Can Christianity harm you? More than you could possibly imagine.

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The Christian Union of Balliol College Oxford has been banned from the Freshers Fair because of fears about the impact Christianity could have on the lives of freshers. It sounds like they’ve been doing an excellent job.

 

Balliol College Oxford JCR, the body that represents students, has reportedly banned the college Christian Union from having representatives at this year’s ‘Freshers’ Fair’. The reason given was the fear of ‘potential harm to freshers’. Cherwell, the Oxford student newspaper, reported the president of the JCR as explaining that ‘Historically, Christianity’s influence on many marginalised communities has been damaging in its methods of conversion and rules of practice, and is still used in many places as an excuse for homophobia and certain forms of neo-colonialism.’

So is Christianity damaging? The implication is that Christianity has an agenda which will, if permitted, ruin your life. Isn’t that a little overblown? Surely Christianity is something warm and welcoming, which comforts, encourages, and affirms people?

Well, yes it is. More profoundly so than anything else in the world. It is not for nothing that one classic statement of the Christian worldview, the Heidelberg Catechism, begins with the question, ‘What is your only comfort in life and death?’. Christianity – knowing as our Father the one true God through his son-become-man Jesus Christ in the power of his Holy Spirit – is the sweetest, most glorious, most welcoming comfort that this world affords.

But that doesn’t mean that Christianity won’t harm you. When the Balliol JCR observed that Christianity has the potential to damage the lives of freshers, they are demonstrating that they have really heard something of what the gospel of Jesus Christ is. Given that the Christian Union’s aim is ‘giving every student in Oxford University the chance to hear and respond to the Gospel of Jesus Christ’, it sounds like they are doing an excellent job.

Because Jesus brings comfort, peace, joy and contentment not by affirming what we already are, but by nothing less than destroying what we already are and making us new from the bottom up. Jesus came to ruin our lives, so that he can then rebuild them. Here’s what he said:

And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. (Mark 8:34-36)

Jesus calls people to follow him. And following Jesus is not a comfortable thing at all, for he is going to Jerusalem where certain death on a cross awaits him. What he calls people to do is to accept the destruction of our lives, just as he did.

The Balliol JCR president apparently realises that this is what Christianity requires of some people. When he hears that Jesus requires those who identify as LGBT to surrender their desires and their identity, in such a dramatic way that it will feel to them like he wants to ruin their lives, he has not misheard. Jesus does require that of them. But he is wrong to think that this demand is limited to some ‘marginalised groups’. Jesus demands it of everyone. All, without exception, must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him to death.

Why? Because although Christians must follow Jesus to the grave, they don’t stop there. He had just announced his full future itinerary:

And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. (Mark 8:31)

Jesus was going to die, and then rise again to new life. It was planned and deliberate. And he did it so that we can follow him. He would surrender his life here so that he could be raised to a far more glorious life the other side of the grave. And he call us to follow him, through death, to share his resurrection life. To leave our old selves dead in the grave and to become the wholly new poeple that he will make us.

That is his call to everyone, all human beings the world over, Balliol freshers included. Jesus wants to give us new life, real life, resurrection life. But for that to happen we need to die. The route to life is the destruction of life as you know it.

For we are not, naturally, beautiful snowflakes in need of protection and preservation and celebration. We are, rather, a desperate mess of mistaken ideas, distorted desires, damaged faculties, and false identities. So Jesus came to redeem us; to destroy what we currently are and to remake us as true likenesses of God. That’s why he didn’t just announce good news; he said everyone must ‘repent and believe the good news’.

To repent is nothing less than to accept the destruction of your life as you know it. We have to surrender all the ideas we had about reality. We have to give up on following the desires of our hearts. We have to stop believing that our mental and emotional faculties are intact and dependable and to be valued as they are. We have to walk away from all the things – racial, emotional, sexual and intellectual – on which we previously hung our identity. In sum, the whole complex of what I thought made me ‘me’ has to be surrendered and left behind as we follow Jesus on the road to the cross. He asks for nothing less than the total destruction of what we are. We have, he said, to lose our life for his sake, if we want to find it.

