The wisdom of God vs The wisdom of the world

This post is the transcript of a recent sermon I recently preached at St Sebastian’s Church, Great Gonerby on 1 Corinthians 1:25-2:16, on the theme of wisdom. Being a sermon it is longer than a normal blog post, and breaks all my rules of blogging. However, it gives me some time to think up my next topic!

For God’s foolishness is God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”(1 Cor 1:25)

Have you ever had a speak on a topic of conversation, where you felt out of your depth, and not clever enough? Perhaps you’ve been in a situation at your work where you had to give a presentation, and you were well aware that those you spoke to were experts? I’ve found this more and more the case whilst at college having to give sermons in front of my tutors – the fear of sounding foolish when everyone around you seem to be learned and wise.

It’s one thing to feel our of your depth on a work topic, but how about when you get asked a difficult question as a Christian, or a churchgoer? What do you say when one of your friends comes and asks you to explain how God can exist in a world of suffering? Or how can you be sure about life after death, that what you read in the Bible is true, or how to explain the theory of evolution? And what about when they ask you about politics, and how the church can help the world solve the current economic crisis?

Well, at those times, we might feel foolish about what to say as Christians. We might get worried that we can’t understand the Bible well enough to give good answers. We wonder what message we have to share as Christians, as a church, that will help.

And the consolation is, that one of the founders of the early church, the great apostle Paul, felt exactly the same as us. He says is 1 Corinthians 2:3, “I came to you with great fear and trembling”. Because Corinth was a great city, in worldly terms. It was a bustling trade city in the Roman Empire. There were plenty of rich, influential, people of importance in Corinth. And they were were proud of their philosophers, and debates. They would have been interested in hearing from Paul, but only with the intention of testing his worldly eloquence and wisdom in a debate, just as the Oxford Union might find it interesting to invite the Archbishop of Canterbury to debate with Richard Dawkins. They wanted to know what cleverness Paul had to bring to Corinth. And they would have laughed at and scorned the small church of ordinary, simple folk at Corinth who were not people of great power and learning.

So how does Paul respond?

Firstly, by explaining that God’s wisdom is for all, not just the clever. My first point today is that the wisdom of God is for all, not just the wise. In fact, Paul says that the people that are wise in the eyes of the world often ignored God and he in turn overlooks them.

Paul says to the church in Corinth in verse 26, “not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.” God has a habit of picking people who are fairly flawed by human standards. Moses wasn’t a great speaker and murdered a man. David had a good heart but was led astray when he slept with Bathsheba and murdered her husband. Paul himself was accused of being a babbler and not good at public speaking.

That’s what the church is full of. Ordinary people from all walks of life. Not just great theologians and Bible scholars, although some people are called and gifted to study in depth. Not just people who seem to have lived a charmed life. The Christians I have known have come from all sorts of backgrounds: they have day to day jobs in factories, schools, colleges, hospitals; they are full time mums, farmers, secretaries; some are unemployed, some are former prisoners whose lives have been changed by Jesus. Sometimes people who have lived troubled lives are great witnesses for the church are great witnesses because they can understand what those in difficulty in the world are going through.

Paul says in verse 27, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.” God chose to shame those who think they are so clever that they don’t need God. Imagine how horrendous it would be if God only accepted the clever people. Yet clever people in the world regard themselves as superior. Scientists like Dawkins who think they have all the answers. Politicians who think they don’t need to answer to anyone. Bankers who think they can take all the money off the poor and it doesn’t matter. But God didn’t build the church of Corinth out of such people. He didn’t rescue an “elite class”. He called weaker people to show up the strong, to say to them – you need God as much as the rest of us.

So don’t put your status in who you think you are. Don’t see yourself as superior. As children of God we are are all equal. Look at the person in the pew next to you. You are no more important, or less important, than that person. And don’t think you aren’t clever enough to spread the good news of Jesus. It doesn’t matter whether you have a theology degree, or a new Christian who hasn’t read much of the Bible. We have all come to know the wisdom of God.

