Saturday, 2 August 2014

Balancing Faith and Culture

In my role as a leading figure in Reachout Trust, a ministry to the cults, and given my Welsh nationality, I have drawn comments and questions on discussion boards about the Welsh national cultural event known as the Eisteddfod. People are puzzled that even “so-called Christian leaders” attend and take part in what is so “obviously a Pagan festival.” It is culturally Celtic (the first ‘c’ is a hard ‘c’, not like the Scottish football club) has a circle of druids, an Archdruid, flower dances, oak leaves, a sword, a stone, and a throne – O,my word it just gets worse.

This year (1-9 August 2014) it is being held in the West Wales town of llanelli (Llan means church and Elli is the name of a leading Christian figure associated with the place, hence Llan – the church of, Elli – St Elli) You can get a lot of useful information about the Eisteddfod, its history and form here. It is a festival that celebrates Welsh language and culture and is conducted in Welsh, though very welcoming and accessible to non-Welsh speakers. But there is also an international Eisteddfod which is multilingual, multicultural, welcomes visitors and contestants from all over the world and is the biggest cultural festival in Europe.

When people ask the answer is always the same. It has nothing to do with authentic druidism, and what people see as ‘pagan’ is nothing more than the fanciful cultural trappings of an otherwise innocent cultural festival. It celebrates culture and talent in many forms, music, dance, poetry and literature, academic achievements, civic service, charity work. There is a regular Christian presence at the festival and every opportunity to share the gospel. Still, there will be those who will struggle with the question of faith and culture, some taking the purist view.

With our very seasons and times named with the names of pagan gods (think days of the week, months and seasons of the year) and pagan customs marking our every day lives, from the wedding ring, through carols, flowers on graves, and so much more, how do we balance faith and culture?

Simply because something has a pagan origin does not mean that it is sinful to use it, even for a religious purpose. The early church met in houses but when Christianity became an official religion of the empire Christians modelled their public buildings on what was already there in society, the basilica. At a time when your social status was reflected in your dress, church officials dressed like government officials. Today, when we see priests wearing church vestments, we are looking at the continuation of this form of dress which originated with the Roman nobility.

Our practices, dress and customs, both religious and civic, have developed over generations and reflect that history, as also our attitudes. People who complain today about drums and guitars in church should realise that the church organ, so beloved of many, was seen as worldly when it was brought into the church a thousand years ago. Think of the so-called gothic revival of the nineteenth century, which has bequeathed us a heritage of cold, drafty and pretty but pretty useless buildings, but at the time regarded as God honouring.

Even today, we find ourselves doing things that our forebears might find odd. How would those of just a generation or two ago make of our casual dress in so many churches today? And what do we regard as acceptable today that might appear unacceptable to those that come after us?  It might be said that culture both helps and harms the church, but either way culture contributes to how the church is defined and how Christians live.

When it comes to a Welsh cultural festival Christians must, as with so much of being ‘in the world,’ decide for themselves what to get involved in and how involved to get. We can’t avoid a day of the week named for Saturn in a month of the year named for Augustus, or an innocent but ultimately ‘unbiblical’ birthday celebration. We can be wise in our choices as we interact with our own cultures. As for the church in the world, Christianity has a history of ‘baptising’ pre-existing customs into the church, from Christmas, through Harvest Thanksgiving, to music and the way we dress.

What is important is that we are slow to judge, eager to learn, anxious to understand, wise and charitable in our judgements, and honouring to God and culture in our choices. A religious attitude doesn’t sanctify us any more than customs need desecrate.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Standing Firm and Staying Strong

I have been challenged a lot recently by the question of discipleship. Its a major theme as  we seek a way forward to maturity for my church and, as a leadership, we take seriously the oversight of the people in our care.

It isn’t easy being a Christian. The challenges are great as we strive to get along together with other Christians, people of God’s choosing and not ours. The sacrifices couldn’t be greater as we are called to die to ourselves and live to the Lord, being in but not of the world. We are not our own, but belong to another, and growing in our discipleship finds us almost daily having to choose a different path, rearrange our priorities, see the world quite differently to how our neighbours see it.

In our house group we recently looked at Paul’s exhortations in Philippians 4 and I think there is an example and a lesson here for us. He writes to two people in the Philippian church who had found a reason to quarrel and pleads with them to get along:

“I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, loyal yoke-fellow, to help these women who have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my fellow-workers, whose names are in the book of life.” (Philippians 4:2-3)

It has always popular to cast Paul as a misogynist but here, as in many other places in his letters, we find evidence to the contrary. He urges these women to get along not least because of who they are, and because of what they mean to him. These are women who have worked alongside Paul in the cause of the gospel, women he regards as “fellow-workers” in mission and church planting.

Sometimes we can forget who we are and revert to our old, worldly ways. When we do that we find our daily walk with God a struggle every step, our spiritual life suffers and, more to the point, we become ineffectual in ministry just like Euodia and Syntyche. Like these two women, we become a burden instead of a benefit. We can draw others into the orbit of our distractions, and the church becomes poorly served by us and them.

