Is this Rome’s time for Reformation?

An open letter written by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, has connected the coverup of child sexual abuse with the highest offices in the Roman Catholic Church,

“A former Vatican ambassador to the United States alleges in a 7,000 word letter that top Catholic Church officials, including Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, were long aware of sexual misconduct allegations against former D.C. archbishop Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.” (NPR)

For years it has been apparent that there is a culture of abuse among many Roman Catholic priests, and that church hierarchy has been quietly suppressing the stories for many decades. But this week’s allegations demand, even more, the need for Rome to reform. At this point, Pope Francis’ only response has been to say, “I will not say one word on this. I think the statement speaks for itself and you have sufficient journalistic capacity to reach your own conclusions.”

 

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When Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Wittenburg Cathedral door in 1517, he was not calling for schism within the Roman Catholic Church, but for her reform. Luther rightly observed that reform begins with repentance.

The first of the 95 theses reads,

 “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”

Martin Luther’s rediscovery of the Gospel call had an almost immediate effect. As the Reformation swept across Europe in the 16th Century, Rome sent out counter punches in the hope of quelling the tide. In the centuries since, there have indeed been moments of change made inside the Vatican, but these revisions have been primarily cosmetic and cultural, rather than ripping out the rotted foundations and replacing them with τ γιαινούσ διδασκαλί.

It is interesting to note that the events which led to Martin Luther’s clarion call concerned an issue of abuse; Rome’s teaching of and reliance upon indulgences.

The practice of indulgences is nowhere taught or encouraged in the Christian Bible. Indulgences contradict the most basic of Christian teachings, that justification before God is by God’s grace alone, received by faith alone, because of Jesus Christ’s atoning death alone,

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

Roman Catholicism has taught indulgences since Medieval times, believing that they are a means by which people can receive remission for sins, and therefore reduce the time they would otherwise spend in purgatory. Leaving aside the fact that purgatory is another Roman concept which finds no warrant in the Bible,  indulgences take on multifarious forms, from saying a prayer, to completing a sacred pilgrimage, to helping the poor. Indulgences regularly contained a monetary aspect, paying a financial sum to the church to gain an indulgence, and thus time exemption from purgatory. The stunning St Peter’s Basilica in Rome that tourists and pilgrims enjoy today, was built in the 16th Century by stripping Europe’s poor via these indulgences.

In case we make the mistake of thinking that indulgences were left behind 500 years ago, they remain in vogue, with the current Pope publicly encouraging the practice of indulgences on at least two occasions since taking the seat in the Vatican in 2013. More odd, the ABC reported this week that the Anglican Church in Yea, Victoria, has recently taken up the practice in order to raise money to repair their dilapidated building.

Revelations made in recent years have once again made it clear that the problems inside Roman Catholicism are deeply rooted. When Martin Luther exposed the abuses made in the 16th Century, he rightly called for repentance and sought reform in the Church. Once again, Rome has been caught abusing the vulnerable, this time, sexually abusing young children and then consistently covering up the crimes. There are voices from within and many from outside, calling for Rome to reform her ways, but it appears that so far there is little sign of change. The allegations made this week by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò suggest that change needs to extend to the very top. Indeed, should the Archbishop’s letter be proven accurate, this would confirm the abuse scandals to be the most profound  faced by the Roman Church in centuries.

In criticising Rome, please don’t misunderstand, I am not suggesting that Protestant Churches automatically make the cut. Children have been abused inside Anglican, Baptist, and Pentecostal Churches, and even one example is one more than should ever be. There is, however, a vast difference between cases of abuse, and a culture of abuse. In addition, Churches that have once embraced the principles of the Reformation, need to reaffirm them with every new generation, lest we too lose our way. Europe, the United Kingdom, and Australia are littered with churches that once joyful upheld the 5 Solas, but today are little more than crumbling buildings sitting on prime real estate supporting the retirement funds of heterodox clergy.

The Apostle Paul insisted that we hold onto both doctrine and life, “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16). The former shapes the latter, and the latter can easily distort the former when we preference personal morality above the ethics given by a good and holy God.

Is this Rome’s time for Reformation? Will Rome finally wake up and realise that they need to do more than move around the furniture or cover up the walls with a new coat of paint? 500 years ago, abusive practices were called out and thousands of clergy and churches across Europe heeded God’s gracious call to repent, but Rome ignored the opportunity. How will Rome respond this time?

