Previous blogs and miscellaneous articles
This page will have all previous blogs on it. It will also have longer pieces that are too long for a blog, and miscellaneous items such as prayers and poems and reviews of books and other blog sites.
Initially, they will appear in a random order, but when they begin to accumulate – probably around the beginning of 2020 – we will begin to categorise them and also include our book titles within the category as well.
Re-reading some of the gospel accounts of the crucifixion this Easter, I have been struck again with the prophetic significance of the sign above the cross, “This is Jesus the King of the Jews” (Matt Ch 27 v 37).
Though all the gospels emphasise the kingship of Jesus to some extent, it is more clearly seen in Matthew’s gospel. It is in Matthew that we get the genealogy, which establishes Jesus as the son of David, the son of Abraham. Any rightful king of the Jews had to be descended from David – Herod was not even a full blooded Jew and was considered a usurper – and part of the messianic expectation was a re-establishing of the Davidic line. It is significant that Matthew includes the visit of the Magi, who had received a cosmic revelation of Jesus’ birth. It was their enquiry to Herod (the usurper) about Jesus (the true King), which provoked the massacre of the babies at Bethlehem.
However, it is as Jesus is brought before Pilate that his Kingship is highlighted. When Pilate asks the question of Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus affirms that Pilate is right. Even the soldiers cry out “Hail King of the Jews”. Whilst they did this in mockery, under the hand of God who brought all this to pass, their testimony, though given in loutish ignorance, is actually true.
The final testimony was the placard above the cross. It was usual for the crimes of a crucified felon to be written upon a piece of wood or parchment and nailed on the cross above their head, so that anyone passing by could see the reason for their death. Pilate knew that the Jewish leaders had delivered Jesus to him out of malice and envy, and that there were no genuine offences which he had committed. We do not know what went through Pilate’s mind when it came to the time to declare his judgement to be written on the placard for Jesus, but whatever his reason for doing so, he caused one of the most significant prophetic truths of all time to be written there as a statement that would last for all eternity. “This is Jesus the King of the Jews”.
If Jesus had merely been a carpenter, even a carpenter who was the perfect son of God, his death could not have atoned for the sin of the world.
When Adam sinned, he did not merely sin as a private individual, but as the man whom God had created as the first and foremost – the king – of the human race. Adam was our representative head, who led humanity in sinful rebellion against God. Just as any national leader who declares war, does so on behalf of the nation he represents, Adam led us to side with Satan and oppose God, and there have never been any conscientious objectors who opted out. That is until Jesus.
But if Jesus had merely been a Jewish carpenter, even a perfect, divine Jewish carpenter, he would not have had the authority to declare peace with God and negotiate the appropriate terms of peace.
When Jesus Christ died, he did so as the atoning lamb, but also as the representative head – the king – of God’s people, and as the priest who (in the line of Melchizedek the king/priest of Jerusalem) was able to carry out his own sacrifice with all the legitimate authority of heaven and earth.
The one thing that Jesus could legally be accused of, was that he had accepted the rightful role of King of a fallen, sinful and rebellious people, and as such could legitimately be executed for their fall, their sin and their rebellion.
Oh the wisdom and righteousness of God! The death of Jesus as the second Adam who was both the last of the old order and the first of the new, fully satisfied those in leadership of the Jewish nation, it satisfied the law of Rome, which covered the then known world, and it fully satisfied the righteousness of God.
Now with Jesus as the firstborn from the dead, the king and representative head of God’s new creation, who can possibly lay anything against our charge when we submit to him and present him to God on our behalf?
You may recognise this as the title of a book by Francis Schaeffer published just over fifty years ago. I remember the vicar at St. John’s Church in Penge, South London, holding the book up in his right hand and recommending it to the congregation. I cannot imagine that many church leaders today would recommend such a book.
That is not because it is a bad book. It is because a substantial section of the church today would probably not only be unable to understand it, but more pertinently, would lack the motivation to work at understanding it.
Schaeffer was one of a batch of writers in the post-war years, who sought to stir the church to weigh and apprehend truth and then communicate it to others. His books were not an easy read. Desiring that his readers would grasp a past and present world-view of thought, he ranged through the history of philosophy and reason in a competent but not always easily understandable way. I did not read the book when the vicar recommended it, but some ten years later, I ventured into Schaeffer, first unsuccessfully, but then gradually with some real appreciation of what he was saying. It was not that I or others in the 1970s, were necessarily more intelligent than the generation today, but whereas we grasped that some good books needed working at, many of today’s readers appear to want all knowledge in pre-digested snippets from Wikipedia or a two-minute thought for the day.
