Bigotry and legalism in our culture

Intolerance will not be toleratedThree years ago, I lamented the use of the word “bigot” especially in the context of same-sex marriage. In the last week or so, I’ve read a couple of other things which have really said what I wanted to say much better.

Firstly, Brendan O’Neill writes about “The New Bigots” as he considers the treatment of  Germaine Greer after making her comments about transgender women. O’Neill is someone who I would probably disagree with fundamentally on a number of issues, but he is always well worth reading and this is no exception: I think it’s very insightful. Who are the real bigots – people who hold opinions like Germaine Greer, or those who try to silence those opinions?

Secondly, the webcomic Adam4d posted up a cartoon about intolerance, which makes a very similar point. Having a different opinion is not intolerance.

As I was reading these two pieces, it made me reflect on the nature of our society today: why is it that those with dissenting opinions – particularly on matters such as marriage – are often accused of being ‘bigoted’?

Let’s just take a detour into a little thought experiment for a second. Imagine a racist, let’s call him Racist Tim (I don’t know why I chose the name Tim, apologies to all the Tims out there.) Racist Tim is a member of a certain far-right political party and often expresses his support for them in conversations with his friends. Most of his conversation is focussed on the evils of immigration and the dangers of Islam.

Now, Racist Tim has views which are not acceptable in society at the moment (racism). What do you think would help him to change his views? (1) his friends all telling him that he’s stupid; (2) everyone on Facebook and social media telling him that racism is stupid; (3) him having a change of heart and realising that racism is wrong?

Now I appreciate that those three options are not mutually exclusive, but the one which really matters – the one which will really make a difference – is (3), isn’t it? At the end of the day, however much Racist Tim’s friends or the internet tells him that his views are stupid and wrong, it isn’t going to make much of a difference unless he can realise for himself that he’s wrong. Now, it is a possibility that (1) and (2) will help towards (3) – but what I think is more likely to happen is that the more Racist Tim gets abused for his racist views, the more strongly he will hold them. I’d say what is much more effective in that situation is to engage with kindness and compassion and to show Racist Tim why his views are wrong and help him to see that for himself: he won’t realise if he’s just abused, he might just realise if people engage him with gentleness.

Why do I say all of this, and what relevance does it have to intolerance? The point is, at the moment our society basically engages in (1) and (2):  telling people who hold unacceptable opinions that they are wrong, that they are ‘bigots’, that they need to change their minds. But the problem is, I don’t think this will actually change anyone’s mind.

But from a Christian perspective, I also believe there is something even more fundamental going on: the issue of the human heart. As someone once said, “The heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart.” Jesus said in Mark 7:20-23,

What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come – sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.

In context, the disciples (and the Pharisees) thought that ceremonial uncleanness – what made them ‘unclean’ and separated from God – came from outside. But Jesus says, no – uncleanness comes from within. We have a heart problem, one which is inside, rather than one which is merely external.

We human beings, by nature, love to make all our problems external. We believe that if we just follow a set of rules, we’ll be OK. We love to believe that we can set a list of rules for ourselves, and all we need to do is simply keep them. Then, once we’ve followed our list of rules, will we be good and righteous. “Don’t be racist: tick. Don’t be homophobic: tick. Give to charity from time to time: tick.” If you get ticks in enough boxes, you’re a good person. This is known as legalism – that the route to being a good and righteous person is by keeping the law.

From this perspective, it’s not surprising that our society is intolerant, is it? Our society is profoundly legalistic. If you ‘break the law’ (i.e. express the wrong / unacceptable opinion), you’re not a good person. Instead, you need to say the right words, spout the right ideas, keep in line with societal orthodoxy… or at least appear to do these things. Because, truth be told, the fruit of legalism is hypocrisy: people who appear to be keeping the law on the outside, but internally are just the same. Let’s go back to our example of Racist Tim. Let’s suppose that he recognised that expressing his racist opinions drew him lots of abuse, so he stopped. Let’s say that he learned to say the right words so that he could sound enlightened and most definitely not racist. Do you think his heart would have changed too? Or would he just simply be a hypocrite, saying ‘inclusive’ things on the outside while quietly feeding his racism on the inside? He could spend the rest of his life saying the ‘right’ things (or at least, avoiding saying the ‘wrong’ things) while inside still believing his racist thoughts without anyone knowing.

