Max Young writes … Do Christians believe in God?

I once met a Muslim who asked me that question, “Do Christians believe in God?” The reason he asked this question was because the Christians he’d met were ones who only spoke about Jesus, and when they used the word ‘Lord’ it seemed to him they were talking about Jesus only.

Do we have to believe in God to be a Christian? Well, of course we do! It’s at the heart of our faith – Jesus himself said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.” You can’t do that, without believing in God, can you? But I wonder, do some of us believe in him without actually knowing or experiencing him? If we’re to know God in, or through, Christ, we have to experience him as, Jesus did, in the down to earth, everyday, business of life.

If you agree with me, then nothing should interest us as Christians more than the religious experience of Jesus. Let’s forget for a moment what he taught and did, but focus on what happened to him, on his experience.

In seven verses (9-15) of the first chapter of his Gospel, Mark pares everything down to give us a powerful story of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry among us. In those verses he describes events which, are reflected in the experience, the lives, of every one of us, the highs, lows and the humdrum.

There’s the glorious ‘high’ of his baptism in the Jordan, with the Spirit descending on him like a dove, and when he heard the voice of God his Father affirming him in his love.

Can you picture that scene? Can you imagine the joy that must have shown in his face. Presumably his religious experience before his baptism by John must have been relatively normal, but now he was at a phenomenally significant turning point.

Have you ever been to a baptism, when something a little different happens. When God seemed to be there in a special way? Yes, I know, it could be just a psychological reaction on the part of the person being baptised or someone in the baptism party– though what’s wrong with that? But it might be something deeper, what is called a theophany – God showing himself to a human being – mightn’t it? If God is God, and he loves his children, why shouldn’t we accept the possibility of a specially chosen close encounter with him?

Aren’t such ‘highs’ part and parcel of our ongoing experience as we grow in the Christian life? We should thank God for those glimpses, those mountain-top experiences, those wonderful answers to prayer.

But then, after that high came a dreadful ‘low’ – quite literally a desert experience. The idea of God meeting his people in the wilderness runs like a thread through the Old Testament: there’s Moses, awestruck at the burning bush; Israel dwarfed by the desert vastness of  Sinai; dejected Elijah, too, at the ‘mountain of God’. Jesus’ desert experience was, quite explicitly, an experience of Satan, the enemy of God, a time of testing and temptation. And it wasn’t just a brief skirmish; it lasted nearly six weeks. Imagine that! Six weeks is a long time, as any parent knows in the summer holidays! I don’t think that the word torment is an exaggeration for this experience of Jesus.

In preparing people for their baptism, or their child’s, it’s essential to warn them that a spiritual ‘downer’ may happen afterwards. No ‘high’ can last for ever. We teach that the Christian life is an ongoing battle, and that the power of evil is a constant reality. And we need to remember that it was the same Spirit who descended upon Jesus at his baptism who then “drove him out into the wilderness.” The low times in our spiritual lives aren’t signs that God has gone away and abandoned us. For reasons he alone knows, he sees fit to put us through the mangle – to parallel Jesus’ experience. Yes, it can be wonderful to experience the reality of God in our lives, but it doesn’t always seem that way!

We have the highs, the lows and then we come to what I called the humdrum, a return to normality “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God.” In a word, he got on with the job his Father had given him to do, proclaiming God’s kingdom and gathering followers. The high had been enjoyed; the low had been endured; now it was time for the steady task of service.

As it was for Jesus, God calls his people, us, to work, and we shouldn’t let the highs or lows distract us from that basic fact. Anyone who suggests that the living of our Christian lives should be at a constantly high-octane intensity or excitement, has blinded themselves to both scripture and experience.

After his time in the wilderness, Jesus, this time in the words of Luke, “returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit.” The Spirit again! The same Spirit who filled Jesus with exultation at his baptism – the same Spirit who drove him out into the desert – that same Spirit now empowered him for his day to day ministry.