Paul goes on in the next few verses to describe the Christian life in which we are to:

Stand firm in the Lord (v.1)

Rejoice in the Lord – always (v.4)

Be gentle and not anxious (v.v.5-6)

Be thankful and prayerful (v.6)

Thinking about what is right and good (v.8)

Putting into practice what we learn (v.9)

Being content (v.11)

All this becomes a mountain to climb when our minds and hearts are focussed on ourselves. We don’t know what the quarrel between these women was about but Paul clearly felt it more than capable of being resolved and urged them to resolve it. They simply couldn’t go on in this way. There are times for everyone when we must put our work down and seek rest, refuge, when we must refocus, examine ourselves (2 Cor.13:5) remember who we are, what we are about.

Paul reminds us of these very things earlier in his letter, where he urges us to imitate Christ in his humility (Philip.2:1-11); continue to work out our salvation (Philip.2:12-13); having confidence in Christ alone (Philip.3:7-11), and to press on to the goal (Philip.3:12-15) which is:

“Our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ., who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious bodies. Therefore, my brothers, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, that is how you should stand firm in the Lord, dear friends!” (Philip.3:20-4:1)

We stand firm and stay strong in our Christian walk first by remembering who we are, citizens of a heavenly kingdom, subjects of a heavenly king who won for us that citizenship at great cost. By remaining firm in the knowledge that his power, a power that will bring everything under his control, is the same power that is daily making us fully fit for that heavenly citizenship; this work is the work of discipling, the work of the church in the life of the disciple.

Christians are not an audience come to appreciate the preacher, not customers come to test the service of the church. Christians are the church and the opportunity to serve is ours. In light of this vision, this reward surely we can stand firm and stay strong, overcoming every temptation to act like it’s all about me and agreeing with each other, “in the Lord.” As Paul wrote:

“Forgetting what is behind, and straining towards what is ahead, I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus.

All of us who are mature should take such a view.” (Philip.3:14-15)

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Understanding the Trinity

These notes are based on a sermon I preached recently at my own church. It was a privilege to be asked to speak on such an important subject and since the responses have been very kind and positive I thought it good to rearrange my notes into a blog post. It is normal to make certain assumptions when presenting such a message and on this occasion I assume the Bible to be our authority on all issues of life and faith. If you want to talk about why the Bible should be the final authority in these things please do get in touch and I will be happy to address that question.

Comprehending the Incomprehensible God

Incomprehension is the major objection to this teaching.”It doesn't make sense,” is what people say and you can understand their problem. The definition of the Trinity is that there is one God who exists in three ‘persons’ or ‘personalities’: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Each member is equal in nature and substance, each fully God. Yet there is one God.

How might I think about this that will help my comprehension and my faith? As we approach our subject lets be frank in laying down some fundamental Bible truths about God, his character, and our “knowing” him.

1. It is important to understand that God is a mystery. This is not an excuse trotted out every time a hard question is asked about the Christian faith, rather it is a function of God’s nature and ours; he is God and I am not and the implications of this are plain enough. Of course, there is much about God that we do know and understand because God, in His infinite grace, has chosen to reveal Himself to us, and our knowledge of him is revealed knowledge - revelation knowledge.

We don't find him, he reveals himself to us, through His creation, through prophets and, finally, and ultimately, through His Son (Romans 1:19-20; Hebrews 1:1-2). But however much we know, or think we know, it is well to remember that although, He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end” (Eccle.3:11)

Paul, in his letter to the Romans declared,

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgements, and his paths beyond tracing out! Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counsellor?” (Romans 11:33-34).

If there are things about God that we cannot understand we are in good company.

2. A point sometimes raised is that the word 'Trinity' is not itself found in the Bible. Neither is the word 'Atheism' found in the Bible but it is described where the psalmist declares “The fool has said in his heart, 'There is no God'.”' (Ps.14:1) Although the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch (Acts 11:26) the word 'Christianity,' is not found in the Bible. But 'Christianity' describes the faith held by Christians. Nor, indeed, is the word 'Bible' found in the Bible, but the 'Bible' is the record of God's dealings with his people throughout – the Bible. The presence or absence of words needn't be significant. What matters is whether the word describes something found in the Bible, and the word 'Trinity' describes the nature of the godhead as it is revealed in Scripture, and we will come to that.

3. The Christian doctrine of the Trinity is not, of itself, a test of saving faith. We are not saved by having a correct, orthodox and articulate understanding of the Trinity. We are saved through faith in Jesus Christ.

4. But that saving principle, faith in Jesus, illustrates how very important the Trinity doctrine really is  because it identifies Jesus. In several places in the New Testament we see Jesus worshipped and receiving worship. In John 20 we find Thomas falling at Jesus' feet and calling him, 'My Lord, and my God.' Jesus commends him for it and goes on to say that those who haven't seen him, yet believe as Thomas believed, are blessed indeed! (John 20:28-29) If Jesus is not fully God, if he is, as some insist, a creature then such faith as we exercise today amounts to idolatry.

