New Restalrig Parish Church
Lord’s Day Service, Sunday 14th April, 11.00am
Minister: Rev David Court
I begin with a few musings inspired by the sermon at New Restalrig Parish Church (I’ve included their web address, but the links are mostly dead ends, including one that reads: “400 Bad Request – You smokin what?”) But more of that anon. First, a little quiz:
Who was the founder of Christianity? Easy: Jesus. Wrong, it’s a trick question. It was Paul, of course. Everyone knows that, don’t they?
Well actually, no, lots of people seem not to, or not to care either way. I’m not claiming to be an expert but I’ve read a little bit, and there are lots of people who haven’t, believers and unbelievers alike.
The constituency that makes the greatest and most sweeping assumptions about the bible despite not having read it seems to divide between two camps – non-religious people who simply couldn’t give a fig (let’s call them Group A), and on the other hand Christians who are so secure in the overwhelming loveliness of Jesus that they feel they don’t need to read the fine print (we’ll call them Group B). Both groups may be blissful in their ignorance, but Group B really has no excuse for being unable to defend what they claim to believe in.
The people who have taken time to bone up on the scriptural minutiae also divide between two camps – atheists who want to be able to back up their arguments (Group C), and on the other hand clergy, theologians, scholars, etc. (our final group, Group D).
The trouble with the bible, as I came to see it, is that the more I read it the less comfortably the Old Testament and the New Testament seemed to sit together. Far from complementing each other, I realised that they actually contradict each other on many apparently vital points, but Christian apologists have applied themselves to reconciling them, interpreting the Old to retro-fit with the New and logging every such effort in concordances and confessions all neatly cross-referenced together in a body of work that has kept Group D in business for hundreds of years.
Group B people simply swallow up the general message without checking the facts. After all, those nice Group D people have done all the hard work for them.
So what did the congregation make of Rev. David Court’s substantial sermon on Phillippians 3:1-11? I guess I’ll never know, but here’s the summary:
Paul found his footsteps dogged by the Judaisers who sought to impose Jewish law on the nascent church. The graphic language he employs in this epistle (look out for the dogs, the evildoers and those who mutilate the flesh) demonstrates the extent of his concern; the gospel itself was at stake. The Judaisers held that in order for gentiles to become Christians they had to embrace the law, but Paul insisted that salvation depended not on good works and human effort but on God’s grace alone.
These dangers are still prevalent in the church today, according to Rev Court, because the idea that we can pay our way by cloaking ourselves in religious activity and good works is ingrained in human nature. But all attempts to make ourselves acceptable to God are doomed to failure, and realising this was what set Paul free.
Citing Thomas Chalmers’ sermon, “The expulsive power of a new affection”, Court explained that moral reformation never works; we cannot change the heart or redirect its desires without help from the outside.
So I looked up Chalmers’ sermon, and lo, I found a perfect description of myself in it. Here he is talking about people who “disrelish spiritual Christianity”:
“As it is, they cannot get quit of their old affections, because they are out of sight from all those truths which have influence to raise a new one. They are like the children of Israel in the land of Egypt, when required to make bricks without straw - they cannot love God, while they want the only food which can ailment [sic – I think this is a transcription error and should read ‘aliment’] this affection in a sinner's bosom - and however great their errors may be both in resisting the demands of the Gospel as impracticable, and in rejecting the doctrines of the Gospel as inadmissible, yet there is not a spiritual man (and it is the prerogative of him who is spiritual to judge all men) who will not perceive that there is a, consistency in these errors.”
Point taken. I’m not saying everyone’s oot o’ step bar oor Jock. I’m Jock in this scenario. But my question is this. Let’s suppose that Paul is right. What do we do with the Old Testament? Why not chuck it away and just make do with the gospels and the epistles as the holy books of this new cult? Ah, but you need to keep all the bits of the psalms, prophets and Torah that are seen as prefiguring Christ. Can’t have a prophecy-fulfilling messiah without a record of the prophecies he's supposed to have fulfilled, and so the retro-fitting continues and the ink flows and the theologians stay busy.
And the man and woman in the pew? I don’t know. I can’t be inside other people’s minds, but to my own mind there is a big problem with the Christian solution to this problem – that once you genuinely believe, all the problems and contradictions and doubts magically dissolve away. Not if you keep on reading the bible, they don’t. Perhaps Group B have the answer: read the bits you like, cherry-pick what gives you comfort and don’t bother your little head about the hard sums. It’s like buying insurance. The policy holder is persuaded that they’re getting comprehensive cover, they’re alerted to the exclusions and other terms and conditions but they don’t bother to read them, and unless they actually suffer a catastrophe they’ll be quite content knowing that everything’s taken care of. “Simples!”, as a certain famous meerkat might say.
Not so simples, says the Soul Searcher.
Apart from the sermon, which I’m still mulling over 24 hours later, it was a typical Church of Scotland service: four hymns trad and trendy, one metrical psalm and a children’s address. Nothing to write home about there. But the whole Pauline revisionist, Old/New Testament thing continues to trouble me.