It says in the Bible . . . Are you listening?

A recent article in my newspaper (18th May) told of a man in Blyth being convicted for keeping four men as slaves and it reminded me of some reading I did on the slave trade some 10 or so years ago.

In 1788 a Jesuit called Fr Raymond Harris published a little book called ‘Scriptural Researches on the Licitness of the Slave Trade, Shewing its conformity with the principles of natural and revealed Religion, delineated in the Sacred Writings of the Word of God.’ Harris, as was not unusual at the time, assembled a list of quotes from the Bible showing that slavery was part of the natural order – and one of the most important proofs came from Philemon, the shortest book in the New Testament. Harris’s reasoned that St Paul had told Philemon to take back Onesimus as a slave; and that meant slavery was sanctioned as an institution. Therefore the slave trade that was such a good profit-making enterprise and financially beneficial to the ports of Liverpool, London and Bristol was also sanctioned by the Bible. Harris used the Book of Philemon to defend a gruesome trade in human cargo.

A book that repudiated Harris’ claim was written in the following year by a former African slave. His book was called ‘The Interesting Narrative of the life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African.’ The book told of his life and how he educated himself mainly via the Bible and eventually bought himself out of slavery for £40.

In his memoirs he took Fr Harris to task –saying what was important was that Philemon was asked to take Onesimus back as a brother – and that meant that masters were to exercise brotherly love towards their slaves. And what is more, Equiano thought that since at the time when Paul was writing Christians held all things in common, then there was no way that Philemon would be allowed to keep his slave as his own private property. In the end he thought that Paul was actually not defending the slave trade at all, but attacking the very institution, not just of slavery, but of the holding of property altogether; and that meant of course that if there was no property there would be no slaves.

He concluded with a pretty blunt message to Fr Harris: “of this epistle which you cite strongly in favour of slavery, when the whole tenor of it is in behalf of the slave. Besides who would lose out if slavery was abolished? Perhaps the manufacturers of neck-yokes, chains, collars, handcuffs and leg-boots.”

John Wesley brought Equiano’s book to the attention of William Wilberforce and other anti-slavery campaigners. What Equiano was doing, which was so different from Fr Harris, was opening the Bible and letting it speak to him, instead of distorting it to make it fit his own words. He spoke to the Bible from his own world and it answered him back.

And that was not universally the case for all books, “I have often taken up a book, and talk to it, and then put my ears to it, when alone, in the hope it would answer me; and I have been very much concerned when I found it remained silent.” But the Bible was different – he addressed it from his situation and it spoke back to him.

By taking his question to the Bible, Equiano received an answer quite unlike those who merely found what they were looking for. He didn’t conform to any stereotype and perhaps because of this, his answers were original – in Philemon, St Paul was heard speaking afresh and he began to say something quite different. Slaves were not commodities but human beings; and perhaps even more importantly, certainly for William Wilberforce, they were human beings who would hear the Gospel.

It was through his act of open listening that Equiano’s Bible was allowed to speak to him and eventually it silenced the other voices of inequality and oppression; it shook a world which had grown all too comfortable in slavery. And it seems to me, if there were a bit more listening going on – not least to the Bible, then the churches might not be quite so divided, and there might be a bit more listening to those who have been cast outside the net of believers.

In fact there are many people who fear the Bible because they think it might say something that threatens their presuppositions about the kind of people God might love; but if we were to listen more carefully then things might begin to change – God loved slaves and condemned slavery and the Western world gradually accepted that message. And there may be many others whom he loves but who so often we seek to condemn.

Max Young

Summing Up (Exploring the Nicene Creed)

I want first to give an estimation of the importance of this Creed both for the Church as a whole and for each of us personally; then to mention briefly other Christian Creeds, Confessions of Faith, Articles of Religion, and such like. Then I shall close with a very different style of creed which I think ‘earths’ our glorious Nicean Faith in our present day world with its huge needs, despairs and challenges. It’s called “A Creed of Hope”.

