The Foolishness of the Cross

29 03 2007

It’s April fools day and I thought I’d speak to you this morning about foolishness. We’ve all played the fool from time to time haven’t we? Playing practical jokes on our friends, misleading them, or surprising them in humorous ways. Well, I certainly have.

But there is a stupider side to foolishness isn’t there? An embarrassing side, which I’m sure we have all had our fair share of.

I can remember waiting in the cold for several hours for a young lady I’d agreed to meet unfortunately she’d left before me and wasn’t coming but instead of waiting half an hour and going my own way I waited four hours before finally catching the train home. In hindsight, I guess that was a pretty foolish thing to do. 

But, I know I’m not the only one to act in a foolish way, in Hans Christen Anderson’s fable of The Emperor’s New Clothes: A great emperor is fooled into wearing nothing as he is told that only “the worthy and intelligent” are able to see the fine robes he is wearing. Being too embarrassed to admit that he cannot see the clothes himself the emperor parades through the streets until a young boy whispers ‘the emperor’s got no clothes on’.

I’m sure you’ve heard that famous story or perhaps you can think of an equivalent story.

In the Bible foolishness is treated in a number of ways: In the Old Testament the fool is a person who denies the existence of God or who acts without moral restraint. Fools are described as being ignorant of the truth, deceitful liars, slanderers, and lazy. In the New Testament fools are those who fail to heed the warnings, they ignore Jesus words. Hence, the story of the wise and the foolish builders; the foolish builder is compared to the person who ignores Jesus’ teaching.

However, in our verses today Paul writes about the foolishness of preaching the cross and picks out three groups (the Jews, the Greeks, and the Christian community) he argues that the weakness of God is stronger than the strength of great people and that the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of great people.

1.      Paul argues that the cross is nothing but weakness to the Jews, for they demanded signs but they saw the messiah hung upon a cross. Our first reading this morning told of Jesus triumphant procession into Jerusalem; expectations must have been high the Jews must have felt that Jesus had come to overthrow their Gentile rulers but their expectations were dashed upon the rocks of reality.

It is interesting to note all the excitement surrounding Jeffrey Archer’s The Gospel According to Judas. In this story, Judas is portrayed as being a faithful follower of Jesus. Speculating about Judas’ motives for betraying Jesus it suggests that Judas is acting upon Jesus command. However, the orthodox interpretation raises a more interesting possibility. Judas betrayed Jesus not simply for thirty pieces of silver but to engineer a showdown between Jesus and the civil authorities.

In Jesus day, people were awaiting the coming of a king who would overthrow the Roman Empire and Judas Iscariot was no different. In fact, Judas was probably a zealot, committed to overthrowing the Roman Empire. Judas’ surname Iscariot may be a form ‘Sicarii’ meaning ‘dagger-man’. However, when Judas realised that his plan had failed and Jesus had been nailed to the cross he was overcome with remorse and the gospels tell us that Judas took his own life.

But, “what does all this stuff about Judas have to do with the weakness of the cross?” you may be asking. Well, if the Jews and Judas expected Jesus to triumph over the Roman Empire the cross must have seemed like an abomination!

Today, there are those for whom the way of cross and self-sacrifice seems awful. For example, there are conservative bible-believing Christians who have been utterly behind the war in Iraq. I suspect that some of these Christians much like the Jews of Jesus’ day would feel more comfortable with a conquering hero than the crucified Lord. And although they would hardly admit it the suffering of the cross is a rebuke to their imperialistic Christianity.

Likewise, there are those who consider Christianity to be a religion of weakness and who reject the gospel on the grounds that Christ’s patience, unconditional love, free grace, and humility are weaknesses in a world that praises the ambitious, socially successful, powerful and admired icons of pop culture.

In all of this, with Paul, I affirm, “the weakness of God is stronger than human strength”.

So we know why the cross was a stumbling block to the Jews, but what about the Greeks? Why does Paul suggest that suggest that the cross is foolishness to the Greeks?

2.      It is easy to see that faced with the philosophy of Socrates and Plato; the teaching of illiterate fishermen must have seemed little more than foolishness. Indeed Aristotle, whose statue stands today in the great City of Thessalonica, was the tutor of Alexander the Great. Compared with him, the wisdom of an itinerant teacher from Israel, a vassal state within the Roman Empire, must have seemed ridiculous.

