Sunday, June 26, 2011

A down-to-earth Trinity - Stephen's Story

Today, I have a text.

Acts 7:55

But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.

What do you make of the trinity?

Are you drawn to mathematical conundrums?

Three in one and one in three?

What about a pictorial representation – three overlapping circles in a kind of venn diagram?

What about an ancient philosophical way of putting it … three persons, one substance?

What do you make of the trinity?

If God is love – there is within the very nature of God a dynamic of love – God Father – Son – Holy Spirit.

If you have any awareness of the liturgical year you will have noticed I marked Pentecost Sunday and celebrated the Holy Spirit, but as for the Sunday after – I ignored it, Trinity Sunday.

Too difficult. Not important.

Actually, I have come to value more and more the trinity at the heart of our faith … I do believe in one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

But I guess I find it something difficult to explain.

In a sense I prefer to start with the reality on the ground. I prefer to start with stories, real stories, of real people.

One of the stories that still sets my spine tingling is the story of the first Christian Martyr, Stephen. It’s a story I remember being told vividly when I was quite small. It has always made an impact on me.

There’s something about the story of Stephen that to my mind goes to the very heart of what the faith is all about to me - it is a three dimensional, living faith that finds its focus in God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Stephen had an incredibly strong sense of the reality of God. The God whose involvement with people is told in the great narrative of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Stephen’s speech in chapter 7 of Acts is a wonderful re-telling of the heart of the Old Testament story. There are a number of points in the New Testament where the Old Testament story is played back. This is one of them.

It’s a great speech.

If you want to tell a story you need to have a really strong start and know exactly where you want to finish. Stephen knew exactly where to start … and he knew at what point he wanted to finish. And that is all to do with God.

He really has a great way of telling a story … Are you sitting comfortably, then I’ll begin … becomes for Stephen, Brothers and Fathers, listen to me.

A hush falls over the gathering and everyone is listening. And the fist wors say it all.

The God of glory.

This is the God at the heart of Stephen’s faith. It is the God who is at the heart of my faith. This is God, the God of Glory. Glory that’s an incrediblby solid, tangible word. The Glory is made real in tangible ways in the Old Testament, often in a cloud – a really strong sense of the Glory of God.

The glory of God is real, all embracing, all powerful – but the glory of God appeared to Abraham … and then Stephen is off. For this long, long speech he recounts the way in which this God of Glory is the God who involves himself with Abraham, with Issac, with Jacob, with Jacob’s sons, with Joseph, with Moses, with Aaron … the story builds up towards a climax.

And what Stephen builds up to is the climax that this God then takes up his dwelling place with the people in a Tabernacle tent. A special place where God’s presence is released among the people. That tent is then taken by Joshua into the promised land. And the tent remained simply a tent under David. But then Solomon built a house for him.

You reach verse 47.

And that is the Temple.

The temple had been destroyed and re-built. And over the last fifty years a brand new incredibly big and glorious and powerful temple had been in the process of being built all over again.

By now the people associated the presence of God with this location, this place. And this place was all important.

But this is the point at which Stephen has reached the finish he wants to come to.

No, the reality of the God of Glory that he believes in is that this God of glory cannot be contained in any so called ‘house of God’ made with human hands.

Veses 48-50

Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands; as the prophet says,
“Heaven is my throne,
and the earth is my footstool.
What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord,
or what is the place of my rest?
Did not my hand make all these things?”

That’s the point at which Stephen turns on the people in front of him.

They have confined God to the temple, to its rituals, in its monstrous rebuilt state … and it had become a focus in itself. This is the indictment Stephen lays against the people.

That’s the first thing – let’s start with the greatness and the glory of God and realise the God we believe in is always beyond us, never to b e tied down to human institutions. We must be so careful not to reduce this God to the human way we have of doing things.

But there is another dimension to Stephen and what he does.

As he gets to the point at the end of his speech of the God of Glory who is everywhere … he then focuses in on Jesus Christ.

The whole story of this God of Glory has been leading up to the point of its fulfilment … and the tragedy as far as Stephen is concerned is that the powers that be in Jerusalem, that element of the Jerusalem hierarchy that is firmly in collaboration with Rome, has secured the power-base of Herod’s re-built temple monstrosity, have rejected the Rigtoeus One who has come.

Jesus Christ it is who has made such a difference to Stephen that he has come to model all that he does on Jesus.

If you think about the mark Stephen makes he is one who is Christ centred, and one who embodies in all he does the very essence of Christ’s ministry.

