Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Sermon: Romans 1: 1-17 I am not ashamed of the gospel

I wonder if you've ever been ashamed. Maybe it was a long time ago when you thought you were a big boy, and your mum took your hand to cross the street - in front of your friends. Perhaps it was an embarrassing situation where you've made yourself to look like an eejit. You'd rather the ground swallow you up. Like the time you asked the lady when her baby was due and then to discover she wasn't actually pregnant... I think one of the times I was most ashamed was the night many years ago we took the youth group to Dundonald Ice Bowl, and I managed to split my trousers while ten pin bowling. If you've been very fortunate to have never been ashamed of yourself, then maybe you can identify by thinking of the situations others get themselves in!

In our second reading today, we hear about being ashamed, or rather, about not being ashamed. The apostle Paul is writing to the church in Rome before he comes to visit. He has been wanting to visit for a long time, to make it to the capital of the entire Roman Empire, but he hasn't made it so far. And why is it he wants to get to Rome? Is it for a decently priced city break? Does he want to do the touristy sites - the Coliseum, the Vatican? Well, no, of course not, the Vatican doesn't exist.

He is eager to get to Rome because he wants to preach the gospel in Rome. Just as he has been preaching everywhere else, so now he longs to go to Rome to preach the gospel in that great city. But once he says that, he then says what might seem as a bit of a strange thing to say: 'For I am not ashamed of the gospel.'

Why does Paul say this? Or, to put it more accurately, why does he feel he has to say this? It must be because some people were ashamed of the gospel. Perhaps the Christians in Rome were under pressure from their friends and workmates - you don't really believe all that about Jesus, do you? You don't really think there's only one God rather than all the hundreds of Roman gods and goddesses? Is it not very intolerant of you to claim that there is only one way to God?

There is always a danger of drifting. To pay more attention to the opinions of the world around us than God's opinion will always lead us away from God, to be ashamed of God and his gospel. I wonder if you have felt that pressure as well? It's easier to be ashamed of God and turn away.

For Paul, there may also have been the temptation to tone down his message. Perhaps people were saying to him - do you really have to be so dedicated and committed? Maybe you wouldn't land in prison as often if you just moderated your message.

But Paul declares that 'I am not ashamed of the gospel.' In doing so, he challenges the Roman Christians, and us as well gathered here today, to echo his words. I wonder can you say with him, 'I am not ashamed of the gospel'? To help you do that, let's look at why Paul says it - what the gospel is, and what the gospel does.

So what is the gospel? So that the Romans are left in no doubt, Paul outlines the gospel in the very first verses of the letter. The whole letter is a fuller statement of the full extent of the gospel, but even in the very first verse, Paul gets to the gospel of God. This isn't just a fairy story; it isn't something made up to make us feel good for now. It's not, as Marx claimed, the opiate of the people, designed to keep the poor happy until they die. The gospel is God's gospel - his good news given to us.

This good news didn't just appear in the first century either. The gospel was promised beforehand by God - through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures. The Old Testament was laying the foundation for what would come later, just as you have to lay your foundation before you build a house.

The gospel is all about a person. Paul writes, 'concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.' The gospel is the good news about Jesus, the God-man who was the Son of David (the King), and the Son of God. He lived, he died on the cross, and he was raised to new life. This is the good news, that Jesus has defeated death, and now lives. If Jesus was not raised from the dead, then there is no news, no good news. This is the gospel - Jesus died and lives.

So why does Paul hold fast to this gospel? Why is he not ashamed of it? He tells us the reason in verse 16. Here's what the gospel does. 'For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.'

This message about Jesus is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. You see, without Jesus, we are in danger. We are lost. We need to be rescued. We are dead men walking. We stand under judgement by a holy God, who cannot abide our sin. And yet so often we don't realise. We drift along, in danger unawares.