At the heart of the 16th Century, abuses derived from a distorted view of God and his Gospel. With the rediscovery of God’s good news and with the people gaining access to the Scriptures in their own languages, unhelpful and gross evil practices were exposed and removed.

Reformation needs to come from within, and reformation requires the dismantling of any and all teachings, practices, and traditions that confuse, cloud or contradict the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This kind of foundational change will be confronting and difficult. Christians can pray that a movement of repentance will take over Rome. We can pray that both among Rome’s clergy and congregations there will be a rediscovery of the Gospel, the good news that the Apostle Paul first shared with the Romans almost 2000 years ago,

“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:23-24)

“For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (Romans 3:28)

Bad Leaders and Good Leaders

The very notion of leadership has become a public parody, a cartoon, a crazy dream that strangely Orwellian and Black Adder together.

It seems as though among leadership of every kind and level, there is crisis, mismanagement, incompetence, and division. Whether we are talking about Australian politics or international politics, managing boards of major corporations, sporting clubs and yes even Churches, not even twitter can hashtag all the latest fiascos and failings. 

Of course, there are always criticisms, wingers, and dissenters, no matter who is leading. Even when leaders are performing their duties with excellence, grumblers are never far away.

At yet, corruption, bias, and abuses of power are very real and when it happens people are understandably upset, and they lose confidence in their leaders.

At the moment I’m preparing for Sunday’s sermon. We are currently preaching through the book of Jeremiah, and this week our reading is chapter 23, and it’s all about leadership: good leaders and bad leaders.

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I should note, this blog post is not about the current state of affairs in Australian politics.  It is about a form of leadership that is more significant, namely that of Christian or Church leadership. The original context of Jeremiah chapter 23 is of God addressing the leadership of Judah (which included the King, the priests, and the prophets); the equivalent for us today is the church.

Characteristics of a good leader

“Therefore this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says to the shepherds who tend my people: “Because you have scattered my flock and driven them away and have not bestowed care on them, I will bestow punishment on you for the evil you have done,” declares the Lord. “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and will bring them back to their pasture, where they will be fruitful and increase in number. I will place shepherds over them who will tend them, and they will no longer be afraid or terrified, nor will any be missing,” declares the Lord.

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord,
“when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch,
a King who will reign wisely
and do what is just and right in the land.

In his days Judah will be saved
and Israel will live in safety.
This is the name by which he will be called:
The Lord Our Righteous Savior.

“So then, the days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when people will no longer say, ‘As surely as the Lord lives, who brought the Israelites up out of Egypt,’ but they will say, ‘As surely as the Lord lives, who brought the descendants of Israel up out of the land of the north and out of all the countries where he had banished them.’ Then they will live in their own land.” (Jeremiah 23:1-9)

Two metaphors are used, the Shepherd and the King.

Like a Shepherd:

  • a good leader tends (feeding and protecting those under his care)
  • he gathers (brings them together)
  • he calms fears and terror

Like a righteous King:

  • he will act wisely
  • he will act with justice
  • he will act with righteousness

It is important to note that God identifies himself as the Shepherd, and the King (the righteous branch) is the promised Messiah. The point is, the Lord will accomplish what his leaders have failed to achieve. He will redeem his people from the mess created by failed leaders.

Seven Centuries following this Divine pronouncement,  a preacher from Galilee arose, and announced, “I am the good shepherd”. But the phrase, “I am”, he was adopting the holy name of the Lord for himself. By exclaiming “I am the good shepherd”, Jesus was identifying himself as the God of Jeremiah 23:3, in contrast to the generations of bad shepherds who had gone before him and who were prevalent during his own public ministry.

What is most remarkable, is the extent to which the Good Shepherd would go in order to save and bring lost sheep: he would lay down his life for his sheep. This Shepherd leader loves his sheep so much, that he would give his life to save them. Jesus is providing us with much more than a model of leadership, for his sacrificial death is unique is salvific power and design, and yet he also signals a pattern that is to be followed by those who would serve as leaders under his rule.

In Jeremiah 23:4, God also speaks of other shepherds who will work under him. “I will place shepherds over them who will tend them, and they will no longer be afraid or terrified, nor will any be missing,” declares the Lord.” While the salvific focus is on God himself and his leadership role, he intimates that he will raise up shepherds to work under him” (v.4).