I was a very unsatisfactory student at school. Outside of school I lived in an adult world (my parents ran a pub) where my honest interests centred on card playing and horseracing, and my less honest interests kept me hovering on the borderlands of trouble or possibly prison. I rarely read a book and my perceptive headmaster suggested that I leave his establishment at an early opportunity. God broke into my life in my twenty-first year and one of the first fruits of conversion was that I began to read.
I actually do not know where it came from or how God accomplished it in me, but I began to have a desire to study. I graduated from my teenage reading of Parade and the Daily Sketch to Calvin’s Institutes, the Works of Wesley and Whitefield, C. S. Lewis and the likes of Francis Schaeffer. What I discovered was that hard study was usually beneficial. It was not that I became a mind centred Christian: I was fully immersed in the Charismatic and New Church scene and often used to engage in impromptu street preaching outside St. Paul’s Cathedral or Charing Cross Underground Station. However, in the midst of all the experience and action based stuff, I discovered that God had given me an enquiring mind that wanted answers.
Since those early days, I have struggled to hold these different aspects of Christianity in balance in my own life, and to relate to them appropriately in the lives of others. However, I have been increasingly persuaded that, however many spiritual experiences we may have in meetings, it is not generally possible to grow beyond spiritual babyhood without some measure of applied learning in our bedsits or at our desks. The pathway to maturity is paved with hard work. Whatever else it may have meant, the word ‘disciple’ used by Jesus embodied the concept of a committed learner, and committed learning involves persistent application of all our gifts and abilities. This is equally true of practical and academic disciplines. I learned how to clean toilets when I worked in a care home and that involved as much applied care and attention as when I studied at college.
Fredrick Temple, who was Archbishop of Canterbury a hundred and twenty years ago said:
“The real student knows perfectly well, and it is the thing of great importance in practical life, that nine-tenths of all good work, whatever it may be, is what we usually call drudgery, has a mechanical character about it and requires nothing more than orderliness….. Nine-tenths of all good work is labour in which those who are engaged cannot feel any conceit at all; and the man of genius is distinguished from others mainly by this, that he sees, all through, what this mechanical drudgery is going to lead to”
Many of us today appear offended by the need to undertake anything that might be termed drudgery or, to use its present term, ‘boring’.
I suspect that the reason why many of us have not progressed beyond spiritual babyhood, may not be because of a lack of spiritual experiences, but from a lack of acquiring understanding of those experiences and applying that understanding to action in our lives. For those of us who are gifted to some degree in using our minds, such a course may involve learning from more mature disciples who have written down their acquired wisdom, and who have sometimes done so in a way that will require a real measure of hard work. Even the apostle Peter noted that some of Paul’s writings included that which was hard to understand (2 Peter Ch3 v 16), so it seems unlikely that we can expect to get everything we need served up in a pre-digested form. As helpful as Wikipedia is (and I use it a lot) it is no substitute for coming to grips with some of the great Christian thinkers and writers of past generations.
For some years, I have used a particular perfume spray as a deodorant. It is one that is readily available and I usually buy it from a market stall where it costs £3.99 per bottle. Since lockdown began, the stall has disappeared from our local market and as I needed to buy some, I decided to look on line. As I expected, there were several different people selling it, and I opted for a six bottle pack at £19.99 including postage, which was very good value. The interesting thing, is that there was one company offering the spray for over £20 a bottle and a whole range of prices between £5.99 and £19.73 per bottle.
I was not particularly surprised. I have a commercial background in both buying and selling and I am familiar with a principle that is sometimes called ‘creaming’. It has been suggested that in any group of a hundred people, there will always be some, perhaps two or three, who like to pay top price for an item and so some suppliers target that small percentage (they cream off the most profitable). There are also always some (me for one) who like to pay bottom price, and then the bulk of people are not particularly bothered as long as the price is reasonable and the purchase is easy and convenient.
Sometimes, the purchase is made on the basis that price will reflect quality. That is of course sometimes the case, but it is not possible to argue that for a branded item. In fact, the principle is often erroneous in other cases as well. A certain supplier of office equipment worked hard to establish their name as a supplier of top quality items. They used to have one item with their own brand colour and label which they sold at £399.00. They actually bought the item in from an independent manufacturer. The manufacturer whom they purchased it from, also sold the same item under their own brand name. It was produced on the same production line, but finished in a different colour and the asking price was £159.00.
