Sunday, March 28, 2021

A Friend in High Places: A Sermon for Passion Sunday

 True confession time:  today's sermon is essentially one I preached just under a decade ago, when I was the chaplain at CFB Suffield.   It was preached to a tiny chapel congregation, and as the world has been much with me this week, and as it seems to have held up well enough (not all old sermons do),  I thought it was worth another outing. MP+

Preached via Zoom for All Saints Anglican Church, King City, ON, Diocese of Toronto, 28 March, 2021.

Lections for the Sunday of the Passion (Palm Sunday, Year B
Isaiah 50:4-9a, Psalm 31:9-16, Philippians 2:5-11, Mark 14:1-15:47

Video version here:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
(Phil 2:5-7)

Let's say you had a powerful friend, someone in high places. What would you expect of that person? I think it would be human nature to expect that in some way, this friend would make your life better. Perhaps an introduction to celebrities, or access to some prestigious place. Perhaps political or business opportunities, the chance to make money or connections. Of course we would want these things, which is why most of our political scandals revolve around someone in high office doing inappropriate favors for their friends and cronies.


People were the same in Jesus’ day.  Earlier in Mark's gospel, when some of Jesus' inner circle are beginning to figure out that he is someone special, the jockeying begins to get close to the guy with the influence. James and John ask Jesus, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’ (Mk 10:37). One could read this quite piously and say that James and John wanted to piously bask in Jesus' divine glory, but I don't think anyone in Mark's gospel, prior to his death, really understands what Jesus is all about. Jesus rather gently chastises them, warning them that they have no idea what they are asking, since they have no idea where he is going or what he must do.

Then Jesus says something that challenges the basic assumptions of James and John and pretty much of everyone else who has ever lived and who thinks they understand how the world works.

‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’

This is the language, not of the conquering Son od David hoped for by his people, but of the suffering servant promised by Isaiah, It is the language, not of someone who's going into town to confront the powers and overthrow Pilate, but of one who is going to spend his last night with his friends, washing their feet as if he was a slave. It is language spoken, not from a throne, but from a cross.

The little emblem that is given out on Palm Sunday captures the contrast between how the world works and how God works. As a palm leaf, it reminds us of the branches cut by the crowds and strewn before him as Jesus entered Jerusalem like a hero (Mk 118, Mt 21:8). In this context the palm stands for power and prestige.  Like a red carpet, it’s a symbol of how celebrity and power work.

Folded into a cross, however, the palm dashes the expectations of triumph and power and points us to the cross, the place of painful shame and death. Ironically, it is the place where Jesus' true identity is shown most clearly. In all of Mark's gospel, as we have been tracking it thus far through the church year, it is often said that no one really gets who Jesus is. Only at the very end, at the foot of the cross, does one man, a Roman officer, figure it out. The centurion says "Truly this man was God's Son!" It takes a Gentile, someone not one of God's chosen people, someone who upholds the order of brutal power and authoritarian violence in the world of his day, to see who God is and how God operates.

In our second lesson from Phlippians, we heard the Apostle Paul trying to explain what happens at the cross:

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

What Paul sensed when he wrote this was something of the mysterious and wonderful character of God. God the creator, whose might and wrathful justice was warned of by Jeremiah and the other prophets of Israel, now reveals more of himself in an act of self-empting love. God shows himself profoundly indifferent, even contemptuous, of the powers and hierarchies of the world. In going to the cross, even though he knew its cost and feared it, as we see in Gethsemane, Jesus shows us a new road to follow and a new way of being. God does not about our connections, our influence, our ability to get things done behind the scenes. There is only one hierarchy in this new kingdom, and that is of God's son, who "is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Phil 2:11).

In taking this little cross home, you have a reminder that you have the best friend to have in high places. The cross is the ultimate symbol of influence, the reminder that we are both servants and adopted children of God and of his Son. No one else has that kind of influence.

Realizing this new order is the first step for followers of Jesus. All the other steps flow from this recognition, which Paul calls having the "mind" of Christ. What does it mean to have the mind of Christ?  It means looking to the interests of others rather than to our own interests? It means willing embracing humility and servant hood.

