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Ross Royden

Updated: 2018-01-16T00:38:59.859+08:00


The Call to be Faithful


I have brought together some of my thoughts, talks, and sermons to create a Booklet on the occasion of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation.

It can be read or downloaded here:

The Call to be Faithful

All Saints' Eve 2017


Today is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. We have been thinking about it at Christ Church over the past few months. Over the past year, I have given three sets of talks for the radio programme Minutes that Matter on RTHK Radio 4.

In them, I have tried to reflect on the significance of the Reformation as well as looking at where the Church is today.

I have brought all three of them together in a booklet, which I will post here today. The following is the Preface I have written to them.


This booklet contains the lightly edited transcripts of three sets of talks that I have delivered this year for ‘Minutes that Matter’ on RTHK Radio 4. The format of the programme explains the form and length of the talks! Originally, a piece of music accompanied each of the talks, but I have left the details of the music out of the transcripts. Those who would like to listen to the audio version of the talks together with the music that originally went with them can still do so on the RTHK website in the Radio 4 Programme Archive.

The talks were written with the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in mind.

In the first set of talks for March, I address directly issues arising from the Reformation and the division it caused. I argue that while the Reformation emphasized important aspects of the Christian Gospel, it had ‘unintended consequences’ apart from the immediate divisions it caused. The Church is facing the full force of these consequences today.

In the second set for August, the subject is the Holy Trinity. In the talks, I discuss the importance and centrality of the Holy Trinity for the Christian faith and argue against attempts in the present day to see belief in the Holy Trinity as something peripheral, optional, or even to be abandoned altogether. I urge those who continue to believe in the Holy Trinity to lay aside their historical differences and unite in the face of attacks on the historic, orthodox faith of the Church.

Finally, in the third set of talks for November, I examine what it means for the Church to be ‘fruitful’ as Jesus commanded. I argue that the Church in the West, taken as a whole, has ceased to be ‘fruitful’, and has instead opened itself, both consciously and unconsciously, to the prevailing spirit in western society with fatal results. I express the hope that Churches outside the West will take up the challenge to be faithful to Christ and stand firm against the new paganism that, I believe, is threatening the Church.

The title for the combined sets of talks comes from the words of our Lord in Revelation:

‘Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.’ (Revelation 2:10)

Ross Royden

All Saints’ Eve, 2017

Trinity 1 (Corpus Christi)


John 6:51-58Last Sunday was Trinity Sunday, the Festival of the Holy Trinity.  It was the last in a series of great festivals which began this church year back in November with Advent Sunday.  Except that just when we thought we had completed the cycle, some churches on Thursday just past, almost as a PS, had one more - Corpus Christi.  Corpus Christi is also known in the Anglican Church as a ‘Day of Thanksgiving for Holy Communion.  As this longer title suggests, Corpus Christi celebrates the service that is known in Churches by different names: the Mass, the Eucharist, Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper, Breaking of Bread, or simply, the Liturgy.  Whatever title is used, the service itself has its origin in our Lord’s Last Supper with his disciples on the night he was betrayed and arrested.As with other festivals that fall on a weekday, many churches celebrate Corpus Christi today on the Sunday following and we are no exception.  It is appropriate that we are using a Mass setting today that was specially composed for us by a member of our church family, Canon Martin White.  And we would send our thanks and greetings to Martin and his wife, Noreen, this morning.This year, as many will know, we are remembering what is seen as the symbolic beginning of the European Reformation when, on October 31, 1517, a monk who taught in a university in Germany nailed his ‘Ninety-fve Theses’ to the door of a church.  (At least, this is how the story has come to be told.)  It was a routine way at the time of inviting academic debate.  There was, however, nothing routine about what followed as a consequence.  The Church in the West was to be divided into Roman Catholic and Protestant.  The division is with us still.  As someone who is chronically sick often learns how to live with their sickness so we in the church have learnt how to live with ours.The division between Catholic and Protestant was over several different issues, but it became focused on the doctrine of ‘justification by faith’.  Ironically, there is little disagreement between Catholics and Protestants over this now.  But the Reformation didn’t just result in division between Catholic and Protestant, equally serious and bitter was the division between Protestant and Protestant.  And that division was over how to understand the service we are celebrating today, and unlike justification by faith that disagreement remains today.  Thankfully, although still terrible, it is normally without the bitterness that often characterized the difference and disagreement in the past.In our closing hymn, we will pray for ‘our sad divisions soon to cease’.  Sadly, there is no sign at the moment that they will.  Given our divisions, it is easy to forget how much we are actually agreed upon.  We in the Churches are all agreed that Jesus did share a Meal with his disciples on the night before his crucifixion and we are all agreed that he told his disciples that they should continue to do it after he had left them.  We are also all agreed that the Church did continue to do so and that this service we celebrate and give thanks for today is a gift to us from God to be received gratefully and thankfully.We are, however, a bit like someone who has been given a gift only to unwrap it and say, ‘What is it?’  Because while there is much that we all agree on, there is much that we do not, and at the heart of our disagreements is the question of how to understand the gift we have been given in this service.The divisions at the time of the Reformation all centred on whether and in what way Jesus was present in the Eucharist.  For Roman Catholics and for Luther, the monk who started it all, Christ was truly present in the bread and wine: ‘body and blood, soul and divinity’.  So that to eat the bread and to drink the wine was really to eat Christ’s flesh and to drink his blood.For other Protestants, howev[...]

Trinity Sunday


Today is Trinity Sunday.  This is the Sunday in the Christian year most dreaded by preachers.  As one preacher, not known normally for being lacking in words, said to me this week, ‘What do you say?’  It has been said that if you speak for more than five minutes on the subject of the Trinity, you end up saying something heretical.  As a result, many preachers shy away from talking about the Holy Trinity at all.  While this is understandable if those who are given the responsibility of preaching do this, what hope is there for congregations?  So, conscious of the dangers, this morning’s sermon is about the Holy Trinity.First, though, a word about the Christian year and the Church’s calendar.  It is, at first sight, a bit strange.  Everything seems to happen in the first six months: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Ascension, and Pentecost.  All these seasons and festivals centre on Christ and what God has done in and through him.  This makes the Festival of the Holy Trinity the odd-one out.  It focuses, or so it seems, not on an event, but on a doctrine.It is perhaps no surprise then that the Festival has had something of a chequered history.  It was only officially adopted as a Festival of the Church relatively late in the 14th century, although it was celebrated by churches locally before this.  It was often celebrated on the Sunday before Advent, the Sunday we now know as the Feast of Christ the King when we celebrate the founding of Christ Church.The Church of England, when it adopted its prayer book in the 16th century, numbered the Sundays in the second half of the Church’s year after Trinity Sunday.  This was because it had previously been the practice to do so in the Liturgy used in a part of England.  (This Liturgy is known as the Sarum Rite.)  In the 1970s and 1980s, the Church of England undertook a major revision its Prayer Book and Liturgy, and the ‘Sundays after Trinity’ were dropped in favour of ‘Sundays after Pentecost’.In the latest revision of its services, known as Common Worship, Sundays after Trinity have returned in the Church of England, although other churches, including Anglican, continue to refer to seasons at this time of year as the Sundays of Pentecost or simply, Sundays in Ordinary Time.  The materials we use for our Sunday School, for example, describe Sundays this way.  Here at Christ Church, however, we keep the old traditional ‘Sundays after Trinity’, even though most churches, both globally and locally in Hong Kong, do not.So, the question I want to ask this Trinity Sunday is this: is the dropping of Trinity as a season in the Church’s calendar of symbolic significance?  To put it in another, more direct way:  do we still as Christians believe in the Holy Trinity?In answer to this question, I would suggest that not only have we abandoned the season of Trinity, we have also abandoned the doctrine of the Trinity, and if not in theory, then at least in practice.  Not only do we find the doctrine of the Holy Trinity hard to understand, we are also either not sure whether we believe in it anymore or we are sure and don’t believe in it.  Even if we do still believe in it, we either go easy on it or do not see it as central to our faith.  It may be an interesting theological formulation, but it is not something fundamental to our Christian life.The reasons for all this are many, but one important reason for this abandonment of the Trinity as the central doctrine of our faith is that it goes against the grain of present day Christianity.  I realize that this is a big subject and that much more needs to be said than can be said this morning, but I would single out three characteristics of the sort of Christianity we want today:1. We do not want difficult ideasThe first characteristic is best expressed negatively by what we don’t want!  Life is both complex and cha[...]

