Tonight we held our very special sung Evensong to celebrate Pentecost as part of the world wide prayer in Thy Kingdom Come movement and 70 people in the parish joined us. A few days ago half a dozen of us completed a prayer walk around the Parish in a morning. Thank you so much to those of you who joined in on this. https://www.thykingdomcome.global
The Evensong was sung by our fantastic Itchen Valley Parish Choir led by Major General Tim Tyler. The organ was played by John Dover. We sang the hymns ‘Breathe on me Breath of God’ and ‘Love Divine all loves excelling’. The choir sang the Evensong prayer responses (with the Rector doing his best to sing the priest part) and the Sequence for Evensong, the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis. They also sang the very beautiful ‘Do not be afraid’ by Stopford. Thank you so much to the whole choir and to Tim and Olivia who brought it altogether and to John for his wonderful organ playing.
The Itchen Valley Parish Choir
Revd Alex Pease gave the following talk:
Pentecost ‘Not drunk as you suppose’
I wonder whether it is better to be thought to be a drunk or a fool? Probably….better to be thought a drunk…As, to paraphrase Winston Churchill’s famous response to being told that he was drunk in Parliament, ‘….but I shall be sober in the morning’. A fool is presumably still a fool in the morning as well!
The first Christians were thought to be drunks by some of those watching as the Holy Spirit came upon them on the first Pentecost which we remember this evening. But the critique which is so often made of Christians by atheists and agnostics today is not of drunkeness, but of foolishness….but it all amounts to the same thing really: that Christians have lost their critical faculties, their common sense, their reason….that Christianity is irrational…or put in the more polite words, that atheists sometimes use, that Christians have made a giant ‘leap of faith’, which the atheist or agnostic has not be able to make.
One atheist friend of mine regards the redirection of our lives since we became Christians with total incredulity….but what may seem foolishness to some made sense to others on the first Pentecost and 3000 were baptised on that first day.
But, today, how can we decide the difference between truth and fiction? How can we decide between the fake and the fact?
I wonder if any of you have heard the theory that HM the Queen Is a blood drinking, flesh eating, shape shifting, extraterrestrial, reptilian humanoid, part of an alien race which controls humanity? These alien reptilians apparently include George W Bush, the Clintons, Freemasons and others.They were apparently responsible for the Holocaust and 9/11 amongst other things!
Last week bits of this theory, originally put about by David Icke, were presented to me as being thought credible by two apparently intelligent and educated people in their twenties.
If the claims of the conspiracy theorists are ludicrous, how do we distinguish them from the central claim of Christianity, the claim that a man who was crucified by the Romans, who were after all experts at killing people, rose from the dead?
We look at the evidence
We look at the evidence
It struck me the other day, that perhaps the reason that so many lawyers become Christians is that they are used to examining evidence and forming a conclusion about it; to finding truth.
In this they are like detectives (such as J Warner Wallace who wrote Cold Case Christianity using his forensic skills to examine the evidence for the Resurrection
, journalists (such as Frank Morison who wrote Who Moved the Stone
, scientists (such as Francis Collins who wrote the Language of God
), all focused on finding truth!
But, so often, the focus on whether God exists or not starts at the wrong end. It starts with philosophy, was the universe created out of nothing by God? Or did it spring into existence out of nothing? And of course we can have an interesting discussion about these things.
But Christians don’t start there. Christians don’t explain their beliefs by starting with God, or starting with creation, or even starting with the Bible, but by starting with an historical event: the death of Jesus of Nazareth and what happened three days afterwards.
The question is: Did it happen or not? Because if it didn’t then Christianity is really of no value at all. But if it did then it is of ultimate value, because the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the strongest indication there can be that there is a God who can and does have an influence on our circumstances and our lives here and now.
So the question is pretty important. Did the resurrection happen?
The answer to that important question is assessed in the way that the evidence for any other historical event is assessed by looking at the evidence. Not by seeing if the phenomenon of the resurrection is repeatable in controlled circumstances (as a scientist would) as if it were a natural phenomenon rather than a supernatural one, but by evaluating the reports of what happened in the past from the evidence we have, like a lawyer, like a detective, like an historian. Or perhaps the best analogy of all, like a jury.
Tonight you are the jury. Did it happen? So what evidence is there?
Well one background point first of all: we are, of course, looking at events which happened about 2000 years ago. We do not have a huge number of original source documents – we have the four witness accounts of the resurrection, called the gospels.
But some people say “you can’t believe them, they were written by Christians”. But that’s like saying “you can’t believe what happened in Caesar’s Gallic War, because it was written by Romans”. No serious historian takes that view: Caesar’s book is the only record we have.
We must, of course, take the perspective of those who are writing into account, but we don’t reject it out of hand.
Indeed, we do have some confirmation at various points of aspects of the stories told in the New Testament from archaeology, and from Jewish historians and Roman pagan historians such as Josephus, Tacitus and Suetonius, but in nothing like the detail of the gospels themselves.
So, ultimately, we must engage with the gospels if we are to try and establish what happened.
But what if some monk in the 12th century changed what is said in the Bible since the events which were recorded?