5. Furthermore, we are not saved in ignorance. Becoming and being a Christian is much more than an exercise in thinking and reason, but it is not less than that. Paul tells us we are to be renewed in our minds (Eph.4:23) and everything in the New Testament urges us to be intelligent about our faith. We don't come to faith knowing so much but our walk of faith is meant to see us grow in the knowledge of God.

6. As we have already noted, God’s revelation of Himself unfolds as He reveals Himself through creation (Romans 1:19-20); through prophets, and finally through His Son (Hebrews 1: 1-2; John 14:9). To start then with the idea of the Trinity and work backwards is problematic because we can fall into the trap of reading things into Scripture instead of taking our doctrine from Scripture. By the same token, to say that we do not understand, and therefore it cannot be true, is also to read back into Scripture our conclusions instead of seeing what the Bible has to say. The Bible is, among many things, an historical document and history, especially the history of ideas, can only be properly understood read forwards.

To Begin at the Beginning

The New Testament writers and early church fathers did not have a complete and polished view, but they “discovered” the Trinity as they thought about the undeniable witness of Jesus’ life, ministry, death, burial and resurrection, and the claims He made for Himself. They had to come to terms with what it all means. If we start where they started and travel the same road of discovery we will likely arrive where they arrived. Lets see where they started.

In the Genesis account, God declares himself superior to the sun, moon, and stars that people foolishly worshipped by showing that he created them. There are no rivals for him, as the account of Genesis shows; “In the beginning God...” (Gen.1:1)

The Old Testament witness is fundamentally monotheistic, it teaches the oneness of God. Abraham was commanded to leave the polytheistic society of his father, the land of the Chaldeans that worshipped many gods, and follow the one true God (Gen.12:1-5)

When Moses brought down the mountain the code that the people of this one God, Israel, were to live by, that code begins with the command, “I am the LORD your God...you shall have no other God before me.” (Exodus 20:1-2)

Through the clear teaching of Isaiah God declares:

Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts: "I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god.

Who is like me? Let him proclaim it...have I not told you from of old and declared it? And you are my witnesses! Is there a God besides me?..I know not any." (Is.44:6-8)

In their daily prayer, Jews repeated the Shema Yisrael, the call to Israel to hear and affirm the confession of Deut.6:4, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.”

So a firm foundation of monotheism is established. It is important to understand this so that we grasp the true impact of Jesus on the society in which he ministered.

Jesus, the Clearest Revelation of God

What had those first Christians seen that could convince a stubbornly monotheistic people to believe in Jesus' divinity?

Speak to people today about Jesus and what they will likely remember is his radical teaching and his miracles. He healed the sick, raised the dead, cast out evil spirits. And the way he taught, as well as what he taught, is striking. There is more to the miracles than at first might be assumed, more to his claims than many realise. The Bible calls the miracles signs (John 20:30) Signs signify something and these signs are meant to signify who Jesus really is. We are meant to realise something, as we look at his life and ministry.

On more than one occasion Jesus' first disciples got entirely the wrong idea about this. At one of those times Jesus warned the disciples of the leaven, the influence, of the Pharisees, meaning the Pharisees' evil disposition. They thought he was upset because they had forgotten to bring bread for the journey. In exasperation, he said to his disciples:

Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember?

When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?" They said to him, "Twelve."

"And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?" And they said to him, "Seven."

And he said to them, "Do you not yet understand?" (Mk.8:18-21)

He had miraculously fed thousands. When was the last time thousands in a remote and barren place were fed by a miracle? Surely Israel in the Exodus, where God provided manna -“Having eyes, do you not see?”

He had power and authority to teach in a way that had never been seen before. Other teachers began, much as I do this morning, with referencing other authorities, Jesus declared, “But I say to you...” and it so impressed people they said, “What is this? A new teaching – and with authority!” – “Having ears do you not hear?”

Jesus had power and authority over sickness, whole crowds being healed at his touch (Mark 1:33-34)

He had power and authority over nature. We see this in his calming of the storm, which has much greater significance than many imagine. The sea in Jewish culture was a symbol of chaos, it was out of chaos that God brought the order of creation in the beginning, and here was Jesus bringing order out of chaos – Such was the impact on his disciples of seeing this that, Mark tells us, “They were terrified and asked each other, 'Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!'” (Mark 4:35-41)

Even more remarkable, Jesus had power and authority over death. When a synagogue ruler named Jairus pleaded with Jesus for his dying daughter's life, Jesus went to the man's home. She is already dead, they insisted, but Jesus simply took her hand and said, “Little girl, I say to you, get up.” Immediately, we are told, she got up and walked around (Mark 5:35-42) It is as easy for Jesus to raise someone from the dead as it is for us to rouse someone from sleep.

More remarkable yet, Jesus had authority to forgive sin. When the paralytic man was lowered through the roof by his friends so he could be healed by Jesus, Jesus' first words to him were, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Knowing the doubts of the religious leaders, their silent accusations of blasphemy, because God alone could forgive sin, Jesus said

Why are you thinking these things? Which is easier: to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven?' or to say, 'Get up, take your mat and walk?' But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins...” He said to the paralytic, 'I tell, you get up, take your mat and go home.' He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all.” (Mark 2:1-12) “Do you not yet understand?”

