Sunday, October 16, 2005

Faith and Politics

On the prison island of Patmos, the Apostle John sat down one day to write words which still ring with power and joy:

“To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father - to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.”

These are not the words of a prisoner miserable he was imprisoned by the Romans with few prospects of personal improvement. John could see a glory shining long after the fall of the Roman empire. The conviction that as a believer his sins had been forgiven and he was a priest in a new kingdom gave him a dignity and mission that captivity could not destroy.

As believers in this Gospel, John is one of the giants on whose shoulders we perch. We are called into Christ’s kingdom and with it come the joys and responsibilities John knew and embraced. But we are in a dramatically different physical and social situation to the writer of Revelation.

Where he was in chains, we have freedom and prosperity unparalleled in human history. We can proclaim the amazing news about Jesus Christ and not fear persecution. Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights enshrines the right to be controversial.

The church has a tremendous track record of operating at its best when being persecuted. But instead of being locked up Christians are now offered the chance to run schools, charities are handed grants, and broadcasters are given licences.

If John arrived in Britain today we would probably understand what it means to have an “embarrassment of riches”. Just as filmmakers wonder what Rembrandt would have done with a movie camera or how Beethoven would have played an electric guitar, we can look around at the opportunities present in a liberal democracy and ask, “Where do we start?”

Rembrandt in one of many self-reflective moments

Behind this is the question which Christians ask daily, often with a furrowed brow: “Lord, what on earth is your will for my life?”

These cries are heard in heaven. Just believing that God is listening and will answer is a radical thing to do. It is a rebuke to both the humanist notion that God is unknowable and therefore we should live as if he didn’t exist, and the theological idea which has been stultifying the church for centuries that God is a passive being no longer energetically involved in shaping and loving his creation.

When we feel meaningless, powerless or downright confused, we should read again John’s declaration that Jesus “made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father.”

Therefore, we have an identity and purpose which is more exciting and challenging and eternal than anything which can be written on a birth certificate or a passport. We belong to a community which would otherwise have nothing in common - not even a language - but who are ordered to somehow be united in love.

For some reason, it is God’s will that the people with whom he has made his home and given his Holy Spirit should live in this world in space and time. When all authority on earth and heaven was given to Jesus he didn’t decide to destroy the society which had just crucified him, instead he gave his human friends an incredible commission: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

What has Jesus commanded us? In the Sermon on the Mount and in the stories of his life he shows us how to lead lives that will be a blessing even to our enemies. He subverts the priorities of greed and revenge of a pagan world not with violence but with love. In honouring God’s commitment to justice and peace we witness and worship his reality.

With such a brilliant role model as Jesus, it is clear that we should be doing something to be salt and light in society. The question remains: “What?”

Occasionally, the notion pops up of forming a Christian party and using the mechanisms of democratic power to become the Government. There are quite a few reasons why this is probably not a very good idea:

1. In a pretty secular culture, securing sufficient votes for an explicitly Christian manifesto would be almost impossible. The evangelical social activist Jim Wallis noted in 1976: “We must recognise that a true word from God will always be offensive and disrupting to those who have defined their lives autonomously. God’s revelation will never seem congenial to the presuppositions of secular society and culture.” Also, if mainstream parties knew Christians were voting en masse for a religious organisation they would have no incentive to listen to their views.

2. Believers’ ultimate loyalty is to the body of Christ, not the “national interest”. When trying to work out trade policy, would a Christian policy protect struggling farmers in Powys and slash their subsidies and bring a chance of prosperity to impoverished brothers and sisters in the developing world? If this seems like a tough decision, think how the electorate would respond to faith-inspired equivocating when “national security” is involved.

3. We have a very bad track record of trying to create utopias. Previous attempts have usually involved conquering the enemies we are supposed to be loving. When called before Pilate, Jesus said in John 18: “My kingdom is not of this world. if it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.”

Just as Peter was rebuked by Jesus for picking up a sword and attacking the men who came to arrest him, so it would be a mistake for Christians to start using the dark arts of spin and denigration of rivals for a false victory at the ballot box. It is God’s will to see a good society flourish; both Government and the church have exciting and distinct roles in making this happen.

One of the greatest challenges facing politicians today is how to stop society splintering into different groups which look at each other with suspicion and fear. Is it possible for people of different languages and religions to live together with anything other than distrust? Can racism and extremism be held back? Is there anything which can bind us together?

If the church should have one specialist subject area, it must be loving our neighbours. The story of the Good Samaritan shows how when this principle is put into action, ethnic and religious wounds can be healed.

So if we are to obey Christ’s teachings, we must be looking for ways to show his love to the poor and the disgraced. Political power can establish rights which protect different groups of people by putting fences around them. But politics cannot compel us to love those with whom we share a nation. The Holy Spirit, however, can.

Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan during a conversation which began with a question from an expert in the law: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” A church that tries to love God without loving one’s neighbour will be like a one-winged bird: lying on the ground, wondering why it can’t fly while slowly dying.

True evangelism, where we welcome the stranger into a new kingdom where he or she will become our brother or sister and a child of God, can only have a transforming effect on society. In Northern Ireland it is when Christians have shed the nominal labels of Catholic or Protestant that the most astounding reconciliation has taken place. At the most simple level, the growth of the kingdom can only be a good thing. Teachers and social workers cite the lack of self-esteem and the absence of role models as one of the causes of the suicide, addiction and delinquency which threaten so many children. Christ’s resurrection has made it possible for us to invite people into the world’s biggest family.

Contemplating the wonders of this reality - studying scripture and joining in prayer and praise - is one of the best things that somebody who wants to change the world could do.

The theologian Stanley Hauerwas writes: “We do not learn about the demands of the kingdom by learning about freedom and equality; rather, we must first experience the kingdom if even we are to know what kind of freedom and what kind of equality we should desire.”

Politicians rightly work to promote a nation’s prosperity, but while the pursuit of happiness is a much better goal than the pursuit of, say, nationalism, it is important that we testify that the quality of a society is not solely determined by the bank balances of its citizens. A community where a Rolex is considered of greater value than social justice will soon start to rot. In the priorities by which we live our lives, we can demonstrate the new ways of living that the resurrection has made possible.

Jim Wallis wrote: “Because the ultimate triumph of the kingdom is sure, we are freed not to live according to the world’s standards but to participate boldly in its coming. The church is called to be the first fruits of the kingdom, a body of people who can begin to taste what God wills for human life and society.”

William Wilberforce was born in the 18th century when supposedly “decent” people considered it perfectly respectable to kidnap and sell Africans. Wilberforce, however, was a member of a small congregation of people who placed the highest importance on meeting together, praying, studying scripture, and seeking God’s will. When Wilberforce looked at the character of God and teaching of Jesus, when he saw the incredible dignity inherent in every created human being, he recognised the slave trade for the abomination it was and dedicated his life to ending it. It was on his death bed he learned of its abolition. His friends played pivotal roles in ending the exploitation of children. The paradox is that the more intimate our relationship with God is, the greater will be the blessing we can bring to the world.

Many Christians believe that just as the slaves of Wilberforce’s time were not considered full human beings because doing so would be an economic inconvenience to society, so the sacredness of the unborn has been forgotten. In the 19th century, more than 1m people in Ireland starved to death after the potato harvest failed; a simple change in Government policy could have changed the course of history on that island, but preserving the economic doctrine of non-intervention in the economy seemed of more value than human life.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the most famous martyrs of the Second World War, was among a group of Christians alarmed at how a spiritually shallow church had lacked the conviction to oppose Nazism, even as its stench rose into the highest office in Germany. He did not believe in violent revolution, but he believed a people who had the privilege of glimpsing revelation had a responsibility to identify and fight the spread of sin.

He wrote: “It is part of the church’s office of guardianship that she shall call sin by its name and that she shall warn men against sin... If the Church did not do this, she would be incurring part of the guilt for the blood of the wicked.”

Bonhoeffer was challenged by reading the third chapter of Ezekiel - verses 17-18:

“Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me. When I say to a wicked man, ‘You will surely die, and you do not warn him or speak out to dissuade him from his evil ways in order to save his life, that wicked man will die for his sin, and I will hold you accountable for his blood.’”

Ezekiel did not live in a democracy. We do. Not only to have the freedom to take part in public debate and to vote, but the system depends on our involvement for it to function. A democracy is only as good as the commitment of its citizens. If we have the opportunity to vote - or even stand for office when we believe we can make a real contribution for the good of everyone - we have a responsibility.

