Sermon: John the Baptist – Herald (Luke 3:1-6)

John the BaptistThis evening, I preached my first sermon at St John’s. My first post-ordination sermon! To be honest it didn’t feel any different to preaching before ordination – it’s simply a great privilege to bring God’s word to God’s people. The passage was Luke 3:1-6, part of a series on John the Baptist.

Unfortunately no audio is available, but you can download the PDF version. Given that I don’t preach from a full script what I actually said will be slightly different, but there you go.

I hope to be updating this blog soon with how things have been going over the past few weeks too!

Finishing College and Ordination

ChurchThose of you who have been paying attention will know that I’ve spent the last three years of my life in North London, studying for full-time Christian ministry in the Church of England at Oak Hill College. Well, those three years have positively flown by, and in the next two weeks I am going to finish at college, be ordained, and start work in my new role as curate in Great Clacton.

In short, it’s going to be absolutely crazy for a while. (Don’t expect too many blog posts over the next few weeks… I don’t know how much time I will have for blogging once I’m a curate, but hopefully I can do the occasional post).

I thought it might be worth reflecting on a few things I’ve learned over the last three years at college, focussing on this final year:

  • God is amazing. To be honest, I didn’t really need three years of college to know this – but I think I have a much deeper appreciation of it now. As I said in my review of Simply God, “I’ve found my faith enlivened as we have considered together what it means for God to be God”. What does it mean for God to be eternal, omniscient, infinite, perfect…?
  • God’s Word is amazing. This is something which I’ve particularly noticed since coming to college – I now have far more confidence in the Bible (i.e. God’s Word) than I used to have. I’ve had my eyes opened in a new way to how the Bible fits together, how to understand it, how to teach it. I believe God has called me to a ‘ministry of the Word’, i.e. a particular emphasis on preaching and teaching the Bible to people, and as such this is the kind of thing which gets me out of bed in the morning.
  • What God has done for us is amazing. In the last term we’ve been looking at Justification, and how God could “justify the ungodly” (Romans 4:5). The implications of this are huge: what motivates us to love and serve God, for example? Are we motivated out of fear, wondering whether we could ever do enough to merit God’s favour? Or are we motivated by love, in thankfulness for what God has already accomplished?
  • How God works is amazing. I’m thinking particularly here of the Pastoral Counselling course we did back in the first term. It was one of the most helpful practical courses I’ve done at college: how does the Gospel work out in people’s lives? It’s been very helpful for me both in my own life, and in talking to friends and family. God is at work in our situations, even if we don’t know the “why”.

I could go on, at some length, but that’s probably enough for now. I think it’s appropriate to finish with the doxology from the end of Hebrews:

Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

The Victim Triangle and ‘Accepting’ Evangelicals

Victim Triangle

Source: Wikipedia

In a class at college recently, we looked at something called the “Victim Triangle”, or the Karpman Drama Triangle as it is more properly called. It’s a fascinating concept, partly because it’s so simple, and partly because once you’ve read about it you literally see it everywhere. Well, maybe not everywhere, but almost everywhere: it’s incredibly common.

So, what is this triangle? Essentially it’s a tool for analysing human interactions and relationships: there are three ‘roles’, and each party plays a particular role in the interaction. As you can see in the image on the left, these roles are: Victim, Persecutor, and Rescuer.

Now, why do I use the word ‘role’ here? It’s significant, because playing a role doesn’t necessarily mean that you actually are that role. In other words, one party may play the role of Victim without necessarily being a victim. Alternatively, one party may be an actual victim but by casting themselves in the ‘role’ of Victim it has a totalising effect: everything about them becomes an aspect of being victimised. And, of course, if one party assumes the role of Victim – it means there must be a Persecutor. Read the rest of this entry

Review: Simply God

As I’ve mentioned a few times on this blog, over the past academic year I’ve been studying a course on the Doctrine of God. It’s no exaggeration to say that it’s one of the best courses I’ve done at college: the doctrine of God is fundamental to theology – it affects pretty much everything else (what else is theology if not about God, in order to relate us to him?). And it’s been a real privilege to look into how the great theologians of the past (such as Augustine and Aquinas) have understood the doctrine of God, and how they went about doing theology – their careful methodology is a real treat given much of what passes for theology on the internet these days.

