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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Sermons from the margins

God Has No Grandchildren

Lent is a time when we focus on Christian discipleship. We attempt to bring it into focus, sharpen up its vision, and tighten - for a few weeks at least - its discipline. Looking to the examples of discipleship shown in the New Testament, we could sum it up as a journey from inherited religion to personal faith.

It has been well said that "God has no grandchildren". We first learn of God as father and of Jesus from others - often our parents. But it is only when the Holy Spirit enters our own hearts that we come to know God for ourselves. Only then do we have direct access to God as our Father.

Consider first the example of Abraham. He was an old man. Already he had lived through one upheaval, when his father had left the old family home in Ur of the Chaldees, and moved with Abraham and his family to Haran. After his father�s death Abraham feels compelled to move again. God says to him, "Go from your country and your family and your father�s house. Go to the land that I will show you � and I will bless you."

We do not know how he heard God�s call. Perhaps he had a vision, or a dream, or heard a voice when he was alone. Or perhaps it was something more normal and everyday. On a later occasion, it was to be by the visit to his tent of three strangers. Or perhaps again it was just an inner sense of the need to move on. Itchy feet.

Only once have I dared to ask someone face to face how exactly God spoke to them. He was a missionary, back in England after years of service in Africa, now going round the parishes encouraging us to support the society with whom he had worked.

"God told me to come home," he had said, during his sermon. So afterwards, when he had come back to the vicarage and we were alone, I said to him: "How did God tell you to come home?"

And the answer came, quite simply and unashamedly, "He made me scared. Fear made me leave and bring my family home to the safety of England. But I am quite certain that God spoke to me through my fear."

Perhaps it was fear that made Abraham move on. We don�t know. Whatever the cause, he interpreted it as God�s call. He felt sure that he must leave his father�s house - including the household gods - and leave behind his inherited idea of who he was and where he belonged, and follow his own calling wherever it might lead.

Second, consider Paul of Tarsus. Paul was a young man, a zealous and religious young man, eager to outstrip all his friends in the service of God. Yet in his letter to the Romans we find that Paul looked back to Abraham as a pattern for his own life and that of his fellow Christians.

What had they in common?

Abraham had left his inherited religion in order to serve the true God, but Paul had been brought up from childhood to serve that same true God. From his youth he had embraced the life of a Pharisee, a strict form of Jewish observance at that time.

What could Paul possibly have in common with Abraham, born a pagan and called in old age to serve the Lord? Just this: that Paul also, zealous as he was, had to turn away from his parents� way of religion and make his personal act of faith - which for him meant Jesus.

The Pharisaic Judaism of Paul�s youth had put all the emphasis on doing the right things, saying the right prayers, avoiding the wrong company, keeping oneself pure. In a word, on keeping God�s Law.

Paul was a world expert on this. No one did it better. No one.

But it did not bring him peace, it did not fill him with God�s love, it did not bring him the deep joy that he saw in the faces of the Christians whom he was persecuting as heretics. So Paul came to see that his religion was wrong. God did not want people to keep the Law in order to be "right" with him. They had only to trust him, to put their faith in him, and they would be right with him - they would be "righteous" in his sight.

This involved Paul in a complete turn-about.

It did not mean serving a new God. But it did mean leaving behind his parents� way of serving God. It meant a journey from inherited religion to personal faith. And when Paul looked back into his Bible, back to the very beginning of his nation - back, that is, to Abraham - he found there a story that exactly matched his own.

Abraham too had left his father�s house, his father�s religion, and had put his faith in God. And that had put him right with God. The Jewish Law was not to come for another 400 years (at the time of Moses). So Abraham certainly could not have kept the Law. But Paul noted that Abraham had been reckoned righteous because he put his faith in God. Just like Paul.

Old Abraham, young Paul - and, in another example, to a young man and an old man together, Jesus and Nicodemus.

Nicodemus was a leader of the Jews, a "teacher of Israel", and he - like Abraham and Paul - felt drawn beyond his inherited religion to explore the new way offered by this strange young man. He came to Jesus "by night", and in John�s Gospel, from which the story comes, the night and the darkness always symbolize unbelief, while Jesus is the light of the world.

Nicodemus comes to the light, but - by the account in John's Gospel - he remained confused. He was, perhaps, too set in his old ways to receive the new message, too caught up in the letter of his old religion to receive the free roaming spirit of which Jesus spoke.

But that is not the end of the story. At very end of John�s Gospel we are told that Nicodemus paid another visit to Jesus, this time with his friend Joseph of Arimathea. Together they took the dead body of Jesus down from the cross and laid it in a new tomb. The teacher of Israel had become the servant of Jesus.

We have looked briefly at discipleship, as shown in lives of three very different people - Abraham, Paul and Nicodemus. All made a journey from inherited religion to personal faith.

Let it be our purpose in Lent to make that journey for ourselves. For some of us, it will simply mean embracing for ourselves, whole-heartedly and afresh, the same faith that we inherited, making it our own, making it personal. For others - more painfully - it may mean setting aside part or all of that inherited faith in order to follow the spirit where ever it blows.

For all it can be a deepening of commitment, a source of blessing, a renewal of discipleship, a journey from inherited religion to personal faith.

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