For about 1700 years the Nicene Creed has been the official bedrock or public Confession of Faith of almost all Christians. Its phrases have a depth of beauty, clarity and meaning that has enabled it to stand the test of time, and to weather many turbulent days and eras in the Church’s history. It was, and so still is, a truly ecumenical creed.

As I have explained earlier it was first promulgated by leaders from all local Churches across the whole of the Christian world. So in a true sense it is still the basic essential Creed of all Christian Communions today, whether Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Anglican or whatever. It is therefore a Creed of Unity which holds us together and unites us whatever our relatively small differences on some aspects of our faith and practise might be.

In my very first article I wrote: “… standing and proudly but humbly declaring that Creed with others is immensely important and helpful, both individually, and as a communion and fellowship of believers. It undergirds our personal faith. It reassures us when necessary. It bonds us together in Christ as Church and family, and above all it gives glory to our God”. In other words just as our spine and bone structure supports and undergirds our whole body, so this Creed is like the spine of our faith. Like the Lord’s Prayer it is something we could do well to know by heart.

Through 1700 years of Christian history there have been many other Creeds and Confessions of faith. The shorter “Apostles Creed” as it is called is even older than this one and is still used at Anglican Services, Confirmations etc. You can find it in the Book of Common Prayer or Common Worship.

Another creed compiled some years after the Nicene Creed is called the “Creed of St Athanasius”. It was formulated to express in depth and detail the nature and harmony of the Persons of the Trinity. That can also be found in the Book of Common Prayer after Evening Prayer. At the time of the 16th Century Reformation many splits from the Roman Church sadly took place (arising from the errors, wrongful teachings and practises of the later middle ages).

New national or regional Churches then formulated not a new basic essential creed but what were called Articles or Confessions of Faith, setting out the theological and ecclesiastical position of each Church with its understanding of the Christian Faith.

At this time the Church of England adopted what was called “The Thirty Nine Articles of Religion”, and they can usually be found as an appendix to the Book of Common Prayer. Such articles are not of the same standing or importance as the catholic or universal creeds like that of Nicea. They dealt in part with controversial issues of the time; and also made clarification of other aspects of our faith. Though they do have value still, many of those 16th century issues have largely been resolved. And thankfully nowadays there is far more common understanding and practice of our holy faith on the part of most Christian Churches.

A useful exercise is to sit down and compile one’s own personal creed setting out how we as individuals see our faith, what it means to us, and how we try to live it. After all the Creeds are not just cold cerebral academic statements but living expressions of living people living out the Christian life. Some time back one of our Alpha Courses here as a group compiled how it saw its creed. They came up with a very worthy document, very Christ centred, heartfelt, and certainly challenging. I will close now with a very modern style of creed. Read it and use it, hopefully I pray as your personal creed too.

A Creed of Hope

  • I believe in God, the God of all truth, the God whose word is life. I believe in God who accompanies me along every step of my path on this earth; many times walking behind me, watching me and suffering with my mistakes; at other times walking beside me, talking to me, and teaching me; and at other times again, walking ahead of me, guiding and marking my pace.
  • I believe in the God of flesh and blood, Jesus Christ; the God who lived in my skin and tried on my shoes; the God who walked in my ways, and knows of lights and shadows. The God who ate and starved, who had a home, and suffered loneliness; who was praised and condemned, kissed and spat on, loved and hated. The God who went to parties and funerals; the God who laughed and cried, and shed his blood for me on a cruel Cross.
  • I believe in the God who is still attentive today; who looks at the world and sees the hatred that segregates, divides, sets people aside, hurts and kills; who sees the bullets piercing the flesh, and the blood of innocent people flowing on the earth; who sees the hand that dips into another’s pocket, stealing what somebody needs to eat.
  • I believe in the God who sees the dirty rivers, and the dead fish; the toxic substances destroying the earth, and piercing the sky; who sees the future mortgaged, and man’s debt growing. I believe in God who sees all this … and keeps on crying.
  • But I also believe in the God who sees a mother giving birth, a life born from pain; who sees two children playing; who sees a seed growing, and a flower blooming out of the debris, a new beginning; who sees three crazy women clamouring for justice, an illusion that doesn’t die; who sees the sun rising every morning, a time of opportunities. I believe in a God who sees all this … and laughs, because in spite of it all, there is hope

