Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Satan's Blandishments

Mark 8.33    Get behind me, Satan! For your thoughts are not those of God but of mankind.

Most of us belong to at least one organisation. At work we are part of a business enterprise of some sort. Some put their energies into a voluntary group. Others belong to a club or association - or just a family. The fellowship we find in a group is essential to our growth to maturity.

We are urged in Lent to examine ourselves as individuals and to put right what's gone wrong in our lives. We are, as it were, to put Satan behind us. 

But seldom, if ever, is the Lenten focus on the Church as an organisation. It is as though personal holiness is enough, that good people make good organisations.

This outlook isn't surprising. The Church has been around for two millennia. The tides of history have often swept hard against it, but it has stood. Moreover, its members are convinced that God protects them against Satan's blandishments - "Not even the gates of Hell will prevail" (Matthew 16.18).

But will the Church always win? There are at present worrying signs of deep-seated ills.

First, in the West the Church is rapidly disappearing as a social force. Fewer and fewer people grace it with their presence. Its structures are creaking and groaning - and sometimes giving way as never before. Fundamentally, though, the Church is failing mainly because so many perceive it as irrelevant.

Second, in some parts of the world the Church has set itself up as an antidote to secular poisons. Its leaders urge Christians to resist attacks on traditional values. Millions of unsettled people flock through church doors. All are fleeing uncertainty for the haven of absolute rectitude in morals and belief.

The Church has become a policeman - and it was precisely against that which Jesus was reacting when he told Peter, "Get behind me, Satan!" 

The gospel author we call Mark insists that something crucial was at stake here. He portrays Peter as urging Jesus not to put his head into the lion's mouth by going to Jerusalem. He was attempting to police Jesus. "Listen, Boss," he would have said, "you're already on the list of dangerous subversives. It's suicide to go there during a Passover Feast. You know how jumpy the authorities get on such occasions." 

But Jesus would have none of it. That, he insisted, is the way people usually think about change and the risks it brings. God's way is different. It's not about keeping God's fellowship undefiled by heretics, gays and other disgusting sinners. It's about trusting the way God does things.

Mark's story illustrates that a deceiver will not beat down the door like a debt collector but will sneak in dressed as a kind old lady. Just as Peter tells Jesus to watch his step, so she tells us comfortingly that the old ways are safer. Or perhaps a mitred bishop reassures us that we will be given new life by the ancient treasures of the Church.

If this approach to life prevails, a foundational truth is sabotaged - that we are to trust God's creation. The passing of ancient traditions may seem like death. But through change shines new life if we will see it.

The upshot is that in Lent we can and should each try our best to be renewed. But unless the fellowship is also renewed, it may be that the light of life will shine only outside church walls. 

To gain new life we have to think God's thoughts, not man's.

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