Archives for posts with tag: Richard Swinburne

Sermon for Holy Communion for SS Simon and Jude, 28th October 2018

Ephesians 2:19-end; John 15:17-end

Today along with most of the churches in the western world we are commemorating two apostles whom we know very little about, St Simon and St Jude.

There were two Judes, two Judases. We’re not quite sure who this one was, because in the four Gospels he is described as being various things. In St Matthew and St Mark he is not called Judas but Thaddeus, which might be a surname; it is only in Saint Luke and the Acts of the Apostles that he is called Jude. St Jude was not the same as Judas Iscariot, although his name in Greek is the same, Ιουδας. People historically haven’t chosen him to invoke in prayer, because they think he might get mixed up with Judas Iscariot. So he is called the patron saint of lost causes – ‘If all else fails, offer a prayer through St Jude’. The little letter of Jude in the New Testament was not written by this Jude, according to many scholars. In St Luke’s Gospel Jude is described as the son of James the brother of Jesus. ‘Jude the Obscure’, which was the title of one of Thomas Hardy’s novels, is an apt name for him.

Simon – not Simon Peter – had been a terrorist – a real terrorist. He had been a member of the Zealots, who were a Jewish extremist sect that believed that the Jews were supposed to be a free and independent nation; that God alone would be their king, and that any payment of taxes to the Romans or accepting their rule was a blasphemy against God. They were violent. They attacked both Romans and any Jews who they thought were collaborating with the Romans. Simon had been one of them.

So the Apostles were a motley assortment. Humble fishermen; a tax collector; a terrorist (although of course, depending on your point of view, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter); James and John, the ‘Sons of Thunder’, whatever that means. It certainly doesn’t sound meek and mild. And of course, Judas Iscariot; the other Jude. Jesus wasn’t choosing people whom we would think of as saintly.

But there isn’t an awful lot that we know about Simon the Zealot and Jude – Jude-not-that-Jude. So our Bible readings today, the message from St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, ‘You are no longer aliens in a foreign land,’ and the message from St John’s Gospel, about Christians not belonging to the world, are not about them, but rather they are a reminder of some of the teaching that Jesus – and after him, St Paul – gave to the Apostles and to the early Christians.

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians has a great theme of ‘reconciliation’: St Paul’s great mission was to bring the Gospel to the non-Jews, the Gentiles, so that Christianity wasn’t just a subdivision of Jewishness. ‘You are no longer aliens in a foreign land.’ Perhaps it’s not so topical for us nowadays.

But in Jesus’ own teaching, from St John’s Gospel (chapter 15) that we heard this morning, packed into these few lines there are some really deep meanings which still help us to understand the nature of God.

Jesus said, ’Because you do not belong to the world … For that reason the world hates you.’ In Jesus’ day and in that Roman world, being a Christian was definitely dangerous, simply because Christians didn’t worship the Roman emperor as a god. In the reign of some emperors, for example Diocletian, it meant that large numbers of Christians were fed to the lions.

It’s still to some extent true today, in parts of the Middle East and in Northern Nigeria, that Christians are persecuted. But by and large in our part of Surrey, it’s not really controversial to say that you are a Christian. But I do think that perhaps we still should reflect on what it means ‘not to belong to the world’. You don’t ‘breathe the same air’, as people sometimes say. Are we sometimes tempted to keep our religious belief out of things, for fear of offending people? But Jesus said here, don’t be afraid of being different.

What about the next proposition in this teaching passage, ‘Servants are not greater than their master’? The translation is actually wrong. The word isn’t ‘servant’, but ‘slave’, δουλος in Greek. This word also means what was called a ‘bondsman’, somebody who was indentured, bought. In the Roman empire, bondsmen, indentured slaves, could buy their freedom. Their bonds could be remitted, they could be ransomed.

It seems to me that these words surely have echoes of the idea of redemption, that by Jesus’ sacrifice he has purchased our remission from the slavery of sin. Jesus has bought us out, redeemed us. We are no longer slaves. Earlier on in chapter 15, indeed Jesus does say, ‘I call you slaves no longer’.