George Abell

Just listen to those bells

The deadline for this article is the day before I’m involved in a Songs of Praise Service with the Vale of the White Horse Branch of the Oxford Diocesan Guild of Church Bell Ringers – an annual celebration in which they will make the following resolution:

Almighty God, you have called us to be bell ringers in your Church: make us united and faithful in your service, so that our ringing of the bells may be done to your glory and for the benefit of all your people. As bell-ringers, we dedicate our energy and skill to God’s glory, and determine that our ringing work will be our prayer. That is our resolve.

It was Alfred Lord Tennyson who coined the phrase, “Ring out, wild bells!” Why he said this, as an Englishman, I don’t know, because we don’t want to hear the clang and clash of chaotic continental bells. What we want to hear and relish is modulated, civilised, precise, and glorious English church bells, change ringing. Those beautiful tones that resound around English villages, towns, and cities and those places overseas that love the feel of England, bells calling the faithful to worship.

So let the bells ring out. Let them call us to worship almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who showed us how much he loves us by living amongst us and dying for us, a life and death costing not less than everything. Let the bells that call us to worship call those who ring them too. Let them call us, each one of us, to a life that offers worship to almighty God, to a life that puts the love of God above everything else, to a life that makes proper space for our relationship with God.

Here’s a bell-related story with a moral we need to heed. During WWII, one of the millions the Nazis sent to concentration camps was Corrie Ten Boom. She with her sister endured numerous indignities and humiliations and her parents died in the camps. After the war ended, she was freed, but found she was still ‘imprisoned’ by her hatred of those who had hurt her and her family. After much tears and prayer she finally succeeded in ridding herself of this hatred and began to speak churches throughout Europe trying to help others achieve the same objective.

She forgave person after person for what they had done. However there was one man whom she had great difficulty in forgiving. So she went to speak to her preacher. He thought about it for a few moments and then pointed to the bell rope hanging in the foyer.

“Do you see that bell rope?” he asked. “Every Sunday, the sexton pulls on the rope and rings that bell – announcing to the community that it is time for worship. As he pulls the rope, the bell rings ‘ding’, and ‘dong’, ding and dong. Eventually he lets go of the bell rope… but the bell, being heavy, still swings and rings ding, and dong, slower and slower until at last it stops ringing.”

“I believe the same thing is true of forgiveness. When we forgive, we take our hand off the rope. But if we’ve been tugging at our grievances for a long time, we mustn’t be surprised if the old angry thoughts keep niggling away. They’re just the ding dongs of the old bell slowing down. But the key thing is this: you’ve got to let go of the bell rope. You’ve got stop tugging at your grievances over and over again… or you’ll never forgive. So, have you let go of the bell rope?

Is there someone you have never forgiven for something they did to you in the past? Is there someone who – if you met them in the street, you’d try to avoid because their very presence makes you angry? Is there someone at ‘The Peace’ in church that you miss out? Is there someone who, when you hear their name mentioned, it sets your teeth on edge?

Then you need to let go of the bell rope. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us”.
Let me end with some words from Longfellow –

The bells are the best of preachers,
their brazen lips are learn-ed teachers,
from their pulpits of stone, in the upper air,
sounding aloft, without crack or flaw,
shriller than trumpets under the Law,
Now a sermon and now a prayer.

Max Young

Max Young writes … Can We Be There?

Confusing or what? Things just didn’t make sense. A couple of days ago they’d known where they stood. They’d seen Jesus crucified, then sealed into a tomb, and their world had come to an end. They’d put their trust in Jesus, but now he was gone. The disciples were in mourning but they’d have to get things together again and get on with the rest of their lives. It was sad, but with Jesus dead, the life they knew with him was over.

But, suddenly, things were different and they didn’t understand what was happening. The women had found Jesus’ tomb empty and this had been confirmed by Peter, and then Mary told them she’d seen Jesus risen from the dead! It was incredible. Had his body been removed or stolen? Or was it just possible that Mary was right and he was risen? They didn’t know what to think, and it was very frightening..

