The power of the Cross

Bidbro church

SUNDAY APRIL 28th 2019

St Lawrence Bidborough – April 28th 2019.  Acts 17:22-34

Opening prayer from Eph. 1:18 “I pray that your minds may be opened, that you may know the hope to which God in Christ has called you, Amen.”

What a mess the world is in.  I could babble on about the two new political parties formed in Britain this month, and the two elections coming up in May – threatening to overturn our cranky political system completely, but I won’t.

For a moment, I will focus on one issue – that of population:  there are more children as a proportion of the world’s population than ever before.  We know how to bring babies to birth better than ever before, and with less mothers dying in childbirth.  We also know how to bring children safely to adulthood, with basic good food, clean air, and of course, safety from war and terrorist attack…  Enough said on that.

With regards to overall population growth, the world’s population has I think trebled in my lifetime, please correct me if I am wrong.  China has led the way in overall population control, and of course our western culture is turning away from the safe nurture of children within the love of the parents that conceived them – enough said on that.  If you don’t agree with me when I say, what a mess the world is in, again, please correct me after the service.

And so it must have seemed to the people of Athens 2,000 years ago, as St Paul spoke to them from the steps of the Areopagus.  Maybe the Romans had established a comfortable way of life for the free and richer people of Athens, but of course if they were honest, they were only a small proportion of the world of their day.

Questions such as “Does God exist, does He care for us, is there life after death, and what of miracles?  Were debated endlessly.  There were those, as today, who would simply not believe that a person could rise from the dead (v32 of Acts 17)  Put yourself in their shoes….

Was Jesus dead?  He died by crucifixion.  There are historical facts.  At an internet level of course there are plenty of ‘Jesus mythers’ around, just as there are holocaust deniers, and climate change deniers.  The fact is, even the most critical scholars accept that Jesus was baptised by John, he made disciples, the inner group and many others from a wider circle.  Then, no serious scholar however critical, would deny that Jesus was a miracle worker, that he taught mainly about something called the Kingdom of God, and that he died on a Roman cross.

How did crucifixion work?  It was a step process.  Scourging, the half death, leather things, bits of bone, veins and arteries exposed.  Julius Caesar: “it is more grievous to scourged than to be put to death.”  Then Jesus was nailed to a cross while blood drained.  Third step, death blow.  It is among the most certain fact of history, that he was crucified by Pontius Pilate.

Did he rise?  Official credal statements made it very clear that he died.  The most interesting source is the creed to be found in 1 Cor 15:3-7 creed, repeated by St Paul as he writes to the church in Corinth.  James Dunn, a Durham professor,  I contributed to a book he wrote about church life in the North-East.  He says of 1 Cor 15:3-7: “This tradition, we can be entirely confident was formulated as tradition within months of Jesus death.  Gert Ludemann: “the elements of the tradition are to be dated in the first two years after the crucifixion”.  Paul Barnett:  “…within 2 or 3 years of the first Easter.”  Richard Burridge and Graham Gould: “from only a few years after Jesus death”.  Robert Funk of the Jesus seminar: “within 2 or 3 years at most.”  Richard Hays: “within about 3 years”, Very early material  1 Cor 15:3-8 (read it together).

Notice what we have here, it was for forgiveness of sins, Jesus death and burial, resurrection.

Lee Strobel wrote a book 40 years ago “The Case for Christ.”  Two years ago, it was made into a film.  What follows summarises something along the lines of what he said and what is in the film….  He summarises what other Bible scholars have taught….  There were the appearances to individuals (Cephas), small groups, large group more than 500.  James and Paul untimely born.  All of this as authoritative and very early tradition.  Friends and Foes.  James did not believe his brother was the Messiah, Paul persecuted the church.  This passage eliminates two sceptical responses, to Jesus resurrection.  The legend hypothesis, and the hallucination hypothesis.  It is the heart of Christian teaching from the beginning.  Hallucinations are not shared and most certainly, not by many people at the same time.

And, the fatal flaw in both the legend and the hallucination arguments against Jesus’ resurrection:  is that those who have them, or make the up, they make poor martyrs.  I accept that suicide bombers make martyrs of themselves, having been deluded by extremist teaching, and only for instant and presumably near painless death.

(READ ALOUD 2 Cor 11:24-27).  Consider becoming a Xian?   it’s a GREAT LIFE !!  So many of the first disciples were stoned, willing to endure prison, flogging and death.  Yet….