‘The people who hate you’, Jesus said, ‘do not know the one who sent me’. Again: ‘… the one who sent me.’ This is a reminder of the way that Christians understand God ‘in three persons’, as the Holy Trinity, father, son and Holy Spirit. (Jesus comes to the Holy Spirit later on, when he talks about sending what he calls the ‘Advocate’, the spirit of truth, after he has gone. Here, it’s just him and the One who sent him).

Here we can see what caused some of the controversy in the early church, which ended up in the Council of Nicaea in the fourth century, and in our Nicene Creed. If God ‘sent’ Jesus, the Son, was Jesus also God, or just another creature? And depending on the answer to that question, where did the Holy Spirit come from? God, or God-and-Jesus? And again, was the Spirit, is the Spirit – remember, ‘His Spirit is with us’, we say – is the Spirit made by God, or is it God itself?

If you don’t think of God as a nice old chap with a beard sitting on top of the clouds – and since the sixties, at least, since Bishop John Robinson’s wonderful little book, ‘Honest to God’ [Robinson, J. (1963), Honest to God, London, SCM Press], we mostly don’t – how can we understand the Holy Trinity? Try the logical, a priori, back to logical first principles, way that Professor Richard Swinburne, the great Oxford philosopher of religion, has set out in his book ‘Was Jesus God?’ [Swinburne, R. (2008) Was Jesus God? Oxford, OUP, p.28f]. It goes like this.

There is a ‘divine person’ who is omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly free and eternal. Let us call that person ‘God’. Because He is omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly free and eternal, God is perfectly good.

God could exist alone, but being perfectly good means he won’t be selfish; He will have to have a object for His love. Perfect love is love of an equal: a perfectly good person will seek to bring about another such person, an equal, with whom to share all that he has. That other person is the Son.

But the Son didn’t, in fact, come after the Father. As a matter of logic, because they are perfect, ’At each moment of everlasting time the Father must always cause the Son to exist, and so always keep the Son in being.’

But then, Swinburne says, ’A twosome can be selfish’. ‘The love of the Father for the Son must include a wish to cooperate with the Son in further total sharing with an equal; and hence the need for a third member of the Trinity’ And that is the Holy Spirit.

For the same logical reasons, the Spirit isn’t something ‘made’ by God. As we say in the Creed, the Spirit ‘proceeds from’ the Father, or the Father and the Son. (Saying ‘proceeds from’ is perhaps a philosophical cop-out. We can’t say exactly how the Spirit gets here). The Three-in-One are, is, there. The Trinity is in a sense caused by the One, by God. But it is one with God. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Three ways of being God.

One more nugget of theology. Jesus says, at verse 24, about the heathen, the worldly people, ’If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin; but now they have both seen and hated both me and my Father’. It seems that Jesus has a different concept of guilt or criminal responsibility from the one we’re familiar with. We say that ignorance is no defence. Something is either lawful or it isn’t. You might think that sin worked the same way. Something is either sinful or it isn’t, surely, isn’t it sinful, irrespective whether you know it or not? But Jesus has this different idea – you’ll find it also in St Paul’s letter to the Romans [7:7] – that heathens, who know nothing about sin, are not sinful. What makes someone sinful, or capable of being sinful, is being ‘fixed with knowledge’, as a lawyer would put it. So it looks as though ignorance is a defence, where sin is concerned.

But that is perhaps an indication that to ‘sin’ is not the same thing as to do bad things, to do evil, even. The point about sin is that it is a separation, a turning of your back on, God. And you can’t do that, if you don’t know about God in the first place. Of course, if you are sinful, if you have turned your back on God, you may well do bad things. If you are saved by grace, you will show it by your good works. If you aren’t, if you are lost, you will show it by the bad things you do. St Paul sets it out in Galatians chapter 5.

What a concentrated lesson for his disciples it was from Jesus!

– What it means that the Father is ‘the One who sent me’;

– what it means that because of me, the Son, you are no longer servants, or really slaves; and,

– what it means that Jesus will get the Spirit to come to you. (That is the ‘Advocate’, what the Prayer Book and the Authorised Version of the Bible calls the Comforter, ό παρακλητος).