Poverty in the developing world is matched by a poverty of imagination, vision and moral leadership among the rich nations. A series of signatures on a sheet of paper could end the scandal of people dying from dirty water and mosquito bites in the 21st century. We are at a point in history where we have the financial power to change the world. This power may ebb away, which is why it is so important we seize the challenges of this era of opportunity.

Never think that a letter to an MP goes straight into the bin. People who have been voted into jobs are acutely interested in what voters think. Nothing is as prized in politics as the discovery of a good idea.

Confusion and uncertainty define public debate on so many public issues. How should society deal with subjects such as human cloning or gay rights? The Bible may not offer ready-made solutions for our dilemma-ridden times, but it has a wealth of principles and brilliant ideas. As a church we need to delve into scripture. If we do not ask ‘What does the Bible teach?,’ who will? If we hear the prophetic voice of the Holy Spirit and remain silent, how will God judge our generation?

And in communicating truth, it’s essential we heed Jesus’ attitude to the “sinners” of his day. Our question should not be, “How can we demonise those who would silence us?” but “Who are our enemies and how can we love them?”

Incredible damage has been done by people claiming to be doing God’s will. It was the dream of Popes and Cromwell to recapture Jerusalem. A study of the New Testament would have shown that anyone claiming the use of violence can be used to promote the kingdom of God is on incredibly shaky ground. When we want to know what God’s will is, we should put some faith in the power and possibility of prayer and ask him. God’s word helps us identify evil, and Christ’s life shows us how we should confront it.

A theologian with the marvelous name of William Stringfellow wrote in his book Suspect Tenderness: “Tactics cannot be severed from ethics, and imitation of the enemy is the most common way in which ideology has been confounded, idealism corrupted, and revolutions rendered futile.”

Yes, a lot can go wrong when Christians get involved in the world outside the church doors. But just as it would be bad news for patients if fear of litigation stopped surgeons from entering the operating theatre, we have a duty to care for the world God created and loves so much at such cost.

The books of the so-called Minor Prophets glow with God’s rage at poverty and injustice. If God is so concerned for the widow and the orphan and the alien, we should seek his wisdom when we try to bring them hope and help. If we know that politicians are turning their hair white trying to solve “crises” in healthcare, pensions and housing, let’s ask God for guidance in these everyday issues.

Christmas is the story of God becoming a man, making himself vulnerable and sharing in the chaos of this world. He is interested in the minute aspects of the human life.

As Jesus says in Matthew 7: “Which of you, if his son asks for bread will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him?”

So if society seems in urgent need of a just policy for immigration, biotechnology, trade or social services, let us ask that the Father of justice will reveal one to the men and women who have been elected to Government.

Paul told Timothy: “I urge, then, first of all that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone - for kings and all those in authority, that we live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” (1 Tim 2:1-2)

The call to serve in Government is a noble one. While some might conclude that it is a “necessary evil” for a nation to sometimes have to go to war to prevent the march of evil, we were given a mandate to tend creation before the Fall.

In Genesis 1 God says: “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let him rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

The preservation of freedom, the restraint and punishment of evil and care for the vulnerable are pursuits God can bless.

Rather than pray for the downfall of their ruler, Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome: “He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment to the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.”

Even Bonhoeffer did not lose his faith in the potential for Government to work in a way pleasing to God.

He wrote: “Whether or not Government is aware of its own true basis, its task consists in maintaining by the power of the sword an outward justice in which life is preserved and thus held open for Christ.”

This year, great decisions about the preservation of life are being taken. Questions are being asked about when life can be made in a petri dish and when it can be ended in a hospital bed. If we don’t pray for policymakers and contribute to the debate where we can, how can we complain about the outcome?

There are great Christians in all the main parties in Britain. The fact they can hold wildly differing views is to be celebrated. It is good when the two great steeds of judgment and mercy are pulling us in different directions. In a creation as rich and varied as the one God has given us it is unthinkable that one political party could hold the solution to every problem. The strategy for Christendom in the 21st century should not be a forceful domination of the public square but a saturation of grace.

What would a great Conservative party look like? What type of policies would a godly Labour party promote? How would the Liberal Democrats act if they were filled with people who prayed for wisdom?

It would be a splendid thing if Christians joined such parties so as to contribute to that wonderful concept, the common good. Party membership is plummeting across the Western world, contributions of ideas are desperately needed, and the opportunities for influence and service have probably never been greater. It is just as important that believers are in such organisations to ask the right questions as to try and give the right answers.

Our ultimate home as Christians is in another kingdom whose revelation all creation awaits. While this age continues, let us welcome new people into the body of Christ with urgency and joy. May we be the people that a state is blessed to count among its population, witnessing to a greater hope than a human mind can conceive.

One of the many comforting aspects of the Bible is that for every example of a human being doing something right, there are several where things go spectacularly wrong. With almost grinding repetition, kings do “evil in the sight of the Lord.” Men and women seem to have the best relationship with God not when they are convinced they are ruling with his authority, but when they are in a state of exile, like Daniel, the Babylonian trio who refused to bow before the statue, and Esther and Mordecai. Great things happen when we serve as stewards, waiting for our great God to work and then following his lead.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Evolution - is this a battle we should be fighting?

A newly PhD'd friend who can look at a rock and see millions of years within its contours is getting asked, "If evolution is a theory, why do you choose to believe it over God's word?"

Behind this question is a forest of presuppositions and prejudices which have been having a destructive effect on the church and society for several centuries. Fighting for and against evolution has become a holy war, with the biology classroom a contemporary Jerusalem for both the zealots and the infidels.

This is bad for Christians, who should be at the forefront of studying God's creation (which, after all, is an expression of his glory). It's also disastrous for scientists such as Richard Dawkins, who perceive faith to be about the propagation of angry dogma, because this is the form they most frequently encounter. This encourages their students to believe they have to make a choice between God and science.

This is as downright stupid as a film studies student feeling they could either believe in the historical existence of Walt Disney or his films, but not both.

Now, I don't have the scientific background to plump for evolution as the means by which we were created. But I strongly believe that regardless of whether it is true or not it is in no way a threat to faith. I may be completely wrong about this - it's little more than a gut feeling - but let me elaboarate for a few paragraphs, and then tell me what you think.

If evolution is a theory that is true it is yet more evidence of the incredible complexity and creativity of God's creation.

It is just as "unbelievable" that a collision of cells can result in the creation of a human being, but this has happened more than six billion times in living memory. There is no magic supernatural event - no "quickening" - but the entire process could not be happening if a universe powered by divine inspiration had not been created in the first place.

So just as God lets us "create ourselves" instead of sending angels to nick ribs etc, I wouldn't find it in the least surprising if the universe develops in the same way as a human being: starting with a few atoms and acids it unfolds into something of outstanding beauty and awesome power. The "big bang" which takes place when an embryo is formed could be a microcosm of the larger work of creation which is ongoing.

Far being a negation of the presence of a creator, it is a reflection of his genius and glory.

So why are Christians spending millions of dollars and euros fighting the study of evolution, and why does this matter? This is important because the fierce objections to evolution may represent a hangover of a pagan way of looking at the world. This involves God being simply the most powerful creature on the stage - someone who goes about making planets and doing some smiting and rewarding. The God revealed in the Bible is radically different to the deities of creation myths.

Christianity is not focussed on explaining who it was that made the first artichoke (although it does deal with such fascinating matters). It is the revelation of God in Jesus Christ and his mission to unite his creation with himself. Evolution can seem a threat if Genesis is read as a science textbook rather than the first dispatch in this saga of redemption.

The story begins in the first pages of Genesis and continues with the choosing of Abraham and a people who will witness to God's character. Then God steps into this narrative in the person of Christ, and he proceeds to bring those who believe in Him into a divine union through the gift of the Holy Spirit. This new chapter, in which the Holy Spirit enters and transforms the lumps of matter we call humans, is even more fundamentally amazing than the first painting of the stripes on the zebra. In the Old Testament the clusters of atoms have miraculously gained an awareness of its creator, and now they have somehow become something other than matter - an eternal creation.

Another friend whose mastery and love of science is equalled only by his talent for biblical exposition wrote in a recent correspondence:

I reconcile my belief in God and my belief in the validity of the scientific method in the following way:
1) God is truth (biblical assumption)
2) God created all things (biblical assumption)
3) God's creation should contain elements of his character
4) God's truth should therefore pervade creation itself
5) God's truth is communicated through the Bible (biblical assumption)
6) Science is an exercise in finding the truth in the universe (working out the rules,science is right when it is true etc)

Therefore: If science is a way of finding out truth from the universe (about the way it works) and the Bible is also a representation of God's truth, then the two cannot be in disagreement. When the Bible disagrees with science on what is true then the interpretation of one of them must be wrong...

