Friday, 22 September 2017

Open my eyes

There are probably many times that you have read the Bible and it has seemed lifeless. You know the spiritual reason for this – the Bible isn’t lifeless; you are. It’s not the Bible that is the problem; it’s me. The Bible remains God’s Word and the Spirit speaks through it whatever I am feeling. To change the picture, the sun shines each day, whether I can see or not. Someone who is blind may never have seen the sun, but that person’s lack of sight does not mean the sun is not still shining. The problem is with their eyesight.

But knowing that is not always helpful from a spiritual point of view. Ok, the Bible feels dead and the problem is with me, but now what? I can’t just summon up the will to bring the text to life again. True. That’s where this prayer comes in useful: “Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law.” (Psalm 119:18)

This prayer begins with us recognising that we need God’s help to see what is beautiful in his word and asking him to show us, and there are several ways in which this needs to happen. First, our attention needs to turn from the other things that distract us. We all know how hard it is to see how good something is if we have something else in view. For instance, the benefits of a healthy diet are hard to appreciate if you have been brought up on junk food. In spiritual terms we are taken up with junk which seems more exciting and pleasurable, so to start with we need God to take our minds off that. “Open my eyes…” to the emptiness of the things that captivate me at present and help me put them aside.

Secondly, more than just showing how bad something is, we often need someone to explain how good the alternative really is. In our ignorance we often fail to understand the alternative’s real qualities. A few years ago my wife and I were visiting friends in Chicago so we took the opportunity to visit the Art Institute of Chicago where, among other things, we stumbled on an exhibition of Matisse’s work. We wandered around that section of the gallery for 10 or 15 minutes, rather unimpressed, before heading off to other rooms. But six months later we watched a programme about Matisse and saw his work in a new light. Matisse’s style was explained and we began to understand something of its beauty. We both remarked that we could have done with that information in Chicago. We might have appreciated the exhibition more.

We have to admit that this is frequently our problem with the Scriptures. We fail to grasp how beautiful, wonderful, powerful, or glorious the Scriptures are. We have allowed ourselves to be persuaded that they are just words on a page, dead letters from dead writers. We are dazzled by the visual wizardry of our age and all it offers on our small screens, so remain unimpressed when presented with an ancient book. We need to see that it speaks with God’s voice and thus appreciate its beauty. It will challenge us, rebuke us, occasionally terrify us. It will comfort, strengthen, revitalise and sustain. It will guide, give wisdom, teach and instruct. And it will thrill, delight and bless us with God himself.

When the psalmist writes about God’s word he is utterly persuaded of the beauty of God’s word. The whole of Psalm 119 is taken up with the joys of knowing God in his word. The psalmist uses 176 verses to describe that word – statutes, commands, laws, ways, decrees, precepts – alongside speaking of his delight in living by that word. So he talks about discovering God’s strength in affliction because God’s law was his delight (v92), meditating on God’s law all day long (v97), finding God’s words sweeter than honey (v103), claiming that God’s statutes are the “joy of my heart” (v111). He sums it up: “I love your commands more than gold.” (v127)

These are the words of a man who has seen beyond the distractions and diversions. Looking past the dust that blinds us he has found the diamonds. And all this is because he prayed “Open my eyes…” Lord, open mine, too.

Saturday, 2 July 2016

Machiavelli is alive and well

According to former Prime Minister Harold MacMillan a week is a long time in politics and the events of this last week have proved him right again. It was on Friday 24 June that Boris Johnson was leading the Leave Campaign’s victory celebrations after the vote in the referendum went their way. On Thursday 30th, however, he was announcing that he would not be standing for election as Conservative Party leader. His one-time ally and campaign manager, Michael Gove, had announced he was standing as well and this had effectively destroyed Johnson’s chances of winning. So he chose his press conference to announce to a shocked audience that he would not be standing after all. I think this makes it one of the most dramatic moments in politics I have ever witnessed – not just what has happened, but the way it happened is what has set the news alight.