So what is that wisdom? It is the wisdom that comes through Jesus Christ. This is my second point – God’s wisdom comes through Jesus Christ. Paul says in verse 30 of chapter one that “Christ Jesus became for us the wisdom of God, and righteousness and sanctification, in order that as it is written, “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” We are all wise, not because of our learning and ability to win arguments, but because we follow Jesus and he alone has saved us. The fact that Jesus has rescued us all is a great leveler. It has nothing to do with our degrees, or our finances, or how useful we’ve been to society, or how many good turns we have done. He came to earth, died for us on a cross, to forgive us from all our sins, and to rescue us, so we can have eternal life with him for ever. He didn’t do that because he thought we were the clever, and influential people to be saved. He did that because he loved us. We did nothing – Jesus did everything for us.

So we have no reason to boast of our achievements. If we are to boast, it is not in our learning, and we need not be ashamed of our lack of learning. We can all have pride in the fact that God, in his wisdom, sent Jesus to save us. Paul wanted his hearers to boast in Jesus Christ. As the song we will sing shortly goes, “I will not boast in anything / no gifts, no power, no wisdom / but I will boast in Jesus Christ, his death and resurrection.”

Which brings me to my third point. God’s wisdom is the message of the cross. Paul says in verse 2 of chapter two “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. The philosophers of Paul’s day wanted to know what he felt about grand wordly questions, about the nature of existence and morality. And it is no different today. Those around us in our country, in politics, in the media, all want to know what we have to say about scientific theories, and other religions and grand economic schemes to save the planet. The only time that our media is interested in Christianity is when they want to report our Archbishop criticizing the government’s Big Society proposals, or else when they want to mock Christians in TV comedies, to present them as simple minded people. But Paul didn’t get embroiled in such conversations. He had one, simple message to preach – that we are all sinners, who need to turn to Jesus Christ, the only son of God for our salvation. That’s it. I’ll say it again, because even though Paul addresses all sorts of topics in Corinthians, this is the message of God’s wisdom – that even though we are sinners, deserving of death, Jesus was crucified on a cross to die for our sins so that we can be saved.

You see, the people of Corinth totally misunderstood wisdom. They thought it was all about deep knowledge of God, and philosophy, and religion, and reasoning the hard questions of life. But the wisdom Paul had to offer was a response. God’s wisdom is not about what we know, it is what we choose. It is all to do with whether we accept that Jesus’ death on the cross is our only means of salvation, or whether we consider it foolishness, and decide not to follow Christ. It has been the same all throughout the Bible. In the Old Testament, the book of Proverbs 111:10 says that Wisdom is not about recognizing the authority of God over us; “The Fear of the Lord is wisdom.” Jesus, in Matthew 7, described wisdom as being like the Wise Man who built a house on a rock, and said that this meant that those who heard his words and followed his teaching were wise.And the ultimate secret wisdom of God was revealed to the apostles, such as Paul, who recognized that Jesus’ death on the cross was the only hope for humanity, and that the only human response was to follow Jesus and accept this. Paul was only interested in one thing – the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, through whom all could be saved.

So the wisdom of God is the message that Jesus died on a cross for our sins. And the wonderful thing about this message is that it is simple. It is a simple message that God wants us to share with all those around us. This is the good news that everyone can spread – not just vicars, or people who have gone away to study at college like me, but all of us. And because Jesus has saved you, as an individual, through his death on the cross, you have a personal, unique story to tell to those around you – a story which is very, very special.

And finally, the wisdom of God is given to us through the Holy Spirit.

How do know what other people think? How they will act? The better we know them, the more we are likely to say we know their mind. We know what their habits are – whether they will rush over to the TV to watch the tennis or football, or bury themselves in a book or the garden whenever the football or tennis is on. The more we know people, the more we know their views on politics, how they might vote, what they are passionate about.

But Paul says, that if we really want to know someone, we would need to know their thoughts, and to do that, we would need to have their Spirit in us. He says in verse 11, “Who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.”

When we invite Jesus into our life, we receive the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit reveals to us the wisdom of God. The first way the Holy Spirit revealed God to us was by showing us the truth about the death of Jesus on the cross. The Holy Spirit helped us understand the truth of who Jesus was and why his death was important when we first became Christians.the very fact that we know this to be true, is God revealing it to us, through our spirit.

There are also other ways in which the Spirit reveals to us things to us to guide us, when we pray. For all of us the Holy Spirit speaks through the Bible to show us the wisdom of God, as I believe he is now, as I share 1 Corinthians with you. Sometimes the Holy Spirit reveals truth to Christians in very visible and spectacular ways, sometimes he pricks our conscience to do the right things. But the Spirit in us guides us into the wisdom of God as shown through the words and actions of Jesus. So Paul says in verse 16, we have the mind of Christ in us.

