Notes from a sermon preached on 14.09.08
The internet is a dangerous thing. The most innocent of searches can turn up all sorts of dodgy sites. I remember when the school first went online, the County invested in a filter which meant that computers couldn’t access sites which contained words deemed inappropriate found in a list which was constantly being updated. Great idea – but it didn’t really work – sites containing the word porn were rightly censored, but so too were sites containing the word Middlesex…
In my experience, churches have a similar list of words which are avoided. Some of these are for good reasons, others shouldn’t really be there. Today we’re starting a new sermon series looking at one of these words, the ‘T-word’
“The study of theology, as it stands in the Christian churches, is the study of nothing; it is founded on nothing; it rests on no principles; it proceeds by no authority; it has no data; it can demonstrate nothing; and it admits of no conclusion.” – Thomas Paine , The Age of Reason
Before I went to Bible College I’d heard so many stories about what can happen to theology students. They go in sorted and sound, but when they come out, their tutors have battered their faith out of them and replaced it with theology – changed something dynamic and lifebringing into something dry and dead
To many theology is a bit of a swear word – something to be avoided. Either because its something that you need a a list of ologies as long as your arm to understand, or because it has no real impact on the real world and how we live, or as these stories said, it goes against real faith by questioning what the Bible really says.
But what is theology? Many definitions. In contrast to Thomas Paine’s statement about theology being the study of nothing, Anselm of Canterbury famously wrote that theology is “faith seeking understanding (fides quaerens intellectum).” I like to look at the literal meaning of the word theology – the study of God, thinking about God, or God Talk.
Theology is all about understanding what we believe, not just believing it blindly, seeking answers to questions such as: Who is God? Who is Jesus? How can humans be the source of so much that is good, but also the source of so much misery and pain? Can the world be put right? And so on.
Isn’t this what Psalm 1 says will make us prosper and bear fruit!
1 Blessed is the man
who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked
or stand in the way of sinners
or sit in the seat of mockers.
2 But his delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
3 He is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither.
Whatever he does prospers.
Truth is, we all have a theology – an understanding about who God is and who we are. It is important to recognise that. It is also important to recognise that our theology affects how we interpret Bible passages (as well as hopefully the other way around)
In our new series we plan to have a look at Christian theology, and hopefully show that it is fun, but also that it has a real impact on our faith and how we live in a positive way.
Of course theology can be dry as gunpowder – I have tombs of theology books at home. I suspect that some of you have heard the dreaded ‘t-word’ and have begun to shut off already. But, hold on, in the right conditions, Gunpowder can be highly explosive! From the mouth of Jesus it certainly was – it got him killed and changed the world in the process. Our plan is to look at some of the basics of Christian Theology over the next eight weeks, but not in some boring systematic way, but through the words and actions of Jesus.
To kick us off, this morning we’re going to explore what Jesus had to say about himself. As I prepared this, I was reminded once again how self-centred Jesus was. What do I mean by that? Am I saying Jesus was selfish?
In this age of celebrity we are used to seeing successive screenstars and musicians talk about their lives, their past, their needs and desires. Look at me! Their desperate faces scream out. Was Jesus like that?
On one level, yes. Think of some of the things he said. He called people to ‘Follow me’ (Mark 1:17), and beckoned them to, ‘Come to me’ (Mt. 11:28). He talked about, ‘My kingdom’ (Lk. 22:30) – think how conceited that would sound on one of our lips! And outrageously he announced, ‘I am the way the truth and the life’ (John 14:6).
Then there are the famous I Am sayings that we shall no doubt think about in the evenings as we start a new series going through John’s Gospel. I am the bread of life (John 6:35), I am the light of the world (John 8:12) and even I am the resurrection and the life (John 11:25).
Put aside what you know about Jesus for a moment and try and picture Robbie Williams appearing on Friday Night with Jonathan Ross and shamelessly declaring that everyone should drop what they’re doing and make him their leader and follow him and do what he says. Imagine the response if he said that he was the only one that could satisify everyones needs and desires. Now, Robbie has been criticised for being arrogant from time to time, but he’s never gone quite that far… and yet that is exactly what Jesus insisted.
