This week a friend sent me a copy of That Was The Church That Was – How the Church of England Lost the English People. Written by Andrew Brown, an English journalist, and Linda Woodhead, Professor of Politics, Philosophy and Religion at Lancaster University, England, it was published in 2016. Providing a harsh critique of the state of the Church of England over the last thirty years or so, it suggests that only a ‘Broad’ Church will slow the decline.
While my purpose here is not to review the book, I was surprised that little attention is given to the biblical and theological issues that lie at the heart of the nature and meaning of the Church of England.
With that in mind, come with me to a section of the Gospel of Luke 4 beginning at verse 16.
Luke, the Gospel writer wants us to feel the rhetorical impact of his narrative about Jesus. He slows down the pace of his writing through a cluster of verbs: Jesus stood up to read; there was given to him…; He opened the book and found…(4:16-17). Our sense of anticipation that something significant was about to happen, is sparked with Luke’s comment: And Jesus closed the book, and gave it to the attendant, and sat down (4:20). We are drawn into the synagogue scene and the congregation who were listening attentively to Jesus.
The reading from Isaiah chapter 61 would have touched a chord with Jesus’ hearers. It had been some four hundred years since God’s prophets had last spoken. But now Jesus is saying that Isaiah’s words are fulfilled in him. His hearers that day were positive and astonished, but then they asked, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” (4:22)
Conscious that they expected him to use his miraculous powers to authenticate his messianic claim, he responded, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” (4:23). Just because he had performed miracles in Capernaum didn’t mean he would do the same in Nazareth. It depended on how they received him.
Jesus continued with illustrations from Elijah (1 Kings 17:8-24) and Elisha (2 Kings 5:1-19). Both prophets spoke of God’s goodness. However, because the Jewish people at that time refused to acknowledge God, it was only outsiders (non-Jewish) who benefitted from their divinely inspired ministry – a widow in Zarephath, and Naaman the Syrian, a leper (Luke 4:25-27).
Jesus’ listeners in the synagogue also rejected him (4:28-29). They weren’t prepared to acknowledge him as the one who fulfilled the promise of Isaiah 61. They were so angry they even tried to kill him by throwing him over a cliff. Ironically, there was a miracle that day: Jesus walked through them and away from danger (4:30).
Significantly, he didn’t give up on his mission even though he was rejected in his hometown.
The heart of the gospel of which Jesus spoke is the rule of God’s king – his kingdom. We can begin to see why the preaching of the first Christians would have rankled with the Jewish leadership as well as imperial Rome – as it often does with rulers today. The Christian gospel says that human authorities in every age are themselves not the final authority. As Deuteronomy 6:4 says: ‘There is only one God who is Lord of all’.
The good news of Christianity is not simply an abstract announcement, nor is it simply care and compassion. Christianity is grounded in the recorded, historical events of Jesus’ life – from his miraculous birth through his death, resurrection and ascension.
Paul the Apostle summarizes the substance of the faith in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8. He speaks of Jesus as the Christ: God’s anointed king. He explains that God’s king came to rescue us: he died for us. This picks up a theme in Genesis 1:28-31: God not only made us in his image but committed himself to serve our best interests.
Paul affirms that Jesus was truly dead when he was taken from the cross and buried. He also tells us Jesus was raised from the dead: God reversed the decision of human courts that sentenced Jesus to death, by raising him to life. Furthermore, he assures us that more than 500 had seen Jesus physically alive (1 Corinthians 15:6).
In other words, out of the silence God has not only spoken, but come amongst us in person. Christianity didn’t start because a group of fanatics had invented a story about their hero, or because a group of philosophers had come to the same conclusions about life. It began with eye-witnesses – very ordinary men and women who testified to the life of a man whose nature and powers were demonstrably far beyond human imagination. But such is the nature of this man, that unlike anyone else who has died, he is now alive again.
What then lies at the heart of Christianity that the Church espouses? It is the good news that God has appointed Jesus Christ as the Lord who came to rescue us and who calls on us to turn to him in repentance and faith.
Where then is the hope for the future? In church as an institution or its structures? A key to the growth of the church is all its people, clerical and lay – people who know the Lord and whose lives are being changed for the better; people who care for the needy and the lost; people whose joyful faith spills over in a way that others want to learn more.
Speaking of which have you checked out The Word One-to-One an annotated version of John’s Gospel to share with family and friends? You can find it at www.TheWord121.com.
A prayer. Lord Christ, eternal Word and Light of the Father’s glory: send your light and your truth so that we may both know and proclaim your word of life, to the glory of God the Father; for you now live and reign, God for all eternity. Amen.
© John G. Mason