How much do we believe?

A short while ago I posted a piece about Daniel Dennett and his rant against religion and faith. This week he cropped up again in a similar vein. He recently wrote an article for the Washington Post entitled Non-believing clergy: Now what will we do? The thrust of the article is that Dennett, along with his co-writer Linda LaScola have found clergymen who say that they don’t believe the doctrines that they preach from the pulpit. He has found five such individuals, and questions almost gleefully, whether this is the tip of an ice-berg.

I am sure Mr Dennett is a charming and intelligent man, but he certainly seems to have an axe to grind against the church in general and the clergy in particular. Although I don’t share his views on faith, I have to admit that his piece reminded me of a lady from an evangelical church in my home town who proclaimed secretively but knowingly “There are some Church of Scotland ministers who aren’t saved!” Now, for those not familiar with Scottish presbyterianism, the national church isn’t known for being evangelical.

Two things strike me about Dennett’s article: The first is that it is hardly news that there are some members of the clergy who have questions about their faith. This can be put even more strongly. If there is any clergyman or woman, in any denomination, who has no doubts whatever about their faith then they are either saints or have missed the point somewhere. As I understand my faith and the theology that underpins it, it is difficult to think that any of us will ever have perfect understanding, and complete confidence, before we see eternity. There are many of course who understand far more than I do, although I suspect I still see further into Mr Dennett’s chosen subject than he does.

The second thought that came to my mind was a sermon I once heard which highlighted exactly what Dennett is trying to poke at. The speaker was telling of how he had been engaged in a conversation with someone on the subject of faith. This other person had said to him “Oh, you must be one of those born-again Christians”, to which our preacher replied “Is there another kind of Christian?”

Now, when I heard this I understood exactly what the preacher was saying but have been surprised over the years at the reaction to the story when I have told it. I am certain that I saw our previous minister’s eyebrows shoot up in horror. This is one of those sensitive areas in church life where it is unseemly to question one another’s faith. And of course, we shouldn’t. We should encourage one another in love. Even if they are our minister, pastor or priest.

But when we come to deal with those, like Daniel Dennett, who would seek to criticise, how should we stand? The best answer is probably to ignore these people, confident in what we know. As one minister said to me once, “When we get to heaven, the most surprising thing won’t be the people we recognise. It will be the people we expected to see that are missing!”

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Business ethics: are they enough?

I have been reading a document published recently by the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants entitled Incorporating ethics into strategy: developing sustainable business models. The institute, more usually known as CIMA, is known along with other professional bodies, for its integrity in the accountancy field and has  strict rules covering the conduct of its members. I must declare an interest at this point and say that I should know – I am one of those members.

It struck me when the report landed in my in-tray that it was worth a read from a Christian perspective. The central thrust of the research is that in order to develop enterprises which are sustainable in the long term, ethics need to be built into the core of business strategy. This is very laudable and there is nothing in the report that, as a Christian, I would have any quibble over. I couldn’t help but think though, that there was a certain something missing.

Long term sustainability says something to me about stewardship. What we have isn’t ours but the Lord’s and it is incumbent on Christian businesses and more particularly, Christian accountants, to look after it all for the future. No argument there then.

But as the report acknowledges, there are difficulties in defining what ethics are. As an example it asks the rhetorical question “Should an armaments business quit markets where bribery is rife or simply behave better than its rivals?” A Christian might turn this around and ask whether a business should be selling armaments at all? The difficulty hints at the broader problems faced by a secular world without a foundation. Without a rock to base our beliefs on, what is right? What is ethical?

Certainly CIMA members are governed by the institute’s own code of ethics which covers integrity, objectivity, professional competence and professional behaviour. These set high standards and rightly so. One role of all the accountancy bodies is to provide society with professionals that can be trusted and relied upon. The code covers how the accountant should do his work, but goes no further. Again, as a Christian I feel a sense of something lacking. If an accountant is also a Christian, does that mean he can lay his Bible aside when he pulls out the Taxes Management Act? I don’t think so.

Unlike businesses, Christians don’t (or shouldn’t) have a problem with knowing what is ethical (or scriptural). We may have difficulty translating what we read into our daily lives but that isn’t an excuse for not trying or being more open to the Spirit. I firmly believe that there is as much wisdom and teaching in scripture as any business needs.

