Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Why I am still a Christian

Preaching on the Gospel Reading last Sunday (John 10:27-30) I emphasised the goodness and love of the risen Jesus, our Good Shepherd, and the promises he makes to his sheep: 

(1) that he gives us eternal life (now); 
(2) that we will never perish (the future); and 
(3) that no one will snatch us out of his hand (our only security). 

At present there is a lot of discouragement among Christians of my particular tradition all over the world, and I sought to emphasise the faithfulness of God. I tried to encourage us all to “hang in there” by his grace. Many are the difficulties we face along along the way, whether the normal ups and downs of human life, or those particular trials and persecutions that come upon us because of what we believe. The basic point of my message was the importance of trusting the promises of Jesus, no matter how bad the pain or how deep the darkness seems to be. 

Because of a few conversations I’ve had about this since Sunday, I was particularly blessed today by a simple yet profound testimony by Bishop Paul Barnett (retired Bishop of North Sydney) on his blog HERE. In my years as a student at the University of Sydney, Paul was the Rector of nearby St Barnabas’ Broadway. As a “Sydney Anglican” he strongly disagreed with large chunks of what had formed me in terms of “churchmanship” and the working of the Holy Spirit. But in his Christ-centred ministry to a wide range of students and others he was unfailingly kind, disarmingly gentle, and had a real pastor’s heart. I often heard him preach and teach in those days, and I owe him a lot. His subsequent scholarly writings on the background of the New Testament and the historicity of Christian claims about Jesus nurtured generations of students.

It is always encouraging for “ordinary” Christians when highly respected leaders are honest enough to admit that they struggle some of the time. With this in mind I share with you what Bishop Barnet wrote:     

Why I am still a Christian
by Bishop Paul Barnett

It was a long time ago.  I had become dissatisfied with my life’s direction and that of the friends in my social circle.  In my early twenties I began to attend a church and thankfully found the minister’s message and the congregation’s welcome deeply encouraging.  I began for the first time to read the Bible.  One day I attended a lunch hour service in St Andrew’s Cathedral where the speaker, Dr Howard Guinness spoke on John 6.37.  That’s where Jesus said, ‘Whoever comes to me I will in no wise cast out’.  I prayed a prayer in which I told Jesus I was ‘coming’ to him.  That was in 1957.

I could now go on and say that life had been easy ever since, one green light after another.  I have indeed been blessed with a wonderful marriage, a loving family and a satisfying life’s work, but there have been challenges to my life as a Christian.  Let me mention four.

One was DOUBT.  Yes, doubt.  While my ‘conversion’ was real and deeply helpful I had questions about the truth basis of Christianity.  My new friends assured me it was true, but they didn’t really know why it was.  Even four years in a good seminary (Moore College) didn’t really address that question.  It was only when I began Ancient History studies that I understood how numerous and early were the sources for Jesus and the spread of earliest Christianity.  I have sometimes often wondered about God’s providential dealings with people, but thankfully I have no doubts about the truth basis of our faith.

Another challenge was the DIFFICULTY of my wife Anita’s prolonged back pain.  She had been a nurse and this had left the unwelcome legacy of extreme back pain that lasted for many years.  Two operations failed but thankfully a third was successful, but that was after a decade of suffering.  Not that she complained or stopped her partnership with me in our work for the Lord.  She soldiered on bravely.  I am aware that many people don’t find the relief that she found, so we count ourselves much blessed by the way things have turned out.  But when things were bad we found it all very hard.

A third challenge has been DISCOURAGEMENT.  I am thinking of my own luke-warmness as a Christian.  Truly I am a Laodician, neither hot nor cold!  My prayer life and Bible reading are pretty average and my ministry to people often falls short.  Along with that I have to say I have been discouraged by some of my fellow Christians, including fellow ministers, whose ethics are sometimes lower than the ethics of the non-Christian company I worked for.  I am thinking of people who have been a bit too keen on advancing their own interests rather than serving the Lord.  I sometimes think that behaviour in church circles are not unlike the attitudes of the chief priests and the Sanhedrin that condemned that innocent man who is our Lord.   But I pass this judgement as one who has not lived up to his own ideals, fully aware that it is precarious to judge the behaviour of others.

A fourth challenge has been what I am calling DECADENCE.  I am thinking of the decline in the social fabric of society.  ‘Where is God’, I ask, ‘allowing this to happen?  Why have you allowed things to deteriorate so much?’  I am thinking of the media’s exaltation of celebrities regardless of their values or lifestyle, of the collapse into binge drinking and substance abuse by so many, and of the decline in civil discourse in public life, to mention just a few examples.

In a way there’s nothing new here.  The ‘good old days’ were not always that good.  The difference is that when bad things happened back then it was against the values of the times, values that were significantly Christian.  When many bad things happen today they are just accepted.

I realize that compared with the headwinds many have struggled against that mine seem relatively minor.  Yet for me they did and to a degree still do represent challenges to my faith and reasons not to continue as a Christian.

Jesus knew well that continuing to follow him would be fraught.  ‘Take up your cross and follow me’, he said, referring to the pain of rejection for those who identify with him.  When the crowd of 5000 whom he had fed drifted away due to his challenging words he asked the twelve who remained, ‘Will you also go away?’  In fact, they all did fall away when at last he came to Jerusalem.  One was a betrayer (for money), another a denier (for approval) and ten who were cowards (because of fear).  Their sins live on in us so that we fail him repeatedly.

It was because Jesus knew how morally feeble we are that he commanded his followers, ‘Abide in me’, words which simply mean, ‘Continue with me’, ‘remain with me, ‘don’t give up’.  St Paul said, ‘We don’t give up’, implying the struggle he had had to do just that.

So the following of Jesus was never going to be easy.  The exodus pilgrims’ journey from slavery in Egypt to freedom in Canaan anticipates the pilgrimage of the disciple of Jesus, the spiritual journey from conversion/baptism to the promised kingdom.  Soon after the Lord brought them out of Egypt they worshipped a golden calf, a pagan fertility symbol, in spite of their agreement to his covenant to refuse to make for themselves an idol or image that they will worship.  They grumbled and they sinned so that in the end only a minority actually arrived in the Promised Land.

So we must not underestimate the challenges of continuing and moving forward as a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ.

In the end, however, we depend on him to strengthen us to continue.  At the beginning he said, ‘Come to me.  I will welcome you and not cast you out’.  But he also said, ‘My sheep hear my voice and they follow me and no one will snatch them from my hand’.  Here the Lord makes two promises.  He welcomes us and he holds us.

This does not relieve us of the responsibility to continue.  ‘Make your calling and election sure’, said Peter.  That means I need to confirm and reconfirm my commitment to Jesus.  Bible reading, prayer and gathering with other Christians is basic to my continuance as a Christian.  I need to support and love of other members of the Christian family and they need mine.  We help one another along the way, not least in times of distress and heartache.

Why am I still a Christian?  Ultimately it is the Lord’s doing.  He made the invitation, ‘Whoever comes…’ and he gives the assurance, ‘no one will snatch them out of my hand’.

(A talk given in Brisbane in March 2013 under auspices of Matthew Hale public Library)


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