Faith Meets World

Reflections on faith in a messed-up but beautiful world

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Book review: God Can’t by Thomas Jay Oord

A few years ago, I started to become passionately interested in theology. One of the main reasons for this interest had to do with my own evolving journey of faith. Specifically, I came to a point in my journey where I realised I had long held onto beliefs that, in the cold light of day, simply didn’t stack up. By that I don’t just mean I believed things that were unlikely, such as, for example, the resurrection of Jesus; the Christian faith has always, at its core, been about things that seem unlikely from the lowly perspective of homo sapiens. Rather, I mean I had believed things that were internally contradictory; specifically, I had believed ideas that were in conflict with some of the core tenets of the faith. The most obvious example is the idea that a God who is love and light, and in whom there is no darkness at all (see 1 John 1:5), had insisted on the cruel execution of his spotlessly innocent Son as the only acceptable price that must be paid to enable the rest of us sinners to escape eternal torture. Put like that, it sounds perfectly barmy; yet I’d glibly and unthinkingly accepted and believed it for years, as countless other Christians continue to do.

The key word in that last sentence is unthinkingly: as adherents to a religious faith, it’s all too easy for us to accept without question whatever doctrine happens to be handed to us, when even the most basic critical assessment would easily reveal glaring contradictions and inconsistencies. That’s why I’m convinced two of the key characteristics of good theological thinking are clarity and consistency: good theology should compel us to think clearly about what we believe and why we believe it; and good theology should be internally consistent, not requiring us to believe things that are glaringly at odds with each other. From this perspective, Thomas Jay Oord’s new book God Can’t is an example of excellent theological thinking, encouraging us to wrestle with questions that are often left on the “too difficult” pile, and urging us not to settle for pat and ultimately unsatisfying answers.

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Full of grace and truth

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only son, full of grace and truth. From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.

The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”

(John 1: 14-18, abridged)

When you try to envision God, what do you see?

Many Christians – perhaps even most – see God primarily as a God of justice. In a world rife with injustice, we need God to make sure justice is done. Trouble is, the kind of justice we mostly tend to want God to uphold is the same kind we humans have been using and abusing for centuries: the kind where no misdemeanour goes unpunished and everyone gets their just deserts. In this view, God is essentially the ultimate lawmaker and law enforcer. This, we might say, is the God of Moses.

But here’s the thing: grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. If there was something we humans still needed to understand about God, it wasn’t his predilection for all things legal and judicial: Moses already laid that out pretty clearly. The late Robert Farrar Capon, episcopal priest and theologian, put it this way: “For if the world could have been saved by providing good examples to which we could respond with appropriately good works, it would have been saved an hour and twenty minutes after Moses came down from Mt. Sinai with the the commandments.” [1]

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Preparing the way for the Lord – a sermon for Advent 2C

[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 3:1-6. You can read the text here.

Introduction

In the sixty-seventh year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II – when Theresa May was Prime Minister, Craig Tracey was Member of Parliament for North Warwickshire and Chris Watkins was Mayor of Nuneaton and Bedworth – during Christopher Cocksworth’s term as Bishop of Coventry, the word of God came to the people of St Giles’ church, Exhall, in the Diocese of Coventry.

That’s how today’s Gospel reading might have begun had Luke been writing about the twenty-first century West Midlands. But he wasn’t: he was writing about first-century Palestine, and he was careful to attend to the historical details, listing no fewer than seven historical political figures.

The question is, why?

God acts in history

As I was doing some background reading in preparation for this sermon, I read one commentator who suggested that if you daydream during the first verse of the Gospel reading – the verse where Luke lists all these political bigwigs – you miss the whole point. And that point, of course, is this: all the events Luke is about to narrate, concerning the coming – or advent – of God, will occur in history, in a time and place with which Luke’s readers are familiar.

We’re not dealing here with a god or gods acting in a far-off, disembodied realm, a god whose actions only tangentially affect the real, physical world. No: Luke is at pains to make clear that the stage on which God is about to act is human history, the world of people, societies and nations. Whatever form God’s salvation is going to take, it isn’t going to involve inviting people to detach themselves from and escape from the world. God is stepping right into the world, to be a shepherd to his people and to share in history with them.

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Come and follow – A sermon for 11 November 2018 (Remembrance 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 Mark 1:14-20. You can read the text here.

Introduction

I’d like to invite you to cast your minds back, if you can, to the summer of 1985. Ronald Reagan had begun his second term of office as US President; Mikhail Gorbachev had risen to power as de facto leader of the Soviet Union; scientists had recently announced the discovery of a hole in the ozone layer; and the soap opera Neighbours had made its first appearance on Australian television. And there were no doubt many other significant events that happened that year.

But whatever else was happening in the world back in 1985, for me, as a nearly 15-year-old lad from South Yorkshire, one event happened that summer that far surpassed anything else in its significance and consequences. Under the rather grand title Mission: England, American evangelist Billy Graham held a series of rallies at Bramall Lane football ground in Sheffield.

Looking back, it seems like a bit of a cliché, but after listening to Billy Graham talk about God’s love and forgiveness, I was one of hundreds who responded to the famous invitation to “Get up out of your seat”. I went forward, prayed a prayer of repentance, confessed Jesus as my Lord and Saviour, and turned my life over to God. I can honestly say it was an event and a decision that changed my life forever.

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What will it cost us to follow Jesus? A sermon for Proper 23B

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

Today’s Gospel reading is Mark 10:17-31. You can read the text here.

Introduction

“Money makes the world go round”.

“Money can’t buy happiness.”

“Money isn’t everything.”

“Money doesn’t grow on trees.”

“You cannot serve both God and money.”

… and I could go on. We have a lot of sayings about money in the English language, don’t we? Only one of those I quoted is from the Bible, but in fact, the Bible contains over two thousand references to money and possessions. (By contrast, it only contains around five hundred references to prayer and a similar number of references to faith.)

Jesus tells thirty-eight parables in the gospels, and sixteen of them deal with how we handle money; in fact, according to the gospels, Jesus said far more about money than he did about heaven and hell combined.

Our gospel text today seems to be about money, but I hope to show you that it’s actually about something deeper than money – something of which money is only one example.

With that in mind, I’d like to simply walk us through the text and see what we can glean along the way, and then at the end we’ll try to pull out one or two conclusions.

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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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Jesus’ prayer for his disciples – a sermon for Easter 7B

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

Today’s Gospel reading is John 17:6-19. You can read the text here.

Introduction

To tell you the truth, when I saw the text for today’s Gospel, I felt a bit intimidated about preaching from it. Of the four Gospels that we have in our Bible, John’s is easily the most complex; and this particular section of John’s Gospel is arguably the most theologically dense and, in some ways, the most cryptic of all.

So you’ll probably be relieved to know that I’m not even going to attempt to give you any kind of blow-by-blow exposition of the text. What I want to do instead is to give you a bit of context about the text itself – what kind of text it is, and where it fits into the overall gospel story – and then we’ll briefly see whether we can pull out one or two key points from this prayer that Jesus prays for his disciples and explore how they might apply to us today.

Context

So, what kind of text do we have in our Gospel reading today? Well, this passage from John 17 forms part of an extended monologue by Jesus that starts at the beginning of chapter 14 and runs right the way to the end of chapter 17. Scholars refer to this part of John’s Gospel as the Farewell Discourse, and this kind of farewell speech is a well established genre in Jewish literature. So one of the functions of this long discourse is to signal to readers that Jesus is saying his last and most important words to his friends before he moves into what he knows is going to be the final act of this great drama that is his life, death and resurrection.

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