But do Christians have higher standards than secular business? We maybe need to be a little careful about how we answer questions like this, but I think in this case, the unavoidable answer is, yes we do. Should businesses have an obligation to feed the poor, and love their neighbours? Should scripture be used in dealings with customers, suppliers and employees? For big corporations the answer should be yes anyway. Particularly if they are managed by Christians, scriptural principles should indeed be found in these areas and even more so for small businesses owned and managed by Christians.

It is perhaps a difficulty that Christian professionals have to face, but surely not an insoluble one. Scripture should be an integral part of the work they do and, at the risk of being controversial, this should take precedence over observation of ethical codes. We would hope there would be no conflicts. After reading this report my conclusion was that Christians who direct, own or manage businesses and adhere only to ethical guidelines are in a sense falling short in their faith. Certainly, ethics aren’t to be ignored, but are there any higher standards in the panorama of human life than those set by our Lord? I don’t think it is a controversial claim to suggest that businesses which follow scripture will in any case be seen as ethical by the secular world.

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Faith and religion

One of the hardest things for me to understand about the Christian faith is probably one of the simplest. How do we live out a life of faith? How do we carry our Sunday piousness into the hustle and bustle of the other six days of the week? More to the point, how do we do it and not fall into the legalistic trap that caught the Jews?

I am sure that I am not the first to ask these questions, and if I have found any answers, I’m sure I am not the first on that score either. But while there are many who live admirable and worthy Christian lives that are recognisably just that, I still have a niggle at the back of my mind that behind these questions lies a small can of worms. I call it faith versus religion.

In our travels we have come across a whole spectrum of Christianity from Presbyterians in Scotland to the Coptics in Egypt and Pentecostals further south. Personally, I like the style of preachers such as John Ortberg and Erwin McManus who put faith into a modern context admirably. They represent yet another church. Who is to say that any one of these styles of church is any more or less virtuous than the the others in God’s eyes? I am certainly making no such suggestion here.

Yet I am confident in my own mind that Christ only intended one kind of disciple, regardless of how they worship. If I am right then the unity that Christians across the planet have through their shared faith is surely greater than any unity found between the churches. There are atheist writers who use the words faith and religion as if they were synonymous. I have come to the conclusion that one of the primary tasks of Christians should be to explain to the world that they are not.

That might explain faith to the world, but what would the churches say? Answers on a postcard please.

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The Fruit of the Spirit

Sermon given at Eglise Presbyterienne, Kigali, 7th March 2009

Galatians 5:16-25
John 15:1-8

1. Introduction

In the past few weeks the word love has found its way into the theme several times. Which has to be a good thing. This is a church after all and we are Christians; love is what we are supposed to do and there would be something wrong if love didn’t keep appearing in what we talk about.

So this week I am going to expand on the idea of love and take a look at the fruit of the Spirit, because each of the fruit stem from the first fruit of love. Let’s look again at the passage from Galatians 5:22

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

It is no coincidence that love is the first fruit that appears on the list. Of all the qualities that mark a Christian this is the one that permeates everything. This is the fruit from which all the other fruit stem.

Each fruit could be given a sermon on its own, so I am not going to go through each one in depth here. Instead I would like to look at what all the fruit mean to us and how they relate to a Christian life.

Before going on, there is something about this list that is worth noticing: “Against such things there is no law.” Now Paul was referring to Jewish law, but for the same reason we could make the same statement today. Across humanity, across all cultures, across continents and time, these virtues are seen to be good, not something to be outlawed.

Another point to pick up here is Paul’s use of the word ‘fruit’. In fact that wasn’t what he wrote at all. The word he used was karpos, meaning fruit as it is picked. In English, the word ‘fruit’ can be both singular and plural and, as we will see, Paul is using it in both senses here. Yes, each fruit can be seen as an individual characteristic, but in another sense they are each bound to each other as the one fruit that is developed by the Spirit.

2. What are the fruits?

So, what are the fruit of the spirit, or even what is the fruit of the spirit? Well, the easy answer is love, joy, peace, patience … but that really misses the point. These aren’t qualities that Paul is instructing us to adopt and build into our lives. What is important here is to understand that these are qualities developed in us by the Spirit.

In the previous section, Paul talks about the acts of a sinful nature. He lists sexual immorality, impurity, debauchery, idolatry and witchcraft. The list of fruit that follows is in stark contrast. As humans, we are sinful by nature. Does that mean we are bad people? Well, yes, in a way it does, especially if we allow ourselves to be gratified by the desires of the sinful nature as Paul puts it. There is some deep theology here that goes all the way back to Genesis and the Garden of Eden, but the good news is that we are forgiven, through Christ, and that we don’t have to stay that way.

