Faith Meets World

Reflections on faith in a messed-up but beautiful world

Category: Christian life (Page 1 of 16)

Jesus, Bread of Life – A sermon for Proper 13B

[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 6:24-35. You can read the text here.

Introduction

One of my most deeply ingrained childhood memories has to do with bread. My mum went to work part-time when I was six or seven years old; before that, she would bake fresh bread every single day. So whether I’d been playing out with friends or was coming home from school, as I opened the door I was always greeted by the same thing: the wonderful aroma of freshly baked bread. Even now, the smell of fresh bread immediately takes me back to the house I lived in as a child, and evokes strong feelings of home, care and provision.

In the mid-to-late 2000s, we lived in France for a few years. On our first Christmas in France, we went out for a walk on the morning of Christmas Day, and were astonished to see the local bakery open, and people queuing out the door to get their fresh bread for the day. To us, this was an unexpected sight because in our experience, shops stayed closed on Christmas Day. But fresh bread is so central to French culture that the idea of not being able to get it on any given day – even Christmas Day – was and is simply inconceivable.

Bread is, of course, a key theme in today’s Gospel reading, which culminates in the first of Jesus’ seven great “I am” statements given to us in John’s Gospel: “I am the bread of life.”

But before we think about what it means that Jesus is the bread of life, let’s take a few moments to review the events leading up to this statement.

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Religious bathwater, moral baby

I have recently become aware of a growing trend among some Christians in favour of open marriage, sometimes also referred to as polyamory.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines polyamory as “the practice of engaging in multiple sexual relationships with the consent of all the people involved”. The idea is that a married couple may mutually agree that either or both spouses are free to pursue relationships – including sexual intimacy – with other people, while remaining married to each other.

It seems obvious to me that such an arrangement is fraught with potential difficulties. Putting in the effort required to maintain one committed relationship is a huge enough undertaking; I seriously doubt most people’s ability to successfully pull it off with more than one. There is the potential for jealousy, rivalry, anger and all kinds of other troublesome emotions to arise within any given relationship; how much more when one is involved in multiple relationships, especially given the human tendency to make comparisons? And I could go on.

Of course, proponents of polyamory will produce counter-arguments in response to just about any concern you may care to raise. However, the purpose of this post is not to lay out a solid argument against polyamory.

So why am I raising this issue at all?

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The pinnacle of theology

Over the past few years, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking, reading and writing about theology. The nature of God, the person and work of Jesus, the cross, the atonement, salvation, scripture, prayer, suffering… all these and more are topics I’ve pondered and wrestled with. And no doubt I’ll continue to do so.

But…

All my reflecting, wrestling and theologising has led me to also wonder what’s the point of it all. What’s at the top of this theological mountain I’m trying to climb?

As I’ve thought about this question, I’ve realised I already know the answer. And, despite the many theological rabbit trails down which one may wander, it’s really very simple.

Ready?

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All shall be well

“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

These words were penned by fourteenth century English mystic Julian of Norwich in what would come to be known as her Showings. They have become a source of encouragement to many in times of uncertainty and turbulence; indeed, I have often quoted them myself. In the turbulent aftermath of the US presidential election, I have already seen them offered as a note of much-needed comfort to those who are understandably fearful about the future of America and the world.

However, I think a note of caution is required as regards how we understand these famous words.

It’s tempting to see Lady Julian’s words as an assurance that nothing bad will happen to us: that, whatever might befall us, there will always be some kind of providential safety net to protect us from the worst. But that cannot be so, for two reasons. First, Julian is thought to have written these words while deathly ill; as such, whatever it was that moved her to write them, it was not a firm conviction that she would recover and live to a ripe old age. (In fact, she did recover and live for another thirty-three years, but that’s another story.) And second, we clearly live in a world in which dreadful and deadly things can and do happen to even the most godly and selfless people.

That being the case, to attempt to use these words as a shield against the vagaries of life is to distort them into a cheap platitude that denies the reality both of the circumstances in which they were written and of the world as we know it.

How, then, are we to understand and take encouragement from Lady Julian’s affirmation? I think there are two ways we can do so.

First, Julian’s words remind us that, no matter how great the storm that encircles us, it is possible for us to be truly at peace with ourselves and the world; not easy, but possible. To achieve this kind of inner peace takes great self-awareness and a determined pursuit of inner silence and solitude – things Lady Julian herself pursued to what most would consider an extreme degree. In this way, it is possible for us to sincerely assert that “all is well” even in the midst of the storm, just as nineteenth century hymn-writer Horatio Spafford was able to write the famous words “It is well with my soul” even in the wake of his financial ruin and the tragic deaths of all five of his children.