Facebook: Social Network or Social Nightmare?

Yesterday I was at a training weekend for a Christian Summer camp I am helping lead for teenagers over in Wales. Our camp overall leaders are very tech savvy, and as such the main way our leadership team will communicate before the camp is through Twitter and Facebook. As part of the training, we were asked to make sure our Facebook timelines are in good shape, i.e. not too many embarrassing photos of parties or posts from unruly contacts.

That got me thinking if there was anything embarrassing on my Facebook site. Memories of a certain notorious Vicar reported in the press sprang to mind. Fortunately, after checking my page, I decided there was nothing on it that I wouldn’t be happy with people seeing.

Personally I use Facebook a lot, and am fairly indiscriminate as to which friends and contacts can see my timeline. As a Christian, it is very important to me that the image I present on Facebook is both an honest depiction of the fun-loving character I hope I am, and a good witness to Jesus Christ, who I follow. But then it struck me how absurd a creation Facebook actually is from a social perspective. In addition to making lots of money, Mark Zuckerberg managed to break the tightest social (and very British) conventions of mixing up our public and private lives. Instead of being able to live a beautifully compartmentalised lives where I can have civilised conversations about English novels and classical music with my parents, debate theology with my tutors, and invite my Bristol mates over for a game of poker; I risk inviting my tutors over for games of poker, trying to interest my friends from the pub in Tchaikovsky and Beethoven – you get the picture.

Mark Zuckerberg didn’t just invent a social network. He invented the ultimate cyberspace social nightmare. He linked together people – people that should never have been in the same room together, let alone talking. Facebook became a grand virtual wedding party, only instead of being able to keep bawdy Uncle Joe and prim and proper Aunty Mabel safely on different tables as any respectable British Bride or Groom would, they are all invited to converse and argue over a simple status update such as “Roger Federer beat Andy Murray at tennis :-(”

Let’s take the dinner party analogy further. Suppose you have, say, 500 friends, that you invite to a party. (Remember this is just an analogy – don’t actually do this on Facebook unless you want your home trashed). In Facebook terms, this means 500 people can come and visit your virtual home – your “timeline” (used to be wall), look at your photos, read all your comments, and start the one thing that hosts at dinner parties all dread – conversation.

Of course, not all 500 people will turn up. Probably about 25 will accept the invite to drop in periodically to the party and check on what you are up to. But be warned, these will not be 25 of your inner circle of friends. They will be the Facebook addicts, a random selection of 5% of your friends, but invariably will including at least the following:

  • your mate you go out to the pub with on Fridays, a lady from church who prayers for you each week;
  • your extrovert friend who has 3000 Facebook friends and counting;
  • one work colleague (possibly your boss);
  • your vicar;
  • one liberal leftie political campaigner;
  • one right wing conservative who will argue with the leftie about everything,
  • one philosopher,
  • one friend you knew at primary school,
  • one of your old teachers;
  • one lady who has known you all your life and still remembers you as a ten year old,
  • your mum (who may be the lady who has known you etc…),
  • one games addict, who wants you to play Pizza Tycoon so he can win 30000 points and build a new pepperoni tower,
  • and saucy Sally. Saucy Sally is the well-intentioned friend who naively wants to play the equivalent of “spin the bottle” at your Facebook dinner party and has found an app which posts the tantalising question “Do you think Mark would look good in a tutu?” on your public timeline.

Suppose such people met in real life, at your wedding. You wouldn’t sit them at the same table, unless you had the constution of Chuck Norris or the patience of the Archbishop of Canterbury. But on Facebook, you sit them in the same virtual place, throw in the odd controversial topic such as “I don’t agree with the government on…” and try to clean the virtual blood and carnage off your timeline later. The Facebook host has to be the ultimate diplomat.

And for those of your friends that aren’t into conversation – be warned – there will always be some who want to browse through your photo albums (which means looking at every amusing picture you posted on Facebook in the past 6 years). Alternatively, they will be fascinated by all the places you have been in the past week (the shopping mall/the pub/at home/in bed), which Facebook has time-stamped to the nearest minute using a surveillance system that makes the one from the 1960s series of “The Prisoner” look positively blind.

