Easter, the Coronavirus and ‘Doing Whatever it Takes’

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“Every single person in the country is affected by this” I was told and so we are. Who would have thought that our lives could be so dramatically transformed by a disease that nobody had ever heard off until a few months ago? All social gatherings have been banned and people have been encouraged to work from home. Schools have closed and Churches have had to cease all acts of public worship. Prime-ministerial news briefings have spoken about ‘flattening the curve’ to give the NHS the time and space to cope with the rising number of infections and those who are over 70, pregnant women and those with underlying health conditions have been encouraged to go into self-isolation. Social distancing has become the new social responsibility and the nation has been put on a ‘war’ footing. The health crisis has also become an economic crisis with the Chancellor of the Exchequer pumping £330 billion pounds (15% of GDP) into the economy to help businesses pay their rent, salaries and suppliers – the largest ever injection of aid in ‘peace time’ Britain. The Chancellor is clearly committed to ‘doing whatever it takes’ to overcome this crisis and yet the Prime Minister’s frankness has been clear from the start ‘many more families will lose loved ones before their time’. It’s a truly nerve-racking and terrible situation, a situation outside of our experience, and which has brought out both the best and the worst in us. Many people are kindly looking after their neighbours whilst others are sadly and selfishly panic buying in the supermarkets and shops.

If we ever needed a reminder of the imperfection of our world, then surely this is it! For many of us, calamities and disasters usually happen to other people, somewhere on the other side of the world. We are not used to the fact that in a global situation and in a truly global pandemic this one might actually affect us.

And yet for the Christian this all rings strangely true, for the Christian will be aware that in many ways, theologically speaking, we have never lived in a perfect world; for Genesis reminds us that when we think we are ‘masters of all that we survey’ and are in charge of our own destiny perhaps knowing better than even God himself, then something always happens to trip us up and we are destined for a fall. Now God has graciously gifted us with many wonderful qualities and characteristics, such as knowledge, skill and intellect and we are constantly amazed at what human endeavour and intuition can achieve, but fundamentally the heart of the problem is always the same – it’s the problem of the human heart, which wants to do things our own way and keep God out of the picture. This bias to self (which affects us all) the Bible calls sin and spoils our relationships with God, with one another and even with creation. It’s the worst of all social distancing! What we need is a new start and a new hope!

Fortunately, the Christian is aware that despite the fact that many of us may have forgotten God, he doesn’t forget us, for in the person of Jesus, God steps into this broken and fallen world of ours and bears the brunt of our pain and our sin in his own body upon the cross. He’s the one who truly does ‘whatever it takes’! He dies the death that we all deserve precisely so we don’t have to when we put our faith and trust in him – and he does this because he loves us. Christ’s death is awful and frightening, and if he were just an ordinary man then it would be the end of the story, but it’s not – because Christians recognise that Jesus isn’t simply human, he’s divine, he’s the Son of God, God made flesh, God incarnate and his resurrection proves it as witnessed by so many of his day.

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He is therefore as the risen Lord, , a man of the ‘new creation’ (2 Corinthians 5.17 / Revelation 21.1), a man of the new life and  perfectly restored order, which is promised eternally to all who believe. This is the joyful essence of Easter Day and it provides us not just with the courage and strength to meet the challenges of this moment (however dark it may be) but hope for the future, for as the Bible reminds us ‘God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3.16).

So, yes, despite the difficulties of the present moment, may I take this opportunity for myself and the parishes I represent to wish you all a very happy and joyful Easter.


May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all … this day and always. 2 Corinthians 13.14


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Have You Really Got To Grips With – The Resurrection?

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‘A lot cleverer people than us embrace religion so I can be as dismissive of it as I like but we have to acknowledge that’. Paul Whitehouse.

These were the words that comedian Paul Whitehouse shared with his good friend Bob Mortimer in the BBC Television Series Mortimer & Whitehouse: Gone Fishing (Series 1: Episode 2), where having recovered from heart problems, they each mused about the future and chatted to a local Vicar about death, and their own funerals. Because neither were religious, they captured quite nicely the views and perspective of so many in our largely secular society. In some ways, each wistfully wished that there was more to life than this but couldn’t quite embrace the apparent foolishness of a religion they had no real experience or sensible knowledge of. Their musings echoed the apparent disconnect that exists between believing individuals and the rest of society – a disconnect which is made worse by opinion polls that suggest that Christianity in the UK is in a rapid state of decline. Although there is a decline, it has now been recognised that many of these polls don’t make sufficient distinction between active Christians who attend church regularly, and those ‘non-active’ Christians who are people who simply view themselves as Christian because they happen to live in a ‘Christian country’. If there was a clearer distinction between the former and the latter, then statistics about matters of faith and belief wouldn’t be quite so stark as are sometimes portrayed.

