Tag Archives: Corinthians

What Does It Take For Us To Believe?

'This is impossible' said Alice

‘This is impossible’ said Alice

Readings for the Second Sunday of Easter: Acts 4:32-35; 1 John 1:1 – 2:2; John 20:19 – end

On the second Sunday of Easter we find out that not everyone was yet ready to believe the incredible Easter news that Jesus was alive. Some people still had their doubts, including the apostle Thomas. We also hear how another apostle, John, was persuading a group of Christians that what he had witnessed first hand was the truth. Put that alongside the growing number of believers who were learning a new way of living as a community and suddenly the question of what it would take to enable us to believe is one that we might ask; which is exactly what I did in my sermon this morning

May I speak and may you hear through the grace of our Lord; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen

If you don’t mind I’d like to start by conducting a straw poll with a show of hands. There are two main choices, but possibly an infinite number of circumstances and experiences that could fall into either of those categories.

I want you to think about your journey to faith, from when you first took an interest in Christianity to a point when you knew you believed. I wonder whether this was a sudden and datable experience or whether it was more of a gradual process, where you can perhaps remember a time when you didn’t believe and now you do but you don’t know exactly when that happened. Perhaps you’ve always believed or maybe you’re still on that journey.

None of these choices are better than the other, but it would be interesting to know, if you’re willing to share. Put your hands up [Reader, you too can join in, although remember that statistically the result will be 100% for whichever choice you raise your hand to] if your belief followed a sudden, ‘Damascus road’ type experience…… and now if your belief has been more gradual…… We’re actually quite representative of the average, which is about three-quarters describing it as gradual and a quarter as sudden.

I’d actually quite like to stop and hear from some of you about your journeys but I suppose I better carry on… because the really interesting bit might not be when it happened for those already there, but what it takes for us to believe.

The Incredulity of St Thomas blog

The Incredulity of St Thomas, Benjamin West (1738 -1820)

For Thomas it was the sheer physical proof of placing his hands on a man with whom he had spent the best part of the last three years and who he knew had been crucified, had died and had been shut up in a rock tomb and was now according to his friends and fellow disciples very much alive again; a man who was speaking to him and asking him not to doubt but to believe. This apparently indisputable proof led Thomas to publicly declare that Jesus was indeed ‘My Lord and my God’.

Where then does it leave those of us who will probably never have the opportunity to physically encounter Christ, at least not in the same way that those first disciples did? We are told that we are blessed more if we come to believe without seeing. Do we, therefore, come to belief because there are first-hand witness statements available to this event?

The First Letter of John

The First Letter of John

We don’t know for sure who the author of the first letter of John was, but from the very earliest of times it was believed to have been written by John, the fisherman and apostle of Jesus and bears striking similarities to the Gospel of John. Here is someone writing to one of the first group of Christians, who are somewhat unsure as their faith is being tested by spurious claims about whom Jesus really was; that he wasn’t actually human and didn’t really suffer on the cross; that he only ‘seemed’ human.

John writes to reassure these believers, that as a first-hand witness of Jesus’ ministry he and his friends saw and heard and touched Jesus when they became his disciples and shared his life. In this way their testimony is very convincing – they believed that Jesus was none other than the ‘Word’ of God – the source and meaning and purpose of life.

Even so, an eyewitness account is not quite the same as having concrete facts and figures, to inform our belief. Now before you get too excited I am not going to pull the ‘white rabbit’ of incontrovertible evidence out of my theological training ‘top hat’ but in amongst the minutia of historical data plenty of scholars and historian have investigated what might be myth and what could be reality.

WDITFUTB_Lament over the Dead Christ blog

Lament over the Dead Christ, Giovanni Bellini (c1432 – 1516)

We know that without a resurrection Christianity is counterfeit. As the apostle Paul tells the Corinthians, ‘If Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless’ 1 Corinthians 15:17. Accordingly, since a resurrection requires death, Jesus’ death by crucifixion has to be regarded as true. This ‘fact’ is attested to by a number of ancient sources, including the non-Christian historians, Josephus and Tacitus, who were therefore not biased toward a Christian interpretation of events.

We know that the chances of surviving crucifixion were very bleak and no evidence exists that Jesus was removed whilst still alive. The unanimous professional medical opinion is that Jesus certainly died due to the rigours of crucifixion, and even if he had somehow managed to survive, it would not have resulted in the disciples’ belief that he had been resurrected.