1 Peter 5 interprets Jeremiah 23 (and similar Old Testament passages) by speaking of the Chief Shepherd (the Lord Jesus) and Elders of a local Church,

“To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away”. (1 Peter 5:1-4)

Characteristics of a bad leader:

The leaders in question are Judah’s king, the priests, and the prophets. Rather than faithfully administering their responsibilities under God, according to his covenantal word:

i. They create their own ‘truth’

“I did not send these prophets,
yet they have run with their message;
I did not speak to them,
yet they have prophesied.” (verse 21)

“This is what the Lord Almighty says:

“Do not listen to what the prophets are prophesying to you;
they fill you with false hopes.
They speak visions from their own minds,
not from the mouth of the Lord.

They keep saying to those who despise me,
‘The Lord says: You will have peace.’
And to all who follow the stubbornness of their hearts
they say, ‘No harm will come to you.’ (vv.16-17)

 Like Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro in the film Wag the Dog, the prophets have raised a green screen and laid over an unreal picture of reality. The prophets have fabricated an alternate reality: times of peace and prosperity, with images of green fields and cool streams, sandy beaches, city cafes, captivating moods and suggestions of a beautiful life to come.

ii. They make promises that they can never keep

“They keep saying to those who despise me,

    ‘The Lord says: You will have peace.’

And to all who follow the stubbornness of their hearts

    they say, ‘No harm will come to you.’” (v.17)

iii. They falsely attribute their words to God

“I have heard what the prophets say who prophesy lies in my name. They say, ‘I had a dream! I had a dream!’ How long will this continue in the hearts of these lying prophets, who prophesy the delusions of their own minds?” (vv.25-26)

“I am against the prophets who steal from one another words supposedly from me. Yes,” declares the Lord, “I am against the prophets who wag their own tongues and yet declare, ‘The Lord declares.’ (vv.30-31)

iv. They are motivated by evil

“And among the prophets of Jerusalem
I have seen something horrible:
They commit adultery and live a lie.
They strengthen the hands of evildoers,
so that not one of them turns from their wickedness.
They are all like Sodom to me;
the people of Jerusalem are like Gomorrah.” (v.14)

This religious industry of ‘new’ Divine words was tied to a moral agenda that was being promoted by Judah’s leaders. God connects their words with the concept of adultery and he likens them to the days of Sodom and Gomorrah. In other words, they form their religious ideas and Divine words based on their moral vision. The reference to Sodom and Gomorrah is telling. Sodom and Gomorrah were the famous twin towns destroyed by God in Genesis chapter 19, as a result of the townsmen wanting to have sex with the men whom Lot was protecting. It is therefore likely that the prophets’ message was an 8th Century version of the sexual revolution.

According to God, the prophets were speaking new words because God’s words restrain sin and they want to live out sin. If the Bible doesn’t give me adequate justification to pursue immorality, let’s make up new words and say that they are from God.

v. They are responsible for division and destruction

The outcome is scattering, misery, and social and spiritual carnage.  As God exclaims, “They do not benefit these people in the least” (v.32).

 

Right expectations

Should we expect more of our political leaders? Politics in the age of social media has yet to deliver on the kind of stability, integrity, and unifying vision that some predicted would occur. There may be some principles worth reflecting upon for leaders in general, but like I said at the outset, Jeremiah ch.23 is not speaking to the question of modern civic and political leadership, but to those who assume or are recognised as leaders of Churches. The kind of leader God affirms, is one who chooses God’s ways over popular cultural movements, who is okay with being unoriginal and uninventive in his words, and who brings unity not division among God’s people.

What do we expect of our Church leaders? They will certainly fall short because they are as human as the rest of us. They carry weaknesses and they struggle with temptation like all of us, and yet the expectations set for those who oversee churches are appropriately high.

Jeremiah ch.23 reminds us of how perilous it is to entertain new and interesting ideas about God and to use God as justification for our moral proclivities. Whether it is the Roman Catholic crisis coming out of Pennsylvania or with the schism within the Uniting Church of Australia, or royal preachers, prosperity preachers, or theological scholars from the school of Lord Voldemort, it is not difficult to see the harm and division that is created by many modern-day priests and prophets. If our favourite preachers and authors smell like the culture and look like the culture, and are praised by the culture, perhaps it’s time for us to find new preachers and teachers.  Above all, I’m reminded of how much we need the promised Shepherd and King of Jeremiah ch.23.

“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

Baptists believe in Freedom of Association

Until Friday, I had never heard of Logan Robertson or Pillar Baptist Church in Queensland. Today, all Australia knows his name.

Logan Robertson and two other men have been charged with public nuisance offences following events that took place during the week at two Brisbane mosques. The incidents were ugly, offensive, and without warrant.