Gerd Ludemann again: “it may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’ death in which he appeared to them as the risen Christ.”  Bart Ehrmanh:  “We can say with certainty that some of his disciples at some later time insisted that Jesus had appeared to them, and had convinced them that he had been raised from the dead.  “It is a historical fact that some of J followers came to believe that he had been raised from the dead soon after his execution.  Paul Fredriksen: “I know that in their own terms, what they saw was the raised Jesus.”  For Fredriksen, he goes on: “I’m not saying that they really did see the raised J, I wasn’t there, I don’t know what they saw.  But I do know that, as a historian, they must have seen something.

I know what they saw, for me it is obvious, the sort of thing that would convince that a man who had been dead was in front of them and explaining why he had to die and rise again.  Yet, so many do not believe in the historical evidence.  Two broad issues emerge.  Many people have a prior commitment to reject supernatural events, they are committed to refuse that miracles never happen.

Pew Forum:  “Spirit and Power, a 10-country survey of Charismatics and Pentecostals – the  USA, Brazil, Chile, Guatemala, Kenya, Nigeria, S. Africa, India, the Philippines, and S.Korea.  Researches found that 200,000,000 Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians have personally witnessed miraculous healings.  Not counting Christians in other countries.  Edmond Tang:  “All Christian churches in China practice some form of healing. in fact, according to some surveys, 90% of new believers say that miraculous healing is a reason for their conversion.  Craig Keener in Miracles:  It is no longer plausible to tout uniform human experience as a basis for denying miracles, as in the traditional modern arguments.  Hundreds of millions of claims would have to be explained in non-supernatural terms for this appeal to succeed.  While many may be so explained, one cannot adopt the conclusion of uniformity as a promise without investigating all of them.”  In other words, those who deny such miracles, without investigating them, do so by a blind faith, and ignore all the evidence against their unbelief.

So to conclude:  If Jesus rose from the dead, it is surely a good idea to listen to his teaching – about sin, judgement, and salvation.  If we don’t want to take his teaching seriously, we need to deny it, and reject the evidence.  We must decide what we want to believe ahead of time, and simply reject the evidence.  We call science, anti-science, as bigots, we call others bigoted.

The facts are, that Jesus died by crucifixion, and that is recognised by friends and foes.  The friends of Jesus, those who became his disciples, were willing to face torture and death.  So, if anyone can tell me about God, its Jesus, God who became a human being, humbling himself, even to death, death on a cross, God in Christ.

I began by talking about children in our world.  I finish with a saying by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who died in Flossenburg concentration camp, 9th April 1945, probably by hanging but slowly.  He wrote: “You can measure the morality of a society and culture by how it cares for its children and their future.”  A challenge for our society.

And personally?  How do you respond?

Treasure in Heaven

Bidbro church

Bidborough St Lawrence – Matthew 6:19-24

After Hilary and I were married here, 46 years ago, our first home was an old terraced house in Newcastle.  It was in an area where, if you left your home for any time, you needed to make sure it was secure from burglars breaking in.  It had basement windows, and on one occasion when we went away, I used strong boards over them and bolted them up through to the inside, and secured the doors pretty well.  But when we came home, we found that burglars had chiselled out the bricks from under the stairs up to the back door, and there was a neat hole through the brickwork.  It was not that we had many valuables in the house anyway, but it served to remind us that treasure on earth should not be too important to us – and to work out what our treasure actually is.

Here in Bidborough, quite a number of people work for a bank, or used to and a bank pays their pension.  Banks are usually a good place to put our money, but of course they can fail, as did Northern Rock, a bank where once we had a mortgage, fortunately paying it off before the bank failed.  Jesus warns us not to put that which is most valuable to us as money in a bank, or property, but to work out what our treasure really is, and to put it safely, in Heaven.

But then the question needs to be asked: “where is Heaven?”  Next Sunday’s Bible readings include the Lord’s Prayer, and there Jesus tells us that when we pray to God, we should ask: “Your Kingdom come on earth, as it is in Heaven.”  God’s Kingdom and Heaven are closely related.

The Bible tells us that we are created for relationship.  Relationship with God – receiving His Love, although we do not deserve it – and then giving love to Him, through relationship with others – family, neighbours, remembering the parable that Jesus told of the Good Samaritan, where the most hated person becomes our neighbour.

