Wednesday, 25 March 2015

The Epistle for Palm Sunday

Philippians 2.5-11 (NRSV)
5Let the same mind be in you that was* in Christ Jesus,
6who, though he was in the form of God,
   did not regard equality with God
   as something to be exploited,
7but emptied himself,
   taking the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8   he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death—
   even death on a cross.

9Therefore God also highly exalted him
   and gave him the name
   that is above every name,
10so that at the name of Jesus
   every knee should bend,
   in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11and every tongue should confess
   that Jesus Christ is Lord,
   to the glory of God the Father.

Barclay reminds us that Paul’s theology was always meant to be practical and not just theoretical, philosophical ponderings. What one believes has a huge impact on the way one lives. Paul wanted to persuade the Philippians to live a life that reflected the life of Jesus, the Messiah and so, in this passage, reminds them of the example of Jesus.

He was humble, obedient to the point of death and lived in a selfless way. He did not desire to dominate others, in fact he was willing to ‘… set aside his majesty …’ and served all. He did not desire to get his own way, but only to live God’s way; he did not want to exalt himself at all but rather to lift others up.

Easy words to type – difficult words to live!

Imagine if the people in the Church were to live this way; selfless and serving each other. I reckon that Churches would begin to fill up again. But all too often, even in the Church, we see self-seeking and ambitious and, as Barclay so aptly puts it, “Selfishness, self-seeking and self-display destroy our likeness to Christ and our fellowship with each other.”

Jesus won the hearts of people, not by good argument, persuasive speaking or force, but by love – by ‘… showing them a love, a self-sacrifice, a self-renunciation, which cannot but move the heart.’ It is always selfless love that becomes irresistibly attractive.

This  illustration from the experience of the China and Inland Mission (CIM) makes this point. Sadly, I cannot recall the exact details or the reference, but the essence of it is that a young man felt drawn to a particular area in China while praying with a map in front of him. He persuaded the CIM authorities that this was what God had called him for, and after due preparation, he was sent out. He was welcomed by the people, but after a short while, was told by the chief that he was very welcome to remain with the people, but he was to cease preaching. So convinced was he of God’s call to be with these people that he remained until his death and never preached another word. On the death of the chief, his heir wrote to CIM and requested a replacement missionary because all the people were curious to find out more of what the missionary had been forbidden to preach about. When the replacement arrived, he began telling the people about Jesus, but was stopped by the people because they said: “You keep talking about the missionary who has died; we know about his life, tell us of the God he followed!”

And there was revival!

Barclay adds to this by a lovely blend of phrases:

“A man does not say ‘I cannot resist a might like that.’ He says, ‘Love so amazing so divine, demands my soul my life, my all.’ A man does not say, ‘I am battered into surrender.’ He says ‘I am lost on wonder, love and praise.’ … Worship is based not on fear, but on love.”

No one comes to Jesus in a really meaningful way until they come because of His love. Preaching hell fire and brimstone I believe is wrong, because it defaces the image of Christ. People will seldom come to Christ as a result of a debate or argument – so it is fruitless for people like George Carey to appear on popular television programmes trying to argue with those who have already decided that Christianity makes no sense to them; but people are attracted to Christ and come to faith, and lasting faith, when they are drawn to a life that is filled with divine, agape love. It works all the time.

And so, God gave Jesus another name …

Renaming someone when something dramatic has happened has always been part of biblical tradition: Abram became Abraham; Jacob became Israel. For Jesus, it became ‘Lord’ derived from the Greek ‘kurios’ which originally meant master and so a title demanding respect. It became the official title of the Roman emperors in its Latin form ‘dominus’ and it is the Greek form of Jahweh plus Adonai which in the Old Testament refers to God as Lord.

Jesus is the ‘King of kings and Lord of Lords’, nothing less than divine.

In this passage Paul reveals the mind of God in verse 11 – that ‘… every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord …’ Barclay suggests that these words form the first Christian Creed.

This is the essence of our faith. We cannot explain it; it has been the cause of countless debates and even arguments, but what matters is that people can say that ‘for me’, Jesus Christ is Lord. This should be all that is required. John Wesley in his famous sermon on the Catholic Spirit stated that as Jehu said to Jehosophat in the Old Testament: “Is thine heart right as mine is with our Lord? if it be so, give me thine hand …” so should we!

This ought to be the basis of Christian fellowship, that for ‘me’ Jesus is unique, and if our hearts are filled with love, then we are Christian. Barclay explains: ‘… Christianity consists less in the mind’s understanding that it does in the heart’s love.’