Now if you’re out on a boat on Lough Erne and you get into difficulties, then you need a rescuer. You need someone to come and get you out of danger and bring you back to safety. And that’s what Jesus has done. He came into this world, he took on our flesh, he took up our sin, and he gave his life so that we might live. The King of heaven left his high throne to be the rescuer.

The rescue has been accomplished. The victory has already been won. And all you have to do is to trust in the Lord Jesus - to believe the good news proclamation. As Paul goes on to say: ‘for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.’ Everyone, anyone, all who will come will be saved. Those like us and those we like; those we don’t like so much - all can come and be saved.

It’s not about bringing a big list of reasons why you should be good enough for God to save. To trust in ourselves is to say that Jesus isn’t enough; that we can do it by ourselves. But there is only salvation in Jesus. Without the gospel, we are lost, both now and for eternity. In the gospel, we find God’s righteousness revealed, accessible only by faith.

About five hundred years ago, a German monk struggled to be good enough to please God. He could never be satisfied that he had done enough. The demands of God’s law weighed down heavily upon him, with no relief. He even grew to hate the God he tried to serve. But then he began to study Romans, and in 1:17 found the key to his own changed life, and began the Protestant Reformation.

‘The righteous shall live by faith.’ Martin Luther came to discover that it’s not about what we bring to the table. The good news of the gospel declares the finished work of Christ and asks us - do you believe this? It is by faith that we trust the promise, and by faith that we receive eternal life. This is why Paul is not ashamed of the gospel. It is God’s gospel from start to finish. It’s all about Jesus, what he has done for us. And it is the power of God for salvation for anyone who will believe.

Perhaps today as you hear of the gospel, you realise that you’ve never really believed the message. You’ve heard it many times before, but never received it for yourself. You can trust in Christ for the first time, just where you’re sitting. Take hold of the promises. Look to Christ, and discover that he did it all for you. Believe on him today.

But maybe you’ve been a Christian for a long time. You’ve been around a few corners and you know how life works. It’s far easier to keep your faith private. No one else need know. No one could even guess! Paul challenges you today - are you ashamed of the gospel?

As we are reminded of the glories of Christ, the marvellous good news of what he has done, the amazing promise that anyone who believes will be saved, may our hearts be strangely warmed like Wesley on reading Luther’s introduction to Romans. Be bold in your faith and your proclamation. Count all else as loss compared to knowing Christ. Live in such a way that proclaims to everyone you meet: ‘I am not ashamed of the gospel.’ And may we all, on that last day, be joined with the great crowd from every nation, all who have received the good news and trusted the Lord Jesus, for his glory. Amen.

This sermon was preached at the RBP service for Brookeborough Victoria RBP 487 in Brookeborough Methodist Church on Sunday 27th July 2014.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Sermon: Psalm 47 Directions for Worship

If you’ve been away over the summer, you might have gone along to church where you were staying. And if it wasn’t a Church of Ireland church (or maybe if it was!), you get to your seat and you look around. There might be a hymn book, hopefully a Bible, but you won’t find a Prayer Book in the Methodists or Baptists. The service will all come from the front, not necessarily set out for you to follow along.

It’s the Church of Ireland (or Anglican churches across the world) where you find the BCP, the Book of Common Prayer. In it, the services are laid out, the words are there to follow so you know what to say, but as well as the words, sometimes there are also some stage directions. The rubrics (the bits in red ink - think ruby red) are the bits that tell you how to worship - whether to stand or sit or kneel. They are the directions for worship. They tell you (or invite you) what to do as you worship God.

And in our reading from Psalm 47, we find some more directions for worship. But, being Church of Ireland, these directions might take us by surprise, or at least, out of our comfort zone. Just look, for example, at the very first word of the psalm. We’re used to a round of applause coming at the end of a song or a play or when the plane has landed safely, but here the applause comes at the start: ‘Clap your hands, all peoples!’

