Wednesday, 27 April 2016

What is faith?

The last post was about sharing your faith with someone. But what is faith? Listen to Rev Dr J.I.Packer, formerly Professor of Theology at Regent College, Vancouver:


Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Monday, 25 April 2016

St. Mark

Today we celebrate the feast of Saint Mark, whose gospel, as its first verse states, tells us ‘the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’. Although shorter than those of Matthew, Luke and John, Mark’s gospel narrates a rich story, centred fully on Christ but drawing on the characters of his disciples. Scripture scholar Peter Edmonds SJ looks closely at Mark’s gospel and suggests what encouragement it might have given to early Christians.

Each year on 25 April, the Church celebrates the feast of St Mark. Who is this Mark? He is usually identified with a young man we meet in the Acts of the Apostles. This Mark was a member of the first Christian community in Jerusalem, whose mother offered refuge to Peter when he escaped from Herod’s prison (Acts 12:12). We also know of a Mark who was a companion of Paul and Barnabas on their missionary travels (Acts 13:5), but who at a certain point left them, causing Paul to refuse to invite him to join him on a later journey (Acts 13:13; 15:38). But there may well have been a reconciliation, since the name of Mark is mentioned in some Pauline letters (Colossians 4:10 and Philemon 24). There is also a Mark mentioned as ‘my son, Mark’ in the conclusion of the First Letter of Peter (1 Peter 5:13). But we must be aware that Mark was a very common name in those days, and we have no guarantee that these several references to ‘Mark’ refer to the same person and that this Mark was the one who wrote the gospel we know as the ‘Gospel according to Mark’.

The real reason why the Church selects a special day in honour of Mark is to show her profound appreciation of the gospel that bears his name. But just as the missionary achievement of Mark in the Acts of the Apostles is overshadowed by those of Paul and Barnabas, so too his gospel has lived in the shade of three gospels of greater length and popularity which we know as Matthew, Luke and John. It is true that the current Lectionary of the Catholic Church for the Sunday Eucharist since 1969 uses Mark as the most common Sunday gospel in its Year B of the cycle; for various reasons this gospel receives less exposure than do Matthew in Year A and Luke in Year C.

Despite the greater use of the other gospels in the Church, Mark’s gospel is a treasure to be discovered and deserves its day of celebration in the Church’s calendar. Like many buried treasures, Mark’s gospel has to be dug up layer by layer. One way of approaching this work of excavation is to move step by step by asking four probing questions in four continuous readings of the gospel.

· The first question concerns the story that this gospel tells.

· The second is to examine the portrait of Jesus that it presents.

· The third is to follow the career of those characters that after Jesus are considered the most important, namely the disciples of Jesus.

· The fourth and final question follows logically after the first three, asking which figures in this gospel story does the author want its readers and hearers to take as models and exemplars in their own life of discipleship, those whom we may call the ‘little people’ of Mark.

The Story of Mark
The first challenge is to grasp Mark’s story. It is a good exercise for the reader to try to make a two or three page summary of this. Such a summary would surely note the beginning and end of the gospel. For example, the first verse of Mark gives us a title for the whole work and a title for Jesus, its major character. The work is a ‘gospel’, an euangelion, a good news, which echoes the joyful proclamation made centuries before by the prophet Isaiah who pronounced how beautiful were the feet of those who brought good news of peace and salvation (Isaiah 52:7). It is a gospel about Jesus, the major character whom he calls the Christ and Son of God. The reader already knows what Peter confesses half way through the story, ‘You are the Christ’ (Mark 8:29), and what the centurion would proclaim once Jesus had died, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son’ (Mark 15:39). Yet paradoxically, the gospel ends with flight and fear, with terror and amazement (Mark 16:8). It is with this verse that most experts on this gospel find the conclusion of the story rather than with Mark 16:8b-20, which was added later.

There are several ways of dividing Mark’s work. What follows is one that has been found useful. Unlike a modern author, Mark does not offer a foreword or a preface, but he does provide a prologue which gives the reader information helpful for understanding the story he is about to tell. This ‘prologue’ of Mark presents to his readers quotes from the Old Testament; the proclamation of John the Baptist about the ‘stronger one’ who was to come; the coming of Jesus to the Jordan river to be baptised; and his subsequent testing by Satan in the desert (Mark 1:2-13). None of this privileged information, shared with Mark’s readers, was available to the characters in the account of Jesus which follows.

The gospel narrative can be divided into three major blocks or ‘acts’. In the first ‘act’, we learn about the public ministry of Jesus in Galilee which concludes with the question of Jesus to bewildered disciples in the boat, ‘Do you not yet understand?’ (1:14-8:21). The second act consists of the journey of Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem. Peter confesses Jesus as ‘the Christ’, but when Jesus warns his disciples three times about his coming suffering, death and resurrection and its relevance for their own lives, they misunderstand and resist his message. The block ends with the story of Bartimaeus who, unlike the disciples, recognises his blindness and is able to follow Jesus ‘on the way’ (8:22-10:52). The third act is set in Jerusalem. Jesus enters the city, engages in controversies in the Temple with the authorities who plot to arrest and kill him, speaks his final words to his disciples and shares a final meal with them, is arrested and executed through crucifixion. He is buried but when the women visit his tomb, they are told that he was not there but was risen (11:1-16:8). The final verses of Mark follow as a sort of epilogue, providing a summary of various appearances which are related in other gospels; they are written in a different style from the rest of the gospel, and are commonly considered as added by a different writer (16:9-20).

The Jesus of Mark
Having grasped the overall outline of the story, it is now time to read through it again, this time concentrating on how Mark portrays Jesus who is its major character. There is something of a tension here, because along with Peter, the reader has to accept this Jesus as The Christ (8:29) and, with the centurion on Calvary, as The Son of God (15:39). He is presented as one who teaches with authority (1:22,27) and has power over nature, demons, disease and death (4:35-5:43). He even does what God does in forgiving sins (2:50), calming storms (4:39), walking on water (6:48), and appearing in glory on the mountain of Transfiguration (9:2).

Yet at the same time, Jesus is human, even weak: he gets angry (3:5), shows ignorance (5:30), and is ‘without honour in his own country’ (6:4). As Son of Man, ‘he must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again’ (8:31). This is sometimes called the ‘second story’ of Jesus in Mark. Having struggled to accept Jesus as the ‘stronger one’ as the first stage of proper understanding, the hearer of this gospel must recognise him as the one who has to die in shame upon a cross. And this communicates a message for the Christian life of the reader, who is one who wants to follow this Jesus (8:34).

A third element essential to Mark’s portrayal of Jesus is the assurance of Jesus that he would return ‘in the glory of his Father with the holy angels’ (8:38). Not only would Peter and his disciples see him in Galilee after he has been raised from the dead (16:7), but they were to keep awake and be ready for the day of the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory (13:26,37). He warned those who condemned him that they would see ‘the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Father, and coming with the clouds of heaven’ (14:62).

The Disciples of Jesus
If in our second reading of Mark, we concentrated on the figure of Jesus, in a third reading we are to concentrate on the role of those called disciples. Jesus is never alone in this gospel; he is always accompanied by disciples who were appointed, ‘to be with him, and to be sent out to preach and to cast out demons’ (3:14-15). Jesus told them that it was to them that the mystery of the kingdom of God was being given (4:11). Sometimes they are examples to the reader, as in their ready response to the call of Jesus by the lakeside (1:16-20) and in their going off on mission on his behalf (6:12-13). On their return, they gathered around Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught (6:30). They continued to follow him even when they were amazed and afraid (10:32). They readily obeyed his instructions to prepare the Passover meal (14:16).

Yet their behaviour at other times reveals cause for disappointment and alarm. Three times they failed when in a boat with Jesus: they panicked during the storm (4:38); and again when he came to them walking on the water (6:50); and yet again when they failed to grasp his warning about the leaven of the Pharisees (8:21). On the road to Jerusalem, they three times refused to heed his warning about his coming suffering (8:32; 9:34; 10:37). In Jerusalem, when agitated and distressed in Gethsemane, he appealed to them to keep awake; they fell asleep (14:37) and when the mob that came to arrest him, seized him, they all ran away (14: 50). Peter, the first name in the list of the Twelve (3:16), denied three times that he ever knew Jesus (14:68, 70, 71). There is no mention of the disciples in the account of the death of Jesus, and whereas the disciples of John the Baptist had been at hand to bury John after his being put to death by Herod (6:29), the disciples of Jesus played no part in his burial.

Yet if we feel ourselves justified in condemning these disciples for apostasy and infidelity in their following of Jesus, we are brought up short when we read the message of the young man speaking to the women at the empty tomb, ‘Go and tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee’ (16:7). If we condemn them, Jesus did not.

The ‘little people’ in Mark
If then those whom we may call the ‘official disciples’ of Jesus in Mark’s story prove ambiguous and unreliable role models for imitation, we need to read through this gospel a fourth time, concentrating on those characters who come on to the gospel stage but once, and who on each occasion do or say something that can be admired and imitated by the reader. To each of them we may apply the words that Jesus spoke about the woman of Bethany who anointed his feet: ‘Wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her’ (14:9).