Paul urges us to live by the Spirit so that we can be free of this old life. Paul says

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you won’t fulfil the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one other, that you may not do the things that you desire. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

So, walking by the Spirit, (that is the World English Bible translation) or living by the Spirit (as in the Ne International Version) is the focus of what Paul is urging us. The fruit of the Spirit are a consequence of this choice of lifestyle. But let us leave this just now and pick it up again later. Before that it is worth reminding ourselves of what happens when we make this choice.

2.1 Love

So, taking the most important fruit first, what is love? The Greeks had several words with different meanings which all translate into the English word love. The word Paul uses is agape, meaning kindness or benevolence. This isn’t intimate love with someone we are close to but an all-encompassing goodwill that comes from the love God has for us his children. It is a love that is kind (we will come to kindness shortly) and enduring. The passage from 1 Corinthians 13 has been read three or four times in as many weeks but is always worth going back to:

Love is patient. Love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.

Love is an unselfish concern for others. It is putting others before ourselves. How do we know that this one fruit is the root of the others? Well, one clue is the greatest commandments:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.

Then:

You shall love your neighbour as yourself.

Another clue comes from Paul in his first Corinthian letter.

If I speak with the languages of men and of angels, but don’t have love, I have become sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but don’t have love, I am nothing. If I dole out all my goods to feed the poor, and if I give my body to be burned, but don’t have love, it profits me nothing.

We can know our Bible verses, we can give to the poor, we can pray; but if any of this is done without love, it counts for nothing. Perhaps this is what we mean when we say ‘God is love’. Love is the bedrock, the foundation of what it means to be a Christian and to follow Jesus.

2.2 Joy

So having laid the foundation, next on the list is joy. We don’t live in a particularly joyful world, do we? It isn’t hard to look around us and see the suffering that comes from hunger or the stress of over-working. Look at the faces of people begging for money on the streets. I don’t see much joy there.

Yet here it is on the list. Wouldn’t it be good to have some joy in our lives? Love your neighbour as yourself. What impact will we have on the world if we meet people with a smile and an enthusiastic handshake that makes them glad to have met us?

2.3 Peace

Peace is something that I have often missed in my life. Some definitions of peace are tranquillity or a sense of inner fulfilment. Again, looking around us peace is something that can be easily broken. This country has been through times where peace has been decidedly absent. Even in recent weeks we are reminded that peace is a very fragile flower.

We live in a world of conflict where east rubs against west and terrorism has become a global threat. There has probably never been a period in history, certainly recent history, where there has not been war in some part of the world or other. Yet it is easy to become part of this world and to learn to live with this absence of peace. We get used to it.

And here it is as the third item on Paul’s little list. If we walk in the Spirit as he urges us, peace can be  ours despite all that is going on around us.

2.4 Patience

Next we come to patience, sometimes translated as long-suffering. Now I shouldn’t really be talking about this. Patience is not something that radiates particularly  from my character, and I know whose fault that is.

A custom I have learnt here in Rwanda is the paper queue of cheques along the counter at the bank. When I began to get impatient one day, wondering why after twenty minutes I didn’t seem to be getting any closer to being served, I noticed that people were coming up to the counter and putting their cheques at the front of the queue. The locals were very amused when I started moving these cheques to the back of the line.

Impatience doesn’t do us any good. When we are impatient, we don’t think clearly, we rush and make mistakes; we forget things and end up places without remembering the reason for going there. Impatience causes frustration, and where there is frustration, there probably isn’t much room for God in what we are doing.

2.5 Kindness

If there is a lot of impatience in our lives, there is unlikely to be a lot of kindness, the next fruit. Being kind to others takes an effort, and usually involves time. Being kind means turning our attention away from whatever urgency is screaming at us, and giving that attention to someone else.

And that is a real effort, certainly for me. It is very easy to go through each day with nothing in our mind but the immediate, the urgent, the top priority. I know some people that live each minute of their lives dealing with each new thing the world with all its serendipity throws at them. That’s not to say they aren’t kind people underneath, but it is a big effort for them to let that kindness out.

Kindness is thinking and doing for others, and to repeat Paul’s teaching about the necessity for love, if kindness isn’t shown with love, then it counts for nothing.

2.6 Goodness

Now we are on to goodness as a fruit. This one is a little harder to put a finger on than the fruit we have met so far. Goodness is one of those things that everybody can recognise, but maybe can’t quite describe.

