Josh McDowell, a Christian minister and author once spoke to a student saying:
“If I prove to you beyond a shadow of a doubt that Christ was raised from the dead and is the Son of God, will you consider Him?”
The immediate and emphatic reply was “No!”1
Why are so many people so dismissive even before they’ve given Christianity a chance? Is it because they don’t know the Gospel story or because they can’t accept it to be true? In many ways perhaps both of these are true, because it is increasingly clear that fewer and fewer people have any sort of religious background or contact with a church. Put simply, their parents didn’t go to church, so neither do they! Others dismiss religion as being the by-product of a by-gone age hardly credible for today’s modern thinkers, and recent books such as The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins and God is not Great by Christopher Hitchens reinforce this negative stereotype. Yet the main reason why some people tend to dismiss Christianity ‘out of hand’ is, ironically, not because it’s ‘proven’ to be false but because it might actually be true and if it is true then it’s a challenge! Books such as the The Dawkins Delusion (Alistair McGrath) and Evidence that Demands a Verdict (John McDowell) have easily shown just how misguided and superficial these popular works by Dawkins and Hitchens are and yet if Jesus really did rise from the grave as at least 500 biblical eye-witnesses maintain (1 Corinthians 15.6) then Jesus has to be the ‘Son of God’ and his resurrection proves that all he ever said and did was true! If this is so, then it has to be the most profound piece of news that this world has ever known and requires a response – a response that requires each one of us to reconsider, take stock of our lives and reassess who we are before God, the world and each other; a response which many will find profoundly disturbing and uncomfortable as it shakes up their cosy world view, which is precisely why so many people tend to dismiss the Gospel story out of hand, not because it isn’t true, but because it suits us.
Today’s media tends to give us instant eye-witness access to the incredibly significant events (both good and bad) which shape our modern world and we seldom doubt the testimony of those who were actually present. Why then, are we so ready to dismiss the eye-witness accounts of those who saw the resurrection, just because they lived in an age prior to the internet?
I would therefore like to invite each person to honestly consider and reflect upon their own attitude towards Christ and their understanding of the Easter story, and to genuinely ask themselves if they have given the Gospel (meaning good news) a fair and open hearing. It is my hope that many will discover a new sense of peace and perspective as they do so.
Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news and said: “I have seen the Lord!” John 20.18
1 McDowell, Josh: Evidence for Christianity. Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2006, S. 14
“It’s an extremely romantic movie,” says Sam Taylor-Johnson, the director of Fifty Shades of Grey, “and at the heart of it, it is a love story,” she told reporters. “I think we got the balance right.” What then could be better than having the film premièred just in time for Valentine’s Day on one of the most romantic weekends of the year? There can be no doubt that the novel has been an extraordinary hit with millions of fans across the world, particularly women, and no doubt many will want to see the film out of curiosity and intrigue, regarding it at worst as simply a poor story and at best as a piece of ‘harmless titillation’ but putting aside the fact that the film is a fictional story between consenting adults, and a stereotypical perception of the church as being ‘anti-sex’. Is this film romantic? Well, even on its own premise it’s hard to consider it so, for Christian Grey (an extremely rich, powerful and good-looking businessman) makes it clear to Anastaia (an innocent and naive young girl) that what transpires between them will be a purely sexual and not remotely romantic encounter. The subsequent series of assignations may be considered by some as an adventurous ‘voyage of discovery’, but it can hardly be called ‘loving’ as Taylor Johnson suggests.
It’s interesting to note that even among secularists it’s not so much the sexual activity that is being called into question but the nature of the relationship between the two central characters. For instance, is it true that sex is completely for pleasure and that all thought of love and romance should be stripped from it? The majority of people are usually unable to give themselves to another without it being considered as a very significant moment. They don’t want their bodies to be treated lightly or casually which is why in common parlance we call it ‘lovemaking’. Secondly Christian Grey may want his women to sign contracts which prevent them from speaking out about what’s happened to them, as if it’s all ‘done and dusted’ and ‘swept under the table’ but most people carry these experiences with them into the future and cannot pretend that they don’t have any bearing upon them, shaping who or what they are! Besides, with regard to sexual encounters, too many women have been made to suffer in silence as it is! Finally, if Christian Grey wasn’t rich, powerful and good looking, we might see the story for what it is – a story about one individual abusing power, manipulating events and controlling the life of another for their own sexual gratification.
The film is a well advertised, slickly marketed, glossy ‘Hollywood’ production and will no doubt do very well at the box-office and make it’s producers a lot of money, but the danger and perhaps the seduction of a film like this is, that it makes one feel that what’s depicted is what every ‘red-blooded man’ should aspire to and what every sexy, erotic woman should be willing to provide. It suggests that violent, manipulative, non-romantic sexual encounters between consenting adults are ‘normal’ and can be brought out into the open as just another perfectly valid lifestyle choice. However, once we have put the story and the ‘entertainment’ to one side along with all the ice-cream and pop-corn, I’m not sure that many people will feel totally comfortable with this as a concept. The film may be entitled ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ but upon reflection it’s amazing how the issues tend to become increasingly black and white.
“Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth – for your love is more delightful than wine” Song of Solomon 1.2
On Saturday 11th October a small coach party left Necton on a trip to London. The original intention was to take the members of our church youth group to London to see the sights and play a Monopoly style treasure hunt game where the youngsters (having been split into two teams of boys against girls), had to follow various clues to famous landmarks and take a ‘selfie’ of their team at each place to prove that they were actually there. In order to make the coach trip a little more affordable we opened our invitation to other members of the congregation who might like to come with us. Naturally, as youth group leaders we all hoped that we would have a great day out and a lot of fun (which we did!), but it was also hoped that our trip would spark a moment of reflection, because we were deliberately starting our day at the Tower of London in order to see the Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red art installation situated there. The artwork consists of a huge display of ceramic poppies progressively filling the Tower’s famous moat from the 5th August to 11th November – 888,246 poppies to be exact, each one representing a British serviceman killed in action during the First World War. Of course 888, 246 poppies is a huge number of poppies, and a number which is difficult to comprehend or imagine until you see it symbolically laid out before you. When you do see it, it takes your breath away, and of course each poppy represents an individual, each with their own poignant story to tell, and each individual represents a grief stricken family which had lost some one in the service of their country. We may be marking the 100th anniversary of the First World War, but the pain felt by each family then was just as acute as any that might be felt today; and of course the freedom that our youngsters enjoyed as they ran around London, and that enjoyed by each one of us in our daily lives is largely due to all those men and women who have served their country in two world wars and other such conflicts around the world. Their bravery and stubborn tenacity in the face of an overwhelming and fiercesome foe secured our freedom and the way of life we enjoy today. We had hoped to visit the Cenotaph in our travels, but unfortunately street protestors made that element of our trip impossible – and yet, of course freedom of speech and the right to protest is also a well won right and democratic freedom which we enjoy. Our day concluded back at the Tower in time to hear a ‘roll of honour’ and a bugle playing the Last Post, a sombre reminder that many people couldn’t return home as they had made the ultimate sacrifice.
Jesus said ‘that greater love has no-one than this, than he lay does his life for his friends” (John 15.13), a thought illustrated so vividly in the artwork at the Tower and in the lives of countless men and women who died in two world wars, and other conflicts, in the service of their country – but then you see, Jesus should know – from beginning to end the Bible tells us the story of another conflict, and another amazing battle for hearts and minds in the face of an overwhelming enemy. It’s the story of a pervading force called sin that destroys people’s lives and ultimately leads to their destruction, but it’s also the story of wonderful new life, love, joy, justice and peace born out of an act of tremendous bravery and self sacrifice. It’s the story of Jesus! Our coach party returned home from London with a new sense of gratitude and perspective on what had happened during the First World War and what was truly important. It’s my hope that as we remember with gratitude this Remembrance Sunday those who have served their nation and those who have died for it, we will also remember that greater story of which theirs is such a poignant echo, the story of Jesus whose life, death and subsequent resurrection has accomplished so much more for us than we can possibly imagine!
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life’. John 3.16
It is with profound irony that scholars can refer to Iraq as being part of the world known as ‘the cradle of civilisation’ because it is clear that nothing remotely civilised is coming from that part of the world today. The appalling barbarism that hails from the region in the name of Islam and the hope of setting up a “caliphate” (Islamic state) is truly shocking and no ‘civilised’ society should condone it. The plight of the Yazidi community stranded upon Mt Sinjar and the fall of Qaraqosh (the largest community of Christians in Iraq), each fleeing from the threat of imminent slaughter unless they convert to Islam, has shocked the world. The promise that “anyone who kills a Christian will go straight to heaven” (Archbishop Toma Dawod quoted in The Guardian) has not only appalled many but led to speculation that this might even be the end of Christianity in Iraq. This, combined with the countless stories of men, women and children being executed, while others, women especially, are kidnapped, stolen and sold into slavery has left the world stunned – and embarrassed the many devout moderate Muslims who can’t equate what they see on the ground with their religious faith. It has to say something about the extreme level of violence when even Al-Qaeda feels compelled to disown the ‘Islamic State’ formally known as ISIS.
Appreciating all of the sensitivities relating to the recent history of the Iraq war and western reluctance to once again ‘put boots on the ground’, something has to be done. Humanitarian relief drops have been useful; American air-strikes have been pivotal, but it could be argued that it was Kurdish forces on the ground who ultimately prevented a Yazidi genocide – but for how long? If one accepts the premise that the toppling of Saddam Hussein and the withdrawal of Western forces left a power vacuum which was exploited by the extremists, then only a stable government acceptable to all sides has any chance of pushing the Islamic State back and securing a lasting peace for Iraq as a whole. Unfortunately, it may already be too late for that and the Kurds especially may favour the breakup of Iraq and the establishment of their own autonomous region.
However, the idea that people can be compelled by force to change their religion is a false one – because anything that is done by force only serves to breed resentment and alienates one from the very philosophy being espoused. If one has to be forced into adopting a particular faith or religion then you have already lost the argument and with it the moral high ground. Certainly, in the case of the ‘Islamic State’, one can’t help but feel that the true motivator is not the spreading of personal conviction but the gaining of mass control; it’s not the building of faith that matters but the spreading of fear. It’s the gaining of absolute power which we see before us and as we already know from the old adage, ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’. This philosophy is completely at odds with Christianity, which speaks of each person being made in the ‘image of God’ and loved by him. A God in fact, who loved the world so much that he was prepared to die for it in the person of Jesus. Therefore, life is sacred and not something to be easily dispensed with or cut down at a stroke. Even by Islamic standards the faith pedalled by the extremists is a corruption and a lie, whereas Jesus had described his teaching as the truth, not a truth that would bring hurt, heartache or pain, but a truth that would set people free (John 8.32). It was a truth that brought love, joy, grace, hope and peace into the world – doesn’t that sound civilised to you?
‘The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full’ John 10.10