Thursday 26 April 2012

Matthew 16

I will build my Church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. These are the words of Jesus as He makes His way to the Cross. He has met with His Apostles and asks them who they say He is. They tell Him various names but Peter responded by saying ‘you are the Christ, the Son of the living God’. Jesus is thrilled by this answer and said on that statement He would build His Church and the gates of hell would not prevail against it. Various people and bodies were trying hard to prevail against it, so now let us consider how the Church can respond.

When Jesus used the word ‘Church’, He was referring to an assembly of believers meeting together in worship. The Church has a special place in the plan of God and we have to know how we are to live and function within that plan Having delegated first to Peter and the Apostles the task to continue the work He had begun, Jesus now passes the responsibility down to us in our age to continue to preach the gospel, and every Christian has the duty to play their part in the spread of the gospel.

Every Christian who values and loves their Church must at times feel depressed at the level of attendances at Church, unless of course a baptism or wedding is desired when people feel the Church can be useful and offer them something. I accept that numbers are not the be all and end all of Church worship, or a verdict on any particular Church, but there must always be a need for every Church to consider whether the worship offered is as worthy as it ought to be. In many cases I do not think it is.

There is much that can and should be done to make a Church appeal to non-members. The building itself should look smart and be clean looking, which is not always so. Selected men and women, recognised for their engaging personalities, need to be appointed to greet people attending so that visitors feel we are glad to see them and make them feel welcome. Regular members too need to be encouraged to speak and be friendly with visitors, rather than look at them as if intruders.

In Anglican Churches the services can be confusing to strangers as there are so many alternatives offered. I have officiated at numerous Churches and not found the same service exactly at any two Churches, so an offer to help and guide may be appreciated. Having changed the worship of the Prayer Book to the Alternative service Book, which had meaningful forms of service, we now have Common Worship in which the formulators couldn’t make their minds up as to which Eucharistic prayer should be used.

I used to advise my Church stewards to try and introduce a stranger to someone of like age and sex to make them feel more comfortable. When leaving after the service, the Minister(s) should always be at the exit to meet people.

However the most important part is that between the coming and leaving. Services should be bright with tuneful hymns, perhaps altering tunes to hymns that are felt necessary if the set one is of the mournful type. I was at a service where for ten minutes a choral rendition of Purcell’s ‘Rejoice in the Lord’ was sung, followed later by Stanford’s ‘Te deum’, which is fine for the right place, but an ordinary parish Communion is not my idea of the right place.

I don’t think it is generally recognised how important music is in a service. Music stirs the mind and moves the heart. In every Crusade, from Sankey and Moody, the Welsh revival and most notably the great Billy Graham Crusades, the singing of hymns and spiritual songs has been a dominant feature to complement the inspirational preaching. The Evangelical Churches mostly pursue this format, which needs to be introduced into more Churches, and dispense with the philosophy that seems to pervade that as long we put something on it will suffice.

The sermon has been relegated in importance where once it was a central feature. Sermons are there for a purpose, namely to tell the good news about Jesus Christ. How can people be taught to believe the good news of the gospel if the Church fails to tell? This is our business first and foremost. The pulpit is there for the declaration of the gospel, and any Church which fails to respond cannot justify its reason for being there. Ministers are to be messengers from God, bringing God message to congregations.

Sermons often lack sound teaching however, with preachers watering down the message to provide spiritual potions which will make people feel happy and guiltless. One Vicar tells me regularly sermons need to be nice and friendly so people won’t be upset. This always amuses me for Billy Graham use to preach to audiences of up to 80 thousands and beyond regularly, and tell them they were all a lot of sinners who would go to hell if they didn’t repent, and people flocked to hear him.

In the Church of England we have softened our messages, had all sorts of changes, introduced women priests and now women bishops, and all sorts of gimmicks, and we are still losing members. One Vicar was quoted in the (London) Daily Mail as telling people on Easter Sunday to stay in bed, eat chocolate and have sex. Don’t bother attending a stuffy building it’s not cool or funky. When you have men like that who needs the devil. In any well organised institution that man would be looking for alternative employment. The statement was not only spiritually irresponsible; it was morally irresponsible for it was directed to people generally.

Surely we need to rationalise our number of Churches. At one time every village and neighbourhood had its own parish Church (in addition to Catholic and Free Churches) and congregations were strong enough to maintain them. This is no longer the case yet we are still trying to keep that system going. To do so we have Vicars fleeing from one Church to another offering a token service which does no one any good, or a local preacher who however well intentioned often has not been properly trained and rides his/her own hobby horse rather than preaching the Bible. It would be far more sensible and realistic to prune the number of Churches.