The story has often been told here, of how St Lawrence was a deacon in the  church in Rome in 258 AD,  and he had the job of distributing money given to the church, to the poorest people in Rome.  When the Roman emperor Valerian wanted the church’s money, he called Lawrence in to hand over the money.  Lawrence asked for three days in which to gather the riches of the church together, and then gave the money to the beggars from the streets of Rome, and took them to the emperor saying: “Here is the church’s treasure.”

As Christians, disciples of Jesus, our treasure is in relationship – with God and then with those He has given us to be in relationship with.  In the 10 Commandments God gave us through Moses, marriage and parenting come second after our relationship with God.  Not everyone is married of course, Jesus wasn’t, Paul wasn’t, but the relationship we have with each other when we put first our relationship with Go – that is what should be most important to us.  “Let the children come to me” said Jesus, and the blind and the lame, and the beggars – the poor of our world, who God loves every bit as much as he loves each of us.  One day, we will be called to account, (like St Lawrence was) as to where our treasure is.

In 1984, 34 years ago, David Jenkins, a liberal theology professor from Leeds University became Bishop of Durham – he did not believe in the virgin birth and spoke about Jesus’ resurrection in a way that made many believe he was denying that Jesus ever rose from the dead.  I was then vicar and rural dean in a coal-mining area near Durham, and was on record as saying as the first story in BBC national news one day, that David Jenkins’ being made a bishop should be delayed until he had explained himself more clearly.  I lasted three more years before leaving Durham diocese – on one occasion he came to speak to my deanery synod, when he said something I really did like:  “When we get to heaven, we will need eternity to talk with everyone in heaven to find out how they had experienced God’s love while on earth.”

That makes good sense to me.  We will need a very long time, to talk with Old Testament characters, the famous ones and the quiet ones, New Testament characters, and all those through history, in far-off places and cultures very different from our own.  Billions of people, presumably angels too.  Surely, we will need eternity to hear about how God had directed their lives, and been to them shepherd, saviour and king, how they had expressed in their lives on earth, their relationship with Him, their devotion to Him (v24 of Matthew 6), and how that had worked out through their relationship with others.

So when we read about, hear from the human Jesus 2,000 years ago talking about heaven, we need to listen.  When He tells us to “lay up our treasure in heaven….”  What did he mean by that?  Surely, to work at the relationships He has given us, now, to try to make sure that – as far as possible – they are grounded in His love for us.  “Be my witnesses…” said Jesus.  He should be at the heart of all our relationships.  And so we bring Heaven to earth, and become the answer to our prayer: “Your Kingdom come on earth as in Heaven.”.

Did you know, that one day, God will judge you, “according to what you have done?”  St John, in Chapter 20 of the last book in the Bible, the book of Revelation,   writes:  11) Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them.  12)  And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books.

God – outside our little world of time and space – in the same way that a painter stands outside his painting, adding a detail here and there with all the time in his or her world, focusing on the moment being fixed on the canvas – the God who created us, loved us enough to die for us, on whose hand is written our unique name – that God knows us far more than twitter, google, facebook or any other social media.  Whatever clever algorithms different social media use to learn all about us, God knows us far better and in greater detail.

So: where are you banking your treasure?  I hope it is in relationships that are grounded in the relationship that you have with God in Christ.  (“Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”)  Then, you will be beginning to answer the prayer: “Your Kingdom come on earth.”  Then you will be building the foundation for all those conversations that in eternity, you will enjoy with the friends of God from every age and culture.

Read Psalm 84, preferably with others.  While the psalm describes the temple in Jerusalem, it is surely also a metaphor for humanity being in relationship together, reflecting the first and most important relationship on offer, between ourselves and God.  (v6 – a dry valley, v10 – wicked = those who put themselves before God.)

How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord Almighty!
My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.
Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may have her young— a place near your altar, Lord Almighty, my King and my God.
Blessed are those who dwell in your house; they are ever praising you.

Blessed are those whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.
As they pass through the Valley of Baka (the dry valley), they make it a place of springs;
the autumn rains also cover it with pools.
They go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion.

Hear my prayer, Lord God Almighty; listen to me, God of Jacob.
Look on our shield, O God; look with favour on your anointed one.

10 Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere;  I would rather be a              doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked.
11 For the Lord God is a sun and shield; the Lord bestows favou r and honour;
no good thing does he withhold from those whose walk is blameless.

12 Lord Almighty, blessed is the one who trusts in you.