Christ’s teaching made people things differently and brought people a fresh awareness of the reality of God … Stephen too is a powerful teacher … and we have a glimpse of that teaching here in Acts 7.

But more than that Jesus put into practice all he taught by bringing healing to the lives of those who were hurting. Stephen first emerges on to the scene when he is one of seven who are identified who are going to take on a very particular task in the early church.

Read any of the Gospels, read Acts and you cannot but be aware that the first followers of Jesus were living, as it were in two worlds, in two cultures. The story of Jesus and the early church unfolds within a Jewish world – almost all of the followers of Jesus and Jesus himself are themselves Jewish. Stephen is clearly steeped in the story of the Jewish people.

But at the same time the story of Jesus and the early church unfolds in a Gentile world, the world of the Roman Empire.

In Christ there is no difference, all are one … the barriers have come down. Now Jew and Gentile are one in Christ.

But that’s not easy. And within this first year of the church’s life the tensions break out between the Hebrews and the Hellenists, the Jewish among the church and the Gentiles.

And this has resulted in some people not being properly cared for … in particular the gentile widows were not being properly looked after. The Apostles could see the problem needed addressing … and they got the whole church community together in order to identify seven men, men they were … and that in itself is interesting as the men were to provide the help needed for those widows … and they were set aside to be servants of the church and Deacons. So alongside the teaching Stephen was essentially in a very practical, caring role – and brought healing to many.

But more than that … Stephen got the message of Jesus. No longer was God’s presence focused in the stonework of the temple … but now in the person of Christ.

Just as Christ had been condemned for his critique of the temple – the accusation is the very one levelled at Jesus – that he would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days – as if he were to take the place of the temple.

Stephen’s speech addresses that very issue – and locates the presence of God everywhere, and finding its focus in Christ and not in the temple.

Then it is that Stephen is taken out to be stoned to death. And at his death the words he shares echo those of Jesus on the cross. Stephen sees the glory of God … and Jesus in that glory, one with God …

Look, he said, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.

Lord Jesus, receive my spirit

Then comes the crunch one … for it is on the cross that the forgiveness of |Jesus comes through … and it is here at the death of Stephen that the forgiving love of Jesus shines through him as it had shone through Jesus …

Lord, do not hold this sin against them.

When he had said this he died.

But there is one dimension we have missed from Stephen’s story.

It is something that is there from the beginning of the story.

And it is the something that makes all the difference and for us who seek to grow as disciples of Christ it is the thing that will make all the difference as well.

The thing is that if we stick with the story I have told so far we will be at a loss to accomplish all we are called to accomplish. We cannot do it in our own strength.

It is difficult to see the glory of God in all things around us at times.

The world gets the better of us, and we cannot help all the people we long to help, we cannot keep to the teaching we know makes sense.

On our own we cannot do it.

But we are not on our own. And this is the third dimension to the Stephen story that is so important for us to take on board.

The seven are to be

Full of the Spirit and of wisdom

Stephen is chosen as a man ‘full of faith and the Holy Spirit

Stephen was ‘full of grace and power’

He spoke with wisdom and the Spirit

IF we are to see God in all things we need faith … but we cannot have faith simply be believing harder and harder … faith is released in us by a strength and a power from beyond ourselves, the Holy Spirit of God.

If we are to live by the teaching of Christ and pass that teaching on we need wisdom but we cannot have wisdom by ourselves and in our own strength simply by studying harder it is something that grows from deep within us by the working of that unseen power and strength, the Holy Spirit.

And if we are to have the grace to be Christ to others then we cannot do it in our own strength – we need that power from beyond ourselves.

And it is a power … a strength. The very strength we need in the times of weakness we inevitably have.

One verse more than any other stands out for me in the story of Stephen.

It is vese 55

But filled with the Holy Spirit – that’s what we need to grow as disciples of Christ – that strength from beyond ourselves unseen and yet so real.

But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God.

It is as the Spirit of God is within us that we can look beyond the world we see to the very glory of God – and how important it is to have a great big God that we know is there.

But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.

Look to God and see Jesus Christ for in Jesus Christ all the fullness of God is revealed – and he is the one who is at the centre of our faith.

That’s it … that’s the trinity brought down to earth – in the experience of this figure from the NT story … and it is how it can come alive for us … not a doctrine to be understood, or a philosophical idea to get your mind round, but a reality that makes all the difference as we seek to grow in as disciples of Jesus.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Peter and the Invitation to Prayer

We’ve now completed the set!