I'm willing to admit (quite happily in fact) that we get our interpretation of the Bible wrong as much as we get our science wrong. I'm also willing to admit that non-Christian (even atheist) scientists can have discovered truth through their science. So, when people argue science from the Bible I have to check it against non-biblical science. You can't win the argument simply by saying "the Bible says" - because what you are actually saying is "I believe the Bible says" or "my interpretation of the Bible is". And where you use those words in relation to deriving science from the Bible you are treading on very thin ice.

God gave us logical minds and he expects us to use them. My application of logic finds more problems in the theories which support a six day literal creation than it does in accounting for the problems with evolution and an old earth.

He concludes:

To do science you have to make certain assumptions:
1) The universe is homogeneous. The rules are the same throughout.
2) The universe is constant. The rules don't change with time.
3) The universe is consistent. It is not allowed to break it's own rules.

These three are fundamental characteristics of God, hardly suprising then that they have to form the bedrock on which we build our science.

Opposition to evolution is fast becoming a doctrine of faith. This must be fought, because far from protecting biblical Christianity from the challenges of living in the modern world, it is an indication that in our reading of the bible and thinking about God we are taking neither seriously enough.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

The Unmerciful Servant

"The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.
When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made.
So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.' And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.
But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, 'Pay what you owe.'
So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you.' He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt.
When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, 'You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?' And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt.
So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart."
Matthew 18:23-35

One of Paul’s most fabulous lines is in his letter to the Ephesians: “Be imitators of God”.

If there is anyone in the universe whom it should be impossible to imitate, surely it must be God?

Can we summon a mountain out of the sea or make the red hills of Mars sprout with trees? How many of us never figured out how to program a video recorder? I struggle to open milk cartons.

But Paul was ready to urge a gaggle of first-generation believers to imitate the source of all creation. He said, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”

Forgiveness is no less amazing a concept than any of God’s other creations. It is perhaps both His greatest gift and challenge to humanity.

The amazing gift of grace is the fact that God has decided to forgive us for our sins. He has acted out of his own free will to make peace with us - to spare us from punishment.

But he expects us to follow his example. There it is in the Lord’s Prayer - “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”.

That a line like that is in the heart of the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples suggests that forgiveness isn’t something we need to give and receive once a year, like a Christmas present. No, it should be as much a part of our lives as our daily bread.

On a superficial level, Christianity can seem one of the easier of the world religions. We’re not asked to pray a set number of times each day, there’s not much ceremonial washing and no obligatory pilgrimages.

But, actually, wouldn’t it be easier to travel to a shrine on the far side of the globe rather than forgive a family member or a friend who’s caused us to shed tears or thump a door in anger?

Yet the Bible tells us that God’s Holy Spirit is living in each one of us, making possible things that would, yes, be completely impossible otherwise.

We also have a God who wants to make Himself known to us. He desires that we may know every aspect of His glory and mercy. And while our minute human minds can never hope to grasp the magnitude of his world-forging power, we can experience Him working through us if we let Him.

Furthermore, He wants to be seen to be working in our lives. He has chosen to make us His ambassadors, and He desires that people in this world will be able to look at the Church and catch a glimpse of His love at work.

Religion becomes stale and boring when we forget how amazing a task God has set us. Christians are not supposed to come together to talk about God. They are supposed to together experience God’s power and forgiveness.

The difference is as great as going to the cinema to see The Perfect Storm and actually getting on a fishing boat and setting out into a hurricane force storm.

Jesus was adamant that we realise the fullness and wonder of this new kingdom he had come to establish. The problem was (and is) that humans have a hard time living as if His kingdom is real. As children, we learn that there isn’t a Santa Claus and that dragons are not going to burst into our bedrooms. And as adults, when a bible passage asks us to do something seemingly staggeringly unnatural we start looking for loopholes.

This is what people did when Jesus started laying down the rules of His kingdom. Jesus told the parable of The Unmerciful Servant to shock his audience into taking his words seriously.

You can almost sense the exasperation Jesus might have felt when he told the story. The passage in Matthew is flanked by examples of people looking for loopholes.

The disciples were struggling with the concept of humility, asking who was going to be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. This seems to have been a recurring question, but it was as daft as walking into a vegetarian restaurant and asking, “What’s the biggest hamburger you’ve got?” And in the passage just after the parable the Pharisees are checking when it’s possible for a man to divorce his wife.

The actual prompt for the telling of the story is Peter asking how many times he should forgive a brother or sister who sins against him.

This seems like a fair question. Peter wants to do the right thing and is trying to nail down the specifics of forgiveness. He wants to know when he can say, ‘Woah! You’ve gone too far!”

Each aspect of our lives today is defined by contracts and constitutions, rights and responsibilities. When we start a new job, we immediately want to know what rights we have.

And Peter is an enthusiastic and loyal disciple. He just wants to know what the ground rules of the new kingdom will be. Suggesting that he should forgive somebody seven times seems entirely reasonable and generous.

The problem is, he’s still locked into a way of thinking that says religion is about accumulating points for doing good things. Christ’s method is so revolutionary it cannot be packaged into a neat list of new rules and regulations.

It’s not just another belief system. It can’t be placed alongside another religion like a product comparison. God’s love is limitless, His capacity for forgiveness is as infinite as His nature is eternal, and this is what we have to imitate today and tomorrow.

When Jesus replies to Peter’s question, he says, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, 77 times.” He is telling the fisherman that there is no point at which our willingness to forgive should be exhausted. You can imagine how high Peter’s eyebrows must have arched.

Back in Genesis, God told Cain that anyone who killed him would suffer a sevenfold vengeance. Lamech warned his wives that anyone who killed him would be avenged 77-fold. Jesus is teaching his disciples that Christianity is about the opposite of revenge, and that the love which powers forgiveness is just as powerful as the wrath which channels vengeance.

Forgiveness does not mean stopping taking sin seriously. Jesus taught this lesson shortly before he would be nailed to the cross to die for our sins. And Peter had been moved to ask the question because Jesus had just explained what to do if a church member persistently refused to acknowledge their sin: they should be treated “as a Gentile or a tax collector”.

But even this stern instruction was told in the context of the parable of the lost sheep. It’s a story of earnest and arduous searching for the 1% which goes astray and the mighty rejoicing when it is brought home.

This aspiration that the prodigals will come home and the lost will be found is almost completely absent from our culture. Our tabloids want criminals locked away and immigrants locked out. Politicians lobby for votes with the catchphrase “Three strikes and you’re out”.

But God invented the church and taught us to live by a different law. We are told to love the type of people we previously wouldn’t have wanted as our next-door neighbours, never mind our brothers and sisters. Grace is about transforming and redeeming the wretched of the Earth - us. It’s the possibility of restoration when punishment is deserved.

We like to think of ourselves as good people, but the only reason we can look beyond death with hope is that we have been forgiven. We are the servant in the story who owed a king 10,000 talents and has had his debt wiped out.

To Hebrew minds, the idea of owing 10,000 talents in debt would have been mindboggling. It’s like being told you owe the Inland Revenue a gazillion pounds - a completely unpayable debt.

Motivated by nothing but pity, the king does something which seems irrational and the opposite of fiscal prudence - he pardons him.

God has persistently pardoned humankind. Do the angels roll their eyes when time after merciful time He spares us the punishment we really deserve?

When Adam and Eve engaged in their illegal fruit-picking in the Garden of Eden, God could have destroyed the Earth as if He was popping a pea between his thumb and index-finger. He would still have been able to enjoy the wonders of the expanding universe and could have breathed life into the nostrils of another creature.

Imagine if Noah and his brood hadn’t been told to build an Ark. If the story of the human race had come to a full stop shortly after the flood water began to rise there would have been no Holocaust, no Gulag, no Rwandan genocide - God’s creation would have been spared such stark expressions of evil. But God’s commitment to seeking and saving the lost sheep of the universe is so powerful and so complete He would rather share in such suffering than lose the possibility of our redemption.

This work of mercy is the message the Church has been given to proclaim. We witness to His forgiveness and the new life He has given us when we share communion and when we are baptised. Regardless of whether we look forwards or backwards in our lives, we can see forgiveness.

The church, which is made up of human beings, often proclaims some very odd things instead. But if we cease to express the mercy of God it’s very hard to see how we can really call ourselves Christians. The devil wants us to doubt the power of forgiveness. Then communion and baptism become meaningless rituals, our joy is snuffed out and our freedom is stifled.

