As Jesus dies on the cross, a criminal is dying next to him. Jesus turns to him and says: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23v43). This is a remarkable statement considering the bleak predicament of the thief. And it begs the question: how can this dying thief be promised paradise? How can he get to heaven?
Let's say we were in the position to judge his case. Perhaps we might start with all the good he has done in his life; do his good deeds outweigh his bad? That might make him worthy of salvation. But no, the punishment for crucifixion is reserved for the worst of criminals – at the very least he is likely to be guilty of murder. His life is altogether worthless. But how about the rest of his life? Could he not reform his ways and seek to redeem himself with suitable acts of charity? Ah, but, he's dying on a cross and will be dead within a day. He's in no position to do good, no position to do anything but die, his deeds are complete, nothing can change the balance on the scales. Hang on though, many people think they will get to heaven because they have been baptised once. But alas, he has not been sprinkled with water or dunked underneath. There's no hope for him there.
Indeed, this thief is not rich, powerful or intelligent (he was caught after all) and has no friends to help him or priest to bless him or even anyone to pray for him. He has nothing and has done nothing worthy of salvation and can do nothing to make him worthy. We know as well that he even insulted the very man who is now promising him heaven (Matthew 27v44 records both criminals insulting Jesus). The last hours of this man's life would seem to be hopeless but then we have the promise of Jesus that this thief would join Jesus in paradise that very day.
This would beg two questions: how can such a salvation be promised and who is Jesus to make the promise? The answer to both those questions can be found in the one answer. If we go back a few verses and get the whole scene we can learn more:
There must be many who, secretly or not so secretly, despise the church for the fact that in the year 2013 large sections of the church still teach that allowing women or practising homosexual ministers is wrong and against God's will. Fortunately, our standard is not what society may think of us but rather the word of God as our 'supreme rule of faith'. Still, even accepting this there are disagreements within the church over these two issues.
Recently, I was pondering the biblical case (or lack thereof) for practising homosexual ministers and it suddenly occurred to me that I'd thought about these issues before in another debate within the church, this time on women ministers. It is interesting to reflect on the extent to which those arguing for the acceptance of women ministers and those arguing for the acceptance of practising homosexual ministers use much the same type of arguments for making their case.
One argument involves the Christian teaching on gender and the other the Christian teaching on sexuality. Any attempt to make a biblical case for them involves explaining away explicit bible verses to the contrary. This does not automatically make the ideas wrong – there are parts of the Bible which are no longer applicable today (the Old Testament sacrifice system or civil laws for Israel for example). But it's important to note that to faithfully argue against what the Bible says on a matter must involve using another part of Scripture that overrides the other. For example, the New Testament authors are quite clear that because Jesus implemented a new covenant the old order of things passed away. Hence we have a biblical reason to not obey another part of the Bible.
As the normalisation of homosexuality becomes increasingly prevalent within the United Kingdom then the evangelical church finds itself increasingly at odds with the moral views of society. And over recent months this conflict between 'secular' morality and Christian morality has become more intense and has even led to more than a few churches leaving, or committing to leave, the Church of Scotland. The most frustrating thing about the debate is the amount of false accusations levelled at Christianity. It comes as no surprise, for in any battle it makes sense to portray the opponents in the worst possible light. So there is a great deal of confusion out there on what Christianity teaches and why we object so strongly to gay marriage and homosexuality. This is an attempt to clear up some of the myths.
Myth: Christianity is all about hating gays
This is, I think, the most understandable myth in the sense that usually the only time Christianity makes the news is in relation to the issue of homosexuality. But it's still a myth. To illustrate this point then I'd like you to guess how many sermons I've heard on the issue of homosexuality. Bear in mind that I've been going to church all my life and heard an awful lot of sermons... The answer is zero, while it's been mentioned in passing if it was relevant to the Bible passage we were looking at then I can't recall a single sermon that was centred on this issue. I'm not saying ministers never preach on homosexuality, they do, or that they shouldn't, but I am saying that there are a lot of other things in Christianity which are, frankly, more important.
My second objection to this myth is the use of the word hate. For while, as a Christian, I object to the practise of homosexuality it does not extend to hating people who are gay. The command of Jesus is to "love your neighbour as yourself" and that means that though I do think homosexuality and gay marriage are both wrong then behind all my actions must be a love for all my fellow human beings.