Immediately, the call to worship goes out from the temple - not just to the Israelites gathered at the temple, but to ‘all peoples.’ Every person of every people / nation is called to worship, to clap your hands. But this isn’t a polite round of applause when the Sunday School have sung at the Family Service. Not when it’s joined by the next line: ‘Shout to God with loud songs of joy!’

This is the roar of a crowd at a sporting event. It’s going to be loud! Don’t hold back. Now that might well be beyond what you’re used to. But that’s the first call to worship. We might be better able for the second call to worship found in verse 6: ‘Sing praises to God, sing praises! Sing praises to our King, sing praises!’ [Sometimes modern songwriters get a bit of stick for a repetitive chorus. The sons of Korah were at it a long time ago!]

The call to worship goes out from Jerusalem to all peoples. The instructions are clear. It’s going to involve clapping, shouting, and singing. Lots of singing. But you know the way sometimes you wonder why we do what we do? Why do we stand during the Communion prayer when we used to kneel; or why do we do what some of my Presbyterian friends call ‘Anglican Aerobics’ - the standing, sitting, kneeling, up and down and up again? There’s normally a good reason for why we do what we do, but in case we’re in any doubt, the sons of Korah give us lots of reasons to praise God by clapping, shouting and singing.

Do you see the start of verses 2 and 7? The same word is there each time. ‘For’. Here’s the reason for the call to worship. Here’s why we are to do what we do. In both verse 2 and verse 7, the same point is brought out. In fact, the same words are used. Why should all the nations praise God? ‘For the LORD, the Most High, is to be feared, a great king over all the earth.’ (2) ‘For God is the King of all the earth; sing praises with a psalm.’ (7)

God is the King, not just in Jerusalem; not just in Israel; he is the King of/over all the earth. If God rules over all the earth, then every person should worship their true king. Now that should be a good enough reason. But the psalm gives us even more reasons to worship. The evidence that God is indeed king of all the earth. The evidence of both the past and the present. Do you see the pattern here? A call to worship (v1, v6); a declaration of God as king (v 2, v7); the evidence of God’s kingship - in the past (v3-5) and the present (v8-9).

So what has already happened? Look at verse 3: ‘He subdued peoples under us, and nations under our feet. He chose our heritage for us, the pride of Jacob whom he loves. God has gone up with a shout, the LORD with the sound of a trumpet.’ As the sons of Korah lead worship in the Jerusalem temple they look back to their history. They remember that God gave them the victory as he subdued the nations who lived in the land. God gave them the promised land they were living in. They were small and weak (like grasshoppers compared to the Canaanites), but God the King gave them the victory. They couldn’t have done it by themselves. God must be the king over all, for them to have gained the land of promise. In the past, God subdued the nations opposed to him and his people. Grand High Treason is always punished. God did that as a sign of his love for his people - giving them their heritage, this pride of Jacob.

But now the call goes out to all peoples to sing praises to God. God is the king of all the earth, with all the trappings of kingship - he reigns over the nations; he sits on his holy throne. And here’s the present tense evidence of God’s kingly reign. Here’s the reason for everyone to praise him. Look at verse 9: ‘The princes of the peoples gather as the people of the God of Abraham. For the shields of the earth belong to God; he is highly exalted.’

Here we get a glimpse of what God is doing, and continues to do more and more since Jesus the King reigns. People from every nation are being gathered together as the people of the King. The opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games was on TV on Wednesday night. Athletes from over sixty nations paraded into Celtic Park, people from Northern Ireland and Namibia and Nauru joining together for a fortnight of swimming and shooting and squash. But it’s just a glimpse of people from every nation coming together as the people of the King. And what was being seen as present in the psalm writer’s day is even more so now.

Look how God is described. He is the God of Abraham. Now why did the sons of Korah describe God in that way? Why not just write ‘The princes of the peoples gather as the people of God.’ It’s shorter, simpler, and saves on scrolls. There must be a reason why God is described in this way. And if you were around when I wasn’t, then you might be one step ahead of me. Robert preached three weeks focussing on the promise God made to Abraham (Gen 12) and how it is fulfilled in Jesus. God had said: ‘In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ (Gen 12:3). As the nations hear the call to worship the King, so they find blessing, as they gather as the people of the God of the promise, the God of Abraham.