Having the mind of Christ ought to shape not only the internal life of a congregation, but its relationship with its community and the world. While some may mourn the passing of "Christendom" and the waning influence of the church in society, Paul calls us to relinquish our grasping for worldly power and embrace the role of servant. Power struggles and pining for glory do not honor the name of Jesus. Rather, by following Jesus in identifying with the lowly and giving ourselves away in humble service to a suffering world, we honor "the name that is above every name."


Friday, March 26, 2021

Friday Theology: Remembering John Polkinghorne

I noted with some sadness today the recent passing (9 March) of John Polkinghorne, though he attained the ripe age of 90 and had an illustrious career as a scientist, theologian, and parish priest in the Church of England.   Perhaps his greatest honour was receiving the Templeton Prize for Science and Religion in 2002.     There's a useful one-hour introduction to his thought here.

When you consider the many public figures today who stake their polemics to a 100% materialist and rationalist view of reality, Polkinghorne's career stands in dignified contrast.  That a distinguished physicist who was one of the discoverers of the quark should heed a call to a vocation as an Anglican priest is quiet testimony to the fact that science and religion are not polar opposites.   As Alister McGrath notes in his tribute, in his life and work Polkinghorne never fought in the culture wars, and maintained his own "distinctively irenic and gracious approach".

I was fortunate to hear him speak during a visit to Canada at McMaster University in 2002.   He was an inspiration to my late wife Kay, who as a young adult was persuaded that her vocation as a scientist was incompatible with her faith.  I'm grateful that Polkinghorne could model a balance between the two for her.

Here's an excerpt from his book Faith, Science, and Understanding (Yale UP, 2000), where he is speaking of the necessary place of theology in the contemporary university.

"To speak of theology in this way is to speak of it as a first-order discipline of enquiry, taking its place alongside science's investigation of the physical world or moral philosophy's investigations of the nature of ethical decision.   However, there is a further important role for theology to play, as a second-order reflection upon the whole of human knowledge.  To seek to speak of God is to seek to speak of the One who is the ground of all that is.  Such discourse, which we might call theological metaphysics, must take account of the first-order insights of science, aesthetics, morality, and also, of course, of theology itself in its first-order mode of particular investigation into the understanding and significance of religious experience.  Theological metaphysics must respect the integrity of these primary disciplines.  It is not its role to instruct them or to correct their conclusions, but to listen to what they have to say about their individual fields of study.  The aim of theological metaphysics is the integration of these partial perspectives, afforded by the first-order disciplines, into a single consistent and coherent account of reality.  Thereby it seeks to provide a more profound and comprehensive understanding than could be acquired through any single primary mode on its own" (pp. 19-20).

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Ryan Burge on Declining Church Attendance, Declining Belief, and Growing Numbers of "Nones"

 Just saw this post in Religion News Service of an interview with a US sociologist of religion, Ryan Burge, on the steady growth of "Nones", those who answer "None" when asked about their religious affiliation.    

Two things caught my eye in this brief interview,  First, the trend increases markedly by generation, with Millenials by far in the greatest number.  

If you are still wondering what you did wrong because your adult children are no longer interested in faith, that's not on you.  Something systemic is going on.   Which brings me to the second thing I noticed in the interview.

Burge notes that the "social desirability bias" in responses to surveys on religious attendance is fading, meaning that it used to be that people would exaggerate their church attendance on surveys because religious affiliation used to be more socially desirable.   Now, as religious affiliation is dropping, people are losing their inhibitions and being more truthful on these surveys, so that the numbers of "nones" and the number who say they never attend religious services are both increasing.

The trend for religion is grim:  people stop attending worship, then people stop belonging to a faith group, and then people stop believing.   That's the worrisome reality facing churches, and if the trend towards being a "none" is increasing in the US, then it is certainly higher in Canada. 

 How an aging church can become effectively missional in this context is something to pray about.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Today (21 April) in the life of church we remember Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, reformer, and one of the authors of the Book of Common Prayer. A Cambridge scholar, Cranmer became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1533. He had protestant sympathies, a knowledge of the theological issues of the day, and a desire to reform the liturgy of the church. His chance to do so came as a result of the break with the Church of Rome set in motion by Henry VIII, and he played a large role in the drafting of the Book of Common Prayer which was authorized in 1549.