Il Precusore,

Il Precusore, Giulio Aristide Sartorio (1860 – 1932)

What about the empty tomb? Well its location was known to Christians and non-Christians alike. So if it hadn’t been empty, why would the chief priest have devised a plan to give a large sum of hush money to the guards, telling them to say that ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep’ Matthew 28:12-13. It would also have been pretty impossible for the large group of believers to have suddenly sprung up in the same city where Jesus had been publicly executed just a few weeks before and for those same believers to have been willing to die brutal martyr’s deaths if they knew this was all a lie.

Were people hallucinating when they encountered the risen Christ? Well, usually hallucinations are something that happens in an individual’s brain and not repeatedly on separate occasions and certainly not to groups of up to 500 people! 1 Corinthians 15:6 Even if they were visions, brought on by the apostle’s grief over the death of their leader, surely the body would have still been in the tomb.

Pascal's Wager

Pascal’s Wager

Convincing facts and figures? Well maybe. Or perhaps Pascal’s Wager might be the reason why people believe. Pascal was a seventeenth-century philosopher who theorised that humans live their lives by wagering that believing in God is a good bet because if when they die he does exist then they have gained the best of everything, on the other hand if they don’t believe and then find out he does exist then they made the worst choice and will have lost everything. However if they were to discover after death that God never existed then it didn’t matter what you believed.

So by believing, you are in a win-win situation. This sort of hedging my bets is just one accusation made against Christians who assume that because they believe in the right God, they are automatically good and have a one-way ticket to everlasting life. However, it also assumes that God would always reward blind faith above living a conscious Christ-centred life and all of the obligations that that might bring.

WDITFUTB_Belief is truth blogPerhaps belief and faith are different then… that belief is something that our logical, human minds hold to be true whilst faith is something that is felt deep within our hearts. Or could it be that faith is based on belief and that is why faith alone is not possible because belief always brings about actions and reactions?

Some people might even say that faith is truth held in the mind and that belief is a fire in the heart. Perhaps we just can’t separate the mind and heart, because as we heard ‘The community of believers were of one heart and one mind’ Acts 4:32

I hope you’ve been aware that I’ve been careful to never actually define what it is exactly that we understand and count as belief. Some might say that’s a cop-out; that the church is forever allowing so much laissez-faire around declaring what it believes and stands for that it nullifies any claims it might have to the truth. Well, I’m sure that for the majority of us it will include the belief that Jesus died and was resurrected in order that we might ‘have life in his name’, but that for each of us that might mean something slightly different depending where we are on our journey of faith.

As we walk together in fellowship with each other and with God, let’s make sure that we’re not only helping each other to increase in faith, but that we are sharing our beliefs with others so that God’s joy may be complete. After all didn’t Jesus say ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe’. So let’s go and open a few more eyes to the truth of what we believe.

Amen

John 20:29

John 20:29

A Chinese Legend

 

The Noble Bamboo

The Noble Bamboo

In the church, we have just celebrated Ascension, when the risen Christ traditionally ascends to heaven, having been crucified on the Easter cross. Ahead, we look forward to Pentecost; when the promised Advocate or Holy Spirit will be given to his followers. Without these things happening we would have nothing distinctive about our faith. 

If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised;
and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain
and your faith has been in vain.
1 Corinthians 15:13-14

So for his death not to have been in vain there had to have been a purpose. The son of God, who came to earth, and set aside his divinity to take on earthly flesh had to die in order that he and us might live and there is no doubt that giving your life for the greater good is the ultimate sacrifice anyone can make. Throughout history men and woman have made this sacrifice, as martyrs, as servicemen and women and civilians serving their country, as ordinary everyday people; in the hope that it helps others to live.

At Morning Prayer in college recently a fellow student read a beautiful story which illustrated this selflessness perfectly. However, it also made me think that God does not contain himself to our slightly arrogant assumption of exclusivity. For example, I have always been amazed at the fact that creation stories from around the world contain so many similar attributes. For those who believe in a creator God, this is not so strange, as we cannot be so precious that we think God only revealed the story of creation,  based on a Mesopotamic myth and passed down in verbal form, before being adapted to Israel’s belief in one God, by a group of Yahwehist writers in the late 7th or 6th century BC

God indeed reveals himself time and again in all of his creation, both physically and linguistically and so I hope you enjoy reading this legend from China and draw your own conclusions about where God could be working his purpose out in the world right now

A Chinese Legend

Once upon a time, in the heart of the Western Kingdom, lay a beautiful garden. And there in the cool of the day was the Master of the Garden wont to walk. Of all the denizens of the garden, the most beautiful and most beloved was a gracious and noble bamboo. Year after year, Bamboo grew yet more noble and gracious, conscious of his Master’s love and watchful delight, but modest, and gentle withal. And often, when Wind came to revel in the garden, Bamboo would cast aside his grave stateliness, to dance and play right merrily, tossing and swaying and leaping and bowing in joyous abandon, leading the Great Dance of the Garden which most delighted the Master’s heart.