This unnamed woman is just one of many such ‘little people’ in this gospel. We may recall the request of the Gerasene demoniac ‘to be with Jesus’s (5:18), an echo of Jesus’s invitation to the Twelve (3:14); the confession of the woman with the haemorrhage who, by telling Jesus ‘the whole truth’, was freed from her fear and trembling (5:33); and Jesus’s words to Jairus before he raised his daughter, ‘Do not fear, only believe’ (5:36). After reading the deaf resistance of the disciples to the message of the cross on their way to Jerusalem (8:32; 9:34; 10:37), it is a relief for us to admire the three-fold prayer for sight of Bartimaeus who eagerly followed Jesus on the way (10:51). Jesus had warned that those who wanted to be his followers must take up the cross; Simon of Cyrene did this literally on Jesus’s road to Calvary (15:21). Also on Calvary were the women who had followed Jesus from Galilee; these, unlike the invisible disciples, watched the cross from afar (15:40-41), and they became the first to hear the news of the resurrection when they came to the tomb (16:6).

We can add others to this list of ‘little people’, a list in fact of equal length to the ‘official list’ of the Twelve in which Mark gives of the names of Peter and his companions (3:16-19). So we remember the lively and courageous faith of the Syro-Phoenician woman (7:28) and the astonishing prayer of the father of the epileptic boy who prayed, ‘I believe, help my unbelief’ (9:24). We appreciate the contribution of the scribe whom Jesus encountered in the Temple and whom he declared to be ‘not far from the kingdom of God’. He had asked Jesus about the greatest commandment and added his own comment to the words of Jesus which echoed the prophet Hosea (12:33). Soon after, we read of the widow in the temple whose trust in God allowed her to put both her coins in the collection box (12:44). We meet two more of these ‘little people’ after the death of Jesus in the persons of the pagan centurion who had supervised the execution and the respected member of the council that had condemned Jesus. The first confessed Jesus as ‘The Son of God’ (15:39) and the second took courage to ask Pilate for the body of Jesus and buried him (15:43-46). We have listed twelve such characters. You might like to add more as a result of this fourth reading of the text.

Mark the Pastor
Just as there is uncertainty about the precise identity of Mark – whether he was in fact the person whom Peter in his letter referred to as his ‘son’, whether he was the John Mark who accompanied Paul and Barnabas on their missionary travels – there is also uncertainty about the purpose and circumstances of this gospel. But it may well have had its origin in Rome in the time of Nero in his later years (AD 68). We know from the Roman historian Tacitus that the Christians there were under grave threat from the Roman authorities who were blaming them for a great fire that had recently devastated the city. Many, unjustly accused, paid with their lives. Others denied that they were Christians and apostasised. It was dangerous to be a Christian in those days. Mark was writing for such people. The Jesus whom they professed to follow was one who had willingly walked to Jerusalem, the city of his enemies where he knew he faced death. His disciples had struggled in many ways unsuccessfully to remain faithful to their calling but Jesus, despite their failings, summoned them to meet him again in Galilee. Thanks to Mark, memories and traditions were repeated of ‘little people’ who had said or done something that in turn instructed and encouraged the ‘little people’ of that small group of Christians in Rome. What Mark wrote has a call on our attention today. As we read it or listen to his words, we can join ourselves in spirit and imagination with that group of poor Christians in Rome centuries ago. We know that like the seed in Jesus’s parable that was sown in good soil, it can produce a hundred fold (4:20). As the shortest of the gospels, it might seem as insignificant as the mustard seed described in another parable of Jesus, but it can become a great tree in whose branches we can all find shelter (4:32). We celebrate it every year on 25 April.
Peter Edmonds SJ is a tutor in biblical studies at Campion Hall, University of Oxford.

Ten

The following is an interesting 'take' on the Ten Commandments from a book by J.John which is itself based on a series of sermons on the subject. It's a positive spin on each of the ten 'words' (the meaning of the Hebrew) given to Moses:

You shall have no other gods.
Live by priorities. Put God first where He should be.

You shall not make idols.
Get to know God and you will discover the worthlessness of idols.

You shall not misuse God's Name.
Take God seriously. He deserves it.

Remember God's day of rest, the Sabbath.
Catch your breath. All work no play makes Jack more than a dull boy.

Honour your father and mother.
Keep the peace with the parents. They love you.

You shall not murder.
Manage your anger. Don't let it overtake you and hurt others.

You shall not commit adultery.
Affair-proof your relationship. Value what you have.

You shall not steal.
Prosper with a clear conscience. Then you'll be able to sleep at night.

You shall not lie.
Hold to the truth. And the truth will hold on to you.

You shall not covet.
Find true contentment. Possessions will not bring peace.
From 'Ten' by J.John

The Prayer Course - Adoration

The following is session one of the truly excellent Prayer Course produced by Pete Greig and Jonny Hughes of Holy Trinity, Brompton. We are currently running it at St. James but here it is for those who have missed it.

The Bible - by Paula Gooder

Just reading a new book by Paula Gooder on the Bible called, "The Bible". It doesn't sound very original but it is a very good book. I am about to review it for the Church Library so I thought I would include here an interview with her from Reform magazine:

Paula Gooder, writer, speaker and scholar, talks to Stephen Tomkins about her friendship with the Bible – warts and all

Paula Gooder brings a wonderful freshness to the Bible. She has the ability to take a story that you’ve known since Sunday school and turn a new light on it. She can pick on a passage that you’ve read so many times you know it by heart, and make you look again to see if it really says what she says it says.

One example sticks in my mind. When Jesus talks to the Samaritan women at the well, the woman says she has no husband, and Jesus replies: “You are right in saying: ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.” It sounds like a rebuke, but Gooder points out that in a society where women had no ability to divorce their husbands, a woman in such a position was a victim of divorce, not the instigator. Return to the story with this insight and Jesus’ response suddenly seems sympathetic rather than critical, and the whole tone of the encounter is changed.

Gooder also points out that this person was the first successful Christian missionary in the Gospels. Go, the Samaritan woman!

We met Gooder at the Birmingham vicarage where she lives with her family. I’ve twice met people who make their living as freelance theologians, and wondered, as you might, what that could possibly entail. I pictured them sitting at their attic desks, suddenly coming up with a particularly ingenious interpretation of a verse in Ezekiel and crying: “Tonight my children will eat!” The reality turns out to be a little more prosaic and sensible, but never mind…

 You’re a freelance theologian…
That well-known career decision!

How on earth does that work?
By the grace of God, basically! I taught for six years at Ripon College, Cuddesdon, then I worked half-time for six years at the Queen’s Foundation, Birmingham, and in my other half of the time I started doing conferences and lecturing. Theological college is a proper teaching job, so you never get any time for research. At the end of 12 years I thought: “I have got so many books in me, but unless I do something radical then I’m never ever going to write any.” And having small children and trying to work at theological college when I’ve got a clerical husband was just awful. What do you do for childcare on Good Friday?

I started to get more and more invitations to do conferences and lecturing. And I felt God saying to me: “I really would like you to try being freelance.” We had a year’s argy bargy, God and I, going: “Don’t be ridiculous, who goes freelance as a theologian?” And in the end I felt so strongly that that was what God wanted me to do, I did that deep breath, throw yourself off a cliff. And I still do not quite understand how it works but I’m fully booked two years in advance.

In your book, Everyday God, talking about Jonah, you say, if you really want to test your calling from God, run away.
Yes, that’s from experience!

You’ve chosen theology as the thing to devote your life to. What’s the appeal?
I just love reading the Bible. I’ve always loved reading the Bible. I love communicating biblical scholarship to people who otherwise wouldn’t read it. It isn’t the most exciting stuff on the page, but I love that moment when you’re teaching people something in a scholarly kind of way and you see the light go on. That’s my great love.

Does being a scholar give you a different relationship with the Bible?
Yes, but not what you’d expect. Biblical scholarship has – justifiably – a really bad reputation, of picking the text apart, taking the fun out of it. All the things that you love about the text, scholars come along and say: “No, you’re not allowed to think that.” So you’d think that would be my relationship, but it’s actually the opposite. I’m entirely lucky to spend the whole of my time dedicated to reading the text and I use the scholarship to fall in love more deeply with the text than I was before.

You’ve recommended readers cultivate a friendship with the Bible.
Absolutely.

There must be certain difficulties with a friendship if you’re a colleague as well as a friend.
Yeah, that’s an interesting question. Has it changed the relationship? I’ve not found that it has. Maybe one day it will. Then I’ll find a new job.

Do we read the Bible well?
I think the problem is most of us don’t read it enough. And therefore not well. One of my big beefs is that the vast majority of people read the Bible just in the little bit that they read in church. You have a little five-verse chunk then off you go. It’s like reading a novel half a page at a time. You miss some of the key things if you do that.

So you recommend people sit down and read the Bible like a proper book?
Well, yes and no. If you’re reading Mark’s gospel, then I think you need to read the whole of Mark’s gospel. But the worst thing that people do is try to read the Bible like it’s a book, whereas actually it’s 66 books. The trouble is most people start with Genesis and get to Leviticus and think “I can’t be doing with this”. So read individual books, but read those as books.