Having watched The New Adventures of Superman when I was younger than I have a lot of nostalgia tied up with the character. Some people find him boring but, you know, he flies and can punch through concrete and lasers come out his eyes, I still think that's pretty cool. And it came as no surprise to me when a link appeared on my Facebook feed to an article on the parallels between Superman and the Gospel. The last movie, Superman Returns, went the whole hog and played up the parallels big time by portraying Superman as a Messianic type figure including one scene where he floated above the city, arms spread out in crucifixion pose listening to the cries or “prayers” of the people,
Even in the latest film, then there was a lot of talk about “believing” in Superman with Russell Crowe even saying that he would be like a god to the people of earth. But despite drawing heavily on religious, specifically Christian, imagery and thought then both films, indeed, any positive comparison between Superman and Jesus misses the point of who Jesus is. Of course, the big difference is that Superman is fiction and Jesus is both historical reality (when he walked this earth) and eternal reality (glorified in Heaven). But laying that aside there is still much to discuss.
Not so long ago, in a place not too far away, there lived a boy who would only eat Frubes. In his defence, he was four years old and Frubes are very nice. For those who have never had the delight of eating a Frube, they are long thin packets of yogurt that can be peeled open and sucked out. The particularly adventurous can even try to suck all the yogurt out in one go. Despite these considerations, the Boy's parents were not best impressed with their son's eating habit. "It's a phase; he'll grow out of it." They said to one another, the classic excuse for unusual behaviour in children, an excuse that is generally used until their twentieth birthday.
For six months they did nothing about it and the boy seemed to suffer no ill effects. He asked as many questions as usual, ran about with the same vigour and threw things in the toilet with the same regularity. As his fifth birthday approached his parents decided that enough was enough and they were going to cure him of his attachment to Frubes. Well, they tried everything: chips, cakes, chocolates, waffles, three course dinners, lobster, quail eggs, burgers, in desperation they even tried healthy foods! But it was all to no avail, he shook his young head at it all and went back to happily sucking on Frubes. When they took away his Frubes he stopped eating completely and threw tantrum after tantrum.
With all options exhausted, they took him to the doctors who after much prodding, poking, question answering and no less than three blood tests, pronounced him perfectly able to consume other foodstuffs. His parents shared a horror filled glance and asked what the problem was. Their doctor scratched the back of his head, uncertain whether his conclusion would satisfy them: "Your son is simply too lazy to do anything else. He doesn't want to chew, he doesn't want to lift up a knife and fork, it's all just too much effort."
This question does come with an admittedly large number of assumptions behind it. It assumes, for instance, that you will die this very night which is a hopefully unlikely event. But considering that death will one day take you then it is not so much an assumption as a jump ahead in time to that day when death will come. Another assumption the question makes is the existence of God and the need to defend yourself before him. We'll get to these momentarily. Suffice to say, this question is of no small significance and deserves sober reflection for the matters it touches upon are of eternal importance.
There can be nothing more important that our standing before our Creator. So many people think about God the wrong way round. They ask themselves: "What do I think of God?" when a far more vital question is: "What does God think of me?" It may be that you are perfectly happy with the idea that God exists. But what does God think of your existence and life before him?
The question above helps to get us to consider these issues. It is, I hope, a useful question to ponder. For death has a way of stripping us of all illusions and delusions and focusing our minds away from trivial matters and onto weightier ones. Naked we enter the world and naked we depart. Wealth, talent and success just isn't going to be of any use in death for we take nothing with us.
Over the past year I've said a fair bit about the Church of Scotland, most of it critical, (check out here and here) and I'm afraid that trend is only going to continue. It's not that I have a grudge against them or anything, in fact, I was converted under the preaching of a Church of Scotland minister and there are many faithful godly men working away in the national church. But their faithfulness, especially in this matter, is inconsistent.
For those of you who don't know the Church of Scotland is meeting tomorrow (May 18th) in order to vote on whether or not practising homosexual ministers should be allowed. The debate is split between conservative evangelicals who argue that the Bible says homosexuality is a sin and the church should not give way to the cultural trend. And on the other side are the liberals who argue we should ignore the Bible, or rather, 'interpret the Bible in a modern framework'. As you can guess from my sarcasm I'm siding with the biblical view, we have no other authority, society can say what it likes, we must stand on the Word of God or we will fall.