Directions for worship, and the reason why. We’re faced with a challenge this morning. The call to worship has gone out. Have we heard it and heeded it? Are you worshipping God, the King of all the earth? Not just on a Sunday as you clap and shout and sing, but in every moment of your life? If you aren’t already, in heart and voice, then join the chorus.

But if you have heard, and you are worshipping, then it’s up to us to also join with the sons of Korah, not just in worshipping, but also in calling others to worship. Our church must turn from only being inward focused, and start to look outside. We’re good at the big social events - the BBQ brings in a huge crowd, but are we only inviting people to have a good night? How can we also invite them to worship God with us? Let’s clap, and shout, and sing for God our King. Amen.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 27th July 2014.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Sermon: Psalm 45 The Wedding Singer

When we normally think of the Psalms, you probably think of David, the shepherd king. Among the many books in my study, there’s a huge set of books written by Spurgeon called ‘The Treasury of David.’ But when you look more closely, you discover that only about half (72) are from David’s pen. Some have no author; there are some one hit wonders from Heman, Ethan and Moses. Solomon has a couple, Asaph has a few, and some come from the Sons of Korah.

The Sons of Korah might sound like a flute band. They were actually Levites, part of the praise group in the temple. The leaders of worship as the Old Testament people of God gathered together. Led by the Spirit, they composed some Psalms, and over the summer, we’ll be joining with them to praise our God.

This morning, the day after a wedding, we find ourselves with a wedding psalm. It’s a love song, but not as we know it. So in a wedding venue, with wedding flowers, we listen in as the wedding singer strikes up. It’s a pleasing theme, as he sings out of the overflow of his heart. He’s singing for his king, and he wants us to join in as well. One of our teachers at school used to get us to copy down some notes he would dictate from a book. His catchphrase was ‘pens at the ready’ - and that’s the image the singer gives us. ‘My tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe.’ He’s raring to go. Is your tongue ready to sing? [For perhaps the only time ever in church, why don’t you stick out your tongue to warm it up!]

We all know how weddings work. You need a man and a woman. And if you think about the way it works out in church, the groom arrives first. He’s already here, waiting on the bride to arrive (hopefully not too late!). That’s the same structure that we find in the psalm. From verses 2-9 there’s a portrait of the groom, and the rest of the psalm shows us the bride.

So let’s look at the groom. The singer rejoices in the king as he stands waiting for his bride. ‘You are the most handsome of the sons of men; grace is poured upon your lips; therefore God has blessed you for ever.’

This is a victorious king, a mighty one, with a sword which shows splendour and majesty. A king who rides out for the cause of truth and meekness and righteousness. A king who defeats any enemies. A king who is respected and admired.

In a world of pain and fear and injustice, how we need a king like this! In the week when a plane is shot out of the sky; when Israel and Palestine continue to fight; when Christians in Mosul in Iraq are marked for destruction; when Parliament discusses enabling assisted suicide; when every day we hear of assaults and thefts and violence. Oh how we need this king riding out for truth and meekness and righteousness!

The wedding singer says that he has this wonderful king. Now you might have thought that the king sounds too good to be true. Maybe he’s only saying these things because he’s paid by the king. It’s his job to make the king sound good. Is this all just a bit of positive PR, a bit of spin at the heart of government?

You would nearly think it with what he goes on to say in verse 6. Look at it with me. ‘Your throne, O God, is for ever and ever. The sceptre of your kingdom is a sceptre of uprightness; you have loved righteousness and hated wickedness.’ He’s singing to the king, he’s addressing the king - and now does he turn to God and praise God for his everlasting kingdom? That’s what we want to think. Surely the wedding singer wouldn’t go so far as to call the king ‘God’? Surely that’s blasphemous. Solomon or whichever of the kings of Judah may have been great, but they weren’t God.