Michael Gove had always maintained that he didn’t wish to be leader of the party, nor that he had what it takes to be Prime Minister. So no one was prepared for him to announce his candidacy just three hours before the deadline, least of all Boris Johnson. It is said that Gove tried to ring Johnson immediately before the event (nothing like letting your friend know in advance!), but that Johnson didn’t pick up. However the Johnson camp insist that no such call was made. Whatever the truth, the drama in these events is worthy of The West Wing, or more likely The Thick of It.

And it very definitely is a drama. Boris Johnson saved his speech until the last moment before the deadline, weaving a description of what the new leader should be for nine minutes before ending with the punchline that left everybody staggering, namely that he would not be that person. Significantly, he quoted from Brutus’ words in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. While relevant to his case, in that it speaks of taking the opportunities when they arise, it is surely meaningful that is comes from the mouth of the betrayer who stabbed Caesar. He didn’t quote Caesar, but surely could have done: Et tu, Brute?

It was interesting to hear Michael Gove talk about his reasons for standing when previously he had pleaded his unsuitability and one remark stood out for me. It was that he was willing to sacrifice his friendships for this. Now, there is a sense in which we must all be willing to sacrifice friendships if a matter of moral principle is at stake. If I discover a friend of mine is, say, selling drugs outside the school gate I should have no trouble handing him over to the police. That may mean we then cease to be friends altogether, but it is a price that must be paid in this case. Maybe that is how Michael Gove sees this situation – he said that he felt Boris would not be able to organise the nation’s departure from the EU. Was this a moral justification for a coup? Or was it just that power was in touching distance, it was too good an opportunity to resist and no friendship was going to stand in the way?

Jesus observed that it is in the nature of human politics that “Gentile rulers lord it over each other.” He was describing what he saw in the Roman and pagan world especially, where political assassinations were real and common. Herod, in whose reign he was born, was notorious for the way he despatched enemies, friends and family, but he was by no means exceptional. But Jesus had a specific reason for mentioning this to his disciples: it was to dissuade them from using the same tactics. We may be surprised to learn that such a warning was necessary, but James and John had just proved that it was. Although Jesus had been talking about his forthcoming death, their minds had been on the coming glory, so they put in a request that they would be given the chief seats in heaven. The angry reaction of the other ten to the brothers’ barefaced cheek reveals that they had wanted to ask the same question and were annoyed that James and John had got in first and elbowed them out of the way.

But Jesus will have none of it and tells them that Christian leadership is about servanthood first – being a slave, actually. With Jesus as the supreme example of self-sacrifice there is simply no room for self-aggrandisement, let alone Machiavellian knife-in-the-back tactics, in those who profess to follow him. There is something ugly about scrambling for position and power, whatever the position sought. That is made all the uglier when friends turn on each other. But it is desperately ugly when it happens in the church – yet the very fact that Jesus has to warn his own disciples about it proves that these are not just sins of the political world. We also will have to guard ourselves very carefully against it as well.

Saturday, 11 June 2016

Loving the stranger

The current debate about whether Britain should leave or stay in the EU has produced some pretty unedifying debate. Rather like the US Republican nominations, we have candidates building their case by belittling others and using point-scoring tactics. Both campaigns, for instance, have warned that the apocalypse is near if we vote for the other side. I confess I have stopped listening. Except at one point, that is. I nearly always listen for what is being said about those who are not like us.

Several years ago I attended the annual conference of a UK evangelical church grouping and went to a seminar about mission in Europe. It was a helpful presentation reflecting on the changes in the previous decade that had given new opportunities for mission, but the questions afterwards centred around the European Union. The seminar had been wider than that, but people were fixated by the EU and their hostility towards it was tangible and sustained. The result was that mission to these countries was forgotten. There were no comments about the doors that had opened in Eastern Europe or the church planting initiatives in former Soviet republics. There was no rejoicing that churches which had flourished under persecution were continuing to grow and were even sending missionaries to other parts of Europe. I wonder how much extra giving for reaching these nations came as a result of that meeting, because missional thinking had been swept aside and people were forgotten in the heat of the moment.