And this is where the Christian message speaks into our society: all of us have a heart problem. All of us have things inside of us we know are wrong which can’t be fixed by giving ourselves a set of rules. But God promises to give us new hearts. He promises to change us from the inside out. This is what God said through the prophet Ezekiel:

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. (Ezekiel 36:26-27)

Christianity, unlike every other major religion, doesn’t say “do this”: it points to the Saviour, Jesus Christ, and says “done”. It doesn’t say, “if you try really, really hard – you’ll be OK.” It says, “You can’t do it on your own. Trust in Jesus, who has done it for you – and God will renew you and give you a new heart that wants to obey Him.”

At the end of the day, I don’t think Christians should be surprised at our society’s current obsession with the word ‘bigotry’: our society is simply doing what human beings do best – legalism. But the only real solution to intolerance is not more laws, is not more accusations of bigotry, but a new heart.  That’s the only thing which will make any difference in the end.

The Road to Emmaus: thoughts on seeing Jesus

Source: Wikimedia
Source: Wikimedia

“How do I see Jesus?” Not a question people ask very often, but nonetheless it has a lot of answers. Do I see Jesus by trying to be a good person? Do I see Jesus by praying a lot? Do I see Jesus by looking deep inside myself to try to find out what God is saying to me?

I think the story of the Road to Emmaus might help us to answer those questions. On Easter Sunday I preached on this wonderful passage from Luke 24. It’s a poignant and moving story, and there’s a huge amount you could say about it. What I was particularly struck by this time was how the story is like a metaphor for meeting and following Jesus for every Christian.

The story starts with two men, who had been followers of Jesus, dejectedly walking back home while talking about the events of the past few days (the crucifixion). As they were walking along on their journey, the risen Jesus comes alongside them – but they were kept from recognising him. It turns out that the Jesus they followed was not the Jesus who rose: they believed in a Jesus who they “had hoped … was going to redeem Israel” (v21): in other words, they believed in a Messiah who was going to be some kind of military conqueror, someone who was going to overthrow the Roman oppressors and lead an earthly kingdom. Although they did believe in Jesus, they believed in a false Jesus.

However, Jesus didn’t let them continue in this dejected state: he opens the Scriptures to them, and shows how all that has happened was a fulfilment of prophecy, and how all the Scriptures testify to himself. Before those two disciples could see him, Jesus had to open their eyes to the Scriptures. Finally, they invite Jesus in, and he comes in and eats with them – they share fellowship. As Jesus breaks the bread, then their eyes are opened and they see Jesus, and they return to the other disciples only to find that Jesus has appeared to them too.

What does this say to us about discipleship today? I’d like to suggest a few things:

  • Everyone is following a ‘Jesus’ – everyone believes in some kind of saviour. That saviour may not be a person (for example some people trust in politics, or reason, or money, etc). But each of us follows some kind of a saviour, some kind of a ‘fake Jesus’. Like those two disciples on the Emmaus road – the fake Jesus we follow will let us down, the fake Jesus will lead to despondency.
  • But, the good news is, the real Jesus – the risen Lord, the one who is alive and reigns with the Father – comes alongside us, even in the midst of our despair. Because Jesus is alive, he can come alongside us wherever our journey may take us and open our eyes to him.
  • Jesus doesn’t immediately reveal himself to them – he opens their eyes to the Scriptures. This is one of the key things about following Jesus: coming to know Jesus is coming to know God’s plan of redemption. It means understanding who we are as sinners, who God is as a holy judge, who am as someone in need of forgiveness. In other words, we don’t see Jesus in isolation – understanding Jesus requires understanding the bigger picture of God’s plan.
  • Only after Jesus opens their eyes to the Scriptures and they share fellowship together do they finally see Him. Jesus is the one who takes the initiative, he is the one who comes alongside them and opens their eyes.
  • Yet – once they see Jesus, he disappears from their eyes. They ‘see’ him with eyes of faith now – they do not need him to be physically present. Once their eyes were opened to the Scriptures, once he came and shared fellowship with them, they had by faith what they had previously only had by sight.