Mr Robertson is a New Zealand national who has already gained notoriety in his homeland for extreme religious views, including being subject to a police investigation regarding his public conduct. Prior to entering Australia a year ago, Robertson was cautioned about his behavior. Tonight he is in custody and will be shortly deported back to New Zealand.

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To begin with, along with Christians across the country, I wish to apologise to our Muslim Australians who were subjected to Robertson’s unruly conduct. People of any religion should be permitted to worship in freedom and without threat. We have seen other nasty incidents in recent months, usually with Christian churches and groups being targeted. On this occasion though,  the perpetrators were a group who purport to be Christian. We do not want Westboro or Münster type religious fanatics interfering with peoples religious freedoms, regardless of what their religion may be.

It is understandable that this story has made headline news across the country; this is a time when religious freedom is a topic of national conversation and we await the Government’s report on the Ruddock review. In the middle of these discussions, here is a ‘Christian’ minister intruding on a Muslim time of prayer and intimidating worshippers, including teenage boys.

Why does this matter? There are two issues here. First, there is the criminal charges and social ills that Robertson and others have allegedly engaged in. We should not intimidate other Australians by entering their worship spaces and interrupting religious services. Second, it is important to address this story, because just like the fake gynaecologist who was caught out and imprisoned in Melbourne this past week, a fake Baptist should also be called out because of the dangers in misrepresenting what Baptists, and Christians in general, believe.

While Logan Robertson self-identifies as a Baptist, as the media have rightly stated, he and his church have no affiliation with the Queensland Baptist Union and the Baptist Union of Australia. Indeed, there is little about Pillar Baptist Church that can be called Baptist.

As with all Christians, Baptist beliefs and practices are shaped by the Bible. What Christian Churches share in common is far greater than any differences. For example, while Baptists don’t baptise infants as do Anglicans and Presbyterians, and our church governance differs, otherwise,  we share the same beliefs that have been taught and lived out for 2000 years.

I have read the Doctrinal Statement of Pillar Baptist Church, and it does not resemble any Baptist confession that I have ever read before, and it includes some very strange ideas indeed.

Most Baptist Churches in Australia belong to the Baptist Union of Australia, and so they are in formal association with one another. There are also independent Baptist churches, and these vary in their beliefs and practices. Independence does not alone denote what a church is like, but as with every church (including those belonging to a traditional denomination), we ought to examine their doctrine and life closely. At the very least, when a Church states that it “reject[s] the teaching of the universal church” and does not associate with other Christian groups, that ought to raise serious questions.

Not only does Robertson’s Church have a doctrinal statement that doesn’t fit with historic Baptist faith, and not only are they unrelated to any formal Baptist association, it is clear that Logan Robertson has abrogated two important Baptist principles, namely that of freedom of conscience and freedom of association. While these principles are not owned by Baptists, they are closely aligned with Baptist thinking through the Centuries. Freedom of thought and freedom of association found clear expression among Baptists in the 17th Century, at a time when religious freedom didn’t exist but was often controlled by the crown, by Parliament, and by establishment churches. Baptists were often oppressed and even imprisoned for holding these beliefs. The author of Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan, was twice imprisoned because he believed in and practiced freedom of religious association.

These two principles are not saying that Baptists agree with other religions or that we think that these religions are intellectually coherent, spiritually healthy, and morally good. Baptists are not theological and moral relativists. It does, however, mean that we believe Christianity is accepted through persuasion not by coercion, by gracious explanation and not by galling intimidation. Freedom of belief is not about privileging  one religious group over another, but positively guaranteeing that all Australians can speak and live their beliefs without harassment. Neither the State nor individuals in the community should resort to browbeating in order to change another person’s mind on an issue. We cannot create a healthy society by thuggery, whether it is noisy secularists forcing out Christians from the public square or religious fanatics spitting out their dogma in our faces.

Australia needs honest conversations about the big questions of life. We need these discussions happening in public spaces and in private meetings, and yet sadly, people like Logan Robertson caste a shadow on our optimism, and authoritarian secularists are throwing even darker clouds over the social and religious freedoms that we have long enjoyed in this country.