Easter 6


Acts 17:22-31Our first reading this morning sees St Paul in Athens.  This was not where he had wanted to be and, indeed, he was only there because of circumstances.  St Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy had travelled from Asia Minor on what is commonly known as St Paul’s second missionary journey.  As a result of God’s leading, they had visited and established a Church in Philippi in Macedonia and then another in Thessalonica.They had, however, encountered severe opposition.  In Thessalonica, this was mainly from the Jews, and they had had to leave Thessalonica because of it.  Unfortunately, moving did not solve the problem and they found that those Jews who had opposed them in Thessalonica had followed them to Beroea.  It was St Paul himself who was the focus of the opposition and in the end St Paul’s supporters put him on a boat and shipped him off to Athens leaving Silvanus and Timothy behind in Macedonia.  They were to join him later.St Paul, then, was on his own in Athens and took the opportunity to look round.  He did not like what he saw.  Everywhere he went there were temples, shrines, and the worship of pagan gods.  This went against everything that St Paul believed both as a Jew and a Christian.  The Ten Commandments, for example, specifically forbade the worship of idols and here they were everywhere to be seen.St Paul, however, didn’t simply disapprove or condemn, he engaged, arguing with anyone who would listen.  This included Greek philosophers.  His arguments proved interesting to those who heard them and he was invited to address the Areopagus, a formal gathering of the leading citizens of Athens.  It was so named because of the hill on which the gathering took place.  Over-shadowing it was the Parthenon, the Temple of the goddess Athena.St Paul in his speech was courteous and avoided unnecessary rhetoric, but he was very much ‘on message’ and direct: ‘Athenians,’ he began, ‘I see how extremely religious you are in every way….’  They would not have disputed this.  God, however, he told them does not live in ‘shrines made by human hands’.Now some of the philosophers present may have had some sympathy with this, but most would not.  The gods were everywhere in the first century, and it was axiomatic that they should have temples dedicated to their worship.The gods of the first century were not, however, exclusive and just because you worshipped one that didn’t stop you from worshipping another.  I may have thought, for example, that my god was better than your god, but that didn’t mean your god didn’t exist.  The Athenians, in particular, revelled in the worship of many gods.  Something that St Paul makes use of in his argument.  It was to be one of the achievements of Christianity that it destroyed these gods and ended their worship.  Christianity asserted what Jews had been asserting for years: ‘You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God …’ (Exodus 20:4-5)There are still different religions today, but the pagan gods of St Paul’s day are just a historical memory, so much so that we find it hard to imagine what it must have been like in St Paul’s day.So what is the situation today?1. Today many people in our world still continue find themselves born into a religion.  So, if you live in one part of the world, you will be born a Muslim.  In another, a Hindu, or a Buddhist.  In some parts still, a Christian.  With the movement of people and travel, your religion may be determined by your family rather than the country you are in.  But it is birth still that determines it.2. It is, however, also true today that many [...]

Easter 4


1 Peter 2:19-25If you were to do a top ten of the most popular Psalms, I am pretty sure that at number one would be the 23rd Psalm: ‘The Lord is my shepherd.’  This Psalm has been the inspiration for many hymn-writers, we have sung a version of it in our service today.  Perhaps more famous is the version that has as its first line: ‘The Lord’s my shepherd…’!  Like the Psalm itself, it is a hymn that is popular at many different services.  It is, for example, sung or said at both weddings and funerals.The image of God as a shepherd is a popular one in the Old Testament, and it is one that is taken up in the New Testament by our Lord himself including in, but by no means limited to, our Gospel reading this morning.  Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd.  This is quite a daring move for as I have said in the Old Testament it is God who is the shepherd of his people.  Jesus is claiming now to be fulfilling God’s role on God’s behalf.This idea of our Lord as a shepherd is behind our Lord’s understanding of his own mission.  He told people who were critical of his friendship with sinners that he had come to ‘seek and to save’ those who were lost.  In one of his parables, he implicitly compares himself to a shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep who are OK and goes off to search for the one sheep who has gone astray.The image of the shepherd is taken up by St Peter in our second reading.  He writes to the recipients of his letter: ‘For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls’.St Peter is writing, you may remember, to believers spread across several Roman provinces.  He describes them as ‘exiles in the dispersion’.  In chapter 2:11, he describes them as ‘aliens and exiles.’Anyone who knew their Old Testament Scriptures would have immediately got the image of dispersion and exile.  In 8th century BC Assyria had conquered the Northern Kingdom belonging to ten tribes of Israel and had carried most of them off into exile.  This left just 2 tribes, those of Judah and Benjamin, in the south centred on Jerusalem.  In 597 BC, these two were to suffer a similar fate, this time at the hands of Babylon who destroyed the Holy City and carried the inhabitants of the southern kingdom off to exile in Babylon.  Here they lived as ‘aliens and exiles’ remembering and longing for their home in the Promised Land.  Psalm 137 captures their sense of loneliness and longing for home: ‘By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.’Some of the exiles returned having been given permission to do so by the Persian ruler, Cyrus.  But many stayed on and settled and made their homes outside of the Land of Israel.  Those so living away from Israel were known as the diaspora (or dispersion).It shouldn’t be thought that those living in foreign lands were any less Jews or any less committed to their faith.  Quite the reverse, in fact.  What is quite incredible is the way they managed, over many centuries, to preserve both their faith and identity.  Generally speaking, they avoided being assimilated into the culture where they were living.  Under the Romans, they were given special privileges that allowed them to go on practicing their religion even when it went against Roman Law.  They remained intensely loyal to Israel and to Jerusalem even paying an additional tax to the Temple on top of the taxes they paid to the authorities.  This was completely voluntary.So, when St Peter writes to those who are in the dispersion, he takes up this idea.  Probably, in the first place, those he writes to were Christian Jews living outside of Israel.  But he extends this idea.  Those he writes to are ‘aliens and exiles’ not only in the historic se[...]

Easter 2


1 Peter 1:3-9Today is often referred to as ‘Low Sunday’.  It contrasts with the ‘high’ of last Sunday, Easter Sunday.  Congregations also tend to be lower after it!  We are now in the Easter season, however, and, for the next few weeks, we will be thinking about what the events of Easter mean as we move towards Ascension Day and Pentecost.One of the amazing things about the Early Church was how quickly it worked out the implications of Easter for its life and belief.  It is often said that it was St Paul who did this and that the beliefs of the early church were relatively primitive and unformulated until St Paul came along and gave the Church a developed and sophisticated theology.The reality is that the theology of the Early Church was already in place when St Paul came along: a fact that he himself acknowledges.  What St Paul did do was to draw out the implications of it for the Gentiles especially - as we saw during our Lent Bible studies on Ephesians.Before his crucifixion, our Lord had told his disciples that the Holy Spirit would lead them into all truth.  He wasted no time in doing so.  The resurrection might have come as a complete shock to the disciples, but they seem to have got what it meant almost immediately.  Which, it has to be said, is more than most Christians today.  I would venture to suggest that the first disciples’ understanding of the importance and significance of the events of Easter was more advanced than our own, and we have the benefit of 2,000 years of Christian thinking about it.  I don’t want to be offensive, but most of us understand our phones better than we do our faith.  Dare I say that this may in part be because our phones matter more to us than our faith?Now you may think that I am being a bit harsh in saying this.  So let me ask you what would upset you most: losing your phone or losing your Bible?  Now I realize that as I write this some of you will say, ‘But Ross, my Bible is on my phone!’  So, for you, a different question: what would upset you most: not being able to access Facebook or not being able to access your Bible?  I think you get my point.  There are a number of reasons for this and perhaps we will have an opportunity to think about them over the next few weeks.  But one at least emerges from this morning’s second reading from the first letter of St Peter.The first letter of St Peter is a circular letter written to Christians in several different Roman provinces including Galatia.  The reason St Peter had for writing it is that the Christians to whom he wrote were experiencing suffering and persecution for their faith.  St Peter writes that they rejoice in their salvation:‘even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials so that the genuineness of your faith – being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire – maybe found to result in praise and glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.’ (1 Peter 1:4)These were Christians who were facing suffering for no other reason than they believed that Jesus Christ was alive and sought to serve him.  St Peter says that their faith is more precious than gold.  What was it about their faith that led them to value it more highly than the most highly valued commodity on earth?I think the first thing to be said about it is that it was more than a theoretical belief.  By this I mean that they didn’t just think that Jesus was alive.  I believe many things that have absolutely no impact on my daily life and which certainly I would not be willing to suffer for.  To take a comparatively trivial example:  I believe Mount Everest to be one of the highest mountains in the world, but it may as well not exist for all the difference it makes to me.  For some people, however, it doe[...]

