Thursday, 26 April 2018


When James Bond sets off to save the world, he usually does it on his own. There is a romantic appeal in a lone hero overcoming the complex forces of evil singlehanded. In the real world, however, there is only so much that a solitary person can achieve on their own.
In the familiar iconography of Christianity, Jesus is usually presented as a lone figure. Artists put a distance between him and any people around him; they dress him in contrasting clothes which exaggerate his separateness. The Jesus of popular culture is an isolated figure, saving the world singlehandedly - like James Bond does (but without the gun fights or miraculous gadgets supplied by Q Branch).
This solitary image of Jesus is inaccurate. All four Gospels inform us that the first thing he did when he began his ministry was to assemble a team. Three years later, they tell us - in some detail - how the very last thing Jesus did before being handed over to death, was to get that same team together for a big supper. At that supper Jesus emphasised the importance of teamwork, urging his team to continue to work together. “If you love one another, then people will know that you are my disciples.”
Jesus’ clear decision of working with a team was closely copied by those who carried on his work. When Paul split off from team-Barnabas, he quickly assembled team-Paul - first picking Silas, then Timothy and then Luke. Paul, who is also portrayed as something of a loner, was as much a team player as Jesus.
Twenty centuries later our image of Jesus and Paul as solitary operators misdirects our expectations of church life. It is quite common for people to arrive at church, worship, and leave, without particularly engaging with any of the people around them. This is not the way of doing things that Jesus gave us.
If we are to have any chance of saving the world, we are going to need to teamwork.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Brute Force & God's Blessing

In the age of computers, brute force is a commodity who’s general value is in decline. We live in an age in which celebrity comes from a skill with smart and sassy one-liners, not from wielding a basic weapon to devastating effect.
Samson lived in a very different age to our own. With his violent temper, his rudely blunt way of talking, his weakness for prostitutes, and his love of killing, he doesn’t fit comfortably into our idea of a man (or woman) of God.
The story of Samson covers four chapters of our Bible. It follows him from his miraculous conception to his murderous death. His career of destruction spanned at least three disastrous relationships with women he fancied but never managed to love, and brought a violent end to thousands of human lives. Samson was rude. He was arrogant. He was stupid. And yet he was God’s chosen agent in that place and at that time.
Faith communities the world over tend to have very particular ideas about the kind of man or woman who makes a godly leader. There is a certain level of intelligence expected, a certain morality demanded, a certain social skilfulness required. We like our faith leaders to be clean-cut, polite, and pastorally sensitive. Samson was none of these things, and yet he was God’s chosen agent in that place and at that time.
God is the creator of the entire universe. He is the loving heavenly father of the entire human race. God does not travel along the same narrow pathways that we chose to tread, often consciously following where other generations have gone before us - mistakes included.
The brutal story of Samson is a reminder that God does not always pick the good people or the nice people. Samson’s talent was brute force. He excelled at it. And in that place and at that time it was precisely the skill-set that God required.
This is not an encouragement to grab the nearest fresh jawbone of an ass and slaughter as many people as you can. It is an encouragement to look again at the people who you don’t like, or don’t trust. God loves those people dearly, and in a certain place and a certain time, they may be just what he needs in this world.

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Faith in Doubt

In the world of religion, doubt is generally seen as a bad thing. Religious groups run much more comfortably when all the members share a common set of beliefs. When someone questions those accepted beliefs, or expresses an alternative understanding, they tend to be seen as a problem that needs to be solved. Through the long and tangled history of religion (and politics), very many people have been exiled, tortured or killed for expressing doubt. It is, unsurprisingly, a common feature of human culture that we keep our doubts to ourselves. It’s safer that way.

Thomas was one of Jesus’ core group of pupils, and the only one of that group who was not present when a surprisingly alive Jesus joined his disciples for supper just two days after his execution. It must have been very difficult for Thomas. While he was working through the first phases of grief following Jesus’ brutal demise, his best friends were bouncing around with unprecedented joy, claiming that they had seen Jesus alive. Thomas’s doubt is entirely understandable. His friends’ story was absurd. People do not calmly turn up to supper two days after their own (very public) death. It was a reasonable doubt.
I suspect that for the whole of the following week, Thomas was repeatedly criticised by his friends for not understanding things the way that they did. Since then, centuries of Christian tradition has looked down its collective nose at 'Doubting Thomas'. Jesus, however, did not criticise or reprimand Thomas for doubting; he simply showed his nail-pierced hands and feet and allowed Thomas time to recalibrate his understanding of reality.
There is nothing wrong with doubt. Doubt is a fundamental part of faith. It is what separates faith from certainty. And that is good, because certainty is brittle, whereas faith is robust.
Thomas wasn’t the only one of Jesus’ disciples to doubt the story of the resurrection. Matthew’s Gospel informs us that others did too. What marks Thomas out is that he was the one who was honest about his doubt. 
Most of us, like Matthew’s unnamed doubters, keep our questions and uncertainties to ourselves. We are secret doubters, afraid of how others will react if we admit the points on which our grasp of things is different from the prevailing trend. That is a weakness - both in us and in the communities to which we belong. It would be so much better if we learned to trust our uncertainties, if we could have faith in our doubts, and in the doubts of the people around us.