One big lesson from all of this is to do with seeing Jesus, as we started out thinking about. If you want to see Jesus, look no further than a Bible. Pray to God that he would open your eyes to see Jesus, and open the pages of Scripture. And the risen Lord comes alongside us and opens our eyes.

“Knowing me, knowing me…”: on knowing ourselves

‘Gnothi seauton’ – ancient Greek for ‘Know Thyself’

Aristotle once said, “knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom”. What do you think about that? Do you agree, disagree? Let’s park that there, I’ll come back to it in just a moment.

At church yesterday I preached a sermon about Jesus’ famous words from John 8:12:

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

As I was preparing the passage, one thing which really struck me about it was the idea of knowing ourselves. How do you know yourself? Do we know ourselves truly, just by virtue of being ourselves, or are there still things about us which are unknown even to us? I apologise if that sounds a bit weird and abstract. Let me make it a bit more concrete. Have you ever been in a situation where you discover something about yourself that you didn’t realise? I think it happens sometimes under pressure – we discover who we really are, in a way which we wouldn’t have done otherwise. Someone who sees a child drowning in a river discovers that actually their instinct is to dive in and help. Someone faced with a difficult situation realises they are less patient and forgiving than they thought they were.

Or perhaps you’ve seen or read stories where the protagonist goes on a ‘journey of self discovery’. People sometimes use the expression “finding myself” – implying that they needed to discover who they were, their purpose, and so on. It seems to me that we are a mystery even to ourselves sometimes. How do we find our way through the fog?

As I was looking at Jesus’ words, I realised that true identity – true knowledge of ourselves – can only come when we see ourselves in the light of Christ. All of us by nature, as Jesus says, “walk in darkness”. This is a big theme in John – see especially John 3:19-21:

This is the verdict: light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.

By contrast, God does not walk in darkness. Many people know John’s famous statement “God is love” (1 John 4:8), but I think fewer people know his statement from the beginning of the same book: “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). In other words, not only does God not walk in darkness, but God is himself light. So, as Jesus, says, if we want to walk in the light we need to see ourselves in God’s light. It turns out that true knowledge of ourselves is bound up with true knowledge of God.

In a strange kind of way, I think Aristotle was onto something when he said “knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom”: the book of Proverbs famously says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov. 1:7) – perhaps they are two sides of the same coin. We only truly know ourselves when we know God, when we see ourselves in his light.

But what does it mean to see ourselves in God’s light? In John 7:7, Jesus says “[the world] hates me because I testify that its works are evil.” Jesus is the one who bears witness to the world that its deeds are evil. In the passage from John 3 I’ve already quoted, it says: “Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.”

In other words, what Jesus does is expose evil for what it is. You and I, without the light of Christ, could get on perfectly happily in sin, in evil – all the time thinking that there was nothing wrong. But as soon as we bring the light of Christ into the picture, it bursts our bubble (to mix metaphors a little). We can’t pretend there’s nothing wrong anymore.


Think about dirty windows: In our house we have a toddler running around. Toddlers, it hardly needs saying, love to put their sticky hands all over your nice clean windows. You end up with the glass covered with hand prints. The thing is, for the majority of the time you don’t really notice: on a typical day – grey and cloudy at this time of year – the glass looks fairly clean. You can’t see the hand prints. But as soon as the sun comes out, as soon as the light streams through the windows, they show up clearly.