What’s your best practical tip for reading the Bible better?
Never read the same translation all the time. Very few people would think it was right only ever to read one person’s Bible commentary, because you would recognise that it has a slant. And translations are people’s slants on the text. So if you just read one translation you’re getting one interpretation of the text all the time. Read a number of translations – at least three – so that you get a different flavour of what’s going on.

I know some people hate The Message, but I would recommend that you read one like The Message. It makes you come to the text afresh and say: “Does it really say that?” and that’s where you really start to get into what’s going on in the text.

You make the interesting point in your book Heaven that the Bible talks about heaven all the time, from the first verse, but almost never as the place where we go when we die. But that’s almost always what we mean when we talk about it. What’s going on there?
It’s absolutely fascinating. So often Christian culture takes over our reading of the Bible. We know what the Bible says about certain things; we’re so convinced it says that, that we never read what it really says.

So it’s one of my favourite moments, where you go: “Show me the bits of the Bible where it talks about heaven being the place where we go when we die.” There are about eight of them, and that’s all you’ve got.

So what does the Bible say about heaven?
It’s a remarkable thing really. When God created the earth we imagine he created this. But the Bible says God created heaven and earth together, a place for humans to live in, and a place for God to live in that is as close to human beings as God can be. It is a special place, just like earth is.

The other thing we’ve done to heaven is to make it a spiritual thing, not like earth in people’s minds. But the Bible seems to suggest quite strongly that it is like earth. The difference being that God’s principles reign in heaven, and they ought to reign on earth as well, but they don’t.

You talk about the vast majority of writers of the Hebrew scriptures not believing in life after death. But we, following the New Testament do. Where does that leave us with regard to the authority of the Bible?
People assume the Bible is this big monochrome chunk, which kind of drops from heaven to earth as this thing called the Bible. But it’s not the same all the way through. It is God’s word speaking to us, but it is God’s word speaking to those who were writing at the time, and ideas develop and shift and change. In the Bible, ideas get bigger, get smaller.

It’s authoritative, but it disagrees with itself. One of the challenges and one of the fascinating things about reading the Bible is to try and work out how you’re meant to get that bit of the Bible to talk to that bit of the Bible. And what are we meant to understand that comes out of it? It’s about getting to know the whole of the sweep of the scriptures as well as the individual bits.

So it’s not so much a case of “The Bible says…” but rather “The Bible says this, and this, and this.”
Yes. And then what do you do with that, how do you get to some kind of position that says: “And what I believe is…”

What I love about the Bible is it feels as though you’re going on a constant adventure with it, so you’re constantly being pulled into a greater maturity.

Are Christians allowed to disagree with Bible?
I think we have to at times. The famous bit which sticks out in everyone’s mind is Psalm 137: “Blessed are those who dash the babies’ heads against the rocks.” Nobody in their right mind can say: “Yes, excellent theology there.” But then you have to do what we have to do with the whole of the Bible, which is to say: What was the context that made them want to say that? What is the theology that arises out of that? We find it very distasteful, but let’s just stay with it a bit and try to work out: why did they feel the need to say it, what was right about them trying to say it, was there anything wrong with their trying to say it, and what can we therefore learn about it? It’s a more complex process than: “The Bible says… and therefore it’s right.”

Do you think some parts of the Bible are more about speaking on our behalf than speaking to us?
Absolutely. I would say the Bible is a conversation with God, and there are bits which are very clearly God’s word, and there are bits which are very clearly humans’ words. Psalm 137 puts into words an awful experience, and is authoritative insomuch as it represents the conversation between God and human beings. These days we forget that God is quite fine with us shouting at him. What God really wants is for people to communicate with him. And if that involves shouting and swearing then that’s fine too.

Going back to heaven and matters arising, I heard Francis Spufford – the Anglican writer of Unapologetic – tell an audience that the Church of England no longer believes in hell. Can you confirm that?
Ah – no, I don’t think you can say that. You cannot say “The Church of England believes…”, just like the URC, it just doesn’t work that way. What we can say is that very few people today go along with the medieval vision of hell such as you get in those gory paintings of the devil with horns and a pitchfork prodding people into cauldrons. We don’t believe in that kind of hell anymore – but then that kind of hell isn’t in the Bible either. Again you’re back to this much more complicated conversation: What’s really in the Bible, how do you work out what’s there, how do we understand what’s important about it?

What is important about it?
I would hesitate before I used the word “hell” about what the Bible says about anything. It’s so associated in our mind with those medieval paintings I don’t think we can split them apart. And the Bible doesn’t have a full-blown vision of what we might call hell. It has a belief in “down there” – the sheol/hades idea – but that’s not punishment. You do have punishment: in Gehenna there is going to be fire, and punishment as a result. There is also outer darkness, where there is going to be weeping and gnashing of teeth. And there’s punishment for the angels of Satan. So there are strands; the trouble is in the Bible they’re not all gathered together into something you could call hell.

But there is definitely going to be punishment, the Bible says. With a doctrine of resurrection has to come a doctrine of judgment – whether someone goes in one direction or another. And the direction of punishment is the biblical doctrine which eventually becomes the doctrine of hell.

And if the Bible doesn’t have an idea of the immortality of the soul…
That’s right, there’s nothing to suggest that it’s going to go on forever.

And the other thing we have to bear in mind is what it says about who is going to be judged. That’s where it gets a little uncomfortable. It’s those whose eye sins against them, and who haven’t plucked it out. We always assume its the Hitler-type people, but in Jesus’s teaching, it’s people like us, who have lied and are deceitful. We all like to say: “Well, I’m not that bad”, but one of the things the New Testament really challenges us on, is that it could easily be us.

Are there parts of the Bible that you don’t like?
Yes.

Are you comfortable with that?
Oh yeah. And one of the things that I make a discipline is always to try and read the bits I don’t like as often as the bits I do like. We all end up with a canon within a canon. Isaiah is read far, far more often than 2 Chronicles, in terms of church worship, discussion, personal devotion. I think it’s really important to keep up the relationship with the bits of the Bible that you don’t like, or that bore you. There are some phenomenally dull bits.

Can I ask you which… 
…which are my bits? There are bits in the prophets that I really hate, because they use imagery which borders on raping women as God’s justifiable relationship with Israel. Another passage I always struggle with, but for personal reasons, is Abraham’s sacrifice with Isaac. My dad is a vicar, and he used to do acted-out sermons. One Sunday he dragged me out to be Isaac to his Abraham, and I lay there on a table, this knife above me, and I’ve loathed the story ever since.

But you spend time with these passages.
That’s right. And occasionally you find that you do like the passage after all. Other times you don’t, but the process of engaging with it means you go away changed. That’s what we mean when we say the Bible is the word of God – I don’t have to like it, or agree with it, but I have to listen to what it’s saying.

This article was published in the March 2013 edition of  Reform.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Testimony of former atheist

In St. James at the moment we are preaching a short series of sermons on the Easter Encounters of Jesus in the New Testament. We are also including short interviews with various members of the congregation who talk about how they became Christians after 'meeting Christ'. Below is another interesting testimony of someone who was an atheist and did time for the attempted murder of his father.

Is the Bible the Word of God?

Can we trust the Bible?

Monday, 18 April 2016

Literalism: Isn't the Bible historically unreliable and regressive? – Timothy Keller

Tom Wright and the literal reading of the Bible

Facing the Canon - Michael Ramsden

J.John interviews Michael Ramsden the Regional Director for RZIM for Europe, Middle East and Africa. He is also Director of the Oxford Centre of Christian Apologetics. He is married to Anne, and they have three children. In this interview he shares his wisdom and insightfully answers questions on God, the bible, faith and life.

Facing the Canon - Professor Alistair McGrath

Dr Alister McGrath, a former atheist who is now one of Christianity’s foremost scholars, is currently Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford. After initial academic work in the natural sciences, McGrath turned to the study of theology and intellectual history, while occasionally becoming engaged in broader cultural debates about the rationality and relevance of the Christian faith. As a former atheist, McGrath is respectful, yet critical of the movement. In recent years, he has been especially interested in the emergence of ‘scientific atheism’, and has researched the distinctive approach to atheist apologetics found in the writings of the Oxford zoologist and scientific populariser Richard Dawkins.

Doubting Thomas

Following last Sunday's sermon it was suggested that I put the text of my sermon onto my blog. So here it is:

Easter Encounters—Thomas (John 20:24-31)

Last week started short series of sermons looking at various meetings or encounters between the Risen Christ and his disciples. Last week looked at Mary Magdalene. This week it is Apostle Thomas.

In today’s account of Jesus meeting Thomas our eyes invariably settle on Thomas’ response to the
news of the others disciples’ claim to have seen a walking, talking, eating and breathing Jesus. Verse 25:

“The other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” [after suffering/sadness of Good Friday, silence of Holy Saturday that is a remarkable statement in itself. Good news!] But Thomas said  to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

It’s from this response that Thomas earned his reputation as a doubter. So that nowadays anyone who is sceptical about something they hear/something we tell them, we call them a “doubting Thomas”. But is that fair?  And are Jesus’ words to him later a rebuke “Stop doubting and believe”?