Last month my sister-in-law died, and I attended her funeral not as a clergyman but simply as my brother’s brother. Of course, the whole thing was immensely sad and hugely painful, and seeing my brother (who is still a relatively young man) who I love, without his wife, and his daughters without their mother – greatly hurt. But it didn’t hurt as much as I’m sure it would have done, had I had no hope! As Christians, a very real comfort and consolation can be found in the fact that we believe not just in life and death – but in life, death and resurrection. For as Bishop Tom Wright puts it, we have a sense of saying ‘Good night and see you in the morning’, for Heaven isn’t simply ‘pie in the sky when you die’ – a land of make believe, somewhere over the rainbow. It’s the promise of a new real existence as demonstrated in the person of Jesus himself, whose life, death and resurrection were witnessed by so many; people who saw him, touched him and ate with him. These are events which are not simply made up but recorded by many faithful men and women in the Scriptures and other historical documents, many of whom were prepared to die themselves on the basis of what they had seen and heard. So why are we so blind, ignorant and unwilling to believe their testimony in this modern age?

Bishop Tom Wright (a greatly respected Christian theologian and commentator) explains it like this.

‘The great turning point in human history, the moment when everything changed was when Jesus came out of the tomb on Easter morning. We live in a world which fools itself that the great turning point in history came in Europe and America in the 18th Century, when we had what was called ‘The Enlightenment’ and with our new ideas, and our new science and our new democracies etc we were actually going to solve the problems of the world. If you look back at the last couple of hundred years, you say, ‘Well give me a break! If that’s called solving the problems of the world then we are going to have to think a bit better in the future.’ But actually, that’s because ‘The Enlightenment’ has offered a parody of Christianity. The Enlightenment therefore wants to rubbish the resurrection because if the resurrection happened it means that THAT was the great turning point in history and not Europe in the 18th Century and so the agenda for Christians today … is to go back and re-inhabit the truth that God’s new world was born, not when certain European thinkers had some bright ideas 200 years ago, but when Jesus came out of the tomb on Easter morning, and as we learn to live ‘out’ of that belief, ‘out’ of that event, then that is the way that God’s kingdom is going to come on earth as in heaven.’

If each of us can get a small glimpse of this, and hold it thoughtfully, intelligently and respectfully in our hearts, we can properly celebrate and wish each other a very Happy Easter.


Then go quickly and tell his disciples: “He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.” Matthew 28.7

Confronting Systems Of Power: A Message For Easter

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The news that a Novichok military grade nerve agent had been used against former Russian citizens Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury on 4th March was a shock to all concerned. Since this potential threat to the British public could only be the work of a nation state, the situation was extremely grave. Therefore, once it was determined that Russia was responsible it was understandable that Theresa May as the British Prime Minister would act swiftly in response, ultimately expelling 23 Russian diplomats or “undeclared intelligence officers” with one week’s notice, alongside various other measures. This she said, “would fundamentally degrade Russian intelligence capability in the UK for years to come – and if they seek to rebuild it we will prevent them from doing so”. Naturally, it’s anticipated that Russia will retaliate but at the time of writing this letter it’s not known what their actions will be. For some, not knowing can lead to a real sense of fear and uncertainty – what can ‘little Britain’ do in the face of mighty Russia?

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Thankfully, many of us will gain comfort and inspiration from the pages of the Bible. The David and Goliath story of the Old Testament reminds us of just what can be achieved when one takes heart, puts one’s faith not only in God but one’s natural God-given ability to sling stones. Standing up to bossy tyrants always requires endeavour and the courage of one’s convictions.

When Jesus stood before the Temple in Jerusalem and said ‘destroy this temple and I will rebuild it in three days’, the people standing next to him misunderstood, saying ‘how are you ever going to do that, it took 46 years to build this temple?’! But Jesus wasn’t referring to the physical temple he was referring to himself. Because he knew that you can’t confront corrupt systems of power without paying for it, and the systems he had in mind were the ‘principalities and powers of this world’ which are motivated by personal greed, power and abuse – in other words,sin’. Dark systems which ultimately only ever really lead to suffering, pain, death and despair. When Jesus says, ‘destroy this temple and I will rebuild it’, he’s talking about something new and unexpected that would happen after his death. He’s talking about resurrection! Yes, Jesus dies for our sin upon the cross, but his resurrection announces that God has not given up on us or this world because this world matters. Therefore, the way that we live our lives really matters, for every act of love, kindness and compassion that we undertake reflects the love of God for us in Christ, and nothing will be forgotten. For as Rob Bell, a Christian preacher and theologian observes, “resurrection affirms this life and the next as a seamless reality, embraced, graced and saved by God”. Therefore, the Christian knows that if you want to stand up to corrupt systems of power you need to be prepared to challenge it and say your ideals are not my ideals. I won’t and don’t recognise what you stand for. I don’t believe in the power of death, I believe in love, life and yes – resurrection!