Yet with all the discussion happening two things have vexed me. The first is that there seems to be no recognition that the Church of Scotland has brought this on their own heads. As the Bible says: "Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows." (Galatians 6v7). In this case, the evangelical members of the CoS are reaping the fruits of allowing liberalism within the church to grow. The Bible has a clear command on the issue of necessary separation:
With my final ever university exam tomorrow and a desperate need to engage in some form of productive procrastination I was trying to think of a suitable topic to write about when Good Omens sprang to mind. It’s a fantasy book written by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, before they were both famous, which I picked up a good five or more years ago. It’s something of a cult classic and they record in the foreword that many of their readers have dropped the book in the bath or some form of liquid. Thinking: “What a bunch of idiots” I then proceeded to do exactly that.
The story is a mix of Just William and the Apocalypse, where the ‘Anti-Christ’ is an eleven year old boy called Adam Young, who was meant to grow up the son of an American diplomat, thus setting him up for a life of pure festering evil but due to swapping the wrong children around he ends up being brought up in a quiet British village by normal parents. At the same time, Crawley, a demon, and Aziraphale, an angel, are both trying to stop the end of the world from occurring having grown fond of humanity and, more importantly, developed their own working friendship.
The first time I read it some years ago it made me uncomfortable as, though it is a fantasy book, it borrows heavily from Christian imagery, striking a little too close to reality. But this second time, I’ve found it easier to view it as pure fiction, no different than reading Harry Potter or any other fantastical work. And like all such works, it has a message, a grand point to make about human nature.
There’s a lot to say about the book but I’m going to concentrate on what’s probably their main point. It comes as Adam Young faces up to the forces of Heaven and Hell and argues for the continued existence of humanity, without any interference. Crawley says about Adam: “He grew up human! He’s not Evil Incarnate or Good Incarnate, he’s just… a human incarnate-” (italics not mine). This sentence is packed with worldview implications and it’s worth exploring them.
Today an interesting link cropped up in my newsfeed on Facebook. It was a short blog post on the website for Central church detailing a story of a student and a recent encouragement she had. It's probably best to quickly read the post here; should only take a few minutes...
The post provides an excellent example of two of the main errors of the charismatic movement. In saying this, I don't want to be too harsh on Bethany Frank, she is only recording an event as she has been taught to think of it. Nor do I want to detract too much from what is an overly 'cute' but nevertheless broadly encouraging story of God's care for his people.
Talking about the ordinary gifts of the Spirit using the language of the extraordinary gifts
This will require some explanation. I use the term ordinary and extraordinary in their theological sense to talk about the difference between the 'general' gifts of the Holy Spirit (giving, hospitality, preaching, etc) and the 'extra special' gifts of prophecy, tongues and healing. I also want to affirm that the ordinary gifts are just as supernatural as the extraordinary and all gifts stem from God's gracious care for his people.
Considering all the major moral issues that demand an informed biblical viewpoint then piracy might seem minor in comparison. But life is, for the most part, made up with a series of small scale decisions for holiness and while many of us are unlikely to find ourselves tempted to murder someone then the temptation to pirate stuff is a much more ready threat.
In many respects I could clear this issue up in just three points:
1) Proposition 1: We should obey the government in everything except that which contradicts God: “Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.” (Romans 13 v 5)
2) Proposition 2: Piracy is illegal.
3) Conclusion: Christians shouldn’t pirate.
There we go, job done. But while this does present a sufficient case for Christians not pirating stuff it’s worthwhile engaging in an extended ethical discussion over the issue. The first matter is to define piracy; I would say it is two things. The first is copying a piece of work you have no right to copy. The second is watching something online you have no right to watch. Going on the internet and downloading a copy of a music track, film or book without paying for it and without the owner’s permission is piracy. So is watching stuff online on dodgy Asian websites where it is obviously being replicated without the owner’s permission.
Let’s face it, we all know what piracy is! We know when we do it – anytime that we get something for free when it is not officially being given away from free. There are many things wrong with this. And we have an equal number of excuses in doing it.