The message couldn’t be clearer. Don’t delight in God only in the highs, when the Spirit is so excitingly obvious. Don’t cry out to God only in the lows, when the Spirit seems depressingly absent. No, expect him to be there also in the ordinary business of life, equipping, guiding, and enabling by the same Spirit. The experience of God can be quite routine. If our spiritual antennae were really sensitive we’d be able to receive this message every waking day, every hour, every minute. “Seven whole days, not one in seven.” Yes, Christians do believe in God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

George Abel writes … We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins

Exploring the Nicene Creed

This brief statement was included in the Creed to emphasize that the Church is a Sacramental Community; so it will be helpful to explore the meaning of this term.

Essentially Sacraments are real and meaningful Signs: signs, or sure indicators of God’s Love and Grace at certain points or needs in our Christian journey. They are often referred to in our Prayer Books as the means of grace. Hence a Sacrament is fundamentally an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, ordained and given by Christ himself. Through them we receive the promises of Jesus; sure pledges with firm assurance of his gifts of grace. The whole New Testament sees them in this light, fulfilling also promises made by God in the Old Testament (Joel 2:28-29).

There are two major Gospel Sacraments, Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. There are five other rites of the Church often called sacraments, given for particular stages as we grow in Christ, namely: Confirmation, Reconciliation (confession), Holy Orders (making the Church’s ministers for those called), Christian Marriage (for those called) and Anointing (for the sick). Sacraments do not work mechanically like machines (i.e. a certain cause always has a certain effect); or like a tap being turned on. And they have absolutely nothing to do with magic or superstition! They operate, for the want of a better word and are meaningful, only in the context of faith and trust, devotion and humility, love and obedience to the Lord the giver.

Holy Baptism is the foundation Sacrament or basis from which all other Sacraments and grace-giving rites have their origin and find their meaning. Throughout these articles mention has been made how aspects of our holy Faith have tangible concrete expression in the Sacraments.

Thinking about the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus I wrote this: “These are truths that carry also a special meaning, for they point to and assure us of our resurrection in Christ, and of our ascension to be with him one day. For this we have real and certain foretaste now, for the two Gospel Sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion are explicit outward signs. Baptism confers on the believer the gift of new eternal life. Communion nurtures that gift, nourishing it throughout our lives until we see Christ in heaven and share too his final return in glory”.

Holy Baptism is truly the New Life Sacrament giving life in Christ and with Christ forever, within the family of Christ’s Church. The Creed stresses that it means the absolving and forgiveness of all that has been evil or wrong in the person’s former life. And most importantly the truth that divine forgiveness and healing of heart and conscience are available all through life. For infants it is not some kind of cleansing of an inherited propensity or inclination to sinfulness (once called original sin), but just as for adults the sure guarantee of a life held for ever in the enriching and forgiving Love of our Father. God always gives full pardon and forgiveness when we confess the wrongs we have done, whether in prayer silently at home; or with the Christian family in church when (after the general confession said by all) the minister pronounces the royal words of pardon. And always where we confess humbly, truly and sincerely.

There might however be an occasion, if we are seriously and persistently troubled in mind and conscience when we need the additional counsel support and affirmation that sacramental confession can bring. So never hesitate to make use of it if necessary, for clergy are trained and commissioned to give this particular help and encouragement. Divine forgiveness however given does not come cheaply, for we always make confession to Christ who was crucified for us, whether quietly in prayer at home, or in the pew in church, or privately before God’s priest. Yet it is truly and graciously given for our dear Saviour has paid the price, completely, willingly, lovingly, and for everyone, and forever. That is especially what our Creed wants to hold before us.

Thinking about Baptism and the whole sacramental life of the Church, always try to see the Sacraments as real living encounters with Jesus; a meeting of friends, and our very special Friend and Brother. They are encounters with the living God, and with all his true friends in the local and universal family of Christ. They are enriching, warm and uplifting, truly grace-giving, heartfelt and beautiful, personal ‘contacts’. Never forget that your baptism established that relationship with your Saviour, both for this life now and for eternity with him. If you are expecting good news and it comes in a letter or by email or face book you get quite a thrill. If it’s by ‘phone and you hear the voice how much better; but if it comes in person face to face what a greater joy. Always think of Sacraments in that last kind of way. They do bring huge joy and happiness now, and are real foretastes of life with Jesus in heaven.