Yet that’s exactly what the singer, led by the Spirit, is saying. Look how verse 7 follows on. Your throne, O God... Therefore God, your God, has anointed you...

The king is described as God, who has a your God. So what’s going on here? As the singer sings of what’s going on in front of him, it’s as if he is also seeing beyond these events to their fulfilment.

You sometimes hear of childhood sweethearts who met on the first day of P1 and through primary school played at weddings. Twenty years later, they are getting married for real. Well here, the wedding singer sees the ‘real’ wedding as he watches the king of Judah get married. It’s a picture of where the whole of history is going - a wedding, between the king who is God and his bride.

The king is the anointed one (the Messiah). The most handsome of the sons of men who is truly God, the Son of God. Over in the New Testament, the writer to the Hebrews picks up these verses to show just who Jesus is, and why Jesus is better. These verses are all about Jesus, the conquering king; the one who rides for truth and meekness and righteousness; the one whose throne is for ever and ever. Jesus, the king, the royal bridegroom who stands to receive his bride.

In verse 10, the singer speaks to the bride, the queen. Here is the way to come to the king. Forget what lies behind; bow to him. See how wonderfully she is attired - there’s always a great fascination about what the bride was wearing - here there is no expense spared - robes interwoven with gold; many-coloured robes.

She is brought with joy and gladness into the palace of the king. He brings her in, she finds her place beside him. The marriage has begun. And immediately, the future is bright. Look at how the psalm closes. There will be sons, princes in all the earth. But even more, the name of the king will be remembered.

When we were clearing out granny’s house, we discovered old wedding photos none of us knew were there. To see granny and granda on their wedding day was great. Photos can last a long time. But even longer lasting is this song, this psalm. The wedding singer has recorded that special day so that thousands of years later we can see what he saw.

How much more, then, the fulfilment of that day. The royal wedding to come, when Jesus is united fully and finally with his bride the church. ‘I will cause your name to be remembered in all generations; therefore nations will praise you for ever and ever.’

The best wedding ever is still to come. You can be involved in it - not just as a wedding singer; not even as a guest. You can be involved as the bride, the people of God, the church. The praise of Jesus, our God and our King, will resound for ever and ever. So why not come today, turn from all that’s past. Forget what’s behind and bow to the king.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Church on Sunday 20th July 2014.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Book Review: Jesus and the Logic of History

Have you ever had a book sitting on your shelf for ages and ages? You think you know what it's going to say, and so you leave it to descend in your reading priorities. And then you eventually get around to reading it and wonder why you left it so long? That's been my experience with this book - Jesus and the Logic of History by Paul Barnett.

The big idea behind the book is that we can get to know that the gospel accounts are accurate through the incidental details recorded in the New Testament letters. Just think for a moment. Within the letters, which were written before the gospels, there are details about the person and character and life of Jesus which were already part of the eyewitness testimony. The fact that they are already written down before we get to the gospel accounts must mean that the gospels themselves are authentic and accurate records of the life of Jesus. That's the summary of the book. To discover a bit more, read on!

Barnett introduces his book with the reminder that 'Christianity is a historical religion in at least two senses' - that it is a part of world history, but also because 'Jesus was a real man.' That means that 'the origins of Christianity are not mythical in character.' Yet many scholars are attempting to redefine Jesus historically, casting him in some other light, such as a sage, or prophet, or cynic, or whatever. 'There are as many Jesus as there are people who write about him' - each of them seeing their own type of hero in him. Contrasting with this, 'It is the argument of this book that the 'logic' of history demands a Jesus who is definable and about whom a practical consensus can be reached. By this logic it is argued that the Christ of the early church's faith and proclamation must have borne a close relationship to Jesus the historical figure.'

There is a good discussion of the historical approach to events and facts and the changes in society. This helps us to think through the sources used, and presents a challenge to the 'Jesus Questers' who only use fragments of gospels, rather than the fullsome source material present from the earliest days of the Christian movement. This even more so when they tend to rely heavily on discredited late sources such as the Gospel of Thomas.