It is easy to say that Logan Robertson’s behaviour is unAustralian, but I’m not sure if I want to indict my New Zealand friends on this occasion! Robertson’s ideas and behaviour are certainly anti-Baptist, and therefore they have caused confusion over the beauty and goodness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When Jesus met people with whom he held profound disagreement, he loved them and he went to a cross to die that they might come to know and enjoy God forever. That is how Australians can tell a Christian, not that we agree with your beliefs, but that we love you and above everything we desire for you to know the Lord Jesus Christ, not to force him upon you, but with grace and fervour, with openness and humility, to explain the reason for the hope with have in Him.

Tasmanian Art Needs Saving

Last month a friend was about to visit Hobart and asked me whether it was worth visiting the Mona (Museum of Modern Art in Hobart). At first I thought he said MOMA, and so I proceeded to give a rapturous endorsement of this famous art gallery in New York City. He then clarified that he had said Mona and not Moma, at which point I was no longer able to help him. Perhaps there is a vibrant contemporary art scene in Tasmania, perhaps not. But then today, as I peered outside my Melbourne window and across Bass Strait, the distant feint red glow of upside down crosses didn’t succeed in turning around  my opinion about Tasmanian art.

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ABC

This is art? I realise that in Tasmania, the ministry of the Arts is combined with Justice, Correction, and the Environment. Was someone in the ministry confused when they opened the public purse? Or is Tasmania introducing a new form of justice and correction?

These so called ‘Crosses of Saint Peter’ look more like half assembled mood lights from Bunnings, rather than works of art. Then again, perhaps I’m being unfair to Bunnings!

Dark Mofo is a winter solstice festival, which aims to shock and to subvert. Last year, the Festival caused controversy in its ‘artistic’ use of slaughtered bulls, with blood and guts smeared all over people. This year, there is an anti-Christian theme, which would be innovative and interesting, except that it’s not. It’s kind of old and tried, about 2000 years so,  and sticking a few coloured LEDs onto  crosses is somewhat pedestrian.

Speaking of which, also appearing during the Dark Mofo Festival, is another artist, Mike Parr, who is going to bury himself under a road for three days. It’s unlikely though that his performance will have the same energy and excitement as the real resurrection, given that he’s not actually dead, and presumably he’ll need to eat and drink and poo and sleep. The more pressing question is this,  how is Mr Parr going to assess the critics reviews? Is trampling and driving over his ‘grave’ a sign of critical acclaim or of people expressing disinterest in the stupidity of the stunt?

Going back to these disco coloured inverted crosses, not only are they advertising an absence of artistic creativity, surely this project is a theological and social misfire.

The sight of these crosses is upsetting some Christians around Hobart, and I understand their reasons. Indeed, for millions of women and men around the world, they are being imprisoned and even killed because they love and believe the message of the cross, but why we would allow such facts to interrupt the creative processes. More so, I also think that once we’ve taken a step back, we can evaluate these cultural illuminatatis in a different way.

In his interview on the ABC, Mikey Lynch said it well,

“My immediate reaction was a bit of an eye roll — here we go, a shock jock statement that gets Christians grumpy.

“It’s a religious symbol and so for some people it is precious, so of course people are going to find that hurtful.

“For Christians, the cross is a symbol of shame and it’s about God taking on shame for the salvation of the world, so there’s a weird irony in getting offended by a symbol which in itself is offensive.”

These artists are taking what is the most offensive object of history, the cross, and are attempting to make some subversive statement about Christianity and to offend Christians in the process. Really? Let’s shame the symbol of shame? Perhaps the point has escaped the genius of these Dark Mofo artists, because surely their own subversive and unoriginal interpretations of the cross in fact reinforces the original point that was proven on the cross.

The Apostle Paul put it most aptly when he wrote,

“18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written:

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
    the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” (1 Corinthians 1)

Tasmania may be disconnected from the mainland by 500km of water, but apparently there also exists an ocean separating the Dark Mofo team from the world of art. Artists of Tasmania, please paint and sculpt, and resurrect what remains of your reputation.

They have may failed to set the art world alight, but these winter solstice revellers have given Tasmanians a new reason to ask questions about the cross. What a great conversation starter for Christians in Hobart this week.

Gehenna’s Dead

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Piled in unmarked graves,

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Filling Gehenna with what remains,

Of flesh and blood and marrow.

 

Who are these nameless ones,

Whose time on earth so short?

What mountain of horror to see,

the scandalous unwanted dead.

 

No coffin or ceremony,

No words of solace spoken.

Though lingering in the deep,

Are perhaps doubts and disquiet,

Wonderings and hopes.

 

What cause,

What appeal,

What affliction has created this disturbance?

What necessity or hate has so consumed,

That life is deemed discretional?