And second, as those who believe that death has been swallowed up in the victory of resurrection, we can genuinely hold fast to the truth that even if the very worst should happen, it will not be the end of the story. This is surely how Lady Julian was able to remain resolutely hopeful even in the face of what she probably assumed was her imminent death.

So, in these uncertain times, let us be encouraged, and let us encourage one another, but not with trite and hollow promises about an earthly future none of us can predict. Rather, let us seek the kind of peace that is offered by the Prince of Peace, and let us hold firmly to the hope that even death, should it unexpectedly come knocking, is not the end, but merely a doorway to another part of the journey.

[ Image: Ian ]

Strength in weakness, weakness in strength

Among the Apostle Paul’s most famous sayings is “When I am weak, then I am strong”, found in 2 Corinthians 12:10. The context is a discussion of power being made perfect in weakness, and of Christ’s power dwelling in the Apostle.

This saying has widely been interpreted to mean that when we lay aside our own human “strength” – which could figuratively be taken to mean our skill, ability, confidence… more generally, our ability to take things into our own hands and get things done – we open ourselves up for the power of God to work through us. Conversely, when we rely on our own strength, skills and abilities, we fail to make room for God’s power to work through us. While this seems a reasonable enough interpretation on the face of it, I’d like to suggest that it has some serious weaknesses.

The main problem I see with this understanding is that it tends to assume that the divine power that is made room for by human weakness is a kind of controllable substance or flow, perhaps a bit like an electrical current. If the switch is in the “on” position, the power will flow; with the switch in the “off” position, there will be no divine power. To turn the switch on, all we have to do is make sure we are not operating out of our human strength and abilities, and God will provide the power. (If I had a penny for every time I’ve heard someone say “Let go and let God”, I’d have a lot of pennies). This is a totally transactional view in which if we do X, God is duty-bound to do Y. Because God cannot be controlled in this way, and because, in any event, God simply does not engage with us at a transactional level, this view is bunk.

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Metaphysical Jesus

The farther I proceed on my theological and experiential journey, the more convinced I am that one of the most fundamental mistakes many churches and believers have made is to turn the Jesus of the Gospels into a kind of abstract spiritual persona.

Let me explain.

For many evangelicals in particular, the important thing is to have a “relationship with Jesus”. That might sound very earthy and real, but in practice what it usually amounts to is believing that Jesus somehow lives inside you, having conversations with him, either out loud or in your head, singing to and/or about him with other believers at church and, most importantly of all, believing that he is the Son of God who died to free you from the curse of sin, death and hell. Do all this and you can be assured of your ticket to heaven.

I realise that one might easily conclude from the above paragraph that I am deriding huge and important aspects of Christian practice, namely faith, prayer and worship. However, that’s not my purpose. I’d simply like to ask one question about this approach to Christianity: just who or what is this Jesus with whom one has a relationship?

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Repost: Salvation Reimagined

[My blog has many more readers now than it did a couple of years ago. With that in mind, from time to time I like to repost things I wrote some while ago. This post was originally posted in June 2014.]

A few months ago, I wrote a post called On being saved, in which I sought to address the question “What must I do to be saved?”. In other words, it was a post about the how of salvation.

Today I’d like to think about the question “What does it mean to be saved?”. In other words, this is a post about not the how but the what of salvation. Another way we could ask the question is “What are we saved for, or what are we saved into?”.

If you asked a random sample of western believers what is the purpose of salvation, I’m pretty sure a high proportion would give as their first answer something involving eternal life and/or “going to heaven” after you die. We see salvation largely as a kind of status that secures benefits for us that kick in once our time on this earth is done – a celestial insurance policy, if you will. Of course, there are also some benefits to be enjoyed now, but these largely revolve around the assurance of knowing that we are included in the group whose eternal destiny is sorted and secure.

This “now versus future” duality is so deeply ingrained in our western psyche that it’s hard for us to be aware of, let alone shake off.

In almost thirty years of being a Christian, I’ve sat through more evangelistic services than I could possibly count. The vast majority of them have operated on the premise of “selling” the benefits of eternal security in order to get people to “make a commitment” today. Often no apology is made for using extreme psychological and emotional pressure to get people to “pray the prayer”. The justification is apparently quite sound: when someone’s eternal destiny is at stake, you use any means you can to get them to sit up and take notice.

If I sound uncharitable about those who practice this approach to evangelism, I don’t mean to. In most cases, they are deeply sincere and loving people who genuinely want the best for those they are addressing.

But I’ve been thinking. Specifically, about Jesus and his ministry. If you measure evangelistic efficiency by the number of appeals or altar calls made, Jesus wasn’t much of an evangelist. He didn’t go around trying to convince people to tick the right boxes so they could be saved. He mostly just encouraged people to repent and follow him. Which could be paraphrased “Change the way you think, and do like I do”.

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