And it’s not just an intellectual thing – I’ve found my faith enlivened as we have considered together what it means for God to be God. My mind has been stretched as we’ve thought about God’s simplicity (theological term, not simplicity as you may know it… hence the title of the book), omniscience, omnipotence, eternality and so on. In short, I’ve discovered to be true what Spurgeon once said about God:

Oh, there is, in contemplating Christ, a balm for every wound; in musing on the Father, there is a quietus for every grief; and in the influence of the Holy Ghost, there is a balsam for every sore. Would you lose your sorrow? Would you drown your cares? Then go, plunge yourself in the Godhead’s deepest sea; be lost in his immensity; and you shall come forth as from a couch of rest, refreshed and invigorated. I know nothing which can so comfort the soul; so calm the swelling billows of sorrow and grief; so speak peace to the winds of trial, as a devout musing upon the subject of the Godhead.

Given all that, I can warmly and heartily recommend “Simply God” to you: Peter Sanlon was until recently a tutor at college and taught the Doctrine of God course which I’ve been doing this year. As such, much of the contents of this book are similar to what I’ve been learning at college – if you wanted one book to read instead of doing the course, you couldn’t do much better than this one. Let me highlight a few aspects of the book I found particularly helpful. Read the rest of this entry

God’s Existence and Kalam

This academic year, I’ve been taking a class on the Doctrine of God. Last week we were studying God’s eternity, and as part of that we looked at the Kalam Cosmological Argument (William Lane Craig’s formulation of it – that link goes through to his website, where you can watch a short video on the Kalam which is actually quite good. He didn’t come up with the original argument himself, but he did extend it).

The argument itself is pretty simple. It goes like this:

  1. Everything that began to exist has a cause of its existence
  2. The Universe began to exist
  3. Therefore the universe has a cause of its existence.
  4. Causes are either:
    1. Impersonal (without a will) – a previous physical state of affairs which ‘produces’ the new state of affairs. or…
    2. Personal (a will produces the new state of affairs)
  5. So: The universe is either caused by a 4a) or 4b) cause.
  6. But: 4a) causes are not available to cause the universe because by definition there is no previous physical state of affairs.
  7. Further: This personal cause is – in relation to the universe: Transcendent, incorporeal, omniscient and omnipotent.

Read the rest of this entry

Sexuality: can’t Evangelicals just agree to disagree?

If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. - Hebrews 10:26-27

A few days ago, the Evangelical Alliance UK (EAUK) discontinued the membership of the Oasis Trust. The reason was, according to the press release, due to “a campaign to change the Church’s historic view on human sexuality” (a campaign fronted by Steve Chalke, whom I blogged about when this issue first came up and again recently). The reaction to this move has been huge and polarised: some people, such as myself, think the EAUK made a good move: in an acceptance of same-sex relationships, I believe Chalke has made a clear step away from a traditional evangelical understanding of the authority of Scripture. On the other hand, many have commented that it’s incredibly sad for the EAUK to be dividing on this issue when Christians who hold the same understanding of Scripture can legitimately disagree on this (see Gillan’s post over at the God and Politics blog for a good articulation of this view).

The main criticism people are making of the EAUK is that they are being divisive around a secondary issue. It’s a bit like baptism: some evangelicals believe it’s OK to baptise infants, others think you can only baptise someone when they’re old enough to make their own confession of faith. Insisting upon conformity on this issue is to exclude a large number of evangelicals, and is spreading discord and division needlessly.

Now I don’t want to talk about the EAUK’s response to the issue per se, but instead talk about the nature of sexuality as a ‘secondary issue’: personally I don’t think this is an issue that Christians can disagree over. This is partly because I think the Bible couldn’t be clearer on this issue, but also because I think we cannot just agree to disagree on matters of sin – particularly when it’s concerning something as serious as sexuality. Read the rest of this entry

The Trouble with Rev…

RevI have mixed feelings about the third series of BBC Rev, which finished last night. On the one hand, it made great TV: it’s a good story, well written, genuine characters, some touching and funny moments, and generally very watchable. It also – as the previous series have done – brought to the small screen some important themes, such as forgiveness and even the cross.

And yet, despite all that, I found this series even more difficult to watch than the previous two – and not just because it dealt with some pretty bleak themes. I concluded my review of series two by saying: “Adam Smallbone doesn’t have any good news.” I still think that, and even more so this series: Adam apparently has a very strong sense of vocation, of his calling to be a priest – but he doesn’t seem to have much else apart from that. He seems to have very little idea about what he is actually there to do apart from be a kind of social worker in a dog collar. His faith seems to make very little difference in his life – witness his outbursts that I wrote about last time, again in this series. The third episode (with the artist) I actually found painful to watch – Adam’s outburst at the end would probably have been grounds for instant dismissal in secular jobs. And the way Adam treats people – particularly the way he treats Nigel (the curate) towards the end – is also painful.