The point I am making, is that some purchases are made, not merely on the basis of the attributes of the item itself, whether that be price, quality or whatever, but on the basis of the characteristics of the person making the purchase.
It is perhaps worth asking the question ‘on what basis do we choose the church situation to get involved in?’ How do we evaluate the quality of the situation itself? Perhaps the most obvious would be to evaluate it on the basis of the bible, but that would require us to do so in a detached way where, as far as possible, we laid aside our own preferences and personality characteristics. It is not wrong to have personal preferences, but it is important to know how much weight we give to them compared to assessing the situation on the basis of the bible and the leading of the Holy Spirit.
In practice, it would appear that many churches have a strong element of tradition which reflects a cultural, ethnic or historical background (how else can we explain the distinctive ways of doing things that have emerged without any apparent biblical precedent?) I am not suggesting that it would be possible to do so, but it is worth trying to imagine what it would be like if we all just went to the nearest church. As a start that would probably eliminate any church existing on the basis of ethnicity alone. In the town where I live, in addition to the many predominantly white English churches, there are those which are predominantly Syrian, Kenyan, Ghanaian, Romanian, Chinese, Zimbabwean, Nigerian, West Indian, Polish etc. etc.
The question that arises – an imaginary question of course – is which one would Jesus go to? Would he choose just one and if so, on what basis would he make the decision? Perhaps more pertinently, would he be welcome if he turned up, and would he understand what was going on?
I suspect that when I get to heaven, it will not be any great deal as to whether I chose to pay £20 per bottle or £20 for half a dozen bottles of my favourite deodorant perfume; I think such choices will have little eternal effect. However, it may well be that I will be asked to justify why I chose to affiliate myself with a particular group – especially if I had little or no contact with other groups – and even more so if those in the group were all just like me.
Following the previous blog, I would like to look at one of Aesop’s fables that I came across.
Aesop relates the story that once upon a time the Fox invited the Stork to dinner and put before her some soup in a very shallow dish. The Fox could easily lap it up, but he Stork could only wet the end of her long bill in it, and left the meal as hungry as when she began. “I’m sorry that the soup is not to your liking”, said the Fox. “Pray do not apologise”, said the Stork. “I hope you will come and dine with me soon and I will show you what a real feast is.”
When the Fox went to dinner at the Stork’s house, she also served some soup, but in a very long necked jar with a narrow mouth. All the Fox could manage to do was lick the outside of it. So he too left a shared meal hungry and dissatisfied.
We can easily recognise Aesop’s point that both the Fox and the Stork were very bad mannered to offer someone hospitality in a way in which they were unable to receive it. In the story it appears they both acted this way on purpose, but it would be almost as bad mannered to act in such a way through sheer ignorance or thoughtlessness. To invite someone to share a meal and then to serve it in a manner to which we are accustomed, but without taking any account of how they normally eat, demonstrates that we have little regard for the other person and it makes the sharing of food a meaningless gesture.
I was recently reckoning up how many different churches I had visited. Certainly well over a hundred, and between them representing a few dozen different denominations. It has seemed to me that the majority appeared to serve up spiritual food according to their own cultural or denominational background. There is probably not much wrong with that – soup is soup whether it comes in a shallow plate or a long necked jar, and if either suits you, then fine. However, I have noticed that problems appear to arise when churches come together and serve spiritual food without taking account of each other’s normal eating habits. It can be as equally unsatisfying to be given a service book without help, explanation or page numbers, as it is to have to stand by, while others sing songs off by heart, especially if they are in an unfamiliar foreign language.
There have been rare occasions when folk from differing church traditions have come together and seem to have had a genuine desire to learn from each other and to serve each other, but they have been the exception rather than the rule.
I was once asked whether I had held a particular view about some churches out of arrogance or ignorance. It was actually a valid and perceptive question. After some reflection, I had to give the honest answer, “both”. I had allowed my limited, narrow experience to shape my thinking about others who were different from me. I do not believe that most Christians are deliberately bad mannered, but it does seem to me that an awful lot of us fall into the trap of being arrogant or ignorant, when it comes to sharing together at God’s table.