It demonstrated how easy it is for a cause to blind its followers to other people. I am sure that those who attended that seminar were devout and gave money to support the spread of the gospel around the world. But just as some people change personality once they get behind the steering wheel of a car, so these previously mission-minded saints changed once the trigger subject of Europe arose and thought of compassion for the lost evaporated. Loving the stranger became an alien subject.

Loving the stranger is a similarly alien subject in this current referendum campaign. It has produced a rash of hostility towards the outsider in this rather ugly, populist campaign. We have seen the rise of an unpleasant nationalism, which the referendum seems to have stoked up. It operates by blaming those who are not like us for the woes we believe we are experiencing and by proposing their exclusion and removal as the answer. All I can say is that that sort of solution does not have good pedigree.

The Bible urges us to think of the alien and the stranger in active and compassionate ways. It calls upon the wealthy and privileged to share with those in need, to find ways of giving generously and sacrificially to them. It commands them to welcome the disadvantaged, feed the hungry and clothe the naked. One of the most moving stories of the Old Testament that demonstrates this is that of Ruth. A member of the hated tribe of Moab, she married into an Israelite family that had moved to Moab during a famine (economic migration goes both ways). This family had stayed in economic exile for some years, but tragedy struck again when all the men in the family died leaving Ruth, her sister and her mother-in-law Naomi widows. Naomi made the decision to return to Israel and Ruth went with her. How would she fare as an alien with no rights? More than that, as a member of an enemy tribe? The short story shows how she “found shelter under God’s wings of refuge”: she was given work, she was welcomed into the people of God, she married another Israelite and by this became an ancestor of King David, and ultimately found herself in the line of the Messiah.

The account of Ruth demonstrates that there is a generosity in the Bible’s appeals that we think of the stranger, the alien and the outcast. I wonder what would happen to her in the UK today?

Friday, 27 May 2016

Statistically outnumbered

Apparently there are now more people who count themselves as having no religion than those who profess to be Christian in the UK. This change represents a massive jump in professed non-religiousness in just a few years since the 2011 census. It has gone from perhaps a quarter to nearly half the respondents, so Christianity is now statistically outnumbered and some are saying that its days are numbered as well.

Perhaps we should begin there: this is not death of the Christian faith - and those who triumphantly announce this usually show that they are ignorant of the phenomenal growth of Christianity around the the world. Still less are we witnessing the death of God, even though it is perfectly natural to make this assumption. You can see that line of thinking in Old Testament times, when people assumed that if a nation was defeated in battle that must be because their god had been defeated. But the Old Testament prophets steadfastly resisted this notion and boldly proclaimed that God remained sovereign even when his people were defeated. In fact, they insisted that God had either allowed or even brought those defeats about. He was then, and still is now, in control.

What appears to be happening is that nominal Christianity in Britain is in its death throes. For years we have been told that this is a Christian country because 65-70% say they are Christian, in spite of the fact that not all of those even believe in God and only 7-10% ever darken the doorstep of a church. What that means is that most people are Christian in name only, but not really believing and hardly, if ever, practising. They perhaps put "Christian" on a form when going into hospital, say, but that definition forms no real part of their lives or identity. In fact, such a weak attachment cannot hold them, and they inevitably slide away into what Eddie Gibbs has described as a "notional" faith. In such a state they hold increasingly vague ideas of faith until there is no further link with the original and any notion of faith just evaporates. So what these new statistics show is not some drastic decline in Christianity, but rather that people who do not actually believe are now no longer using the label Christian to identify their beliefs. If anything, these figures show what the truth has been all along, but it seems no one wanted to hear it.

And it is not easy to hear. Nobody really wants to admit that Christianity has practically no influence in the life of the nation, but the Bible is more realistic about this. The Bible relates more instances of spiritual decline than we might think in which Israel, God's own people, shut him out of their lives. On one occasion things were so bad that Elijah the prophet genuinely thought he was the last believer left. Ahab the king had introduced Baal worship that had effectively led the nation to change its religion, while Jezebel his queen was murdering the prophets and their supporters who wanted to stay faithful to God. It would be an enormous understatement to say that Biblical faith had lost its influence. But even in such apparently dire circumstances the Lord will not allow his dejected servant to think he has been beaten. He tells him that there are "seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal" and then he outlines how he is going to act.