In his book on Doubt (available in the Church Library) Alistair McGrath makes several interesting points about doubt which will help us think about Thomas’ encounter with Jesus:

First he says, surprisingly large number of Christians don’t like to talk about it/even think about it. They’re embarrassed. They don’t like to admit that they ever have doubts in case others think less of them. They love to hear sermons that speak about faith but they struggle with it themselves.

We all like to hear a preacher speaking with conviction don’t we? Well known story of the famous Scottish philosopher/historian David Hume in 18th Century. He was no believer in historic Christianity and no friend of the Church. But he once travelled 20 miles to hear great preacher and evangelist Whitefield preach. About 5 o'clock one morning, going down the street in London. As turned a corner walked straight into a man who recognised him. “Aren't you David Hume?" "Yes.''
"Where are you going at this early hour ?" "I'm going to hear George Whitefield preach," replied Hume. “But you don't believe a word Whitefield preaches," said the man. "No," Hume answered, "but Whitfield does!"

Like Hume people love to hear someone speak with conviction about their faith and that is a good thing. They are the churches that tend to be full on a Sunday. But at the same time there is a danger that you believe in the fact that they believe rather than believe for yourself. So your faith becomes second hand. You believe because they believe. And so instead of working it out so it becomes
their own, they rely on the fact that the preacher believes. But what they forget is that the preachers themselves speak from conviction because they’ve have faced their doubts and worked through them.

So when they are not listening to the preacher, or things go wrong, doubt causes them to feel inadequate or ashamed and instead of asking questions they try and ignore them, go with the flow and their doubts, instead of leading to deeper faith, can eventually lead them away from God.

What is striking about Thomas is his honesty about his doubts. We see it earlier in the Upper Room where Jesus is reassuring his disciples that when he dies he is only going ahead to prepare the way for the disciples to go to the Father’s House. Then he will come back and in time, take each one of them to be with him there. He ends up by saying “You know the way to the place where I am going.” And although the text doesn’t indicate It, I think there is a long silence before a hand goes up and a voice from the back says: “Lord, um, we don’t know where you’re going so how CAN we know the way?”
It’s Thomas. The one who always asks questions.

He is that person in your class at school who asks the question of the teacher that you are all dying to ask but because you don’t want to appear stupid or uncool you don’t say anything. But its because that person asks that you get the answer and everyone else benefits from his or her honesty.

Because of his question we get the wonderful answer from Jesus:  He says: ”I am the way, the truth and the life. If you want to go to the Father, you can come through me.” Thanks to so called “doubting Thomas” millions of people have discovered that the way to know God is through Jesus Christ.

That is how you grow in your faith. You look at it and examine it and you ask it all the awkward questions you like. If it is true it will stand up to the questions. And you will grow deeper in your faith and trust in God.  Large numbers of Christians doubt, but how many, like Thomas, ask questions?

But second, McGrath writes that one of the reasons some Christians have difficulty coping with doubt is because they confuse it with two quite separate ideas which at first appear similar,
but are actually different:

In the first place doubt is not scepticism. Scepticism is the decision to doubt everything deliberately,
as a matter of principle. A true sceptic will not believe, period,  and no amount of evidence will convince them.

Scepticism was a school of philosophy started in Greece in the 4th Cent BC by a man called Pyrrho who travelled with Philip of Macedon all over the known world. He started a school of philosophy which maintained that no knowledge could be ever known for certain, whether it was scientific, moral, religious or anything. You could never, he believed, ever come know the truth. As a result he was never sure of anything and in the end even doubted whether the world was not an illusion. It is said that his friends had to go everywhere with him in case he would walk off a cliff because he was sceptical that it was really there.

Thomas was no sceptic ready to disbelieve everything, rejecting even the good news of the resurrection of Jesus. In fact if you look at the text in John 20 what Thomas is saying is not unreasonable. He had lost his Lord and Master in a brutal and horrendous way. And he, himself, had been one of the disciples who had run away when Jesus was arrested. So when he hears that Jesus is alive it is too good to be true and so he says that unless he sees Jesus, the real Jesus, the one who was nailed to the cross and whose side was pierced by a Roman spear, and unless he can substantiate this by touch, then he is not going to accept that he is alive because it would be too painful to deal with his sense of failure and the possibility that all this was mistaken. He wants the REAL Jesus and he wants to meet him. Hearsay is not enough for Thomas. He wants the Risen Christ.

Contrast this with the sceptic who even if he SAW the risen Jesus would deny the evidence of his or her own eyes.  Instead when Jesus turns up and invites Thomas to place his hands into the wounds caused by the nails Thomas doesn’t even bother to. Instead he cries out: “My Lord and my God!”  In other words he was ready to believe, he was longing to believe, and as soon as he sees Jesus he does believe, and some. For he calls Jesus “My God!” something none of the other disciples had ever said about Jesus.  So he believes and more.  And here is the encouragement. If You want to believe and want to discover the reality of God then you can, if your are sincere, as Thomas was.

And in the second place, (and lastly) says McGrath, doubt is not unbelief. Unbelief is the decision not to have faith in God.  Unbelief is an act of will, rather than a difficulty in understanding. It is to close the door of your mind with a clang and to shut out all possibility of belief in anything that cannot be measured, weighed or proved. It is to declare that you are the arbiter of truth. And it is quite an arrogant stance.

Writer and evangelist David Watson tells of a meeting he had with a militant atheist who  was engaged in some complicated piece of  scientific research. He came out with this bold statement: “I just don’t believe there is no God, I KNOW there is no God!’ So Watson replied, “Tell me then, do you know the total truth in the entire universe?” “Of course not” said the atheist. “Do you know 10% of the total truth in the  entire universe?” “Not even that” said the atheist. Do you know 0.1%?” “Not even that” he replied. “Well said Watson,” let’s suppose for the sake of argument that you DO know 0.1% of the total truth of the entire universe. Isn’t it just possible that God is in the 99.9%  that you don’t know, and also in the 0.1% that you do know, but you do not recognise him? The man was silent says Watson for a long time.

Unbelief says that questions like that have no relevance because the mind is closed to any possibility other than what has already been decided. Now as we look again at Thomas we see that his doubts don’t fit into that category either. He does believe, or at least he wants to believe. All he is asking for is something on which to hang his belief. And that is not unreasonable. Of course not everyone will have the same access to a physical Christ that Thomas and the other disciples had, but that is not the only evidence we have for the resurrection. Which is why Jesus says in verse 29:

“Because you have seen me, you have believed: blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” 

And that is what happened to John when arriving at the tomb he looks in and sees it is empty. Having seen the empty tomb we are told “he saw and believed” (John 20:8) What did he see? Nothing. An empty tomb. And today most Christians, including me, partly base their faith on that evidence. That no one—not the Romans, the Scribes and Pharisees—could produce a body of Jesus to say that all the disciples had made it all up.

In the recent film Risen, the writer has Pilot say to Clavius the Roman officer commissioned to find the body of Jesus: “Without a corpse to pronounce Him dead we have to proclaim Him Messiah.”

Unbelief rules all evidence out and refuses to consider it. Thomas and subsequent generations of Christians may doubt but that is not the same as unbelief.

So to end. If you have doubts as a Christian, then don’t deny those doubts but pursue them and see, with God’s help, where they lead.  But don’t ask questions on your own. Join a Lyfe Group and share those questions with others who may well have found the answers for themselves.

And if you have doubts as someone who would like to have faith but as yet can’t quite get round your own questions about life, death, God or anything. Come along to St. James and listen to the sermons, come and have a chat, air your concerns and I, and we, will do all we can to help you.

My mother always said that honesty is the best policy and what we have learnt this morning is that that is something God thinks too as he sees in Thomas not so much doubt but an honest attempt to find out the truth about Jesus.

"Just as I am, though tossed about
with many a conflict, many a doubt,
fightings and fears within, without,
O Lamb of God, I come,"

God is love

Faith which overcomes the world

The following is a talk given by Fr Raniero Cantalamessa who is the preacher to the Papal Household and has been responsible for preaching to the last three popes. This talk was delivered to a world-wide gathering of representatives of the Alpha Course. The reason for including this in my blog is several fold:

First, I wanted to demonstrate how close we are to our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters when it comes to understanding the gospel.
Second, it gives some clear teaching about the nature of the Christian life and helps us understand that Christianity is not about religious practices - although they can be helpful - or a specific set of beliefs - although what we believe is important - but about a relationship with Jesus Christ that is real, substantial and fundamental to what being a Christian is. It is possible to go to church, believe the right doctrines and do everything religiously correct, and still not be, in the fullest sense of the word "a Christian".
Third, the talk includes not only a personal testimony to Fr Raniero's own change of heart/conversion, but underlines the point made earlier, that a Christian is someone who knows the person of Jesus Christ. It s for that reason I have highlighted in bold sections that refer to that.

So here is the talk. See what you think:

1. In his first Letter St. John says: “And this is the victory that has overcome the world -- our faith. Who can overcome the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? (1 John 5:4-5).