One year we had a church weekend away at the beginning of Advent and made it a celebration of Christmas.

Another year we had a weekend away leading up to Palm Sunday and we marked the beginning of Holy Week.

This year we had a weekend away leading up to Pentecost. And so we told the story of Pentecost.

While the children took a look at Pentecost and a little bit of the story of Peter, I told the story of Pentecost, and David Waters prompted us to think about what it takes to be a disciple of Christ.

That theme was carefully chosen because it ties in with a theme we have been looking at as part of an initiative launched by the Congregational Federation called Growing Disciples. That’s a resource that is aimed at helping churches to grow in purpose and confidence as a learning community, discovering Good News Together, a worshipping community experiencing Good News Together, a lisenting community embodying Good News together and a missionary community, practising Good News together.

Through our weekend David got us telling each other our stories, looking at our roots, the people who have helped us grow in our faith, and look at the fruit we bear as disciples.

I want that theme we shared to feed into our thinking over the next few Sundays through the summer. And so I want to start by asking those who were at Brunel Manor to think for a moment or two of what it is they have brought back with them to feed into the life of the church.

Then share those thoughts with a small group around you – so that we can share those who were at Brunel Manor and others too.

A time of sharing

Pat recalled the challenge our speaker, David Waters (one-time volunteer at Highbury, not working with the BBC on Songs of Praise) gave – before going to bed think of fifteen things to give thanks to God for. Quite a challenge. So many so that you cannot gloss over them!

Felicity recalled the Pentecost story with the children and noticing that at the end of his sermon on the Day of Pentecost the response of the crowds was to say, What must we DO? How important that we respond to what we hear in preaching by DOING!

Lyn recalled the way David invited us to think of those who had made a mark on us and how moved she had been to hear her daughter say how much she was indebted to her grandfather, Lyn’s father. How much there is to treasure from the roots we have!

David took a passage from the beginning of Colossians (1:3-14) and drawing on his experience at the BBC working with Songs of Praise he invited us to ask Who do you think you are? And suggested that it was good to tell each other our stories and discover where our roots are: how important as Christians that we have our roots in Christ.

In a second session entitled Gardener’s World he got us to think of the shoots that spring up in our Christian life and how again they need to be focused on Christ and. The third was Top Gear – David reflected on the way things sometimes need to change, and suggested that we need to bear fruit in the living of lives as well.

One quote I bring back with me is from the BBC’s director of drama who at a gaterhing David was at explored what it was about some of those popular TV shows that makes them what they are. It makes you feel I want to belong to that gang. I want to be in that place.

A gang to belong to … a place to be.

I found myself looking again at that passage from Colossians in a group I was part of and I noticed something special …

Paul starts with the roots those Christians have and he says this … We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ when we pray for you … Colossians 1:3

Then as he thinks of the way they grow in the faith, the shoots they have, he says this, “we have not stopped praying for you .” (1:9)

And then he goes on to say, “And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord.” 1:10

At each point prayer is important.

I felt that what we would do in the next few Sundays would be to look at Acts and look at the way the church and those very first disciples of Christ grew in the very first days of the history of the church.

It’s all very well telling the Pentecost story over last weekend and especially last Sunday … but what happens next is equally important for us to take on board.

What is fascinating is that in Acts the story is told of a number of people who became key followers of Christ … and as each of their stories is told we catch a glimpse of others whose story may not have been told in detail but nonetheless has something to tell us.

We start today with Peter’s story.

There’s one thing in that story I notice as I come to it afresh. And you encounter it first right at the very beginning.

The initial euporia of that Day of Pentecost past we next find Peter at a very specific time in a very specific place doing something very specific.

One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon.

It’s a wonderful story of the way they bringing healing to that man who was unable to walk and who needed so much. It’s a challenging story as that next day by the evening, their preaching and their healing ministry had drawn many more to hear the word and believe. From the 3000 on Pentecost day the numbers grew is it by or to 5000 the next day. (4:4).

But Peter and John are arrested and find themselves up against the authorities and the powers that be in jerusalem.

So what do they do next …. When they are released they went to their ‘friends’ and what do they do? The heading in the NRSV says it all … The believers pray with boldness. Their prayers draw to a close and there is a sense of the strength and the power of God with them by the Holy Spirit and there is a spirit of sharing that sweeps through them.