The common thread, the theme of Jesus’ teaching here, might perhaps be relationships, relationships between people, and with God. And the currency used in those relationships. Hate – ‘the world hates you’; service – Jesus has bought us out, redeemed us, so we are no longer slaves; comfort, the Holy Spirit, the Comforter; and love – love from ‘the one who sent me’. And ‘the greatest of these is love’, as you know. [1 Corinthians 13]

Sometimes it’s good to think about these lessons that Jesus taught, never mind who was listening to him. It could even be you, as well as Simon-not-Peter or Jude-not-Judas.

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Sermon for Easter Day, 20th April 2014
Acts 10:34-43, Colossians 3:1-4, Matt. 28:1-10

When David Cameron published an article in the Church Times (which of course was widely quoted in the Telegraph and other less specialist newspapers than the Church Times), there were lots of people who said how good it was that the Prime Minister had said publicly that he was in favour of the Church of England and that the C of E should stick up for itself more.

Mind you, said the Prime Minister, he didn’t actually go to church very often, and his Christian faith ‘came and went a bit,’ he said. He did remind me a little bit of the caricature figure in WW2 dramas signing up for army service, where the recruiting sergeant asks what his religion is, and he mumbles, ‘Agnostic’, whereupon the sergeant writes down ‘C of E’.

On Thursday there was a big service at Guildford Cathedral for the renewal of vows of all the people in ministry in the Diocese. The Bishop of Dorking, giving the sermon, said that the Prime Minister’s article had been ‘somewhat surprisingly good’. Somewhat surprisingly. His caution might be explained by the comments on the Prime Minister’s article which had been made in various quarters, which tended to focus on the question how Mr Cameron’s Christianity didn’t seem to extend to making sure that people in Britain are not starving and going to food banks.

All this doesn’t take away the fact that the Prime Minister thought that it was important enough, in his busy life, to affirm his Christian faith in a public article. So for that much, I think we must be grateful.

Never mind the Prime Minister; Christianity has been getting a better and better name this year with the advent of the new Pope and the new Archbishop of Canterbury. Both of them are seen as very good adverts for the faith: very good examples of what it is to be a good Christian.

Today on Easter Sunday they reckon that 1.3m people will go to church in the UK. This really isn’t very many, out of the roughly 70m people who live here. So even if the Prime Minister, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pope are all valiantly pointing up the importance of Christianity, the message doesn’t really seem to be getting through to that many people.

Does that mean there’s something wrong with that message? Our lessons from Acts and St Matthew’s Gospel have the key things. Jesus went about doing good, teaching and healing, but he was arrested and condemned to death as a troublemaker – a freedom-fighter, a terrorist (because always remember, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom-fighter). He was put to death publicly in the cruellest fashion, being crucified. And He rose again from the dead.

The Gospel story is the most important bit. The story of the empty tomb, of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. I would risk saying that, unless there had been a first Easter Day, and unless there had been a resurrection from the dead, we would not be here, celebrating Jesus and worshipping God in the way that we are today.

Leave aside for a minute the fact that there are only a million or so of us in the UK who will bother to go to church today: if you take the worldwide figures for people celebrating Easter, it’s a very, very large number – and it is a growing number. Christianity is a very fast-growing religion: I believe it is still the fastest-growing religion in the world.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, St Paul explained the significance of Easter. St Paul said, ‘If Christ was not raised, your faith has nothing in it and you are still in your old state of sin’ (1 Cor.15:17).

Now pay attention! Resurrection from the dead, the resurrection of Jesus, is, of course, completely contrary to the laws of nature. It’s a super-miracle, the super-miracle. It is the sign, the sign by which we realise that Jesus wasn’t just a great teacher or a prophet: it’s how we know that he was God incarnate, God in human form.

I’m not going to argue here why I believe in the resurrection – which I, and you, surely do. This is, after all, a gathering of the faithful. But maybe I should encourage you a bit. It’s like adverts for Mercedes-Benz. Merc don’t need to advertise. They can sell every car they make, just by word of mouth. But they have great adverts, nevertheless. Have you seen the one with the chicken? It’s far and away the best ad on the telly at the moment. The reason they made it, and no doubt spent millions on it, was to reassure their customers: to reassure them that they have indeed made the right choice.

So maybe I should also just comfort you, in the same way, about what you already believe. There are plenty of eminent scientists who believe in the resurrection. For the atheists there is Richard Dawkins: for the Christians there is John Polkinghorne: both equally eminent scientists. Similarly in philosophy: for the atheist Daniel Dennett there is the Christian, Richard Swinburne – and Brian Leftow, another formidable logician, whose formal proofs of the existence of God were published recently [God and Necessity, ISBN 978-0-19-926335-6]. Or Roger Scruton, who plays the organ in his parish church.