Then, later, when they got together behind locked doors, they talked over what had happened and no doubt, debated Mary’s claim to have met Jesus, risen from the dead. Trouble was, she was a woman, and therefore in the men’s eyes her statement was debatable as it would not be allowed in law. Few would have believed her and developed a faith from her witness. Remember there were quite a few followers of Jesus and the room would have been fairly full. So up to the point of realising they had company and seeing Jesus in front of them, they were not believers in the risen Christ.

So, what Mary had claimed was true after all. The Lord was risen! There he was standing among them, talking to them. Their utter despair was turned to hope; despondency transformed into joy. Death had been overcome and replaced by life. Their fear and uncertainty was replaced with a new way of seeing things, there was hope for the future.

But Thomas missed all this – he hadn’t been there, for whatever reasons. When the others told him what had happened, he couldn’t and wouldn’t believe them. Just as with the other disciples, second-hand faith was not for him. He had to see it for himself. Only then would he be convinced and believe.

The next Sunday they got together behind locked doors again, this time with Thomas among their number. Once more the doors were shut, and once more the risen Lord stood among them and spoke to them, “Peace be with you.” Thomas saw, Thomas heard, Thomas believed. “My Lord and my God!” he said. Now Thomas knew for himself that when they met in fellowship on the first day of the week something wonderful and marvellous might happen.

What about us? Are we always in a Church on the first day of the week? Or do we sometimes give in to the temptation to have a Sunday ‘off?’ After all, these days there are plenty of fairly reasonable distractions to tempt our absence – family events, sports matches for the children, DIY that can’t be done in the week. It seems more and more difficult to give church-going the status of a commitment.

And even if we do go to Church every Sunday, now that most of us have wheels, we can go to the Church we find most attractive – its services may be at a more convenient time; it may be one where our children’s friends go; it may be more child-oriented; or may be more to our musical or theological taste, there are any number of reasons. The pull of loyalty to the parish in which we live can be lessened when we have so many alternatives.

Do we do a Thomas and, as it were, go AWOL? Do we miss out on the fellowship of our Parish Church with our actual Christian neighbours? Are we sometimes inclined to have a Sunday without worship?

If we do miss a Sunday we may, like Thomas, miss the day when those attending felt blessed; a day when they were uplifted, energised and encouraged by the prayers and praise; when the Bible readings had a real impact. Could it have been one of those days when the preacher’s words just flowed as though their heart had been set on fire and God’s Word had been spoken – and heard? And was there the feeling in it all that the Risen Lord had been among them bringing his blessing and his peace?

But we’d have missed it! We weren’t there! For whatever reasons, we weren’t there, and so we missed the fellowship and lost the rich blessing.

There are now so many claims upon a Sunday that compete for our attention and time. Can we give priority to our faith, and a commitment to God, and make a habit of meeting with other Christian people within the fellowship of the church so that we may be strengthened and encouraged by one another? Can we, with God’s grace, find the risen Lord among us? We know the Lord is risen – can we be there?

Max Young writes … Some Palm Sunday Thoughts

Looking ahead to Palm Sunday, I wonder what happened to that donkey, or in Matthew’s version, the donkey and colt? In Jesus’s time, such animals were a form of mobile wealth – cash on the hoof – not the kind of thing you’d give away lightly – and yet it was given away. We don’t know whether the owner got it back; that would have been quite difficult with all the extra human traffic in Jerusalem for the festival.

But it’s one of those things about Christian discipleship, frequently mentioned by Jesus, that our relationship with the things we own should change when he comes into our lives. We can’t hold onto him and them equally. Jesus was quite clear when he explained that his disciples were people whose grip on wealth, influence and even on family had been loosened. Perhaps if we haven’t changed our relationship to our possessions then we would have to ask ourselves whether Jesus had really come into our lives.