I tell you...” Did you notice that? Not, in the name of, or by this, that or the other authority but, “I tell you...” By what authority, in whose name was Jesus doing all these things? “I tell you...”

We see it time and again, when he heals the sick; raises the dead; drives out demons; forgives sins; declares himself Lord of God's Sabbath; when he insists that with his advent, “The kingdom of God is near.” (Mark 1:14-15) He speaks by his own authority!

But, most remarkable of all, Jesus makes the claim that he is able to command and send the Spirit of God to be with his disciples, “When the Counsellor comes, whom I will send to you, from the Father (there's a Trinitarian statement right there), the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me.” (John 15:26) The Spirit of God, in Scripture, is understood to be God in action. Jesus commands the Spirit!

The Spirit of God

Who is this Counsellor? Jesus in John 14 calls him “Another Counsellor” and the term here means another of the same kind. In other words, just as I have been with you so will he be in you. What will he do?

  1. He is a personal replacement for Jesus who is now in glory

  2. He is so united with the Father and the Son that he mediates them to us, just as Jesus had mediated the Father

  3. He glorifies the Son in his teaching, just as Jesus had glorified the Father

Here is the third member of the Trinity.

You Don't Explain the Trinity, You Realise Its Revelation.Black Swan

Nassim Taleb wrote a book entitled The Black Swan. He tells how Europeans had only ever known white swans and so concluded that all swans are white. The sighting of a black swan in newly discovered Australia presented a dilemma. If all swans were white then this wasn't a swan, but if this was a swan then not all swans are white. The question was, are we going to review our understanding of things in light of this revelation, or are we going to stubbornly insist all swans are white, and this swan isn't a swan at all?

In this respect, Jesus is a black swan. That is the nature of the challenge his life and ministry presented.

Some responded, crying, 'crucify!' while others said, 'My Lord, and my God.'

John begins his gospel with these words:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God...Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men.” (John 1:1-14)

Did you ever wonder how Jesus was able to so easily impart life? It is because, “In him was life…” This cannot be said of you, or me. Our lives depend on God, the giver of life. Jesus has life in himself and can impart it where he pleases.

The writer to the Hebrews put it like this:

In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.

After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs...

When God brings his firstborn into the world, he says, 'Let all God's angels worship him.' (Heb.1:1-6)

Jesus is “the exact representation of [God’s] being…” In other words, if you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus. Jesus is also worshipped by men and angels, and one day every knee will bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord (Philip.2:10-11) The question for us is not whether we fully comprehend the triune nature of God, but will we bend the knee now while it is still called today, while his mercy is still offered, and the choice is still ours, or will we bend the knee then when his full glory drives us to our knees, still rebellious and in our sin?

The Triunity of God

A better word for God, perhaps, is Triunity. It certainly more closely describes what we mean when we talk about the Trinity. But long before the word 'Trinity' was coined, Christians knew who Jesus was. And the implications for them and us are profound, reaching into eternity.

Because of who he is we can trust him when he says our sins are forgiven, because it is God the Son pronouncing our blessed state, acceptable before the throne because of Calvary.

Because of who he is we can trust that he walks with us today through this life, because it is God the Holy Spirit that walks with us and dwells in us.

Because of who he is we can trust him with all the tomorrows God the Father graciously grants and when there are no more tomorrows we can trust him with our death, resurrection, and eternity.

People struggle with the Trinity because we are creatures and God is Creator, and we will never fully comprehend his nature. But he has revealed that he is a God of order, of community, a God of Justice, a God of love and mercy, and the clearest expression of his wonderful character is found in Jesus, the closest communion we have with him is in the companionship of his Spirit, and it is in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit that we are baptised into that new life with our triune God.

Friday, 4 July 2014

Rolf Harris and a World Lost Forever?

Rolf_HarrisI talked today to a friend who spoke of his bitter disappointment at the news of Rolf Harris’ conviction for unspeakable sex offences against youngsters, and of the earlier news of Stewart Hall’s offences. I know how he feels. As we take in news of Rolf Harris’ spectacular downfall it hardly seems possible, and its difficult to take in what has happened. Why is it that for a generation this has come as, not just a shock, but almost a sense of personal loss? There has been talk of Harris’ naturally avuncular style, his warm smile and friendly demeanour. We are naturally horrified to discover the dark side of this pleasant man. Who would not be at seeing such a Jekyll and Hyde character emerge from behind such a pleasing image? Is it, then, simply the realisation that his image has deceived us as we see the ‘real man’ behind the mask?

We have seen the reputations of a number of popular celebrities come crashing down, from Gary Glitter, through Stewart Hall, to Jimmy Saville, and now Rolf Harris.Others have been arrested, questioned, but never prosecuted. They are all of a type in one respect in that they come from a particular time in our history. Is there something about a certain generation that has produced these characters that have proved too good to be true? Why are, or were, these celebrities so important in the lives of so many people? The great majority would never have met them and certainly could never claim to know them except as they appeared on our television screens.