If you want a good refresher course in why it’s intellectually respectable that we can believe in the resurrection, there’s the famous book, first published in the Thirties and still in print, ‘Who Moved the Stone?’ by Frank Morison. [ISBN 978-1-85078-674-0]. Morison was a sceptic who set out to prove that that resurrection couldn’t have happened, and ended up convincing himself that the weight of all the evidence went exactly the other way, and it did happen. Or of course you can read Richard Swinburne’s ‘The Resurrection of God Incarnate’ [ISBN 978-0-19-925746-1], for a heavyweight philosophy-of-religion treatment from the celebrated former Professor of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion at Oxford.

Back to St Paul. In the lesson from his letter to the Colossians, the very short lesson this morning, he underlines the significance of Easter for us.

‘Were you not raised to life with Christ?’ he asks.

He then says, perhaps rather mysteriously, ‘You did die, and your life has been hidden away with Christ in God’. [Col.3:1,2 (NEB: my translation, resp.)]

Of course this doesn’t mean that somehow we are all ghosts. We have died in the sense that we die in baptism: we die to sin, and have new life in Christ. In that sense, we rise with him. We have been ‘raised to life with Christ.’

And we say He died to save us from our sins, to redeem us. In the words of the hymn ‘There is a green hill far away’, Mrs Alexander wrote, ‘He died that we might be forgiven, he died to make us good,’ and, ‘There was no other good enough | to pay the price of sin’.

The language is apparently language of ransom, of kidnap and ransom, even. But I think that’s not the right way to look at it. If you think of sin not so much as specific sins, specific crimes – although sin can make you do those bad things – if instead you think of sin as whatever it is that separates us from God, then Jesus’ redeeming work was really to bring us back to God, bringing us back home to the true ground of our being. In the words of the lovely prayer,

Father of all,
we give you thanks and praise,
that when we were still far off
you met us in your Son and brought us home.

Even here, where things seem to be very spiritual, very mythical, there isn’t a conflict with science. In her 2012 Gifford Lectures, Prof. Sarah Coakley looks at the idea of sacrifice, sacrifice in the context not just of religion, of Jesus’ sacrifice, or the Jewish idea of a scapegoat, but in the context of evolutionary biology. Apparently the latest analysis is that evolution doesn’t depend on the ‘Selfish Gene’, but much more on co-operation, on selfless behaviour, self-sacrifice. A defining characteristic, the real mark, of humanity is altruism, self-sacrifice, selfless behaviour. We are the most successful species, the theory runs, not because we possess a selfish gene, but exactly the opposite – because ‘greater love hath no man’ is something we can, and do, aspire to.

Professor Coakley mentions in her first lecture –
http://www.faith-theology.com/2012/05/sarah-coakley-2012-gifford-lectures.html%5D – that Charles Darwin was inspired to study biology by William Paley’s argument, that the complex workings of nature meant that they were evidence of the work of a ‘divine watchmaker’. Although the current rather fundamentalist ‘intelligent design’ movement, mainly in the USA, isn’t very believable, nevertheless there does seem to be perfectly good scientific evidence for God, as the creator and sustainer of the universe. It’s really not necessary to be an atheist if you are a scientist.

Oh – and if you want to compare and contrast Prime Ministerial words of faith, you might want to dust off Gordon Brown’s speech in 2011 about his Christian faith, which you can find on Archbishop Rowan’s website. http://rowanwilliams.archbishopofcanterbury.org/articles.php/903/faith-in-politics-lecture-by-gordon-brown.

Nothing political, honest – but Gordon Brown’s piece is head and shoulders over David Cameron’s: really inspiring stuff, not faith which ‘comes and goes’.

So I say, we should shout it from the roof-tops. It makes sense. Jesus was raised from the dead: Jesus is risen! Happy Easter!

Sermon for the Time to Remember Service at St Andrew’s, 3rd November 2013
Revelation 21:1-6

We are here, because they are not here. In a few minutes we will read out their names, the names of our loved ones, which we have written down, and whom we will remember together, here in God’s house. We will make an act of remembrance by lighting candles in their memory.