And when we do that, we find that the other side of this death lies life. Real life. Resurrection life. Whoever loses his life for Jesus’ sake and the gospel’s will save it. That is what Jesus came to do for us. Here is the apostle Paul:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. (2 Corinthians 5:17)

Jesus redeems. He sets us free from the destruction sin has worked on us and in us. He delivers us from the guilt of our past and the hopelessness of our present. When we surrender what we thing we are, he makes us into what we were always meant to be. Here there is true comfort. Here there is true satisfaction. Here we find our true identity. Jesus gives us a new heart, to love other people truly, to love his laws, which previously we despised, and most of all to love him, who made us for himself.

That is why Christianity offers a comfort, peace and welcome like nothing else on earth. Let’s see the answer to that first question of the Heidelberg Catechism:

What is your only comfort in life and death?

A: That I, with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful saviour Jesus Christ, who with his precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and redeemed me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that all things must work together for my salvation. Wherefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him.

It is only in the entire surrender of our lives, body and soul, to the rightful possession of the living God are we able to enter into his glorious redemption and eternal loving care.

Can Christianity harm you? More than you can possibly imagine. Because Jesus came to destroy us in our proud belief in ourselves, so that he can remake us as true images of, and the treasured possessions of, the living God, forever. Lose your life for his sake and the gospel’s, and you will find it.

 

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Ordaining Elders: Evangelism, Part B

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It’s not possible for Christians to be unconcerned about evangelism. The gospel of Jesus is good news: and Jesus presumed (for example in Matthew 25:31-32, which I’ll be preaching from this Sunday) that the whole world would in time be in a position to answer for how they had responded to him. So Jesus’ church has a duty to make sure the whole world knows of him. The church is the family which has been raised to new life by her risen Lord. So if we’re part of that, how could we not want to see the same happen to other people, all over the world, starting on our doorstep?

For that reason every church must have proclaiming the good news of Jesus as a top priority. Just as it was for the apostles in the book of Acts. But interestingly, as Paul and Barnabas finished the first ever deliberate missionary journey, at a place called Derbe deep in what is now Turkey, they clearly did not consider the job done. This was despite the spectacular success of their mission; many people had become Christians. But instead of simply heading home (quite a short distance), they returned by the same looping roundabout arc by which they had come, despite it adding hundreds of miles, and great danger, to the journey…

The whole article is on the Trinity Church York Minister’s Blog.

An open letter to the Rt Hon Justine Greening MP

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I have today sent the following letter to the Rt Hon Justine Greening MP.

 

The Right Honourable Justine Greening MP

Secretary of State for Education and Minister for Women and Equalities

27th July 2017

 

Dear Ms Greening

In your recent speech to Pink News you said that there are ‘too many pockets in our country where LGBT rights are seen as something that are a mistake.’ Your military metaphor implies both that you wish to identify these ‘pockets’ and, having done so, to eliminate them. As a Christian minister, serving at a Presbyterian church in York, I would like to offer our assistance in the first, while it is my duty to dash your hopes of the second. Let me explain.

The Church of Jesus Christ is certainly opposed to LGBT rights (please do not be misled by the General Synod of the Church of England on this, which is entirely out of step with global and historic Christianity on this and many other matters). But we are far from being a secretive ‘pocket’. We are not hard to locate. We remain the largest group of people on earth who share an understanding of reality. We do not operate in secret; We are a visible and public presence in every town and city in the country. We are committed to the welfare of all around us, Christian or not. We work tirelessly for the good of individuals, society and the nation. Moreover, we absolutely welcome scrutiny of everything we do. Our services are open to all and there is nothing that delights us more when anyone wishes to visit us to observe or enquire into what it is we believe and why. Finding us should not prove a problem for you. I personally would like to extend an invitation for you to visit our church in York whenever you like, and I am quite confident that any of my fellow-ministers (of whatever denomination) would say the same.

But as to your hopes of eliminating us – for you believe that we are a ‘pocket’ of which there are ‘too many’ – I’m afraid that I must disappoint you. Yes, we do believe that LGBT rights are a mistake. And we are not going to change our minds, for at least three reasons.

First, because we have a greater view of history than you. You told Sky News on 24th July that ‘It is important that the church, in a way, keeps up and is part of a modern country’. You clearly believe, along with many secular people, that trends in ‘modern’ society have a universal moral force which all people must submit to. To us, giving such significance to trends in public opinion in one part of the world in one tiny period of history is tragically narrow-minded. We serve the Son of God, whose arrival on earth in human flesh was planned from before the foundation of the world; towards whose return to judge the world history is inexorably moving, as God has proved by raising him from the dead; and who is right now calling all people to join the Kingdom of God, in which we are saved from our corrupt hearts and transformed by the Holy Spirit into people fit to serve the living God. That being the case, we are hardly going to abandon God’s standards to fit in with the whims of this or any other human society.

