Faith Meets World

Reflections on faith in a messed-up but beautiful world

Author: Rob (Page 1 of 104)

Book review: A More Christlike Way by Brad Jersak

I’ve been dabbling in amateur theology for a few years now. One of the main reasons I find theology a worthwhile pursuit – beyond the pure intellectual joy of contemplating and wrestling with some of life’s biggest questions – is that our theology inescapably affects how we inhabit and move through the world. Our actions mostly flow out of our attitudes, which in turn are strongly influenced by what we believe about ultimate reality – which, after all, is what theology is all about.

My own theological journey has been one of significant change over the past decade or so. My perspective on key issues like the character of God, the nature of Jesus, the atonement, forgiveness, sin, salvation, and so on is very different now from what it was not so long ago. And I’m not alone: largely through the magic of the internet, I’m fortunate to have gained a great many friends who’ve been on or are still on similar journeys. Perhaps now more than ever before, people all over the world are challenging stale orthodoxies and discovering healthier, more life-giving ways to think about God and faith.

However, remodelling your long-held beliefs is not for the faint of heart: when seeming certainties you’ve been taking for granted for decades are suddenly thrown open to question, it can be a challenging and sometimes bewildering process. Adding to the difficulty, those in the midst of theological reorientation can often find themselves feeling quite isolated as the people with whom they’ve shared their faith experience thus far prove unable (and/or unwilling) to provide answers to their questions or even to sympathise with their plight.

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Church reborn – A sermon for the seventh Sunday of Easter (Pentecost)

[This post is the transcript of a sermon I preached this morning at the local Anglican church I attend.]

Today’s text is Acts 2:1-21. You can read it here.

Introduction

I have the honour of preaching on the Day of Pentecost. It’s a particular honour because today is also a significant day in the life of St Giles’ Church, Exhall. Why? Because it’s the final Sunday before our new vicar formally takes up her role. Almost a year of self-examination, anticipation and preparation is drawing to a close, and hopefully we’re all looking forward to moving into a new season filled with hope and possibility.

So as we stand on the threshold between these two seasons in the life of our church, reflecting on the journey that’s brought us to this point and wondering what lies ahead, I’d like us to take a few moments to see what we can learn from what happened to Jesus’ followers as they gathered in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost.

Gathered together

The first thing I notice in our reading from Acts is that, as Luke, the writer, tells us, “they were all together in one place”. This might seem an insignificant detail, easy to skip over without giving it a second thought. They were all in a room together – so what?

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What kind of messiah? A sermon for the fourth Sunday of Easter

[This post is the transcript of a sermon I preached this morning at the local Anglican church I attend.]

Today’s Gospel reading is John 10:22-30. You can read the text here.

Background

In the year 167 BC, nearly two centuries before Jesus was born, disaster came upon Jerusalem.

Israel was under the control of the Seleucid Empire and its king, Antiochus IV, who came to power in 175 BC. He chose for himself the name Antiochus Epiphanes, which means “God manifest”; that gives you some idea how he saw himself. He immediately began to persecute the Jews, outlawing their religious practices, including the observance of kosher food laws, and ordering the worship of the Greek god Zeus. He had a gymnasium, symbolising the supremacy of Greek culture, built just outside the Temple. And in 167 BC, he committed the ultimate act of sacrilege, vandalising the Temple, setting up an idol on its altar, and outlawing various central practices of Judaism, including circumcision and the Sabbath. He set up altars to Greek gods and idols in every town and put to death anyone who refused to pray to them.

This, obviously, was the worst kind of humiliation for the people of God. For them, the Temple was much more than just a building where you went to worship: like the Ark of the Covenant and the Tabernacle before it, it was the place where God himself dwelled among his people. And practices like circumcision and observance of the Sabbath were much more than mundane religious rituals: they were vital markers of Israel’s identity as the chosen, covenant people of the one true God.

Who would rescue the Jewish people from this awful humiliation and repression?

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Broken and poured out – A sermon for the fifth Sunday in Lent

[This post is the transcript of a sermon I preached this morning at the local Anglican church I attend.]

Today’s Gospel reading is John 12:1-8. You can read the text here.

Introduction

Come close with Mary, Martha, Lazarus
So close the candles stir with their soft breath
And kindle heart and soul to flame within us
Lit by these mysteries of life and death.
For beauty now begins the final movement
In quietness and intimate encounter
The alabaster jar of precious ointment
Is broken open for the world’s true lover,

The whole room richly fills to feast the senses
With all the yearning such a fragrance brings,
The heart is mourning but the spirit dances,
Here at the very centre of all things,
Here at the meeting place of love and loss
We all foresee, and see beyond the cross.

(“The Anointing at Bethany”, a sonnet by English poet and Anglican priest Malcolm Guite)

Retelling the story

Picture the scene. It’s Saturday evening and the sabbath is over. Jerusalem is already swelling beyond its usual size as pilgrims arrive for Passover, just a few days away. We find Jesus and his closest associates in Bethany, a village about a mile and a half away from the hustle and bustle of Jerusalem, on the far side of the Mount of Olives.