Whenever we’ve inched closer to positions of power we’ve seemed more keen on expressing God’s judgement on sin, rather than His mercy on the sinner. In Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, he portrayed the horror of the witch trials in Puritan America. The people who had fled religious persecution in Europe had, within generations, become the persecutors.

Something similar happens in this parable. When the forgiven man meets a fellow servant who owes him the equivalent of a few pounds he grabs him by the throat and throws him in jail. It’s no surprise that the rest of the servants consider this gross hypocrisy.

Jesus knew that this type of failure would happen, and that the church needed a parable as hair-raising as The Unmerciful Servant to warn of this temptation. There are few scarier lines than when Jesus says that just as the king then threw the unforgiving servant into jail, “So my heavenly father will also do to everyone of you, if you do not forgive your brother or servant from your heart.”

This should make us gulp. It’s humbling to think of how much we have been forgiven, and it’s daunting to think of the mission of forgiving which may stretch ahead of us. But what’s encouraging is how serious God is about forgiveness.

Why is he so worried about Christians refusing to forgive each other? It’s because he has founded a church, a holy people, and He can see the potential they have to shine brighter than a star across all the dimensions of His creation.

One of the lies we are told is that God is not interested in the little details of our lives - our petty grudges and our secret fears. But the story of the Gospel is that Jesus joined us in the mud and mess of Palestine to prove how deeply he loved these bundles of atoms called human beings. He knew that these people could one day be united with the Creator who brought them into existence. This love is what makes miracles happen in the church. It is the gift he was giving us.

Revolutionary Grace

The desire to change the world is one which runs strong in the hearts of humans everywhere. Nobody who walks down the street of a city and sees a homeless person, or who turns on the television and watches a report of distant starvation, can believe that all is right in the world.

And in rooms in every settlement on Earth there are people gathered, dedicated to transforming society. Some will be planning to march on military bases or save guinea pigs and whales, and others will be coordinating campaigns to halt the executions of condemned prisoners or raise the wages of sweatshop workers.

The recognition of the difference between good and evil, and the compulsion to liberate people from bondage, is an instinct which God has planted in us. He performed the ultimate act of liberation when He came in human form. Not only did He identify the sin lurking in all of us as the root of oppression and evil, but He created the opportunity for us to be freed from this force of decay and united with him in a life ruled not by death but love.

This is the truth which has thrilled and driven the church for 2,000 years. In the book of Acts we see how a tiny band of Christians took this flame of truth across Europe and how God made its glory burn in the hearts of men and women. The anthropologist Margaret Mead could have been describing this band of believers when she said:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

But the fantastic spread of the early church is much more than a sociological phenomenon. It is the work of a God who loves the people he is saving, who has turned himself towards them and is determined to save them completely. In his writings, Paul frequently marvelled that God had chosen such a seemingly motley bunch of human beings with which to begin his world-changing work, but that was the majesty in his method.

When we look at the Christians of this era we can see qualities of their community which sped the spread of the wonderful news. And, in the stories about evangelism Luke has written in the book of Acts, we are reminded that God is not a distant divine presence but an actor of incomparable power and freedom. He is the source of wisdom, commands, miracles and surprises.

One of the most striking features of the infant congregation at Ephesus was their incredible ability to warmly engage with the people who lived in their midst. They don’t appear to have been frightened by people who believed completely different things about life, the universe and pretty much everything. Nor were they scared of individuals who had an inkling about the workings of the Hebrew God and the person of Christ but were a long way from knowing orthodox truth.

Conversion in Ephesus was often preceded by years of conversation. In the modern West, we like stories of revivals – modern day Pentecosts – where thousands of people become believers at once. Also, since the Reformation, we’ve responded to differences in interpretation and emphases concerning Christ’s message by rapidly disintegrating into thousands of competing denominations.

But when Apollos arrived in Ephesus with a fervent but incomplete story about the message of Jesus, the local Christians didn’t hound him out of town. Instead, we read:

When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately. When Apollos wanted to go to Achaia the brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples there to welcome him. On arriving, he was a great help to those who by grace had believed. For he vigorously refuted the Jews in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ.

Apollos, with his great rhetorical skills and learning, could have been a formidable opponent of the church in Ephesus. But their gentle and warm welcome led to his faith gaining clarity, and the church gaining an encourager. He went off to Corinth just as Paul left the city for the Ephesus. FF Bruce describes the suggestion that it was Apollos who wrote the book of Hebrews as an excellent guess.

Such strategic hospitality does not equate to being soft of heresy. The church, even when it’s difficult, has to aim to live out Christ’s prayer that we may be One as He is One. We also have to be vigilant in ensuring that what we perceive as Christian truth is testified to in Scripture. Paul warns the Ephesian leaders:

I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.

Paul could tell the difference between those who were sowing disbelief and those who were in error but longing for true belief. These two groups of people can probably be found in all Christian traditions today. When the great Apostle came to Ephesus he encountered a band of disciples whose lives had been changed when they accepted the message of John the Baptist but who had yet to learn of the power of Christ’s work and the coming of the Holy Spirit.

Paul knew that all people are making some response to God’s revelations of Himself. Just as a flower or plant can’t help but react to sunlight, men and women stir at the majesty of nature and the disquiet in their souls at the sight of evil. Everything tells us there is a higher power, even if we respond by this fact by trying to deny it.

The Athenians had acknowledged the possibility of an unknown god, and Paul had told them of Yahweh’s gift of Christ. Now, with these disciples of John the Baptist, he saw people who knew the beginning of the Gospels but had no idea about the end. When he brought this knowledge they believed and were baptised. And when this happened, God acted: “When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.”

This powerful episode brilliantly illustrates the crucial combination of repentance and faith in Jesus. Paul saw his task as to tell both Jews and Greeks “they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.” Any Christian message which lacks these two components will collapse. And if any congregation loses grasp of this dynamic and practical command it can only become lacklustre and confused.

God gave these 12 disciples a personal experience of his power – a memory they could savour and treasure of God reaching them in this world of flesh and blood; a glimpse of the heady days in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit visited the Church with tongues of fire.

We don’t read of Ephesus experiencing anything quite so sensational. In fact, for two years and three months, Paul publicly debated with the Jews and the Greeks. This could have seemed like a bit of a waste of energy. Why spends months arguing with Jewish leaders who have no interest in following a crucified Messiah and Greeks who consider your entire worldview laughable? Aren’t there needs within the church we should be focussing on?

But proclamation is what the church is all about. The German theologian Emil Brunner said the Church exists by mission as a fire exists by burning. His friend, Karl Barth, said faith that believes in God cannot refuse to become public. God is He who did not wish to remain hidden.

In these lengthy discussions, the scent of truth and freedom was billowing out across Ephesus and the world. Luke tells us: “All the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of God.”

During this time, God was not a spectator. It was not as if the church was a watch which he wound at Pentecost and was happy to leave ticking away. We read: “God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them.”

Anybody who wants to hear the message of Christ in this society can log onto a website or walk into a Christian bookshop or a church meeting. But this requires an act of the will, and also the belief that the church has (a) a distinct and relevant message and (b) it might be true. Sometimes this happens, but at an unfortunate time in Western history when the church is commonly seen as a human institution responsible for child abuse, homophobia and superstition, the spiritual seeker has to leap over a lot of obstacles to get to the truth of the Gospel.

We need to find an equivalent of the lecture hall of Tyrannus where the message of the Christ can be proclaimed. We do not need to fear that if the Good News is deconstructed by the unchurched it will be smashed like a mirror. Rather, the individual aspects of the truth can be studied one at a time, and, like a mosaic coming together, the glory of the Gospel can be revealed. There were many such steps in the conversion of CS Lewis. Among the first was the late-night suggestion by his friend JRR Tolkien that he pay some attention to the stories of Christ on the grounds that this might be a “true myth”.

The church in Paul's time were a people of paradoxes. They were welcoming but also vigilant. They were learning yet also proclaiming. They were spiritual infants but are the giants on whose shoulders we stand.

Our cities today have a lot more in common with the Ephesus Paul visited than Victorian Britain. This should be quite exciting because in such a place a diverse group of Christians were born who were passionately devoted to one another and who were used by God to reverberate his message of freedom across a land mass. Repentance freed them to let the extraordinary into their lives, and faith in Christ united them with a love literally out of this world.

Sects and Violence

If it was possible for us to travel to Jerusalem, back to the days immediately following the resurrection and Pentecost, it would be easy to find several thousand Christians. But these excited men and women would probably give you a puzzled look if you asked them about them their views on "the Church".

