An Unashamed Fool

Written by Anthony Douglas on Saturday, 26 May 2018.

AthanasiusFor those who keep track of such things, Sunday 27th is known as Trinity Sunday on the church calendar - an opportunity to reflect on how God reveals himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Perhaps just as significantly, in our sermon passage today, we are reminded that we are foolish, weak and lowly. Both of these details justify a brief introduction to Athanasius.  

Athanasius was the bishop of Alexandria in the fourth century. He was also the bishop of Alexandria, then of Alexandria, Alexandria, Alexandria and finally, Alexandria. It was an era where church doctrine and imperial politics were mixed together in a toxic brew, and five times Athanasius was forced into exile from his post. On each occasion, Athanasius refused to bend on his theology, and went.

What was it that Athanasius held to so stubbornly? In his time, there was a powerful group of church and political leaders that were Arian in their theology: they believed that Jesus was not divine. And Athanasius was having none of it: if Jesus was not God, he was useless.

He was thought a fool for ignoring the prevailing winds of political opinion, but he couldn’t have cared less. Despite being exiled by four different emperors, and dodging another half-dozen assassination attempts, he stood firm, earning himself the nickname Athanasius Contra Mundum - Athanasius Against the World. And through his tenacity, God eventually brought the church back around to a true confidence in Jesus’ divinity.

It wasn’t the first time human foolishness had been a vehicle for God’s power and wisdom!

Being Frank...

Written by Anthony Douglas on Sunday, 20 May 2018.

FrancoFrancisco Franco presided over a military dictatorship in Spain for the best part of four decades. He was both deeply loved and deeply hated within a divided country, but let’s put the politics aside for a moment.

As Franco lay on his deathbed, surrounded by his loyal generals, he heard a soft roar coming from outside his window, behind the drawn curtains. He asked an aide to investigate the sound, who returned from his errand with a lump in his throat and tears in his eyes. “Sir, it’s the people. Thousands of them. They have come to say goodbye.”

Franco raised himself on an elbow and barked his reply: “Why? Where are they going?”

We might laugh, but he was serious. His words are simply a sharp illustration of one of the unrealities of modern life: we live very much in denial of death. By mutual consent, we structure our society to downplay the inevitability of death, to sequester any acknowledgement of it to special times and places, and above all to avoid admitting even to ourselves that our time is running out.

The thing I love about this story is the absurdity. A man with two names that both connote honest truth who is staring death in the face, and still can’t be honest about it! Or perhaps he is being honest: yes, we really do imagine we can wish death away.

That power, however, is reserved to him who has defeated death, our loving leader, for all of time.

When Cracks Appear

Written by Anthony Douglas on Saturday, 12 May 2018.

SinkholeThis week in New Zealand, a huge sinkhole opened up in a field outside Rotorua. Heavy rain fell on Sunday, and by Monday morning, a chasm two hundred metres long and twenty metres deep had appeared.

This week in New Zealand, the Anglican church held a synod and discussed a proposal to bless same-sex marriages, desperately seeking some magic formula to please all parties. They didn’t find it, but decided to go ahead anyway. Key evangelical church leaders have already given their regretful resignations from the denomination.

As fallen men and women, there will always be points of friction in any church body. But how do we decide when the cracks are too wide or too deep? How do we decide when it’s best to walk away?

We have been blessed with strong relationships in a harmonious church - but a sinkhole can appear overnight, and it is better to have thought the questions through in advance.

1 John provides the answer: we love God and love each other - that demonstrates that we are born of God. Love, however, can mean many things to different people, so it’s important to recognise that the letter also defines love: “This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome...” (1 John 5:3). If people are walking away from God’s word, we must part ways with sorrow; if not, then we must love them and work through any difficulties. Hard work, but not burdensome!

Exit Through the Gift Shop

Written by Anthony Douglas on Sunday, 06 May 2018.

JusticeThe other day I listened to a man who lost his sister during the attack on the World Trade Centre as he expressed his fury that the museum now built on the site includes the obligatory gift shop. It was easy to understand his sentiment. It felt like his sister’s death, his family’s grief, was being exploited for commercial gain.

It raises the obvious question. Why do museums and art galleries always operate a gift shop? Of course, we know it’s for revenue purposes - but that only pushes the question back upon us, the customer. Why do we keep spending money in gift shops at the end of our tour? There’s no necessary connection between viewing an exhibit and buying a vaguely related trinket, so what possesses us to possess a piece of what we saw?

I suspect it expresses, among other things, a deep-seated belief that the physical makes things real. Memories fade, but if I have a copy of the book that was compiled for that art exhibition, I can refresh them. If I keep a postcard of that particular item, I can remember how it made me feel.

And that is why it is so marvellous that Jesus came in the flesh. He put on a physical form so people would know that he really came, and he felt nails in his flesh so we would know he really died our death. He rose in a glorified body so we could be sure that he reigns for eternity.

There’s no justice? Then how can we explain away the scars that he still bears today? The proof of God’s justice is written in the flesh of his own Son, and who could argue with that? Under the sun, our justice fails, but under the Son, God’s justice reigns.

The Curse of Eternal Life

Written by Anthony Douglas on Friday, 27 April 2018.

Fiction has been with us since the Garden of Eden, and while at first it was displayed only in sinful ways, it has since become of some value to humanity. The arts have provoked all kinds of useful insights and discussions.

A movie I recently watched featured a protagonist who, for the sake of the plot, was unable to age. The story was a tragedy, of forced isolation as the ageless heroine was unable to form deep relationships lest her secret be exposed. She resorted to a shadow family by caring for a string of dogs of the same breed, each new pup acquired to replace the old dog after its death.

Flower - DeadIt struck me how terrible eternal life would be, were we to live it alone. This isn’t a real possibility, of course - Jesus is more competent than that! Yet the idea highlights the beauty of the fact that we don’t hope for eternal isolation, but eternal fellowship as members of God’s family.

The other verse that came to mind was Genesis 3:22, where God says, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” Here God saves Adam from living forever as a sinner, but another horror occurred to me. What if Adam had been the only one to eat from the tree of life, as the verse says? Then he would have known the despair of seeing each and every descendant stumble into sin and death - Adam’s legacy - for generation upon generation.

Thank God he makes us new, so that the life we live is that of people who have been eternally restored to fellowship with him.

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