Easter Sunday


On Good Friday, we left Jesus dead on the Cross.  His dead body was taken by two secret disciples for burial after one of them, Joseph of Arimathea, obtained permission to do so from the Roman Governor Pilate.  Jesus’ last words on the Cross had stressed the finality of it all:‘After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfil the scripture), ‘I am thirsty.’’ (John 19:28)‘When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.’ (John 19:30)‘Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ Having said this, he breathed his last.’ (Luke 23:46)Now today we interpret these words in the light of subsequent events, but to his mother and brother who, we are told, were at the Cross and able to hear his words, there would be no mistaking their significance.  This was the end.  Not only, ‘It is finished’, but ‘I am finished.’  Whatever it was that Jesus had intended to accomplish when he submitted to baptism by John and began his ministry, it was all over now.We need to realize that for those there at the Cross, there could be no other possibility.  It is hard for us knowing there is more to come to put ourselves in the shoes of those who were there.  What is certain is that as far as those who were there were concerned: death was death.  As good Jews, they would have been under no illusion about that.In the Old Testament, there is little by way of hope for life after death.  The grave was a place of darkness to be avoided for as long as possible.  ‘Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die’ is the attitude, for example, of the author of Ecclesiastes.  Such hope as there is, is for the nation rather than the individual.During the time between the Testaments, and as a result of the intense suffering that many Jews had to endure, there developed the hope that one day there would be a resurrection and God would reward the righteous and punish the wickedness.  This, however, would also be the Last Day of this present world order.  Until then, there was nothing to look forward to.  Even this limited hope for the future was too much for many Jews and most of the Priests did not accept it.  So the best hope was that maybe Jesus would be counted amongst the righteous on the Last Day, but even that was only a distant hope - for now there was no hope.In the Greek world, when it came to the possibility of life beyond death, while a significant number of Greeks believed that the soul would survive the body, this could be a somewhat vague and abstract notion.  There was, however, no expectation of resurrection.You may remember when St Paul went to Athens and spoke to the Areopagus, the City Council, they were very receptive to his message until he spoke about the ‘resurrection from the dead’.  Then we are told: ‘some scoffed.’  For many Greeks, it was far from obvious that this was such a good idea.The Cross, then, was to all intents and purposes the end.  How could it be anything else?  It is only when we grasp this that we can begin to understand the sadness the followers of Jesus must have felt.They had had such high hopes, but these weren’t ignorant idealists.  They had truly believed in him.  Jesus himself acknowledged both their sacrifice and friendship.  Even in the garden of Gethsemane, they had been prepared to die to support him.  What was harder for them was watching him die.  For in their eyes, this meant that he died a failure.  What had it all been for?  They had been as deluded as apparently he had been.It is only when we get this that we can get some of the shock of Easter Sunday.  The disciples weren’t gathered together behi[...]

Lent 5


Romans 8:6-11Today is traditionally known as Passion Sunday.  In the modern lectionary, this term is reserved now for Palm Sunday, but the lectionary helpfully notes that today is the beginning of Passiontide, which is rather like wanting to have your lectionary cake and eat it!Regardless of what we call it, today our thinking turns towards the Cross and Jesus’ passion, that is, his suffering.  Before, we do, however, our readings finish our Lenten preparations for it by finishing on a high note.  The Gospel gives us the Raising of Lazarus, which looks forward to our Lord’s own conquering of death.  Our Epistle, continuing the theme, speaks of the life that will be given to our mortal bodies by the Spirit.  Our resurrection, however, is still in the future.  We can look forward to it with confidence, but in the meantime, we have to live out our lives here in our existing bodies in this world.  In our reading from Romans, St Paul gives us teaching on how this can be done.  He writes that to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.  At least that is how it is translated in the version we use.  And certainly, St Paul would agree with the sentiment.  The point he is making however, is rather more basic.  What St Paul is talking about is not in the first place where we set our minds, but on the mindset of the flesh and the Spirit.  The ‘mindset’ of the flesh is death and the ‘mindset’ of the Spirit is life and peace.  What St Paul is contrasting here are two completely different and opposed outlooks.  What St Paul wants us to understand is that the outlook of the flesh, that is, its values, attitudes, and priorities are death.  We are talking about world views and how we look at and approach life.  And the way that the ‘flesh’ does that results in death: not simply physical death when we die, but spiritual death that we experience even now and which continues beyond death.There is amongst Christians at present a real anti-intellectualism.  This expresses itself in a variety of ways.  At its most basic, it expresses itself in a lack of interest in Christian teaching and Bible study.  Sermons have to be short and entertaining.  We don’t want to have to think for too long.  We are not very interested in doctrine and all that sort of thing.  We prefer messages that are simple and don’t require us to think too much.  The problem is our minds do matter and if we don’t make an effort to control and use them, we will just find ourselves following the fashion and outlook of our day.  St Paul in Romans sees the corruption of our minds as the first consequence of our rejection of God.  He writes in Romans 1: 20-22:‘Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.  So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened.  Claiming to be wise, they became fools …’Sin and all that comes with it is the result of our rejection of God and the corruption of our minds and thinking.  There are those, described in the media as the new atheists, who like to portray anyone believing in God as a fool, someone who is deluded.  The Psalmist said that on the contrary, it is the fool who has said in his heart, there is no God.  It is those who reject God who are the fools not those of us who have faith.  Once our thinking became futile so our behavior followed.  What we describe as sin stems from our corrupt minds.  But not just what we can all see and ag[...]

Mothering Sunday (Lent 4)


Today is Mothering Sunday, which, as it happens coincides with Mother’s Day in the UK, but is distinct from it.  Mothering Sunday celebrates in the first place our mother Church and then our earthly mothers.  Today, then, is about ‘mothering’.  This weekend, as it happens, also celebrates the Annunciation of our Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary.  It is now 9 months to Christmas!  The Blessed Virgin Mary as the Mother of our Lord is the supreme example of motherhood in the Bible.  God decided that when he was going to reveal himself fully to us human beings, he was going to do it by becoming one of us.  To do this, he was, as St Paul puts it: ‘born of a woman’ and for 30 years was nurtured and cared for by a woman.You would think that this would of itself be sufficient to secure the Blessed Virgin Mary a place of respect and honour in the Church.  In fact, she became instead a highly controversial figure.  She remains controversial today although for different reasons depending on your particular perspective.  We need to look a little at the history.  In the New Testament, there is not a lot about Mary.  This doesn’t in and of itself mean anything: there is very little about the doctrine of the Eucharist, but we know it was central to the worship of the Early Church.  Mary herself was present at our Lord’s first miracle in Cana of Galilee, she was present at the Cross when he was crucified, and present on the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was given.  In the years that followed, as the Church sought to express its faith and worship, Mary was given a prominent role of honour and respect.  In 431, the Council of Ephesus formally proclaimed her ‘Theotokos’: God-bearer.  Or, as it is more usually translated: Mother of God.  The Church meant by this that Jesus as the Divine Son of God came into the world by her.During the years following, through what are known as the Middle Ages, devotion to Mary became an important part of Christian worship and religious practice.  I have recently spoken about the European Reformation.  While the reformers all recognized Mary as ‘Theotokos’ and believed in the Virgin Birth.  They felt things had gone too far and that honour was being given to Mary that properly belonged to her Son.  In the same way that the Church divided over issues such as ‘justification by faith’ so to Christians divided over Mary.  These divisions are still with us.In the years following the Reformation, Roman Catholics not only continued to reverence her, they accredited her with more formal titles all emphasizing the importance of her role in salvation.  There are, as a result, many feast days dedicated to her.  Roman Catholics celebrate, for example, in addition to the Annunciation of our Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and her enthronement as the Queen of Heaven.  She is recognized as herself a Mediator between her son and human beings.  Some would even describe her as ‘Co-redemptrix’, seeing her as playing a unique and essential role in our salvation.  Roman Catholics, at least officially, would reject any suggestion that they worship Mary or that, in honouring Mary, they are in any way dishonouring her son.  It has to be said, however, that the impression is sometimes given that, whatever the official position of the Church may be, the reality for many is somewhat different and that Mary occupies a position in some people’s devotions that comes dangerously near to worship.In more recent times, however, Mary has been subject to a new line of attack in addition to traditional Protestant rhetoric.  For[...]