What that Biblical account means for the future of Christianity in Britain is hard to say. It reminds us that there are always true witnesses to God in every age, who may be outnumbered and outgunned by the changeable majority. It tells us that God may reawaken faith, or he may not. There are accounts of Israel returning to God in the Old Testament, but it didn't happen in Elijah's time. The faithful few remained the few. In fact, this is the usual position of Christianity around the world. Our situation in Britain and the US of cultural dominance is by no means the norm. Elijah's experience of isolation and irrelevance is far more common and it appears that we are just returning to the default position. Frank Skinner wrote a couple of years ago that at least this means you have people in church who want to be there, rather than a mass of people who go to be seen going or because it is the done thing. True, but it is nevertheless not easy to contemplate Christianity becoming a cultural irrelevance (or worse) to the vast majority. So we need to take encouragement from Elijah's experience - it is as if it was written for times like these. God has not lost control, but is working out his purpose that we cannot see. Following him although others abandon him is still worth it and should fill us with hope to serve him diligently. We need the determination of another of Israel's leaders faced with people turning away: "As for me and my household" said Joshua, "we will serve the Lord." Who knows what may come of such faithfulness? He is Lord, his word is true, Jesus is risen from the dead, and nothing in these new statistics changes any of that.

Friday, 13 May 2016

Everything is on the record

There has been a bit of storm in diplomatic circles this week over two semi-private conversations that have made their way into public knowledge after being filmed. Both the Queen and the Prime Minister were caught, on unconnected occasions, saying things that caused a stir and left officials red-faced. The Queen was talking to the Met Police commander Lucy D’Orsi and made what were termed “unguarded remarks”, in the course of pre-event small talk, about how rude Chinese officials had apparently been. And David Cameron was recorded making some very pointed observations about the most corrupt places in the world, once again in the presence of Her Majesty – although some people don’t think that particular comment was a gaffe.

The problem for our leaders is that increasingly sophisticated cameras, and more particularly their microphones, can pick up virtually anything. It is much easier to snoop than it used to be, so public figures can have no informal conversations before an event unless they are behind closed doors, and perhaps not even then. What this means is that “everything is on the record, now”, as one reporter has recently commented. Private conversations or interviews can easily be recorded and splurged on the next day’s headlines, as Vince Cable found out a few years ago. Phone photos or videos can be shared and in few moments have attracted the attention of millions of viewers. There are few secrets that can be kept for very long.

Jesus did not have a surveillance system in mind when he talked about the secrets of our hearts being exposed, but maybe we should retain the concept to help us appreciate what he is talking about. On one occasion he spoke about each of us having to give an account of every careless word we have spoken. It is our words that show where our hearts are; what is on our hearts often overflows into speech and actions. On another occasion, he says “There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs.” This is the day that the Bible anticipates when God calls everyone to answer for the life they have led, “the day when God judges people’s secrets through Jesus Christ.” On that day “books are opened” and the records are read.

This week’s reports indicate that the media like to hold leaders and dignitaries to account for all their words, whether public or private – and I detect a certain amount of self-righteous delight in their finding gaffes that will embarrass the public figure in question. Suppose someone was to do that to them? But what Jesus says is that God holds everyone of us to account not just for all our words, but our thoughts, attitudes and motives. That is far more stringent and any honest person will realise just how far short they will fall of that standard. The way we speak produces one level of problems; what we do in thought and attitude is something else. The “secrets of people’s hearts” are not for public consumption, and for good reason. There are things in there that I would not want others to know, indeed things that will condemn me utterly before God.

You are God who sees me” is the way one woman described what she found out about God, but she speaks of it with a note of assurance and comfort. Everything certainly is on the record. Struggles, joys, tears, victories as well as defeats, setbacks, growth in Christ, faith and battles with doubts, hope maintained in the face of despair, perseverance in pain, love. It’s all there; nothing forgotten. But the God who sees me and understands me perfectly loves me in spite of that, because Jesus came to forgive the sins of the heart. His death on the cross to remove sin ensures that those who believe in him are cleansed from everything that is unrighteous – gaffes included – and they can greet that day with calm assurance and look up into his face with joy.