Cranmer was removed from office following the ascension to the throne of Queen Mary, a Roman Catholic. He was imprisoned and endured a long trial for heresy, during which he recanted his protestant beliefs in the hopes of obtaining mercy. Queen Mary refused to hear his pleas, and he was burned at the stake on this day in 1556. As the flames licked around him, he thrust out his right hand, the hand which had signed the recantation of his beliefs, so that it might be the first part of him to be burned, and he was last seen in that posture as the flames engulfed his body.

Collect (From For All The Saints): O God, you endued your servant Thomas Cranmer with zeal for the purity of your Church and gave him a singular ability in reforming the common prayer of your people. Grant us such courage in our witness to your grace that in our families, communities, and nation we may become the leaven of your justice and truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. 

The Friend Who Teaches Obedience: A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Lent


Preached via internet to All Saints, King City, Ontario, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, 21 March, 2021, the Fifth Sunday of Lent.  Readings for this Sunday (Yr B): Ps 51.1-13; Jer 31.31-34; Heb 5.5-10, Jn 12.20-23

8Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; 9and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him. (Heb 5.8-9)

Most of us I suspect have issues with the word “obey”.  While we want to obey the law when we have to, while driving, or while preparing our tax return, I suspect that we instinctually bridle at the idea of being told to obey.  We associate the word with dictatorships and a lack of personal freedom. We’re civilians.  We cherish autonomy.  We don’t want to be told what to do.  I think one reason why churches started emptying out in our lifetimes was because people didn’t want to be told from the pulpit what to do.  And yet here is the author of Hebrews, telling us that if we want salvation, we have to obey Jesus.

To put it plainly, if we choose to follow Jesus, then I think we have to obey him, however imperfectly, as best we can.   We obey for the same reason that we obey traffic laws, because Jesus defines a way that gets us through life and safely home.  It also helps that Jesus, as the author of Hebrews notes, models obedience for us.  Now as we approach Holy Week, and as we hear Jesus say in today’s gospel, the cross draws near.  Jesus knows where he must go and what he must do.  He knows the cost, and still, he goes.    Now I want to make it clear at the start that Jesus’ obedience is the perfect love of God’s self-giving shown on the cross.  Hebrews does not say, if you want to obey Jesus, you must suffer like he does.   What I think Hebrews does say that we follow someone who knows what our lives our like, who knows our suffering and our imperfections, and who chooses to share our burdens.  You don’t follow someone like that out of blind obedience.  You follow them out of love.

I had the chance to follow someone like that during my basic military training, which is itself designed to teach obedience through suffering.   One of the goals of military training is obedience, meaning a state of mind that allows you to think of other things than your own basic desires and wants.  Through carefully creating situations of stress, discomfort and sleeplessness, the military trains people to be leaders, to think about the mission and about the condition and needs of their troops before you think of their own needs.   If you’re hungry, you wait to eat until your sure your people all have enough to eat – that sort of thing.

Officers’ basic training is challenging for young, fit men and women in their twenties, but it’s another thing altogether for people like myself who want to be military chaplains.   My course mates were people like me, clergy in their 30s, 40s, and even 50s who’d been used to being on a pedestal and calling the shots in their churches.  Now we were out running at 5am, mopping floors and ironing uniforms, learning drill and marching cold and hungry through the woods in the pitch dark.  It wasn’t really suffering at the time, but it sure seemed like suffering to us at the time.  

Now our instructors were all “real” military, infantry sergeants and corporals with chests full of medals, and we learned that if we complained to them, we’d only get extra pushups.  However, there were two chaplains assigned to our course.   One of them showed up rarely, gave us a box of timbits, and quickly left.  He didn’t make much of an impression on us, and I honestly don’t recall his name today.   The other was a United Church pastor named Sheilah and she did everything with us – marching, pushups, the obstacle course.  On long cold nights out in the training area, she stayed with us and cracked jokes to keep us awake.  We loved her because she knew our hardships and embraced them with us.  She showed us how to be an army chaplain.