Lent 2


John 3:3I am sure that many of you will have heard the phrase ‘born again Christian’.  I can remember sermons asking the question, ‘Are you born again?’  Many of these sermons were addressed to people who regularly attended Church and who certainly considered themselves Christian.  The phrase itself came to represent a certain type of Christianity - a Christianity that saw itself opposed to what it believed was the formality and emptiness of established religion.  I can only speak of the UK where I grew up, but I imagine it was true in other countries and places where the Church had been around for a period of time as well.  People went to Church for a variety of reasons not all of them, should we say, to do with God.  Often going to Church was little more than a middle class habit – something you did on a Sunday without necessarily having much clue about what went on.  Amongst many churchgoers – hard though it maybe to believe – talking about God outside of church was considered embarrassing and vulgar.  In the UK, the Anglican Church was often described as the Tory party at prayer – a description that certainly does not fit today in the UK at least.In the same way that there was a challenge to traditional beliefs and values in society in the 1960s and the years following, so too within the Church there was a questioning of the status quo.  This came from 2 directions: firstly, from those who questioned the truth of traditional beliefs. (Bishop Robinson and his book ‘Honest to God’ are associated with those who took this position.)Secondly, from the opposite direction, came those who held to and asserted the truth of traditional beliefs and values, but made the claim, startling to many Christians, Anglicans especially, that we should actually believe them and, what is more, experience them.  Christianity they argued wasn’t just for Sunday.  Billy Graham was particularly associated with those who took this approach and he held mass rallies at which many came forward to accept Christ.  Many of those coming forward weren’t people who had never heard of Christ, but regular church-goers who were hearing of him in a new way.  Billy Graham wrote a book, ‘How to be Born Again’ which is still in print. The phrase itself came from this morning’s reading and at long last it is to it that we now turn.  In John 3:3 Jesus says, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born again.’  Then in John 3:7: ‘Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born again.”’ Let’s turn to the passage:  Jesus is in Jerusalem for the Passover.  In John’s Gospel it is his first visit since his baptism by John the Baptist and just after his first miracle in Cana of Galilee.  He has already made quite an impression not least because he has engaged in an act of violence in the Temple: driving the merchants and money-changers from the Temple and pouring out their coins and over-turning their tables.  People don’t quite know at this stage what to make of him.  And so a Pharisee named Nicodemus decides to find out for himself.  The Pharisees, we know: they were people dedicated to God’s Law.  This Pharisee, however, is also ‘a leader of the Jews’.  We know that he was also very rich!Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night.  Some think that this means that he comes secretly, however that is unlikely.  In the first place opposition to Jesus hasn’t hardened at this stage and there is no reason why Nicodemus shouldn’t come.  And night time was a perfectly normal time to meet people after the day’s work.  But it is significant that he comes ‘by night’ in the context[...]

Sunday next before Lent


Matthew 17:1-9Today is the Sunday before Lent and the theme of our service is the Transfiguration.  It is a well-known story: Jesus takes the three disciples who form his inner core, as it were, and leads them up a high mountain.  While up there, he is transfigured, changed, before them.  Two people: Moses and Elijah, two of the greatest figures of the Old Testament, who represent the Law and the Prophets, appear to them.  A voice comes from a bright cloud that has come over them announcing that Jesus is ‘my Son, the beloved.’Understandably, the three disciples are both confused and afraid and, in their fear, they fall to the ground.  When Jesus speaks to them, they look up and there is no-one else with them.  On the way down the mountain, Jesus orders them to tell no-one what has happened until after he has been raised from the dead.  In our second reading, St Peter writes: ‘We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ …’ and then goes on to describe the experience related in the Gospels.One of the key questions raised in all the four Gospels, and one our Lord asks his disciples directly, is: ‘Who do you think I am?’  That is, who do they think that Jesus is.  In some ways, it is a fairly obvious question.  He is ‘Jesus of Nazareth’.  Many of those Jesus ministered to would either have known him, or known his parents, when he was growing up.This, after all, was the problem when he preached at his home town of Nazareth, they just couldn’t accept that this carpenter’s son was anything other than that.  They seem to have enjoyed his newly found celebrity status, what they couldn’t accept was Jesus’ implied claim to be more than this.  Jesus was claiming a significance that went far beyond mere fame.The disciples had joined Jesus and followed him because they did believe in him and in his mission.  All the indications are that they believed him to be the promised Messiah, the one who would liberate and lead Israel to freedom.  He was obviously, a ‘charismatic figure’.  Here I am not primarily referring to the miracles he was believed to be able to perform, but to his character.Jesus was one of those people who made an impression: everywhere he went, he created a stir.  It didn’t mean that everyone liked him or agreed with him - that is plainly not the case - but whatever they thought about him, they couldn’t ignore him.  The Pharisees, for example, found themselves constantly drawn to him despite his, at times, quite damning criticism of them.  The crowds too turned out in huge numbers to see and listen to him, even though it was far from clear that they understood a word he was saying.Interestingly, Jesus seems to have had a particular affinity with women, and some of the most famous stories in the Gospels centre on his relationships with women.  Luke even tells us that it was rich women who financed his ministry.His disciples were devoted to him.  We tend to focus on how they abandoned him at the end, but we need to remember that for three years they were prepared to sacrifice everything for him and were clearly aware of the threat to their own lives that this posed.  It was only because at the end he seemed to let them down that they abandoned him.  Intriguingly though, the women didn’t!So the question now comes directly to us: ‘who do we think Jesus is?’  And it is not nearly so easy to answer as at first it might seem.I am at present reading a book called, ‘Rediscovering Jesus’.  The authors suggest that most of our images of Jesus are composite ones drawn from a variety of sources.  We[...]