Now upon a day, the Master himself drew near to contemplate his Bamboo with eyes of curious expectancy. And Bamboo, in a passion of adoration, bowed his great head to the ground in loving greeting. The Master spoke:

“Bamboo, Bamboo, I would use thee.”

Bamboo flung his head to the sky in utter delight. The day of days had come, the day for which he had been made, the day to which he had been growing hour by hour, the day in which he would find his completion and his destiny. His voice came low:

“Master, I am ready. Use me as thou wilt.”

“Bamboo ” — the Master ‘s voice was grave — “l would fain take thee and — cut thee down.”

A trembling of a great horror shook Bamboo. “Cut. . . me.. . down! Me… whom thou, Master, hast made the most beautiful in all thy garden. . . to cut me down! Ah, not that, not that. Use me for thy joy, 0 Master, but cut me not down. “

“Beloved Bamboo” — the Master’s voice grew graver still — “if I cut thee not down, I cannot use thee.”

The garden grew still. Wind held his breath. Bamboo slowly bent his proud and glorious head. There came a whisper:

“Master, if thou canst not use me but thou cut me down.. then… do thy will and cut.”

“Bamboo, beloved Bamboo, I would . . . cut thy leaves and branches from thee also.”

“Master, Master, spare me. Cut me down and lay my beauty in the dust; but wouldst thou take from me my leaves and branches also?”

“Bamboo, alas, if I cut them not away, I cannot use thee.” The sun hid his face. A listening butterfly glided fearfully away.

And Bamboo shivered in terrible expectancy, whispering low.

“Master, cut away.”

“Bamboo, Bamboo, I would yet… cleave thee in twain and cut out thine heart, for if I cut not so, I cannot use thee.”

Then was Bamboo bowed to the ground.

“Master, Master. . . then cut and cleave.”

So did the Master of the Garden take Bamboo and cut him down and hack off his branches and strip off his leaves and cleave him in twin and cut out his heart. And lifting him gently, carried him to where was a spring of fresh, sparkling water in the midst of his dry fields. Then pulling one end of broken Bamboo in the spring and the other end into the water channel in his field, the Master laid down gently his beloved Bamboo. And the spring sang welcome and the clear sparkling waters raced joyously down the channel of Bamboo’s torn body into the wailing fields. Then the rice was planted, and the days went by, and the shoots grew and the harvest came.

In that day was Bamboo, once so glorious in his stately beauty, yet more glorious in his brokenness and humility. For in his beauty he was life abundant, but in his brokenness he became a channel of abundant life to his Master’s world.

Living Water

Living Water

The Body of Christ

We are the body of Christ

We are the body of Christ

The New Testament module I have just completed was interesting in many ways. Its main focus was on several of the Pauline letters, including the epistles to the Galatians, Romans and Corinthians. New insights were gained into the background, setting and context of these letters as well as the character of Paul himself. This was particularly challenging as my natural tendency is to regard Paul with a small measure of annoyance and a gritting of teeth.

Don’t get me wrong, I have learned to love and admire St Paul; for his sheer hard work and determination in setting up the early churches, his zealousness for spreading the message of Christ and his genuineness in his beliefs. It’s just that sometimes I wonder, ‘Is that really what you meant Paul?’

One passage though, in which he explained the metaphor of ‘the body of Christ’ brooks no argument from me and we were asked to prepare a sermon on it as part of the course. Here then is a copy of that sermon, intended with my own church congregation in mind, but here delivered hopefully to an equally receptive, varied and open online congregation.

The passage it relates to is 1 Corinthians 12:12-26

As the writing on the barn wall stated, “All animals are equal…” This declaration by the animals in George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm laid down a rule which many democratic societies have upheld as a basic principle. However, if we are all equal doesn’t that mean that we all have to be the same? Not physically the same but doing the same thing, thinking the same thoughts, making everything neat and uniform, because in this way we will surely achieve unity. Won’t we? And isn’t uniformity the thing that we as a church strive for in our liturgy, church management and doctrine?