But there is a further problem, whilst Jesus held little esteem when compared to the Greek philosophers, the Old Testament prophecies and scriptures held even less interest for the Greeks. In fact, the entire Jewish faith with its forms of reasoning, ideas, symbols, and witticisms was like a foreign language to the Greeks. Hence, when Paul is speaking in Athens people dismiss him as preaching foreign gods.

It should come as no surprise that it is possible to draw a comparison between the situation that has arisen today and the context the apostle was writing into. We like the Greeks have our contemporary philosophers; people like Richard Dawkins, who chant the mantra “faith is the absence of reason”.  And despite our best efforts to argue: 

a.       with the explorer William Adams that “faith is the continuation of reason”

b.      or with the theologian St Augustine that “faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe” All our attempts fall on deaf ears because to Richard Dawkins these ideas are completely alien to his pattern of thinking.

And so like Paul we also end up affirming that, “the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom”.

3.      Finally, we come to the message of the apostle to the Christian community in Corinth.

“Brothers and Sisters think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many of you were influential; not many of you were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.

In this Paul is reminding us that the God who has chosen to display His infinite wisdom in the form of foolishness and weakness has chosen us and called us in our foolishness and weakness to shame the wise and the strong. Pastor John Piper puts it like this: “the infinitely wise way of salvation in the death of Christ is rooted in an infinitely wise way of choosing sinners before the cross, and an infinitely wise way of calling sinners after the cross.” And why has God done it in this way? So, that “the one who boasts may boast only in the Lord”. In other words, everything that is involved in our salvation: the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ; our calling, response, and sanctification has been brought about so that we might not boast in ourselves but praise our Father in Heaven!

Well, I began this morning by talking about the emperors new clothes and the reception he was given as he was paraded through the streets, today we celebrate another emperor who was paraded through the streets, beaten, abused, taunted, tortured, murdered and the challenge is do you see the wisdom of the cross?

my sermon for Palm Sunday – some changes have been made- this is the more radical version)


Amazing Grace – a must see!

24 03 2007

I encourage everyone to make sure they attend Amazing Grace it is a fantastic film. It portrays the relationships between William Wilberforce, John Newton (author of the hymn Amazing Grace), and William Pitt (the Prime Minister). It shows the extraordinary pressure Wilberforce felt when deciding between entering the ministry and serving Christ through politics.  

Pitt felt that the Wilberforce’s evangelical faith would damage his political prospects, but it was Newton who convinced Wilberforce that he must serve God in politics (making William Wilberforce a man to be reckoned with). Wilberforce was not a political pragmatist, blowing with the winds of expediency, but a man of great faith and principle, driven by God to bring about the abolition of slavery in the United Kingdom.

I was taken by one fantastic quote by John Newton (played by Albert Finney):

‘I know two great things:

one that I am a great sinner

and two that Christ is a great Saviour’

And that is wisdom indeed!

In Defense of the Gospel of Peace: an evangelical anti-war view

22 03 2007

‘In Defense of the Gospel of Peace: An Evangelical Anti-War View’  – And it is about time too. We’ve hand the name of conservative evangelicalism dragged through the mud by preachers of hate and violence. We’ve almost sacrificed every shred of credibility we have. All because we conformed to the political norm, we capitulated to an ideology, rather than seeking to remain faithful to Scripture.

On the moral failure of modernism

26 02 2007

Below are my comments upon William Rees-Mogg’s recent article in The Times (26/02/07) entitled ‘Religion isn’t the sickness. It’s the cure’.

In an eminent display of apologetics, William Rees-Mogg establishes the indispensability of Judeo-Christian faith in preserving and forming the moral character of our nation. Attacking scientific and philosophical attempts to replace Christianity as the moral foundation of our nation, he rightly observes, ‘science was unable to produce a science-based morality for society’.  

20th century attempts from within the scientific community to produce a complete and coherent moral philosophy have failed. If you do not believe me, review the philosophical wreckages of the 20th century; Hitler’s social darwinism, Marx’s materialist ethics, Nietzsche’s moral relativism. In their wake, we are left with a chasm currently filled with a mix of materialism, scientism, and political correctness.   