Goodness, I think, is more than just doing what is right. Besides, in a world where God’s word isn’t always read, who is to say what right is? I think it is more than being just being kind or joyful or patient.

Paul says of the fruit that there is no law against them. There is just something about goodness that is recognised by anybody, anywhere as being virtuous. The humanists in the world might refer to a spirit of humanity. In Africa there is a word ‘ubuntu’ which captures the nature of goodness nicely to my mind. Bishop Desmond Tutu said it nicely. He put it this way:

A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.

For us, goodness or ubuntu, however you think of it, comes from God. It is a fruit the Spirit will grow in us.

2.7 Faithfulness

The next fruit is another that will only come to us from the Spirit – faithfulness. The Old Testament Jews weren’t particularly faithful to God. The various kings in Judah and Israel either walked in God’s ways, obeying his laws or not, as was more often the case, particularly in Israel.

If there is one aspect of God’s character after love that could be pointed to, it might be his faithfulness. For all our failings, for all that the human race has turned its back on God, he hasn’t turned his back on us.

People who are faithful don’t let you down when the going gets tough. They don’t walk away because we have done or said something to upset them. People who are always there and are still there after years aren’t as common as we might hope. This is possibly one of the key features of a successful marriage, again after love. No marriage is without its trouble and difficult times. The ones that last, and funnily get stronger in the lasting, are the ones with faithfulness.

2.8 Gentleness

Moving on to gentleness, we can look to Jesus as being the best example of how we should live our lives if this fruit is growing in us. Yes, Jesus could be tough when he wanted. He wasn’t being gentle when he overturned the tables in the temple, or when he called the Sadducees and the Pharisees a brood of vipers.

But time and time again, he dealt with people in gentleness. When the adulteress was about to be stoned, Jesus was gentle when he said that he didn’t condemn her, but serious when he told her to go away and sin no more.

Gentleness isn’t weakness or being mild-mannered. Gentleness takes strength and self-control, because often it is at times when gentleness is most needed that we lose that control. Wouldn’t it be good to be able to face the troubles of each day and deal with people in a way that Jesus would approve without resorting to anger and aggression?

2.9 Self-control

And self-control brings us to the last of the fruit, but possibly the one that enables all the others. Earlier we read Paul’s urging that we should live by the Spirit and not gratify the desired of the sinful nature. It takes self-control to do this.

Self-control is not giving in to the temptations of life. We live in a world where many people are driven by the need to find instant gratification. The quick fix, learning theological metaphysics in five easy steps, getting rid of our problems now not later. This all stems from a short-termism which stops people looking ahead and investing in a better future rather than being slaves to immediate want. There are another three sermons if anybody wants on modern-day consumerism and spending to satisfy immediate wants.

Self-control isn’t just about not flying off the handle in rage when something upsets us. It comes from being able to look ahead; to see the bigger picture and realise that the immediate problem isn’t such a big deal in the context of everything else. As Christians we have the promise of eternity. With that to look forward to, people putting their cheques into the front of the queue at the bank should hardly bear thinking about.

3. Staying on the vine

So there they are. The nine fruit that Paul tells us are what we will experience if we walk in the Spirit. I don’t know about you, but when I look at this list the biggest thing I experience is a sense of inadequacy.

It is easy to think of the fruits as being some kind of check-list for Christians. Like Boy Scout badges, characteristics that we must collect and build into our natures so that we become better people or more like Christ.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. If we read Paul carefully, nowhere does he say that we must strive to acquire these fruit. The only instruction he gives us is to walk in the Spirit. The fruit are the consequence of how we live our lives; something that the Spirit cultivates in us, not something we grow by our own efforts.

And this is one of the points in the Bible where we have to understand what we have read but then take another step to realise the implications. In our faith, we have to recognise that there is more to this world than what we can see and touch and smell. The Kingdom, and with it the influence of the Spirit transcends the physical boundaries of the world that we live in. It exists now, has always existed and exists into the future. There is more to this world than we can experience with our five senses.

I would not like to give the impression that I believe in the supernatural. But if we take the literal meaning of that word – above nature – and read Paul’s message, we can see that there are other forces at work here on planet earth. I don’t mind people knowing that I believe the Spirit will work in me and everyone here. And that certainly isn’t natural, at least not in the sense of coming from nature.