And what about the crowd who, seeing Jesus on the donkey, saw the parallel with the words they’d heard from their reading of Zechariah. A prophet might appear in our minds as an old man in flowing robes and a long white beard – we might be able to visualise Ian McKellern as Gandalf more easily than we can a prophet like Zechariah. But to the crowd this was the very stuff of life – they had heard his words at home and in the synagogue; words that they were seeing brought to life in front of their very eyes!

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he
humble and riding on a donkey
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

And so, suddenly, this crowd is shouting the word “Hosanna!” – normally a word kept for their worship at this festival in the hallowed precincts of the Temple – But, with Jesus right in front of them in the street, they simply can’t hold back the word any longer. When Jesus comes to us, today, promises of new life and hope and forgiveness suddenly seem to be a possibility. But, for that to be possible, however, we need to have eyes to see them …

Some people obviously can’t see the new spiritual reality. In fact, they don’t even see Jesus. Instead, like many of the crowd on the first Palm Sunday, they ask, “Who is this?” Clearly they aren’t the ones whose friends or family had been healed by Jesus or whose water had been turned into wine. They are those perpetually on the sidelines, unable, unaware or unwilling, to try to understand the spiritual event on the main stage. They are the girl in the jewellery shop fingering the crosses and asking the shop assistant if they have ‘one with the little bloke on it’. They are the mother I heard telling her daughter some years ago, as I walked past them on a Good Friday march of witness in Filey, that it was something to do with Christmas. They are the ones who, for whatever reason, don’t come to a church to worship with us. They are the ones who need someone to answer the question, “Who is this?”

And who must provide them with the answer? You and I, as Christians have to spread the Good News by our words and actions. If we are successful the question they ask will change to “Who are these?” You may remember me quoting the words of the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu,

“It would be fantastic if people not only said of Jesus Christ, “What sort of man is this?” but said of us, his followers,

“What sort of people are they? Their gracious actions, and the language on their lips is of God’s goodness and love. Let us get to know them. There is something extraordinarily normal and wonderful about them.”

George Abell writes … We look for the Resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come” (Exploring the Nicene Creed)

We look for the Resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come”
 (Exploring the Nicene Creed)

Christianity is like an ellipse that has two foci.  One focus is Jesus, our One Lord and Saviour, and the other focus is us (all humanity). These two foci of our holy faith are first, that Jesus took our human flesh, gave his life for us on the Cross, and on the third day rose again. And secondly that we also, because of his resurrection, will share a fully restored resurrection life at the end of our life’s journey.

But there is something very special about this “us” part of our Faith, because in Baptism, in a deeply spiritual yet real way, we actually receive and begin there and then, the precious gift of eternal life; the start of a born-again life-in-Christ (John3:1-17). At Holy Communion, when receiving the sacramental Body and Blood of Jesus, the minister will say words like this: ‘the Body of Christ keep you in eternal life’, and similarly with the sacrament of Christ’s Blood, shed for us.

This last statement of our creed is a kind of blanket declaration covering the entire Christian Hope for all humanity, that this life is not all there is, that death is not the final end; that the substance of our mortal human life and existence, body mind and spirit, individuality and personality, will be changed and transformed into a glorious, perfect, beautiful resurrection life. Our home then will not be a finite creation on a finite planet, but set in a world other than all we know now, the eternal world. There, in heaven, God the Holy Trinity is its direct life and light (Revelation 21:22-23). All this is almost beyond the scope of our present human knowing and imagination, so to help and assure us we have the most precious of all gifts from God, the gift of faith. That gift of faith has been given a solidity and firmness by Divine Revelation all through Old Testament Scripture, and supremely and finally in the New Testament of Christ’s life; in his very presence and teaching amongst us. And his disciples have encapsulated all this for us in the sacred writings; the distillation of all that they had come to believe through the words of Jesus himself and the prompting of his Holy Spirit. Here are key passages relevant for this part of our creed:

“You will show me the path of life; in your presence is the fullness of joy and in your right hand are pleasures for evermore” (Psalm 16:10; Old Testament). “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his compassion never fails” (Lamentations 3:22; O.T. again).

