Darling,  a former Chief Justice said, ‘There exists such overwhelming evidence, positive and negative, factual and circumstantial, that no intelligent jury in the world could fail to bring in a verdict that the resurrection story is true.’

Wolfhart Pannenberg says: ‘The evidence for Jesus resurrection is so strong that nobody would question it except for two things: first it is a very unusual event. And second, if you believe it happened, you have to change the way you live’. 

But if the evidence for the resurrection is the basis of our faith, we are resting our faith on human reason – and it is a shaky place to rest our faith.

And this is where v9 is fascinating, because we are told that John “saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead’.

In other words John is implying that even though he saw the evidence of the linen, the stone and empty tomb, the most convincing reason for believing is not the physical evidence of the resurrection, but what the scripture, the Bible said, and what Jesus said.

It reminds us of another verse: In John 2:19-22, we are told

Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”
They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” But the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.”

The arguments for the resurrection are important. They show us that you do not need to kiss your brains goodbye if you become a Christian. But the main reason that John should have believed, that Mary should have believed, that Thomas should have believed is because Jesus said it.

A person who believes without seeing is blessed because they have begun with God and with Jesus.

This is a radical God centred, Word-centred vision of reality.

John’s gospel begins: ‘In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God and the Word was God’. John is saying, ‘I’m going to start with God’.

Karl Barth - one of my theological heroes - said that he did not believe in an objective world out there because he experienced it. His experience could be all wrong. It could be a dream. (Martin Luther King had a dream; Leonardo DiCaprio had a dream of a dream in a dream. I watched Inception last week). The reason he believed in an objective external creation was because his starting point is the Word of God, and God had revealed himself as a creator. And if God reveals himself as a creator, then there must be a creation.

That is the heart of saving faith. It is about putting our trust in God and in the Son of God.

One of our ladies is in the hospice. She is the same age as me. She has a malignant brain tumour. Over the last few weeks everything has been stripped from her: her strength, her ability to do anything, the memories of her experiences and her reason.  The cancer has even eaten away at the part of the brain where her feelings are. She is a believer, and someone has given her a holding cross. And she has taken hold of that cross. And when you go to see her, all she does is stare into space. But she also grips that cross.

If we begin with God, and with the Word of God, we are standing on the only solid ground that there is.

Isaiah 40:8, The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.”

2. We are blessed because we have to trust others.

John 20 is fascinating. Look at how the word see is used. Mary sees the stone is moved; Peter and John see the linen cloths; John sees and believes. Mary then saw the Lord. She says to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’. The disciples saw the Lord. They say to Thomas, ‘We have seen the Lord’. Thomas says, ‘Unless I see ..’

Jesus, when he appears to Thomas, rebukes Thomas for not only not believing the word of God - which said that Jesus would rise from the dead, but for not believing his mates.

The greatest command that Jesus gives us is the command to love God and to love our neighbour. He calls on Christians to love each other. And in 1 Corinthians 13 Paul describes a bit of what this neighbour love is all about: ‘Love .. believes all things, hopes all things’.

In other words, Thomas’ refusal to believe is actually evidence of a lack of love.

What Thomas could have said is, ‘You say that you have seen the risen Jesus. I find that very very hard to believe. But I trust you. I trust you that you are not trying to pull a fast one on me. I trust you that you really think that you have seen the risen Jesus’.

We live in a cynical society. We do not take what the other person says at face value. We operate with a hermeneutics of suspicion. That is a posh way of saying that if what someone says something does not fit in with how we see reality, we question their motives or their sanity.

In the beginning of the Lion, Witch and Wardrobe, Lucy and Edmund both find themselves in Narnia. They come back and Lucy speaks of Narnia. Edmund, out of spite, ridicules his sister. Peter and Susan come to the Professor with whom they are staying. They’re worried about their sister. The Professor asks them which of the two, Lucy or Edmund, is usually the most truthful. Peter says, ‘Lucy’.

