23 October, 2014 Richard Coekin
Did you follow this fascinating spat in the papers a few months back? The Prime Minister wrote an article in the Church Times describing Britain as a Christian country and encouraging Christians to be more confident in expressing their faith. Fifty-five secular public figures responded angrily, denouncing his remarks as sowing sectarian division and mischaracterising Britain as Christian (despite the 2011 Census figures showing 59% of people describing themselves as Christian and only 25% claiming no religious affiliation). Leaders of other faiths then expressed support for Cameron’s comments and senior government figures declared that those who ignore the Christian ethical and constitutional heritage of Britain were being absurd, but argued that moderate Christians are afraid to express their beliefs because of widespread intolerance of religious extremism! Are we afraid to express our faith in Christ? In 1 Peter 3 the Apostle Peter urges believers facing persecution:
‘“Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened.” But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord....’ Unbelievers may be terrified of offending human powers or frightened of losing human approval, but we don’t need to be afraid because we believe the Gospel that declares that Jesus is Lord. He is in control. He will protect us, give us strength to speak boldly, constrain the level of hatred we face to what will help us to become like Christ, and He determines whether people become Christians. We don’t need to be frightened, because Christ is Lord. Peter continues:
‘Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have...’ We have the most wonderful blessing in this life: hope for the next. The solid reason for our hope is the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. But most people have never heard this explained in language they can understand. So we need to prepare how to answer people’s enquiries clearly and simply. It may be helpful to employ three summary statements of the Easter events:
(a) “He was definitely dead” - after dying for our sins on the cross, His blood and serum came out separately, then the soldiers, governor and friends checked His body and buried Him, and then His battered and crucified body was shut inside the tomb until the Sunday. To think that He sprang out of His wrappings, kicked open the stone door, fought off the guards and ran into the town to persuade everyone He was resurrected is ridiculous. He was dead.
(b) “He was definitely gone” - the soldiers were bribed to say the body was stolen; the women found the tomb empty and the disciples found His valuable burial wrappings left behind (it would be madness for robbers to steal a naked body and leave the valuable cloths) and the religious leaders could never produce the body. He was gone!
(c) “He was definitely seen” - on many recorded occasions over a month, sometimes with large crowds, He ate meals and taught Scripture, yet appeared and disappeared at will. He still carried the scars of His crucifixion yet without suffering or limitation (just as we will carry the scars of our suffering and sin, but without pain or inhibition). As the Old Testament had promised, as He had predicted and as Christians experience today, He is alive! The evidence is overwhelming but we need to prepare to explain it to our confused and sceptical family, friends, neighbours and colleagues. But Peter cautions against sounding extremist:
‘But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience’. We need to be “gentle” rather than arrogant, condescending or manipulative, with “respect” towards God who hears what we say, with a “clear conscience” that our motivation is love for people and God and not recruiting like salesmen to look good “so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander...” If we purify our motives and manner we may find that even aggressive atheists who have spoken maliciously against our good behaviour will feel ashamed of their slander and become interested in God. Don’t be afraid... speak up... gently!