As Peter’s story unfolds there is about it a rhythm of prayer. We move forward to a story the children focused on last weekend in chapter 10 to a story that is told three times.

It’s a fascinating story that begins in Caesarea by the seaside the centre of Roman control from which the Romans ruled with a rod of iron over the subject peoples of Judea, Samaria and Galilee. It’s a surprising place to be. And the person the story is about is a surprising story – not just any old centurion but one from the Italian cohort … Cornelius. And it is perhaps no coincidence that the story begins as this man who has been touched by the faithfulness of the people he has been sent to subjugate has a vision.

It’s 3 o;clock. The very time we know from the start of Peter’s story that is the hour of prayer. Cornelius is in prayer and he hears that his prayer and the actions he takes to care for people have been received and answered by God. But he is to send to nearby Joppa, a little up the Mediterranean coast.

The next day at noon what should Peter be doing … again he is at prayer.

He’s hungy. It’s time to eat. And Peter has a remarkable vision that he is to eat all the foods that the books fo the law prohibit. Not possible – but that’s the vision..

He awakes and who should be at the gate but messengers from Cornelius getting Peter to go into the city of Caesarea, that place of hostility for all Jewish people – there to share the gospel with of all people this centrioun Cornelius.

For a variety of reasons the story is told three times – it is so significant – and it is marks a breakthrough for Peter to line Peter up with Paul and the realisation that the Good News is for everyone – Jew and Gentile. That all are on ein Christ.

Then comes the final tale. And it feels as if the timetable of Acts has moved on one year. And it is a year on.

Chapter 12 starts the final part of Peter’s story in Acts.

It is the feast of unleavened bread – that makes it exactly a year on from the week of Christ’s arrest and crucifixion. The very King Herod, of the Herodian dynsasty that in the days of King Herod the Great had been responsible for collaborating with the Roman powers and actually building Caesarea, this King Herod who had himself built another Roman strongold on the shores of Galilee, the city of Tiberias, lays violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. And he could be vioilent. He had already executed John the Baptist as Jesus’ ministry began, he had played a major part in the execution of Jeesus a year before, in the intervening year he had executed James, the brother of John, one of those fishermen sons of Zebedee with the sword. And when he saw that this pleased those Judeans who were willing to go along with the Herodians in collaborating with Rome he determined to arrest Peter also. He determined a year on to do exactly as he had done with Jesus – have Peter under guard during the festival and then bring him out to the people. He had four squads of soldiers guarding Peter.

Then comes that wonderful account of the way Peter escapes from the prison. He makes his way under cover of the dark to a house he knows well. It is the house that belongs to Mary, the Mary who is the mother of John Mark – someone whose story we will come back to later, who in all likelihood was to go on to write the earliest of the Gospel accounts of Jesus. That’s when a maid who is named Rhoda answers Peter’s knocking, is so taken aback to see him at the door that she leaves him there, reports back to the others and only then lets him in.

When Herod learns of peter’s escape he has the soldiers themselves executed – this is a measure of the brutality of his regime. He then departs from Jerusalem and goes to the Roman stronghold. This King Herod’s father had a temple built to Augustus, the Roman Emperor as ‘Son of God’ in Caesarea – this Herod now is greeted by the people of Tyre and Sidon as a god – grandiose claims to be up there with the Roman Emperor. And that is the point when Herod dies.

It’s the last we hear of Herod … and the last we hear of Peter.

But what was Mary, John Mark’s mother doing?

It was in her house that many had gathered and were praying.

Track through that story of Peter and what do we find?

The whole story is shot through with prayer.

Peter is at prayer time and again.

Cornelius is at prayer.

And Mary, John Mark’s mother … gets a whole crowd together in her prayer … and the only one of them to be named is Rhoda just a servant.

And they are at prayer.

When people pray things happen.

This it seems to me is the first thing we need to take from our Pentecost Weekend Away.

How vital prayer is.

Prayer on our own can have unexpected consequences.

It may be prayer for ourselves, it may be prayer for others.

The value of a pattern of prayer. The hour of prayer. Is it at the start of the day? Is it at noon? Is it at night. Re-discover the power of prayer.

Re-discover the power of getting together with others for prayer. That’s what we do as we come together in church Sunday by Sunday. We do have that opportunity before the service begins to meet in the Moreton Brown Room – our prayer parlour. It’s good just to be quiet and share in prayer. Maybe during the week. Think of sharing in prayer.