From this base, he moves on to examine the references to Jesus in secular histories, again adding testimony to the fact that Jesus must have been (at least) a remarkable man who caused such an amazing influence on so many so quickly. This impact is developed in the third chapter, looking at Jesus in the proclamation and tradition. Given that Paul's letters to Corinth and Thessalonians come soon after his first visit to the cities when churches were planted, the details of Jesus' life found within are illuminating. The churches already know about Jesus, the references are merely mentioned in passing, illustrating doctrine and life. This is then expanded to the other apostolic writings of Peter and John, each of whom make mention of the life of Jesus throughout.

Placing Jesus in his historical context is the task of chapter four. Here, the relationship of Jesus to the other major figures found in Luke 3 is considered - John the Baptist, Herod Antipas, Pilate, Annas and Caiaphas. Each of them are known from extra-biblical sources, so there can be no doubt of their existence.

Jesus in the gospels furthers the idea that any reconstruction of Jesus must contend with the details given by the very earliest churches - in continuation from his ministry. Yet most reconstructions refuse to deal with the 'deity dimension' - a belief which is highly noticeable in the earliest churches. These churches already existed before the conversion of Paul - which can be seen in what he writes to the Galatians (because he was persecuting those self-same churches) and the tradition of Jesus' resurrection which had been handed on to him and which he reminds the Corinthians he had passed on to them (1 Cor 15).

The remaining chapters are at pains to show that the gospels and Acts are reliable testimony and not something mythic or made up. His arguments are convincing, because the logic of the history is so clear. Contained within is a discussion of the process of producing the gospels - from witnesses to publication. Each gospel is seen to come from an author who was either an apostle themselves or else was connected to the apostles - Matthew himself; Mark through Peter; Luke through eye witnesses and associated with Paul; John himself. These weren't late documents produced several hundred years later (as claimed by the Da Vinci Code et al) but within the lifetime of the apostles.

This really is an excellent book. It takes a different angle and approach to the New Testament text, but is logical and encouraging. By looking at the letters in a fresh way, the history contained within is unearthed, confirming the reliability of the gospels, and all because Jesus, the Son of God really did live, die and rise. This will be a great book for anyone seeking to engage in defence and confirmation of the gospel through apologetics, or those seeking greater confirmation of the historical roots of the Christian faith. I'm just sorry it took so long to read it!

Jesus and the Logic of History is available from Amazon.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Book Review: Jesus the Son of God

Readers of this blog will know that I always appreciate Don Carson's writing. One of his more recent works, Jesus the Son of God, is published with the intention to 'foster clear thinking' on the subject. With Carson's name on it, you can be assured that the intention has been fulfilled.

In his thorough way, Carson first tackles the Son of God as a Christological Title. Highlighting all the references to 'son of God' which are concerned with Adam, Israel, Solomon, Israelites, peacemakers, and angels, he then focuses on Jesus as the Son of God. The discussion is set within the context of recent controversy regarding sonship in Trinitarian theology, some specialist volumes on particular texts, and within discussions on egalitarianism v complementarianism and reaching Muslim contexts. Within the 'Son of God' references to Jesus, he identifies various categories: 1. a catchall term; 2. as Davidic king; 3. the true Israel; 4. pre-existence of Jesus.

The second chapter then focuses in on some of these select passages - Hebrews 1 and John 5. This chapter provides a case study in Bible study, as he shows his working out of the issues raised in Hebrews 1 through consideration of Psalm 2 and 2 Samuel 7. It is a delight to follow the logic, and to discover something which is blatantly obvious once he has shown you it! Hebrews is the culmination of the trajectory of anticipatory passages looking forward to the identity of the Son of God kingship of David's son. He then turns to John 5, finding the exegetical roots of the Trinity as Jesus explains how he is God and like God.

