Faith and Works

While getting our boys ready this morning we were flicking through the Children’s Bible and came across the parable of the two sons, in Matthew 21.

There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’

“‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.

“Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.

“Which of the two did what his father wanted?”

“The first,” they answered.

God challenged me directly through this about an area of my life in which I have been saying to God and people involved, “I will do this,” and meaning that, but in practice have not done so.

But then he led  me on from there to reflect wider about what this says about people’s response to God.  This is a little crude, because in reality there are scales and degrees, but I wonder if we can basically group people into 4 categories: those who say they will and do; those who say they will and don’t; those who say they won’t but do; and those who say they won’t and don’t.

The question is, how does God respond to these groups, and particularly the middle two.  The Protestant emphasis on salvation by faith not by our good works has tended to favour those who say over those who do.  But I don’t think that is correct.  In this parable, those who outwardly reject God but still do what he says, are seen as being in the right, whereas those who profess to follow God but their lives do not reflect this, are in the wrong.

And I would suggest the rest of the Bible backs this up.  To give just a couple of examples from the mouth of Jesus: Matthew 7:21, “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven”; and against that the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:37-40 where the righteous are presented as having been oblivious to the fact they were encountering Jesus through their works, but the works are the reason they are welcomed into his presence.

In probably every church in the world there are people who profess to follow Jesus but whose lives consistently fail to bear that out.  Please note I am not talking about there being occasions where we don’t do the right thing – none of us are perfect – but where the whole basis and direction of the life is contrary to the teachings of Jesus.

And there are also those whose lives are lived in accordance with the love of God, even though they would not claim his name, or even actively reject him.  The Bible suggests this latter group are more in accordance with God’s will, but they are by definition not in our churches.  It is challenging to think that there are those outside the congregation who are closer to the kingdom of heaven than some of those inside.

Obviously my aim for myself, and my prayer for each one, is to be in the group of those who say we will follow Jesus and then live according to that desire.  But if I had to choose, I’d rather be outside the church doing God’s will, than inside but refusing to follow his call.

 

 

 

 

 

First year over

Today I received the marks for my last essay of the academic year, and so I have now officially finished the first year of my degree.

And what a year it has been.  I’ve been taught Old Testament by a vicar whose pioneering work with those on the margins gives real insight to issues of suffering and lament; New Testament by a man who manages to be super intelligent and teach us so much yet at the same time be genuinely excited by new insights from us students; Mission and Evangelism by another vicar whose years of experience gave perspective on how to (and how not to) put theory into practice.  I’ve grasped a (very) little New Testament Greek, and I’ve studied Church History at the rate of 200 years an hour!

In the course of the 33 Mondays at college I’ve also drunk well over 100 cups of coffee, and consumed similar number of slices of cake.  I’ve encountered God in times of joyful worship, and deep questioning.  I’ve had many conversations with people who will be friends and colleagues for life, and learnt much from their wisdom and experience.

Most of all I’ve had fun, and I’m looking forward to another 3 years!

 

 

 

Do we want a Christian Prime Minister?

With the Conservative leadership election under way the Christian press and social media have kicked into action.  Some are celebrating the fact that all the candidates profess the Christian faith.  Others are trying to reach a judgement on which of them is the ‘most Christian’.  Lots of prayers for God to raise up a “Godly Christian leader.”

But is that what we need?  Before the referendum a clergy colleague of mine cautioned, “Which of us would have voted for the Emperor Nero?”  Yet it was under Nero that the church was persecuted, Paul was imprisoned, and as a result the gospel spread to the ends of the earth far more quickly than it was doing in more peaceful conditions.

And the same is true in the modern world.  One of the fastest growing Christian populations in recent times is in Communist China, where the church is still oppressed, greatly limited in its activities, and under the constant watch of a suspicious government.  Meanwhile in the West, with freedom of religion and a succession of leaders who have claimed to be Christian, the church is declining numerically and to a large extent in spirituality too.

Which is not to say I would suggest praying for an oppressive dictator to lead this country.  It is just to question whether an active Christian leader would necessarily be the most advantageous for the Christian gospel.

I thank God when our political leaders act according to gospel values.  In recent days some leaders have taken a stand to engage with and welcome minorities in our society – most notably Nicola Sturgeon (Atheist) and Sadiq Khan (Muslim).  Some of our leaders seem genuinely concerned for the plight of the poor and working for a more equal society – at the lead here are Nicola Sturgeon (Atheist) and Jeremy Corbyn (Atheist).  Meanwhile a previous Christian leader, Tony Blair, has been condemned for involving the UK in an unnecessary and possibly illegal war.

There are of course Christian leaders doing good things too.  He doesn’t get much air-time but I like a lot of what I hear from Tim Farron, leader of the Liberal Democrats and Evangelical Christian.  But the point is that selecting a leader who will be best for the gospel, the church, and the country, is far more complicated that looking at their self-declared religious affiliation.  How a person lives and governs is more important than where they say their loyalties lie.

