Steve writes . . . It’s not rocket science, or is it?

I’m delighted to say that All Saints’ bid for a grant from ‘Scientists in Congregations’ has been successful! ‘Scientists in Congregations’ is a project funded by the John Templeton Trust to support local congregations in running schemes which show that Christians have nothing to fear from the results of modern science.

There are so many misunderstandings of the Christian view of science which have led people to dismiss our faith out of hand, assuming that you can’t be a Christian and a top-class scientist. Yet there are faithful, Bible-believing Christians at the highest level of academic and practical science in this country. For example, amongst the professors of astrophysics and theoretical physics at Oxford University are Katherine Blundell and Ard Louis, who both find no difficulty between their scientific work and discoveries and holding a robust Christian faith.

The planning group at All Saints’ working with me is Helen Wilson, Mark Ritchie and Keith Thrower. Having been awarded the grant, the project we now have to make happen involves bringing four high quality speakers on science and faith issues into the heart of our town. The talks, which will be free of charge, will be presented at the Corn Exchange and everyone in Faringdon and the surrounding area will be welcome.

There’ll be time in each evening to ask questions of the speaker and the idea is to make science and faith issues very accessible so that no special knowledge of science is required by anyone who comes.

Some of the subjects we hope to have talks on include: ‘Has science killed God?’; ‘God and the Big Bang’, ‘Creation or Evolution, do we have to choose?’ and ‘Designer Babies – should we play God?’.

I still recall my great annoyance at my daughter’s class being told by their physics teacher in GCSE year that it was a choice- either God or the Big Bang, but not both. This only reflected the physics teacher’s lack of understanding of the greatness of the living God.

If all truth (including scientific truth) is God’s truth, there’s no need to let Richard Dawkins and other scientists who deny God have the final word. So please get thinking and praying about who you might bring with you amongst your family and friends. Watch this space for further details and help us to achieve the goal of filling the Corn Exchange for these talks between September 2017 and February 2018.

Yours in Christ,

Steve

JESUS . . . “Will come again in glory . . .” (2) (Exploring the Nicene Creed)

In this article we shall look again at the theme of Christ’s Return, thinking especially about the Glory, the Judgment, and briefly the final unending Kingdom. It is important to link glory and judgment together to see the latter in full meaning.

All through this series I have stressed the sheer magnitude and wonder of Divine Love, in Creation, in Redemption, and in the path of Christian living and holiness; all the collective amazingly generous work of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. I haven’t once mentioned the word repentance because I believe the sheer impact of the message of this Divine Love-in-action must prompt change in us and growth in holiness. The repentance, which must be individual free response, will I believe follow almost instinctively. It can’t do any other, or we have simply failed to grasp the message. I think of those priests and others who at the Crucifixion event went away beating their breasts (Luke 23:48)!

The creed is concerned with essential doctrines based on the “faith once for all delivered to the saints” as the New Testament puts it (Jude:v3): not with personal response. Discipleship and Christian living, with trustful prayer, etc, is of course the next vital stage of the Christian Journey. The New Testament beliefs about Jesus, based on the experiences of his first followers, means victory in and through Christ; his, and his eternal Gospel’s triumph, over all sin, evil and death; and the fulfilment of all God’s good purposes for us all. This is the glory.

To give glory to God in prayer and liturgy is to acknowledge all that God is and all that he has done for us with the highest and best gratitude, love and worship that we are capable of. And to live out the glory in Christian loving discipleship. The Hebrew word for glory ‘kavod’ means the radiance of the divine being and nature; God’s kingship, grandeur, beauty and wonder; his very presence and actions; but most of all his saving rescue work for his people.

The Greek word ‘doxa’ lifts these Old Testament divine characteristics to a higher plane. In the New Testament it speaks of the glory of the Eternal Trinity, with supreme emphasis on the work of Christ, the far wider salvation victory he has won for us. So James 2:1 writes “Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory”. “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1; Old Testament). “ The Word became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth and we have beheld his glory”. (John 1:14; New Testament). The final return of Jesus in glory will mean that all this will be seen and experienced with sheer delight, ecstatic happiness and joy, beyond words yet true in the heart of our glorious faith, and so in our hearts too.