 

Who would give their children to Molek,

Or present offerings to Eros and Aphrodite?

What god so insatiable must we appease,

To pull from womb ones so dear?

 

A public commotion shudders the earth,

Let us dance and celebrate;

Cheers reverberate through the streets;

We are free to kill.

We choose to kill.

Little ones, do not deny our liberty.

 

Jezebel, she is a jealous prophet;

Let us prove our dignity and worth.

For freedom sake,

Give us our rights.

We choose ourselves,

And we vote to forfeit others.

 

The altar of self is a bloody place.

The smell of burning corpses stiffens the air.

Winning is losing and the losers die.

Is this progress’ price,

Suffer the little children, and let them not come?

 

“Death has climbed in through our windows and has entered our fortresses;

it has removed the children.”

With approval we look on;

Humanity scorched, and losing soul.

 

Who will love these little ones, imago dei?

Who will remember them, their smiles and motions,

their cries and laughter,

that first word and step?

Who will celebrate their first birthday,

Hug them and say, ‘I love you’?

 

Who would give life to these unwanted,

to those disdained and sacrificed for Molek?

What name is given to these young lives,

Who are found amidst rubbish and refuse alike?

 

Greater Josiah has come.

He will love them.

He will welcome them home.

This greater Josiah;

A King upon a cross,

purify Gehenna,

redeem the dead,

forgive the transgressor.

Come Lord Jesus, come.

Indonesian Church attacks: some reflections

Surabaya

At approximately 10:30am, during the Sunday service at Mentone Baptist Church, three churches in Indonesia were attacked. While our children were heading out for Sunday School and the adults opening their Bibles for a second Scripture reading, suicide bombers entered 3 churches in the city of Surabaya. 11 people have died, with another 40 people injured.

As shocking as this news is, it is sadly not an unusual story for Christians in Indonesia. The persecution of Christians has been commonplace for many years in certain Indonesians provinces: in East Kalimantan, Aceh, and the city of Medan, just to name a few.

Not only in Indonesia, but similar horrific events are happening around the world on an almost weekly basis. Churches are attacked in Egypt, Nigeria, China, Pakistan, and many other parts of the world. The reality is, for millions of Christians in the world today, belonging to a Church and even attending a Church service, comes with an awareness that the cost may be great.

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Source: ABC news

Abusing our religious freedom

As I’ve reflected upon the juxtaposition between Mentone and what happened inside those Indonesian Churches, I remembered one of the verses that I preached on today,

“Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.” (Acts 9:31)

This verse follows the conversion of the Apostle Paul. Previous to becoming a Christian, Paul was a renowned persecutor of Churches, killing Christians and imprisoning others. After a period of persecution, came a time of peace for these new church being planted across Judea and Samaria.

In the New Testament we learn that there can be seasons when there is relative societal peace and tolerance of Christianity, and there are also times of acute and dreadful opposition. In the book of Acts, we discover that Churches can grow and flourish in both situations.

Joining a Church in some parts of the world is potentially life threatening. On the other hand, attending Church in Australia is easy. We wake up on Sunday mornings, perhaps following a sleep in. We eat breakfast, get dressed, and drive down the road to a local church. There’s a good chance that we’re running late, and have already missed the first 10 minutes, but the temptation to spend those extra minutes at home is hard to fight against.

Making it to Sunday Church is easy in Australia, and yet how many of us find it hard, if not a burden? No one is going to enter our buildings and blow themselves up. The Government isn’t going to arrest congregation. And yet, so many of us Aussie Christians struggle to attend Church weekly. The situation has become so dire that once a month is now considered regular attendance! Imagine only eating one meal a month with your family and arguing that it is ‘regular family time’! Picture an employee informing their colleagues that turning up for 1 in 4 meetings was suffice and a demonstration of real commitment!

Of course belonging to a local church can’t be reduced to Sunday attendance, but it is the primary and central gathering of God’s people to whom you have covenanted. We meet to encourage others, just as they are meeting in order to love and grow us in Christ.

Making it to Church regularly should be easy. Unlike millions of Christians in other parts of globe, we have the freedom to meet, and we have the means: we can walk, we can drive, we can take public transport. And yet, we find it so hard. We don’t need the threat of bombs to keep us away from Church, the allure of the beach or of a coffee shop is more than equal to the task.