So if our own effort – trying harder, praying longer, reading more of the Bible – isn’t going to grow the fruit of the Spirit, how does this happen? What do we have to do to ‘walk in the Spirit’ as Paul puts it?

Look at John 15:5

I am the vine. You are the branches. He who remains in me, and I in him, the same bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.

The answer is, hang on to the vine! Jesus is the source of the goodness, kindness, patience and all the other things that flow through us. But that can’t be the whole answer, or at least it doesn’t help us understand how we apply this to the reality, the busyness, that is our daily lives. What exactly might ‘hanging on to the vine’ mean? What has to happen so that the Spirit can do its work?

4. Letting it happen

An obvious answer is prayer. We should all spend some of our time in prayer. And just like the fruit of the Spirit aren’t like Boy Scout badges to be collected, prayer isn’t about giving God a daily list of wishes. Prayer should be about asking to be changed in ways that we have not yet imagined. Yes, we are told that God will answer our prayers and our wishes, but how much more could there be to our lives if we were to ask God to use us in his way, for his purposes?

I think that another answer has something to do with how we see the world. Certainly we can try to remember to be patient, and put reminders in our diaries to do kind things for others. These are surely not wrong, but will come more naturally and feel less contrived if the Spirit has led us to those things in the first place. So when we come across someone in need, and that isn’t difficult in this country, has God just given you an opportunity to help? Perhaps it is just coincidence, but that doesn’t stop you helping anyway and thanking the Lord for being able to.

Another hint might be that, whenever we come across something of beauty, to recognise that it comes from God. The colours on a bird, a lingering sunset, a new birth. These are all from Him, and part of the world he created. Take time to appreciate, and most importantly, recognise and give praise for the world that God has given us.

Even inspired works of art. The Cistine Chapel might be one example. Other examples that have inspired me are the Gothic cathedrals In Europe. These are magnificent pieces of architecture seven and eight hundred years old. They are built out of carved stone and demonstrate the sheer artistry of masons that had no more than basic tools to work with. The effort of thousands of people took many years to construct these wonderful buildings which could only have been accomplished out of a love for God.

The beautiful things around us are easy to spot. But sometimes God acts in our lives in subtle and less obvious ways. John Ortberg, who is an author I have mentioned before, gives an example from a children’s book called Where’s Wally? For those that haven’t met Wally, he is a character with a red stripy jumper and red stripy bobble hat. On each page in the book, which is filled with red stripy things, Wally is hiding somewhere. Wonderful fun for children of all ages trying to find Wally.

As we fly through our daily life it is easy to forget that Jesus is there all the time. When we are waiting in the queue at the bank and the person in front is paying in deposit after deposit, just remember to ask for a little patience. We might meet someone only briefly, but could make a difference in their lives just by asking why they have been sent to us just at that time.

‘Hanging on to the vine’ I think, is a recognition that Jesus is with us all day every day, wherever we go and whoever we meet. Like a faithful friend, always there. If we walked around with someone at our side, somebody that we could see and touch, we wouldn’t ignore them. We would talk to them. We would ask them questions.

So when set out in the car, let’s remember that Jesus is in there with us and drive as he might want us to. When we go to the busy supermarket, just take time to think that he is there helping us push the trolley. Before we go into a meeting at work that we might not be looking forward to, take Jesus into the meeting with you and remember some self-control.

If can hang on to the vine, we will surely begin to recognise in ourselves a more loving, peaceful and joyful nature.

Amen

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Business as Mission

My wife and I are in Rwanda and have applied for two year residence visas. We looked at the list of visas that could be applied for and decided that ‘Missionary’ seemed most appropriate. I am an accountant and have been asked to help one of the church umbrella organisations. We are also working with churches to alleviate poverty, and I am doing a little preaching on the side.

At the immigration office, we were told that because I was not a Bishop we couldn’t be missionaries! This led to some thinking about what exactly a Christian missionary is. Our work here is overtly Christian. The objects of the charity which has sent us are to demonstrate the compassion of Jesus Christ, yet being a mere Christian who has not yet been (and unlikely ever to be) promoted to the rank of Bishop doesn’t seem to fit the bill here. I always thought Bishops were far too busy to get involved in coal-face missionary work.

This doesn’t faze us. There is much about Rwanda we have yet to understand and this is but one irritation among many. I think God is working on our patience; this week’s message at the church is on the fruit of the Spirit. More to the point, I came to understand an approach to mission in my previous life as an accountant and came to the conclusion that mission was not a protected dominion of churchmen. This approach was Business as Mission (BAM) which has a strong following across the world.