Friday, 6 May 2016

Give to Caesar

I’m still not sure who I should vote for. I looked at the ballot papers yesterday and wondered if there was anyone whose policies even approximated to what I believe. Some were obviously so far from anything sane that there was no problem dismissing them. Others just looked incompetent. But most of the others were an awkward mix of views and policies that sounded quite reasonable at some points and unacceptable at others. All made sweeping promises that it is hard to believe will be kept, while many have background beliefs and philosophies that I do not accept, so my voting pencil hovered for a while. I realise that my problem is not quite so difficult as Christians in the US are going to find in November. Many would more naturally vote Republican, but now that Donald Trump has secured the party’s nomination, they simply have no idea how they are going to vote. They cannot (rightly) contemplate voting for Trump, but what is the alternative? It looks like it is going to be Hillary Clinton who represents the Democrats, and there is no way most evangelicals would vote for her with her record on abortion (to take one example), so 8 November is going to be a difficult day. I don’t envy them.

As Christians we often have a rather diffident relationship with the authorities that govern our nations. This is because, unlike the Jewish state in Old Testament times, we are not led to expect a nation that will have a Christian government. The picture in the New Testament is of believers scattered throughout the world, distributed across the nations and among the peoples. They do not form a nation with Christian policies, government or armies. Rather, they act as salt across those nations to prevent decay; they function like leaven or yeast in the lump that works its way through the loaf, a small amount exerting significant influence. This means that there are times when they have some influence on the society in which they live, while at other times they are at risk because they are so much in the minority. Sometimes the authorities listen to them and afford them protection; at other times the authorities turn against them. So it is no surprise that, even in democratic society, where we have a good deal of freedom and choice, there are times when we feel vulnerable and marginalised.

Although Jesus did not live in a democratic society (anything but – it was under Roman occupation), he defined for us what the relationship between believer and state was to be. “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” is what he said when answering the thorny question of paying taxes to the occupying Romans. That means that the society in which we find ourselves does have legitimate claims over us. We pay taxes, for instance, because that is Caesar’s realm. In fact, Paul says that the authorities are appointed by God and we should submit to them for that reason, and give not just money, but respect to them who do that work. For this reason also we also participate in the democratic process, even if we are not convinced about those we vote for. We know they cannot keep all their promises; we do not agree with everything they do or stand for; we know they are sinners, like us, but at least we can pray for them.

We must not forget the other side of Jesus’ words: “give to God what is God’s.” This adds a complication because it tells the authorities that we will submit to them, but only up to a point. They have rights over us, but they are not the first authority we bow to. That place belongs to God. Paul says that we are citizens of a heavenly country, living temporarily on earth under the authority of an eternal King. We anticipate the day when we will go to him and when his heaven will come down to earth, but in the meantime live as his people in the world. It is no wonder, then, that we should sometimes feel uncomfortable, unrepresented, or out of sorts with the political scene. That’s because we are out of sorts. We don’t fit and are not supposed to. But we still have responsibilities to Caesar, even if we don’t see eye to eye with him. So in the end I put a cross next to one who came sort of close, who was perhaps less far from my persuasion than others (in some areas). At the same time, I prayed for God to have mercy, give them wisdom, maintain justice and uphold truth. That is not something included in Caesar’s “How to cast your vote” instructions, but it is in God’s.

Friday, 29 April 2016

Hiding from the truth

Now that the verdict has been delivered that the 96 victims of the Hillsborough disaster were unlawfully killed people are asking legitimate questions about why it took so long for the truth to come out. The story fed to the public from that terrible day itself was that the fans were drunken louts and brought this on themselves, but now we know that the truth was covered up. So that is twenty-seven years in which those who died were maligned and wronged, and in which their families had to fight to be heard against sustained opposition from higher authorities.