As a Christian, it is very important for me to be a person of integrity. What this means, is I want what is seen of me on Facebook (despite my flaws and failings) to honour Christ. But the challenge is that it is impossible to be schizophrenic on Facebook. There will be sides of me that I am used to showing to some friends that will become visible to others through Facebook. Another challenge for me is that I am one of those people who has friends who are so polarised in their opinions that I very much doubt they would get on with each other in real life. Perhaps I was destined to be a diplomat.

I know people have different views about Facebook. Some people avoid it altogether (saving themselves a lot of time, unlike addicts like me). This is a bit like not hosting large dinner parties for peace of mind, which is understandable.

Some people are selective who they invite as friends. This allows for a more intimate, closer dinner party – but there is always the risk of those who are left out of the party getting miffed.

Others, the techno-geeks, have actually figured out how to custom adjust the settings on Facebook so that there are different levels of privacy. I suppose this is a bit like gagging Uncle Joe at the dinner party and putting ear-muffs on Aunty Mabel.

So, I guess I am a sucker for punishment, in that I like all my friends to visit my Facebook page, despite the occasions when they disagree. But as a host, when the cyberspace carnage descends on my timeline, I will reassure myself that it was not I that created this social nightmare – it was all of you who couldn’t get on!

Should the Church of England have a party line?

I am often asked as a Christian, why there is so much disagreement in the Church of England, and why we can’t just make its mind up about where we stand on issues and what we believe. After all, we worship the same God, read the same Bible, so ought we not to agree?

Some people ask me, why has the Anglican Church spent so long trying to decide whether or not it should ordain women as bishops?  Can’t we be more like the  Roman Catholic Church, and just take a clear stand on things, under the pronouncements of the Pope?

The Catholic Church, it seems to me, has a very clear stance on many issues. Clergy should not marry and should remain celibate. Only men can be ordained priests, since this is the church tradition. Contraception shouldn’t be used (I’m not sure actually whether this Catholic stance is changing). People know where they stand as a Roman Catholic. They might not agree with the judgements of their church leaders. They might feel called to be ordained as priests, but find an obstacle in their being a woman or married, but at least they know what their church teaches and they obey it. They know the party line, and it is in accordance with church tradition and the traditional reading of Scripture, even if it frustrates the modern liberal.

However, to me it seems a bit too much like a dictatorship. A person (or group of people) makes the rules and others follow. Historically this has at times got out of hand (Pope. But there have been times when I have asked myself, should the Church of England have a Pope? Should the Church of England be a dictatorship, even?*
My answer is an emphatic no. For protestants, it is the Bible that should be our supreme authority, not the leaders of the Church. Unfortunately, of course, this means that we will always argue as Christians about how to interpret the Bible today. It is conveniently easy for all of us to want to argue the Bible into saying what we want, and can be scarily easy to convince others that this is the truth. But we have to recognise that there are genuine, faithful, Christians who will disagree on what the Bible says.

So we are left in the Church of England with a glorious democracy (heavy sarcasm) where it has taken 20 years between the decision to ordain women as priests and the final deliberations about whether to ordain women as bishops. Today significant events take place for the Church of England, as the general synod finally shows signs of the slow moving democratic wheels coming to a conclusion. So why so long?

However, for me, slow progress is a necessary price for making provision within the Anglican church for differing views. When asked why there is division in the church, my instinctive response is to say, would you expect the Labour and Conservative party to agree so readily, even though both parties would claim to be rational and democratic? Equally, the church encompasses a diverse range of beliefs. Some believe that women should not be allowed to preach to men, or have authority over them (a legitimate interpretation of 1 Tim 2; “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man”)and so oppose women being bishops. Others believe that women played important roles as leaders in the New Testament church (such as Priscilla in Acts 18:19; Romans 16:3), and so argue that ordaining women as bishops should be accepted today.

We should not be afraid of differences of theology and conscience in the Church of England. What we should be afraid of, and what I am vehemently opposed to, are those who interpret the Bible in one particular fashion to fit with their agenda (ie. women bishops should be ordained) and insist on imposing it on others. Or else they insist that because the majority have democratically voted in favour all others must conform their theology to fit. So it is with sadness that I read in today’s Independent (Can The Church finally accept women bishops) that it seems that some are wanting to reject the Women Bishop’s bill on grounds that it permits those who cannot in good conscience serve under a women bishop from having an alternative male one.