This does not mean that any and every way of doing things must inevitably be acceptable. Worship and the things we do in church can be wrong, sometimes very wrong. The Israelites were constantly admonished to flee from false idols because they picked up bad habits from those around them. The task we face is to discern between what is wrong (and avoid or admonish such) and what is merely a matter of taste, style or habit. Even if it is only a matter of style, it does not mean that we should just ignore it on the one hand or embrace it on the other, but that we should seek to understand it so that we can act appropriately in a spirit true fellowship.
I trust that I am not so naïve as to think that the pathway of understanding others is either comfortable or easy, but I do think it necessary. My wife and I have been married for nearly forty-eight years and we still do not always understand each other. But apart from the benefits which accrue from working at it, we have no option because we agreed to do so those forty-eight years ago. If we are all in covenant relationship with Jesus Christ and hence part of the same body, then I fail to see how we can treat the pathway of understanding different parts of the body as an optional extra.
After breakfast this morning, I listened to the second of the 2020 Reith Lectures by Mark Carney. I did not understand all of it, but what I did understand seemed good. However, it reminded me of a scene from the 1983 Film Trading Places starring Eddie Murphy. The nub of the film’s plot centres around a bet by two commodity brokers who have a small wager to see if they can reduce their firm’s manager to poverty and then successfully give his job to a beggar from the street (Murphy). After removing the previous manager, they carefully try to unravel the mysteries of commodity broking to a now smartly suited Murphy. Explaining that their clients wish to buy or sell commodities (gold, coffee, pork bellies, frozen orange juice etc.) in order to speculate whether the future prices will rise or fall, the two brokers then smile and tell Murphy that, whatever happens, they will take a percentage cut for handling the deal. After patiently asking him whether he understands, they see Murphy grin back and exclaim, “sure, you guys are just a couple of bookies!”
When I was a young teenager, my father (who ran a pub) used to take bets over the counter and relay them to a local bookmaker. With an aptitude for figures I became involved, and by the time I left school I had a fairly sound working knowledge of the world of gambling. So I have to confess that Murphy’s explanation of the world of commodity broking made sense and it seems also to helpfully cover stocks and shares, property, banking and the whole world of high finance.
In this year’s Reith lectures, Mark Carney seeks to explore the relationship between financial values and human values. Whilst emphasising that they should be moral, Carney said that we believe a lie, if we actually think the markets really are moral. Perhaps that is why I so readily identify with Murphy’s response, for it does seem that the world of high finance may be fronted by a number of well-tailored bookies.
In the years after my early introduction to gambling, I became a buyer working for three large international companies and an international charity. They all encouraged honesty in their business dealings, and I learnt that it is possible to trade in a way that is good for both buyer and seller – what is called a win/win situation. But by its very nature, gambling is always a win/lose situation. For someone to win, someone else has to lose. If you have read my previous blogs, you will know that I am not averse to gambling as such. When carried out between two people who know exactly what they are doing and who are both in control of what they do, I see nothing wrong in it. However, it seems to me that most high finance gambling is based on peddling the lie that we can all be winners. The bitcoin adverts declare that you can become a millionaire very, very quickly. No doubt some people will, but at some point the bubble will burst, and some will become broke just as quickly. The Bank of England printing presses may churn out £20 notes as fast as they can to ‘quantitatively ease’ our economic crisis, but the lessons of history teach us that we may end up needing a suitcase full of those notes to buy a pound of butter.
In the Reith lecture, Mark Carney highlighted three lies of high finance. One, mentioned above, is that markets are moral, a second that the market is always right and, perhaps the most pervasive and deceptive of them all, this time it will be different.
In the light of the (fairly good) human perception of Mark Carney and Eddie Murphy we may well realise that more fortunes are made by the bookies than the punters. I believe there are two elements of wisdom that we can learn from this – one human common sense and one spiritual. It is common sense that if you are going to be a punter (and it can be fun) it is crucial to plan to fail. Whether at a back street bookies or a high street brokers, never speculate with money that you cannot afford to lose. Write your money off as soon as it changes hands. Any return then becomes a pleasant bonus, not an urgent necessity.
But much more importantly, go back to some of the lessons that Jesus taught:
Do not lay up treasure on earth, for where your treasure is there will your heart be also.
It is better to give than to receive.
How hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the Kingdom of God.
We live in a fallen world and we deal with fallen systems. It may well be that we need to, or wish to, get involved in some measure and in some circumstances. If we do so with a quickened conscience, enlightened by the Word of God, and with a wholehearted trust in Jesus, we will be safe and secure, certainly as far as eternity goes and probably also in the present. However, if we trust in human systems, governments and our own wisdom – well your bet is as good as mine as to who will win and who will lose.