Jesus speaking to Martha after her brother’s death: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26). Jesus to all his disciples: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places…I go to prepare a place for you…I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:2-3; see also 1 Corinthians 15:51-54 & 1 John 3:1-2).

St Peter, writing in 1 Peter 1:4-5: “The inheritance to which we are born [meaning Baptism] is one that nothing can destroy or spoil or wither. It is kept for you in heaven, and you, because you put your faith in God, are under the protection of his power”. Jesus again to the disciples: “This is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has give me, but raise it up on the last day…that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life and I will raise them up on the last day” (John 6:39-40).

In earlier articles on the final Return of Jesus or “the last day” I tried to explain that the things of time and eternity intertwine and overlap as it were. So we have to hold in balance two different but related perceptions or consciousness of life here and now, and life still to come in the hereafter. We speak of our departed loved ones being now in heaven with Jesus; and in the Eternal Dimension that is certainly so. Viewed however from our present space-time world and dimension, the return of Jesus and the full resurrection life of our loved ones is still to come. Christians have long prayed for those who have died using words like this: “Rest eternal grant unto them O Lord, and let light perpetual shine upon them: may they rest in peace and rise in glory”. And with prayer like this: With grateful hearts for their life here, their love and gifts and many good memories, we commend them to the infinite mercy and goodness of God knowing ‘that they are held by the everlasting arms of God Our Father’ (Deuteronomy 33:27). Note also Romans 8:38-39, that ‘nothing but nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ our Lord’.

Our understanding of all this is still partial and incomplete. And always pray in the way that you see it and that helps you most. God understands even if we don’t, and what matters is that we hold on to our core faith in the glorious, final, full resurrection in the life of the world to come; and leave the hows and the whens to God. We should always praise God and pray for our loved ones in the ways described or similar. To forget them would almost be a crime against love.

One day in God’s good time and merciful purpose when our human life here is ended, you and I will indeed be taken to our eternal home by Jesus (1 Thessalonians 4:14). God will clothe us with the fullness of the glorious resurrection body. We will truly share in the ecstatic mystery of the final glorious return of Christ our King. We shall see our beloved Lord face to face in joy forever (1 John 3:2, again). We will share eternal joy too with countless Angels and Saints (Hebrews 12:22-24; etc) and with our loved ones already there. In the next and final article I will try to sum up the whole Nicene Creed.

In praise of God the good Creator and all loving Redeemer, and for the precious gifts of life and faith, and also for this Creed, I would like to close with this Litany of Praise to Jesus:

For his holy Incarnation and victorious Cross:    Blessed be Jesus our Lord and God.
For his triumphant Resurrection and glorious Ascension:  Blessed be Jesus.
For the gift of his Spirit and the holy catholic Church: Blessed be Jesus.
For the gifts of grace in Word, Sacrament and Christian Fellowship:  Blessed be Jesus.
For the triumphs of his Gospel, the lives of his Saints, and yours and mine: Blessed be Jesus.
For joy or for sorrow, in life and in death: Blessed be Jesus.
For the sure hope of eternal glory with him and with each other: Blessed be Jesus.
And from now until the end of the ages:   Blessed be Jesus.
Alleluia. Amen.

George Abell

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

We believe the Holiness and Unity of the Church (Exploring the Nicene Creed)

In this article we shall think first about the Holiness of the Church then its Oneness.

What does holy and holiness really mean? In Old Testament Hebrew the word for ‘holy’ is kadosh; and in New Testament Greek hagios. It simply means ‘separated or set apart’, the same in both Testaments, and is used for God and for his people. In Leviticus 19:2 Moses speaks to the whole Israelite people: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy”. In 1 Peter 1:15 the writer speaks to the Christian assembly: “As he who has called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct”; and again in Chapter 2:9: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light”.

This shows how holy is invariably used in a faith-religious context with strong moral emphasis, and with real everyday relevance and application for the whole of life. It means being set apart and dedicated for a higher wider purpose or ‘consecration’. And the Christian Church is certainly not an exclusive club with a ghetto mentality! Indeed our Lord spoke of his readiness to give himself utterly for his disciples and for all of us and his whole world, when he said: “And for their sake I consecrate myself that they also may be consecrated in truth” (John 17:19). Some translations have ‘sanctify’ which means the same.