Jesus has already been to Bethany, not long ago. You might say he made quite a splash, raising his friend Lazarus from the dead after four days in the tomb. In fact, the commotion around the raising of Lazarus prompted the Sanhedrin – the Jewish council – to make plans to arrest Jesus and have him killed. In raising Lazarus, Jesus graduated from being a manageable nuisance to representing a serious threat to the religious authorities. Ironically, in restoring Lazarus to life, he effectively signed his own death warrant.

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Shifting perspective – a sermon for Transfiguration Sunday

[This post is the transcript of a sermon I preached this morning at the local Anglican church I attend.]

Today’s Gospel reading is Luke 9:28-36. You can read the text here.

Introduction

As many of you know, my wife and I recently became grandparents for the first time. I know I’ve talked about this a lot lately, but it’s what you do when you become grandparents! It’s been fun reminiscing about what it was like to become parents ourselves, and watching our son and daughter-in-law make many of the same discoveries we did. One of the most striking things about having kids is how dramatically your perspective on life shifts when you become a parent. Typically, it’s not something you just take in your stride: when you have a baby, your whole world – by which I mean not only the practical arrangement of your life, but the whole way you see the world – changes. Becoming a parent is a change of circumstance that causes a dramatic shift in perspective.

Becoming a parent is an example of what’s sometimes called a paradigm shift. In this context, a paradigm means a set of assumptions that determine how we see the world. We all have a paradigm – we might also call it a worldview – and it’s usually something we’re not consciously aware of until we have an experience that challenges our previously unquestioned assumptions.

One characteristic of a paradigm shift is that it’s not simply a case of acquiring new information or knowledge. You can read about having a baby; you can even attend ante-natal classes to learn about what to expect when the baby arrives; but until you actually have a baby, you’ll never experience the huge change in perspective and worldview that results from becoming a parent.

To reiterate, then, a paradigm shift is not simply about acquiring new information: it’s a change of perspective, a shift to a whole new level of awareness or consciousness.

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Book review: Postcards from Babylon by Brian Zahnd

America is an empire, which means the biblical forebear with which it should rightly be most closely associated is not Israel but Babylon. Such is the contention of Missouri-based pastor and author Brian Zahnd in his most recent book Postcards from Babylon: The Church in American Exile, released January 2019.

The parallel between the modern day United States of America and biblical Babylon, that great whore and arch-enemy of Christ, is one that is rarely drawn. Understandably, the average freedom-loving American patriot might initially balk at it. But such is the force and clarity of Brian’s prophetic message and writing that the parallel, once seen, is hard to ignore and even harder to dispute.

All of Brian’s books (see here, here and here) have a prophetic edge, but none so sharp as in Postcards. Now, I realise “prophetic” is one of those words that is sometimes all too easily assigned to a message or book to give it a certain aura of authority and relevance; be assured I do not use it in such glib fashion here. If the hallmarks of prophecy include proclaiming inconvenient truths, urging faithfulness in an age of compromise and holding the church to account, then Postcards is more prophetic a work than most. The great Walter Brueggemann – he of The Prophetic Imagination fame – thinks so too, writing in the foreword:

The more I learn of Zahnd’s work, the more I have deep respect and appreciation for his truth-telling. This book is a reprimand and an invitation to his fellow evangelicals about how the way has been lost and what it will mean to ‘come home,’ because it is a gift to come down where we ought to be! Beyond his immediate circle, however, Zahnd addresses all of us, because all of us in the Christian community in the U.S. are too readily narcotized by the mantras of Caesar, Constantine, and their continuing heirs.

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The long, slow work of God – A sermon for Candlemas

[This post is the transcript of a sermon I preached this morning at the local Anglican church I attend.]

Today’s Gospel reading is Luke 2:22-40. You can read the text here.

They came, as called, according to the Law.
Though they were poor and had to keep things simple,
They moved in grace, in quietness, in awe,
For God was coming with them to His temple.
Amidst the outer court’s commercial bustle
They’d waited hours, enduring shouts and shoves,
Buyers and sellers, sensing one more hustle,
Had made a killing on the two young doves.
They come at last with us to Candlemas
And keep the day the prophecies came true
We glimpse with them, amidst our busyness,
The peace that Simeon and Anna knew.
For Candlemas still keeps His kindled light,
Against the dark our Saviour’s face is bright.

(“Candlemas”, a sonnet by English poet and Anglican priest Malcolm Guite)

Introduction

A week before Christmas, a momentous event happened in our family: our grandson and first grandchild was born. All those long months of preparation and waiting came to an end, questions were answered (“Who will he look like?”), hopes were fulfilled (“I hope he’s healthy”), and our son and daughter-in-law’s world was rather abruptly turned upside down.

You may or may not be a baby person. I’ve always been a bit of a baby person. To hold a young baby in your arms and look into its eyes – into that wide-eyed, penetrating gaze – is to experience a moment of pure, unfiltered presence and a deep feeling of connection.

Becoming a grandparent is one of those experiences that has the potential to shift your perspective on life. As I look at my little grandson, I wonder how my own child suddenly became not just an adult but now a parent. And I can’t help looking back at my own life, recalling what it was like to be a child, remembering the hopes and dreams I once had, and thinking about all the many forks in the road, the myriad choices that have brought me to this moment, with this grandchild, full of promise and potential.

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