We have seen evangelical Churches drawing people from a wide area and offering inspiring worship, and similarly High Churches offering beautifully conducted and meaningful worship. People find no difficulty travelling to Tesco or Sainsbury’s, which are not on their doorstep, and with some innovative transport offers the Church could be in a like position. The Metropolitan Tabernacle in Belfast had a bus which picked people up, and whilst most Churches could not afford this, alternative arrangements could surely be made

Attending Church is not optional. The Bible assumes people who are believers are connected to a local Church where they live out their faith. Individual or independent Christianity cannot be found anywhere in the Bible. Whilst Jesus is present bodily in heaven with believers, He is also present on earth by His Spirit so that when people are gathered Jesus is amongst us just as surely as when He was present with His Apostles.

The Bible uses several terms to describe the Church, the most powerful being a family, consisting of people of different backgrounds, experiences, class, ages and gender. This family extends right across the world, so that wherever you go you can have fellowship with other believers. I lived in Mombasa for two years, into which port sailed missionaries of different denominations from various countries, yet we could meet and enjoy each others company in a way no other group of people could. There is a uniqueness about the Church, was we are separated from the world’s standards and from the others of society.

But of course the Church does not exactly encourage people when it is seen to be unable to resolve theological and procedural problems quickly and quietly. For a long period the Labour party was unable to attain office because the public saw them squabbling and unable to determine what they stood for. Then the Conservative party followed the same path and they remained unpopular with the public. So indicating clearly that people have no respect for any body which cannot state positively what it believes in and stands for.

This is the situation relating to (at least) the Anglican Church, dominated by people with personal ambitions and desires which they are intent on pursuing irrespective of what damage is done to the Church at large. It has to be faced there are men (and women) with a personal agenda who seem determined to undermine the Church. The Leaders of the Church have firmly opposed ‘gay marriage’, yet, what is loosely called senior clergy, are challenging in a disloyal, irresponsible and shameful way with no respect for unity within the Church or for Bible teaching. This and other issues are liable to split the Church of England within, but separate it from the universal Church which includes Catholic and Orthodox Churches. It would be less damaging if we followed the example of the Anglican Church of North America and formed a new Anglican Church of Great Britain based on the same foundations as of our American friends.

In the meantime each Church should strive to be true to its calling with vows honoured, and work independently of the national scene. I firmly believe that if a Church is a welcoming one, offers a well constructed service with tuneful hymns and an inspiring message, it will surely attract members.

Tuesday 24 April 2012

Matthew 16 (Part1) Jesus said, ‘I will build my Church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.’ In so many places there are attempts to prevail against the Church In Africa and Asia Christian Churches are attacked regularly and Christians are persecuted for their faith. In America the American Civil Liberties Union is constantly seeking means to restrict the practice of our faith. In Britain we have the most anti-Christian government in most people’s memories. It was expected that a Conservative government would be pro Christian, and whilst the most aggressive attack is coming from one of their so called partner members, a woman who few would have ever remotely conceived her as being in charge of anything greater than a children’s tea party, the Prime Minister has done nothing to rein her in. The Equalities Minister, Lynne Featherstone, has ordered government lawyers to contest an appeal at the European Court of Human Rights by two women who are asking for the right to wear a Cross. Her attitude is, if you don’t like being stopped from wearing a cross, go get another job. Other faiths are encouraged to wear symbols and dress however. In addition, she has vowed to have legislation enacted to recognising marriage between two persons of the same sex, ‘no matter who says or does what’ and offensively accused the Church of homophobia and told them to lay off making objections. Another government Minister has persuaded a judge to ban a Christian radio station from asking Christians to inform of any difficulties they have experienced in exercise of their faith. So when David Cameron next speaks of his deep Christian faith, calling for back to Bible values, and his support for women wearing crosses, realise it is just a Public Relations exercise to canvass votes. Don’t take him seriously. Then in Norwich, an Independent Reformed Church which has rented a Council building for its meetings for the past twenty years, has been banned from further use because some unnamed individual complained an article written by the pastor a decade ago was offensive to Islam. Would the same action be taken against the militant preachers who spoke against Christianity? (to-morrow a look at the positive side.)