I read two books last week, both of which approached the subject of the nature of the Church, but from completely different viewpoints.
‘The Glory and the Shame’ is an overview of the (mainly) Twentieth Century Pentecostal/Charismatic movements by a Peter Hocken, a Roman Catholic Priest. Well researched and sympathetically written it endeavours to highlight the positive and negative aspects of the Church’s response to the move of the Holy Spirit over the last hundred and twenty years or so. Hocken is perhaps one of the most able commentators on this subject and in other books he has shown a commendable thoroughness and the ability to grasp a very broad subject.
There is an integrity in his writing and he embraces the Spirit’s moving on both a personal and theological level. However, at the end of the day it is clear that he is a card carrying Roman Catholic who considers the papacy, the threefold apostolic ministry of Bishop, Priest and Deacon, and the historical continuity of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches as foundational.
The other book, ‘So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore’ is a novel by Wayne Jacobsen. The book is structured around a series of encounters between a disillusioned church pastor and a mystery stranger who gently asks leading questions that help unravel and tease out what is happening in the pastor’s life. The book continually focuses on the relationship of an individual with their heavenly Father, and minimalises all formal church structures and offices. I am less at home with novels – especially Christian novels – than I am with historical theology, but I did find that this approach enabled me to imagine what a Church without structure or formal leadership might look like.
There appeared to be no conflict between the two books in one respect: they both emphasised the need for a Spirit led life in relationship with the Father and Jesus Christ. However, they stood in stark opposition to one another as to how that might be achieved and what it would look like as Church.
Hocken clearly believes that a hierarchical led Church, based on apostolic succession is essential to the final purposes of God. He hopes and possibly also believes that all believers outside such a Church should be gathered again within its fold. He appears to believe that even when such a Church is partially or even fully corrupt, it is in a New Covenant relationship with God (on a similar basis to Israel in the Old Covenant) and what is therefore needed is renewal and some measure of reformation in order to move it out of corruption into the place that God wants it to be.
Jacobsen on the other hand, whilst never actually mentioning Covenant, appears to believe that an individual relationship with the Father (never fully defined in the book) is central to the purposes of God, and that any Church will only be valid if it arises out of a multiplicity of such relationships.
If I were to put the contrast in my own terms, I would push it to its extremes and ask the following questions:
Does God set up and validate an organisation, and then move people to fit into it, renewing the people from time to time to ensure that the situation does not ossify?
Or, does God draw people as individuals and allow them to form an organisation on the basis of their relationships which he then subsequently validates (more or less whatever shape and form it has taken)?
I have recently become involved in a project to re-start a village church that closed down. One of my daughter-in-laws asked me how I would like it to develop and what sort of shape would I like it to take. As I thought through how to answer her (I have not done it yet) I realised that I did not really know, and had not really addressed the issue as there were too many other things to deal with at present.
Reading these books has helped me to identify what I need to think about, but they have not given me the answer. The problem is that it is not simply a question of either or. I find that setting out the extremes nearly always shows that to be the case, and forces me to try and find another approach.
As mentioned in another blog, I was brought up in a pub, and a friend recently asked me whether it was a positive or a negative experience. It was not like a pub in a modern chain, but an old fashioned village pub that primarily served folk who lived within walking distance of it. It was more like an extended family with everyone knowing everyone else and (at least to some extent) everyone else’s joys and sorrows. I learnt several life skills from it. I knew how to relate to adults from a young age, I learnt the need to accept different people and to put up with their foibles and, perhaps most importantly, I learnt that whilst my dad and mum ran the place, they did so in a way that served the people who came there. As I reflected on these things in replying to my friend, I realised that, on a human level, life in the pub was very much what I wanted to see in the church, but on a spiritual level and centred in Jesus.
The pub did have some structure, it was centred in, though not restricted to, a building, it did have set hours of opening and it did have a recognition of who was in charge. However, without the people, the local community, it would have been nothing.
So, when reflecting on the Church, I guess I am looking for something similar. A group of people regularly relating to each other, putting up with our various oddities and always being ready to welcome strangers. There is a place for having folk in charge, but their main function is to serve people, not to be served. A building and a degree of organisation can be really helpful, but again, both things should serve and be helpful to people. Once they become a burden, something has gone wrong.