Chapter Three provides the outworking of the theology, as Jesus the Son of God is considered in Christian and Muslim contexts. For Christians, there is much to consider regarding the understanding of the various 'son of God' texts. Carson urges the reader to not fall for unjustified reductionism (in only seeing son of God as meaning one little perspective of the full range of meanings), nor of reading the full range of meanings into every instance. The call comes clearly to be careful in Bible study, which will issue in evangelism and worship.

In the Muslim context, there is a discussion of the different forms of Christian communities found in Muslim countries, specifically concentrating on the 'Insider Movement.' I don't think I had heard of it before, nor really considered the issue. Carson provides a series of points relating to Bible translation and evangelism for those working in Muslim contexts. These are helpful, as they show the dangers of translation into any language, and how ideas travel from one culture to another. The final point is the clincher, though, with the argument that new translations (devoid of Jesus being the Son of God and instead described as Messiah or some such other substituted word) amputate converts from the classic creeds and councils of the church; with the need for translators, missionaries and pastors working together for the transmission of the good news in every culture.

With a particular focus on a single issue, this book will be mainly helpful for pastors, missionaries and Bible translators as they seek to communicate what is meant by Jesus being the Son of God. A relatively short book, there is much to consider long after the reading has stopped. Carson's passion for Jesus and the truth about him is clearly seen, and will live with the reader in subsequent Bible study.

Jesus the Son of God can be found on Amazonand Kindle.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Book Review: Homosexuality - Christian Truth and Love

At the General Synod of 2012, the Church of Ireland, affirming that 'marriage is part of God’s creation and a holy mystery in which one man and one woman become one flesh' also committed itself to a listening process. Since then, the listening process has been developing through a series of diocesan events, as well as tripartite events where three dioceses came together for discussions. As part of my preparation for our tripartite in Claremorris back in February, I read this little volume, Homosexuality - Christian Truth and Love, edited by Paul Brown.

With a range of contributors, the book focuses on a variety of angles and approaches to the subject of homosexuality. Front and centre, the introduction reminds readers of the gospel, the good news of Jesus, which is a good message for every person without exception. Everything else that is said comes within this context, particularly with regard to the fact that the gospel impacts people in two ways: 1. It tells us how we can be right with God; 2. Those who believe in Jesus Christ begin a new life. These are helpful reminders, because everyone without exception is a sinner, so everyone needs to repent, not just one specific type of person.

Kenneth Brownell kicks off chapter one by 'Learning from the past.' Prompted by the consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop, he asks the question 'How have we got to this point in the western church?' Tracing the path from the first apostles to today, he counters those who argue that earlier generations of Christians previously welcomed and accepted homosexual practice. 'I will show that there is no need to revise our understanding of the church's historic position on the practice of homosexuality.' Thus he points to the early church which was 'born into a social context in which male homosexuality was tolerated and widely practiced' - yet the church fathers condemned the practice just as Paul had. Through the medieval period, the 'doctrinal consensus was maintained.' He looks at the argument that 'spiritual friendships' or 'passionate friendships' were actually homosexual relationships, but refutes the claim: 'Perhaps the difficulty is not so much with the language of friendship in the twelfth century but the shallowness of friendship in the twenty-first century.' From the reformation through the Victorian period and into the twentieth century there was still agreement by all the churches that homosexuality 'was sinful and socially destructive.' He traces the change in culture to the work of Kinsey and secularisation, but reiterates that 'Those who want to remain true to Scripture and its moral standards will have to stand fast and do so confident that they are standing where countless others have stood down the centuries.'

Peter Saunders looks at the issue of genetics. Observing the fact that 'there is no universally accepted definition [of homosexual inclination] among clinicians and behavioural scientists. There is even less agreement as to its cause.' Discussing the spectrum of sexual orientation and its causes, Saunders points out that the scientific research often has vested interests, either for promoting or shutting down findings. Yet science will not ultimately contradict God's truth in the Bible. He then explores the arguments for and against nature and nurture, none of which has been convincingly demonstrated. Rather, he points out, the gay rights lobby presupposes that what comes naturally is naturally good - in stark contrast to the Bible's worldview.