Twenty-seven years is a long time for the false account of events of that fateful day to run and it has come as a shock to learn that British police could have orchestrated such a cover-up and denial for so long. The fine details of just who did what have yet to emerge, but the raw fact that the truth was distorted has been hard to hear. People my age were brought up with the image of the friendly bobby, utterly trustworthy and honest; that image is rather tarnished at the moment.

Sadly, covering up the truth is one of the most natural features of human nature. Psychologists will tell you it begins in children when they start to form their own identity as individuals and realise that others cannot see everything they do. The Bible has a more fundamental description than that when it pictures the actions of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. They were given just one rule (yes, there was only one rule in those days!) that they could not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but they managed to break it. As if that was not bad enough, they then hid from the Lord when he came looking for them, tried to cover up their mistakes and shift the blame onto someone else. Apart from observing how futile it is for someone to try to conceal something from God, it is highly significant that the earliest chapters of the Bible describe the immediate consequences of our sinfulness in these terms. The first thing we do is cover up. We do not want to be found out, or admit the truth when we are. So we hide, deny, distort, or blame others. Anything to avoid the pain of facing up to the truth about ourselves.

And yet face up to the truth about ourselves is exactly what we must do, first of all with God. Adam and Eve cannot seriously have thought they could hide from God or conceal what they had done, yet their desperation led them to attempt to do just that. So in the interview that follows God extracts from them an admission that they had disobeyed him, but in doing so they pass the buck: Adam blames Eve; Eve blames the serpent. Their excuses do not wash with God, but it demonstrates neatly that such tactics are built into our sinful nature. We are ashamed of what we do, so we construct flimsy excuses to cover our nakedness. The fig leaves, however, cover nothing. Placed under God’s searching spotlight we have nowhere to hide; we may refuse to come into the light for fear that our deeds will be exposed, but he sees us anyway and nothing is hidden from his sight.

The path of returning to God therefore always begins with an honest admission that we are guilty. The Christian life starts with a confession of sinfulness and a prayer that God himself would remove that sin and cover our guilt. The miracle is that he has made the way for us to do that in Jesus Christ, and this then creates a pattern of life for the Christian: we are open with God, and we are open with other people around us. We have tasted his forgiveness for our sins, and realise how liberating it is, so we seek to be open and honest about our failings to others. We will always battle the temptation to return to the methods that got Adam and Eve thrown out of the garden. There will always be a strong pull to use the tactics we are now learning were employed on the Hillsborough victims. But at heart we know that this is not a real option for us. As Christians we are walking in the light, so we cannot return to the shadows. The cover up has to end.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

I’m worth every penny

The recent revelations about the way the super-rich hide their fortunes and fail to pay tax has highlighted the vast inequalities in wealth that exist even in our country, never mind what it tells us about inequalities around the world. So today in The Guardian there is an article about Sir Martin Sorrell, big chief at WPP, defending his bumper pay package that is likely to hit £70m. He is not, as far as I am aware, under investigation for having concealed his fortune in a Panamanian offshore account. Rather it is the size of the remuneration that is in question, and some think that share-holders will revolt against it at their annual meeting in June.

Sorrell’s argument is that he is worth every penny of it and he has answered his critics robustly to justify the amount. He points out that he has worked hard for 30 years to make WPP into the world leading company that it is, with the result that it is now valued at £21bn with share values climbing steeply, all of which will be a significant benefit to those shareholders who might complain. He is just claiming his share of the success. The sweat of his brow has brought its rewards and he is entitled to it.

It begs the question: What is a person worth? There are only 24 hours in a day, so how is it that one person is worth the equivalent of around £7,990 an hour, every hour, whether working or sleeping, while another person is worth just £7.20 an hour, and then only for the hours they work. The inequality expressed in those two figures is simply staggering. Is the regular worker really worth that much less in our society’s eyes?