I once tried to calculate how many “ordinary” Sundays were in the calendar year. To begin with, there are summer holidays which take out about 6 Sundays, and then another 3 Sundays for each of the Autumn, Winter, and Spring school breaks. On top of that, in between there’s a highway of long weekends with public holidays attached to them, and we mustn’t forget Mothers Day and Fathers Day. I also assume, that like myself, other people catch winter colds and flues, and so that might mean we miss another 1-2 Sundays. If we have children, we can strike out a few more weeks with sore throats, head colds, and bouts of diarrhoea.

It is so easy to attend Church in Australia, and yet we find it so difficult. Australian society offers so much, promising our children every dream, offering us every heart desire. How hard it is to saying to our kids, we can’t play footy on Sundays because we have Church. We work so hard to climb ladders and create success and to pay extravagant mortgages, that we find ourselves with little energy for much else. We need the fishing trip and the late Sunday brunch, because we’ve exhausted ourselves in trying to drag heaven onto earth. I wonder, are we not worshiping God with his people on Sundays because we are no longer worshiping Him with our lives from Monday to Saturday?

Instead of using freedom of religion to minimise effort and commitment, should we not maximise the time we have? Are we so arrogant as to presume that freedom of religion will continue forever in Australia?

There are of course legitimate reasons for missing Church on a Sunday morning. Churches (and Pastors) should be understanding of members who are simple unable to attend every week, because of poor physical or mental health, because kids are sick or that long awaited annual vacation has come around. There are professions where workers are rostered for Sundays; after all, we can’t run hospitals or police or trains without people.

Make Church a habit

I was speaking with one of my church’s members recently. He and family are going through a difficult time, and so when they arrived late one Sunday, I said to him that I would understand if they couldn’t make it to Church on occasion. He responded with this gracious and rather memorable rebuke,

“Murray, of course we come to Church every week; it’s what we do.”

By this, he didn’t mean that Church attendance was a ritual or tired tradition. Rather, it was a helpful habit. Going to bed on Saturdays, they already knew what they were doing the next morning, because as a couple they had already settled in their hearts and decided made with their minds, Church matters. It wasn’t always easy, but they didn’t have to make the choice each Sunday because the decision was settled and the habit formed.

Consider Church a Joy

Tonight, as I pray for Indonesia and for Mentone, I want to cherish the local church and to make the most of the freedoms we have to meet each week, and even more.

May be I should be thinking, what temporary offerings can even begin to compare to the wonder of knowing God and to be part of the Church that Jesus has promised to build? Would I settle for playing football on the X-box if an AFL team called me to join their side? And yet we easily sacrifice Church, for small moments that will soon be forgotten.

According to Hebrews, a sign that our hope is directed in the right place, is that we are fight against the temptation to diminish Church. Those who draw near to God, are those who not give up on one another.

22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10)

Public Speech: the New Code of Conduct

Last week the national crisis was cricket, this week it’s Rugby. The cricket story concerned 3 members of the national side who were caught cheating; the rugby headlines concern an individual player who has made a statement on instagram about his religious convictions.

I don’t follow Rugby Union; I’ve grown up with AFL, the game Israel Folau once tried to play. However, one doesn’t need to understand the rules of Rugby, to grasp that the rules for public speaking have changed in Australia. Governments are yet to determine what laws and codes of conduct will be written to support the recent amendment to the Marriage Act, but sporting codes and iconic companies are making it clear where they want lines to be drawn.

 

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On his instagram account, Israel Folau responded to a question about “gods plan for gay people” by saying, “Hell…unless they repent of their sins and turn to God”.

First up, did Israel Folau say anything untrue?

Did he suggest anything that is out of sync with the Christian faith? No.

Could he have said it in a better way? I think so. Folau could have said something like, “Homosexual practices are one example of many ways in which we ignore God’s purposes. All of us, including myself, are guilty of living without regard for God and because of that we deserve hell. God  is holy and he also merciful, and that’s why Jesus came and died on the cross. The amazing thing is, by trusting in Jesus we are forgiven and the direction for life changes for the better, and we are promised a future that we don’t deserve but is God’s incredible gift to us.”

Perhaps he could have ignored the questioner who was clearly trying to trigger a response. Sometimes the wise thing to do is to say nothing. However, Israel Folau chose to speak up, and good on him for doing so. I wish he had been more gentle and nuanced with his answer, but his words were not wrong.