Thinking about the holiness of God as taught in holy Scripture, and supremely as seen in Jesus, we could sum it up like this: God is faultless and unfailing in perfect Love, Goodness, Beauty, Truth and Purity; in Understanding and Wisdom; in glorious Eternal Purpose for all Creation; and above all in Compassion, Justice and Mercy. And there is no malice or evil intent or sin in God.

Such is our Holy God, and we who bear his image and likeness are called and challenged to be holy too. . . nothing less. To put it mildly it’s a very tall order; a tremendous challenge! But the Church of Christ has never hesitated to accept that vocation enshrining it in its Creeds as its sure belief, knowing that the God who calls us never fails to equip us with his grace. It means to become and to be what we truly are, by the grace of justification (put right with God), and sanctification (made holy by God).

This is why the Church speaks of Holy Baptism, Holy Confirmation, Holy Eucharist and Communion, Holy Marriage and Holy Orders (Ordained Ministry); Holy Scripture and Holy forgiveness, freely available for everyone forever. And a Holy Fellowship too, both universal and local, of those who seek to help, support and care for each other, in the loving holiness journey.

There are times of course when ‘Holy Church’ has seemed anything but holy. There are not a few dreadful pages in its history. But there are far more better pages; and such there will always be, for however much you and I let the side down (as we sadly do), our holy God and Saviour never lets us go, leading us on to better holier ways.

When we looked at the meaning of ‘Catholic’ it was necessary to see something also of the Church’s Oneness and Unity. ‘Catholic’ we learnt means holding the true universally received Faith of the Church, the one common biblical Faith of the New Testament – a Faith which by its very nature unites us. ‘Catholic or world-wide’ also means embracing all nations, races, colours; all social groups, ages, abilities; gender and sexuality. No one is excluded from the Gospel of Christ and the Christian Family.

So an essential component of the Church’s unity and harmony is its adherence to the Gospel truth, that ‘there is only one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all’ (Ephesians 4:3). And “of us all” means exactly that – all peoples across all continents, all human families, all shapes and sizes; all made one-in-Christ by Baptism forever. (We shall look at this again later).

The Church is fundamentally One because there is only one God. And so there can only be one sure organization with the mission and task of bringing God’s Creative-Saving Love to all humanity. This, the Christian Church faithfully fulfils by God’s clear guiding Light and divine grace. And though other world faiths may teach much that is good, only faith in Christ Jesus provides the fullness of truth.

The Church’s Unity however, though truly real in its undergirding essence of Baptismal Life is still sadly impaired in various other levels. At Communion, before sharing ‘The Peace’, the president often says: “We are the Body of Christ and in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” (1 Corinthians 12:12,13). Indeed we are the Body of Christ whether Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist or whatever. Our prayer and hope should be that this becomes a full complete reality, embracing all the Churches; with sharing of all Ministries and the Sacramental Bread and Cup of the Eucharist; and in worship and prayer, in learning together, and witness and service to others. May this vital ecumenical task grow until we are all truly and wholly visibly One, just as Jesus longed and prayed: according to his will and in his good time across our whole world (John 17:19-23).

The causes of division are many and complex, often purely political or nationalistic. But sadly deficiency in holiness and love, and lack of humility before the whole truth, is also its cause. Too often also, assertions are made by some Churches or groups that only they have got it right; and that too can bring about division! Real holiness, genuine love with patient truth-seeking dialogue, and above all earnest prayer, are the surest ways to bring about the unity we yearn for. And this must apply to all the Churches who look to Christ as head and Lord, and seek to do God’s will for all his peoples.

An act of praise to acknowledge the holiness of God, his Church, and each one of us:

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord;
Holy is the Lord God almighty,
who was, and is, and is to come.
Holy, holy, holy is the Lord.
Amen. Alleluia.

George Abell