Christianity – A Faith Founded on an Act of Blasphemy

In a few days Ireland will vote on whether to remove the offence of blasphemy from the country’s Constitution. Christians are on both sides of the argument on this issue. I recently spoke to some members of my own church who were sincerely and passionately concerned that God was being taken out of the Constitution.

On the other hand my friend David Turner, Director of Church in Chains, wrote an excellent letter in the Irish Times declaring his intention to vote ‘Yes’ in the Referendum because of the ways in which other countries use their blasphemy laws to persecute Christians:  https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/letters/blasphemy-and-the-constitution-1.3669419

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My own opinion is very similar to David’s, even though I love and respect this who hold a different view. Actually, I won’t get to vote in this Referendum because I am in the Middle East this week. Ironically I’m meeting with people who have seen loved ones persecuted and killed because others interpreted their devotion to Jesus Christ and His Gospel as a blasphemy against the dominant faith in their region.

But it’s worth remembering that there’s one important difference between Christians and adherents of other religions who get outraged at blasphemy against their gods and want the sanction of the law against blasphemers. Our very faith is based on the greatest example of blasphemy in history.

The very foundation of Christianity – the crucifixion of Jesus – is in itself an act of blasphemy. What could be more blasphemous than stripping God naked, subjecting Him to a public flogging, and then nailing Him to a piece of wood? After that, any purported blasphemy is tame by comparison. And how did Jesus respond to this ultimate blasphemy? By demanding that the culprits be stoned to death? By calling upon the Romans to impose a €25,000 fine? No. He prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)

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Glimpsing the Church at its Best

Last week was a tough week in our local church. I’m not talking about the usual crises and conflicts that are part and parcel of daily life among any community. I’m not talking about the spiritual vandals who, rather than contributing to the well being of others, seem to delight in using Facebook and other social media as a battleground to tear others down with criticism and personal attacks on their families. I’m not even talking about the fact that our church offices were broken into and absolutely trashed with thousands of euros worth of damage. No, this was much more serious than that.

A family in our church experienced a devastating and sudden tragedy. Their son, Philip, a popular local musician, dead on the other side of Atlantic. The raw pain of unexpected heartbreak. The grim logistics of bringing his remains home and planning his funeral service. Last week we needed to see and feel the grace of God in a special way.

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And, thank God, we did experience the grace of God in a special way. One church member organised an online crowd funding initiative – ‘Bringing Philip Home’ – to cover the costs of repatriation and the funeral. Within four days over €20,000 was raised, revealing just how loved Philip was by so many people in Drogheda. Church and family members rallied round in an outpouring of love and practical concern. At the funeral Philip’s family, including his parents, Sean and Mary, impressed everyone with their courage and faith as they spoke about their love for Philip and their confidence in Jesus Christ. Philip was honoured and remembered with great affection and the Gospel was shared. For hundreds of mourners, it was their first ever experience of an Evangelical church. There was powerful praise and worship, and Philip’s many musician friends expressed themselves in song also, with a great sense of mutual respect and united grief.

But sometimes it is the little things that make for lasting memories. The church member who volunteered to be a carpark usher in pouring rain, getting soaked to such an extent that he had to go to a nearby store and buy fresh clothes before he could get into his own car afterwards. Or the two church members who asked me for a lift from the church to the cemetery, and then stayed behind in the same pouring rain to change my punctured tyre when I was involved in a minor accident en route.

Last week I caught a brief glimpse of the church at its best – and I have discovered that such moments carry a revelation that can sustain us through all kinds of disappointment and discouragement.

23 years ago, when our family also suffered the indescribable pain of the death of a child, I caught a similar glimpse of what the church can be. Fellow Christians helped in practical ways, bagging up clothes and toys at a time when we were totally unable to cope with such tasks. Over the intervening years that vision of what the church of Jesus Christ looks like when she gets her act together has been a continual inspiration for my life’s work.

It’s increasingly common to hear Christians, and even Christian leaders, speak disparagingly of the church. It can be so easy to become cynical, or to focus on the many times when the human side of church obscures the divine. And, make no mistake, those of us in leadership don’t live in a fool’s paradise. We see the church’s weaknesses and mistakes as much, and probably more so, than anyone else.

But every time I am tempted to join the chorus of negativity, I remember the beauty and majesty of what the church has the potential to be. Yes, I must be honest in facing and acknowledging our frequent foolishness and misguided efforts, but I can never stop loving and serving this Bride of Christ which, according to the New Testament, is God’s workmanship – the ultimate crowning glory of creation (Ephesians 2:10). One day we will see clearly what we currently only catch in passing glimpses, but those glimpses are precious indeed!

So last week was a tough week for our local church. But, for a moment in time, we became what we are becoming, and that will affect us positively for a long time to come.

How a €40 Cake Ended Up Costing Over €500,000

The UK’s Supreme Court has finally, and unanimously, ruled that Asher’s Bakery in Northern Ireland was not acting unfairly or practising discrimination when they refused to fulfil an order for a custom-baked cake featuring two Sesame Street characters and a slogan supporting gay marriage.

Taking the case through its various legal stages has cost over £450,000 (€510,000) in legal fees. Making the lawyers the real winners in this controversy.

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The Supreme Court judgement recognised what was glaringly obvious to most people, that the bakery were not discriminating against the customer on the basis of his sexual orientation, but were rather choosing not to produce a piece of propaganda for a message that went against their deeply held beliefs.

We should not expect a Palestinian baker to be compelled to produce a cake decorated with a Star of David to celebrate the anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel. A printshop owned by a Northern Irish Catholic should not be forced to print election posters for the DUP. Nor should an LGBT publisher be forced to publish a book that argues that marriage is exclusively between a man and a woman. Whether we agree with the beliefs of the business owner, or indeed of the proposed customer, in each of these scenarios is not the issue. In each case both the business owner and the customer have the right to hold their individual beliefs. The issue is that we should not deliberately and provocatively place an order with a particular business, with the express intention of causing offence or creating controversy. Particularly, as in the Belfast bakery case, when there are plenty of other companies that would gladly accept the business.

I don’t think anyone genuinely believes that the customer in question just happened to choose a bakery which is well known as a business owned by evangelical Christians, and whose very name, ‘Asher’s’, is taken from the Bible. This was clearly a calculated attempt to provoke a response, and then to claim discrimination.

The ruling from the Supreme Court made clear that it is unacceptable for any business to discriminate against a customer on the basis of their race, religious beliefs, political views or sexual orientation. That is as it should be. But it has also made it clear that free speech and equality do not give us a mandate to behave like jerks. And that is a lesson that all of us, including Christians, need to take to heart.