The notion that this fledging community would one day be a worldwide religion would have baffled them. For the Jewish Christians, Jesus was the promised Messiah for whom all creation had been waiting for thousands of years. When the Holy Spirit came upon non-Jews, it was clear that they, too, could share in the hope which Christ had brought into the world. Their new faith wasn’t about the destruction of Judaism, but the fulfilment of it.

But two key things forced Christians to start seeing themselves as a distinct community. One was the incredible truth that the Holy Spirit lived in the hearts of each of the believers. When somebody accepted the message of Jesus - regardless of whether they were a Jew or a Gentile, a man or a woman, or a slave or an aristocrat - a supernatural event as incredible as the very creation of the world took place: They were born again. The presence of God in the lives of each person meant that the Christians had to look at each other as brothers and sisters, loved by the Creator who gave His son for their salvation.

The second phenomenon which stopped Christians from being one of many competing traditions within Judaism was persecution. Though the first converts regularly went to the Temple, it soon became clear they were no longer welcome. By preaching that Jesus had risen from the dead, they were implicitly accusing the religious and secular authorities of committing an act of wild injustice when they had him crucified. Repeatedly, the forces of Roman government and religious power were used to stamp on and scatter the group of people we now call the Early Church.

The Apostles realised that the believers had to be taught how they should relate to the world in which they lived. Christians were people who had been called into an unimaginable relationship with God. They would proclaim his greatness to their fellow men and women through their love, and - like Jesus - they would suffer terribly but not retaliate.

Peter, in the first of his letters wrote:

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they may accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.

One of the enduring fun questions of theology is, "Can Christians in heaven see what is happening on the world today?" If Peter has been able to watch what has happened in the last 20 centuries, we can only imagine his grief at so much of what passes for Church History. This holy nation, which was once so furiously persecuted, allowed the Cross to become a symbol on shields and flags of war. So-called Crusaders invaded Jerusalem, the site of Pentecost, and slaughtered women and children until they were wading through blood. At times these supposed strangers in the world have used the torture of the Inquisition, the witch trial and the colonial war to try and advance the cause of the Prince of Peace.

Today, we are still living with the consequences of these awful departures from doctrine. Our Muslim neighbours are not about to forget the Crusades, and neither should we. Gandhi famously said his biggest problem with Christianity was Christians.

In CS Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, in which a senior devil advises his apprentice how to frustrate the faith of a young Christian, he says:

One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her, spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans.

When the sins of the church are preventing people from unblocking their ears to the message we are charged to proclaim, we must repent of past transgressions and search to see how we went so terribly wrong.

If Peter could visit us now he would doubtless have excellent advice. Perhaps, if he can look at these disasters, he feels the same way he does when he remembers episodes in his own life. When the central event in human history was about to take place he denied Christ three times. Earlier that same night, he had attempted to defend Jesus using a sword and slashed off the right ear of the high priest’s servant. Jesus rebuked him, saying, “All who draw the sword will die by the sword.”

The message of Christ is revolutionary, and just as Peter’s personal catastrophes served to reveal the truth and beauty of the Gospel, so the staggering mistakes of Christians reveal the darkness into which we will always fall if we lose sight of the amazing message of grace.

Christ’s death brought forgiveness from sin for the world. But fighting the temptation to sin is part of the battle of the Christian life. When the Apostle Paul used military language when writing to the Ephesians, this was the battle he was talking about:

Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armour of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground... Stand firm then with the belt of truth buckled round your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.

The “sword of the spirit” is identified as the word of God, and it is this weapon which Jesus used when tempted by Satan in the desert. We read in Matthew: "The devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour. ‘All this I will give you,’ he said, ‘if you will bow down and worship me.’"

The church has made its greatest mistakes when it has tried to take control of the kingdoms of the world by crushing it opponents. Time after terrible time, Christians have found themselves in positions of power and attempted to coerce into conversion people of other faiths and interpretations of Christianity, convinced they are doing God’s will. But when the church which once was persecuted becomes the persecutor, we have fallen to temptation and succumbed to the splendour of earthly power.

The experiences of the church in the fourth century are a lesson for us today. In 305AD the Roman emperor Diocletian tried to wipe out the faith in the last and worst of all the persecutions. Clearly, he failed.

Just 76 years later, emperor Theodosius IX made Christianity the official state religion. Millions of members flooded in and Christians discovered the fun of building giant places of worship. But the powerful figures in the church also started experimenting with using civil tools of law and order to enforce what it believed were theological truths.

The power of the Roman state was on the wane and the church leaders found themselves filling the void. It’s a gross mistake to think all the actions of these men, who were sinners and forgiven sinners like ourselves, were wrong. These were terrifying times with barbarians marauding across Europe and Muslims capturing Jerusalem. But the church was absorbing superstition it should have been dispelling, its simplicity was seduced by grandeur, and at times it seemed the church’s chief sword was not the Bible but the one which hung on a soldier’s belt.

But in every century, there have been heroes of the faith who devoted their lives to the true Church - the men and women in their midst - and who reminded the institution that we are saved by the grace of God, and who have called on their leaders to resist the temptation of persecuting power.

In 1934, the German theologian Karl Barth met with friends who believed Christians could not strike a deal with the Nazis who sought to found a National Church. They wrote in the Barmen Declaration:

Jesus Christ, as he is testified to us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and death. We reject the false doctrine that the church may and must acknowledge as sources of proclamation other events, powers, forms and truths as God’s revelation beside this one Word of God.

Barth’s writings were also instrumental in convincing South African theologians that they could not provide a spiritual foundation for an apartheid state.

It is almost certain that far more people have been killed by atheistic governments in the former Soviet Union and China than were ever killed by an oppressive church, but the Communists had a point when they described religion as an opiate of the people. Hymn-singing and rousing sermons are almost as essential as a ready supply of munitions in any war effort. In Easter 2004, young American soldiers in Iraq were preparing to storm Fallujah. This is what they were told:

Today is Palm Sunday. The day of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, where he broke the bounds of Hell. Tonight commences your triumphal entry into Fallujah, a place in the bounds of Hell. This is a spiritual battle, and you Marines are the tools of mercy.

It is incredible that the only passage in the Bible which even many of the most conservative of Christians oppose taking literally is the Sermon on the Mount. But the words Jesus spoke that day are echoing through the centuries and continuing to astound and challenge peoples of every nation. He said:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye and tooth for tooth’. But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well... You have heard it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ but I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.

This is not a manifesto for the overthrow and destruction of people and societies. Rather, it’s a mission to transform them with love and faith in the riches and justice of a heavenly Father.

So much of the story of the Israelites’ experiences in the Promised Land is the tale of people who cannot quite believe God will provide for them the way He has said He will.

Their dread of their crops failing and their fear and sometimes envy of their neighbours was so great that they persistently worshipped other gods. This led them into disgusting practices such as infant sacrifice.

Superstitious fears of evil forces and bad luck are responsible for some of the most dreadful crimes in history. The craze for witch-hunting in Europe was an example of lousy theology combining with hysteria and mob rule. Philip Jenkins wrote in the Atlantic Monthly:

As recently as [2001] at least 1,000 alleged witches were hacked to death in a single ‘purge’ in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Far from declining with urbanisation, fear of witches has intensified. Since the collapse of South Africa’s apartheid regime, in 1994, witchcraft has emerged as a primary social fear in Soweto, with its three million impoverished residents.

Christ’s Gospel is a message of love which drives out fear. Communities where it is preached should have their terror transformed into the certainty they are loved, guarded and owned by a God who calls them his children.

The Bible is starkly clear that the wages of sin is death, but the fact that you and I are alive today is proof that God has chosen not to give this world the punishment it deserves. God chooses to love, to forgive, to redeem and to set free. Just as Jesus told the woman the religious zealots had wanted to stone for adultery that she should “go and sin no more”, this is the only message a church made up of forgiven sinners is entitled to preach.

This is the authentic Christianity which has blessed, is blessing and will bless the world. It is a proclamation of what God has done for us.

So when we see examples in history of the use of the name of Christ to hurt and steal, we are not looking at flaws in the Christian faith, but at an abuse of that name - a true blasphemy.

Jesus seemed to anticipate that dreadful things would be done in his name in the times which lay ahead. This may be why he told the parable of the sheep and the goats, and why Matthew wrote it down:

When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. And all the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in or needing clothes and clothe you. When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?

The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.

They also will answer, ‘Lord when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you? He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these you did not do for me.