These days people are so divided into their cultural tribes they surely wouldn’t understand the word ‘community’ as it was understood back then. There was a time in this world when there were but two TV channels, BBC and ITV. Then, in 1964, came a third, BBC2 bringing what was regarded as high culture as a counterpoint to the popular culture of the day. These days no one could command the astronomical viewing figures enjoyed by successful entertainers back then. Just about everyone watched the most popular shows, from the Christmas specials of Morecambe and Wise, drawing audiences of 27 million in 1977, to Coronation Street, regularly pulling in audiences of 18million to 21 million in the 1970s. I could walk down a street where I lived on a Monday, or Wednesday evening at 7.30pm and from just about every house hear Eric Spear’s familiar, haunting theme for Coronation Street.

In work the next day “did you see…last night” inevitably drew  a lot of comment from the majority who could be relied upon to have seen the latest twists and turns in the country’s favourite dramas, comic capers from the country’s best loved entertainers, performances from the country’s most admired pop stars. Back then there still existed a strong sense of community. Although the advent of affordable TV rental plans inevitably drew people indoors where once they shared their own street dramas, when folk came out again they talked about the latest show, or episode from the goggle-box in the corner of the room.

It was into this community that a certain generation of entertainers came. It wasn’t tribal, it was federal. They entered most homes, were seen on most TV’s, and their catchphrases were on most lips – Evenin’ all; Oi’ll give it foive; her indoors; I’m in charge; you dirty old man; can you tell what it is yet? And most families and communities were ‘complicit’ in accepting them and making them what they became. It wasn’t that Rolf Harris was the favourite uncle figure for some, but that he was that for most. These people were not only part of my culture but integral to the culture of a whole country for a whole generation.

The_Rovers_Return,_Coronation_Street_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1265014This, I suggest is where that real sense of personal loss, that, “he was part of my childhood and growing up,” response comes from. Its that shared experience we all still had as a community, before this multi-channel, techy,tribal madness changed the world forever. My childhood without Rolf Harris is unthinkable, almost like my childhood without my family, my friends, Sunday dinners, Saturday Grandstand, Its a Knockout, Top of the Pops, Coronation Street, Z-Cars, Friday night at the chippie, 99s, Mivi lollipops, Mother’s Pride, Bisto, 2d back on every empty bottle, and the sense that it was our world and we all owned it together.

Perhaps we were over-confident, too innocent, too ready to believe the chimera that stood before us, unwilling to even imagine that Rolf Harris was capable of such things. We like the bad guys to wear black hats and be bad guys. We tell ourselves we are better than them. We like the good guys to wear white hats and be good guys. We tell ourselves these are men after our own hearts and aspire to be like them. We all like to think we know what is what, think that we are on the side of the angels. Now the illusion is shattered, and the ground shifts under us, we search for answers. How could this be? Why were we taken in? what am I supposed to think about this? We don’t want ultimate answers designed to make us wiser, more knowing about our world, that might come too close to home. We want answers that will put us back in that place of white hats and black hats. But that world doesn’t exist, it never did. Jesus makes clear why these things happen:

"What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person." (Mark 7:20-23)

G K Chesterton famously remarked, “What is wrong with the world? I am wrong with the world!”

We are all wearing black hats and comparing ourselves favourably with those that are more obviously villainous does not in any measure absolve us of our coveting, slandering, gossiping, envying, lusting, foolishness…

We have a heart problem.

The good news is God has done something about it in sending Jesus to fix our heart problem. When Jesus came on the scene 2,000 years ago he said, “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15)

The challenge is that we must recognise how bad the bad news is. All that we see and despise in this world of corruption, the lies, selfishness, violence, sexual immorality, is the product of men’s hearts. Since we are the problem we cannot fix things no matter how we try, and people try hard. We are lost on every level unless someone steps in and saves us from ourselves. That someone is Jesus. Do you really think we can manage without him? We might do what most people do at such times and try to ‘go back,’ tell ourselves these things are anomalies in a world of otherwise great people, our world, our familiar world of black hats and white hats. But this has happened before, will happen again, so how bad does it have to get before we stop lying to ourselves?

As we pan out and look at the wider scene we find it is much worse than the downfall of a family entertainer of fifty years. Andy Coulson, former No.10 press officer, is jailed for heinous and unforgivable crimes to do with systematic phone hacking for the Murdoch press, justice is robbed and lives are blighted. Another of the prime minister’s advisers, Patrick Rock, is on trial for making and distributing pornographic images of children. There is talk about a paedophile ring in Westminster in the 1980s, and a dossier of evidence is said to be missing.

Further afield again we find the former French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, under investigation for alleged influence-peddling, a teacher in France is inexplicably stabbed by a mother in front of infants, teenagers from both sides of the conflict are being kidnapped and murdered in Jerusalem and Palestine, Christians are being crucified in Syria, and the self-proclaimed “caliph” of Iraq/Syria is threatening to march on Rome for Islam. This world needs a Saviour…

Rome was dubbed “The Eternal City” because of its remarkable longevity, and when it fell to the Visigoths in the fifth century, Romans were left in a deep state of shock. Their world, like ours, seemed to be falling apart. How could this happen? they asked. Some saw it as a punishment for abandoning traditional Roman religions for Christianity. In this atmosphere Augustine of Hippo wrote his seminal work, The City of God Against the Pagans. In it he argued that history was a conflict between the City of Man and the City of God, and it is the latter that will ultimately win. Why mourn for Rome, he argued, when it is the spiritual city of God that is the victor and the dwelling place of all who trust in Christ?