There are, I think, similarities between military training and the Christian life.   Both happen over time, gradually, and have the desired effect of changing us.  We learn to think not just of ourselves and our immediate loved ones, but we also learn to think of the group, the church.   We learn to be followers, which means that we learn obedience.  As the author of Hebrews says, we learn to follow Jesus, “the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” (Heb 5.9).   

Even when we as Jesus followers get (at least partly) over our taste for personal authenticity and autonomy, we know that we’re not that good at obeying.   The preacher Timothy Keller says about the Sermon on the Mount, when we actually hear what Jesus asks of us, it can seem impossible, even terrifying.  Heck, it’s hard enough living out the Golden Rule most days of the week.   And yet Jesus says, “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also”.  So it’s pretty clear that if we want this Christian life, then we will need to learn how to be obedient followers of Jesus.

If that idea seems daunting to you, take some comfort in knowing how fully Jesus understands your situation, because he does.  He’s been in our place, fully and completely.   The author of Hebrews seems to be thinking of the story of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane when  he talks about how Jesus “offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who as able to save him from death” (Heb 5.  ).  Jesus himself in John’s gospel seems to anticipate the same moment when he says “Now my soul is troubled.  And what should I say – “Father, save me from this hour?”  (Jn 12  ).   In these two readings, we are given something profound to meditate on as we approach Good Friday, that the man who set his face towards the cross and death was human as we are.

How indeed could it have been otherwise?   Would it have meant anything if Jesus had gone to the cross, confident in his resurrection and knowing that nothing bad would really happen to him?   No, of course not.  The crucifixion would have been a piece of theatre, just empty performance art.   But it’s not.  What happens on the cross is profoundly tragic and highly meaningful because Jesus goes to the cross as one of us, to share a human death.  But we knew that already, because at the very start of his ministry, Jesus chose to share a human life.  That was the whole point of the temptation in the desert.  A wise person this week shared with me that the point of the temptation is for Jesus to abandon his humanity.  Turn this rocks into stones, fall and be caught by angels – Jesus is asked to take refuge into his divinity, to be God and not man, and he refused, because that would have made everything he did a sham.  

Jesus saves us because he did not abandon his humanity.  He lives out what Hebrews calls “the days of flesh”, fully and completely.  Jesus embraced life and death fully and completely, taking all of our pain, all of our fear, all of our struggles to obey.  He takes all we are, the good and the bad, and perfects them in what the author of Hebrews calls his “reverent submission” to God.  Only Jesus could perfectly do his Father’s will.   We know that we can’t do these things on our own.   We’re bound to be less than perfect.  We’re doomed to be less than fully obedient to Jesus, even when we try our best.   Jesus knows this about us.  That was the whole point of the incarnation, so God in Jesus could know the good things and the bad things about our nature, how easily we are tempted, how often we fail, and how we long to be what we can’t be by ourselves.   It’s ok.    That’s why Jesus is our “high priest”, because as the theology of Hebrews goes on to explain, only his sacrifice can bring us home to the father.  Remember that on the blessed day that we can take the Eucharist again.

It’s a long business, this training to be a Christian.   It may seem like we’ll never be perfect.   That’s ok.  My thoughts go back to a long march, a small column of would be chaplains struggling under the unfamiliar weight of heavy packs and helmets, feet sore and aching.   We weren’t sure where the finish line was or if we could make it there.   Right alongside us, going up and down the column, was Padre Sheilah.   She was as old as many of us, and we could see that she felt weight of her pack just as much, her feet were as sore as ours, but we could also see by her cheerfulness that she wanted to be with us and share what we were feeling.  It made us want to finish and finish strong.

“Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb 5.8).    Suffering isn’t a good in itself.  No one likes it, not even Jesus (“My soul is troubled”).   But Jesus knows that it is part of human life.  He knows that better than anyone, and he still wants to be there, in the thick of it, for our sakes.   As we approach Holy Week, let’s not just see Jesus as a passive victim and sacrificial lamb.  Let’s also see him as a friend who wants to walk alongside us, share our burdens, and see us safely home.  Amen.