Sometimes Christians have been so shocked by the decadence of denominations and the lifestyles of the communities around them that they have retreated away from society completely and fostered a faith characterised by isolation from the very people for whom Christ died. While such believers may have good intentions, it’s a tragedy when a message of joy to the world is hidden.

Resisting sin while showing practical love and recognising the worth of people created in the image of God is a challenge which has always been at the heart of Jewish and Christian worship. The Apostle James declared:

Religion that God our father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and windows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

We need to pray we will spot pollution when we see it. It can come in the most religious of guises. Jesus warned:

Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognise them... “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’

One of the best defences against the lure of false teachers must be to try and grasp the wonder of what God has done and prepared for us. If Christ was prepared to die to create the Church - people united with him in the Holy Spirit - there must be something wonderful here.

Once Nazism had perished, Karl Barth was asked what advice he had for young people. He replied, “They should know their Bibles and they should love people.”
The truth is, as he noted, we assemble here today at the summons of our King. The Church which started in locked doors in Jerusalem can now be found in every time zone, uniting the richest and the poorest peoples of the Earth.

We have made great mistakes and we may make greater ones. But this manifestation of the human habit of messing up the most beautiful things - something we have been doing since the Garden of Eden - should in no way distract us from the joy and the mission which Jesus passed on to those he was not ashamed to call brothers:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you to the very end of the age.


THE discipline of solitude reveals one of the most exciting aspects of the life of the believer. The Gospel of Jesus Christ brings us into contact with a God who is interested in individuals and not just tribes and nations.

All religions have a role for solitude - the state of being alone. But when a Christian deliberately seeks a place free from distractions, they do not believe that by looking into their own beings they will catch a glimpse of God. Instead, they are waiting for God to reveal Himself to them. This is an amazing revelation at the heart of the faith.

Traditionally, God could only be approached by journeying to the Temple with sacrificial animals to atone for one’s sins. But the message of the New Testament that God in His own freedom and according to His will has turned towards men and women because he loves them.

In one of Jesus’ last recorded prayers on Earth, in John 14:23, he says, “If anyone loves me he will obey my teaching. My father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” With that promise, the molecular structure of religion changes. It is no longer about seeking the divine in specific locations or by performing certain rituals, it is about knowing God in our own individual lives.

What could be more exciting or more terrifying than the prospect of God coming to our home? In fact, it is even more daunting than that. God wants our home to also be His home. When we seek solitude, it is to listen to God. We are acknowledging the reality of this new relationship with the Creator which was made possible by Christ’s death and resurrection. God’s Holy Spirit is dwelling inside us and, whether we like it or not, He is incredibly interested about how we lead our lives.

For the Christian, there is no split between public life and private life. Just as Jonah learned how daft it was to try and outrun God, we are no closer or further away from Him if we are sitting in a church building or the belly of a big fish. Actually pausing to attempt to gain an understanding of God’s presence and will in any situation is a brilliant use of precious time. Doing so reveals the new nature of the universe to us, and it also guards against some of the most catastrophic tendencies of religion to make mistakes.

If we regularly stop whatever we are doing to contemplate the power and righteousness of God and listen for his guidance, it becomes less likely that we will indulge in the type of shocking hypocrisy that gives faith a bad name. It’s when we are too busy to pray that ego and pride seep in.

Jesus said in Luke 12:1-3, “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees which is hypocrisy. 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.”

By welcoming God into our kitchens and bedrooms, to our office desks and cars, we are asking somebody who is the definition of righteousness and power to live alongside us. This should prevent us getting infatuated by the sparkle our own talents, deeds and possessions. When in the presence of his glory, we can look wretched and stained with sin. But when we think that he sent His son to die for us, and that despite several centuries of travesties and abominations He insists we are made in his image - wow! - we have a reason to feel astonished and joyful.

God knows us better than we know ourselves. When He comes to us, He is not coming to the person we would like Him to see. He is coming to the person we really are. He can see both the depravity of our nature and our potential for glory. It is in His presence we can begin to discover ours true selves.

Thomas Merton 1915-1968

Thomas Merton, a monk who was regularly irritated by how hard it was to find peace and quiet in a monastery, understood that all too often humans have a quite lunatic sense of their own identity and their importance. He wrote, “All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life to which everything in the universe is ordered.”

Solitude can thus be humbling when we realise that God is God. Just as Copernicus caused ructions when he observed that the Earth is not the pivot around which the sun spins, but a tiny planet orbiting a giant star, so solitude teaches us to appreciate the magnificence of God and His centrality to our existence.

The serpent’s lie in the Garden of Eden was that God did not want to share Himself with us. But just as the light from the sun makes life possible on Earth, so when we meditate on the person of God as revealed in Jesus Christ, we see that He has withheld nothing from us. Gratitude and a growing sense of astonishment that we were created in the first place are two common and energising side-effects of solitude.

Merton, who was finally allowed to move to a cinder-block cottage and get a break from the hectic life of a regular monk, was bewildered by the generosity of God. The Greeks believed that mankind only had fire because a Titan named Prometheus had stolen it from the gods. Merton noted that the Christian God had not chosen to hoard His wealth. In fact He had done the opposite.

Prometheus, by Jan Cossiers (17th century)

He wrote, “Far from killing the man who seeks the divine fire, the Living God will Himself pass through death in order that man may have what is destined for him.
“If Christ has died and risen from the dead and poured out upon us the fire of His Holy Spirit, why do we imagine that our desire for life is a Promothean desire, doomed to punishment?
“Why do we act as if our longing to ‘see good days’ were something God did not desire, when He Himself told us to seek them? Why do we reproach ourselves for desiring victory? Why do we pride ourselves on our defeats, and glory in despair?
“Because we think our life is important to ourselves alone, and do not know that our life is more important to the Living God than it is to our own selves.
“Because we think our happiness is for ourselves alone, and do not realise it is also His happiness. Because we think our sorrows are for ourselves alone, and do not believe that they are much more than that: they are His sorrows.
“There is nothing we can steal from Him at all, because before we can think of stealing it, it has already been given.”

Merton’s words are beautiful, but the man who best understood the wonder of God’s goodness was Jesus Christ. He showed us how close God is to us, and if we follow his example we will treasure the opportunity solitude offers to enjoy being with Him.

In Matthew 6:6 he tells his followers, “When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.” The religion Christ wants from us is not ostentatious and spectacular but honest and heartfelt, rooted in daily life.

There are at least two good reasons why we shouldn’t trumpet the fact that we fast, do good works and pray. The first is that by avoiding the distractions of human adulation and applause we run less danger of falling into the trap of pride. Secondly, instead of playing to an audience, we can begin to learn to appreciate the reality of what it means to worship a living and listening God. Knowing Him - the designer of constellations - is far more life-enhancing that getting a pat on the back from some religious authority.

Jesus’ commitment to solitude in no way limited the impact he made on the lives of those around him. It is fascinating that two of His most spectacular miracles - feeding the 5,000 and walking on water - are each preceded with Jesus seeking solitude.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Bono

In an interview with Bono, the garrulous U2 vocalist, he recalled spending time with Archbishop Desmond Tutu when he was chairing South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee. He recalled, “I asked him a rather stupid question afterwards. I said, ‘Do you get time with all this work for prayer and meditation yourself?’ And he just looked at me, threw a scowl at me, a real rebuke. He just stopped in his tracks and said, ‘How do you think we would do this if we didn’t take time out for prayer?’”

I’m sure the sight of a fish on the back of a car sometimes starts a chain of events culminating in somebody repenting of their sins and becoming a Christian, but one of the most striking ways to send a message to your society is to quietly ensure you spend time with God each day.

In the Babylon in which the prophet Daniel lived, a law was passed that anyone who prayed to anything other than the emperor Darius would be thrown into a den of lions. In Chapter 6:10 we sees Daniel’s response to this legislation: “Now when Daniel learned that the decree had been published, he went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened towards Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had one before.”

Daniel’s faithfulness resulted in him getting a close-up look at some lions, which in an age before nature documentaries was an experience usually followed by being devoured. God rescued him, and the mendacity of the men who had devised the law was exposed and the righteousness of God was revealed. Daniel’s faithfulness had made Babylon a better place to live. We’re still talking about it today.

If churches and offices, buses and colleges, were filled with people who publicly witnessed to their belief in God by taking the time to listen to Him, true transformation of a nation could take place. Christians are daily asked their opinion on issues of terrifying complexity. Our instincts for judgement and mercy can pull us in different directions.