Third Sunday before Lent


In a recent sermon I mentioned that this is the 500th anniversary this year of the European Reformation.  On October 31, 1517 a monk in Germany by the name of Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of the local church calling for an academic debate on them.  At least, that is how the story came to be told.What is clear is that Luther’s challenge to the system of indulgences went ‘viral’.  Luther challenged the idea that the Pope had the authority or ability to release people from ‘purgatory’ so buying bits of paper in order to get friends and relatives released early was a complete waste of time and money.  Ultimately, the Reformation wasn’t about abstract theological ideas:  it was about authority.  But behind the challenge to authority there were theological ideas and in the coming years, Luther was to spell them out.  These ideas, at least as far as Luther was concerned, were anything but abstract.  They came from intense personal experience.Luther had been destined to become a lawyer.  This was what his father had planned for him.  (Some things don’t change!)  Then one day, on a journey, he was caught in a storm and feared for his life.  He promised St Anne that if she were to save him, he would become a monk.  He did live and he honoured his promise.  Being a monk, however, did not make him happy.  He took the whole business seriously – some including his confessor – felt too seriously.  He wanted to please God, but never felt good enough or that he could do enough to please God.  When he came across the phrase the ‘righteousness of God’, it only served to remind him of how unrighteous he was.  Then while preparing lectures on St Paul’s Letter to the Romans, he came to see that the righteousness of God wasn’t about condemning sinners, but offering them the opportunity to be forgiven for their sins, freely, without having to do anything except have faith and trust in Christ.  No need then for pilgrimages, confessions, religious acts and devotions, good works, penances and all the other things that were part of medieval religion.  The discovery changed his life and was to change Europe and the world.  The doctrine of ‘justification by faith and not works’ was to become central to Protestantism.  This the Protestants believed was the message of the New Testament and the Bible.  ‘God forgave our sins in Jesus’ name’ - as we shall sing later in the service.  It is an amazing message and it has brought freedom and liberation to many.  It is celebrated in many of the hymns we sing, for example, ‘Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me…’Nowadays there is no argument over it.  What was once a source of division between Catholics and Protestants is so no longer.  If you were to put a Catholic, Lutheran, and Anglican in a room and get them to discuss justification by faith, there would be little disagreement between them.  Indeed, I would argue that a radical version of justification by faith is the present message of all the churches.What we preach is that Jesus is an inclusive, welcoming, forgiving, and accepting Saviour.  It doesn’t matter who you are, where you have come from, or what you have done, Jesus loves and welcomes and accepts you.  In some versions of the message, we drop the whole ‘Saviour forgiving sins’ bit.  Jesus is not the sort of person to condemn us for what we have done: after all, who is to say what is right or wrong?Now I don’t want to spoil the party, and I like the idea that I don’t have to worry about what I have done as much as anyone.  Clear[...]

Fourth Sunday before Lent


1 Corinthians 2:1-16One of the most difficult tasks in studying the New Testament is dating it.  We know broadly speaking when the events it describes took place, but precision eludes us.  One of the few precise dates, however, relates to the Church that St Paul wrote to in this morning’s second reading: the Church at Corinth.  St Paul had come to Corinth to escape attempts on his life.  He, Silvanus, and Timothy, following what they believed to be the leading of the Holy Spirit, had travelled from Syria to Europe.  There they had preached the Gospel in a number of places, including Philippi and Thessalonica to which St Paul would subsequently write letters.  In both places, they encountered not only resistance, but even violent opposition.  This violence was focused primarily on the person of St Paul himself.  One of the interesting features of St Luke’s account of St Paul’s mission is how St Paul is the one that everyone seems to hate.  For example, St Paul was able to leave Timothy and Silvanus in Macedonia while he himself had to flee for his life first to Athens and then to Corinth.  At Corinth, however, things took a turn for the better.  For the first time in Luke’s account of St Paul’s missionary journeys, St Paul is able to stay in one place.  We are told that he was in Corinth for about 18 months.  This doesn’t mean that there wasn’t opposition:  just that it wasn’t as violent or intense as that he had encountered in Thessalonica or would encounter in Ephesus.  Such opposition as there was came to a head when one Gallio became the pro-Consul.  And this brings us back to dates.  We know that Gallio became the pro-Consul in AD 51.  His appointment gave the Jews in Corinth an opportunity to attack St Paul.  They complained about St Paul formally to the pro-Consul.  Gallio, however, dismissed their complaint as having no basis in Roman Law.  Gallio seems to have thought it just an internal dispute amongst Jews concerning the intricacies of the Jewish religion.  This meant that the Church could continue largely unhindered.  It also meant that the Church could enjoy for the time being the same privileges as was granted under Roman Law to other Jewish groups.Good news!  Well, yes and no.  Clearly the Church at Corinth grew and prospered.  As I have said previously, it seems to have been so successful that is attracted the stars of the first century Church.  St Paul describes the Church as lacking no spiritual gift, and he is clearly proud (if that’s the right word) of all he had been able to achieve in Corinth.  The downside of this, however, seems to have been that success went to the Corinthians’ heads.  They were flattered by the attention they received from the celebrities of the early Church so much so that they divided into fan clubs based on the preacher they liked the most.  They were only too aware of their gifts and achievements.  They were able to take this approach to the Christian life precisely because they didn’t have to face the sort of opposition that Churches such as Thessalonica had to face.  St Paul writes contrasting how he and his co-workers were treated compared to the Corinthians.  He doesn’t use these words exactly, but it is clear that he thought they had it easy.From what St Paul writes, the picture we get of the Church at Corinth is of a Church that is growing numerically, that is successful and strong spiritually, and has no problems when it comes to money.  It is in every way the model of a Church that seems to be getting it right.  And this suc[...]

Epiphany 3


1 Corinthians 1:10-18On October 31, 1517 in a relatively obscure town in Germany a monk who lectured in the university ‘nailed’ 95 theses in Latin to the Church door inviting people to debate them with him.  At least this is how the story became to be told.  Scholars are not sure whether he nailed them, posted them, or just had them printed.  However, the monk issued them, they were to have seismic consequences.The monk was Martin Luther.  The theses were in many ways innocuous.  The cause of them was a Papal Fundraising Scheme.  The Pope wanted to build a magnificent Cathedral in Rome.  To pay for it, he issued indulgences which were sold throughout Europe.  These indulgences granted the purchaser the power to get a loved one out of purgatory. They were very popular.  Luther, however, was opposed to them and his theses challenged their sale.  Implicit in his opposition was a challenge to the authority of the Pope.  His protest went viral as one would say today.  And it was not long before the argument became about much more than ‘indulgences’.  Western Christianity which had been united around the authority of the Pope disintegrated and the Church became extremely fragmented.  Many more joined the protest and it spread to other countries.  The word protestant came into being.  However, while the Protestants could agree on what they were against, they found it much harder to agree on what they were for.  And rather than there being one protestant church, many different churches came into existence sometimes hating each other as much as they hated the church of Rome.  In England things were even more complicated.  Initially the King, Henry VIII, opposed the protestant movement earning himself the title of Defender of the Faith, that is, the Roman Catholic version of the faith.  However, Henry then decided he wanted a divorce and the Pope for political rather than religious reasons refused.  Thus setting in motion the English reformation and the creation of the Church of England.  I realize that this is a very general and simple summary of what by any account was anything but simple. But I think it is accurate enough.  What is beyond dispute is that as a result of the Protestant reformation division between Christians became the norm and the different groups formed their own denominations:  Lutheran, Presbyterian, Anglican, and Baptist.  Having got a taste for division there was to be no stopping Christians and since the reformation many other denominations have come into existence.  If you walk down Waterloo Road you see church after church all belonging to different denominations and mostly not talking to each other in any meaningful way.  What began as a movement calling for the reform of the Church ended up dividing it.  Some regretted this, but saw it as necessary, many did not and even seemed to relish it.  You still hear people arguing that truth must always come before unity.  I dwell on this today for 3 reasons: firstly, this year is the 500th anniversary of the reformation.  Many events are being organized to commemorate it.  We are even being invited to celebrate it.  We are going to hear a lot more about the reformation in the weeks ahead.  Secondly, we are in the middle of the week of prayer for Christian unity.  Each year at this time Christians all over the world are invited to join together to pray for the unity of the Church.  Of course, having prayed for it, we then spend the rest of the year doing absolutely nothing about it.  I don’t th[...]