Thursday 19 April 2012

Luke 24

When this passage begins it is Easter Sunday and two followers of Jesus were walking along a road when they were joined by Jesus. They did not know who He was but they got into conversation, telling Jesus of events that had happened. Eventually they realised who He was, but Jesus suddenly disappeared. The two men made their way to Jerusalem and heard the Lord had arisen and they were able to tell of their experience.

The disciples were met behind locked doors for fear of being attacked when Jesus came in amongst them. The eleven men there were those who had shamelessly denied and fled from Him, denying they knew Him, yet Jesus was prepared to forgive them. This shows us that no one is too bad to be forgiven and offered salvation.

Jesus showed them His hands and feet to convince them of His real presence, and we know from John’s gospel that Thomas was not present and would not believe without proof. There are many people who just cannot accept that Jesus was physically resurrected, even some holding high office in the Church. Here we have testimony from men who lived with Jesus and gave us statements that Jesus was real, objective and physical, and we must be prepared to believe them over some academic sitting in a study somewhere, looking for some objection and probably the chance to make a (dubious) name for himself.

Those disciples were hard men, not likely to be deluded or kidded by an impostor. The Apostles Creed states ‘I believe in the resurrection of the body’ not ‘I believe in the resurrection of Jesus’. No one should recite the Creed if they cannot accept the physical resurrection.

An Anglican priest has no justification for doubting this. All ordained clergy swear to accept the Articles of the Church of England, one of which states’ Christ did surely rise again from the dead and took again his body with flesh bones and all things appertaining to the perfection of man‘s nature’. We are bound to honour this for the Bible expects us to believe in the solid, tangible resurrection. If we are going to be faithful to Jesus we must be prepared to believe He conquered death and as Lord of heaven and earth is One who can give life to the dead. It was long part of the plan of God that all that took place should have done so.

We are told that Jesus ate fish with them and instructed them in the Scriptures. He promises to send the Holy Spirit, but they are to stay in Jerusalem until they are filled with power. He then ascended back to His Father in heaven.

The fact that Jesus entered through locked doors indicates that His body must have been of a different kind to His earthly body. Paul in his Letter to the Corinthian Church explained this when he drew the analogy of a seed being planted to grow into a plant, and likens it to our one day being changed to a spiritual body. Paul went in to great detail to try and make this understood that our new bodies will be totally different to our old one.
An awesome duty has been placed on the Church to continue the mission Jesus gave to those first Apostles that they were to take the gospel to all people. Jesus wanted us to tell that forgiveness is real and available to those who will accept Him as Saviour. Most people of course will never confess to being a sinner they are confident in the misplaced belief that as long as they help others, and are honest and kind they have a ready made passport to heaven.

The Church has too often not lived up to our Lord’s expectations. The doctrine of heaven and hell is widely rejected as being positively unacceptable, with claims actually being made that all will be in heaven when they die. It is accepted that men like Hitler, Stalin, Saddam Hussein etc, may not, but it cannot be told what will happen to them or where they will end up. The purpose of the Church is to proclaim the teachings of Jesus Christ, this is given in all four gospels, and if the Church does not rest on Scripture it has no function in life, and any such Church should be avoided.

Thursday 12 April 2012

John 20

The Gospel passage for this Sunday comes from John’s gospel in Chapter 20, and is the story of Jesus appearance to His Apostles in the Upper Room on the evening of the first Easter Sunday.

The Apostles were in the Upper Room, terrified in fear for their lives. This was because rumours had been spread around Jerusalem that Jesus had been seen, and they feared the authorities might take action against them. The doors were firmly shut yet Jesus appeared in the room to the amazement, but also joy of the men. This suggests that His body was a supernatural body, and so if we are to be like Him in heaven our future bodies will also be supernatural also.

Jesus greeted them with the traditional Jewish words ‘peace be with you’, and then showed them His hands and side to prove that it was the same Jesus they had known when they were with Him, the One who had been crucified on the Cross.

Then Jesus gave them command saying, just as God had sent Him He was now sending them out to preach the gospel in His name. This is essentially and fundamentally what the Church should and must be doing, preaching the gospel that He left us and abandoning all the modern fancy ideas to please society. We don’t go out saying the Bible says…,but, I’ve got a better idea, we go in His name saying what He said.

Jesus also said He was giving them the Holy Spirit in which they could forgive people’s sins, or if necessary to refuse to do so. It is from these that the Church can claim authority to pronounce absolution. This in turn leads to dispute amongst some Christians as to whether that justifies the belief that a priest is necessary.