Jesus said, “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!”

Rolf Harris is responsible for his destructive decisions, Andy Coulson for his, but what about me? Will I recognise at last that the world is the way it is, not because of people like Rolf Harris and Andy Coulson, but because of people with a heart problem – people like me? Am I going to respond to the good news Jesus brings, stop looking back at imagined halcyon days of youth, a more innocent age that never was, and repent, ask him to fix my heart, give me citizenship in his city, his kingdom? He is the light of the world, why on earth would we want to walk in darkness a moment longer?

Friday, 30 May 2014

On Being Disciples: Jesus and a New Humanity

Previously we saw that a disciple follows and emulates the life and teaching of the master. That disciples are called for God’s purpose and that purpose has to do with the establishment and extension of God’s kingdom. Today we consider the miracle of regeneration that achieves this end and the observable and evidential difference this makes in every disciple and in the church, the community of Christian believers.

In a wonderful chapter of John’s gospel in which Jesus comforts his disciples, that in seeing him they are seeing the Father, that in knowing him they know the way to the Father, that the Holy Spirit would come and be their constant companion, “another Counsellor,” another like Jesus who would indwell them and walk with them through this world, in the midst of this intimate discourse Jesus declares:

“Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves. Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater things than these will he do, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14:11-12 ESV)

It is an astonishing promise and we must come to terms with it if we are to be true disciples. Some like to make this verse about miracles, gifts of the Spirit. There is no mention specifically of miracles here and the NIV is unhelpful when it translates ergon as miracles. The word translates “works, toil, labour” not miracles, and refers to all that Jesus had done.

Jesus ‘works’ are much broader than miraculous acts, including all his activities of teaching, praying, evangelism, reaching out to the disenfranchised, sharing the travails of the suffering, deeds of mercy and compassion (Mt.25:34-46) doing his Father’s will (Jn.4:34) This is the evidence that he is sent by God (Jn.5:36; Jn.17:4) and this includes miracles (Jn.17:4)

Jesus is comparing his limited to one short lifetime ministry to the on-going ministry of the church across generations. We see this worked out already at Pentecost (Acts 2:41) He is talking about the whole ministry, of the whole church to the whole world. In this, believers will do greater things by imitating his ministry. But how is a fallen humanity going to achieve this?

The New Adam

What did Jesus do that we should do greater? He walked the earth the new Adam. The New Testament leader Paul explains that because of the disobedience of the first Adam sin and death entered our world. But Christ is the new Adam and brings salvation and life, through faith in him. (Rom.5:12-21)

Jesus deals with this issue in his conversation with Nicodemus in John’s gospel.

Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him." 
Jesus answered him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God."
Nicodemus said to him, "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?"
Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.  Do not marvel that I said to you, 'You must be born again.'
The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."
Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things be?"
Jesus answered him, "Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

‘Born-again” isn’t a brand name, isn’t a denominational tag, it isn’t simply a term that identifies those who have decided to follow Jesus and clean up their act. Such people may impress others but they are not Christians in the biblical sense. Don Carson, in his excellent book The God Who Is There describes it like this:

“To talk about the new birth as if it is primarily a metaphor for a specific religious commitment is slightly bizarre. The child about to be born does not make a commitment to come out of his mother’s womb. As far as I know, it is the other doing all the work and pushing the little tyke out. The source of new birth comes from the parents. New birth language is strangely chosen if it is primarily referring to the commitment of the one so born.” (The God Who is There, D. Carson, Baker Books, 2010)

As Carson goes on to point out, it is not a question of whether Jesus was to bring the kingdom, but of whether we qualify to enter it. Any honest person will admit, given the lives we live, the compromises we make, the bargains we strike with circumstances no one qualifies, and all the talk in the world about wiping the slate clean doesn’t cut it, doesn’t deal with reality. We’ve gone wrong and we can’t go back.

Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote, “"Ah, for a man to arise in me, That the man I am may no longer be.”

But there is no such man, is there? Nicodemus cannot see how there could be but Jesus insists there must be.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?"
Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.
(Jn.3:3-5)

…otherwise we can neither see nor enter the kingdom of God.

To be “born of water and the Spirit” is to be born again. Jesus chides Nicodemus for not understanding this and, as a scholar, a teacher of Israel, he should have understood Jesus’ teaching as a fulfilment of the prophecy of Ezekiel:

“I will give you an new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statures and be careful to obey my rules.” (Ez.36:26-27)

This is an act of God! “I will give you a new heart…a new spirit…I will put my Spirit within you, and [I will] cause you to walk in my statutes…”

To be born again is to be regenerated, transformed, made that man Tennyson writes about. Such a man, or woman, is distinguishable from unbelievers by a changed life and lifestyle. We must walk in this world as new creatures born again into God's family, descendants of the new Adam, a new human race. We are to be a peculiar people, with new hearts and spirits, holy and righteous before our God, as the first Adam was to be.