Second, because we have a greater view of love than you. ‘Greater love has no man’, said our Lord, ‘than that he lay down his life for his friends.’ And that is exactly what he did. He laid down his life on the cross in order to save us from the twisted loves of our own hearts and the judgment that we deserve from God as a result. By his death he set us free, to know God and to love him and each other. And in so doing he defined for us what true love is: giving up ourselves for the sake of others. That includes, though it is far from limited to, giving up on following our sexual desires. That is why sexual love for Christians can only ever be in the context of the unbreakable vows of marriage, in which a man seeks not his own pleasure but the good of his wife and children, and a woman seeks not her own pleasure but the good of her husband and children, unconditionally, for life. Indeed, biblical law is an interconnected working-out of what sacrificing self in the service of others is all about. It is about what true love means in every area of life. In contrast, the secular (which includes LGBT) view of love is one which demands others lay down everything and anything for the sake of my sexual pleasure. It reduces love to following the urgings of our genitals, no matter what the social cost to those around us, and especially to our children. When it speaks of love for others, it appears to extend to no more than encouraging them to do the same. Forgive us, but it is from that miserable view of love and all its horrible consequences that our Lord Jesus died to save us. We are hardly going to abandon his infinite love for the sake of your version.

And third, because we worship a greater God than you. The entire LGBT movement – indeed, much of the ‘modern’ society you want us to ‘keep up’ with – and to which we are a ‘pocket’ of unwelcome resistance – treats ‘freedom’ as a sort of deity which demands our unconditional obeisance. Thus you believe that there is no value higher than the freedom of each individual to do, and to be, whatever he or she wants to do and to be. You even ascribe this idea of ‘freedom’ a quasi-creative power to define reality, as we now see in the matter of ‘Transgender rights’, the next area in which you are intending to ‘keep on pushing’, to quote your speech to Pink News. Apparently the freedom to define ourselves now trumps physical facts, and a person’s mental state or act of will has a power to determine reality itself. But of course it does not, and to expect us to acquiesce in this nonsense is simply asking us tell lies about a person’s sex purely on the basis of that person’s supposed freedom to think it. That is also called bearing false witness. Forgive us, but we have it on a much higher authority that we are not to do that.

For we serve not an imagined deity of personal autonomy but the living and true God, the Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit who has made himself known through Jesus Christ. He is not a faceless principle who demands obedience no matter what the cost, but he is infinite, eternal, wise, powerful, holy, just, good and true. He is a Trinity of persons eternally united in love. He made us in his image and he made us for himself. He has acted in unfathomable love towards us in the Son becoming flesh and suffering, dying and rising in order to save us. He has united us to his Son by his Spirit so that we have become his children and call him our Father. This is the one true God. This is our God. It is to him we owe our lives. It is he who saved us from our destructive desires. It is he who has forgiven us all our sins. It is in his service that we live. It is his laws he has taught us to love. We are hardly going to abandon him for the sake of the blind, faceless and destructive principles of secularism.

And so, there are I’m afraid no circumstances whatsoever in which you will be able to eliminate this ‘pocket’ of resistance to LGBT rights and the agenda of secularism. Call us bigots, legislate against us, deprive us of our jobs, throw us to the lions if you wish. But you will never make us embrace your view of history, accept your version of love, or serve your secular deities. The church of Jesus Christ is not so easily overcome. You would therefore do well to form policies that recognise both our continued existence and, more importantly, the reality of what God has made known in his Son. It is that reality on which Britain itself as we know it was founded. You serve as a minister of a Monarch who affirmed all the Christian truths I have outlined above at her coronation. It is therefore not us who are out of step with what it means to be British, but you.

I urge you to come and visit one, perhaps many of our churches, to find out what Christianity is, who our Lord and Saviour is, and why we love, trust and follow our God in the way we do. We will be delighted to welcome you.

Yours sincerely

 

Rev. Dr. Matthew PW Roberts

Minister, Trinity Church York

A congregation of the International Presbyterian Church