I should like to reflect with you on this faith in Jesus which has the power to conquer, that is, to save, the world. The first question to be asked is this: What place does Jesus have in our society and culture? I think we can speak of a presence - absence of Jesus in our time.

At a certain level - in films, novels, and the mass-media in general – Jesus Christ is very much present, he is indeed a “Superstar”. In an unending stream of novels, films and plays, writers manipulate the figure of Christ, sometimes under cover of imaginary and non-existent new documents and discoveries. The Da Vinci Code is but the latest and most aggressive episode in the series. It is becoming a fashion, a literary genre.

It is trading on the vast resonance of the name of Christ and on all that he means to a large part of humankind, aiming to achieve wide publicity at very little cost. This is literary parasitism! Yet if in some extreme cases (as in the show Jerry Springer: The opera broadcast by the BBC last January) believers react and phone in to protest, some people decry it as intolerance and censorship. In our day, intolerance has changed sides, at least in the West: where we used to have religious intolerance, we now have intolerance of religion!

From this point of view, then, Jesus Christ is very much present and exploited in our culture. But if we turn to the ambit of faith, where he really belongs, we notice a disturbing absence, or even rejection of him. First of all among theologians. One theological current today holds that Christ came for the salvation of the Gentiles, not of the Jews (for whom, they say, it is sufficient to remain faithful to the Old Covenant). Another current view says that he is not necessary for the Gentiles either, since they, through their religions, have a direct relationship with the eternal Logos and have no need of any mediation by the Word incarnate or his paschal mystery. We may well ask, for whom then is Christ still necessary?

More troubling is what we observe in society at large, even among those who consider themselves to be “believing Christians”. What do “believing Christians”, in Europe and elsewhere, actually believe? Most of the time they believe in the existence of a supreme Being, in a Creator, they believe that something exists beyond the visible universe and beyond death. This is a religious faith - not yet the Christian faith - which has the person of Christ as its specific object. Sociological surveys point to this fact even in countries and regions of ancient Christian tradition, like the one where I was born in central Italy. Jesus Christ is practically absent in this kind of religiosity. Taking into account the distinction Karl Barth made, we are dealing here with religion, not with faith.

The Church is generally accepted and esteemed as a social agency, for her work in favour of peace and social justice, but is ill tolerated or ignored as soon as she starts speaking about Jesus and his Gospel. Ecclesial movements and individuals who dedicate themselves to evangelization and promotion of faith are easily labelled as conservative, reactionary or fundamentalist.

2. Let us now compare this situation to what the New Testament says. For Paul, faith which justifies sinners and confers the Holy Spirit (cf. Gal 3,2), in a word, saving faith, is faith in Jesus Christ, in his paschal mystery of death and resurrection. “If you declare with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and if you believe with your heart that God raised him from the dead, then you will be saved” (Rom 10,9).

What the Apostle was above all at pains to proclaim in Romans 3 was not only that we are justified by faith, but that we are justified by faith in Christ; not so much that we are justified through grace, rather that we are justified through the grace of Christ. Christ himself is the heart of the message, at a deeper level than even faith and grace. In chapters 1 and 2 of his Letter, he had set out to show humanity as universally in a state of sin and perdition. And then he has the incredible courage to proclaim that this universal situation has been radically changed “through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Rom 3: 24).

The affirmation that this salvation is received by faith and not by works is certainly present in the text, and at the time of the Reformation it was the point that most urgently needed to be brought back into focus. But now that we have reached fundamental agreement on this point (see the document issued jointly in 1999 by the Catholic Church and the World Federation of Lutheran Churches), we are challenged to rediscover and together proclaim what was the fundamental point in Paul’s teaching: the universal relevance of Christ’s redemption.
No less strong than Paul is the apostle John on this point. For him, as we have heard, the only faith which conquers the world is faith in Christ. The divinity of Christ - and hence the universality of his mission and of his salvation - is, according to him, the specific and primary object of belief. `To believe' without further qualification henceforth means believing in Christ. It can also mean believing in God, but in so far as it was God who sent the Son into the world. Jesus addresses himself to people who already believe in the true God; all his insistence on faith throughout the Gospel is concerned with faith in his own person and work.

A rapid perusal of the Fourth Gospel with an eye to faith in Christ's divinity shows how this is woven into the very fabric of John’s account. Believing in him whom the Father has sent is seen as ‘God's work’, that which is pleasing to God, without qualification (cf Jn 6:29). Not believing this is consequently seen as ‘sin’ par excellence: `The Counsellor,' it is said, `will convince the world of sin' and the sin is: `they do not believe in me' (Jn 16:8-9).

A clear line is drawn, dividing the human race into two parts: those who believe and those who do not believe that Jesus is the Son of God. Whoever believes in him will not be condemned; but whoever does not believe is condemned already; whoever believes has life, whoever does not believe will not see life (cf Jn 3:18, 36). Concretely too, as the revelation of Jesus gradually proceeds, we see two bodies of people taking shape. Of the one it is said that `they believed in him'; of the other, that `they did not believe in him'. Similarly, after his return to the Father faith in him was to remain the great watershed in the heart of the human race: on the one hand there would be those who, despite not having seen him, would believe (cf Jn 20:29); on the other would be the world that refuses to believe. Before this distinction, all other previously known ones sink into second place.

3. A simple look at the New Testament shows us therefore how far we are from the original meaning the word faith has in Christianity. What then shall we do in this “post-Christian” society? Nothing else but what the apostles and the first disciples did in their “pre-Christian” society! Proclaim Jesus Christ! “Proclaim the message, welcome or unwelcome, insist on it” (2 Tm 4,2). Give back to Christ the place which is his in faith. Repeat with Paul: “We preach a crucified Christ” (1 Cor 1,23); “We proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord” (2 Cor 4, 5).

If you go into St. Peter’s Square in Rome, your eye is immediately drawn to the obelisk at the centre. From whatever point you take in the view, the obelisk always draws the eye. Like the mainmast of a yacht, it gives balance to the whole. Jesus Christ is the obelisk at the centre of the Church; it is to him that all eyes should always be turned and to him that Christians should make people attentive.

This is a task which no Church can accomplish alone; we need to unite our efforts and resources. Competition and rivalry in this field is a scandal no longer justified by any objective reason. The crucial issue at the beginning of the third millennium is no longer the same that led to the separation of East and West at the beginning of the second millennium, nor is it the same that later led to the division within Western Christianity between Protestant and Catholic.

The controversies between East and West were about the doctrine of the Filioque (whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father alone, or from the Father and the Son), whether to use leavened or unleavened bread for the Eucharist, and whether to omit the Alleluia or sing it during Lent. Can we say that these are still issues of vital concern to those to whom we must proclaim the Gospel today?

The questions that provoked the separation from Rome of the Churches born of the Reformation during the sixteenth century were chiefly those of indulgences and how sinners are justified. But again, can we really say that these are problems by which today the faith of the people will stand or fall? At a conference held at the Pro Unione Centre in Rome, Cardinal Walter Kasper very rightly drew attention to the fact that, whereas for Luther the primary existential problem was how to overcome the pervading sense of guilt and gain God’s benevolence, today the problem is exactly the opposite: how to give back to the people of today that true sense of sin which they have totally lost.

In an age in which everyone, from the New Age onward, speaks of salvation as something human beings must find in themselves, how are we to proclaim once more Paul’s message, “that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3: 24) and that we have need of a Saviour? I am a Catholic (and in addition Italian!), but there are times when I wish that God would give us another Luther today, because (certain controversial points aside which as a Catholic I cannot entirely accept) Luther for me is the man whose faith in Jesus Christ was more rock-solid than granite. It was he who said, “To lose Christ is to lose all. To possess Christ is to possess all: if Christ is mine, I possess all and can find all”.

In the tales of medieval battles (included some described by Shakespeare), there always comes a moment when the orderly ranks of archers and cavalry and all the rest are broken and the fighting concentrates around the king. That is where the final outcome of the battle will be decided. For us too, the battle today is taking place around the king…. It is the person of Jesus Christ himself that is the real point at issue.

The point on which we must therefore concentrate all our attention from now on, is how all the Christian Churches, in fraternal accord, can proclaim the Good News in our modern world, where to start from, what method to follow.

If Christianity, as has so rightly been said, is not primarily a doctrine but a person, Jesus Christ, it follows that the proclamation of this person and of one's relationship with him is the most important thing, the beginning of all true evangelization. To reverse this order and put the doctrines and moral obligations of the Gospel before the discovery of Jesus would be like putting the carriages in front of the railway engine that is supposed to pull them.

In connection with this, a serious pastoral problem now exists. Churches with a strong dogmatic and theological tradition (as the traditional Churches and especially the Catholic Church are) sometimes find themselves at a disadvantage, owing to their very wealth and complexity of doctrine and institutions, when dealing with a society that has in large degree lost its Christian faith and that consequently needs to start again at the beginning, that is to say, by rediscovering Jesus Christ. 

It seems we are still lacking a suitable instrument for coping with this new situation. Owing to our past, we are better prepared to be `shepherds' than `fishers' of men; that is to say, better prepared to feed the people who have stayed faithful to the Church than to bring new people in or to `fish back' those who have wandered away. This shows how urgently we need a new evangelization which, while being open to all the fullness of the truth and the Christian life, will yet be simple and basic.