A New Humanity

It is as this new people of God that we are to love God, our neighbour, each other and go out telling the good news of what Christ has done and what God is doing in the world, and make disciples. Evangelism and discipleship aren't optional extras in the life of a Christian but integral to being a disciple.

Jesus promised, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments, and I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of Truth...” (John 14:15-17)

Another Helper means, literally, another of the same kind, so having the Spirit in your life is like having Jesus alongside you as a discipler. This is how it is achieved. What is achieved?

In that day [when you see me] you will know that I am in the Father, and you in me, and I in you.” John 14:20

That sounds like the way it was at the beginning, doesn't it? Unity within the godhead and unity between the godhead and creation? What does it look like when we are doing it? Paul, in his letter to the Colossians, gives us a start when he writes:

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” (Col.3:1-4)

Having died to ourselves and been raised with Christ, we are now citizens of another kingdom altogether, the kingdom of God. Our new hearts and minds will be set on the progress, the service of that kingdom and in this way they become capable of loving with all our hearts, souls, mind and strength, because they are heavenly hearts, heavenly minds.

The Master

What do we see when we set our hearts and minds on things above? We see Christ sitting on the right hand of God. We see the One to whom we are apprenticed:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created; things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (Col.1:15-19)

Take a breath for a moment, take another look at that powerful description of Jesus and consider this: you did not chose him, he chose you. Astonishing, isn't it? So now we have our eyes on him we need never, dare not take them off him again because he is the way (Jn.14:16) and he is the light (Jn.1:1-4) Jesus is the truth lived out and demonstrated for the world to see and we are the living evidence that this is so.

The Disciple

The original disciples spent a lot of time with Jesus and eventually were also sent to live out the truth among the people the way Jesus did, to do greater things. So the way to be a disciple is to have our eyes on Jesus and follow him, like an apprentice following and copying the master strokes of the craftsman and live as children of the light in a darkened world. Paul describes this way of learning by copying in this passage:

For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake. You became imitators of us and of the Lord; in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with joy given by the Holy Spirit. And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia.” (1 Thess.1:5-7)

Did you get that? You know you have been chosen by God when your faith is worked out in power and conviction and the indwelling Spirit. If you are a disciple you will imitate the mature lives of others and of the Lord and you will , in turn, become an example to others. Furthermore, this life of fixing our eyes on Jesus, imitating him and the good examples of others brings us peace. “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.” (Philip.4:9)

Disciples of Jesus spend time with Jesus and encourage one another in the things of the kingdom (Acts 2:42-47) Discipleship is not a solitary enterprise but is practised in community. That is why we need to learn to love one another. We are going to spend eternity together and we will spend it in the kingdom of God so we had better learn to love. The sooner we set our hearts and minds there the better prepared we will be for his coming and for that time when nothing will ever again get in the way of our knowing and worshipping him, knowing the kingdom of God among us.

The miracle of the gospel is not that God brings order to a disordered society but that God creates anew a society of saved people, disciples, out of the confusion of the lost. Who wouldn't want to be a disciple in such an enterprise, to such a Saviour?

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

On Being Disciples: Jesus and Kingdom

In my last post, Being Disciples: Jesus and Me?, we learned that a disciple is defined as much by the company he keeps as the ideas he embraces.  That learning, for a disciple, includes practice as well as theory. That Jesus chose us for his purposes and the ‘Jesus and me’ tone that pervades the church is misleading, damaging, and wrong. If Jesus didn’t come to be my life coach - and he didn’t - then why did he come?

The Kingdom

The public ministry of Jesus begins with the clear and unequivocal message, “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mk.1:15 NIV)

In another place Jesus was asked about the kingdom of God, and replied, “The kingdom of God is among you...” (Luke 17:21 ESV) Some translations (NIV, NCV, KJV) have, “The kingdom of God is within you.”  But this doesn't make sense in the context, i.e. he is speaking to the Pharisees. The ESV and the NASB translate correctly, “the kingdom of God is among you,” in your midst, within your reach, right here where the king is.

The kingdom of God is the central theme of Jesus’ teaching, and his whole person and ministry can only be understood in terms of the kingdom.

Jesus set himself up a rival authority to the Jewish Law. For example, in Mark 2:23-28 when his disciples were criticised for plucking and eating corn on the Sabbath Jesus defended himself by giving the example of King David (1 Sam.212:1-6). The point, however, is not that his disciples were doing what David’s men did, but that the Messianic king that David’s reign foreshadowed was here among them. If David could set himself above the Law how much more could Jesus?

When quizzed about divorce in Mark 10:2-12  Jesus didn’t argue the finer points of the Law but appealed to God’s original intention in the Creation narrative, that marriage was the union of one man and one woman for a lifetime. Jesus made it clear that his priority was the renewal of creation according to God’s original purposes.

