Monday, February 21, 2011

Baptism is for Believers

Had the privilege to do a baptism last night and by way of explanation here are my comments to the congregation...

Salvation in the New Testament (NT) is firmly focused on faith – that is, we become Christians not by doing but by believing...
• The NT writers are very concerned to resist the natural human instinct to look to ourselves in how we get God's approval;
• Great battle in NT between Paul and those whose mindset is one of pleasing God by our works / activities.

No, the way to be reconciled to God, to enter His family, to become accepted by Him...
• is by simply believing – trusting that Jesus in His death - cleanses us from our guilt
• And that when we put our faith in him – Jesus' own flawless righteousness is credited to us.

So the Christian life is not one measured out by ceremonies, religious activity, or even our best efforts...
• But by a simple faith & deep gratitude – to Jesus for saving us - doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.

So the Christian faith, in the NT, is very different from its pagan alternatives – even its Jewish past;
• No elaborate ceremonies, rituals, holy days, food laws, hierarchies of holiness...
• Indeed Paul calls such legalism ‘weak & beggarly’ (Gal 4:9) – mere shadows of the true spiritual reality to be found in simply trusting Jesus (Col 2:17).

The NT sweeps away vast tracts of such activity – the outward & physical – to be replaced by inner faith...
• Yet – not entirely – because delivered to Christians were certain physical practises...
• The Breaking of Bread – Laying on of Hands in prayer - and Baptism

And as Christians have sought to understand – these outward & physical practises...
• They have described them among other things as...
• the ‘outward sign of inward grace' (Calvin)’ or ‘a visible sign of an inner reality’.

The idea of them being signs is crucial – that is, they point us to something else...
• The signpost to London is not ‘London’ – it is simply directing us to the reality that is London;
• So with Baptism – the water, the immersion, the act – is not in itself spiritual, or changing;
• It’s simply an act – to point us to the existing spiritual reality which has already come about in the life of the Christian being baptised

That’s why 'P' won’t be more a Christian – after tonight – than he was before
• The Spiritual realities that Baptism speaks of – cleansing, confession, identification – already exist in him.

So why you might ask – bother with Baptism at all – why be baptised after all these years?
• Well because – Baptism is faith strengthening – not faith creating – but strengthening;
• In these signs – we as physical, feeble people – are given a physical reminder of that inward spiritual reality;
• For Christians– as they experience Baptism & look back to it – it very tangibly reminds & assures them....
• that in Christ – they are cleansed, they were counted in, they did make that good confession.

Baptism is a token of God’s mercy to weak & earthly creatures.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Precious in the sight of the Lord....(Ps 116:15)

Saw this obituary yesterday & felt deeply humbled and yet so 'proud' to be a Christian.

Eric Buchanan; Salvation Army Officer
Published on 7 Feb 2011 in The Herald Newspaper

Eric Buchanan was not brought up as part of a Salvation Army family.

He was born in Northern Ireland, where his Scottish father was a regular soldier. His mother had been a pub pianist in Aberdeen.

On leaving the army, his father moved the family to London to look for work. In 1939, he rejoined the forces. His eldest brother also enlisted and was killed in action.

After the war in 1945, he obtained a post as an apprentice printer. This completed, he undertook his national service in the RAF and met Anne, a beautiful Glaswegian member of the WRAF. They soon married and were then separated when Mr Buchanan was posted to the Korean War.

As a medical orderly, he was in the front line and witnessed many deaths. Not a religious man, he was impressed by the practical Christianity of an Australian Salvation Army officer.

On leaving the RAF, the young couple emigrated to the US. Mr Buchanan’s gift of the gab made him a successful door-to-door salesman while Anne, a trained tailoress, made coats. He never forgot the Salvation Army officer in Korea and they worshipped at the local corps.

Eventually, the Buchanans returned to Scotland where, in 1967, they adopted a boy, Andrew. Mr Buchanan obtained a well-paid post in a printing firm but he and Anne then gave up their affluent lifestyle to train as Salvation Army officers. Their first post, in 1974, was in the working-class housing scheme of Drumchapel in Glasgow. After nine years building a thriving centre, they were moved to Musselburgh.

The area was gripped by the miners’ strike following Government plans to close mines. The families faced great hardships so the Buchanans provided a hall and co-operated with the wives of miners to provide meals. At the end of the strike, the Buchanans were presented with a miner’s lamp.

Their last move was back to Glasgow, to Easterhouse when Mr Buchanan was 56. In the first two days his car was stolen and their windows were smashed. It didn’t put them off. Mr Buchanan walked the streets and got into conversations, while Anne was adept at chatting with women on the bus and in the shops and they became well known.

I moved to Easterhouse in 1987 and Mr Buchanan, on hearing that I was an experienced youth worker, drew me into his youth clubs which were full of lively youngsters.

By this time, the couple had built up an evening service. These were short and lively with corny jokes from Mr Buchanan. Usually he asked for someone to choose a favourite hymn. A well-known drinker always picked The Old Rugged Cross and one night Mr Buchanan joked: “Oh no, not again.”

The man protested, saying: “Right, I’m leaving. And what’s more I want my money back.” He took his contribution from the collecting box and marched out. But he was back the next Sunday.
Mr Buchanan’s ministry had three major characteristics: availability, responsiveness and passion. For years, the Buchanans lived over the hall and were the people the homeless and the penniless would come to. When their home was ruined by a fire, a mother and her children were put up in a council flat, although it was almost bare of furniture. Late on a winter night, Mr Buchanan provided food, bedding and clothes for the shivering family. Next day he delivered furniture.