This is the reason why I look with interest and appreciation to the Alpha Course. It seems to me that it answers precisely to this need of ours. The very name shows this. It is not called „Alpha and Omega course” (as Revelation 1, 8 might have suggested) but simply "Alpha Course”, because it doesn't claim to lead people from beginning to end in faith; only to help them get acquainted with it, to foster a personal encounter with Jesus, leaving it to other Church departments to develop the newly rekindled faith.

4. Insisting on the importance of a personal encounter with Jesus Christ is not a sign of subjectivism or emotionalism but is the translation, onto the spiritual and pastoral plane, of a dogma central to our faith: that Jesus Christ is `a person'. The General Councils of the Early Church encapsulated the essential aspects of faith in Jesus Christ in three affirmations: Jesus Christ is true man; Jesus Christ is true God; Jesus Christ is one sole person.
We have here a sort of dogmatic triangle, of which the humanity and divinity represent the two sides and the unity of person the apex. “We teach”, says the Council of Chalcedon, “that Christ must be acknowledged as a person, or hypostasis, not separated and divided into two persons, but the unique and identical only-begotten Son, the Word and our Lord Jesus Christ.''

But the dogma of the one person of Christ is an `open structure', that is to say, capable of speaking to us today, of answering to new needs of the faith, which are different from those of the fifth century. Today no one denies that Christ is `one person'. Some, alas, deny that he is a `divine' person, preferring to say that he is a `human' person. But the unity of Christ's person is not contested by anyone. The most important thing today in the dogma of Christ as “one person” is not so much the adjective one as the noun person. To discover and proclaim that Jesus Christ is not an idea, an historical problem, a fictional character, but a person and a living one at that!

Let us recall the most famous `personal encounter' with the Risen Christ, that of the Apostle Paul. “Saul, Saul!” “Who are you, Lord?” “I am Jesus!' (cf Acts 9:4-5). The apostle himself in the Letter to the Philippians describes this encounter:

“But whatever gain I had [that is, being circumcised, of the seed of Israel, a Pharisee, blameless], I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith; that I may know him' (Phil 3:7-10).

I still recall the moment when this passage became an active reality for me. While studying Christology, I did a great deal of research into the origins of the concept of `person' in theology, its definitions and various interpretations. I was familiar with the endless discussions on the unique person and hypostasis of Christ in the Byzantine period, the modern developments concerning the psychological dimension of the person… In one sense I knew everything about the person of Christ. But, at a given moment, I made a disconcerting discovery: yes, I knew all about the person of Jesus, but I did not know Jesus in person! I knew the notion of person better than the person himself.

It was actually those words of Paul that helped me to grasp the difference. More especially, it was the phrase: “that I may know Him…” and, in particular, that pronoun `Him' (eauton, in Greek)” which struck me. It seemed to me to contain more truth about Jesus than all the books I had read or written about him. `Him' means Jesus Christ, my Lord `in flesh and blood'.

It is possible to have an impersonal knowledge of the person of Christ. A contradiction and a paradox, alas, that is all too common! Why impersonal? Because this knowledge leaves you neutral as regards the person of Christ, while the knowledge that Paul had made him consider everything else as loss, as rubbish, and filled his heart with an irresistible yearning to be with Christ, to divest himself of everything, even of the body, to be with him. 

Entering into a personal relationship with Jesus is not like entering into a relationship with anyone you may run into. To be a `true' relationship, it has to lead to recognition and acceptance of Jesus for what he is, that is to say, Lord. In the text quoted above, the Apostle speaks of a `superior', `eminent' or even `sublime' (hyperechon) knowledge of Christ which consists in acknowledging Christ as one's personal Lord… `Because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.' (The only passage where the singular is used: my Lord, not Our Lord).

The personal knowledge of Jesus thus consists in this: that I acknowledge Him as my Lord and Saviour, which is like saying: as my centre, my meaning, my reason for living, my purpose in life, my glory, someone to whom joyfully “I surrender all”.

Knowing Jesus Christ is like knowing one's own mother. Who knows their mother best? The people who have read all the books on motherhood, or studied the concept of mother in various cultures and religions? Of course not! They who know their mother best are the children who, having outgrown childhood, realize one day that they were formed in their mother's womb and brought into the world through her birth-pangs. They become aware of a bond that is unique in the world, existing between them and her. Often this comes as a `revelation', as a kind of `initiation' into the mystery of life.

So it is with Jesus. We know Jesus for what he really is when one day, by revelation, not now through flesh and blood, as in the case of our mother, but from the heavenly Father, we discover that we have been born of him, out of his death, and that we exist, spiritually, for him.

This is what happened on the 24th May 1738 to John Wesley, here in London.

“In the evening”, he writes in his Journal, “I went very unwilling to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death” .

John Wesley’s brother, Charles, later on put this discovery in poetry in a beautiful hymn entitled “Glory to God and Praise and Love”. In it he sings the joy of being allowed to “call the Saviour mine”.

5. This living and personal knowledge of Christ doesn't come from us, it can’t be obtained by way of conquest, but only as a gift of the Holy Spirit. “Nobody is able to say, 'Jesus is Lord' except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12,3). It is only after Peter on the day of Pentecost has been “filled with the Holy Spirit” that he can proclaim with such boldness: “The whole House of Israel can be certain that the Lord and Christ whom God has made is this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2, 36).

There is an essential link between the gift of the Spirit and this living knowledge of Jesus. Nobody can proclaim “Jesus is Lord” unless he or she is moved by the Holy Spirit, and nobody can be moved by the Holy Spirit unless he or she proclaims that Jesus is Lord. This is a fact of experience: the “power of the Spirit” is not given except to those who proclaim Jesus “Lord” in the same strong and absolute sense as St. Paul does in 1 Cor 8,5-6. We need to subject everything, literally everything, to Jesus Christ as the “only Lord”, and only when we have decided to do that do we experience a new certainty in our life and authority in our ministry.

Here, dear brothers and sisters of Alpha Course, comes the final challenge of this talk. I have spoken earlier of the scarce relevance the person of Christ has in the faith of people around us. But is this a problem which concerns only others, the “people”, or does it, at least in a certain measure, concern also us believers and evangelisers? Let us recall to mind the dialogue between Jesus and the apostles at Caesarea of Philippi and the two distinct questions of Jesus; “Who do people say the Son of man is?”, “But you, who do you say I am?” (Mt 16, 13-15). The most important thing for Jesus was not what the people were thinking about him but what the apostles thought.

We must repeat the prayer of the apostles: “Increase our faith” (Lk 17,5), or the prayer the father of the sick boy addressed to Jesus: “Lord, I believe, but help my lack of faith!' (cf. Mk 9, 24).

We need “a charismatic faith” in Christ. How can St. Paul include “the gift of faith” among the charisms? (1 Cor 12, 9), when faith is a theological virtue necessary to all, as hope and charity are? St. Cyril of Jerusalem gives the following explanation:

“There is only one faith, but it comes in two kinds. For there is faith with regard to the dogmas…which is necessary for salvation... But there is another kind of faith, and it is a gift from Christ. For it is written…, ‘and another (may have) the gift of faith given by the same Spirit’ (1 Cor 12, 8 – 9). This faith, given freely by the Spirit as a gift, concerns not only the dogmas, but is also the cause of those marvels that are beyond all the abilities of humankind. The one who has such faith will be able to say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there, and it would move’ (Mt 17, 20)” .

This is a kind of faith which comes with a special anointing of the Spirit. Some biblical scholars think that this was the principal meaning of the term anointing in the New Testament and in the early Fathers of the Church: being anointed with the oil of faith to see the truth of Jesus and his word .

When a person is under this special anointing he can say with John: “We believe and we have come to know that you are the Holy One of God” (Jn 6, 69); “We ourselves have seen and testify that the Father sent his Son as Saviour of the world” (1 Jn 4, 14). Believing becomes a kind of knowing and seeing, an inner enlightenment. You hear Jesus saying: “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”, “I am the light of the world” and you perceive with all your being (not only with your mind) that this is the truth.

Anointed faith is what gives to a speech prophetic power. Let me try to explain how this happens when we preach about the crucified and the risen Lord. While the preacher is speaking, at a certain point, quite apart from any decision of his, he becomes aware of an intervention, as though a signal on another wavelength were coming through his voice. He becomes aware of this because he begins to feel deeply stirred, invested with a strength and an extraordinary power of conviction that he recognises clearly is not his own. His words come out as incisive, with greater assurance. He experiences a touch of that “authority” that all recognised when they listened to Jesus speaking. The listener is brought to a point of total concentration into which no other voice can reach: he too feels “touched”, and often a shiver goes through his body.

At a moment like this, the human speaker and the human voice fade out of the picture, to make way for another voice entirely. Someone has said: “The true prophet, when he speaks, remains silent” . The prophet is silent because, at that moment, it is not he who speaks, but another. God says to his prophets, poor sinful human creatures, “You shall be as my own mouth” (Jr 15, 19), and the thought of it makes his messenger tremble.