"Well," said Susan, "in general, I'd say the same as Peter, but this couldn't be true - all this about the wood and the Faun."
"That is more than I know," said the Professor, "and a charge of lying against someone whom you have always found truthful is a very serious thing; a very serious thing indeed."
"We were afraid it mightn't even be lying," said Susan; "we thought there might be something wrong with Lucy."
"Madness, you mean?" said the Professor quite coolly. "Oh, you can make your minds easy about that. One has only to look at her and talk to her to see that she is not mad."
"But then," said Susan, and stopped. She had never dreamed that a grown-up would talk like the Professor and didn't know what to think.
"Logic!" said the Professor half to himself. "Why don't they teach logic at these schools? There are only three possibilities. Either your sister is telling lies, or she is mad, or she is telling the truth. You know she doesn't tell lies and it is obvious that she is not mad. For the moment then and unless any further evidence turns up, we must assume that she is telling the truth."

I’m not saying that we must believe everything that we are told. We do need to test all things. But if I love someone, in 1 Corinthians 13 terms, then I will trust them. And I certainly need to trust them when they talk about what they have seen, done or heard. And I will go on trusting them for as long as I possibly can - even if it means that I might be gullible.

Our faith depends on the testimony of other believers who have gone before us. What Mary tells us, what John tells us, what Thomas tells us – is that the promises of God came good. What the writer of John’s gospel tells us, and we have no good reason for not believing this as a real record of what they experienced – apart from the fact that it is astonishing, is that they saw the stone moved away, they saw the grave clothes and no body, and they saw the risen Jesus.

They saw and believed. We believe because they saw

In other words, a person who believes without seeing is blessed because they are someone who is prepared to trust another person’s witness.

3. We are blessed because we are beginning to live by faith and not by sight.

We are called to live by faith not by sight. We are called to live by putting our trust in the promises of God.

Of course experience is essential. Our experience both can lead us to faith, and can confirm our faith. But we must not base our faith on experience.

You can have the most profound faith. But if your faith is not based on something solid, you are in trouble.

There is a story told of a man who climbed buildings. He made it his aim to climb one of the tallest buildings in the world. He was almost at the top when he fell to his death. When they examined his shattered body they discovered that his fist was gripping something. They prised it open and discovered a cobweb. What had happened was that he had seen something that he thought was solid, something that could hold him. He reached out to grab it, and it was a cobweb.

I’m sure you know about the three cats: Promise, Faith, Experience. They’ve been to the pub; and they’re walking home along the wall. Promise is stone cold sober. She has had coke. Faith has had a little to drink. Experience has had a bit more, and is definitely woozy. It is a narrow wall. If Faith follows Promise, then she stays on the wall. If Faith however turns round at looks at Experience – who’s wobbling all over the place – she’s going to fall off the wall and so is Experience.

We are called to look not for the visible, but to the invisible. We are called to look to the promises of God – more than that, to live by faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Not sure if you are a Christian? Jesus has said: John 6:36  - Have you come to Jesus? Thank God that he has given you life and begin to live that life.
(It is like the sign given to Moses: God says to him, ‘When you have done what I have said you will worship me on this mountain’.)
Not sure that you are forgiven? 1 John 1
Not sure if you have the Holy Spirit? Jesus has said that if we ask our Heavenly Father for the HS he will give it to us?
Not sure if God loves you. You’ve been told you are a nobody. You’ve been through dreadful experiences. ‘God shows his love for us in this. It was while we were still sinners that Christ died for us’. There is someone on your side – someone rooting for you. He is there interceding in heaven for you
Not sure that you have a hope - have a destiny and a hope. If you let him, he is changeing you, transforming you from one degree of glory to the next. Sarah as she lies in that hospital bed has the most glorious destiny. You have the most glorious destiny. We are citizens of heaven.

Jesus Christ, the Son of God, will never let us down. He is no cobweb. 

This is the faith which means that we can be like Habbakuk: ‘Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruits be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD…’

This is the faith which means we can be like Job:having everything stripped away from us, even – it seems – our relationship with God. And yet he can say, ‘For I know that my redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God’

This is the faith of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego: (it is one of the most remarkable confessions of faith in the Bible). They are about to be dropped alive into the incinerator. And yet they say  ‘Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O King. But if not, be it known to you O King, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up’

This is the faith which meant that the men and women of faith of the OT were tortured, mocked, flogged, imprisoned, stoned, sawn in two, executed. Why? Because even though they did not see it in their experience, they put their trust in the promise of God.

I love hearing testimonies of healings, of great and wonderful works done by God. But the testimonies I really treasure and respect are those of people who have suffered dreadfully, and yet who still trust God.