Ephesians 3:1-12Epiphany strictly speaking is on January 6, that is, last Thursday.  It marks both the end of the Christmas season and the beginning of a new liturgical season in its own right.  The Gospel reading today is the well-known story of the visit of the Magi.  They bring three gifts, but as to how many of them there were, we are simply not told.  The reason that this Gospel reading is chosen is because Epiphany celebrates the revelation or manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.  The Magi represent the Gentiles.Of course to us this is no big deal.  We just assume that Christ was born to be the Saviour of the world, but for many in the early days of the Church.  It was not nearly so straightforward.  After all, the very word ‘Christ’ that we now use as a name was originally a title meaning Messiah.  And the Messiah was to be the Messiah of the Jews fulfilling God’s promises to his chosen people.  At first in the Church, there was resistance to even telling Gentiles about Jesus.  But as a result of a direct and unmistakable intervention by God himself through the Apostle Peter this resistance was decisively overcome.The next question was to be the basis on which Gentiles could become members of the Church once they had accepted and believed the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  For many in the Church this was obvious: the Gentiles had to keep God’s Law as God himself had revealed it.  This Law was clear that men had to be circumcised and all men, women, and children had to obey the commandments of God.It wasn’t, however obvious to one person: the person we now know as the Apostle Paul.  St Paul adopted not only a controversial position, he was himself a controversial person.  Very briefly: St Paul had been the leader of violent opposition to the Church.  He was a zealous and committed Jew who was fanatically opposed to the Church.  Quite why he was so opposed to the Church is not as easy a question to answer as is sometimes thought!  (This is something we will have cause to consider at the Lenten Studies!)This committed Jew was dramatically converted on the Damascus Road and called by God to be an Apostle to the Gentiles.  Not only that, St Paul developed what was to be a highly controversial understanding of what is meant for Gentiles to become part of the people of God.We need to be very careful here.  St Paul is often presented today as someone who reinvented Christianity. Someone who took the simple teachings of Jesus and made them altogether something different.  This, of course, is assumed to have been a bad thing.The reality is, that as St Paul himself acknowledges, most of his understanding of key Christian teachings he got from those who were ‘in Christ before him’.  These concern such things as the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ.  His present Lordship.  His future return.  And the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Where he differed from those who were ‘in Christ before him’ was over the place of the Gentiles in the Church and the purposes of God.  Ironically, those who dislike St Paul nowadays don’t even think to disagree with him on this one area where he really did come up with something new.All of which brings us to Ephesians and this morning’s reading, Ephesians 3:1-12.  Please consider what follows as something of a ‘taster’ for the Lent Studies.Ephesians is one of the more general of St Paul’s letters.  It doesn’t have a co-sender, and it contains very little by personal references.  Only one other person is mentioned, T[...]

Christmas Night 2017


Well we have at last reached Christmas! We have been counting down the weeks during Advent by lighting the Advent candles – and later, during this Service, we will light the last one! Some of us for the past few days have been counting down the days using the ‘Great O Antiphons’. All over the world tonight, Christians are celebrating the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord. Whatever we may say about Easter being theologically the most important day in the Christian calendar, there can be little doubt that Christmas is the one that is the most celebrated and loved.It comes as a surprise then to discover that it wasn’t this way in the Church for many years. St Paul, for example, never discusses the birth of our Lord except to say that he was ‘born of a woman’, and the first Gospel we have, St Mark, launches into our Lord’s ministry without any mention of his birth or childhood.In the 2nd century, Christians even mocked the pagans for celebrating the birthdays of prominent figures. What mattered to them was the significance, not of Jesus’ birth, but of his death. This is easily illustrated by observing how much of each Gospel is devoted to the last week of our Lord’s life compared to the years leading up to it. This does not for a moment mean that we should not today be celebrating our Lord’s birth, but it is a warning not to celebrate it in an emotional and sentimental way: enjoying the story, but failing to see its meaning and its significance for each one of us personally. Originally, the Gospels circulated separately from each other. And not only the Gospels, but the stories of Jesus themselves. We know that the stories of Jesus were passed on not simply, or even primarily, in written form, but, in a culture with low rates of literacy, they were passed on in oral form, that is, by word of mouth. Very few of these stories concern our Lord’s birth; many concern his death and the events leading up to it.It is clear from even the briefest of readings of the Gospels that St John’s Gospel is different from the other three. Matthew, Mark, and Luke have much in common and are referred to as the synoptic (=viewed together) Gospels. St John assumes that his readers will already be familiar with many of these stories about Jesus and that they may have read at least St Mark’s Gospel. His purpose in writing is not to tell or retell the stories, but to get behind them and explain the significance of the one who the stories are about and of the one who himself told many of the stories in the Gospels. And in explaining Jesus’ significance, St John wants to show us the significance of Jesus for each one of us personally.The reading tonight, known as the Prologue, is the introduction to the Gospel. It sets the scene for what is to follow by telling us in advance what the plot is and introducing us to the Gospel’s central character. St John wants to leave us in absolutely no doubt as to who Jesus is. This is to be a theme of his Gospel. Whereas the other Gospels focus on what Jesus did, on his works, St John focuses on the person of Jesus, who he is. This is the Gospel that has the ‘Great I am’ sayings. It is this person that our reading introduces us to, but St John manages to do it without at first mentioning his name. He tells us the name of John the Baptist who came to witness to Jesus, but he doesn’t use the name ‘Jesus’ until verse17.The purpose of the Prologue is to introduce us to the Word, it is only once we have been introduced to the Word that we are told who the Word is. We are told that the Word was in the beginning with God and that all [...]

Carol Service 2017


It’s no secret that I love Christmas: all of it.  The tree, the mistletoe (especially the mistletoe), the presents, the crackers, the Poinsettias – I’m not mad on the mince pies, but I would be sad if you didn’t like them, and hope you will stay for some and a cup of mulled wine after the service.I think most of you like Christmas too, so it may come as something of a surprise to you to learn that there have been those in the past who haven’t liked Christmas.  The Puritans, for example, tried to have it banned.In my previous parish, in the north-east of Scotland, where the Presbyterian Church had been very influential in the past, many could remember when Christmas wasn’t really celebrated that much, the main celebration was Hogmanay (that is, New Year).  My Church Warden recalled how when she first moved to the parish the plumber who was doing work for her turned up on Christmas Day.Today, I am happy to say that while there are those who disapprove of Christmas, or, at least aspects of it, most people love it.  Christmas is ubiquitous: it’s everywhere.  In London, it seems to start in August.  Winnie and I normally see it beginning to be promoted just as we are leaving after our Summer trip to the UK.  In Hong Kong, it starts a bit later: it seems to really get under way after Halloween – for obvious commercial reasons!At the Vicarage, the Christmas season normally begins in the first week of December with the delivery of our Christmas tree!  Yes, everyone loves Christmas, but even someone who loves Christmas as much as I do has to admit that some of the customs and practices surrounding Christmas seem just a little bit removed from the birth of Christ.  Christmas Trees had been around in northern Europe for quite some time, but they really took off in the UK when Prince Albert put one up in 1841 at Windsor Castle.  It’s hard now to imagine Christmas without one.Mince Pies were first introduced to Europe by the Crusaders, who had experienced middle eastern flavours while in the Holy Land.  Originally containing meat, they were made from 13 ingredients representing Christ and the twelve apostles.  They were also oval shaped to symbolize the manger.Poinsettias came from Mexico in the 16th century as did the turkey.  Eating turkey at Christmas is one of those strange customs.  We all eat it even if we don’t particularly like it.  Heston Blumenthal, as you might expect, has all sorts of complicated procedures for making it taste good.  There is, however, a very funny video on youtube in which an older cook, Mary Risley, gives her own advice on cooking turkey.  She says: ‘just put the ******* turkey in the oven!’Christingles are a more recent custom originating in Moravia in the nineteenth century.  They were made popular by John Pensom, a Children’s Society fundraiser, in 1968.  He used to sign himself John Pensom DGO.  It turns out DGO stood for Damned Good Organiser.  He certainly succeeded in making the Christingle popular, and we will have our own Christingle Service here at Christ Church on Christmas Eve.Not everyone understands it though.  On a parents’ forum in the UK, Mumsnet, one Mum, whose daughter had come home with the Christingle saying it was to celebrate Christmas, asked, ‘What on earth has an orange with a candle and four cocktail sticks to do with Christmas?’Come to our Christmas Eve Service if you too are puzzled!  All will be revealed.Well, I could go on.  But these and many other traditions have pas[...]