The day will come when all people will call Jesus Christ Lord because they will do so ‘… to the glory of God the Father …’ And by not doing so now, they miss out on what life really is all about.

Everything Jesus did, was not for his own glory, but the glory of the Father. Jesus draws people to himself so that they can come to God and find life. At the heart of the Gospel is the sacrificial service of others by Jesus, the Messiah who calls us to follow his example.

Indeed, human and divine meet in the Eucharist and I believe that, in a heavenly moment, God reaches out to us and touches us in the most intimate way as we share this sacrament together. I too believe that it includes a dimension of remembering – as our Lord Himself commanded – ‘Do this in remembrance of me …’ It does indeed recall the sacrifice of our Lord, but I struggle to think that it is repeated as time is something created and the ‘one off’ of the Cross is unique.

It is this most wonderful and intimate of sacraments that can be a source of the greatest blessing but also has been the source of some of the most horrendous travesties. People have been slaughtered at worst and made to feel excluded and worthless and everything in between because of it – and this is a great shame. In Paul’s day, some were excluded, which led to his strong words of rebuke to the Corinthian Christians.

To pick up the theme of the earlier part of this reflection; I am not concerned what people believe about this because what matters is that it inspires us to love others with Christ’s divine, sacrificial love (agape). I am of the view that, like the Incarnation, we will never be able to understand the mystery of the Eucharist and indeed I am delighted that this is so, because if we could, then much of its beauty and intimacy would be lost. ‘You know that you have passed from death to life because you love one another,’ the Apostle John writes. And this is the miracle, that the Sacrament inspires us to love the loveless and the lovely.

We fall short of Christ’s call when we exclude others, especially from the intimacy of fellowship with God and one another at Holy Communion. This is what it really means to be Catholic (and sadly where Roman Catholics fall short by excluding others from this sacrament and by the attitude that only they have the right way to God.)

And so we return to the ‘all’ of the Gospel. Jesus died for ‘all’ – so that ‘all’ might live. It is just a pity that so many in Europe reject our Lord and that so many Christians drive others away who might otherwise come, because of the barriers they place in the way.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Passion Sunday

John 12:20-33 (NRSV)

Some Greeks Wish to See Jesus

20 Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ 22Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour.

Jesus Speaks about His Death

27 ‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—“Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 28Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’ 29The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, ‘An angel has spoken to him.’ 30Jesus answered, ‘This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people* to myself.’ 33He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

It is a wonderful truth that this passage reminds us that Jesus is for all people – without exception – no not distinction (as I once believed). The death of Jesus is powerful to save the whole world and all those who ever lived, live now, or will live in the future – all without exception. That many refuse the gift is another matter – it is nevertheless for all. And we know that those of us who have accepted it, have been enabled to do so by the grace of God, so that no one may boast. This is one of the great mysteries of our faith, and who knows, perhaps more people are ‘saved’ than any of us could ever dream of. Perhaps it is only those who deliberately harden themselves and become so conditioned that even when confronted with the evidence – what John Hick speaks of as eschatological verification – when we meet our Lord in Glory – and still reject the offer of grace and love – that these are the only ones who are lost. Maybe none? What about Hitler, Stalin, Polpot? Thank God that this is His business and not mine.

But it is clear from this reading that Jesus is for all – not only the Jews – also the Greeks. Paul of course echoes this in Romans 1:16-17 (the verses that brought Martin Luther to his great understanding of the Gospel) that it is by grace through faith – a gift – offered to all “… the Jew first and also to the Greek.” It is this emphasis on free will and choice for all that is at the core of Methodist understanding and is encapsulated in Wesley’s Rule of Conduct:

Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.

We are required to treat all people as those for whom Christ has died. I fail dismally all too often and stand convicted as a type these words. I believe that we, as Christians, need to beware that we do not fall into the trap that had been the experience of the Jews of Jesus’ day, and think of ourselves as an exclusive group.  As John Marsh puts it:

“The revealed religion given to Israel through Moses was not intended to be or become Israel’s possession; it could only be kept by the paradox of passing it on.”

I am reminded of the experience of Mary Martin before a stage production of “The Sound of Music”. Oscar Hammerstein noticing her exhaustion slipped a note into her hand before she went on the stage. She performed as she had never done before, and when asked what had happened she showed the note, which read:

A bell is no bell till you ring it,
A song is no song till you sing it,
And love in your heart wasn't put there to stay,
Love isn't love till you give it away.