My first introduction to BAM was a paper written by Mats Tunehag, a Swedish journalist, in 2006. You can read more about him at  http://www.lausanne.org/issue-business-as-mission/mats-tunehag.html

BAM has been developed into an international cause which says that business isn’t the dirty work that is done away from church. God created us to work and for those that run businesses, that is as much part of their Christian mission as anything else. Businesses can be used as Christian witnesses, particularly to assist communities in developing countries. It takes the view that business can be used to manifest God in the market place. This is not ‘tent-making’ as Paul used his trade to support his travels and preaching. BAM sees a business as being managed using Biblical principles and having a God-given purpose.

I believe that God has a calling for all of us and equips us with the skills and acumen to do the job. For some, that is being a pastor (or Bishop). For others it is being a businessman, or even an accountant. So, just because I am not a Bishop, doesn’t mean to say that we can’t go about God’s work. And if that isn’t missionary work I don’t know what is.

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Dennett and Darwinism

I have been reading Daniel Dennett’s book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. The dangerous idea being of course that evolution could occur, in all its complexity, from simple and mechanistic beginnings.

Dennett’s survey of the discipline had been rational and well described until page 154 where objectivity and rationality fly out of the window. Within a paragraph the text dissolves into a rant against religion or faith (Dennett doesn’t seem to be sure which) based on the presumption that Christians are either unable or unwilling to engage in rational discussion about their faith. The words he puts into the Christian mouth are certainly not recognisable as claims that would be made by any Christians I know. The tenor of the text is patronising to say the least. Two weaknesses in Dennett’s approach seem apparent to me:

Firstly, when dismissing God as an alternative to mindless algorithmic processes as posited by Darwinian science, Dennett appears to have conducted little or no research into the religion or faith that he disregards so easily. Moreover, had he done so he would understand the difference between the two.

Secondly, in seeking to deny God as creator, Dennett seems to satisfy himself by attempting to show that Darwinism might be able to explain how life today developed from a primordial cell. It strikes me that this is a particularly unscientific approach: in the absence of evidence, let’s assume that there might be evidence.

Dennett claims to be trying to break down a prejudice. It seems as if the only prejudice is his own. I will continue with the book to see how objectively he is able to discuss the alternatives. Watch this space.

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Christians and the Church

Sermon given to l’Eglise Presbyterienne du Rwanda on 7th February 2010

Let me ask you a question. Is there anybody here who has ever had doubts about their faith? Don’t worry, I’m not going to ask anyone to stand up and make a confession. I doubt there is anyone here who hasn’t at sometime wondered if all they heard in church was right.

Now here is my confession. Ever since I first came to faith nine years ago there has been a niggle at the back of my mind that has never really gone away until recently. At the time when I decided to become a Christian we were worshipping with baptists. All I heard in that church sounded sensible. The people there were welcoming, loving Christians and it was one couple in particular that helped me to make that step over the line and ask Jesus into my life. The discomfort that I pushed to the back of my mind like a problem I didn’t really want to deal with was that, well, the Baptists weren’t the only church in town. They weren’t the only church in Scotland, never mind our small town of Dunfermline. There were other churches, and it wasn’t very obvious that they spent much time talking to each other. Now at that time I didn’t really know much about church history but I had a fair idea that Catholics weren’t the same as Protestants and that there were people in America calling themselves Christians who had some pretty funny ideas, particularly about creation.

As time went on my wife and I were baptised and recieved instruction about what the Baptists believed that was different to other denominations. Again, it all sounded sensible and like a young child I accepted all of this as without questioning too much. Then after a few years I came to realise that things were actually a lot worse than I had thought and every now and again this niggle kept raising its head like an itch that needed scratched.

Let me try to explain this difficulty that I was wresting with. Until the sixteenth century, there was only one church in Europe, and that was the church of Rome. Then came the Reformation and a whole new way of doing church. In fact, as this new Protestantism as it came to be known developed, there appeared a whole spectrum of ways of doing church. Christians later left Europe and spread across America spawning even more new churches and beliefs about what worship meant. In more recent times, Protestantism has spread to Africa, the far east and South America. Across the world we now have Baptists, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Pentecostalists and lots more.