Michel Quoist, whose book Prayers of life were the inspiration of an earlier generation, wrote of Prayer as an Act of Faith in his book “The Christian Response” (gill and macmillan, 1963), 174-175 ….

“You would never think of saying: I don’t have to bother to show my love to my wife any more, she knows I love her. Then don’t say: I don’t have to talk to God, he knows that I love him.

“You would never think of saying: I haven’t time to spend with my [family] but what’s the difference, I’m working for them. Then don’t say: I haven’t time to pray, but that doesn’t make any difference, I offer my work up and that’s a prayer.

“Love demands that you stop for a while. If you love, you must find the time to love. To pray means to stop for a while; it means to give some of your time to God, each day, each week.

In the modern world we are too often “the laves of efficiency and utility” and it is too easy to think of prayer “in terms of profit and loss.

“Prayer can not be understood in such pragmatic terms, and scuh a view can never lead to an authentic prayer life.

“The modern world, none the less, has an urgent need for a life of prayer. Unless the members of a technological society are also [people of prayer], people of “adoration and praise” “technology will enslave and ultimately destroy them.”

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Breathe on me breath of God

Mary sat quietly at the feet of Jesus and listened.

Martha was filled with busy-ness.

Are you a Martha or a Mary?

Maybe there is something of Martha and Mary in each of us.

In that case where is the balance – do you come down with Martha in your busyness, to the neglect of Mary’s stillness and listening?

Do you come down on the side of Mary so still and always listening but not doing?

Or is there a balance?

And what about us as a church community.

Do we have Martha tendencies to the neglect of the stillness of our prayer life?

Or do we have Mary tendencies to the neglect of actually doing anything?

Exiled far from Jerusalem with so many other exiles in Babylon, Ezekiel felt impelled to DO something, to speak out.

But he didn’t.

He held his peace.

And he went down to the river and sat with those who were suffering and listened. In the words of the NRSV he was stunned.

Then he spoke out vigorously, challenging the people to think again about what they had done. And in a dream he held out the hope that the dry bones would live again. He prophesied to the bones and they came together. But there was no life in them. He prophesied to the ‘breath’ and their life was restored.

If in our busyiness we have lost the tranquillity of being able to listen and the stillness of prayer that was Mary’s maybe we need that breath of life to be breathed into us anew.

To do that we need to seek stillness … and that is exactly what we did for nearly ten minutes, listening to two worship songs, reflecting on words of promise from the Scriptures and seeking anew the breath of God in all its life-giving power.

At the death of their brother Mary didn’t want to speak. Jesus simply listened … and wept with her.

Martha spoke nineteen to the dozen and Jesus responded to her questions.

I am the resurrection and the life, he said, those who believe in me, though they die, yet shall they live and whoever lives and believes in me will live.

Breathe on me, breath of God
Fill me with life anew.

Do you believe this? He asks of us, just as he asked of Martha.

Preaching in the Context of Science

The challenge of preaching the Gospel in a Secular World

My God and King In All Things Scientific
Preaching the Gospel in the Context of Science

“What do you make of it?” I could have ducked the conversation, it was my day off and I was after all enjoying a browse in the Cheltenham Science Festival bookshop. I had enjoyed two of his other books, but had no inclination to buy this one. I had seen the TV programme and could tell from the blurb and a glance through the contents that it would irritate me immensely.

In that instant I decided not to duck the conversation but in Peter’s words to give an account of the hope that is in me.

The book in question, The Good Delusion. The author who would be along later to do his book signing Richard Dawkins.

Twenty minutes later I emerged from an exhilarating but draining conversation about faith and the God I believe in.

When I preach I do not think of myself as preaching ‘to’ the church where I am called to a preaching and teaching and pastoral ministry. I think of myself as one of the members gathered together that day who needs that preaching as much as any other. In my preaching I seek by prayerful and careful study of the Scriptures to listen out for what God is saying to all of us in that place at that time.

Preaching for the most part twice a Sunday in my own church, I get to know the context of the people I share that experience with. I am more and more conscious that we all of us live in a secular world. In the last ten years or so against the backdrop of the rise in fundamentalisms and in war and tensions in the middle east fuelled by fundamentalisms in so many religions, there has been an upsurge in strident atheism fuelled by science writers like Richard Dawkins.
There’s the 95 year old who is deeply troubled in the wake of the Japanese earthquake and all that is happening because her daughter is quite adamant that that demonstrates there can be no God. She asks me how she can respond to such atheism.