We are challenged to give to all the love that God has filled our lives with – and when we do this, it grows in our lives and we enable people to “ … see Jesus …”

Indeed, the paradox of the Christian faith is that it turns things on their heads. We have noted in past reflections how “God thinks otherwise” and here we have another example.

To many, death is the end; it is final and that is it. But we know that death is far from the end but the real beginning, because it is only by death that there can be life. Paul picks this up with the notion of dying to sin and rising to new life, a wonderful image. Again he speaks of the physical body being transformed into a spiritual body. Barclay reminds us of the idea of dying to self and uses that great Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Laing’s example of hearing the voice of God saying “You are wanted” which resulted in him burying personal ambition which freed him to become useful to God. Jesus refers to a grain of wheat which, when buried, bears much fruit and spreads.

Again Barclay refers to the image of spending life rather than preserving it as a comment of Jesus’ words of losing life in order to gain it and once again makes the distinction between existing and really living. Spending life can be costly, but it is only by service that real greatness can be achieved. Barclay cites the example of a real Christian attitude which is a challenge to me. He speaks of a retired Salvation Army member who moved to London just when the Blitz began. For some unknown reason to the people of the region, Mrs Berwick’s house seemed to be safe. It would have been perfectly understandable if she just kept to herself, for she had indeed spent her life in service to others and was retired, but she felt that she must do something. She cobbled together a simple first aid box and put a notice in her window: “If you need help, knock here.”

What a testimony this is, especially in our times. Service seems to be something of the past. People are reluctant to do anything unless they can get something out of it for themselves. Barclay comments: “They may well become rich, but one thing is certain – they will never be loved, and love is the true wealth of life.”

What also strikes me about this passage is our Lord’s anguish. He, like all of us in times of real testing, must have felt great temptation to shy away from what lay ahead of him. This is John’s reference to our Lord’s anxiety that the other evangelists refer to in the Garden of Gethsemane. Barclay makes the vital point that real courage does not mean that the person concerned is not afraid, in fact the truth of the matter is that the courageous are often terrified ‘… and yet they do the thing that ought to be done … God’s will meant the Cross and Jesus had to nerve himself to accept it …’It is all too easy to trivialise the Cross and the horror it must have meant for Jesus; and it is also all too easy to forget that we are called to bear our own crosses. Putting things right in the world cost God a great deal. We are called to be witnesses to the truth and to stand up for what is right and just – and this too will be costly. Are we willing to pay the price? I am once again reminded of those important words of Niebuhr who challenges us to remember the costs involved, for otherwise:

"A God without wrath, brings people without sin, into a kingdom without judgment, to a Christ without a cross."

God is angered by sin and the suffering it causes; there will be judgement but redemption is freely available to all who would accept it, and it is free and unconditional. But when we accept it there is a price to pay; but the reward is real living. Jesus responded to his own fear with the words: “No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.”

I am once again reminded of these important words:

There are two important days in any person’s life: the day one is born and the day one finds out why! Jesus was able to face all that came his way for many reasons, not least because that was why he came to earth.

It is good to be reminded that God speaks clearly to us still today; I believe God speaks to us all the time. I remain convinced that we need to do a work of retrieval and redeem the Church’s focus on the Bible as our greatest source of God’s truth for today. But as Barclay suggests, “Are we listening?” It is all too easy to forget that God also speaks in many different other ways as well, including the “still small voice of calm”. Do we spend enough time listening for the voice of God? I know I do not.

God has spoken through His Son, Jesus, and while we might not have His exact words and even though most of us only work in translation, I believe the Holy Spirit is there to guide us into all truth as we reflect on the words of the Bible. I believe the author to the letter to the Hebrews puts it in a nutshell: THE LETTER TO THE
God Has Spoken by His Son

“Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, 2but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son ...

Jesus also speaks to us through others, as Mother Teresa explained using an important and stark example; she spoke of how she would think about Jesus and then go and seek him in the poor and destitute of Calcutta. This is really challenging, but in accord with our Lord’s own words in Matthew 25.

Jesus is lifted up whenever we declare the truth of the Gospel as we faithfully expound the message of the Scriptures. When we do this, Jesus gives us the privilege of being his instruments to draw others to him. May you be blessed as you listen, and expound God’s truth to others.