This is how it is with the relationship between us and Christ: when we walk in the darkness, we look pretty clean. But as soon as we come towards the light, it exposes all our flaws. It exposes the fact that we walk in darkness. It exposes the fact that we are actually living a lie about ourselves: we are not the people who we kid ourselves that we are.

What this means is, we do not have true knowledge about ourselves until we see ourselves in Jesus’ light. Unless we can see ourselves as sinners, we do not know ourselves truly. And, the real problem: if we do not see ourselves as sinners, we cannot seek God’s forgiveness. Jesus says in Mark 2:17, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but those who are ill. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” If we don’t acknowledge that we are ‘ill’ to begin with, we won’t bother to seek a doctor. Think of the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail – instead of admitting defeat at any point, he simply denies that he has any injuries at all. It’s an absurd picture, but I think it’s akin to what Jesus is saying people do by nature: denying the obvious fact that there is something wrong with us!

Why is any of this an issue? Why does it really matter? Back in John 8, Jesus says to the Pharisees: “I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am he, you will indeed die in your sins” (v24). Dying in sin – this is the fate for anyone who does not believe that Jesus is the one who “takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Sin separates us from God; sin incurs God’s righteous wrath and judgement. To die in our sins is not a good thing. As Hebrews 10:31 puts it, “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”

And so the key question for us all is: will we let Christ expose us for who we are? Will we come to the one who exposes our darkness, and yet is the only one who can take away our darkness? It is literally a matter of life and death.

Water into wine: what’s going on?!

Marriage at CanaYesterday at church the theme was ‘Jesus turns water into wine’, from John 2:1-11. It’s a well-known story – if you’ve ever been to a wedding in an Anglican church, for example, you will have heard it mentioned in the introduction – but the story is nonetheless quite puzzling. To be honest with you, I’ve never really understood it properly: does Mary force Jesus into doing something he didn’t want to do? Did Jesus basically provide people with a load of decent plonk for free, for no reason other than the fact that he was asked to by his Mum? What was the point? Does that really sound like something Jesus would do?

I don’t know about you, but these kind of questions have always plagued my mind – even when I was studying John at college a couple of years ago, it was still difficult. However, as I was listening to the passage and sermon I had a few thoughts, and I thought I’d write them up in case they’re useful for anyone else. Obviously there are many things you could say about this passage, and I will only be able to pick up a few of them, but hopefully this will help to shed some light.

Jesus’ mother and the disciples

Notice in the first couple of verses, John writes “Jesus’ mother” – twice – as if he wants to stress the fact that Mary is here acting as Jesus’ mother. In contrast, Jesus “and his disciples” were invited to the wedding – note that Mary is specified separately to the disciples. Mary is not included as a disciple here.

And I think this leads on to Jesus’ reply to Mary: “Woman, why do you involve me?” Why doesn’t Jesus call Mary his mother? Even if, as the NIV footnote points out, ‘woman’ was not a disrespectful term – in the normal way, wouldn’t Jesus have said ‘Mother’? I think this is significant: Jesus is highlighting the fact that Mary does not have maternal authority over him. In a sense, Mary is not Jesus’ mother in the same way that the Father is Jesus’ father. In John 19:25-27, Jesus essentially hands over the mother/son relationship to the beloved disciple – I wonder if that is him providing for his mother in the way he was unable to as an ordinary son would. (In this place, too, Jesus calls Mary ‘Woman’).

Either way, it seems that the point of this is that if Mary is to have a relationship with Jesus, it should be the relationship of a disciple. At this point in Jesus’ life, the need for Mary was to believe in Jesus along with the rest of his disciples – not to be a mother to him. Throughout the whole gospel John gives us little pictures of what it looks like to be a follower of Jesus, and here – as in many other places – he is showing us that what we all need to do is put our faith in Jesus.

My hour has not yet come

Another puzzling aspect of this story: does Mary force Jesus into doing something which he didn’t want to do? When Jesus says, “my hour has not yet come” – why does he then go ahead and perform the miracle? If you read through John, Jesus talks a lot about his ‘hour’ of glorification coming. This culminates in 12:23, where Jesus says “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” – referring to his own death. In other words, the hour of Jesus’ glorification is the cross: for John, the cross is the place where Jesus’ glory is revealed.