I am still wrestling with this one. I cannot accept the position which appears to be held by Roman Catholics such as Hocken, which starts with an organisation and then seeks to breath life into it. That does seem to be more Old Covenant than New. But, though I find it quite attractive, neither can I reduce the Church down to the sum of individuals in relationship with Father as Jacobsen appears to do. Going back to scripture, it seems to me that, whilst we come into the New Covenant as individuals, the focus is on the people of God, which seems to be clearly a corporate entity.
In practice, as I endeavour to work with re-starting a church, I am also conscious of the almost suffocating pressure of legal rules and regulations that have been imposed on churches over the past twenty or thirty years in respect of both people and buildings (particularly as they relate to safety). These necessitate a level of organisation that may make church life much more difficult in the future.
Perhaps it is an appropriate time for us all to re-evaluate our understanding of Church and what it should look like. Whilst they both helpfully teased out things to think about, neither Hocken nor Jacobsen clearly rooted their views of Church in the Bible. Maybe that is where we need to begin again.
It is not easy defining what we mean by a cult. The term is sometimes used of a group of dedicated followers of fashion who unthinkingly embrace the latest offering from a particular designer and who must have the item at all costs. It can be used of the followers of a particular sports team, who perhaps believe the unbelievable facebook statement by Bill Shankly that ‘Football is not a matter of life and death. It’s much more important than that’. However, I want to home in on a particular use of the term as it relates to religious groups.
It is sometimes used when a group is considered heretical in its beliefs, perhaps denying the Trinity or proclaiming salvation by works instead of grace. A religious cult may indeed be heretical, but they can also be surprisingly orthodox when it comes to matters of doctrine, so that is not a good definition. Accepting that the term may have wider meanings, I want to consider how a Church can become a cult when it denies the meaning of a key aspect of the New Covenant. The particular aspect I have in mind is the clear prophetic statement in Jeremiah Ch 31and re-stated in Hebrews Ch 8 v 10 – 11
This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel
after that time, declares the Lord.
I will put my laws in their minds
and write them on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
No longer will they teach their neighbour,
or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest.
The key element in this passage is the fact that God will teach us individually without the need to rely on our neighbour or anyone else. He will be able to do this because He will have given the Holy Spirit to all followers of Jesus in order to enable us to understand Him. In I Corinthians Ch 2 v 9 -12. Paul says:
“No one has ever seen this. No one has ever heard about it.
No one has ever imagined what God has prepared for those who love him
But God has shown us these things through the Spirit.
The Spirit knows all things, even the deep secrets of God. It is like this: No one knows the thoughts that another person has. Only a person’s spirit that lives in him knows his thoughts. It is the same with God. No one knows the thoughts of God. Only the Spirit of God knows God’s thoughts. We did not receive the spirit of the world, but we received the Spirit that is from God. We received this Spirit so that we can know all that God has given us.
It is a common fallacy to believe that Churches go wrong when everyone ‘does what is right in his own eyes’. That was indeed true in the Old Covenant before the Holy Spirit was poured out on all flesh, but in the New we can all hear from God for ourselves. That does not mean that we can do what we want – pursuing our own agenda is a pretty sure sign that we are not hearing the voice of the Spirit. But it does mean that anyone of us who has fully surrendered to Jesus and become his disciple has the potential to learn directly from him.
The main mark of a religious cult is the denial of this possibility. It is where a man or women usurps the role of the Spirit and insists that others must listen to them and obey them, as they (and by inference they alone) are the mouthpiece of God for the Church. It is not uncommon for such a person to have begun their walk in great faith and perhaps be used of God in areas of healing or the miraculous, but the perverting factor is very often pride. This alone can turn a good church leader into a leader of a cult. The only sure fire safeguard is humility, without which even the best of us are in constant danger.
We do need great leaders, we do need those with the gift of prophecy, we do need bible teachers, but there is a proviso. What they say and do needs to find an echo of truth in the hearts and minds of all who are walking in the New Covenant. If a Church is walking in life and seeking the mind of God, a suggestion by a leader should come like plucking an apple when it is ripe – it will yield to the hand with little or no resistance and be evident that it is of God. When a leader begins to cajole, insist or stress their position, even to the point of bullying, it should be received with caution. If it is a temporary trait – well we all get it wrong sometimes, but if it becomes a long term attitude, then it may well be that the church is changing into a cult.