We will remember our mothers, our fathers, our wives, our husbands, our sons and daughters; our friends. They are not here. It makes us sad to think of all those people who have died, all those whose company we have lost.

Some of those who have died have left us after a full life, when perhaps they themselves would even have said that they were ready. You will remember Jesus’ saying, that in his Father’s house there are many rooms, many ‘mansions’. Some people, when they reach the end of their lives, are quite happy, quite happy to pass from one room to the next. My late father-in-law surprised many of his friends, days before he died, by ringing them up, and announcing that, as he wasn’t going to be around much longer, he wanted to say goodbye properly. He was quite relaxed about his future. He was truly blessed.

But some people are taken from us too soon, before they are ready and before we are ready. It is a great challenge to us to understand it, when people die suddenly or accidentally or unexpectedly. We are struck with the unfairness of it. We protest. We ‘rail against heaven’. Why them? Why should we lose the ones we love? There is no easy answer.

At the heart of the Christian gospel is Jesus’ promise of eternal life. We believe that Christ Jesus was raised from the dead. In the Bible, Jesus assures us that there will be a resurrection for everyone; there will be eternal life.

You will remember that wonderful aria in Handel’s Messiah: ‘The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised, incorruptible’. How it works, is surely a mystery. But we have the assurance that it will happen, because of the good news that it happened to Jesus himself.

When Jesus said, ‘In my Father’s house are many rooms,’ [John 14:1-6], he said that those rooms are for everyone who follows Him. So whenever one of our loved ones is taken from us, Jesus says that there will be room for them in God’s house.

How it works, St Paul explains in his first letter to the Corinthians, where he reminds us that we all have a body and a soul. Two separate things. Although the body may die, may perish, the soul does not. This is what St Paul says. ‘There are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies; and the splendour of the heavenly bodies is one thing, the splendour of the earthly, another. The sun has a splendour of its own, the moon another splendour, and the stars another, for star differs from star in brightness. So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown in the earth as a perishable thing is raised imperishable. Sown in humiliation, it is raised in glory; sown in weakness, it is raised in power; sown as an animal body, it is raised as a spiritual body.’ [1 Cor. 15:40f, NEB]

There is now scientific work which bears out the possibility of the life after death. There is a well-known book, ‘Proof of Heaven’, by Dr Eben Alexander, who is a neurosurgeon, and that book, together with the work of other scientists who have analysed near-death experiences, strongly supports the conclusion that there is a life after death.

Now other leading academics, such as Prof. Richard Swinburne in Oxford, have examined the latest neuroscience findings on the way in which our brains work, how they control our movements, and have concluded that the only way to explain how our bodies are actually controlled involves the existence of something separate from our bodies, something which corresponds which our idea of a mind or a soul. There is no reason, as Prof. Swinburne says, that that soul should not survive the death of the body. [Swinburne, R., 2013, Mind, Brain & Free Will, Oxford, OUP]

Or, you can be simply blessed with faith, as the saints were blessed according to the letter to the Hebrews; in chapter 11, there is a wonderful catalogue of faith shown by the leaders of the Israelites all through the Old Testament. Hebrews says, ‘Since we are ‘surrounded by … so great a cloud of witnesses, … let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.’ A great cloud of witnesses.

If we have run that race, as we heard in our lesson from the Book of Revelation, the vision is that there will be a new heaven and as new earth, ‘where God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.’

We are here because they are not here. But the Gospel message is that that separation, that loneliness, will not last for ever. So in our act of remembrance, we need not be without hope. We can have the Gospel hope, the ‘sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life.’ [The Book of Common Prayer: At the Burial of the Dead]

Of course we do feel sadness. We do feel the pain of loss, the pain of separation. But we can also feel joy. We can rejoice in hope, in the Christian hope of eternal life, that we will not be separated for ever.

Sometimes when I look at old family pictures I do feel rather sad. But then, I look again at those pictures, and remember the happy times, the achievements we celebrated, the love. It was real. It is real. It is still good.

So therefore, in our memories we can feel happiness as well as pain. We can celebrate as much as we regret. We can understand that it is not enough, simply to say that we are here because they are not. ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?’ We are here because we remember them. Let us remember them with joy.