The Judgment, essentially means I believe, the putting right by God of everything once wrong. It must involve recognition of human frailty and failure with full honest accountability; and with justice and full human restoration. However, at our level of understanding and our limited human concepts, we cannot fully comprehend the mind and decisions, and the merciful grace of God. In a previous article I wrote this about Christ’s life, teaching, and sacrifice for us: “It was both a rescue operation and a programme of teaching and re-education.

Above all it was to demonstrate, in the clearest possible way, that our Creator God is a God of unconditional, unlimited, generous forgiving Love, not that of a vengeful punishing Father. God’s true, full and best justice would be shown indeed, but in a way that turns upside down the way we see judgment and justice. God would take upon himself the consequences of what sin, evil and wrong can bring about. He would bear our sins and the due punishment himself! The incarnation was a risk of the highest order! It meant that God, out of his sheer infinite love for his world, and for each and every single one of us without exception, would take the risk that his Love might well be misunderstood, derided, rejected, or even worse, just disregarded by apathy or indifference.

All this was the exceedingly costly and high price of sin. And he was prepared to pay it, and did so to the uttermost. This was the price that blinded hearts and minds demanded! It was no purpose or pleasure of the Father to see his only beloved Son humiliated, tortured and crucified as a criminal; he the utterly innocent one, whose only desire and aim ever, was to bring healing and forgiveness, generous care wherever needed, and the highest good for all people”.

To say all this means we dare not treat lightly the sins and terrible wrong doings that we humans are sadly capable of. On the contrary, the more we grasp the fullness of the divine endlessly outpoured Love, the more we see the gravity and appalling consequences of sin, wrong doing and evil. And, that we must change. That we take seriously here and now our choices, responsibilities and actions; how in this present world we live and relate to each other; how we use our personal gifts, and the good world shared with us. For all this is truly to live out the first phase of the great final unending Kingdom; the very kingdom of God ushered in by Christ, and for which we pray in the Lord’s Prayer. We also know that when we do see Jesus at the end of our life’s journey we shall be finally and fully changed into the very likeness of Christ. Note the key passages 1 John 3:1-2, and 1 Corinthians 15:51-54.

So we must try to live as we know we should with Christ as our perfect example and sure aid, never losing sight of the infinite mercy of God, the availability of forgiveness at all times; and the glorious truth that in the end LOVE will triumph and that no one will be lost to the all embracing divine Love (John 6: 39). The story of the prodigal son shows us that the Father is forever looking out for us, receives us back graciously and tenderly, forgives and heals us; and re-clothes us with his own holiness (Luke 15:11-32). Apply this parable to the Judgment, for surely this is what it is all about.

To conclude: the new and final Kingdom will be inexpressibly perfect and wonderful; all beautiful and lovely, unfading and unending; and above all, close to and somehow within the very heavenly life of the Holy Trinity. It will indeed be fantastic, beyond our wildest dreams of happiness, joy and loving. We shall look at it again in the Creed’s closing words when we shall think about our own resurrection and “the life of the world to come”.

To the God of glory be all the glory! Alleluia. Amen.

George Abell

St Bartholomew’s Day

Bartholomew? Isn’t he something to do with hospitals? Look him up and you’ll find he’s mentioned in the New Testament, usually alongside Philip, and in John’s gospel he’s identified as Nathaniel. Legend has it that after the Ascension Bartholomew preached the gospel in India before moving to Greater Armenia (The area between the Caspian and Black Seas). He is said to have been martyred in Albanopolis in Armenia, now known as Kruje some 20 km north of Tirana. In some accounts he was beheaded, but the popular version is that he was flayed alive before being crucified, head downward.

His remains are said to have been given to one of the first churches in the city of Dura-Europos in Syria but later, miraculously, were washed ashore on Lipari a small island to the north of Sicily before being moved to Benevento, 50 km north-east of Naples. Some of the relics were given to Frankfurt, and Canterbury and some to Rome where they were preserved in the basilica of his name. The basilica at some stage inherited an old pagan medical centre, which, over time, made the link between Bartholomew, medicine and hospitals.