Of course, this doesn't happen at the same level of intensity all the way through. There are special moments. God needs only one phrase, one word. The speaker and the listeners have the feeling that drops of fire mingle at a certain point with the preacher’s words and they become white-hot and shining. Of all images, fire is the one that is least inadequate when it comes to expressing this operation of the Spirit. So it was that at Pentecost, he showed himself as “tongues of fire” (Acts 2, 3). We read of Elijah that “he arose like a fire, his word flaring like a torch” (Eccl 48,1), and in the book of the prophet Jeremiah, God himself declares, “Does not my word burn like fire, is it not like a hammer shattering rock?” (Jr 23, 29). (Two ways of preparing a speech…).

6. The best thing we can do on an occasion like this is to ask God for a new anointing of his Spirit so that leaving this meeting each one can confidently say, with Jesus: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring the good news to the afflicted” (Lk 4, 18).

What we need to do is simply ask for an anointing before we set out to do any evangelistic work. Many times my prayers have remained unanswered, but very rarely when I asked for the anointing, especially in some circumstances when I felt weak, tired and completely unable to say anything. I simply say: “Father in Heaven, in the name and for the glory of your Son Jesus, give me the anointing of your Spirit so that I may proclaim the Gospel with power and gentleness”. Why don’t we make this prayer together, right now? We all need to be anointed...

There were times when I almost in a physical way felt the anointing coming upon me. Feelings were deeply moved, the soul enjoyed clarity and assurance; all trace of nervousness, all fear and timidity disappeared. Certain songs or hymns are particularly helpful in disposing us to receive the power from on high. One of them is the well known song:

“Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me;
melt me, mould me, fill me, use me.
Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me”.

There is no counting the number of people who have experienced the anointing of the Spirit coming upon them while the strains of this hymn and its simple melody rose all around. Why then don’t we now sing all together, at the top of our voice and with an expectant faith, this ecumenical tune?"

Thursday, 14 April 2016

How majestic is God's name?

1 Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory in the heavens. 2 Through the praise of children and infants you have established a stronghold against your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger. 3 When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, 4 what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? Psalm 84:1-4

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

The Prayer Course

Can I encourage you to have a look and, if you can, run a course on prayer? The following is one that has been advertised as part of the Call to Prayer by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York. It has dvd sessions, discussion materials and also logos etc for publicising it.

The course is based on The Lord's Prayer and is hosted by Pete Greig - the man behind the 24-7 Prayer movement and Jonny Hughes Student Pastor at Holy Trinity, Brompton.

You can access the course online at:  https://www.prayercourse.org/

Call to Prayer

Following on from the last blog here is a copy of that letter:

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ, Lent 2016
Thy kingdom Come, thy will be done ...
A Call to Prayer in the week leading up to Pentecost 2016
As we travel around the country, we are continuously encouraged by the faithfulness,
commitment and courage of all our Partners in the Gospel. Your ministry in sharing the
Good News of Jesus Christ, often in testing circumstances, is an inspiring testimony to the
transforming work of our Lord. We thank God for our partnership in the Gospel.
Like us, you will know that ministry is empty and barren without prayer. That is why we
are taking the unprecedented step of writing to every serving parish priest in the Church of
England inviting you and your people to join us in a week of prayer for the evangelisation of
our nation. In the week leading up to Pentecost (May 8th - 15th, 2016) we long to see a great
wave of prayer across our land, throughout the Church of England and many other Churches.

Our hope is
- for all Christians to deepen their relationship with Jesus Christ
- for all of us to have confidence to share the Gospel
- for all to respond to the call of Jesus Christ to follow Him as disciples, to live out the
Gospel and to seek God’s Kingdom from day to day.

At the heart of our prayers will be the words that Jesus Christ himself taught us - ‘Thy
kingdom come, thy will be done.’ It is impossible to overstate the life-transforming power
of the Lord’s Prayer. It is a prayer that is reassuring enough to be on the lips of the dying
and yet dangerous enough to be banned in cinemas. It is famous enough to be spoken each
day by billions in hundreds of languages and yet intimate enough to draw us ever closer into
friendship with Jesus Christ. It is simple enough to be memorised by small children and yet
profound enough to sustain a whole lifetime of prayer. When we pray it with sincerity and
with joy, there is no imagining the new ways in which God can use us to his glory.
But how? We are aware that many dioceses, cathedrals, parishes, and chaplaincies will already
be preparing to engage in special times of prayer and witness at that time. If this applies to
you, please do not see this letter as an additional burden; we simply ask that your own prayers,
as you engage in your Diocesan or parish plans, should include your longing that more should
come to know Christ.

Only you know the context in which you minister and the opportunities and challenges you
face, so the precise way in which this time of prayer is realised locally will be up to you and
the people you serve. If you go to the website: www.thykingdom.co.uk you will find many
ideas and resources to inspire you. Amongst them are the following suggestions;

As a parish, team, or deanery commit to a week of 24/7 prayer
‘Help my church to pray’ guide
Special prayers in Sunday worship
Prayer walking
An hour of prayer before Jesus Christ in the Eucharist
A novena prayer card handed out to every member of your congregation
A parish retreat or quiet day or a school of prayer.

In addition there will be Beacon events in Cathedrals across the country over Pentecost
weekend (Canterbury, Durham, Winchester, Coventry and St Paul’s), also at St Michael le
Belfrey, York. The dream is this: imagine every Anglican, perhaps even every Christian, in
this nation praying that prayer together with the specific intention that all may come to know
Jesus as Lord. We profoundly hope that you and those you serve will want to be part of this
great movement of prayer. Evangelism is the work of God, and it begins as we seek him in
prayer. It is always good for the Church to pray.

May the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.

Archbishops call for ‘great wave of prayer’ for evangelism during Pentecost

The Archbishops of Canterbury and York are inviting churches to pray for the evangelisation of the nation during the week before Pentecost Sunday.

The Archbishops have written to every serving parish priest in the Church of England expressing their longing “to see a great wave of prayer across our land, throughout the Church of England and many other Churches” from 8th-15th May.

The week of prayer will culminate in ‘Beacon events’ around the country over Pentecost weekend, where people will pray for the renewal of the Holy Spirit and the confidence to share their faith.

In their letter the Archbishops said: “At the heart of our prayers will be words that Jesus himself taught us – ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.’ It is impossible to overstate the life-transforming power of the Lord’s Prayer. It is a prayer that is reassuring enough to be on the lips of the dying and yet dangerous enough to be banned in cinemas. It is famous enough to be spoken each day by billions in hundreds of languages and yet intimate enough to draw us ever closer into friendship with Jesus Christ. It is simple enough to be memorised by small children and yet profound enough to sustain a whole lifetime of prayer. When we pray it with sincerity and with joy, there is no imagining the new ways in which God can use us to his glory.”

The Archbishops are suggesting various ways churches can engage with the week of prayer. These include holding a day or week of continuous ‘24/7’ prayer as parishes, teams or deaneries; saying special prayers in Sunday worship; prayer walking; or handing out a novena prayer card to every congregation member.

 The Beacon events will take place in the following places:

St Paul’s Cathedral (Saturday 14th May) – hosted by the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Richard Chartres, and Pete Greig, founder of 24/7 prayer, with sung worship led by Tim Hughes and Jake Isaac.
Durham Cathedral (Sunday 15th May) – with sung worship led by Lou Fellingham.
Coventry Cathedral (Sunday 15th May) – with sung worship led by Noel Richards.
Winchester Cathedral (Sunday 15th May) – with sung worship led by Matt Redman.
St Michael le Belfrey, York (Sunday 15th May) - hosted by Matthew Porter & Miriam Swaffield with sung worship led by Tom Holmes
Canterbury Cathedral (Sunday 15th May) – hosted by Archbishop Justin Welby and Pete Greig, with sung worship led by Tim Hughes.
Archbishop Justin will send a message via live video link to other Beacon events taking place at the same time as the Canterbury event.

Partners in the week of prayer initiative include 24-7 Prayer, HOPE, the World Prayer Centre, the Neighbourhood Prayer, Network, and the National Day of Prayer and Worship.

For more information, visit: www.thykingdom.co.uk

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Concerning the Baptism of the Holy Spirit

CONCERNING THE BAPTISM OF THE HOLY SPIRIT
Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap

It is important to understand what the Renewal in the Spirit is all about. After the Second Vatican Council, many things in the Church’s life were renewed--the liturgy, pastoral care, canon law, the constitutions and dress of religious orders. Although all these things are important, they are only external things. Woe to us if we stop there and think the task is finished. It is not structure but souls that are important to God. “It is in men’s souls that the Church is beautiful,” writes St. Ambrose...and therefore it is in men’s souls that she must make herself beautiful.

God is Author and Power
The Renewal is a renewal in which God, not man, is the principal author “I, not you,” says God, “make all things new”(Rev. 21:5). “My Spirit--and He alone--may renew the face of the earth” (see Ps. 104:30). From the religious point of view, we tend to view things from a ptolemaic perspective: at the foundation are our efforts--organization, efficiency, reforms, and goodwill. These have the earth here as the center which God comes to strengthen and crown by His grace and our effort.