An eight cell embryo

When the rights of the embryo are seemingly pitted against the rights of the disabled and diseased, how do we respond? Has there ever been a time in history when it is so crucial that we ask God what we should do and actively listen to Him in a spirit of humility?

The Christian who embraces solitude in the right way for the right reasons will not be locked in a selfish piety, but will have his or her understanding of himself or herself revolutionised. They will never be able to look at other people without seeing them as created beings whose creator wants to come close to them.

The Bible

THERE is a strong argument that the most exciting days in church history are yet to come. Never before has literacy been so widespread or the Bible more available.

The fact is, the Bible can do a better job of explaining Christianity than any of us. If somebody wants to understand who Jesus was, what he did on Earth, and why his death and resurrection are important today, they can sit down and read the Gospel of John in 90 minutes.

Although churches of all denominations now officially agree that ordinary men and women can and should read the Bible, we are scared to actually put it in people’s hands and let the Holy Spirit go to work. We are wary of doing this, because it is unlikely that someone who 10 minutes' ago finished reading one of four short books packed with the miracles, teachings and stories of Jesus will emerge with a precise framework of systematic theology in his or her head.

But what are the alternatives? For much of the 20th century we tried arguing people into Christianity, convinced that quick-fire apologetics could bring sinners to their knees. The problem is, people aren’t particularly logical creatures. Most engaged couples have spent more time looking into their loved one’s eyes than at their bank balance and medical history.

If you wanted to convince tuna merchants to modify their nets so dolphins couldn’t be trapped, what would be the best way to persuade them? Would you give a PowerPoint presentation about the girth of a dolphin, or would you take the fishermen out to sea and let them jump overboard to have a swim with these fantastic fish?

Similarly, there is a place for expounding the ontological argument and talking about the Dead Sea Scrolls, but this is no substitute for giving people who are hungry for faith the opportunity to have an encounter with God Himself. That is precisely what the Bible offers.

One of the criticisms of the Church today is that the way it communicates is irrelevant. On a Sunday morning in Ireland you are rarely more than a few centimetres away from a man in a pulpit preaching a sermon. This is great, but the pews in front of our preachers often contain fewer people than this time last year (never mind this time last century!).

Churches are now just starting to explore using music and drama to convey complex ideas, but the writers of the Bible were doing this several thousand years ago. The pages of the Bible contain a fabulous blend of poetry, family saga, personal correspondence and law.

Preachers and teachers who can unlock the wonders within and reveal what the Bible has to tell us about God and about this world will be providing the leadership we are yearning for today.

Northern Ireland is a province populated with Christians who would defend to the death the centrality of the Bible and fight past the point of exhaustion to protect the concept of its inerrancy. So why do we dishonour this Word by snatching the odd verse to justify an anemic platitude that could have been lifted out of a self-help paperback but so rarely let the Bible’s prophetic voice roar?

Religion has been used here for generations to justify some of the most shameful social injustice in Christendom. But Christ’s manifesto of love offers the only hope for a move beyond tolerance into healing and rebirth.

It can seem preposterous to believe the book at the heart of our faith promises so much. But it actually promises a lot more. Just as Jonah was furious when God spared Nineveh, so our society has an easier time coping with ideas of retributive karma than restoring grace. As Martin Luther noted, "If God were willing to sell his grace, we would accept it more quickly and gladly than when he offers it for nothing." That salvation is possible irrespective of works seems outrageous and frankly unjust. Close inspection reveals there is little in the Bible which is not outrageous.

Principles such as self-denial and sacrifice may not be popular in an age where gratification is promised with a few clicks of an electronic mouse, but they probably weren’t that alluring in the sweltering streets of Corinth or Rome, either. Jesus admitted that anyone thinking of following him should count the cost. There is no room in the Gospel for spin.

When people are making money out of religion, what’s promised is often little different to the sensations advertisers say we will have when traveling in an air-conditioned four-wheel drive. However, the Bible portrays a world in which straightforward journeys are interrupted by talking donkeys and dazzling lights. The book of Acts makes it clear that living a holy life involved a lot more than sitting in a hot bath with candles; Paul seems to have spent much of his time in the sea clinging to driftwood. In an age of cosy, imagine-it-yourself spirituality, the Bible actually promises the struggles and challenges with which we know the Christian life is cluttered.

Its narratives are packed with the violence and sexual sin which can and do wreck societies and churches. Noah and David, two of the most righteous men in the Bible (according to Sunday School) did some pretty strange and awful things.

The Bible doesn’t pretend that heroes don’t sin, that priesthoods aren’t corrupt, and that holy people can be fickle and daft. No matter how infuriated we may be with the conflicts, hypocrisies and scandals of our churches, there’s almost always an example in the Bible of when things have gone even more spectacularly out of control. If the writer of Acts had been hired to do PR for a company, he would have been fired pretty quickly. His account of the first days of the church is filled with examples of squabbles and compromises and downright disasters. There are no cover-ups in the Bible (unless you count the strategic use of fig leaves).

Reading this book of books will not restore one’s faith in human nature, but there is one character whose faithfulness is threaded through every story and epistle. This person, of course, is Yahweh.

Is there a more lonely image in literature than God walking in the Garden of Eden calling out the name of Adam? Is there anything which captures the condition of humanity better than the picture of the first man and woman hiding, naked and suddenly ashamed?

In the subsequent tales of the Hebrew captivity and kingdom, we repeatedly see the blinding power of God and witness his hatred of sin and his might as a deliverer. When even the weakest and faintest figures in a society act with righteousness he reaches down into their lives and fills their existence with wonder and delight.

But we also see something equally amazing. God can be forgotten. Prophets wander through cities calling on the inhabitants to repent, pleading with them to remember the miracles of long ago. These holy characters are mocked, abused and killed. People in the BC era were just as capable of skepticism and hedonism as anyone alive today.

When God chose to perform his most amazing work he slipped right into this world in the form of a baby in Palestine. In the Gospel stories the inconceivable majesty of God merges with the utter vulnerability of humankind. The events which follow are the defining moments in our history.

Jesus often appeared to be a reluctant miracle-worker. He could have stopped the sun and moon in their tracks and demanded that people recognise his divine grandeur, but he chose - for reasons we may never fully understand while on this side of the eternal - to live alongside us and share every suffering known to man or woman. Jesus performed miracles when he was moved by the faith of a centurion, the sight of people who were like sheep without a shepherd, and sisters grieving for a brother.

In the final verses documenting Jesus’ life we do not get to see the Roman emperor or the Temple High Priest kneeling before him, but we do get a glimpse of Eden restored. We see Mary weeping in a garden. She is confused and as lost as anyone who has had a person they loved snatched from their life. There is a tomb in this garden but it is no longer a place of death. For there is Jesus, calling her name. Though this is the man who was God, he does not cast her out of his presence. Instead, he has passed through death so we can turn to him when he calls.

Can anyone see these images and not be changed?

It is with a small gasp of wonder and alarm that we realise the Bible - the story of God dealing with His creation - is in some sense unfinished. We are part of that story. As we have been reading of Yahweh’s work, He has been working in us. If we read His words with an honest heart there will come a point when we look up from the page and discover we are no longer in the world where we once lived. The Word of God, like his love, surrounds us. We are captured by His truth to be freed by his grace.

Esther - The Exile On Main Street

Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden into a fallen world. From their descendants would come the heroes and the villains whose acts define history.

The adventures of Esther take place at the epicentre of this world, in the palace of the ruler of an empire which stretched from India to Ethiopia.

It’s often said that Esther is a book where God does not feature as a personality, explicitly intervening in events. But the author seems determined to reveal the folly and idiocy which springs up when human beings act as if they were deities with power over life and death.

The ambition of humans to exalt themselves to a position where they can claim to be “like gods” started in Eden, resulted in the Fall, and led to the Tower of Babel building project.

The king in this story, Xerxes I, was a man too proud for Babel. The kingdom of Babel was part of his empire but he erased it from the map. Traditionally, the ruler of Babel would turn up on New Year’s Day and seize the hands of the golden statue of Bel. Xerxes had the statue shipped off and killed the priest who got in his path.

The narrator of the book of Esther takes us through the gates of this ruler of the Persian empire. Here, we should find unsurpassed wealth and grandeur, and glory, but the empire has gone stagnant. The story is scattered with so-called noblemen but there is scant nobility in its 10 chapters. We see Haman, perhaps the most dastardly henchman in the bible, manipulating Xerxes to order the annihilation of the Jewish people.

Persia has become a repository of indulgence, plots and genocide. If the creation of the empire can be seen as a wonder of ancient civilisation, its corruption testifies to how easily humans of every era get drunk on our pride, hatred and greed.