Advent 3 Year A


Advent 3 Year AIf asked who John the Baptist was most Christians would answer that he was the one who came to prepare the way for Jesus.  And while this, undoubtedly, is true, we often say it in a somewhat dismissive way, as if he only had a minor role, and fail to see how important John the Baptist was in preparing the way for the coming of our Lord.  The lectionary, however, gives more days to John the Baptist than any other person apart from Jesus himself except, that is, for one other person: the Blessed Virgin Mary.Outside the Gospels, the first century Jewish historian, Josephus, pays more attention to John than he does to Jesus.  Indeed, as Paul discovered John’s influence extended way beyond Israel so that when he went to Ephesus, 20 years or so after the crucifixion, he found disciples of John there.  This, in other words, was someone who had influence in his own right.Turning to the Gospels themselves, we sometimes miss how significant the Gospel writers see John as being.  Mark begins his Gospel:  ‘The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God…’ and then straightaway goes on to talk of John.  Luke describes John’s birth before Jesus’ and, again, begins his account of Jesus’ ministry with John’s ministry and his baptism of Jesus.  Matthew does likewise.John in his Gospel gives us yet more information.  He tells us that Jesus’ first disciples were disciples of John the Baptist.  Luke suggests that John and Jesus were related and in John’s Gospel the ministry of Jesus initially overlaps with John’s suggesting that Jesus’ own ministry very much grew out of that of John’s.This morning, however, we read that John has been put in prison.  His ministry is coming to an end.  This is the start of Jesus’ independent ministry.  Knowing that he is about to die, John wants to get one thing sorted out.  His ministry has been to prepare people for the ‘ONE who is to come’.  The Gospels all agree that he had thought Jesus was this ONE.  Now, however, he sends his disciples to ask Jesus ‘are you the ONE who is to come?’  This is not a question you ask if you are sure; it suggests doubts in John’s mind.  It is this doubt that he needs to sort out before his death.  Had he perhaps got it wrong about Jesus?  You can understand why he may have thought this.  John’s ministry had been one of challenge and warning.  Even his way of life and style of dress challenged people.  His message was uncompromising: people needed to get ready for the coming judgement of God.  Already the axe was being laid to the tree.  The wheat would be separated from the chaff.  People needed to repent and have their sins forgiven, or they would find themselves on the wrong side of the judgement.  Jesus at first sight seemed to take a different line.  Jesus himself talks about this difference later in the chapter (see Matthew 11.  His first miracle is to create wine for a party.  His own lifestyle is one of eating and drinking so that he gains the reputation of a drunkard and glutton, someone who welcomes sinners and eats with them.  This is in stark contrast to John’s lifestyle and while Jesus takes judgement seriously, he emphasizes the present experience of forgiveness.John, then, begins to doubt whether Jesus is the ONE for whom he was sent to prepare the way, he asks: ‘are you the ONE who is to come or do we seek for another?’Jesus doesn’t give a straight an[...]

A Return for the Blog


It is a long time since I posted here so I have no idea if anyone will bother to read anything I post!  I have for the past few years been concentrating on my Church's Facebook Group, which is closed Group.  I have, however, recently been posting transcripts of the sermons I preach.I think posting them here as well would be a good way to get the Blog up and running again.At Christ Church Kowloon Tong, we follow the Revised Common Lectionary.  I don't preach every Sunday, but I will post the sermons of the Sunday I do preach.  I started editing my sermons to produce a transcript starting with Advent Sunday last year.  This was the first Sunday in Year A of the Lectionary.  It will take a little time to catch up as I don't want to post them all in one go.Here then is the first sermon!Advent Sunday Year AAdvent is easily my favourite time of the year.  Christmas is just around the corner.  The shops are already full of Christmas fayre.  The shopping malls are all decorated for Christmas.  And Christmas music greets you whether you are shopping in the supermarket or eating in a restaurant.In Church, we have made the change to purple.  The Advent wreath is being lit, and the poinsettias have arrived!  The Christmas tree, however, is still some days off, but the children are getting ready for their Nativity Presentation and the choir are rehearsing for our Carol Service.This, then, is Advent – a time of counting down to and preparing for Christmas.  Except it isn’t: at least not directly.  It comes as a bit of a shock to people to be reminded that Advent is only indirectly about Christmas.  Advent, traditionally, is a time for preparing not to celebrate Christ’s coming at Bethlehem, but his coming on the clouds as he returns to this earth not as the baby in the manger, but as the Son of Man in glory to judge the world.  During Advent, the Church traditionally thinks about the four last things:  death, judgement, heaven and hell.  The Church tends to focus nowadays on Jesus’ teaching on love and forgiveness.  Our dominant image of him is of one who came to seek and to save the lost.  One who welcomes sinners and eats with them.  One who is inclusive and who reaches out to those at the margins of society.  During his life on earth, Jesus preached the good news of the Kingdom of God.  This was good news especially for those whose life was full of bad news:  the poor, the oppressed, the sick, and the possessed.  It is right that we too continue to preach this message of love and forgiveness.  But in Jesus’ own teaching, there were always two sides to the coin.  Jesus preached that in his ministry the kingdom of God had already come and was present in him.  He also, however, taught his followers to pray for the kingdom to come on earth as it is heaven.  There was in other words a future dimension to this kingdom.  New Testament scholars talk about these two aspects of Jesus’ teaching as the ‘already’ and ‘not yet’ of the kingdom.  The present and the future.  Understandably, we focus on the already.  What we experience in the here and now, and it is right that we describe the present benefits of following Christ, but we shouldn’t neglect the ‘not yet’, that is, what is still to come.  And Advent is a good time to correct the balance.It is important that we do for Jesus himself spent a great deal of time talking about what the futu[...]

Jesus and his Death


I intend over the few weeks to post some studies I have written for my Church here in Hong Kong.  They are about our image of Jesus and how we can discover the Real Jesus.  They particularly focus on the significance of the crucifixion, hence the title: Jesus and his Death.1. The Popular JesusJesus as a person is quite popular in popular culture. In fact, it has become quite fashionable for someone in the public eye to say that while they have problems with the Church, they have great respect for Jesus. Further questioning, however, reveals it is a certain image of Jesus that they have respect for. This image has certain facets:1. Inclusive: Jesus is hailed as someone who welcomed all regardless of social class and background, gender, or lifestyle.2. Peace-loving: Jesus is seen as a prophet who taught the importance of love and peace and rejected the use of force and violence.3. Radical: Jesus is presented as one who challenges corrupt authority and obedience to tradition.What is dismissed either explicitly or implicitly by those holding this sort of image of Jesus is any suggestion that Jesus was anything other then human. The belief in the divinity of Jesus is seen as an invention of the Church not having any connection with the historical Jesus.This popular image of Jesus has become so pervasive that it has also been taken up in varying degrees by people in the Church. Not all would want to go the whole way and reject Jesus' divinity altogether, but it receives considerably less emphasis than once in did. The emphasis now is on Jesus as one of us.Jesus is thus able to take his place as one of the good guys: a candidate for a first century version of the Nobel Peace Prize or, at least, its first century equivalent. His death on the Cross is explained as that of a martyr prepared to die for what he believed to be true. The only question is why anyone would want to kill him in the first place if this is what he was really like!Now I can see why someone resembling this popular image might upset or irritate people. (In this form, he certainly rather irritates me if I am honest.) It might even be possible to imagine a crowd being so upset with him on occasion that it turned on him, as, indeed, happened at Nazareth, though quite why they should be quite so upset is more difficult to explain.What, however, is impossible to explain is why, if Jesus was like the popular image of him, they should determinedly plan and plot to have him killed. And it would take some planning and plotting as the Jewish authorities did not have the power to order capital punishment, that power lay with the Roman authority, and the Romans for all their faults tended not to have people killed for preaching love and peace. They saved such punishments for those who preached hate and war: hate and war, that is, against Roman rulers and rule.The problem with many presentations of Jesus, both inside and outside the Church, is that the death of Christ becomes a complete mystery. Unless our presentation of Jesus presents someone who otherwise good religious people would hate and explains how they could get Rome to crucify him, then the chances are that we are not presenting the Real Jesus.It also suggests that the Jesus we are following and worshipping is not the Real Jesus either. In other words, the Jesus we follow and worship must not simply be one who was crucified, but one who was crucifiable![...]