In 2:11, we see that “What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory”. So this sign, the turning of the water into wine, should say something about Jesus’ glory – it should say something about the cross. It’s not just a simple miracle, it is a sign. But what sign is it?

The miracle

I think here, as with what we have already seen, the clue is in the details: Jesus doesn’t just turn water into wine in an unspecified container. He turns water into wine, John tells us, in “six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing”. The kind used for ceremonial washing, i.e. the kind of jars that were used in the context of ritual purification and worship. And Jesus doesn’t just turn the water into any old cheap plonk – he turns it into the finest wine, wine which causes the master of the banquet to exclaim “you have saved the best till now”.

What’s the significance of wine? We know from Matthew 26:28 and elsewhere that wine is used in communion as a representative of Jesus’ blood. Although John in his gospel doesn’t include the last supper per se, Jesus does say in John 6, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” So I think it’s quite likely that the wine in this story here is symbolic of Jesus’ blood – the blood which will bring ultimate purification, the blood of the new covenant which cleanses from sin once for all.

Hebrews talks about Jesus’ blood:

But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, so obtaining eternal redemption. The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! (Hebrews 9:11-14)


So what can we say about this passage? As with many things in John, I think there is an element of misunderstanding and irony going on: Mary thinks that she is doing one thing – compelling Jesus to provide wine for a wedding feast – whereas Jesus is actually showing a sign which illustrates what he has come to do. We see that Mary attempts to assert her authority as Jesus’ mother, but in actuality what she needs to do – as we all do – is turn to Jesus as a disciple. And we see that Jesus came to turn the imperfect nature of purifying with water into the blood that cleanses from every stain of sin.

This is my fourth post on John’s gospel – if you enjoyed it, you might like previous thoughts I’ve had on John: the woman at the well, the raising of Lazarus, and Jesus’ trial and crucifixion.

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: Continue reading

The Story of the Jews

One of the things which interests me about modern-day Judaism is how different it is from my understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures (i.e. the Jewish Bible or the Christian Old Testament). Given that Christians and Jews have so much shared Scripture (most of the Bible – 75% or thereabouts – is the Hebrew Scriptures) – how have they ended up in such different places? In particular, modern-day Jews do not offer sacrifices and there seems to be no atonement for sin – the focus seems to be rather on the observance of the law. So I was interested to see that Simon Schama has created a new documentary called “The Story of the Jews” recently (Sunday evenings on BBC2 – at the time of writing there are another couple of episodes remaining in the series). Mrs Phil and I have been watching it, and it’s fascinating. What’s particularly interesting to me is how Judaism has changed and adapted over the years.

It’s fascinating to see how Simon Schama – and others – interpret the parts of the Scriptures which I am familiar with, and yet put a slant on them which I would be quite unfamiliar with. Present-day Jews have much more history to look back on, and have much more to explain. In a particularly poignant moment at the end of the last programme, for example, Simon Schama talked about the building anti-Semitism in Europe at the end of the 19th century before finishing up at the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. Continue reading

Sermon: Resurrection [1 Corinthians 15:12-28]

ResurrectionAs I mentioned a while back, I was preaching a few weeks ago at Christ Church Cockfosters. We were going through a series on the Nicene Creed, and my particular line was “On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures”, i.e. Jesus’ resurrection. I didn’t really cover the ‘in accordance with the Scriptures’ bit, but I did look at 1 Corinthians 15 to try to understand why the resurrection is vital for Christians today.

The choice is yours: you can either read the PDF version here (apologies for reference to slides and asking questions; you’ll have to imagine the slides but they’re not necessary for understanding the sermon), or you can listen to the sermon in this handy player right here:

Well, you don’t *have* to do one of those two things. I mean, you could ignore this, but give me a break – I’m trying to promote myself here ;)