Sunday, March 14, 2021

Snakes On A Journey: A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Lent


Preached online to All Saints Church, King City, Ontario, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, on 13 March, 2021.  Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year B: Numbers 21.4-9, Psalm 107.1-3,17-22, Ephesians 2.1-10, John 3.14-21.


The people came to Moses and said, "We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us." So Moses prayed for the people. (Numbers 21:7)

A few years back, a film appeared with the rather squirmy title, "Snakes on a Plane". I never watched it. I find air travel arduous enough at the best of times, but the idea of a confined plane cabin infested with snakes simply too unappealing.  One can imagine even scarier films today:  “Covid on a Plane”, or “The Passenger Behind You Putting their Bare Feet on Top of Your Headrest”.  Much more terrifying.

In today's first lesson, from Numbers, could be titled "Snakes on a Journey". At the time of this reading, which is about two thirds of the way through the book of Numbers, the Israelites have been in the wilderness for many years since being led out of Egypt. It has been so long, and the journey so difficult, that they have forgotten that their time in Egypt was actually a time of slavery. "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?", they complain to Moses. From their perspective, slavery now looks like job security, food, and shelter. At least they had a good place to live.

The Israelites are so cranky and so hopeless that they cannot recognize their blessings. Not only have they forgotten what God did for them years ago, they've forgotten what God has done for them recently. Manna from the heavens? Are you kidding? "We detest this miserable food," they tell Moses. Get us something better to eat! Get us someplace good!

There is something more profound going on here than just a bunch of whining. For those familiar with the Old Testament narrative, the misbehaviour of the Israelites in the wilderness is part of a larger pattern. Forgetting God's promises, making idols and trusting in them, breaking God's laws, turning against and killing his prophets -- God's chosen people do all of these things, even after they reach the promised land. The story of God's love and faithfulness is always counterpointed in scripture with the chronic persistence of God's people in going off course and screwing up.

Any parent who has tried to keep driving the family car on a long road trip, with querulous and cranky voices coming from the back, may sympathize, if not with God, then at least with Moses. Poor Moses is the guy who has to hold the whole journey together, even pleading with God not to wipe out the whole bunch (Num 14:13-19). Moses is just gripping the steering wheel, hoping that they are indeed “there yet”.  God, in contrast, "sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died" (Num 21:6).

This passage raises the challenging question that many of you may be thinking, namely, what does the business with the snakes say about the character of God? To return to my analogy of the family car trip, no parent, however frazzled, would toss a poisonous serpent into the back seat to punish the cranky kids.   However, God's punishment is not arbitrary; it is rooted in the covenant that God makes with his chosen people, as we heard in last Sunday's lesson from Exodus 20:1-7. That passage begins with the words "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me".  It was followed by the ten commandments, which as we saw were the boundaries within which the Israelites were to live out their freedom.  God gave them as a space within which they would be free from hostility and murder, lies and envy, adultery and all the other hostile forces that destroy community and relationship.   The Ten Commandments were the space within which God’s people could be live their lives in freedom.



Seen in this context, the Israelites complaints to Moses are not mere kvetching; they are a radical denial of God's work of liberation and of God's faithfulness.   God’s punishment is not in fact arbitrary, but comes from God’s desire to return the Israelites to the covenant that is their life and freedom.    But why choose snakes to do it?  I mean, God could have punished the Israelites with scorpions, or lightning bolts, or even falling pianos, but God chooses snakes.  Why snakes?  I think because there are patterns to scripture, and here we are meant to think of the place back before the journey started, the garden, where humanity was free and in perfect relationship with God.   The snake in Genesis is a symbol of evil and disobedience that breaks human relationship with God our creator and with one another.   It was a snake that set the Israelites on their long journey to find their freedom again.

In the story from Numbers, the people bitten by the snakes have a remedy, if they want it.  In life, it’s more complicated.  A friend tells a story of his boyhood in South Africa, where there are poisonous snakes.  One day he was climbing with some friends, and most of the way up a mountain he put his hand in a hole and was badly bitten by a snake, which pumped his hand full of venom.  By the time he got back off the mountain his arm was quite painful, but being a boy he didn’t tell his parents, until later that night, when his hand began to turn black and he had to go to hospital to get the antivenom. 