Thursday, 12 March 2015

John 3:14-21 (NRSV)

John 3:14-21 (NRSV)
14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.* 16 ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’*

My text this morning is written in John 3.21:

21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’*

The incident that John refers to here is the time in the desert when there was a plague of snakes and people were dying and Moses was instructed to make a brazen image of a snake and when he lifted it up and the people gazed upon it, they were saved.  This is recorded in Numbers 21:4-9 and is a remote story only really known in Christian circles because John makes the link with Jesus.

The people began worshipping the image as an idol and, finally, in the days of Hezekiah, it had to be destroyed because of this (2 Kings18.4). The healing power lay not in the brazen serpent; it was only a symbol to turn their thoughts to God. When they did this, they were healed.

Jesus was lifted up on the Cross and when we look on the cross, sign ourselves with the sign of the cross or offer the Blessing – Jesus is lifted up - our thoughts are turned to God and we are touched by God’s peace.

We are reminded that Jesus did not take the easy way and so must we avoid taking the easy way. Jesus did not refuse the Cross, neither must we; because the Cross was the way to glory for Jesus and it will be for us too.

This first point ends with the words in verse 15: “…whoever believes in him …” These are important because they include the words “…may have eternal life …”

What does it mean to “… believe …?”

I believe that it means believing that God loves us, cares for us and wants nothing more than to forgive us. This would not have been easy for a Jew of those days to accept, because they looked on God as law-giver, a judge and one who demands sacrifices and offerings. To get into God’s presence one had to pay a price. Now Jesus reveals that God is a Father, “… who longed for nothing so much as to have his erring children come back home.”

God had tried to make this clear through His intervention into the life of the people of Israel and Judah and through the prophets, but they could not see it, so it cost the life and death of Jesus to make this clear.

How can we be sure of this? Because John begins his Gospel by explaining that Jesus is the Word of God – the same as God – one of the great mysteries of faith, and so whatever Jesus says about God is true. It also means accepting Jesus’ message and obeying his commands. In Sum: Belief that God is a loving Father, that Jesus is the Word of God and then following him in obedience, are all vital ingredients in what it means to “believe in him”!

What does it mean to have “eternal life”?

Barclay suggests that eternal life is the “very life of God Himself”. If we possess eternal life, what do we have? Peace with God – having God as a loving and forgiving Father; peace with others whom we are ready to forgive because we are so freely forgiven; peace with life – even though we do not understand it any better and are perplexed by it - but we will not resent it anymore, and peace with ourselves. Barclay comments on what this means for us as individuals:

“He knows his own weakness; he knows the force of his own temptations; he knows his own tasks and the demands of his own life. But now he knows that he is facing it all with God. It is not he who lives, but Christ who lives in him. There is a peace founded on strength in his life.”

And this peace is only a shadow of the peace which is to come.

It is good to be reminded that we have the peace of God which passes all understanding – the words I often use when introducing the Blessing after having begun an act of worship with the words: “The peace of the Lord be with you …”

Linked with your thoughts here again we see that it is God who takes the initiative and is motivated by His love for all that he was willing to make it possible for people to have eternal life which is to share life with God.

God does not need to be pacified; He is not a wrathful God, and Jesus is not the lightning conductor that deflects God’s wrath and satisfies it at the moment when he cries out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me!” In my heady days as an undergraduate, I preferred the AV translation of ‘hilasterion’ in Romans 3:24 as ‘propitiation’ because all this is encapsulated in this word. But over the years, as I have walked with our Lord, I have come to the understanding that ‘expiation’ is far more appropriate (and equally valid translation of this word) – and refers rather to “atonement for sin” and ‘atonement’ is the word most translators prefer. God is not angry and Jesus not the gentle one ready to forgive; it is the mystery of both incarnation and atonement that I do not need to understand; it is something I know because it is part of my being, or as Paul puts it in Romans 5 because “I have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” This is something more profound than just cognitive, mental understanding, it is part of one’s very existence – God’s Spirit testifying with my Spirit that I am one of his children – unearned and undeserved – a gift!


It all started with God, who sent his Son, because he loved the people of the world.

Indeed, this is central to John’s understanding of God and this is beautifully represented in his Epistle where he simply states: “God is love!” Barclay puts it this way:

“God acting not for his own sake, but for ours, not to satisfy his desire for power, not to bring a universe to heel, but to satisfy his love … God is the Father who cannot be happy until his wondering children have come home. God does not smash people into submission; he yearns over them and woos them into love …”

Augustine puts it even better: “God loves each one of us as if there was only one of us to love.” I will never even get close to the example of people like Mother Teresa – but God will still love me as much as he loves Mother Teresa – all because of Jesus and his grace.

