2011 sees the 150th Anniversary of the founding of Jesmond Parish Church in memory of Richard Clayton, the great Victorian Tyneside Christian leader. Last September at the JPC 150 Programme Launch Evening I was asked to give biblical reasons for “Why Look Back?” The following is a transcript of what was said.
Looking back is something older people do a lot. So on reaching a 150th birthday you ought to expect a lot of looking back!
Tragically as some people get older they cannot look back, for their memory has gone. Such a state of amnesia is so sad. It is also sad when people can only look back and never look forward.
But what is true of people is true of institutions and organizations (like churches). On the one hand, there can be institutional amnesia and a failure to look back and learn from the past. Or, on the other hand, there can be a simple dwelling on the past with no looking forward or preparation for the future. What does the Bible have to say about this?
1 Corinthians 10 is helpful. Paul is reminding the Corinthians of how in the wilderness wanderings the people of God drifted away from the Lord. They sank even (v 7) “to indulge in pagan revelry” which involved, says Paul (v 8), “sexual immorality … and in one day 23,000 of them died.” And he goes on to say there was “testing” of God and “grumbling” - all with dire consequences for the people. But then in verse 11, we read this:
“These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfilment of the ages has come.”
Paul was saying that the Corinthians should look back to avoid the mistakes and pitfalls of the past. And we too should look back to Scriptural history and learn its lessons. So using that as a template, we can then look back generally – and with profit.
The Founders’ courage, generosity and wisdom
At JPC there is so much to learn from its history. I have selected four lessons.
First, there was the courage of the founders.
Though publicly abused for wanting to plant our church in the first place (with their opponents calling the church, St Spite’s), they went ahead.
Secondly, there was the generosity of the donors who caught the vision.
That’s a reminder that God’s work done in God’s way never lacks God’s resources – normally through donors.
Thirdly, there was the wisdom of their vision for this church to be “a central point for …
“… the maintenance and promulgation of sound scriptural and evangelical truth”.
The Founders’ vision
Every word there is vital. We must be concerned for the Truth – about God, man and the world. But today in a post modern world, we need to be specific. So it is Evangelical truth – the truth that is the good news of Jesus Christ.
But “evangelical” is now a fashionable world meaning all sorts of things. So it is to be “Scriptural and evangelical truth” – the truth from the teaching of Jesus and his Apostles as you find it in the Bible. But “biblical”(or “scriptural”) also is now fashionable for it is possible to say the Bible is true for the first century but needs updating for the 21st century.
So it is to be “Sound scriptural and evangelical truth”. “Sound” meant for our founders interpreting the Bible in line with the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion of the Church of England. Article XX says, referring to “God’s Word written” that you are not so to …
“… expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another.”
Because of the wisdom in the Thirty-nine Articles, that is one reason why each year I look back at some of those Articles on our Foundation Sunday.
But that “sound scriptural and evangelical truth” has to be both Maintained and Proclaimed. If you only maintain it, you get a dead orthodoxy. If you only proclaim it, you can soon loose it. So we can learn from the courage, generosity and wisdom of our Founders.
But, fourthly, we need to heed a warning.
There was a drift of this church in the first part of the 20th century from its founding vision and moorings to a theological low-church-liberalism that would have shocked Richard Clayton. It also had a Masonic emphasis, which now the Church of England officially has declared incompatible with the Christian Faith. And that is why Paul says as you look back, some of those lessons of history you need to take as warnings. So, in 1 Corinthians 10.12 he says:
“if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall!”
Luther said that the Bible has to be fought for every 30 or 40 years. Christopher Dawson said the same about Christian cultures. And the individual Christian’s life has to be fought for every day. Jesus said that we are to pray, “Lead us not into temptation”.
However, it is not all “just try harder”. No! Listen to how Paul concludes this section of 1 Corinthians 10 in verse 13:
“No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.”
So looking back is not just about warnings and temptations. It is about winning the fight in the future. Paul makes that clear in Romans 15.4 where he says this:
“For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”
That means that you look back to God’s plan of salvation in history and how God fulfilled his promises in Christ, the Cross, the Resurrection, the Holy Spirit’s coming and Christ’s current Reign; and you look back to promises of a final complete and glorious fulfilment beyond history for all believers. This is to encourage you for what lies ahead and be positively hopeful as you face the future. But the future will bring challenges. They will be of two sorts.
First, there are those that require “endurance” – “endurance” is literally standing firm under pressure. It is what you need when you have got something positive to do, from important individual tasks at home or work to a great corporate vision - for example, for the future of this church. But everything is conspiring against it.
The second sort of challenges are when encouragement is required. This is what you need when you wish you had something positive to do, and when thoughts of a wider vision are light years over your head. Just surviving, for you is enough.
Or you need this sort of encouragement when you simply can’t see a way of solving some problem at home, or at work or at the church. As we look ahead together to 2011 and, God willing, beyond, there will be huge pressures. How we will need endurance and encouragement to stand firm under them. And there will be times when we are discouraged. But God wants us all to be people of hope – in this life and, of course, for eternity.
And we can be, one, as we look back to the Bible and learn those lessons of history, and as the Holy Spirit applies them to our hearts and minds and gives us the endurance to stand firm and be positively encouraged, in spite of all the challenges we will have to face.
And we can be people of hope, two, as we avoid the pitfalls of those in the wilderness and of some in our own JPC history, but are encouraged by the example of our Founders’ courage, generosity and wisdom.