So I am not praying for a Christian Prime Minister.  What I am praying for is the person who God knows will be the best for the cause of his gospel.  I pray for a leader who will work for justice, equality, and peace, the values of the Kingdom of God, whether or not they can be found in a pew on Sunday morning.

 

EU Referendum – a response

In my posts on the Referendum I tried hard not to come down on one side or the other.  My reason for this was a strong belief that as a Christian minister my role is not to tell people where to put their ‘X’, but rather to open up a Biblical angle on the issues to enable people to make their own decision under God’s guidance.

But now I cannot influence the outcome, I feel at liberty to say that I think the British public have made the wrong decision: wrong economically, wrong politically, but most importantly wrong spiritually.  In the short term I believe Brexit will damage the church’s ability to fulfil our calling to bring hope for the poor, relief from suffering for the oppressed, and the message of God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ to the world.

Like many Christians, over the past few weeks my prayer has been “Your will be done.”  So how do I respond now?  Has God’s will been done?  Am I wrong in my understanding?  Where is the message of hope for those who feel angry and hurt today?

As I reflect on this I think I unwittingly preached the answer last Sunday as we looked at Psalms of Lament, and particularly Psalm 137: “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”  Because the will of God being done is not the same as a pain free life.  Jacob and his family going down into Egypt to 400 years of slavery, the people of Judah being carried off into 70 years exile in Babylon, the early church being scattered by persecution: these were all horrific experiences for those involved, but each was used by God to bring about his will.  I’m not saying that God caused the suffering involved, but in each case it was the means by which he moved his people on into the next stage of their relationship with him – the people of Israel formed into a nation in the land God had promised them; an idolatrous people brought back to the living God; a Jerusalem focussed church pushed into fulfilling God’s call to witness to the nations.

And the ultimate example, Jesus who in the garden of Gethsemane prayed more fervently than anyone before or since that God’s will be done, and God’s will was that he should endure the cross in order to open up a new level of relationship with God made available to people of every nation.

So my hope for today is that God’s will is always to work all things for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28).  The times of suffering and lament have so often been the beginning of a new movement of God.  Exile is followed by restoration.  Crucifixion is followed by resurrection.  And so too may Brexit be followed by a time in which the church discovers again and anew the calling which God has given us to bring the gospel to the nations, and learns in a new way to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land.  Then our prayers will have been answered, and the will of God will truly be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Europe, in depth

This might be my last post on the EU referendum, maybe one more if I find an issue I feel strongly about.  This time it’s not me, but Baptist Minister and head of the Northumbria Community, Rev Roy Searle.

You can find his thoughts here.  It’s quite long, but worth a read for a more in depth view on the issues, including the historical place of Christians in the EU and Biblical reflections.

Please note I’m not endorsing everything he says, just offering it as a useful inclusion to those still pondering which way to vote.

 

 

EU Referendum – Migrants are people too!

Most BBC stories covering the movement of people from North Africa across the Mediterranean to Europe, or on across Europe towards the UK, carry the following explanation:

The BBC uses the term migrant to refer to all people on the move who have yet to complete the legal process of claiming asylum. This group includes people fleeing war-torn countries such as Syria, who are likely to be granted refugee status, as well as people who are seeking jobs and better lives, who governments are likely to rule are economic migrants.

I can see why they do this.  One alternative term is “immigrant” which has these days seems to carry connotations of people who are up to no good in one way or another.  “Refugee” is factually incorrect, as not everyone travelling to this country meets that definition.

But I wonder if there is another alternative that could be used?  “People”.  So yesterday’s BBC headline of “Shipwrecks kill up to 700 migrants” becomes “Shipwrecks kill up to 700 people.”  Somehow the latter hits home more – migrants cease to be a different class who we can perhaps mentally worry about less, and we realise they are just like us.

I’m not just getting at the BBC here, in fact they have done more than many news outlets in explaining their reasoning for their choice of words.  Much of our media is guilty, consciously or otherwise, of dehumanising people in their reporting.  One example that hit home particularly forcefully to me was the story a couple of weeks ago of the NHS being overrun by “migrant women having babies.”  Well those babies would include both of my children – they are people, just like you or I – we are all born somewhere.

The Bible is full of stories of people on the move.  The Israelite people escaping from slavery into Egypt, were not welcomed into the land for which they headed, and had to fight to live there.  Centuries later a foreign invading army carried many of them off into exile in a foreign land, and it was 70 years before some of them could return to their home.  Jesus was a migrant – a refugee – in Egypt when just a baby, escaping the tyrant Herod who was trying to take his life.  Freedom of movement is not a new issue.

Having lived in the South East of England for 16 years I understand some of the concerns about overcrowding and pressure on infrastructure.  I am less convinced that the solution is to limit numbers coming in to our country – if you took all the non-British people out of the NHS I’m not sure there would be a health service in the London and the Home Counties.