If the Buchanans saw a need they tried to meet it. They started a Christmas Day dinner for those who struggled to afford a meal or were lonely. Anne and volunteers cooked the meal, Mr Buchanan was the waiter, while I had the unenviable task of organising games at the party. Pass the parcel and musical chairs were hotly contested and I was relieved when Santa arrived with a present for everybody.

Mr Buchanan was zealous that people should become Christians. At the shopping centre and in pubs, he would tell them about Jesus, sometimes to their annoyance, sometimes to their delight. He also felt passionately about those who suffered. I was in the Sally when a mother came in with her children. Her partner had beaten her before taking all their cash. Mr Buchanan wept. Among his followers were a number of hard men, former heavy drinkers. With them, Mr Buchanan marched round to her partner and warned him: “You touch her again and my men will beat you up.” Not professional, probably not lawful, but effective.

In 1993, Mr Buchanan had a stroke and retired. He was one of God’s mavericks who disliked administration and rules. Fortunately, his beloved Anne was there to put him right. His legacy is the people I still meet who thank him for getting them out of debt, drink, drugs, troubles and into stable and useful lives.

He is survived by Anne, by Andrew and his partner Fiona, and by grandson, Lucas..

Born: August 5, 1929; Died: January 13, 2011.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

The Gospel & Social Mobility

An interesting couple of programmes on TV last night (2/2/11). Firstly, a BBC2 documentary (‘Who gets the best jobs?’) on social mobility – something that has reduced dramatically in recent decades in the UK. This means that if you are born poor in Britain you are more likely to die poor (i.e. not advance up the social/income scale) than at any time since the 1950s. The transition from free university education, the growing disparity between the incomes of rich & poor, and some would argue the abolition of the grammar school system, have all doubtless contributed. Those with money can buy their off-spring a better education (and thus a springboard to greater prosperity) either directly through private provision or indirectly by being able to afford to live in the right postcodes.

The second programme was a feature on Newsnight – about the ‘super rich’, an international elite whose ties with any geographical community are less & less – i.e. they move globally and have few deep roots in any one place. London was cited as one such staging post – with its African plutocrats, Russian oil magnates and Arab Sheiks. A group increasingly resented by those down below – who see them paying little tax proportionately and having little commitment to the societies they move through.

Depressing stuff on the face of it – a return to a Victorian society with its impenetrable class barriers and glaring social disparity between the workhouse and the stately home. But in the programmes a couple of things struck me. Firstly, regret was expressed that a generation of young people were being denied the possibility to advance in such ways. One politician spoke of his frustration that many young people felt such advancement was beyond them and thus were resigned to staying put socially & income wise. The need, it was argued, was to get such young people climbing the ladder, believing in themselves, advancing into the professions and so on.

Now you certainly wouldn’t want to discourage people from that – but the problem is that such a message can itself become misleading and cruel. Because not everyone can be a doctor or a barrister, (it was noteworthy these type of jobs were cited not because they are virtuous and useful ways to contribute to society - but because, you've guessed it, they pay BIG). But we can’t all be at the top of the tree professionally or financially. So by telling young people that getting a highly paid and prestige job is what they ought to aspire to and will give their lives proper fulfilment – we are simply setting up a large number of them to be failures. Unfortunately our materialistic society struggles to see beyond the length of its cheque-book and so wealth becomes the central measure by which it assesses the value of somebody’s life.

There was no message to people who might not be able to afford a Russell Group* university place (or indeed any university place) – that actually having an ‘ordinary job’ or not being ‘well off’ is ok! No suggestion that your life could be just as significant and fulfilling if you’re a gardener, a porter, a factory worker. In short there was no gospel in the assessment of this issue by any of the contributors. Rather a situation is perpetuated that pushes people to think of themselves as successes or failures (or become grateful or resentful) in life on the basis of personal wealth.

Now the Bible is not against social mobility – slaves who could secure their freedom were encouraged to do so. But equally for those who could not – they need not be overly troubled by it, their masters are themselves subject to a greater master, the slave is a freeman in Christ (1 Cor 7:20-22). The gospel transcends all social divides – it places men and women of every class, profession and tax bracket on the same footing before God. Indeed God values the widows mite much more than ‘cash splashed’ easily.

But in case this appears a convenient argument for a capitalist status quo – there is a second aspect, the one picked up in the Newsnight feature. The point was made that cities like London (and we could include Glasgow) were built in large part by the philanthropy of the super-rich in earlier times. The Victorian era being a case in point – a time when private money founded many of our hospitals, schools and public parks. Among the wealthy then it seems was a much greater sense of civic responsibility and of using their wealth to help others less well off. The current Mayor of London was asked, ‘What has changed, why aren’t the rich like that now, why don’t they use some of their astronomical wealth in such ways today?’ (paraphrase). He had no answer, other than it would be good if they were. The problem can't even be solved by greater taxation because this is a group who 'move'. So help for the poor who might go to university doesn't look like coming from this source.

Perhaps the difference between then & now is the Gospel. Then society, for all its many faults, was permeated by much greater sense of gospel values. The teaching of Christianity held much greater sway – far from universal but much greater nonetheless – so that even among non-Christians there was a greater sense of responsibility to others, and a greater sense of humility about the things they had achieved or possessed. It was the difference of being a society where your values are formed by Sunday School and sermons as opposed to Nickleodeon Ad' breaks and Saturday night TV.

You see it is the Gospel that gives people a sense of self-worth & purpose not dependant on financial success – and it is the Gospel that will engender the care and respect for people that will create a giving & humble heart in the rich.

*Russell Group is the name given for the top 20 UK universities.