A sprightly grandmother, for such I now recognise there can be!, is deeply troubled because her grand daughter sitting a GCSE RE exam can’t be bothered to work at it because religion doesn’t matter and isn’t true. How does she respond to such atheism?

If we in the church are to be ready to make our defence to anyone who demands from us an account of the hope that is in us, our preaching needs to take into account four key things.

First, preachers must seek an understanding of science from scientists and those who popularise science from within the world of science so that when in our preaching we allude to the world of science we do so in a properly informed way.

Second, preachers must have an understanding of the relationship between science and religion so that their preaching is done in the context of science and not in conflict with science

Third, preachers must share their understanding of faith with those in the world of science whose misunderstandings fuel the false perception of conflict between science and religion

Fourth, preachers must declare their understanding of what is at the heart of their preaching so that what they preach in a secular age shaped by science is indeed Gospel, Good News.

First, preachers must seek an understanding of science from scientists and those who popularise science from within the world of science so that when in our preaching we allude to the world of science we do so in a properly informed way and demonstrate that we share their sense of wonder and awe at the world we live in.

One of our organists, who spent a life-time working for GCHQ in the field of computer science has introduced me to popular science writing and got me hooked … quite an achievement for one who went to a grammar school where I opted for arts and not science at the age of 12.

Simon Winchester’s account of William Smith and the first Geological Map of England and Wales in The Map that Changed the World, led me on to Peter Toghill’s Geology of Britain, to Richard Fortey’s The Earth, an Intimate History and on to regional geology guides.

I have an overwhelming sense of awe at the sheer scale of geological time. I stand on the Cotswold Escarpment above Cheltenham and look over what is a failed rift valley towards all that remains of a line of volcanoes in the Malvern Hills and I look back 650 million years. It is this very sense of awe and wonder I feel when I read Psalm 121 and lift up my eyes to hills.

And then I move on to Richard Fortey’s Trilobites, and the writings of Palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould and I look down at my feet on that escarpment, pick up some of that limestone rock and it comes apart in my hands to reveal a mass of sea shells no human has ever seen. And my mind goes back to that first occasion way beyond the Malverns on the West Coast of Wales at Clarach Bay when I split open a piece of shale to uncover the fragment of a trilobite. And I wonder in all that immensity at the way these individual creatures left such a mark long ago that I can discover them – and my thoughts go to Matthew 6, Jesus and the lilies of the field and the birds of the air.

I turn to cosmologists and read Bang! The Complete History of the Universe by Brian May, Patrick Moore, and Chris Lintott and I marvel at the sheer scale of the universe. I watch and then read Brian Cox on the Wonders of the Solar System and then the Wonders of the Universe and I marvel at the stars and their beauty – and I think of Job being forced to contemplate the immensity of the world as he is questioned by God. The fascination of light and dark, sun and moon and stars from Genesis 1 through to the Psalms is a fascination I share as I look at Orion and see in the Orion Nebula stars being born, and then the contrasting blue of Rigel, bottom right and of the Red Giant Betelgeuse, top left and I marvel at the speed of light, and then I notice in Ian Ridpath and Wil Tirion’s Collins Guide, Stars and Planets that the star on the right of Orion’s belt is 2,000 light years away. And I think that the light that is entering my eye was actually generated at around the time of Christ’s birth – that is mind-blowing and fills me with the very awe and wonder I guess the Magi had in the ancient world as they observed the heavens above. I notice Brian Cox speaking of the nature of light and my mind goes to that verse in 1 John 4 God is light and in him is no darkness at all … and I read it in a new light:

This first light is called the cosmic microwave background or CMB. This first light, this CMB … fills every part of the universe. Every second light from the beginning of time is raining down on the surface of the earth in a ceaseless torrent. If my eyes could only see it then the sky would be ablaze with this primordial light … both day and night.

I marvel with Martin Rees in his book Just Six Numbers that the whole universe can be described in a surprisingly small number of equations … and what’s more they are beautiful equations. I read John Polkinghorne and he reflects on how remarkable it is that the whole universe can be described using the language of Mathematics, a language the human mind is capable of understanding. This accords with the conviction in Genesis 1 that humanity is made in the image of God, it accords with the Quaker thinking that there is that of God in everyone. We bear the imprint of the mind of God … and that is what enables us to understand the workings of God’s creation.

The world of science is full of a sense of wonder and awe at the world we live in that is the very wonder and awe that people of faith from the writers of Genesis, the Psalms, the book of Job and indeed Jesus have passed on down through the ages to me.