The difficulty that I had was that for all that these churches take their teaching and traditions from the same Bible, there are some alarming differences between them. Should infants be baptised for instance? I have seen ministers get very agitated about this one. Should women have leadership roles in the church? That doesn’t seem to be a problem here at the EPR, but in some other places this has caused bitter division. Should we read the Bible literally or figuratively, and was the world created in six days of twenty-four hours? There is hardly unity among all Christians about this one.

Now, and so that I am not misunderstood, pointing out these differences isn’t meant as a criticism of other churches. But as Christians, and I mean each of us as individual followers of Christ, as Christians I think we should be able to recognise these differences and understand where we stand in the body of Christ. Because if each of us simply follows the doctrine and teaching of the church they happen to attend then what does that say about how we all relate to Christ?

So, what is it that all of us have in common regardless of which church we attend, or which continent we worship in?

I think this matters because, if we are sincere in our faith, we should be asking ourselves what our relationship with Jesus looks like. What is my part? What is expected of me? Now, I don’t believe that it was Christ’s intention to have different kinds of followers. I’m not sure that there is anything in scripture to suggest that two individuals from different church traditions should have different relationships with Jesus. Look at 1 Corinthians 12:12-13

For as the body is one, and has many members, and all the members of the body, being many, are one body; so also is Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptised into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether bond or free; and were all given to drink into one Spirit.

We are not clones, created as identical copies of each other. We are created as individuals, but what we all have in common is the same Holy Spirit.

Certainly Jesus did not treat all of his disciples in the same way and he made no pretence at equality. In Mark 10:35-45 James and John ask Jesus that they may sit on his left and right hand in eternity. Jesus replies that this is not his gift to grant. Those special places are already reserved for others. He then says to all his disciples:

You know that they who are recognised as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you, but whoever wants to become great among you shall be your servant. Whoever of you wants to become first among you, shall be bondservant of all. For the Son of Man also came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

So we should serve humbly, but the point here is that the same rules apply to all. None of us have any special privileges.

Something else that should cause us to look at our relationship with Christ is the fact that the churches have changed their beliefs as they have evolved. At one time, using musical instruments for worship was forbidden. There are some traditions that adhere to this today. The concept of mission and evangelism has changed. It hasn’t always been considered part of the church’s role to go out and evangelise. For a long time it was understood that the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19 applied only to the Apostles that Jesus gave the instruction to. So are we wrong to use instruments? Is it wrong to evangelise? Does the Great Commission apply to us here?

Now before going on I should say that I think it is a good thing that we should ask questions. It is part of our learning, our growing in Christ. How can we know what God is saying to us as children of his if we don’t ask questions?

So, churches have evolved and changed their beliefs over time, but I don’t think that Jesus intended for the essential nature of our relationship with him to evolve and change. Yes, we will grow in our understanding of who he is and we will grow closer to him as the Holy Spirit changes us. But it is us that is changing, not the Holy Spirit or the hopes and expectations that Jesus has for us. Others may disagree with me here, but I find it a sobering thought that my relationship with Christ should be no different from that of someone living in the early days of the church, or of someone living at the time when he returns.

What then is the answer here? What is it we are looking for? If different churches believe different things, where does that put each of us? What does it mean to us here and to the Pentecostalists worshipping up the road that we are all the same in Christ? If we could ask Jesus the question, what is the picture he has in his mind of one of his followers? Incidentally, I once heard from a preacher in Edinburgh that we should bring our Bibles to church to make sure that he was telling the truth. And he was right. Don’t just take my word for it, because I don’t have all the answers. Look at your Bible and make sense of it yourself.

And this is maybe the first clue to what it is we are looking for. We shouldn’t come to church on a Sunday just to hear a piece of teaching without thinking about it. It was good to see someone a couple of weeks ago taking notes. I have been in some churches where the pews on a Sunday look like a school classroom with jotters and notebooks being scribbled in through the sermon. I think a lot of us here are comfortable with a more formal approach to a Sunday service and I am probably one of them. We are used to sitting respectfully during a sermon and listening. I used to take notes during the sermon but fell out of the habit. So here is my resolution: that I will get back into the habit. So if you see me sitting there next week scribbling away, I’m not working on my diary because I’m bored with the message!