A very Happy Easter to you all.


“Keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life. Jude 1.21


Why Should I Be Bothered About Easter?

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Many people will be looking forward to the long bank holiday weekend as a welcome break from work, a time to see family and friends and perhaps treat one another to chocolates and Easter eggs – not really understanding what Easter is all about or why it could be significant to them.

In order to really understand Easter, we need to take a ‘deep breath’, open our Bibles and contemplate the first few chapters of the book of Genesis. Now many people will immediately dismiss the Bible as religious ‘mumbo-jumbo’, saying hasn’t science dismissed all this as rubbish – and don’t we now accept human-beings came into being through a process of evolution? To which I would want to say, well you can ask those sort of questions if you would like, but that’s not really what the Bible is about! Many scientists are quite happy Christians because they accept that the Bible doesn’t really speak in terms of science at all but in terms of theology. It’s more concerned with ‘why’ the world is as it is, rather than ‘how’ it came to be. Theologically speaking, the opening chapters of Genesis explain how God initially created a perfect world, but it was spoilt by the foolish, self-centred decisions of human beings (namely Adam and Eve) who thought that they knew better and wanted ‘to be like God’. This wilful disobedience (which the Bible calls sin) led to the world becoming less than perfect, knocked off balance and ‘out of kilter’ by arrogance, wickedness and greed – qualities which spoil not only our human relationships but our relationship with God himself. In other words, the world is not as God originally intended. It is as Christians describe it – fallen – and if you doubt it, then all one has to do is look at the news on our television screens. Genesis therefore speaks to our humanity, and most people having read it, if they are honest with themselves, can identify with it saying – that’s me!’

The rest of the Bible is really a ‘love story’, describing how God goes to great pains to rescue us from this world of sin and put things right, and its hero is Jesus. For in the Old Testament, we see how God is constantly trying (initially through the people of Israel) to call people back to himself and to a ‘righteous’ way of living, but time and time again the people fail because the strangle hold of sin is simply too strong. Although we often learn from our mistakes, we can’t put things right by ourselves. The Bible may tell us that ‘if our hand causes us to sin, we should cut it off, or if our eye causes us to sin we should pluck it out’ (Mark 9.42f) but as Jesus makes clear, the heart of the problem is the problem of the human heart – and we can’t cut out our heart! So, Jesus steps in, showing us not only how to live a better life, but how we can positively change our hearts when we put our faith and trust in him, demonstrating just how extraordinary God’s love for each and every one of us is by his own death upon the cross. He takes upon himself the punishment that our sin deserves – sparing us from it, for as the old hymn makes clear ‘there was no other good enough to pay the price of sin; only he could unlock the gate of heaven, and let us in’.  All we need to do, to be forgiven, is to trust that Jesus died for my personal sin – and say thank you.

But that’s not the end of the story, because three days later Jesus rose from the grave – a tremendous and astounding event witnessed by so many of his friends and disciples, demonstrating once and for all that he was indeed the ‘Son of God’ who died to save the world – and that’s the message of Easter. Now, of course it doesn’t take a moment for us to appreciate that the world is still sinful and still needs to change, which is precisely why the Gospel message is still so needed and so relevant for our modern world today, still speaking of a future hope when all will be ultimately put right when Christ returns – but in the meantime, the world as we know it changes ‘one heart at a time’. Please let one of them be yours!


I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection” Philippians 3.10


If Seeing Is Believing – Why Don’t We?

On February 11th 2016, scientists around the world jumped for joy as they announced that they had detected ‘Gravitational Waves’ produced by the spinning and collision of two black holes more than a billion light-years from the Earth! The news was greeted with euphoria as it finally confirmed the prediction made by Albert Einstein 100 years ago in his Theory of General Relativity and supported by Professor Stephen Hawking’s work relating to black holes. The discovery was hailed as a landmark because it will revolutionise the way that we think about the creation of the universe and our continued understanding of it. The discovery is remarkable because Einstein himself had thought that gravitational waves would be too weak for anyone to detect – and yet the scientists have done it, and the evidence is there for all to see. Seeing is believing!