But why “One Baptism”? It is to assert its supreme importance as the one and only rite of Christian initiation. And as the foundation and key Sacrament, once given it can never be repeated. Infant Baptism is always fully and completely adequate; and wherever possible should be confirmed by the person’s own choice at a suitable age in the Church’s rite of Confirmation. Its ‘oneness’ also links it to the oneness of our Father God and our Lord Jesus Christ; to the one holy Faith also and the very life and nature of the one Church of Christ (Ephesians 4:3). In the early Christian centuries there were many religions with varieties of initiation practices and very complex ceremonies. Following Christ’s clear injunction the Church chose to have just one significant rite of Water Baptism in which the Holy Spirit of God grafts the believer into Christ and his family the Church.

Here is the Book of Common Prayer’s Catechism definition of Holy Baptism: “In my Baptism…. I was made a member of Christ, the child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven”. There is no better summary. To be a member of Christ is to be joined and grafted to him and his Body the Church; to be the child of God is to be known and loved by him as his son or daughter with an immeasurable degree of personal loving care. To be an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven is to receive here and now active living membership in God’s present and eternal Kingdom. We shall think about this in the next article.

God of glory, whose radiance shines from the face of Christ, grant us such assurance of your mercy and knowledge of your grace, that believing all your promises, and receiving all you give, we may be transformed into the image of your Son; and with grateful hearts share that self same glory: Through Christ our Lord. Amen. (Adapted from new Baptismal Rite 1998).

Designer Babies: should we play God?

A review of the third talk by the Rt Revd Dr Lee Rayfield in a series of four on “Science & Faith: Big Questions in Faringdon Corn Exchange” 

Nearly 90 people came to Faringdon Corn Exchange on 11th January to hear the Rt Revd Dr Lee Rayfield, Bishop of Swindon, talk and answer questions about this topical and challenging issue. With a background in Immunology research, Dr Rayfield has been a member of the UK Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA) since 2012.

Dr Rayfield started by asking the audience what we understood by the phrase “Designer Baby”. He then took us through a brief review of pertinent medical techniques, including amniocentesis, fetoscopy and Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD), that are already in use to diagnose genetic abnormalities causing conditions such as Down’s Syndrome, Thalassaemia and Cystic Fibrosis. PGD is used to screen embryos produced in the laboratory to select those that are free of diseases which are likely to be fatal in infancy, or significantly limit lifespan or quality of life. More controversially, parents may select an embryo with tissue matching a sibling born with a genetic disease to facilitate later tissue donation. Dr Rayfield stressed that these techniques have been developed with the good intention of reducing human suffering. We do not seek to “play God” but rather to “be human in God’s way”.

For some people the foetus is viewed as a person from the moment of fertilization, so they cannot accept a procedure which leads to the creation of “unwanted” foetuses. For others, including Dr Rayfield, our response must be more nuanced since 70% of naturally-conceived embryos fail to implant in the womb. We need to look beyond our initial reaction to decide what respectful and regulated use of unimplanted embryos may be permitted for human benefit. Dr Rayfield suggested that all medical interventions modify our natural bodies and therefore we shouldn’t view our DNA as sacrosanct. He stressed that the HFEA does not permit any laboratory work on embryos beyond 14 days after fertilization, the stage at which recognizable organization of neural tissue is beginning.

Dr Rayfield, as a Church of England Bishop, believes that he should engage in the HFEA licensing process to build bridges and bring a Christian perspective that upholds the unique value of every person, created in the image of God. He sees human cloning as wrong because it denies the uniqueness of the individual. The Bishop said that modifying the genetic make-up of an embryo, currently not generally permitted under UK law, is a more controversial question. The HFEA is allowing research and treatment based on the use of donated mitochondria (the cell’s power supply) to replace faulty mitochondria in the maternal egg. This has been misleadingly described as making “3-parent babies”.

Current research on gene-editing, presently only licensed for treatment of non-reproductive cells, will make it possible to replace faulty genes. The Bishop is concerned about the danger that modifying the human genome may in future be promoted to maintain the UK’s world-leading research status and economic competitiveness, rather than continuing to be governed by strong medical and ethical principles.

For this reviewer, the take-home message was that genetic research is fast outpacing our ability to judge ethical issues. As Bishop Rayfield says, we need to have people involved in the licensing process who will engage in ethical, prayerful decision-making. We should pray that they will be enabled to speak truth to those in authority.

Mark Ritchie