The social project resulting from the enlightenment has had devastating consequences on the social identity of this country. It seems clear that broken homes, the neglect of children, widespread drug abuse, alcoholism, youth gangs, abuse of the elderly, rampant consumerism, obesity, terrorism, the inner-city ghettos, and materialism are all the marks of a global society in decline.  

It is too late for many in our society who are beholden to false gods of consumerism and materialism, bereft without points of moral reference, and victims of society’s moral chaos. I feel truly sorry for those broken lives; and fearful for those who continue to wander lost and alone in this moral wilderness.  

My suspicion is that it is too late to turn back the clock; that our global society is in collapse. And in the face of this all we can do is a form a community able to resist this social decay, by seeking a coherent exposition of scripture, a closer fellowship, a more faithful witness, Spirit-filled  worship and humble service.

Religion and Politics- what to do?

3 11 2006

Please note- I struggled to write this because it really cuts to the heart of who I am as a Christian, who I want to be, how I want to live, and how I want others to learn to live as well, it also leaves me wondering whether there is a viable Christian political agenda- on the right or the left.

I think the religion and politics issues are really dangerous- as an evangelical it often hurts me to be characterised as a greedy, wasteful, arrogant, persecuting bigot. I think we as a church have a duty to respond to issues of poverty, global warming (and other green issues), and militarism (the myth of redemptive violence). I’m not sure how we can set these issues apart from our views on homosexuality, euthanasia (or assisted dying), and Christian education and formation.

Our secular governments trust in economic policies that protect our individual economies nurturing stable growth these policies set other nations (some of the worlds poorest) at a disadvantage economically. As Christians, we may want to criticise these policies but if we legislate against the policies the secular American wheat farmer goes out of business someone else pays the cost of our political agenda- the result is bitterness towards the Christian theocratic agenda and towards Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour.

I was speaking to a Canadian who works for the Commonwealth, yesterday, focussing on world health issues (most notably HIV AIDS). We discussed the Christian role in combating the aids pandemic across Africa; he noted that in some countries the church is providing 50% of the overall health care. It is an amazing testimony to Jesus Christ who healed lepers, reconciled community and outcast, and preached an alternative lifestyle that the Church continues to be Christ’s hands and feet and voice in the contemporary world. However, you can’t legislate for community reconciliation or Christian moral values these things come about as we accept the discipline of the Father, follow in the footsteps of Jesus and receive renewal through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Consider another situation ‘global warming’ at the moment, our nations are placing blind faith in further scientific and technological developments save us from an environmental catastrophe. We might want to say as the People of God actually living God’s way and being good stewards of the earth will save us from global melt down. But, it depends where you put your trust and in whom you put your trust for many the cost of following Christ with our natural resources is far too high- so how do we work this out?

We can either trust in our democratic right by legislate against homosexuality, bad stewardship (or what we perceive is bad stewardship) of the environment, assisted dying, and health care. Alternatively, we can pursue the Christian theocratic agenda through the Church, which acknowledges Christ as its head. In this situation, we provide an example to the world of good (faithful) sexual ethics good stewardship, good palliative care (and good dying), good (holistic) health care.
I know it is a difficult choice, particularly when it means allowing for suffering (perhaps that’s what it felt like for God when he allowed us to go our own way), but it is surely the better way for a people who believe that there is both judgement and life after death.

What do you think? Is there a way to square the circle that I haven’t seen? What does it mean to live ‘in’ but not ‘of’ the world?

A Christian’s Job

11 10 2006

I was recently asked what my role as Christian was and here is my reply-

I think the best place to start is to explain a bit about myself and my perspectives on life. I am an evangelical Christian but I live in the United Kingdom and like most British people I am bemused by much that passes for evangelical American Christianity.

1. because it presumes that the proper subject of Christian ethics is America rather than the Church.

2. because it strikes me that a truly evangelical Christian faith has more to say about the poor and the oppressed than human sexuality.

I suspect that much of the conservative wing of the church is captive to a politically partisan and non-Christian ideology. I could be described as ‘postmodern’ in some circles as I do not place much stock in universal foundations for knowledge- for example during the Tsunami villages who saw the sea retract in Indonesia fled to the mountains because ancient stories suggested this was a sign of impending disaster- in many contexts we would laugh at their superstitions but how true do we know those myths to be now.

In terms of ethical decisions I am not convinced that what is possible and permissable (scientifically or democratically) is necessarily what is best theologically. However, I do not believe that forcing others to live by theological convictions that they do not share with Christians is helpful or justifiable.