Second, preachers must have an understanding of the relationship between science and religion so that their preaching is done in the context of science and not in conflict with science.

I have never sensed a conflict between science and religion. Stephen Jay Gould articulates the gut feeling I have in a set of essays he has brought together in a little book called Rocks of Ages..

He advocates the NOMA principle. Non-overlapping magisteria.

A magisterium is a field of study. The field of study of science has to do with questions like how? What? When? Religion addresses a different set of questions around the question ‘Why? Stephen Jay Gould suggests that scientists and people of faith should respect those different sets of questions and acknowledge they are at work in quite separate, non-overlapping magisteria or areas of study.

In the Epilogue to Bang! The Complete History of the Universe. Brian May, Patrick Moore, and Chris Lintott are very clear:

“We the authors, … feel that if the workings of the Universe, in all their beauty, are properly appreciated, there is no conflict between Science and Religion; they merely deal with different areas.”

There are places where the two magisteria touch – there are moments when people of faith have the same awe as people of science and there is a moment of accord. How science is put to use is an area where again one’s faith or world-view will have a bearing.

The preacher needs to be clear about these different realms of study. Where they touch in wonder and awe that can be celebrated, where the world-view of a person of faith impacts on the use science is put to that can be challenged. But in our secular world that must be in an informed way.

Third, preachers must share their understanding of faith with those in the world of science whose misunderstandings fuel the false perception of conflict between science and religion.

Science writers who are vehemently atheist often impose on us who have faith their perception of what we believe in. We must correct their false perceptions of our faith.

In arguing against ‘creationism’ they imply that it is impossible to believe in ‘creation’

We must refuse to accept that view and be clear in our use of terms.

‘Creationist’ applies to those Christian thinkers who maintain that certain passages of the Bible, most notably Genesis 1-11, are written as a scientific account of the creation of the world in six days 6,000 years ago and what happened immediately afterwards.

Creationism is a view that has emerged since the enlightenment and the advent of modern science and fails to do justice to the text..

Preaching in this secular world has to be clear about the nature of |Genesis 1-11 and what kind of writing is contained there. The rhythms of the writing and its poetry, indicate that these are larger than life stories about the beginnings of things that communicate truth to every generation. This is not scientific writing about the beginnings of things but insightful writing that communicates truth and fills us with wonder at the world as it is.

In the preface to the Wonders of the Universe Brian Cox notices that the very first astronauts who circled Planet earth read from Genesis 1 as the emerged from the dark side of the planet into the sunlight once more, because its poetry evoked the wonder they felt, in a way no scientific explanation could. Likewise he put his carefully prepared script describing the science of the Aurora Borealis to one side as he spoke to camera on witnessing the dancing Northern Lights and recounted an ancient Scandinavian story about their origins simply again because it evoked a sense of wonder and awe.

A second false perception atheistic science writers have about us who are of faith is that we subscribe to a set of clear unchanging propositions that define our faith. Scientists, on the other hand, are always open to the possibility that a new way of thinking may emerge that will force them to completely re-think their views.

The process of theological thinking is much closer to scientific thinking than those atheistic scientists allow.

For the scientist ‘the universe’ is the given and scientists seek an understanding of that universe that is always liable to be challenged and to have to be re-worked in the light of discoveries.

For the Christian preacher the given is the universe as the creation of the God who is revealed in Christ and in the Christian Scriptures.

Discoveries not least in the world of science prompt Christian thinkers to think differently about the world of God’s creation.

The historic creeds of the church have to be understood against the backdrop of the world of Greek and western thought in which they emerged.

In response to Newtonian physics William Paley developed a deistic theology that sees God as the watchmaker, the original designer. That’s the theology Darwin reacts against.

Many Christian thinkers were with Darwin and against Paley. We can be too.

Christian preachers who seek to accept evolution as an explanation of the mechanism of creation must be careful to move away from the non-biblical, Paley-esque language of ‘design’.

I would point to other more helpful ‘theologies’ that we might explore as we seek an understanding of God.

Against the vastness of geological time and cosmic space maybe it’s useful to return to Anselm and the ontological argument and think of God as ‘that than which nothing greater can be conceived.”

In the randomness of evolution that might go in one way or in another way, we might return to George Herbert, translator of Francis Bacon, and his poem The Elixir. There he displays a fascination with alchemy and the beginnings of Chemistry and with the newly invented telescope or ‘glass’ and sees God not so much as ‘the designer’ as the one who is ‘in all things’

Teach me, my God and King in all things thee to see.