In 2010 an Arizona music fan sold his prized Air Guitar on eBay for $5.50. In spite of the fact that the seller made it quite clear that the buyer would end up with absolutely nothing, there were several bids for the non-existent instrument. Once the winning bid was accepted, a package containing air and a certificate of authenticity was despatched to the lucky buyer.
Apparently, as of 6th November, £11,798.03 would buy one bitcoin, or the same amount of pounds sterling could buy around 2680 air guitars. Mind you, those figures fade into insignificance compared to the near 900 billion pounds, which the Bank of England will have printed off for Government bonds for no more than the cost of ink and paper. It does tend to make one want to question just what the Bank of England mean by their statement on all notes of the realm that “I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of …whatever value a note is designated as”. I have never heard of anyone going into the Bank of England and demanding an appropriate amount in exchange for the piece of paper they hold in their hand, but I am pretty certain that they would come away with the equivalent of a few air guitars and a note of authenticity.
We all realise that earthly treasure – in whatever shape or form it may come – is illusory. There is an old story of a rich man who sought to negotiate with God about taking his earthly treasure with him when he died. The man was so persistent, that in the end God said he would allow it. For the rest of his life the man put all his wealth into large gold bars, and on his death, it was placed in a wheelbarrow and buried with him. Arriving in heaven pushing his wheelbarrow, he reported at the heavenly gates to the angel on duty. The angel was bemused and puzzled by the man and his barrow, so he phoned up his boss and said “ Can you come and give me a hand please, there is a guy just turned up with a load of paving slabs?”
That is why Jesus explained to his followers about the need to lay up their treasure in heaven because that is the only safe place to allow your heart to become attached to things. Heavenly treasure is actually no more tangible than earthly treasure: it is not possible to carry it around in a purse or to invest it in a high street branch of the Bank of Heaven. The big difference between earthly treasure and heavenly treasure is not in the apparent solidness of the one compared to the other, but in the reliability of the one who makes the promise of authenticity. Heavenly treasure is no more based on solid evidence of the ‘bird in hand variety’ than are air guitars, bitcoins or Bank of England promissory notes. Heavenly treasure is entirely dependent upon the reliability of the word of God – we have it by faith or we do not have it at all.
We all have to make investment choices at some level and there are no fixed rules on the subject. These may include purchasing an air guitar or some Government bonds, giving to this person or investing in that charity and the decision-making will be part of our maturing process. The thing to remember is that everything – whether earthly or heavenly – is based on promises, and generally it is better to have confidence in the one making the promise than in the attractiveness or otherwise of the thing promised.
One of the first commands of Jesus (Matthew 5 v 20) appears so impossible to fulfil, that some bible scholars have suggested that Jesus could not have meant what he said.
“But I warn you—unless your righteousness exceeds (is better than) the righteousness of the scribes (teachers of religious law) and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven!”
There were many teachers in Israel who had groups of followers and there was often little variance in the core beliefs between them; the difference was in the detail of the application. Generally, a teacher was either a scribe or a Pharisee. The scribes usually concentrated on studying the Law (that is the Old Testament as we know it) and the Pharisees concentrated on applying it to life.
The foundational truths that Jesus taught were often very close to those taught by other good teachers in Israel. When one of the experts in the law, tested Jesus with the question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” (Matt. 22 v 36) Jesus’ answer was probably much as the questioner would have expected from any teacher. What astonished, attracted or upset people about Jesus’ teaching was that he emphasised a right attitude of heart as well as right action.
Jesus taught that true righteousness is expressed as love to God and our neighbour arising out of the love which God has shed abroad in our hearts; not in keeping a list of do’s and don’ts. The Hebrew word tzedakah embodies the concept of righteousness as love in action.
Many Jews before and after Jesus have wrestled with what this means in practice, and Maimonides, a much respected 12th Century Jewish philosopher set out eight levels of attitude and action:
The highest level is to give time or money to a fellow Jew so that he will not need to be dependent upon others.
The next is to give to the poor without knowing to whom one gives, and without the recipient knowing from whom he has received.
The third is when one knows to whom one gives, but the recipient does not know from whom the gift comes.
Then it is to give, when one does know to whom, and the recipient knows his benefactor also.
Next is when one gives to the person directly, but before being asked.
After this is when one gives after being asked.
And then, a lesser level still is to give inadequately, but with a smile.
Finally, it is to give unwillingly.
(It is interesting that there is no provision for not giving at all.)