But others will disagree with me.  The important thing is that, as Christians, we make a decision based on the facts, and based on affirming the humanity of each person.  Whatever the colour of our skin, wherever we chanced to be born, whatever our life circumstances, whether we live in this country already or are seeking to move here, we are each made in the image of God, loved by him, and worthy therefore of complete love and respect.  We are people!

 

 

 

 

 

EU Referendum – it’s not all about “us”.

One uniting factor of both sides in the EU referendum is their emphasis on the supposed benefits for “us.”  For example, the 6 key facts listed on the leave.eu website are all ways in which it would be good for “you”, “us”, or “the UK”.  And nearly every paragraph in the equivalent section on strongerin.co.uk includes the word “our” or “we”. 

It is human nature to think first of the effects on ourselves.  But is it consistent with who we are called to be as Christians?  And if there is an “us”, who is to be included? 

Philippians 2:3-4, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.  Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” 

At first sight this offers a very direct and plain answer to our question.  We are not to act in accordance with what benefits us, but what will be advantageous to others, who are of more value that ourselves.  A closer reading shows that it is a little more complicated, as this is very much in the context of relationships within the church, but in that context at least others are more important than ourselves.  So on a very practical level, if voting one way will make me better off financially, but will cause the person in the next pew to lose their job, there is a question to be asked. 

Luke 6:31, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” 

One of the most quoted of Jesus’s commands.  Once again it raises our eyes, beyond what this will mean for me, to the effects it will have on other people. 

James 1:27, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” 

This is just one of so many verses I could have chosen to illustrate the continuing message of scripture that we have a duty in everything to be considering the poor, disadvantaged, and marginalized. 

All of which seems to be pointing us beyond “my” interests, to consider the impact of my vote on a larger group of people.  The question is, how large?  Should I vote for what will most benefit the people of Beverley, or Yorkshire, or England, or Britain, or Europe, or the world?  Or perhaps it’s not geographical, maybe I should focus on the effects for the poor, or the disabled, or children, or the elderly? 

Some of these may be good groups to focus on, as they may be less well equipped than others to cope with any negative effects from the result.  But I would suggest the Bible really only allows for two possible definitions of “us” in our considerations. 

Galatians 6:10, “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” 

Primarily scripture leads us to a definition of “us” as humanity.  We are called to a global vision.  All people have been made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), all have sinned and are in need of the grace of God (Romans 3:23-24), Christ died for all (2 Corinthians 5:14).  There is no division on grounds of ethnicity, religious background, gender, class etc. (Galatians 3:28) – I don’t like ‘proof texting’, but I believe all of the above to be the clear teaching of the whole of the Bible, and I just offer some verses as examples. 

So primarily we are called to consider the implications of our vote on a global scale.  It is of course impossible for us to know all of these, but there are questions we can ask.  For example, if we believe strongly that to remain in the EU would grow the UK economy, we must also ask what effect it will have on the economies of other European countries, and indeed those outside Europe too.  If leaving the EU will increase job opportunities for British people, we must also consider its effect on employment in the rest of Europe.  This is not natural for us as innately selfish beings, but it is part of the radical call of Christ on our lives. 

If we are to narrow the definition of “us” at all then I would suggest there is only one subset of humanity which the Bible allows us to give preference to.  Returning to our Galatians verse we are to especially do good to “the family of believers”, in other words to Christian people.  This is not something we commonly hear these days, and perhaps sits uncomfortably with us, but if we read the New Testament carefully the early church does seem to have been focused inwards.  Acts 2:45, “They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need” in context implies those within the church who had need. 

That was of course a particular context of a small, new, persecuted movement.  And Jesus’s teaching, not least the Good Samaritan, challenged people to look beyond their own religious communities, both in giving and receiving help.  So I’m not entirely convinced, but I can see there may be an argument for taking special account in our voting of what will benefit Christians in other parts of the world, for example the persecuted church and those living in countries which do not allow freedom of religion. 

But the main point stands, that there is no Biblical defense for looking out primarily for “our” interests.  We are called to have a bigger picture, to consider the impact of our vote on all those God loves, in Britain, Europe, and the world.  And particularly for those in a vulnerable position – the poor, the homeless, the unemployed – who are less able in some ways to look out for themselves. 

As I finish this post there is a graph circulating on Facebook which shows that there has never been a year where the UK has received more from Europe than it has paid in.  This is presented as a bad thing – how we’re not getting our money’s worth.  But in the light of our thinking above I question whether this is right.  The UK is the world’s 9th largest economy, the 2nd largest in Europe.  So surely we should celebrate that for nearly 40 years we have been committed to a system that, flawed and imperfect as it is, redistributes our resources to countries who are more in need.   Jesus would, I am sure, approve!