We live by faith not by sight.

In the end Thomas gets it.

What Thomas sees is the risen Lord Jesus standing in front of him. That was quite remarkable.

But then many people saw Jesus and saw him do remarkable things. They saw dramatic healings, water turned into wine, 5000 fed from a few loaves and fishes, a man blind from birth given sight, Lazarus raised from the dead.

They saw. It was remarkable, quite wonderful. This man is clearly the next big thing. When he fed the 5000, they follow him across the lake. They want an encore. This was great entertainment. Free food. Knocked the stuffing out of the X factor.

But  Jesus says to the crowd, after the feeding of the 5000, ‘You have seen me and yet you do not believe’.

In one sense they did believe in Jesus. Or they did believe that Jesus had done and could do remarkable things. They believed something about Jesus, but they did not believe, put their trust, in Jesus.
They saw the sign, but they did not see to whom the sign pointed. They were like a dog when you point a dog to the stick: 'it’s over there'. And the dog comes up and licks your finger. They did not recognise that he was the Son of God; they did not put their trust in him.

When Thomas saw the risen Jesus he could have said, ‘I believe. I believe something quite remarkable about you. I believe you rose from the dead’.

But when Thomas sees the risen Jesus, he realises that this is the last great sign of John’s gospel. And Thomas realises who the sign points to. And Thomas does believe.
He falls down at Jesus feet, and he makes the most dramatic confession of the Bible, ‘My Lord and my God’.

Thomas gets it. Faith in Jesus does not simply mean that you believe something about Jesus. Faith in Jesus means that you put your trust in Jesus.

Jesus says to him, ‘Thomas you’ve got here eventually. You didn’t believe my word about the resurrection; you didn’t believe your mates about the resurrection - but you do believe now. But more than that, you have finally realised who I am, and you have put your trust in me.

Blessed are those - you - who have not seen but have believed’

Friday, 6 May 2011

On infant baptism

Children are a gift from God. And as always with God’s gifts to us, they are completely and totally undeserved. And you have been given the astonishing gift of Benjamin, and the immense privilege and joy of loving him for God, and of bringing him up for God.

And of course our greatest desire for our children is to see them grow, be happy, be secure, flourish and to be fulfilled, to bring blessing to others, to be part of the family of God and to love God.

And in baptism you are placing Benjamin full square in the family of God.

I know that those of us here differ in our views about infant baptism. The belief and the practice of the Church of England is in line with that of the historic church, but also – at the time of the Reformation – of Calvin and the other so-called ‘magisterial reformers’ (which is also the stance taken in the Westminster confession). They affirmed, on the basis of their covenantal theology (which sees baptism as a new covenant version of circumcision), of Mark 10:13-16 and particularly 1 Corinthians 7:14, that the children of believers are, by virtue of the faith of their parents, ‘agioi’, saints, holy, members of the covenant people of God and participants in the Holy Spirit.

There are however two very important provisos:

1.   None of us can rely on an external rite in itself. And while as small children we can rely on the faith of our parents, none of us who are adults can rely on the faith of our parents. If we have been baptised, whether as children or adults, what is important is that we do have a living faith in Christ, a dependence on his word, and a daily dying to self and coming alive to him. That is why confirmation, in the Church of England, is a completion of infant baptism.

2.    Benjamin needs to be brought up in the family of the church. I have no doubt that that will happen. When the first believers on the day of Pentecost were baptised, they didn’t go away. They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles, the fellowship, the breaking of the bread and the prayers

And as we thank God for the completely unmerited gift of Benjamin, so our prayer for Benjamin is that he will know the astonishing and unmerited gift of the love of God, a love that gave Jesus on the cross, and that reaches out even now – when he cannot personally respond but is completely dependent on his parents - and draws him into the people of God. And our prayer is that as he hears of this astonishing love, so he will begin to know that love, and simply respond to that love by entrusting himself to the God who loves him.

There is a prayer used by the French Reformed Church at infant baptism which goes as follows:

'Little child, for you Jesus Christ has come, he has fought, he has suffered. For you he entered into the shadows of Gethsemane and the terror of Calvary; for you he uttered the cry, 'It is finished.' For you he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, and there for you he intercedes. For you, even though you do not yet know it, little child, but in this way the Word of the Gospel is made true, "We love him because he first loved us."