It has been a long time since I posted here.  This has been because my time has been taken up on other projects.  I thought it would be interesting, however, as part of my preparation for my sermon tomorrow, Easter Sunday, to attempt an obituary of Jesus as it would have been printed in a newspaper on the Saturday after his crucifixion.An Obituary of Jesus of Nazareth who was Crucified YesterdayJesus of Nazareth, aged 33, was crucified yesterday by the Roman authorities at the request of the Chief Priests in Jerusalem.  This has brought to an end a period of about 3 years during which he has been the subject of intense speculation about his motives and intentions.  Many had come to see him as someone who would lead Israel and throw off Roman rule establishing the Kingdom of God as described in the Scriptures.  These expectations, which he did little to discourage, have now been shown to be completely false.  While many will feel he did not deserve the brutal end he came to, the reality is that Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor, was left with little choice once the Chief Priests had made their allegations against him.Although Jesus was commonly known as Jesus of Nazareth, he was in fact born in strange circumstances in Bethlehem.  Rumours persisted throughout his life that his mother, Mary, was not married when he was conceived.  He grew up in Nazareth following into his father, Joseph’s business as a carpenter.  His father died some years ago.At the age of 30, he chose to associate himself with his relative John, known popularly as the Baptist.  John was himself put to death by King Herod.  It was at this time that Jesus began to preach and teach in Galilee, gathering a devoted group of followers around him.  He attracted large crowds who came not only to hear his charismatic style of teaching, but also because it was believed he was able to heal and perform miracles. His teaching resulted in very public clashes with the Pharisees with whom he seems to have had a ‘love-hate' relationship.  On the one hand, he frequently socialized with them and, on the other, strongly criticized them.  He was most comfortable in the company of those on the edges of society, publicly associating with and befriending prostitutes, tax-collectors, and others with equally bad reputations.  He claimed that this is what God wanted him to do.His followers clearly believed that he was the Messiah and obviously expected him to lead a rebellion against Roman rule, probably during the Passover.  His own attitude to this seems to have been ambivalent.  It is true that he discouraged people from calling him the Messiah and yet he behaved in a way which encouraged them to do just that.The immediate events leading up to his death illustrate the problem.  At the beginning of this week, he very publicly rode into Jerusalem, accepting the crowds acclamation of him as King.  He then went to the Temple and violently attacked those trading there.  Both these actions undoubtedly lead people to think that the uprising was near and that he was preparing for it in the days leading up to the Passover.  At the crucial moment, however, he appears to have had a failure of nerve and instead submitted himself to arrest, trial, and execution without offering any resistance whatsoever.This unwillingness to fulfil the hopes he himself had created explains why it was one of his closest follow[...]



I hope you are all enjoying the season of Advent and are looking forward to Christmas.It may seem as though I have forgotten to post on Predestination, but there is an explanation!I had wanted to read Matthew Levering's recently published book on Predestination first.  I had ordered it from Amazon, but when it arrived it was slightly damaged.  I wouldn't normally have worried as the damage was only superficial, but the book itself costs so much that I thought this time I would return it and get a perfect copy.The replacement has just arrived an hour or so ago.  I have to confess to being a big Amazon fan.  If you are going to order online, they make it as straightforward as possible to do so.  Anyway, this is going to be my Christmas reading so Predestination is postponed until the New Year!In the Church's Liturgical Year, we are now in Year B and we will be reading through Mark's Gospel.  Last Sunday the reading was the first eight verses.  This is the first in a series I am preparing for my Church introducing it.St Mark's GospelThe Gospel reading last Sunday was the beginning of Mark's Gospel (Mark 1:1-8), and I thought I might use the opportunity to introduce the Gospel that most scholars believe is the first of our New Testament Gospels to be written.What we often forget is that while the Gospels would have been read by some, they would have been heard by most. That is, for all sorts of reasons, not least the cost of copying written texts, the Gospel would have been read out aloud in church groups, perhaps in the context of worship. In trying to understand then the message that Mark was intending to convey about our Lord, we need to ask how would it have been heard.Sadly, our concentration is not such that we could cope with sitting and listening to Mark being read out in one sitting, although it only takes about an hour and half to do so. Some may remember how the actor Alex McCowan, in January 1978, devised and directed his own solo performance of the complete text of the Saint Mark's Gospel receiving much critical acclaim.Today, we miss the impact that hearing the Gospel read out loud would have had on the first listeners. There are many recordings of the Bible available: if you get the chance, try listening to one. It opens up a new dimension in Biblical understanding. And remember: What is true of St Mark's Gospel is true also of the rest of the New Testament.[...]



I have just looked at my diary for the next few days and have realised that there is not going to be the time to work on the series of posts I had planned on predestination.  However, in my last post I referred to my friend Ben Witherington's blog and his discussion there of free-will. I tried to give a reponse to it both here and in the Comments section.  In the Comments section of Ben's blog, there has been further discussion between Ben.  I would like to take the discussion further here.This is the link to the post:Bible and CultureThis is what I wrote as a comment on Ben's post:Hi Ben, But even on your view of pre-venient grace, it still means that God chooses some and not others: those to whom He extends pre-venient grace to make it possible for them to make a choice. And once you allow God the right to decide who gets to make a choice, then you are vulnerable to exactly the same criticisms that you make against those of us who believe in predestination!Thank you for your blog. It is always interesting and stimulating!RossThis is Ben's reply:Hi Ross. Wrong. God extends prevenient grace to everyone.(Ben)I did follow up with another comment, but that has not appeared in the Comments!I was, I must confess, much surprised by Ben's response, not so much because he said I was wrong.  Being wrong, after all, is always a possibility in this life!  But rather by his assertion that God extends prevenient grace to everyone.  This means, on Ben's view, that everyone is being offered the grace they need to enable them to respond to the good news of Jesus Christ.  As Ben points out in his post, without it no-one can respond.Thanks to God's generous pre-venient grace, then, every Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or whoever they may be, is being offered the chance to respond to the good news.  However, because in many cases no-one is telling them what the good news is, although they are now able to respond, there is nothing for them to respond to.  It also means that the grace of God has been offered them in vain, and it hardly seems to be their fault that it is!This illustrates, I think, the problem faced by those who want to hold to free-will and a Biblical understanding of the human condition.  They need God to enable the will to be free to respond, but they cannot limit those whom God enables in this way for you then end up with a form of predestination because God is choosing whom to enable.  The problem occurs because it means that God is enabling people without also telling them what it is he is enabling them to do, which seems more than a trifle bizarre.  The only way round this that I can see for those wanting to hold this position is to argue that God extends pre-venient grace when the Gospel is preached to all those hearing it preached. This inevitably means that God does not extend his pre-venient grace to all.  It also raises the question of who decides who gets to hear?  If it is us who decides, then that makes it all a bit of a lottery when it comes to salvation and gives us the power to decide not only who gets to hear, but also who gets to receive pre-venient grace.Alternatively, you have to say God chooses whom we are sent to preach the good news to, which means, however generously, that God is still choosing some and not others, which brings us b[...]



I am a bit worried at the moment as the weather is not looking good for our parish lunch tomorrow.  Normally, we set up the tables and chairs this afternoon, they are all here, but we can't set them up because it looks very much like it is about to rain.  We have a Plan B, but it is very much a Plan B.

Anyway one of my favourite blogs is that of Ben Witherington's.  Interestingly, in his latest post, he writes on the subject I have been posting on lately.  I his post takes a very different line on predestination and free-will to my own.  Read it here: Bible and Culture

Ben totally disagrees with the idea that God chooses some and not others.  He accepts that the Bible teaches that as sinners we are unable to make a free choice to accept the Gospel, but argues that God's grace enables us to make a free choice, while preserving our right to right to say no and to refuse God's offer of salvation.  This is a quote from Ben's post:

'Back to pre-venient grace. This theology grows out of texts such as we have mentioned and the way it envisions the salvation process is exactly as it is described in the NT. Yes indeed God’s grace, administered by the Spirit must work in a person leading them to respond to the Gospel. No responsible Wesleyan theologian would suggest that its a matter of ‘us all having free will’. No indeed. Without grace no one responds to God for we are all in the thrall of sin and darkness.'

Readers of this blog will know that I have many problems with this.  On thing I keep coming back to is the fact that even on Ben's understanding, God still chooses some and not others: those to whom He extends pre-venient grace to make it possible for them to make a choice.  And once you allow God the right to decide who gets to make a choice then you are vulnerable to exactly the same criticisms that you make against those of us who believe in predestination!

Meanwhile to return from the sublime heights of theology, I now need to worry about the ridiculous question of the weather!