The point is that we should come to church with a learning attitude. And if churches have their differences, this is the first bond that all Christians have in common. We have a duty to question, to ask, to be curious. Don’t just accept what the preacher says. Go home and look it up. If you don’t agree with him, why not? What is a particular passage saying to you that the preacher interpreted differently? Now, this might sound like a recipe for disaster. Where is our faith if the Bible means different things to different people? But here is the magic bit: Just as we have faith in Christ and his promise of salvation; just as we have faith that he is alive today; so also can we have faith that the Holy Spirit will guide each of us, whoever we are, whichever church we go to, in the same way. Let us all read our Bibles with a mind open to the Spirit, and let’s see where the differences are. My faith is that they will be very few and when we do come across them it will be because of our openness to the Spirit, not what the Spirit is saying to different people.

And this leads us on to a second trait that unites all Christians. Church, any church, isn’t something that is done to us like a shop where religion is dispensed. We shouldn’t come here with an expectation that the minister is going to do all the work while we just sit there passively. Church is a place where we all come in fellowship to worship together. Yes, we have a personal relationship with Christ, and those that aren’t there yet have something to look forward to. But we also have a corporate relationship with him and it is called church. Each of us should come bringing something of themselves as a contribution to the service. For some this will be singing in the choir. For others it will be giving a reading. Some will welcome visitors and make sure there are enough hymn books on the seats. Whether it is being part of a prayer in the seats or leading the service from the front, we all have a part to play. Church is something we do with each other. It is worship, it is fellowship.

A third thing that all Christians should have in common I think is their attitude to Christ. A minister I know at home said once that Jesus to him was like a friend. Yes, we should be respectful but most of all I think Jesus wants us to know him as someone we can grow close to; someone we can trust; and most of all someone we can put our faith in. It is very easy to look on our faith as something else to do on our list of jobs for today. “I must read my Bible”. “I must go to church”. I know I have let myself fall into this before now. But there is no obligation. We don’t have to read our Bible. We don’t even have to come to Church if we don’t want to. Let’s not fall into the same legalistic mentality that the Jews had. Following a strict prayer regime in itself isn’t going to make us grow in Christ. But reading our Bible should hold out the prospect of a new understanding; a brightening of our day; or an answer to something that has been troubling us. We have spoken about church already. It shouldn’t be an obligation. Church should be somewhere we go with just ourselves and go away with something more.

In Mark 10:15, Jesus says

Most assuredly I tell you, whoever will not receive the Kingdom of God like a little child, he will in no way enter into it.

We need to remember that although Jesus is a friend, he isn’t a pal; a buddy. We need to have humility and be open to the teaching of the Spirit. Yes, sometimes we will get it wrong. Sometimes we will hear what we want to hear rather than what the Spirit is saying to us. I don’t think these things will be held against us if we are sincere in our learning and growing in the same way as a child learns and grows.

Above all, Christians wherever they are in the world recognise this thing called love. Turn to 1 Corinthians 13:1-3

If I speak with the languages of men and of angels, but don’t have love, I have become sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but don’t have love, I am nothing. If I dole out all my goods to feed the poor, and if I give my body to be burned, but don’t have love, it profits me nothing.

It is easy, well perhaps not so easy, to read the Bible and do what it says. We can devote our days and our weeks to doing nothing wrong. We can make a list of good things to do for other people and spend our spare time visiting the sick and helping our neighbours. Of course we will fail. But even if some weeks we managed to tick off everything on the list will that make us better Christians? Sadly, and frustratingly, the answer is no, it won’t. Now I am not saying that we shouldn’t do good deeds. Of course we should; but these on their own aren’t enough.

This is one of the hardest lessons I have had to struggle with, and maybe haven’t found an answer to yet. Being a good Christian; growing in Christ; running Paul’s race of 1 Corinthians 9:24 can’t be achieved by methodical and ritual application. Focus and determination are both laudable qualities, but an essential part of our Christian life is recognising our own human failings and recognising that God doesn’t think any the less of us for that. He loves us precisely because we are fallible humans and it is only through him that we can be turned from what we are into what he wants us to be. Paul in Philippians 1:3-6 says

I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Jesus Christ.

Growing closer to Christ isn’t about trying harder. In fact perversely, it is probably about trying less hard. The trick is to let the Spirit do the work; and it can’t do that if we are trying to run our own race.

So for all that the churches we go to might have different ideas about what particular passages of the Bible mean, or how we should worship, or whether the world was created in 144 hours. That doesn’t mean that we as individuals shouldn’t look for our own answers. On the contrary, it is probably the best reason we have for looking for our own answers. Nor does it excuse us from giving ourselves to Christ’s kingdom with the love and compassion for others that Jesus taught us. And especially, it doesn’t excuse us from coming to whichever church we attend in a spirit of family and love. Amen.

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