“Excuse me, is this the Gallery?”
We’d just called to Cedar Farm for a coffee en route from the crematorium. However, the coffee shop had just closed but a notice informed us that the Gallery was still open.
So we went to where we thought the Gallery was – and asked the question to a young waitress. “You’re standing in it” was her response.
Which instantly reminded me of a similar response in April, 1976. We had just had our second baby, close enough to have both still needing nappies. In that far-off era we used Terry nappies and rather than boil them most parents soaked used nappies in Napisan for several days before rinsing and drying.
Extremely primitive, I know.
Anyway, cleaning nappies was my department with another baby to service, I wondered whether it was okay to soak both their nappies in the same bucket. So I asked the visiting midwife. I will always remember her response: “What do you think?”
For her the answer was mind-blastingly obvious, which of course it was. But at the time as a young father the answer was not obvious to me. Otherwise, why ask the question?
As Christians we are living in an era when what is obvious to us is by no means obvious to many of our contemporaries.
Again I recall staying with two friends from college, both high-powered professionals. They were not Christians and as far as I could see their children had had no contact with church. At breakfast I was chatting to their teenage son who clearly was bemused by the knowledge that I was a vicar.
So either out of interest or just being polite, he asked me where he could read about Jesus in the Bible, in the Old Testament or in the New Testament? Clearly he knew enough about the Bible that it was in two parts but that was the limit of his knowledge. He was not asking a theological question about the pre-existing Christ but he simply wanted to know where he could read about Jesus of Nazareth.
I explained that the life of Jesus is recounted in four different accounts called gospels. You can find these at the beginning of the New Testament, that’s the second part of the Bible. Probably best if you start with Mark – it’s shorter and more tabloid. Just use the index.
In other words, the answer is altogether obvious to anyone with some knowledge of the Christian faith but it was not obvious to this young person or most of his contemporaries. Nowadays you have to start with the very basics.
At the moment I’m working my way through Romans, that’s Paul’s epistle (or letter) to the church of his time which was in Rome. I guess that this is unusual for the majority of Christians today in contrast to the church of my youth.
I’m nearing the end (phew!) of this 16 chapter epic, to read this morning of Paul’s overall strategy for his ministry: “It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known.” And he explains why: “So that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation.” (Romans 15:20)
Paul’s MO was to visit a strategic location, usually at a key crossroads of the Roman road network where he would head for the synagogue. There he would argue from scripture that crucified and risen Jesus is the long-awaited Christ. But as his ministry progressed and as he moved further away from Jerusalem, his ministry was increasingly with non-Jewish pagans.
We see this particularly when he speaks to the Areopagus in Athens, men familiar with the teachings of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers but little knowledge if any of the Hebrew scriptures. So Paul has to start from the very basics, the fundamentals of the Gospel leading up to the cross and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.
But it’s hard work challenging presuppositions, those basic assumptions we make in order to live our lives. And of course, it is mind-blastingly obvious that no one in their right mind would want to take up their cross to follow a crucified Messiah.
The key is always careful explanation, realising that what may be entirely obvious to us is not necessarily obvious to other people. I’ve always been helped by a quote from Sidney Bernstein, the influential founder of Granada television: “We tend to overestimate people’s knowledge and underestimate their intelligence.”
As the apostle repeatedly found out, it is often dangerous to challenge people’s basic beliefs head-on, but as he explained to the Christians in Colossae it is something we need to do so with care and courtesy. After all we may be treading on holy ground.
So he advises :“Use your heads as you live and work among outsiders. Don’t miss a trick. Make the most of every opportunity. Be gracious in your speech. The goal is to bring out the best in others in a conversation, not put them down, not cut them out.” (Colossians 4:16, Message translation).
So Paul summarises his Gospel message for us. “We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” (1 Corinthians 1:23). This would challenge any preconception.
1) it’s the truth,
2) the Holy Spirit himself confirms.