Although Maimonides lived centuries after the time of Jesus, what he taught reflected the best of Jewish tradition, and the concepts he held may well have been acceptable to many of the scribes and Pharisees. Superficially, the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees seemed to be exceptional. They often gave very generously and were meticulous in tithing, even paying tithes on the produce of their herb gardens. It is probable, that in comparison to modern levels of giving by Christians, the Pharisees were very generous. So what was the problem? Why did Jesus often castigate the Pharisees, and why did he tell His disciples that their righteousness was to exceed the Pharisees righteousness?
It seems that there were two key issues:
The first, as Jesus pointed out to his disciples, was that the Pharisees knew that they were achieving high standards and they liked to let others know it (Matt 6 v1 – 4). The Pharisees thought that righteousness was not only in the doing, but in being seen to do as well. They wanted the praise of men and Jesus said that in getting that, they would have had their reward.
The second, was that they sought to be righteous in order to be acceptable to God, rather than expressing righteousness because they were already accepted. This is so important, but a factor which is overlooked again and again.
Jesus told his disciples (Matt 23 v 3) to do what the Pharisees taught because they did teach love toward God and man. However, the way in which they carried this out often demeaned their relationship with both. Jesus was the most righteous person who has ever lived, yet he would eat with prostitutes and collaborators. The Pharisees would give to a beggar, perhaps generously, but it is unlikely that they would ever sit down and have a meal with them on equal terms in the way that Jesus did.
If our righteousness is to go beyond the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, it must start with a generosity at least as lavish as theirs, but it must go beyond that to include respect for and possible relationships with those to whom we are being generous.
It is of course, impossible to fulfil the teaching of Jesus without the enabling of the Holy Spirit; one of the failures of the Pharisees was they tried to be righteous by their own efforts. We can only be righteous by acknowledging our ongoing dependence on God, and receiving from Him for ourselves and for others.
As we receive from a generous God who loves and cares for us, He enables us to love and care for others. We are not generous in order to gain favour with God or with men, but because we have received freely, we can give freely. We have learned that it really is better to give than to receive and as we practice that, we become increasingly skilful at doing it in such a way that our left hand does not even know what our right hand is doing.
All of us have a disease that has an hundred percent death rate: it is called sin. Whilst the time and manner of our deaths may be subject to a wide range of conditions and circumstances, none are able to eliminate it nor make it more certain.
War, famine and disease do not, indeed cannot, increase the number of those who will die; they simply change the manner and the speed in which it will happen. I find it disconcerting therefore, that so much time, money, and energy, is being taken up with seeking to delay the event (often fairly minimally) rather than preparing for it.
Although there have usually been some who are so prepared that they long for and eagerly anticipate the event, I acknowledge that most of us would appreciate some delay if possible. My wife and I have just had our tenth grandchild and none of them are yet in their teens. It would be great if we survived long enough to see at least one or two of them married, and maybe even enjoy the birth of a great grandchild. But that would be a bonus, not a right, and we need to be ready to die, even though we may legitimately hope for further years of life.
I would rather not get Covid, and I would rather not die of it, but if I did, it would not be a tragedy. It would simply be the time and manner in which my inevitable demise takes place.
It seems that our Government is prepared to take on board a concept that says “delay death at all costs” but not to give any time, effort (or even encouragement to others), to help people prepare for the fact that death, even if delayed, is inevitable. On the basis of this, I would suggest that our Government is not competently handling the Covid situation and I find it very hard to positively respond to their actions. I have many unanswered questions, and I have just selected a few representative ones (not in any order of importance):
Since when has it been the primary function of any government anywhere to enable the population to live a little longer?
Is it right to spend vast (and I mean vast) sums of money extending the lives of people in this country, when similar amounts of money could be used more effectively to extend the lives of greater numbers of people in other countries (for instance by providing basic sanitation and famine relief)?
Is the printing of tons of paper money with no supporting basis, fundamentally different from trying to lift yourself up by your own shoelaces?
Does the lack of any mention of God or of any spiritual emphasis by either the Government or the media, finally make it plain that we now live in a totally secular society?
Does the Church need to rethink its relationship with the various human authorities: Charity Commission, Government, Police, etc.in order to prepare itself for (at best) being side-lined, and (at worst) being persecuted?
I do not claim to have the answers, and I would be surprised if anyone has, but surely it is healthy for a few of us to be asking a few more questions?