Paul Brown provides a Bible overview on sexuality and marriage in two sections. The first concentrates on the creation pattern found in Genesis 1&2 - the 'like opposite' of man and woman, seen in practical emphases on sexuality, marriage, family, it being a divine institution, and also commenting on singleness. 'Marriage is, by definition, a one-flesh union between a man and a woman. Refraining from sexual intercourse is obligated on all who are not married, whether hetrosexual or homosexual.' In the second part of the chapter, he moves on to consider life in a fallen world, in which 'the results of the fall have affected every area of life including the sexual.' Polygamy and divorce may have happened in the Old Testament, but they are not God's ideal. How much more, then, the firm prohibition of homosexual practice, which is never tolerated. He then gives the reminder of how forgiveness and restoration can be found in Jesus, as we are given the power of the Holy Spirit to change.

Chapter four comes again from the pen of Paul Brown as he tackles the relevant passages on the Bible and homosexual practice. But these are not just random prooftexts - they are to be seen within the context of the previous chapter which displays God's will for marriage and sexuality. He points out that the incident of Sodom in Genesis 19 isn't just the crime of hospitality deficiency, because homosexual rape is the intention. It is to be considered in the context of the sins of the Canaanites, which God had already said to Abraham were great, but not yet to the full measure. Interestingly, the first instance is mentioned and referenced in the last reference (Jude 7). The Leviticus passages 'come in a context in which the people of Israel are strongly urged not to follow the practices of the Canaanites' - so this is a counter-cultural call. After a brief mention of Judges 19, the focus switches to Romans 1. Here Brown makes the connection between Romans 1 and Genesis 1, because of the context of creation. The dishonorable passions are contrary to nature - that is, as God intended, not just what feels natural to the individual. Sadly, the discussion of 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1 were both minimal, although the point is helpfully made that homosexual practice is not the only sin - there are many sins within the list, all of which exclude people from the kingdom of God. Despite there only being a few references to homosexuality (all of which condemn the practice), the Bible isn't 'a collection of varied autonomous texts'. Rather, there is a fundmental unity and consistency within the whole Bible.

Roger Hitchings tackles the question of equality for whom? In my view, this was the weakest chapter. Using the same idea as Don Carson, a la the changing definition of tolerance, he argues that the gay lobby is actually intolerant of Christians and religious communities. His survey of which laws had changed is now hopelessly out of date, given that gay marriage is now lawful in England and Wales. There are some helpful ideas here, amongst the unhelpful.

Declan Flanagan then proposes a pastoral response in the local church. This is great! He reminders pastors and readers in general that 'Someone seeking help does not want to encounter a formula, but a person with whom they can relate.' He then sets out some steps (in an unformulaic way!) to help those helping others: 1. Know yourself, in terms of inner attitudes and questions; 2. Know and declare the truth - not in isolation, but as the whole counsel of God; 3. Acknowledge the difficulties; 4 Challenge the lies; 5. Understand the varieties of orientations; 6. Distinguish between temptation and sin; 7. Develop a carefully considered approach. This framework is useful for anyone in pastoral ministry, with any issue or struggle.

The closing chapter is a personal story. Martin Hallett of the True Freedom Trust writes of how he began to feel attraction to other men, and his new lifestyle. He writes of trying to convert a Christian to the gay lifestyle, and through that contact being converted to Christ. From there, he highlights the work of the True Freedom Trust, which helps those experiencing same-sex attraction.

This book is a good introduction to the various angles and attitudes to homosexuality, seeking to present clearly and pastorally the good news of Jesus for all. Those seeking to work out the issues will find much that is useful and helpful, and this is a volume that I will return to time and time again. Homosexuality - Christian Truth and Love is available from Amazon.