Well, we can be completely satisfied that the versions of the Bible we now have are as they were originally written – they stand alone amongst ancient writings for their reliability, to their original texts, because we have so many ancient copies and fragments of copies (over 5000) from so many places across the Mediterranean. This has been firmly established by the science of textual criticism.
Also, the New Testament has been subject to the most rigorous analysis of any ancient works – many hundreds of theologians have spent their lives examining them in the greatest detail, with all sorts of different historical methods.
The latest theological approach, contained in Richard Bauckham’s book Jesus and the Eye Witnesses
, sees the gospels as testimony rather than history – like that of a witness in a trial.
Each small element of the evidence builds up when combined like the individual sheets In a laminated piece of wood – weak one by one but stuck together strong – to be, in my view, compelling, even though individual pieces by themselves might not carry that weight.
So, you are the jury and I will present some of the evidence to you tonight.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I would like to make two points about the evidence this evening upon which I would ask you to form a view.
Firstly, I would suggest that the gospel accounts are credible
And, secondly, that the other possible explanations of what happened, are not credible.
Firstly, The gospels are credible; they ring true. The gospels are not myths: although they deal with some extraordinary events, the gospels don’t read like the myths of the Ancient World when they were written, in which the heroes are larger than life characters. The disciples are not always heroes. In an ancient world which prized personal courage and loyalty above all, the gospels reveal the leader of the disciples, Peter, to have acted with cowardice and disloyalty when he denied Jesus.
The implication throughout the gospels is that the disciples did not have the slightest clue, most of the time, what Jesus was talking about.
Even in Gethsemane, after the Last Supper, when Jesus was pointing towards his immediate death, the disciples slept, rather than watched and prayed with him, indicating that they had no clue that their world and dreams were about to be shattered.
If the gospels are not true accounts, why would the writers have been so embarrassingly critical of the disciples, the then leaders of the church, at the time they were written?
Also, the first and most important encounter with the risen Christ is with a woman.
But in a world where a woman’s word was of almost no value and was not allowed in a court of law, it is the women who first find the tomb empty and are the first witnesses to the Resurrection.
If the apostles had wanted to invent a story about the resurrection they would not have made the most important and first witness account, come from a woman.
Indeed, the main attack on the credibility of Christianity in the Second Century AD was on the basis that the first witness was a woman.
Also, the gospel accounts are full of references to individuals by name people who would still have been alive at the time the accounts were being written who could provide confirmation of points of detail for the sceptical.
If you doubt the credibility of the gospels, I suggest that you might like to read one of them from beginning to end and see what you think – read one in a modern English version (New International Version or New Revised Standard Version) and make your own mind up on this!
Second, the alternative possibilities as to what might have happened are not credible:
Some say that Jesus did not die on the cross, but survived the crucifixion and staggered out of the tomb. Well, we know that He was chastised by the Romans – anyone who has seen Mel Gibson’s film of the Passion knows what that means. The flogging was so severe that some people died just from the beating alone.
A soldier went to check that he was dead to report back to Pilate. A Roman soldier would not have wanted to make a mistake on a report to Pilate on a matter of this importance.
But most convincing of all, I think, is the discharge of ‘blood and water’ from Jesus’ side recorded in John 19:34, when Jesus was lanced by the spear. This discharge apparently suggests massive clotting of the blood in the main arteries and is apparently “exceptionally strong medical proof of death”. And of course the evangelist could not possibly have realised the significance of this phenomenon to a modern doctor.
Others say that the tomb was not empty, but, if so, why did the authorities not simply produce the body and scotch Christianity at birth?
Some have suggested that the disciples stole the body. But, is it really credible that so many of those who claimed to have witnessed the risen Christ would have been able to keep the secret without revealing it to anyone?
Chuck Colson (a lawyer) who was one of president Nixon’s closest advisers said “I know the resurrection is a fact, and Watergate proved it to me. How? Because 12 men testified they had seen Jesus raised from the dead, then they proclaimed that truth for 40 years, never once denying it. Every one was beaten, tortured, stoned and put in prison. They would not have endured that if it weren’t true. Watergate embroiled 12 of the most powerful men in the world and they couldn’t keep a lie for three weeks. You’re telling me 12 apostles could keep a lie for 40 years? Absolutely impossible.”
But what really seals the deal, from my perspective, is the transformation of the disciples which occurred between Gethsemane and Pentecost. It is difficult to explain that transformation if the resurrection did not happen. The disciples were transformed from terror hiding in an upper room in fear of their lives; sheer abject terror, to expounding the gospel boldly, publicly. How do we explain that transformation, unless they were witnesses of this seemingly impossible event?
When we realise that belief in the Resurrection is not irrational, but is possibly true, when we realise that Christians are not drunk, as we suppose, not fools, we clear away the principal intellectual hurdle to Christian faith.
And this does need to be cleared away for many of us, if we are to see Christianity as something unique and true.
But it will not be enough in itself. It is only when that hurdle has been removed, that we might be willing to ask Jesus to reveal himself to us, to repent of the sins which have been an obstacle between us and him.
When finally we do this, when we choose to take this small step rather than a giant leap, I can assure you that Jesus will reveal his presence to us through the Holy Spirit; and we will begin the incredibly exciting journey that the Christian life offers; and he will provide all the proof that we need to want to follow him.