I think that many people are like my friend, in denial about their spiritual snakebites and hurting as a result and resembling those in John's gospel today who "have not believed in the name of the only Son of God" (Jn 3:18).  And yet, just as God provided a remedy for the Israelites, so does Jesus.  When Jesus predicts at the beginning of our gospel passage that he will be lifted up like Moses' snake, he is predicting his own death, as he did in last Sunday's reading about Jesus comparing his body to the Temple (Jn 2:13-22).  The bronze serpent on the staff was a symbol of human sin that God turned to cure. In replacing the bronze serpent on the staff with his broken body on the cross, Jesus goes one step further, taking our sin and disobedience into himself, becoming sin itself in a way that only God’s love could do.  But if we want to be cured, we need to see the cross for what it is, and to make a full reckoning with it.

The preacher Timothy Keller says that most people, if they actually found themselves judged by God, would bargain, saying in effect “yes, I’ve done some bad things,  but I’ve also done good things that should count to my credit, so I don’t need a lot of help”.   Whereas Keller says, a Christian and someone becoming a Christian recognizes their full dependence on God.  We know that we are bitten, we want to be free from the snakes.  As we approach Good Friday, we have an opportunity to see the cross for what it is, our only source of help.  By taking the serpent out of the picture and replacing it with himself, Jesus points to the new order shortly to be inaugurated with his resurrection. In this new order, which we get a foretaste of after Easter, there is no room for snakes, or sin, or death. After Easter, we see the beginning of the road back to the Garden.

That post-Easter road is still a long one, to be sure. It is a road as long as the history of the church, as long as the span of our lives, as long as the longest moment of crisis and despair we may experience. Redemption, salvation, resurrection, call them what you will, may seem like the promised land to Moses' people, a thing spoken of but so far away as to seem impossible to believe in. I don't want to say that you just have to believe in the happy ending, for that would seem trite. What I would say is simply to remember the cross. In choosing to become the cure for all that is wrong with us and with the world, Jesus chooses to stand with and to become one of those who suffer. The famous promise of John 3:16 needs to be seen within this context, that Jesus is God's answer to a world that suffers and disbelieves. The cross is not a short-term answer to suffering. Like the people of Moses who looked to the bronze serpent after they were bitten, we will still be wounded and hurt. But we will not die. The cross is the promise of that, and the promise that, at the end of this road, there will be no snakes.

Sunday, March 7, 2021

The Cross Is What We've Got: A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Lent


(So it's not Holy Cross Day, but our friends' comments on the cross work with today's reading from 1 Corinthians.)

Preached March 7, 2021, the Third Sunday of Lent, via Zoom, to All Saints, King City, Anglican Diocese of Toronto.

Readings for this Sunday (Yr B):  Exodus 20.1-17; Psalm 19, 1 Cor 1.18-25, Jn 2.13-22

“Where is the debater of this age?”, Paul asks in his first letter to the church in Corinth.  If Paul was around to ask this question today, someone might well answer, “YouTube”.   Go to YouTube and you can spend hours and hours watching debates between atheist and Christian thinkers.  Some of these events are quite respectable, such as a dialogue hosted by Oxford University between the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and Richard Dawkins, a renowned evolutionary biologist and public spokesman for the idea that religious belief is a form of delusion.  Some of these debates are more sharp-elbowed, and are eagerly anticipated and discussed by believers and sceptics, as if they were Superbowl matchups between Team Atheism and Team Religion.  

While I respect the chance to hear thoughtful arguments for and against belief, I’m sceptical of the value of these sorts of events.   It’s been my experience over the years that you can’t talk people into entering the Christian faith or to talk them out of leaving it.  If we had found the person with the skilled tongue and the best arguments for Christianity, we wouldn’t have churches in decline, at least in decline in the western world.  I think Paul was sceptical as well.  When he asked, .   “Where is the debater of this age?”, he was asking a rhetorical question.  Paul knew that his message was based on the cross, and the cross is inexplicable.