Here we encounter the paradox of love and judgment. The experience of love can turn out to be an experience of judgment. Barclay tells of an art gallery where there are some of the world’s great masterpieces and one of the visitors comes to the end of the tour as states:

“Well, I don’t think much of your old pictures.” The attendant answers quietly: “Sir, I would remind you that these pictures are no longer on trial, but those that look on them are.” All that the man’s reaction has done was reveal his own blindness.

When people are confronted with Jesus, their souls ought to be attracted to him – “But if, when he is confronted with Jesus, he sees nothing lovely, he stands condemned.”

God sent Jesus in love, so that man might be saved, but it can become a condemnation when man condemns himself.  This is because, in our natural state, we love darkness rather than light.

I believe this is one of the reasons why our churches are emptying. People in the west are increasingly attracted to the darkness. When they come into the light they become acutely embarrassed because, deep down, they know of their guilt. The experience of Christians ought to be different; when we compare ourselves with our Lord we see ourselves as we really are, but the difference is that we want to be like Jesus and so we invite him into our lives, we repent and seek God’s grace and His Spirit so that we can become more like our Lord.

When preaching is faithful, it will show us who we really are. For those who place themselves under judgment and condemnation, this is the last thing they will want to see. They prefer being able to hide in the darkness. If a person loves Jesus, they will want the light to reveal where they fall short so that they might be transformed by the love of their Lord.

To put it starkly: If anyone was to have challenged someone like Mother Teresa and pointed out her weaknesses and shortcomings – she would have wholeheartedly have agreed with them and prayed for forgiveness. Suggest to anyone who is not a Christian that they are not a good person and they will be outraged and will defend themselves most vehemently. And in so doing they reveal that Jesus, who was sent in love, becomes to them, judgment. This is beautifully illustrated in Zechariah’s prophecy:

“Then he showed me the high priest Joshua standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan* standing at his right hand to accuse him. 2And the Lord said to Satan,* ‘The Lord rebuke you, O Satan!* The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this man a brand plucked from the fire?’ 3Now Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the angel. 4The angel said to those who were standing before him, ‘Take off his filthy clothes.’ And to him he said, ‘See, I have taken your guilt away from you, and I will clothe you in festal apparel.’ 5And I said, ‘Let them put a clean turban on his head.’ So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him in the apparel; and the angel of the Lord was standing by. 6 Then the angel of the Lord assured Joshua, saying 7‘Thus says the Lord of hosts: If you will walk in my ways and keep my requirements, then you shall rule my house and have charge of my courts, and I will give you the right of access among those who are standing here.” (Zechariah 3:1-7, NRSV)

Coming into God’s presence is like coming into a great light – and reveals that our garments of righteousness are like filthy rags. But he clothes us “… in righteousness divine …” and gives us the command to “… walk in his ways and keep his requirements …”

We are justified by grace through faith and this is not our own doing – it is a gift of God – so that no one can boast.  And so we love coming into the light, because we know we are not condemned. We also want to become what we have been declared to be and so we want to light to reveal our shortcomings. Jesus put it this way:

21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’*


Sunday, 1 March 2015

1 Corinthians 1:18-25 Lent 3

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

Christ the Power and Wisdom of God

18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ 20Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

Both to the cultured Greek and to the pious Jew the Christian message seemed like pure folly. Paul knows this and expresses it clearly. The Gospel still – for many – just does not make any sense! Paul makes the point that all the wisdom in the world had never found God – and this too remains true even today.

Let’s look briefly at the essence of the Christian message:

1. God has come to the earth and taken on the form of a human;
2. The ordinary carpenter from a remote and insignificant settlement – was indeed this God incarnate;
3. Jesus rose from the dead;
4. Jesus of Nazareth is the fulfillment of the majestic Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament;
5. Jesus will come again to judge the world – the living and the dead;
6. There is an urgent need for people to repent and receive the promised gift of the Holy Spirit.

For Jews, being hanged in any form was a sign that one was accursed of God (Deut 21.23) so the crucifixion of Jesus was ultimate proof for them that Jesus was not the Messiah. Even though Isaiah 53 speaks of a suffering servant, the Jews never dreamt of a Messiah that would suffer. Jews also looked for signs – startling things. Jesus had performed many miracles and wonders and signs, but he was still too humble and meek and avoided the spectacular and ended up on a cross. Barclay concludes: “… it seemed to them an impossible picture of the Chosen one of God.”