Haman in effect arranges for a Holocaust. He persuades Xerxes to sanction a decree which would allow anyone to kill a Jewish man, woman or child and plunder their goods. What persuades him to carry out this filthy plan? His hatred of the Jews is sparked by the refusal of Mordecai, a civil servant, to bow before him like the rest of the king’s officials.

There are echoes here of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refusing to bow before the image Nebuchadnezzar set up, but Mordecai may not have been resisting idolatry. Instead, he may have simply been repulsed by the idea of prostrating himself before a descendent Agag, king of the loathed Amalekites.

It’s easy to portray Mordecai and Esther as superheroes, the Clark Kent and Lois Lane of fifth century Mesopotamia. If we look closer, we see they are not painted in the primary colour simplicity of a comic strip but are complex individuals at the heart of a regime on the verge of relegation.

Xerxes’s grandfather was Cyrus the Great, who allowed the exiled Jews to return to Jerusalem and start rebuilding a Temple to the glory of God. For reasons which aren’t clear, Mordecai and Esther have stayed in the tempestuous metropolis of Susa.

It’s reasonable to think that Xerxes wakes each morning with a hangover. The book is awash with references to his drinking. Moments after sanctioning the killing of all Jews, we are told, “The king and Haman sat down to drink, but the city of Susa was bewildered.”

His career had started promisingly, when he successfully subjugated Egypt. He had almost done the same to the Greeks in 480BC when a disastrous decision to attack their fleet in dodgy conditions resulted in the humiliation of the Battle of Salamis. This event signalled the start of a Greek golden age and Xerxes’s descent into the Not Terribly Good Club of despots.

He made a stab at circumnavigating Africa but Herodotus tells us that Xerxes retreated into his harem where it seems he would spend most of his remaining days until he was murdered in 465BC by an ambitious courtier.

Like a rock star whose third album isn’t selling very well, we see him in Chapter One trying too dissolve his sorrows by throwing a three-day garden party. Every man was given a goblet of gold which was kept filled with the drink of his choice.

At the end of this session he remembered he was married to Queen Vashti, a wife of profound beauty. He told his eunuchs to tell her to put on her crown and come before this heaving throng so they could feast their bleary eyes on her delights.

It’s not surprising that she said, “No.” And it’s a sign of how far the empire had fallen how fast that the courtiers who had been on the verge of subduing the home of Homer began worrying that this act of disobedience would result in any wife throughout the realm ignoring her husband’s wishes. They issued an edict to every people in every language “every man should be the ruler of his own household.”

When the mighty infrastructure of Persia is being wasted on such daft exercises it’s simple to see how easy it could be for a schemer like Haman to work to use its apparatuses for evil. But it is the Queen Vashti fiasco of this less than glorious moment of history that led to Esther becoming Queen. Like Daniel and Joseph before her, she was a Jew who had risen to the pinnacle of an empire.

But unlike those two stalwarts of Sunday School tales, there is no evidence that she - or Mordecai for that matter - was proudly and publicly Jewish. Instead, Mordecai ordered Esther not to tell anyone of her heritage. They are two people who are prospering in the midst of paganism, neither of them seeking to ruffle any Persian feathers.

One of the compliments you sometimes hear being paid is, “He [or she] is great. They go to church but they don’t wear their religion on their sleeve.”

We live in a society which tolerates religion when it is a private and personal thing. When it starts influencing the decisions you make which affect other people’s lives, that’s when it becomes a problem.

Mordecai and Esther had done an exemplary job of being dutiful and diligent in a multicultural society. The two had even saved Xerxes’s life when Mordecai uncovered a plot by a pair of guards to kill the king and told Esther to warn him.

The book of Esther is a story of when the religious identity and truth two people carried within them exploded into the public sphere with incredible results. Esther’s decision to risk death by striding into the presence of Xerxes and pleading for the lives of her people prevented the annihilation of the Jews.

Just as Xerxes and Haman were living as if there was no God to whom they would one day have to give an account, it is the experience of Christians and Jews today that they feel they have to hide the fact that they have glimpsed the revelation of the Creator of the world. Like Lottery winners who ticked the “no publicity” box and hope their friends and relatives will not notice their secret wealth we are compelled to skulk around. Yes, we know the name of the person who designed Andromeda and placed her in the sky, and we can actually talk to Him, but we can’t talk about Him.

Such silence was the price of a pleasant professional life in Susa, too. But Haman’s heinous plan to rid the world of Jews resulted in His chosen people stepping out of the shadows.

We learn: “In ever province to which the edict and order of the king came, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting, weeping and wailing. Many lay in sackcloth and ashes.”

Mordecai, who previously advised Esther to hide her identity, now told her to enter the presence of the king and beg for mercy for her people.

However, Xerxes was not what you might call an easily approachable sort of guy. Anyone who entered his court without being summoned was punished with death. Only if he raised his sceptre at you would your life be spared.

The evidence is that Mordecai loved Esther. She had been an orphan and he raised her as his own daughter. Esther grew up to become one of the most beautiful women in the empire and been taken into the royal household as part of a search for a replacement for Queen Vashti. Every day during this time Mordecai walked to and fro outside the courtyard of the harem to find out how she was and what was happening.

Now he was urging her to (a) risk sudden death by walking into Xerxes’s court uninvited and (b) identify herself as part of a people group singled out for extermination.

The warning he gives her is fascinating. He does not tell her that the survival and destiny of the Jewish people are in her hands - only Yahweh can be said to have such power.

Instead, he says, “Do not think because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?”

Esther’s response is to tell her cousin to gather together all the Jews in the great city of Susa and have them fast for her for three days. The crisis has forced them into prayer, into crying out to the creator and calling for His power.

It’s in these moments that the universe can be glimpsed with a new clarity. In acknowledging the might of God, it becomes clear that while Haman and Xerxes are cruel imbeciles they are in reality nothing more than heaps of carbon. They have the capacity to cause terrible hurt and hardship but there is a deeper reality behind the universe which they cannot even scratch.

Esther, perhaps the most beautiful hero to ever walk this Earth, sets off for the king’s courtroom with the words “If I perish, I perish.”

History is filled with martyrs who have perished. The graves of the first disciples are not those of men who died peaceful deaths. But in this case, Xerxes lifts his sceptre. A couple of banquet’s later, Haman is unmasked as a would-be Queen-killer. Xerxes orders Haman to be hanged from the same 75ft gallows he had built in his garden and from which he wanted to see Mordecai swing.

Mordecai is given control of Haman’s estate and entrusted with the king’s signet ring, and the Jews are given the freedom to protect themselves by attacking the mobs who had been planning to slaughter them. A few days later, 75,000 of their enemies are dead and a new festival has been instituted to commemorate the incredible deliverance of the Jewish nation from annihilation.

The festival of Purim is still celebrated to this day, and though the Persian empire has completely collapsed, if you are ever in the Iranian city of Hamadan you can visit the Shrine of Esther and Mordecai.

It is the definition of an unforgettable story. The Jews of Susa put on sackcloth and cried out to God in the face of an incredible injustice and a orphan girl from the tribe of Benjamin was able to change the heart of a despot. The Bible is full of such tales. The prophet Jonah proclaimed God’s message to the people of Ninevah and they put on sackcloth and repented.

We live in the same fallen world as Mordecai and Esther but at a time when we are surrounded by injustice and idolatry. The Economist/prophet Jeffrey Sachs who provided the cerebral muscle behind the Make Poverty History movement, writes, “Currently, more than eight million people around the world die each year because they are too poor to stay alive.”

Those of us fortunate enough to live in the European Union or North America are citizens of the equivalent of the Persian Empire. The US can afford to spend $450bn on the military this year and still find the money to subsidise cows.

The prospect of the deaths of thousands of his people prompted Mordecai to lie in the streets of Susa. Is our response to change the channel?

This empire of affluence which exists on both sides of the Atlantic is now packed with Christians and governed by democracy, which theoretically means the ultimate arbiter of what happens is not the will of a despot but the will of the people. The book of Esther is clear that human beings aren’t really in control of very much and that God is sovereign, but perhaps we should follow her example and venture into the corridors of power a little more often. In our public worship, can we find time for repenting and lamenting?

But first, let us pray that we will be able to live believing that God is so passionately aware of what happens in his world that he knows when the heart of a sparrow skips a beat. Let us not hide the wonders of his love and the liberating truth of his revelation which offers deliverance from sin. Yes, the world is fallen, but redemption is at work.