So what do I think the way ahead must be- well it involves freedom of religious conviction (not pluralism nor deism or atheistic civil religion, rather plurality). In the education system this may either involve more independent religious schools (Muslim, Hindu, Christian etc.) or freedom of religion within institutional schools.

I think that banning expressions of worship for fear that it offends others represents an infringement upon civil liberties. I am not saying that such people should be forced to pray or join in but nor do I think people should be stopped from expressing their faith. I am convinced that not having faith in the spiritual or in a personal creator God is not a default or neutral position and the continuing growth of Christianity worldwide seems to testify to this fact.

In a sense I am saying that it is not my job to submit my faith to your measurement of truthfulness. Instead, it is my job to live by my faith in such a way that people commend me for integrity of character and sincerity of conviction. My job far from being to justify my own lifestyle choices is to resist justifying them to accept that they are different from others around me and to resist conforming to a monocultural (atheistic or pluralistic) understanding of life.

In this way I hope to commend my faith to others. The Amish community’s recent reaction to the Carl Robert’s murders is a good example of this faith in action. It is my belief that there exists a most excellent way and I am attempting to walk it.

The Emerging Church Manifesto

7 10 2006

Well I’ve always been scared of being considered moderate so heres to saying good bye to the chances of that happening!

It is time to cut the froth, the coffee and candles, turn off the Apple Macs, and grasp the serious theological vision of thinkers such as Lesslie Newbigin and Stanley Hauerwas. We are living in an alien culture and social order, and we have given in to worshipping the false god of technological, capitalist, democratic government. It is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain the lie that to be ‘in the world’ means we must participate fully in a western democratic society, in its technological developments, in its financial structures (and the often dubious benefits of those structures), and in its politics.

In Christendom, we entered into a pact with secular society (a kin to buying horses from Egypt or yoking oneself with the unbeliever) and we are living with that legacy. It was a bit like a suzerainty treaty and the state was our suzerain, meaning the state always had the upper hand (and led us around by the nose). For a long time this compromise worked for the church, we established schools, built hospitals, we were highly thought of in society, our bishops represented us in the House of Lords and the common man was expected to attend ‘worship’. The problem is that after 1500 years, the Local Education Authority no longer feels the need for our input education, the Local Health Authority manages our hospitals, and people don’t want or have to attend church. It is clear now that our social order is governed by principles opposed to those of Jesus Christ.

It is so distressing to see that the church has lost so much influence in society and yet I am glad that the compromises we made are out in the open. I am pleased because we now have the opportunity to build a church that is more faithful to its Lord. However, we may have to start from scratch because the established ‘church’ or ‘churches’ remain fatally compromised both financially, legally, and politically. I also think that this time is going to be far more difficult than it was the last time because we have to compete against the schools and hospitals the secular state annexed and corrupted. However, we were part of the glue that held society together and without the religious sponsorship social order will continue to decline and the government will get increasingly prescriptive.

In contrast to this approach, the Christian community will not be ruled by force but by commitment to participation within a common life together. It is from this closer communion that we will establish hospitals and schools that will compete with secular institutions. In a Christian hospital, you will not be offered an abortion but alternative support and care, not that people have to accept this they are welcome to go elsewhere. In a Christian hospital, you will not be offered the right to assisted euthanasia but better palliative care to enable you to die with dignity (nor will it be necessary to prolong your life using technology when you feel it is your time to go home). In Christian schools, we will not give spiritual development apart from practical disciplines and education, instead we will teach that although science suggests that the world is evolving due to the ‘survival of the fittest’ our faith teaches us to care for the poor and the weak.

In short, we will provide hospitals that minister holistically to whole people rather than distinguishing falsely between the body and the spirit. The emerging church will provide schools that teach children about the material and spiritual world in which we live (the future church will not be deceived by dualistic notions). It will no longer be said that the ‘emperor rules in time and Christ in eternity’ because the Christ’s kingdom will be now and not yet.

One last comment, as I sit back and reflect upon this manifesto for the emerging church it occurs to me that the state will not like the church of the future, we should expect persecution but worse than persecution we should expect to meet our Constantine… we must be clear we have learnt our lesson- the only suzerain we need is our Lord Jesus Christ. So let us renew our covenant with God and never make the same mistake again.