As Paul opens his letter to the fractious and troubled church in Corinth, I’m struck by the fact that he doesn’t even rely on clever arguments.   Everything he’s said and done since he met these people, Paul says, has been about the cross: “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor 2.2).    What’s more, Paul says with blunt honesty, the cross at the heart of his message doesn’t make a lot of sense.   The cross, he says repeatedly, is “foolishness”.  It doesn’t make sense to Jews, like the ones in today’s gospel who demand “signs” or proofs from their tradition and scriptures in order for Jesus to prove his identity.   The cross is also “foolishness” to Greeks who prize philosophy and reason.    If anyone would have asked him, “Is that all you got?”, Paul would say “yes, just this message that Jesus the Son of God voluntarily died on the cross to save us from our sins.”

Sometimes when I think that selling this Christian message is a tough uphill battle, I take comfort from Paul’s frank admission that it could be just as hard a sell in his day.  Because it is a hard sell.  As our own age becomes increasingly secular, it’s tempting to rebrand the church and find an easier message to sell.   Recently I read a message by a priest in the Church of England with some forty years’ service who said that our message is the reason why the pews are emptying.   Rev. David Keighley believes that the church’s “supernatural theism”, its outdated teaching about a sky-god, no longer works with “scientifically educated” people today.  Better, he says, to ditch our dogma and focus instead on a message of “universal love”.

This isn’t a new idea.  Those of you with long memories might remember John Spong in the 1980s or Bishop Robinson in the 1960s writing similar ideas about the need to reject an unbelievable Christian theology.    The fact that these ideas persist shows that the gospel message remains as heavy a lift in our time as it was in St. Paul’s day.  If Paul was here today, he say to Rev. Keighley that you if you want a message of universal love, you won’t find a better one than the cross.  As foolish as it is, as hard to believe as it may be to accept in our scientific age, the cross is the place where God chooses suffering over power for no other reason than for love for us.

It comes down to this, that our faith is not a collection of dogma, but a long story of how, over and over, God chooses the people God loves.  When Paul writes to the believers in Corinth, he calls the saints that God has chosen.  “God is faithful”, he writes, “by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Cor 1.4).   Paul as a Jew knew one thing with bedrock certainty, that this call had echoed down through the centuries, the same call that came over and over again to the people of Israel chosen by God to show God’s love to the world. 

In our first lesson, we heard the Ten Commandments, the Decalogue, given by God to Moses.   Heard at random like this, one of the unfortunate results of the lectionary, this lesson can seem like another installment of the unbelievable dogma the Rev. Keighley complains of, a sky god telling people how to live.    However, one of the most powerful things I heard this last week was by Joy Moore, an African American preacher talking about this reading from Exodus.  Here, she said, is a people that God has called out of slavery, and here, in his commandment on the sabbath, God is telling these former slaves that they can take a day off, that they have the right to a day when they don’t have to work for anyone!   Here, in this ancient text, Joy Moore does not hear an ancient and outdated dogma, but instead hears proof that the God of love is committed to the flourishing of all people, including her own people, who have their own powerful memories of slavery. 

I think the Christian message boils down to this one power truth, that the God of love is thoroughly committed to all human flourishing, even to the point of demonstrating that love on the cross.  What exactly happens on the cross can be debated and pondered by theologians, but somehow it frees us from our burdens of sin and opens up communion with God.   I am aware even as I say this that it will seem like foolishness.  Well, St. Paul warned us that would happen.   I’m ok with that.  Let the cross be the cross, and let God be God.   I’m convinced that if we live as a people who know that the cross shows us God’s love and salvation, then we will make others curious.    As Covid comes to an end and we can be more missional in the community, resuming things like the Alpha course, we will have opportunities to share our faith with others and make them curious.  Meanwhile,  I’m convinced that if we keep our eyes on the cross as we progress towards Good Friday and Easter Sunday, we will see why it is we believe, and why some might come to join us.


Gracious God, we thank you that in the cross, with all its ugliness and suffering, you’ve given us a profound symbol of your endless love.  We don’t always understand how it works, and we struggle to explain the cross to a sceptical world.  Help us understand the cross as a sign of your love,  and help us show that love to the world in our lives and in our community as church.


Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


Blog Archive