What we are doing here is trying to measure people’s worth in monetary terms, by what they earn, and that doesn’t work very well. We are more than the money we earn each day, or the fortunes we amass, but looking only at pounds or dollars hides that. It turns people into commodities and assesses their value in terms of their cash value, rather like slaves in a market. The result of such a way of thinking is that we esteem and honour the rich and successful, while we look down on the poor. People compete to give special attention to the rich, yet push the poor aside, ignore them because they don’t count, or strip their benefits from them because it is costing us too much to support them.

So what is a person worth from God’s perspective? God measures worth radically differently. He sees us, both men and women, first of all, as made in his image. There is an inherent dignity in that description that trumps any talk of monetary value. It places a most significant value on all human life, from the womb to the deathbed, and without distinction. It places us all on the same exalted plane – made to be like God and sharing his image. And this image is not lost because we are all sinners (another great leveller), rather it explains the reason for God’s action in sending Jesus. The great news of the gospel is that because we are in God’s image, God gave his own Son, Jesus Christ, to die for our sins and save us. This means that he now accepts us in Christ as his own children. We are welcomed into his family, cleansed from sin, secure and heaven-bound, his sons and daughters through Christ. We may call him Father and he acknowledges us as his very own children.

What we should not miss in all of this is that, to do this, God had to pay a price for us. That price was not paid “with perishable things such as silver or gold… but with the precious blood of Christ.” Neither banknotes, cash nor offshore accounts would suffice to redeem us, but God was willing to pay. He gave himself. His own life was the payment to redeem us. If that doesn’t both astonish and liberate you, then you haven’t understood the heart of the good news. There is a sense in which our sin makes us worthless. It corrupts and pollutes us so that, even though we are made in the image of God, we are desperately unlike him and cannot reach him. But he comes to rescue us and gives his own life to achieve that. He pays the price to the full, demonstrating that, worthless though we are, he counts us as worth dying for. This is what a person is worth: He bought us with his own blood. He did that for me. £70m? That doesn’t even come close.

Monday, 11 April 2016

A secure identity in Christ

Justin Welby (photo from The Guardian)
It has been refreshing to hear the media talk postively about the Church of England recently, or more particularly about the Archbishop of Canterbury and his reaction to the news about his paternity. It turns out the Gavin Welby was not his father after all, but rather Sir Anthony Montague Browne, who was Sir Winston Churchill’s private secretary and who had worked with Welby’s mother in Downing Street. It seems that the likeness between Sir Anthony and Archbishop Welby was striking enough for people to notice and The Telegraph asked if he would undergo a paternity test, thus providing the evidence.

Justin Welby’s reaction was straightforward: “There is no existential crisis, and no resentment against anyone. My identity is founded in who I am in Christ.” He added, “I know that I find who I am in Jesus Christ, not in genetics, and my identity in him never changes.” Writing in The Guardian, Archie Bland expresses a certain degree of surprise at this reaction: “Welby’s response was extraordinary for its unabashed acceptance of the compromises that decorate most human relationships, and for his insistence that the news could not define him.” Maybe he is used to leaders who airbrush inconvenient facts out of their history, and even knows church leaders like that (although I can’t think of any recent Anglican archbishops who would be of that character). That would be a rebuke to the church wherever such leadership existed. Justin Welby’s response demonstrates the honesty, openness and integrity that church leaders should display. He has already been open about the “grim” aspects of his childhood that could have derailed him or sent him the same way into alcoholism as the man he has until now called his father. So now, when this news comes, he takes it with calm understanding and acceptance. This will not unseat him, either.

What is key in his self-understanding is his identity in Christ and the complete security that brings, and it is heartening to see it in action in the way Welby has responded. That security comes as a by-product of salvation in Christ. When anyone comes to Christ, confesses their sins and put their trust in Christ they receive the forgiveness of those sins, the assurance that they have been reconciled to God through Jesus and the guarantee of God’s love. They therefore stand “in Christ”, accepted as God’s children because of what Jesus has done and completely secure. So their identity – my identity – lies in Jesus Christ, and nothing can take that away.