Every Christian can seek forgiveness from God directly, but if we are considering wanting to make a confession of sins and seeking assurance, then for good order and discipline one could reasonably state a priest is the person to approach rather than just any member of the Church. I have known instances where people have met for study groups and during the meeting been invited and encouraged to speak out on personal troubles, which is quite seriously unwise as there is no moral demands on friends to keep confidentiality. There is no doubt that by talking out a worrying matter, it can ease one’s mind, but a priest (or ordained minister) is the one who should be approached.

At this first meeting of Jesus with the Apostles, Thomas was not present but he was told by the other Apostles what had taken place, and Thomas being known for his scepticism refused to believe them. A week later however he is back with them in the Upper Room when Jesus again appears and Thomas realises his lack of faith and makes the confession with the deeply committed words, ‘my Lord and my God’.

We must not criticise Thomas, it must have been hard to believe that someone so cruelly put to death should appear alive, it was a unique act in all history and people do have imaginary visions. How many times have you heard people telling of having seen tears fall from a statue, or of people being touched on the forehead and then falling to the floor in convulsions at some charismatic meeting?

Jesus wanted to show the Apostles, and by extension to Christians through the ages, that His was a tangible bodily resurrection, and there was much evidence to prove so. Of course the liberal lobby in the Church today would prefer to go with the doubters and suggest it was a theoretical and spiritual resurrection rather than a physical one.

Far too many preachers submit to the universal belief that all will go to heaven so we don’t need to believe Jesus died just to save those who accept Him as Saviour. God however allows us all free choice but we will have to live with the choice we make, and one day those who doubt that a personal commitment to accept Jesus as Lord and Saviour is necessary, will have a consequence too awful to contemplate.

When you receive Communion this Sunday you are part of a tradition which has been passed down from that Upper Room. Many people have tried, and are now trying harder than ever to take Christianity out of public life, but while empires have come and gone, the Christian Church has survived, and millions and millions of people have found their lives enriched by their faith, and the words of Jesus are still relevant, ‘the gates of hell will not prevail against it’

Friday 6 April 2012

The Easter story

The Easter story is an extraordinary one, which although having taken place many years ago in a far off land, has much relevance for the world of to-day. Christians will celebrate the rising from death of their Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

There are many religions around the world, all clamouring to be followed, but Christianity is unique. Only Jesus Christ died on a Cross, and only through Him can people be forgiven from their sins, so there is no need to seek any further for spiritual satisfaction. Today in the Western world there is a battle between those who wish to marginalise our faith and consign it to either history, or at the most to private premises.

Having died on the Cross, Jesus’ body was buried securely in a tomb, and three days later the tomb was visited by Mary Magdelene who found the place where Jesus had been buried was empty. She broke into tears thinking someone had stolen the body, a common practice at that time. She ran for Peter and he with John ran to the tomb and found the clothes in which Jesus had been buried neatly folded. They realised that if anyone had stolen the body they would not have tidied the clothes. John realised Jesus had risen, as had been foretold in Scripture.

After the two men left the scene, Mary stayed and was rewarded when she became the first person to see the risen Lord. Then Jesus spoke to her and she flung herself at His feet. Jesus told her to go and tell the disciples, so revealing that He had forgiven their betrayal of Him.

This is what Easter is all about; Jesus is alive, and all the commercial hype is just a pure money making exercise. Because of Easter there is hope that when our time here on earth is over we shall live eternally with Christ. The resurrection is at the heart of our faith. The world beyond the Church like to hear that God is love; they like the idea of forgiveness and release from guilt, but are not willing to sacrifice the smallest amount of time to give to God.

There are of course so many people who are unwilling to believe the resurrection story. They will say they do in order to arrange a baptism service, but will not take it seriously. Indeed, to their great shame there are too many within the Church who do not accept the (physical) resurrection. If someone had said a hundred years ago that you could sit in your lounge and see displayed on a box in the corner of the room events that were then happening on the other side of the world, they would have been considered mad.

People say they cannot possibly understand and accept the events of Easter so won’t believe. If you asked them to explain how is it that a small plastic box which they carry around on their person can access another person many miles away, even across the continents, just by pressing a set of numbers and then they can carry on a conversation, and all the while thousands of other people are doing the same thing yet none of the conversations intercept, they would not be able to answer, yet they accept it. So why doubt the work of the Almighty.?