Such a figure I think I would instinctively turn away from. Any political leader who claims to be the only one with the answers is treated suspiciously, and any religious leader who makes such statements today would be seen as a cranky cult leader. Yet somehow Jesus is different. Why is this? Is it because we are reading his words many years on, somehow the implicit self-centredness is cushioned? I don’t think so as even in his day many heard him and did exactly what he called them to.
If there is one thing more provocative than saying these sorts of things, it is a claim to be godlike. Think of the response of the tabloids when David Ike claimed to be the son of God or Michael Jackson performed on the Brits wearing white with arms stretched out singing Earthsong in some sort of Christ imitation. Both were immediately ostracized.
When we think about what Jesus said about himself, we have to face up to the fact that his claims went further than saying follow me I can put everything right. He claimed to be divine. There are those who insist that nowhere in the Bible does it say this – but it does and its absolutely everywhere, and its not just on the lips of those who followed such as Paul, but its on the lips of Jesus himself.
Take for example John 10:30 where Jesus says:
30I and the Father are one.”
Now you could argue that he is simply saying that they are in agreement, but that’s not what the crowd thought he was saying, listen to how they responded…
31Again the Jews picked up stones to stone him, 32but Jesus said to them, “I have shown you many great miracles from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?”
They understood this to be a claim to be one with God, or divine.
Or theres a similar situation in John 8:58 where he makes the strange statement:
58 “Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!”
This is a loaded statement. It sounds like he’s saying that he’s positively ancient – older than Abraham himself, but its more than that. In the Old Testament, Moses asks God what his name was. God’s reply was, ‘I am who I am’. Could it be that Jesus is claiming to have God’s name, to be God? The crowd thought so for again theypickled up stones to stone him.
Or in John 20:28, Thomas meets the resurrected Jesus having doubted what the others had told him about him coming back to life. Thomas calls out,
28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
If Jesus didn’t believe he was God, you would expect him to correct Thomas at this point, being a good Jewish boy, but no, instead he replies,
29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
I could go on. Time after time there are these incidents where Jesus makes claims which to his Jewish audience were clear claims to be on a level with God – and for a religion where there was only one God, that meant he was claiming to be God himself.
Then there are the miracles. The point of the miracles is not that they are some great stage show, but that they underline what Jesus has been saying about himself. His claims are not just empty words as they would be on the lips of a celebrity or cabinet minister, but they are backed up with a demonstration of divine power. Who is this man, the disciples cried – even the winds and waves obey him… Jesus has claimed to be God and his acts back up this claim – he walks the walk as well as talking the talk as they say.
Its ironic that this area is one we struggle to accept. For us it is difficult to accept that Jesus was divine – accepting him as a human person yes, but God? No. To the early Christians it was obvious that Jesus was divine. They’d heard his teaching and seen his life and miracles, including of course his resurrection. Divine? Obvious, human – not so obvious…
But if you accept his claims to divinity as backed up by his miracles, especially his resurrection, it is his humanity that will make his claims sound different to those of a spoilt diva. If you read through the Gospels, not only does this picture of an incredibly powerful person appear, who speaks and acts with authority, but also a picture of a very real human emerges.
We read of his emotions – turning from joy and laughter to sorrow and anger and love and ambition. We read that he ate and drank, that he experienced pain and injury, that he worked and learnt. Hebrews tells us that he faced temptation in everyway just as we do. And like us, he was born, matured and died…
His humanity is vital. If Jesus hadn’t been fully human, he couldn’t have redeemed humanity – his pure life would have been achieved in a way that we couldn’t have done. In order to satisfy the law, he had to be under the law – and God isn’t, only us. No doubt we’ll come back to that later in the series.
So why does Jesus say it was important that God became human? He says to Philip in John 14:9:
9 Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father…
It is this that explains why Jesus’ claims sound different. It is not that he was a nobody who demanded that he was a somebody in order to get people to love him. No, instead he was a somebody who become a nobody in order to show people that he loves them! No longer are his claims those of a boastful star, but the words of a tender and humble God who wants his creation to discover him and know him. Know the song 10 steps to heaven? Forget it. There’s only one step, developing a relationship with God’s Son.