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Yet, however great the discovery of gravitational waves might be, it surely pales into insignificance compared to the discovery that was made by some women two thousand years ago, when they found that the tomb used to place the dead, crucified body of Jesus was empty, and that Jesus was indeed alive. It sounds completely astonishing, astounding and fanciful, and just the sort of thing that might be the product of the over active imaginations of some rather hysterical, grief stricken women! In fact, it’s a story that could be easily dismissed if it wasn’t for the fact that their story was corroborated by others – many others, and neatly summarised by the Apostle Paul in his first letter to the Christians at Corinth (I Corinthians 15.3-8). There were of course the women, but then there were the disciples, and Peter; a crowd of 500, James (the brother of Christ and later leader of the church in Jerusalem), the two disciples on the road to Emmaus and finally Paul himself, but perhaps the most telling, poignant and significant encounter was with Thomas. Thomas had been absent when the risen Christ had first met with his disciples, and upon hearing their exhilarating news, he refused to believe it, saying, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my fingers where the nails were, and put my hand in his side (the dead body of Jesus had been speared to prove death), I will not believe it.” (John 20.25). Like many others, I am so glad that this account has been recorded for us, because it shows a man who would not allow his heart to rule his head but wanted tangible proof of a story that would have seemed just as incredible in his day as it does in ours. Strikingly, when the Lord eventually appeared to Thomas, and he was invited to physically examine Christ’s wounds, we are not told that he did so, instead he immediately knelt before Jesus, proclaiming him to be “My Lord and my God”. Seeing was believing and seeing Christ before him was more than enough! Every doubt, worry and anxiety was blown away by this incredible and unique experience.

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The problem for us is, that we weren’t there, and many therefore refuse to believe. We will believe in the existence of gravitational waves simply because we are told by scientists that we have empirical proof, but what could be more substantial than the testimony of those who saw the risen Christ with their own eyes, embraced him, ate with him and were able to share in other forms of fellowship with him? These people were witnesses and many were prepared to die themselves on the basis of their experience and what they had seen with their own eyes. But we may protest, and therefore shout all the more loudly that rising from death is just impossible for human beings, to which my answer (along with that of so many others) is – precisely. This man, this ‘Jesus of Nazareth’, although fully human, was more than that – he was also divine. He was as the Bible puts it, ‘the Son of God’. So, unless we are prepared to ignore all the evidence to the contrary, we have to accept that this event too was of cosmic significance and totally revolutionises the way we look at the universe and our place within it.
May I take this opportunity to wish you all a very happy and meaningful Easter.


“Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe” John 20.27


 

500 People Can’t Be Wrong – Can They?

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Josh McDowell, a Christian minister and author once spoke to a student saying:

“If I prove to you beyond a shadow of a doubt that Christ was raised from the dead and is the Son of God, will you consider Him?”

The immediate and emphatic reply was “No!”1 

Why are so many people so dismissive even before they’ve given Christianity a chance? Is it because they don’t know the Gospel story or because they can’t accept it to be true? In many ways perhaps both of these are true, because it is increasingly clear that fewer and fewer people have any sort of religious background or contact with a church. Put simply, their parents didn’t go to church, so neither do they! Others dismiss religion as being the by-product of a by-gone age hardly credible for today’s modern thinkers, and recent books such as The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins and God is not Great by Christopher Hitchens reinforce this negative stereotype. Yet the main reason why some people tend to dismiss Christianity ‘out of hand’ is, ironically, not because it’s ‘proven’ to be false but because it might actually be true and if it is true then it’s a challenge!  Books such as the The Dawkins Delusion (Alistair McGrath) and Evidence that Demands a Verdict (John McDowell) have easily shown just how misguided and superficial these popular works by Dawkins and Hitchens are and yet if Jesus really did rise from the grave as at least 500 biblical eye-witnesses maintain (1 Corinthians 15.6) then Jesus has to be the ‘Son of God’ and his resurrection proves that all he ever said and did was true! If this is so, then it has to be the most profound piece of news that this world has ever known and requires a response – a response that requires each one of us to reconsider, take stock of our lives and reassess who we are before God, the world and each other; a response which many will find profoundly disturbing and uncomfortable as it shakes up their cosy world view, which is precisely why so many people tend to dismiss the Gospel story out of hand, not because it isn’t true, but because it suits us.

Today’s media tends to give us instant eye-witness access to the incredibly significant events (both good and bad) which shape our modern world and we seldom doubt the testimony of those who were actually present. Why then, are we so ready to dismiss the eye-witness accounts of those who saw the resurrection, just because they lived in an age prior to the internet?

I would therefore like to invite each person to honestly consider and reflect upon their own attitude towards Christ and their understanding of the Easter story, and to genuinely ask themselves if they have given the Gospel (meaning good news) a fair and open hearing. It is my hope that many will discover a new sense of peace and perspective as they do so.


 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news and said: “I have seen the Lord!”  John 20.18


1 McDowell, Josh: Evidence for Christianity. Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2006, S. 14