Christian beliefs are grounded in the Bible, and the Bible’s message about sexuality is clear and consistent.  As the Bible itself teaches, there is a trajectory within its story line, and so we are meant to read and interpret the Old Testament in light of the New Testament, and to apply meaning through the lens of Jesus Christ. That means there are Bible verses which were spoken for a particular people and time, and no longer directly applicable to us. It also means that parts of the Bible are describing events to us us rather than prescribing specific norms for today. Nonetheless, the Bible’s teaching about human sexuality, including homosexuality and of marriage, retains a moral goodness and integrity from Genesis to Revelation.

Rugby Australia boss Raelene Castle has stated, “Israel’s comment reflects his personal religious beliefs, however it does not represent the view of Rugby Australia or NSW Rugby…We are aligned in our view that rugby is a game for all, regardless of sexuality, race, religion or gender, which is clearly articulated in rugby’s inclusion policy.”

There are two clear problems with Castle’s comments: First, Rugby Australia’s inclusion policy theoretically includes ‘religion’, and yet all the talk is about excluding Folau and his religious convictions, and these are beliefs which are in line with orthodox, historic Christianity and which are believed by thousands of Christian Australian who are playing sport at every level in this country. Second, there is a massive assumption being made here, that is, Folau’s comment is “homophobic”.

The policy states, “There is no place for homophobia or any form of discrimination in our game and our actions and words both on and off the field must reflect this”.

Here lies the problem. It is now taken as fact, certainly by Alan Joyce and others, that affirming the Bible’s view on sexuality is homophobic. If you agree with the Bible, you are a bigot. This is simply untrue. For example, Jesus spoke many words of disagreement to people around him, but was his motivation fear and hatred, or was it love and kindness? Did Jesus insist on calling sin, sin, because he wanted to crush people or because he wanted to save people? Sadly, there are individuals who are hateful toward people in the LGBTI community, and it is awful, and without excuse, and we Christians need to stand with you against any tirade of abuse.

Jesus once said, “the truth will set you free.” He didn’t say, the truth will agree with you, for he goes on to say, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”

This goes to the very heart of Christianity, which is God who disagrees with us, and yet became incarnate, speaking and living truth, dying and rising from the dead to redeem sinners. This message may not be popular in Australia of 2018, but then again, history shows us that the Gospel has rarely been a social media success, and yet it is too good and too important for silence. There is no other God who is honest with us like Jesus, and there is no one else who loved us to the extent of suffering crucifixion for our eternal joy and good.

It is not homophobic to hold to the Bible’s teaching on sexuality. That’s not to say, people should listen to or accept this message, but calling it hate speech is false. Should Israel Folau be sanctioned for his comment? Is Qantas right to threaten Rugby Australia with their sponsorship?

I don’t agree with Alan Joyce’s views on sexuality, and I don’t like the way he has rebranded QANTAS as a gay pride flag flying company. Have I boycotted Qantas? No, in fact I’m flying with them tomorrow! What we are seeing is a major Australian company pressuring a sport to exclude a player who professes Christian beliefs. I think it would be unwise, but they might. I would ask,  is this the Australia we want to call home?

The Coopers Beer saga of last year served as a watershed (or should that be, beershed?!) moment in Australian social history, indicating that there would be a social and economic cost to anyone who doesn’t subscribe to the new morality. The art of toleration in Australia is being scrubbed out by a vocal priesthood of humanistic secularists who are intent on reframing the Australian identity and conscience. It is not only anti-Christian, it is an anti-freedom movement and is serving to diminish both religious and public non-conformity. Israel Folau is but another inevitable target of what will become many more in months and years to come.

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Late this afternoon at a press conference, RA chief executive Raelene Castle has said,

““This is a difficult issue when you think you are trying to combine religious beliefs, freedom of speech and inclusion, respect and the use of social media,” Castle said.

“We’re proud of the fact that he’s a strong believer and he’s prepared to stand up for what he believes in.

“We’re proud of the fact that he’s a strong believer and he’s prepared to stand up for what he believes in.

“We want athletes in our code who are prepared to do that and that’s really important.

“But at the same time, Rugby Australia’s got a policy and position of inclusion and using social media with respect.

“So that’s where we shared stories, shared ideas and shared positions and both of us recognise that what we want is a situation where we use our social media platforms in a respectful and positive way.”

There are some positives here and it’ll be interesting to see how it unfolds over the next few days, especially as to whether Qantas will turn down their rhetoric. Also interesting is Castle’s recognition of a now existing ‘tension’. Perhaps this is an opportunity for good listeners and reasonable minds to sit down and begin talking about how we can regain the art of disagreement in public discourse.