This is the heart of the good news. God signals the rebels, the desperate, the corrupt, the polluted, the outcast, the unloved, the sinners, and invites them all. He urges them to trust in the Saviour he has provided for them, that is Jesus Christ who dies on the cross for their sins. Once in him, they cannot be lost for he has paid all their debt and has brought them into a family from which they can never be excluded. God is now their heavenly Father and nothing can alter their status as his children. “Perfect love” like that therefore “drives out fear”. Changes in earthly circumstances do not alter this heavenly fact. The deepest tragedy does not signal a change in God’s love. This assurance is the ultimate bedrock to life and the archbishop has just shown us what it looks like and where to find it. Let’s pray many are inspired to discover it for themselves.

Thursday, 7 April 2016

Your wealth has rotted

Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the innocent, who were not opposing you. (James 5:1-5)
The recent leak of more than 11 million files from an agency in Panama detailing the lengths the super-rich go to in order to conceal their finances is a reminder, if we needed one, that New Testament writer James’s words are still relevant. In his day it was actual coinage you dealt with and you had to hide your stash physically, probably in a hole under your house. Today you can do it digitally, all around the world, but the principle is the same. You find ways of covering what you own and not paying what you owe. These files give details on super-rich tactics for not paying legitmate taxes, laundering money to evade taxes and who knows what other methods employed by the world’s rich to ensure their hoards remain hoarded. The Icelandic Prime Minister has already resigned over revelations about his personal financial conduct while the entire nation was faced with bankruptcy, and he will no doubt not be the last.

Lest anyone should think that the New Testament is against money and wealth, let me point out immediately that there is no condemnation of money in and of itself. It is what it does that causes the problem. Paul’s famous one-liner is not that money is the root of all evil. Rather, it is “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil”. So it is not that money lies at the root of every single crime, rather that every kind of evil has at one time or another been justified by an appeal to money. It is the love of money that is the corrupting influence; money in itself is neutral. But the warning about its power should not be ignored.

James thus accuses the rich of his day of hoarding their wealth by failing to pay what they owe their workers. In New Testament times workers taken on, say, for harvest, were paid on a daily basis. If that wage was withheld the worker’s family went hungry the next day, so James thunders like an Old Testament prophet about the injustice of living in “luxury and self-indulgence” while those to whom you owe wages starve. His words are uncompromising: God will take action and you will find that you have just “fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter” like Christmas turkeys on a five-star diet in the autumn.

The whole of the Bible is consistent in its denunciation of the greed that drives people to amass a fortune at others’ expense, whether that is by hiding the truth, paying late, passing on corrupt material, excusing poor workmanship, cutting corners or just stashing it away in a cave somewhere offshore and fixing the laws to ensure no one else can get their hands on it.

You trample on the poor and force them to give you grain… You oppress the righteous and take bribes and you deprive the poor of justice in the courts… skimping on the measure, boosting the price and cheating with dishonest scales, buying the poor with silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, selling even the sweepings with the wheat… Am I still to forget, O wicked house, your ill-gotten treasures, the short measure, which is accursed. Shall I acquit the person with dishonest scales, with a bag of false weights?
Tolkein’s picture of wealth-amassing greed in The Hobbit is very apt. It is Smaug the dragon, living in his cave amid a gargantuan heap of treasure, and stirring only to go out to plunder more or defend his massive hoard when it is threatened.

But we must not lose sight of what the Bible says about the spiritual state of the rich. Once again, money in and of itself does not prevent anyone from coming to know God – there are some rich people who serve God faithfully in the Bible’s pages – but the love of money may create an insurmountable barrier. On one occasion Jesus issued a challenge to a very rich but dissatisfied young man: give it all away, Jesus said, and follow me. Although he did not ask that of everyone, he needed in this case to know where the man’s trust lay. It didn’t take long to find out: the man walked away. The gospel writers tell us he was sad, so evidently part of him wanted to follow Jesus, but when forced to make a choice he put his trust in his money. Maybe that is what these 11 million files are going to reveal above all. Sure there will be revelations of corruption, intrigue, money-laundering and tax dodging. But more than anything else it will reveal the affairs of a group of people who have put their trust in the treasure they have stored up on earth – and we know what Jesus says about that. Just make sure that you, with your smaller stash, aren’t doing the same.