In the counter-intuitive thinking of Einstein and quantum mechanics we might turn again to theologians influenced by the Process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead seeing the world and God as continually in a process of becoming.

There may be a new attractiveness about Tillich’s view of God as Being, Being Itself and the Ground of all being.

Interestingly, John Polkinghorne in his recent book, Theology in the Context of Science, seems to combine those two ways of thinking as he proposes thinking of God as ‘One who is the ground of the fruitful order that makes any process possible at all.”

Atheistic science writers seem to want to tell us where we must begin to give an account of our faith. If we are to preach the gospel in the context of the world of science we must not allow them to set the agenda.

In very recent years David Attenborough has entered into the fray more openly. His objection to faith is one shared by many an atheist in the context of science. It is the objection to faith that so worried the elderly person in my church in the wake of the Japanese earthquake.

How can a God who is supposed to be all powerful and all loving allow an insect in the jungles of Africa to destroy the insides of a baby, or an earthquake to destroy so much human life?

That brings me to the fourth and most important observations I want to make.

Fourth, preachers must declare their understanding of what is at the heart of their preaching so that what they preach in a secular age shaped by science is indeed Gospel, Good News.

In our preaching we must not allow atheistic science writers to tell us where to start in talking about God.

They start from first principles God is all powerful, God is all knowing, God is all Loving and ask the impossible question, how can such a God allow such things to happen?

That is not the starting point for our faith as people called to preach the Gospel in a secular world.

In the wake of the Japanese earthquake I found myself revisiting Shusako Endo, a Japanese novelist I read about ten years ago. I found it quaint then that so many of his novels spoke of volcanoes and earthquakes, and that so much Japanese art has at its centre a volcano. Now I realise that Japanese people live constantly with the threat of the destruction of the volcano and the earthquake.

Born in 1923 Shusako Endo became a Christian in his teens, studied in Paris and returned to Japan disturbed by the way the triumphalist image of Christ as Pantocrator espoused by the missionaries to Japan had failed to catch the people’s imagination.

In his novel, Volcano, he tells of an encounter between thr religion of a de-frocked priest and the science of a seismologist. In his preface, Richard A Schuchert, comments that for Endo “the quintessence of Christianity lies in God’s loving compassion for his wretched children, His willingness to share with us in our suffering. The Japanese heart and mind seek a merciful mother-image of God, rather than the stern, demanding, threatening father-image which (in Endo’s opinion) has been unduly emphasised by the missionaries and which accounts in great part for the failure of Christianity to strike deep roots in the ‘swampland’ of Japanese culture and religion. Endo is attracted to Jesus the suffering companion of all men and women, more than to Jesus the wonder-worker; he is obsessed with Jesus the human reject eventually crucified, rather than with Jesus the glorious pantocrator.”

That’s it. That’s the heart of the gospel we have to preach in a secular age.

We do not start from the first principles identified by those atheistic science writers. As Christians we start with Jesus Christ. His teaching maps out a way of love for neighbour and for enemy too that can make a world of difference in our secular world. Where he encounters hurt he seeks to bring healing. That is our task too. As he goes to the cross he opens up for us an insight into God as the God who is alongside us in a suffering world, sharing the pain of those who suffer in that world, and opening up a way into a relationship with the God who is with us through the valley of the shadow of death and shares with us life in all its fullness.

To preach the Gospel in a secular world we must start with Jesus, the Suffering Servant, who introduces us to the God who shares in our suffering so that we may share in the fullness of life that is not bounded by death. Preaching that is focused on this Jesus Christ will use the kind of observational, analytical skills scientists can teach us to explore the Jesus of History and the impact this God has made on people just like us whose story is told in the pages of the Christian Scriptures.

As we seek an understanding of science, have a clear understanding of the relationship between science and religion, share our understanding of faith with those in the world of science, and declare our understanding of what is at the heart of our Christian faith, Jesus Christ and him crucified, we shall rise to the challenge of preaching the Gospel in a secular world. We as preachers and those who share with us in that preaching experience will be better able make our defence to anyone who demands from us an account of the hope that is in us.

So much to pass on at Highbury

If you give a little love you can get a little love of your own

A blessing shared at Highbury

Now and the Future at Highbury

Dreaming Dreams Sharing Visions at Highbury

Dreaming Dreams Sharing Visions

Darkness into Light