But there are other associations. His martyrdom is commemorated on 24th August. On the same day: in 79 AD, Mount Vesuvius erupted killing 15,000; in 410 AD, Rome was overrun by the Visigoths, and in: 1349 AD, the Jews in Mainz were blamed for the Plague and 6,000 were killed.

In 1572, 223 years later, in France came the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre. It started with the murders of the leaders of the Huguenots (French Calvinistic Protestants) ordered by the King Charles IX, but quickly developed into a mob-led bloodbath which left 3,000 dead in Paris and a total of 70,000 killed in all France.

Although the universal Church was later very thankful for the 16th century Reformation, it brought about a horrifying fanaticism and cruelty, all perpetrated in the name of God. The Bartholomew Day Massacre shows some of the tensions that come at times of religious ‘excitement’ and though I can’t imagine any of us killing for our version of the faith, we need to learn from this event because it might affect our own attitudes to some of our more annoying fellow Christians.

We need to be very careful about generalising about people even if we know they are part of what might be a persecuting movement. One of the enemies of the Huguenots, the Duke of Guise, who personally organised the murder of members of their leadership opened his house to the families of local Protestants and gave orders that they were to be treated kindly when under his roof. Some other Catholic leaders enabled other families to escape the butchery, being horrified that what started as a plot to kill only the leaders had turned into wholesale massacre.

To those who planned the event, such lenience shown by leading Catholics was shocking. The Papal Nuncio is said to have reported to the Pope that, “the only one who had acted in the spirit of a Christian and refrained from mercy, was the King; while the other princes, who pretended to be good Catholics and to deserve the favour of the Pope, had striven, one and all, to save as many Huguenots as they could.”

As Vicar Steve told us, we are all involved in mission, and we should be aware that we are handling what is potentially a very dangerous weapon. Although political, social and ethnic elements also feature in the conflicts that trouble our world, we can’t ignore the fact that religious differences are also used as levers to keep the pot of discontent on the boil. This can cause some people to adopt a very uncompromising stance because they feel that what God wants of them must be adhered to at all costs. For this very reason many people are turned away from religious conviction of any kind because they feel that it only fosters division and lack of toleration.

We, who believe that God’s demands are supreme, must also see that convictions about the details of what those demands are, differ greatly among good people in all generations, and so there just has to be moderation in all things. Only so, surely, can the distinction between faith and fanaticism, conviction and bigotry be drawn. Don’t let anyone deride the “liberal values” of toleration, respect for other peoples’ views or the belief in the common humanity that binds us all together. These things can’t be portrayed as ‘wishy-washy’ and motivated only by the desire to have no conflict, and to compromise at all costs; No, that is misrepresentation, because to stand for these values often requires as much courage, and sometimes causes as much conflict, as a stand for any value, when confronted by selfishness or zealotry.

Remember how the commonly accepted association of leadership with domination was reversed in Luke (22: 25-27) by linking it with service?

Can we use the anniversary of one of the awful events of religious cruelty to strengthen our prayers that such events, which keep recurring in our world, do not turn us or others into partisans wanting vengeance or retribution on whole groups of people, or even into generalisers who tar every one of our enemies with the same brush?

Give us all, Father God, a sense of proportion and zeal of moderation!

Max Young

Unexpected Easter Stars

Since Easter, I have found Hollywood most enlightening. Thinking about the Passion, especially about the Resurrection and what it means, I dimly remembered that films tell the story in a variety of ways. Just as reading different versions of the Bible illuminates in ways that a single text version does not always do, so seeing several films on the death and resurrection of Jesus yielded surprises that have been most fruitful.

It has to be said that ‘Biblical’ films take liberties with the main story line: a Bible literalist might easily get annoyed with them but most of the additions just creatively fill the many gaps in the chronology that has come down to us, shedding a slanting light onto the familiar. In all cases, the respect shown for the truth of the story is very direct and real. Among the films I saw, the moral force of the tale lies with those who come to believe in Jesus as the Messiah – despite everything, often to the point of martyrdom.