In Britain particularly, Jesus has not been taken seriously by an increasing majority, especially since the 1960s because it just does not seem to make sense. Even senior clergy have taken pains to ‘prove’ that the Bible is unreliable, a mere fallible and very imperfect document that has in fact been discredited.

But what of the experience of credible and intelligent people? Some of the greatest British minds have been those of profound faith in this same Jesus of Nazareth who they have found, intimately and personally, to be who he claimed to be, not because this is a rational thing, but something much more sophisticated – faith – what Kierkegaard claimed was the essence of what it means to be human.

Rowan Williams, Alistair McGrath, John Polkinghorne, Keith Ward, John Macquarrie, Richard Swinburne – all acknowledged as some of the greatest intellects of our time – and all men of the deepest and profound belief in the Christian message summarized above.

It is time that we stop worshipping at the shrine of reason and the limits of the human intellect, because that is to flatten and narrow human existence (to use an expression of one of the greatest philosophers of our time – Charles Taylor – and a lay Roman Catholic Canadian – not the African dictator!). Even when we have understood everything that it is possible for a human to understand – there is more – much, much more. It is available to all, not just to the great intellects, because it is God’s gift to humanity in and through the anointing of God’s Spirit Himself poured out into the hearts and minds of all who would receive it. It is called faith and it makes all who receive it wiser than human wisdom, stronger than human strength.

The Greeks sought wisdom. The Greek word for wisdom is ‘sophist’ and means ‘a wise man’ in the good sense. But in time, it came to mean ‘… a man with a clever mind and cunning tongue, a mental acrobat …’ sadly, Greek Philosophy degenerated into endless hours discussing ‘… hair-splitting trifles …’ They also ceased to try to find solutions but simply enjoyed the argument.

There is something to be said for this because, as a philosophy teacher, I think it is healthy to question everything. But there must be some point, or else we fall into the trap of losing focus and becoming like the medievalists who argued about the number of angels that could fit on the head of a pin! Charles Taylor makes the point that what really matters to us can easily go to an extreme: like individualism becoming a self-centred and becoming a form of selfish atomism; efficiency and reliability can become a worship of technology and e.g. nursing becomes a technological enterprise where nurses are technicians instead of people caring for vulnerable and sensitive human beings. He does not advocate either the position of a supporter or a detractor or even take a middle road position. He advocates doing a work of retrieval – re-discovering what is good about what has become warped.

I think we need to do a work of retrieval of the importance of Biblical study and reflection and redeem the Bible as God’s inspired word from the extremes of fundamentalism at the one end and complete dismantling on the other. I think we need to do a work of retrieval of the centrality of subjectivism and the importance of religious experience as a valid and crucial way of knowing God from the insistence on empirical proofs that simply do not exist and that (to use Taylor’s expression again) narrows and flattens our lives.

God is completely ‘other’ and we cannot know him simply through reason. But this does not mean that we throw reason away. We use reason and faith. Becoming subjective is also something that needs retrieval. It is not something that is unreliable because it is personal and not objective; it is at the core of what it means to be human. As Kierkegaard put it: becoming subjective is above reason and a central part of what makes us human. Where would we be without love, hope, joy … all subjective, all vital and all of infinitesimal value?

This is part of the wisdom of God – that we ‘know’ God both by our minds and by faith. Once more it is a matter of both / and rather than either / or.

The power of God (verse 24) is available to believers through the preached word. O’Conner suggests that this proclaimed word ‘... is confirmed by the existential witness of the personality of the preacher.’ But as verse 24 makes clear, not all who hear the proclaimed word hear ‘a call’ which enables them to respond. It only makes an impact on those who have accepted Christ. All are offered God’s grace, and those who receive it and accept it, preaching becomes a call. O’ Conner continues: “... on those who refuse this grace preaching makes no impression, whatever the qualities of the preacher.”

Here we have Paul, once more, speaking about the divine initiative and human freedom. People are on the way to salvation because they have accepted the freely offered gift; others are on the way to destruction because they reject what is offered to them.

Paul reminds the Corinthians of the make-up of their community. In human terms people assume that it is the wise, the rich and powerful, and the wealthy who effect the greatest changes in a community and so one would expect God to work through them; but in order to reveal His power, God does the opposite and chooses the foolish, weak, low and despised to achieve his purposes. The Corinthians were not the dregs of society; some were well-educated, and others had all the privileges of power and noble birth, but this was not true for the majority. Yet their world was transformed by all of them working together by the grace of God.

As always; God does extraordinary things with the ordinary ...