We must--at this point as the Word of God cries out--”give the power back to God” (Ps. 68:35) because “the power belongs to God” (Ps. 62:12). For too long we have usurped this power of His by managing it as if it were ours, as if it was up to us to “govern” the power of God. We have to totally change our perspective. That is, we have to acknowledge simply that without the Holy Spirit, we cannot do anything, not even say, “Jesus is Lord!” (1Cor. 12:3).

The Baptism in the Spirit is not a sacrament, but it is related to the sacraments of Christian initiation. The Baptism in the Spirit makes real and in a way renews Christian initiation. The primary relationship is with the sacrament of Baptism.

We believe that the Baptism in the Spirit makes real and revitalizes our Baptism. To understand how a sacrament which was received so many years ago, usually immediately after our birth, could suddenly come back to life and emanate so much energy, as often happens through the Baptism in the Spirit, it is important to look at our understanding of sacramental theology.

Catholic theology recognizes the concept of a valid but bound sacrament. A sacrament is called bound if the fruit that should accompany it remains bound because of certain blocks that prevent its effectiveness. Extreme examples of this are the sacrament of Matrimony and Holy Orders received in the state of mortal sin. In such circumstances these sacraments cannot grant any grace to people until the obstacle of sin is removed through Penance. Once this happens, the sacrament is said to live again, thanks to the indelible character and irrevocability of the gift of God. God remains faithful even if we are unfaithful because He cannot deny Himself (see Tim. 2:1-3).

In the case of Baptism, what is it that causes the fruit of the sacrament to stay bound? The sacraments are not magical rituals that act mechanically, without the person’s knowledge, disregarding any response on his part. Their effectiveness is the fruit of a synergy or cooperation between divine omnipotence--in reality the grace of Christ or the Holy Spirit--, and human freedom. As St. Augustine said, “The one who created you without your cooperation will not save without your cooperation.”

The opus operatum of Baptism, namely God’s part, or grace, has several aspects: forgiveness of sins, the gifts of the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity (these, however, only as a seed), and divine sonship. All of these aspects operate through the effective action of the Holy Spirit. But what does the opus operantis in Baptism--namely, man’s part--consist of? It consists of faith! “Whosoever believes and is baptized shall be saved”(Mark 16:16). Along with Baptism therefore, there is another element: the faith of man. “To all who received Him He gave the power to become children of God: to those who believe in His name” (John 1:13).

Baptism is like a divine seal put on the faith of man. Having heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and having believed in it, you have received (of course, in Baptism) the seal of the Holy Spirit (see Eph. 1:13).

Baptism and Confirmation of Faith
At the beginning of the Church, Baptism was such a powerful event and so rich in grace that there was normally not a need of a new effusion of the Spirit like we have today. Baptism was ministered to adults who converted from paganism, and who, properly instructed, were in the position to make on the occasion of Baptism, an act of faith, and a free, mature choice. It is sufficient to read the mystagogic catechesis on Baptism attributed to Cyril of Jerusalem to become aware of the depth of faith to which those waiting for Baptism were led. In substance, they arrived at Baptism through a true and real conversion, and thus, for them Baptism was a real washing, a personal renewal, and a re-birth in the Holy Spirit.

The favourable circumstances that allowed Baptism at the origins of the Church to operate with so much power was that the grace of God and man’s response met at the same time. There was a perfect synchronization.

Infant Baptism in a Non-Christian Environment
But now this synchronization has been broken since we are baptized as infants. Little by little this aspect of the free and personal act of faith no longer happens. It was substituted instead by a decision made by intermediary parents or godparents. When a c child grew up in a totally Christian environment, this faith could still flourish, even though at a slower rate. Now, however, this no longer the case, and our spiritual environment is even worse than the one at the time of the Middle Ages. Not that there is no normal Christian life, but it is now the exception rather than the rule.

In this situation, rarely, or never, does the baptized person ever reach the stage of proclaiming in the Holy Spirit, “Jesus is Lord.” Until one reaches this point, everything else in the Christian life remains out of focus and immature.

Miracles no longer happen, and we experience what Jesus did in Nazareth: “Jesus could not perform many miracles because of their lack of faith” (Matt. 13:58)

God’s Will
Here, then, is what I feel to be the significance of the Baptism in the Spirit. It is God’s answer to this malfunctioning that has grown up in the Christian life in the sacrament of Baptism.

It is an accepted fact that over the last few years there has been some concern on the part of the Church, among the bishops, that the Christian sacraments, especially Baptism, are being administered to people who will not make any use of them in life. As a result, it has even been suggested that Baptism should not be administered unless there are some minimum guarantees that it will be cultivated and valued by the child in question. For one should not throw pearls to dogs, as Jesus said, and Baptism is a pearl because it is the fruit of the Blood of Christ.

But it seems that God was concerned about this situation even before the Church was, and He raised up here and there in the Church, movements aimed at renewing Christian initiation in adults. The Charismatic Renewal is one of these movements, and in it the principal grace is, without doubt, linked to Baptism of the Spirit and what comes before it.

Release and Confirmation of Faith
Its effectiveness in reactivating Baptism consists in this: Finally man contributed his part--namely, he makes a choice of faith, prepared in repentance, that allows the work of God to set itself free and to emanate all its strength. It is as if the light is switched on. The gift of God is finally “unbound”, and the Spirit is allowed to flow like a fragrance in the Christian life.

In addition to the renewal of the grace of Baptism, the Baptism in the Spirit is also a confirmation of one’s own Baptism, a deliberate “yes” to it, to its fruit and its commitments. As such, it is also similar to Confirmation. Confirmation is the sacrament that develops, confirms and brings to completion the work of Baptism.

From it, too, comes that desire for greater involvement in the apostolic and missionary dimension of the Church that is usually noted in those who receive the Baptism in the Spirit. They feel more inclined to cooperate with the building up of the Church, placing themselves at her service in various ministries both clerical and lay, to witness for Christ--to do all those things that recall the happening of Pentecost and which are actuated in the sacrament of Confirmation.

The Baptism of the Spirit is not the only occasion known within the Church for this reviving of the sacraments if initiation. There is, for example, the renewal of the baptismal promises in the Easter Vigil. There are also the spiritual exercises and religious profession, sometimes called a “second Baptism.” At the sacrament level there is Confirmation. It is not difficult to discover in the lives of the saints the presence of a spontaneous effusion, especially on the occasion of their conversion. The difference with the Baptism in the Spirit, however, is that it is open to all the people of God, small and great, and not only to those privileged ones who do the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises or make religious profession.

The Will of God in History
Where does this extraordinary force that we experienced when were baptized in the Spirit come from? What we are talking about is not just some theory, but something that we ourselves have experienced and therefore can say with John, “What we have heard, what we have seen with our own eyes, what our hands have touched, this we also announce to you, so that you too can be in communion with us (see John 1:1-11). The explanation of this force is in the will of God because God was pleased to renew the Church today by this means, and this is enough.

There are certainly some biblical precedents, like the one told in Acts 8:14-17, when Peter and John, having heard that Samaria welcomed the Word of God, went there, prayed for them and laid hands on them so they could receive the Holy Spirit. But these biblical precedents are not sufficient to explain the vastness and depth of the contemporary manifestations of the Spirit.

The explanation, therefore, is in God’s plan. We could say, by paraphrasing a famous saying of the Apostle Paul: Because Christians, with all their organization, were not able to transmit the power of the Spirit, God was pleased to renew the believers through the foolishness of Baptism in the Spirit. In fact, theologians look for an explanation, and responsible people for moderation; but simple souls touch with their hands the power of Christ in the Baptism of the Spirit. (1Cor. 12:1-24).

We men, and in particular, we men of the Church, tend to limit God in His freedom. We tend to insist that He follow a compulsory pattern (the so-called channels of grace). We forget that God is a torrent that breaks loose and creates its own path, and that the Spirit blows where and how He wants. (Notwithstanding the role of the teaching of the Church to discern what actually comes from the Spirit and what does not come from Him.)

What does the Baptism in the Spirit consist of, and how does it work?
In the Baptism of the Spirit, there is a secret, mysterious move of God that is His way of becoming present in a way that is different for each one. Only He knows us in our inner part and how to act upon our unique personality. There is also an external community part which is the same for everyone. This consists mainly of three things: brotherly love, laying on of hands, and prayer. These are non-sacramental but simply ecclesiastic elements.

From the Father and Son
Where does the grace we experience in the Baptism of the Holy Spirit come from? From those around us? No! From the person who receives it? No! It comes from God! We can only say that such grace is related to Baptism because God always acts with coherence and faithfulness. He honours the commitments and institutions of Christ. One thing is certain--it is not the brothers who impart the Holy Spirit, but they do invoke the Holy Spirit on the person. Only Jesus may give the Holy Spirit.

As to the manner of this grace, we may speak of a new coming of the Holy Spirit, of a new mission by the Father through Jesus Christ, or a new anointing corresponding to a new degree of grace.

Thanks, but no thanks!

We had a wonderful day yesterday starting with the awards ceremony where Ruth, our youngest child, received her degree - a 2:1- after thre...