If Jesus had not been raised then we have no faith, for Christianity rises and falls on the resurrection of Jesus. This has been proclaimed right down the ages, and if not true then all the words and belief have been in vain. The Bible writers must have lied, but why would they have done this, what was there to be gained. They risked great persecution by doing so. Paul was the most brilliant man of his time with a fine logical mind, who had been a great opponent of the faith, but God convinced him otherwise and he suffered much for the gospel. If Jesus had not been raised we would have no future, no forgiveness, and our hopes of being re-united with loved ones would be over.

We have testimony from men present at the time that Jesus was real, objective and physical, and it was not just the reanimation of a corpse. The emphasis is on the physicality. The Apostles Creed does not say, ‘I believe in the forgiveness of sins and the resurrection of Jesus’, it says, ‘I believe in the resurrection of the body’. The Articles of the Anglican Church require this to be accepted.

The Bible wants us to know that this was a tangible, bodily resurrection of Jesus which liberal Christianity denies. After the resurrection the Apostles were empowered to preach openly, whereas previously they had been terrified to do so and even suffered much physically for doing so. It requires great conviction for men to change so drastically.

Through the centuries men and women with some of the greatest minds the world has known have been willing to sacrifice brilliant careers and forgo the opportunities of riches just to proclaim the Christian gospel. The empty tomb tells that life does not stop when physical death comes. Death is the door to eternal life which can be ours by faith. As Jesus dealt so forgivingly with those disciples so will He deal with all those who love and believe in Him.

Tuesday 3 April 2012

I was talking about the Church to a young lady who is a very intelligent young lady, brought up in a Christian home, who has attended Church from a very young age. She said she thought the Church of England would die out in Britain within the foreseeable future, as many young people had little interest if any in it. It was said that young people cannot understand why there is all the arguing about women bishops and homosexual clergy, as young people have no problem with these issues. (She might have been right to say many young people have no moral boundaries) The liberal establishment would no doubt see this as an endorsement of their views, but rather it is a general condemnation of the Church and the morality of young people.

What such a statement of young people’s views indicates is that the secularist lobby has captured the thinking of the younger generation, and in view of the Church having failed to challenge them, has allowed it to become the accepted view, without the alternative moral and spiritual message being given powerfully.

It has been said many times that the dear old Church of England is dying, but it still lives, even if on its last legs. One reason of course for the Church not taking on the secular and humanist lobby and challenging them is that too many within hold lax moral beliefs totally out of line with Scripture.

The Church would have been fulfilling its mission more fully if they had been more vocal on the way all moral values have been getting eroded, which in turn has caused many younger people to see the Church as irrelevant.

Could you imagine Islam taking the same line of thinking? We may not like some of the more militant forms of Islam, but we have to acknowledge there is a high moral outlook not practised outside of that faith. Do you seriously think a Muslim cleric would officiate at a ‘gay wedding’? Indeed, do you think anything would happen if he refused to do so? What the Christianity needs is the passion and commitment of Islam whilst maintaining its own beliefs and creed.

The Church has sold out to the secularists. I read an article in a Sunday newspaper which stated that in the process of selecting a new Archbishop of Canterbury, the Church is to consult on twitter and amongst various organisations. If the date had been 1st April I would have taken it as a joke being played. It really is hard to believe. Which other organisation would allow its Chief Executive to be picked by twitter or non members?

At the present time we have this ridiculous proposal to change the understanding of marriage, and we have the Prime Minister and Equalities Minister assuring the Church that it will not be obliged to perform religious ceremonies. In consideration of the legal experts at their disposal it is reasonable for one to assume they are deliberately misleading the country. European law states that whilst it does not consider same sex unions as marriage, if a member country creates same sex marriage as legal, any Church, synagogue or mosque which refuses to perform a requested ceremony would be breaking anti-discrimination legislation. It would not be the first time politicians have misled the public, and once made law it would be impossible to exact a change.

The Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches have no problem with these issues and neither would the Anglican Church if it paid a little more attention to Scripture.

Whilst the Church should not isolate homosexuals it should point out that it is contrary to God’s teaching. This is irrefutable and no amount of twisting and turning the gospel can alter that fact. It would be hard to justify the appointment of women as bishops even.

We then enter the territory of saying the Bible is out of date, we are in the 21st century, we are more advanced thinkers. If you seriously consider the moral and spiritual state of Western society, are we advanced to our good?

We claim as a Church to have God on our side, do we think He is not powerful or supportive enough to take on the secular and humanist fanatics. Remember the words of Scripture, ‘be bold, be strong, for the Lord your God IS with you’.