I think the problems I have with the series can be summed up in two scenes: Read the rest of this entry

David Cameron and the ‘Christian Country’

Image source: Flickr

Image source: Flickr

It seems that David Cameron can’t say or do anything right when it comes to faith. Either he’s not Christian enough, or too Christian, or gets faith involved in politics, or doesn’t get faith involved in politics – he seems to receive criticism from all quarters. Most recently, he’s been criticised in a letter to the Telegraph for calling the UK a ‘Christian Country’. According to the letter:

Apart from in the narrow constitutional sense that we continue to have an established Church, Britain is not a “Christian country”. Repeated surveys, polls and studies show that most of us as individuals are not Christian in our beliefs or our religious identities.

Frankly I think this is an exaggeration when, in the last UK Census – which is surely by definition the most comprehensive survey of them all – 59.3% of the population voluntarily put ‘Christian’ on the form. Not only that, but the established Church is not simply ‘bolted on to a secular state: it has legal recognition (the relation of canons of the Church of England and the Law, for example), Bishops sit in the House of Lords – whether you like it or not, the Church has a role in the fabric of the country at the highest levels. That role may be diminishing, but it is still there. It is not merely a ‘narrow constitutional sense’.

However, aside from that, there is another historical angle on this - which would be true even if the Church of England were to completely disappear, and Christianity became a minority religion. Read the rest of this entry

Liberalism and the Church

ChurchI’ve just finished reading “Christianity and Liberalism” by J Gresham Machen. It was written nearly a century ago (1923) but it’s still an excellent book. He argues throughout the book (and, to my mind, demonstrates conclusively) that Liberalism – in the sense of liberal Christianity – is actually a different religion to Christianity. Given the age of the book it’s not surprising to find that some of the liberal beliefs he criticises are less relevant to the Liberalism of today. However, I think the points he makes about Christianity are very insightful – in particular I appreciated the first chapter on doctrine. It would be well worth investing your time in the book.

So why do I write about it here? Well, reading the book got me thinking about the church today – in particular, the Church of England after the Pilling Report and the House of Bishops pastoral letter. Many people in the church who believe in same-sex marriage are questioning why they are essentially being forced to adopt a different position on this. Why is it that they are being held to a standard which they do not personally believe in?

If you’ve been watching ‘Rev’, you’ll have seen the episode a few weeks ago where Adam Smallbone (the vicar) struggles with this issue – how to deal with the church’s official position on this even though he doesn’t actually believe in it.

One thing which struck me – which I touched on last year – is that the question goes far deeper than beliefs about sexuality. The problem is fundamentally about the nature of the church. Is the church held together because it is an institution and nothing more? In other words, would it make sense for there to be Buddhists, Muslims and people of other faiths within the Church of England – simply because they were within the institution? Or, is there something doctrinally – i.e. some common beliefs – which unite the church?

I think most people would agree that it wouldn’t make sense to have people of any religion within the Church of England – because the CofE is a Christian church. It is united around the gospel, around the Bible, around the historic Christian confessions of faith. What Machen would argue, however, is that Liberalism does not fall under that: Liberalism is a different religion from Christianity.

Why is this significant regarding the CofE’s current situation? Because over the past few years the Church has basically brushed this question under the carpet. It has, to put it bluntly, ignored the question of what the Church of England actually is. This is no longer possible – the question must be confronted. Is the Church of England a Christian church in any meaningful sense? And if it is, what implications does that have?

If the Church of England is to remain a Christian church, I believe it has some serious decisions to make over the next few years: what do its historic confessions of faith actually mean, and what does it mean to be part of the church now? We cannot be inclusive at any cost. The Pilling Report, I hope, will expose these kinds of questions – difficult though they may be – and force us to make some uncomfortable decisions.

Jesus vs the Bible

A Bible“You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God” – Matthew 22:29

I’ve come across a lot of people recently who seem to pit Jesus against the Bible. It seems like this is a growing trend. People say things like, “Jesus is the only Word of God. The Bible was written by human authors and it might be wrong” – that kind of thing. The point is: we can trust in Jesus, because he was God and is therefore infallible. We can’t trust completely in the Bible, because it was written by humans and therefore fallible.

I don’t see how this works logically: how do we know what Jesus said and did? Well, it’s written down here in… oh.

OK, that was a cheap shot. But I think there are nonetheless good reasons for not pitting the Bible against Jesus: Read the rest of this entry

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