Well equality is not the same as uniformity and uniformity is actually not really helpful to true unity. As the animals later discovered when they added a codicil to the rule – “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” There is something more that needs to happen and Paul points to it in one of his clearest and least controversial statements in his first letter to the church in Corinth, when he identifies what it means to be the body of Christ

We could so easily just look at the analogy of each of the members of the church being represented as different body parts. We all have different roles to play which could equate to a particular limb or organ within a body – the choir representing the harmonious vocal chords; the sidespeople as helpful hands; ‘Jonathan’ [in my own church], who likes to disagree with every sermon, as the grumbling appendix!… Each of us creating a complete and unified metaphorical human being that is wonderfully made, but which can occasionally stumble and fall, but invariably picks itself up again.

 Still is this what Paul really means and is this the only way we can think of being one body?

For a start we are all different, and that’s great; because it would be an odd shaped body if we were all the same part. After all, like a body, we need the unique gifts offered by all of the various members. These various gifts provide diversity, a diversity that is God-given; and coming as they do from such a source they need to be used for the good of all. Paul recognises that the thing that unites us is the Holy Spirit and it is through the work of the Holy Spirit that believers become bound together into one body.

However, our diversity needs to be based on interdependency rather than independence… Just as we use different parts of our bodies to perform different tasks, we all have particular talents which make us very good at the jobs we choose to do; and sometimes we can jealously guard those jobs that we like doing, thereby preventing others from a chance of receiving equal recognition. In addition, if we perceive that these are highly skilled tasks we can begin to give them a superior status, which often leads to pride. Yet the work we perform in God’s name cannot be based on a belief of self-sufficiency – our successes are built on the grace of God and the shoulders of those that support us –this sermon would be pretty pointless if the church and its people weren’t present – and a lot has happened in the past and behind the scenes to bring everybody to this particular point in time. Just take a moment to think why and how it is you are here today?

Moreover, who are we to judge the worthiness of each role played within the church? Just as our limbs depend on muscles, and tendons; nerves and microscopic synapses to function efficiently, and would be useless without them, so we have to ensure that every role a person has is equally valued. Furthermore, we need to realise that if we are working towards a common purpose – a united body – then we have to recognise that there will be some within that ‘body’ who may be vulnerable and therefore need to be nurtured and cared for.

Often, living in a society that prizes outward signs of power and achievement, we can despise weakness and vulnerability, but Paul turns this on its head, so that as Christians we should honour those ‘less respectable members’ and instead afford them mutual respect. It could be anyone of us that fluffs their lines in the readings, or takes a long time to get up to the altar rail or forgets the milk for refreshments…If we learn to be more accepting then the church will truly function as the body of Christ

Of course there are going to be time when we do disagree with each other, but it will be how we deal with this that counts. If our disagreements are forever aired publicly, rather than quietly and with concern for the other person, then we run the risk that we lower the respect that we need to have for each other as well as the respect that others have for us. We devalue the whole

What then should the shape of the whole look like? Well, in a world that is forever dieting and primping to maintain the body beautiful, we need to put that image aside. Our body should be fluid and growing, accepting new members so that every part of the body can grow stronger. We shouldn’t pick and choose what sort of parts or people we might need more of, or reject what might be to some insignificant or worthless. We have to allow people to be what they are; love each other unconditionally and rejoice in our unity – because if we don’t then we not acting as the body of Christ; and In the words of a song by the music group Casting Crowns – “Jesus paid much too high a price for us to pick and choose who should come… and we are the body of Christ”

Amen

Lyrics from If We Are The Body – Casting Crowns

It’s crowded in worship today
As she slips in trying to fade into the faces.
The girls’ teasing laughter is carrying farther than they know
Farther than they know

A traveller is far away from home
He sheds his coat and quietly sinks into the back row.
The weight of their judgemental glances
Tells him that his chances are better out on the road

But if we are the body
Why aren’t his arms reaching?
Why aren’t his hands healing?
Why aren’t his words teaching?
And if we are the body
Why aren’t his feet going?
Why is His love not showing them there is a way?
There is a way

Jesus paid much too high a price
For us to pick and choose who should come
And we are the body of Christ

Jesus is the way

© Casting Crowns 2003
https://www.castingcrowns.com/music/lyrics/if-we-are-body

Disclaimer: Any names mentioned within this sermon have been changed to protect people’s anonymity and because I would still like to worship there. They know who they might be!