The Robe (1953) tracks three such conversion experiences. The Greek slave ‘gets it’ immediately, on the first Palm Sunday; later, the high-born Roman lady, finally incensed with Nero’s evil, joins Marcellus, her Roman tribune fiancée, in willingly giving up her life; Marcellus’ personal transformation is accompanied by his own sequence of intelligent observations and questions, all challenging Christian faith.

It is a reminder, today, that apathy, scepticism or hostility towards our faith is not necessarily the product of ignorance or thoughtlessness – or even new. Why would an intelligent, well-educated Roman opt to follow what can easily be seen as a wandering band of illiterates who, with fantastical tales, threatened to negate centuries of success by turning away from the apparently proven gods of progress?

Risen (2016) perhaps does the sceptical questions best – and answers them in the best way possible.

Two people stood out for me in all of the films – Barabbas and Pontius Pilate. Barabbas is sometimes portrayed as a rebel leader of insurgents against Roman rule, a man to whom, one version has it, Judas is fatally drawn as more likely than Jesus to deliver the “messianic” victory over the Roman occupiers – hence the betrayal.

Another version has him killed off after a rumpus as Jesus is dying. But all versions have him personally wondering how it is that Jesus dies in his place. As in scripture, quite literally, Barabbas is the first person of whom it can be said, “Jesus died for him” – that alone makes him of timeless interest.

Perhaps the most thoughtful characterisation is by Antony Quinn in Barabbas (1961). Here, Barabbas starts out as popular, boorish hooligan figure who, as he is released from his dark cell, is confusingly dazzled by seeing Jesus under arrest across the square. He is bewildered and then journeys through spiritual rejection and doubt, finally accepting Jesus as his Saviour, dying in the mass crucifixions Nero orders after torching Rome. This is not the once-and-for-all certainty of conversion through a personal encounter with the risen Jesus, as in Risen, but a slow, painful and lonely pilgrimage, brought to a humble end on his personal cross. Precise biblical veracity it might lack but spiritual depth it has in abundance.

The path taken by Pontius Pilate is, of course, different. The various characterisations of him in the films all have value. Reading the Gospels yields no certainty as to his character or motivation; the films give an interesting range of possibilities:

In Barabbas, Pilate is a superbly confident administrator, unimpressed by either the mob or the temple leaders: · the issue at stake is simply too minor to waste time on. He is intellectually interested in the question of “What is truth?” but rather as a matter for philosophical reflection in the Graeco-Roman tradition.

  • In The Robe, Pilate is a weak and petty man – the supposedly untypical Roman, incompetently responsible for deicide so that “Rome” is not tarnished ever after – carried along by events rather than controlling them, envious of anyone better connected at the Imperial court than himself.
  • In King of Kings, he is a dry lawyer, interested only in definitions of kingdom, jurisdiction and authority, ‘truth’ being what a court determines it to be. Herod Antipas is more his real enemy than the wandering Galilean or Judean subversives.
  • In Risen, Pilate is at the end of his career and cynical; above all, he is frightened by the impending visit of the Emperor Tiberius to Palestine and all else is subsumed by that. Kill, suppress, imprison, cover up: anything for the appearance of order. The ‘missing’ body is of far greater threat to that order than the crucifixion and Pilate acts accordingly.

All these are legitimate interpretations of Pilate from scripture. And what unites them all, in the Gospel accounts and in the films, is the central irony that Pontius Pilate is the first man to proclaim who Jesus was and is. By insisting – from whatever motive – on the sign saying, ‘King of the Jews’ in Latin, Greek and Aramaic, he begins the necessary and never-ending task of global evangelisation.

Films are no kind of replacement for the Gospels, They cannot tell ‘the whole story’; they are a multi-layer filter of selective screenplay, direction and acting, based on Scripture. But in another sense they do tell a ‘whole’ story. In particular, the way the disciples visibly react to Jesus startlingly confirm his humanity. The way we see how the miracles amaze them suggest God working within him. The depiction of the Resurrection in Risen is marvellously well done. Because the films are stories of the story, we see somehow more clearly that his sacrificial coming – to save all humanity – is made possible by Pilate and Barabbas. They are the indispensable men in the Passion story. Judas was another – but that, as they say, is another story.

Peter Foot