In good “democratic” fashion, this is all done by playing the discrimination card (your beliefs are discriminating against my “rights”, so I will not allow you to be in the same church as me any more). But if the Church of England starts imposing a party-line (ie. insisting all vicars must accept women bishops, and serve under them) then what unites us as members of the church? Not the historic creeds, not saving faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus, but whether I think women bishops are biblical. I think faithful Christians can argue either way on the subject, and as such neither side should be forced out of the church for refusing to do what they cannot in good conscience do.

That is why, ultimately, I like the fact that Christians in the Church of England can disagree on issues such as whether women should be bishops, without having to leave to join the Roman Catholic church (I couldn’t personally do this – I’m too protestant!) or set up independent churches. I see it as good that the Church of England for the present can exist as a body of faithful Christians without having too much of a  party-line that all must follow.

————

*This was to be the original title of my post, but though it is catchy, it seemed a bit too unfair on the Roman Catholic church to call it a dictatorship! I suppose I want to say that the Catholic church has more of a weight of authority and the tradition of its Popes and councils when pronouncing directly on issues.

Love: Beyond sex and marriage (Part 2 of 2)

In this post I want to ponder the question of what loving relationships are, and whether marriage is the only place for the most loving relationships.

In a lecture last year where I was being taught about taking funerals, a minister expressed to us how moved he had been when taking the funeral of a man who had been in a civil partnership, with the depth of sorrow his bereaved partner felt for him. He had been very struck by this. The minister was wanting to say to us that whatever our views might be about civil partnerships, pastorally the situation could be as difficult for the bereaved as a wife who had lost her husband.

This was, I think, supposed to be surprising news to us. But I admit my gut response was to think – duh, of course the man loved this man as much as a woman might love her husband. For me, it didn’t seem at all logical to assume that someone is incapable of loving someone of the same gender less than a person is capable of loving someone of the opposite gender. Equally, although it is in a sense ridiculous to attempt to rank the depth of emotional feeling someone feels after losing their beloved on a kind of scale, I would not see a man losing his life partner of the same gender as being “lower down” the scale of grief a man losing his wife.

However, the more I have come to think about it, the more I have talked to people, it seems that lots of Christians do genuinely believe that the surest act of love must take place between a man and a woman, and that all humans are naturally hard-wired to love someone of the opposite sex more than someone of the same sex.

Often, as with pretty much all Biblical teaching on relationships and marriage, this understanding arises from Genesis 2. The familiar verse, “It is not good for man to be alone, I will make him a helper as his partner” (Gen 2:18), in response to Adam’s loneliness, is answered with the creation of Eve. Adam is overjoyed at Eve’s creation, her being different from the animals, and he sings “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken” and the first marriage is instituted, with Genesis saying “Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” (Gen 2:14)

The standard assumption that many Christians make when reading these verses is to view Adam and Eve as a direct pattern for all men and women to follow. A single man (Adam) is lonely, and the solution is for him to marry and start a family with a single woman (Eve). Therefore, the logic runs, all single men must marry single women to combat loneliness, or else they will remain alone. To not be lonely, to love and to be fully loved, Christians believe they must marry.

This assumption has a lot of logical flaws, however. Although certainly the Israelites would have seen marriage and procreation as the norm, the point of Adam and Eve uniting together seems to be that Adam is the only human in existence and needs human fellowship. The marriage of Adam and Eve is not just their individual benefit, but for the benefit of human society at large. Adam and Eve’s marriage leads to the creation of a new fellowship – namely, humanity. So the cure to Adam’s loneliness is not just one woman, but a helper who faithfully helps him to found an entire dynasty.

All men and woman need love, friendship, company and fellowship to save them from loneliness. Not all will find this in marriage – though that should be the principal means for most to express their love.

However, this does not lessen the significance of the fact that in the Bible, love shows itself in a multitude of ways between men and women.  As I mentioned in my last post, Jonathan’s love for David was “wonderful, passing the love of women” (2 Sam 1:26). This is not, as I have sometimes heard, just because David had a series of bad marriages! Neither does it imply that in any way Jonathan and David’s relationship was sexual or that they should have got married. But this does not lessen the quality of their love.

The supreme example of love, is of course, that of a single man for all of humanity – Jesus Christ. Jesus, explained that the greatest love of all was sacrificial: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) The apostle John explains how Jesus showed love in exactly this manner, in dying for us; “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4:10)

So those who are married should strive to love one another dearly. But those who are not married are also called to love one another deeply as well.