This was the day so many had longed to see but that was now here (Mt.13:16-17; Lk.10:23) and it is marked by Jesus’ exercising kingdom authority over sickness, death and evil spirits. Peter declares that his “healing of all who were under the power of the devil” was a sign that God was with Jesus (Acts 10:38)

Jesus, answering the disciples of John the Baptist, declared that the miracles and the preaching of the kingdom are living proclamations that the long-awaited king has come (Lk.7:22)

A kingdom is where a king rules and a member of that kingdom lives by the laws and principles of that kingdom to serve the king's purposes. By extension, the kingdom of God is wherever God rules and reigns and, if he rules and reigns in and among us then that is where the kingdom is. If we are Christians then the kingdom of God is among us and the king has chosen us for his purposes. So, if we are chosen disciples for his purpose, what is his purpose?

Church as Community

When God made mankind in the beginning, “...he blessed them and said to them, 'Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and...rule...” Genesis 1:28 gives us a picture of God's plan from the beginning. It speaks of community, growth and stewardship.

Later, in Gen. 2:24 we read, “a man shall leave his father and his mother and be united to his wife...” so we learn of family, father, mother, children, wife, husband. Earlier in Gen.2:1 we are told that creation was completed in and by the establishment of this community in correct relationship. It is a simple arrangement with God as Creator, mankind as his steward, charged with caring for the world as we grow and establish community and as God rules and walks among us (Gen.2:8)

Genesis 3:4-5 tells us how this all began to fail when mankind chose to change the order of things and make themselves god of their own lives. We read:

When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable in gaining wisdom, she took it and ate.” You see, the serpent had promised that by eating the fruit mankind would, “be like God, knowing good and evil.”

To “know good and evil” in these verses doesn't mean a fall from na├»ve innocence, as though they didn’t know right from wrong until they did wrong. That would be perverse and unjust. Rather, it is a conscious decision to ignore God's command and determine what is good and evil for themselves. To “be like God” and judge good and evil; “I know what God says, but I think…”

God knows good and evil as an omniscient being, knowing everything; man's knowledge is finite, a subset of God's knowledge. To set ourselves up as judge from such a position is fatal. We are living with the consequences to this day but we are so used to me being the measure of all things we don't notice.

In the 17th century the French philosopher Rene Descartes tried to find a fundamental statement, an irreducible truth with which everyone, Christian, Muslim, Jew, Secularist, could agree. He came up with, “I think, therefore I am.” Can you see why a Christian can't agree with that statement? “I think, therefore I am.” This is the original sin, making me the measure of all things. A disciple of Jesus doesn't begin with, “I think...” or, “I feel...” A disciple of Jesus understands, God is, therefore I am. God knows everything and is in the perfect place to be the judge and measure of all things; that is how it was meant to be.

God’s Plan

Genesis 12 tells us that God began to put this right by calling a man named Abram out of the rebellious world and into a relationship with God. “The LORD said to Abram, 'Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to a land I will show you. I will make you a great nation and I will bless you. I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing...and all the people on the earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:1-3)

In effect, this was a family for God again. Hold onto that thought.

In Exodus we read of how that family, now grown to great size, indeed a nation as God had promised, is called out of slavery in Egypt and led by Moses to a land God has prepared for them. In effect, this is a people, a community for God, and God made plain his purposes,

“You yourselves have seen what I did in Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles wings and brought you to myself...Although the whole earth is mine, you will be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:4-6) In other words a kingdom for God.

Through Moses God gives them the commandments, effectively saying, “This is how a called-out people of God live in relation to God and to each other.” You see, the choosing of Abraham begins with God. The calling out of Israel from Egypt begins with God. Abraham was the father of nations because of God. Israel were a people because God made them a people. As in the Creation, God is the prime mover here.

In the rest of the Old Testament story we see these people of God rebelling and then returning to him. God sent prophets to warn them, guide them, speak to them for God. But God had promised Abraham, long before, that through him and his people all the kingdoms of the earth would be blessed, through his seed (Gen.12:7)

This promise begins to be fulfilled in the gospels as Jesus, the seed of Abraham, arrives on the scene. Paul explains it this way in his letter to the Galatians:

“The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. The Scripture does not say ‘and to seeds,’ meaning many people, but, ‘and to your seed,’ meaning one person, who is Christ.” (Gal.3:15-16)

That one person, Christ, declared he had come, “to preach good news to the poor...to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the Lord's favour.” (Luke 4:18-19)

Those held captive to sin, to me-centredness, because of man's rebellion in the beginning are to be freed. He died for your sins and mine so that, through faith in him “we” might be saved. You see, though we are saved individually, we are saved into community, family, the family of God; this is the church.

Disciples go where Jesus tells them, see Jesus at work in the world and worship him, struggle and doubt but trust Jesus, not letting doubts stop them; disciples are a work in progress, working in partnership, being discipled and discipling others. All to the end that God's purposes in making us disciples are fulfilled in the extension of his kingdom rule in this world.

That work goes on daily, but secretly, in people’s hearts and minds. Just like a seed growing in secret, whether we sleep or get up, (Mk.4:26-29) so the kingdom extends its borders until that last day when all will recognise his kingly rule (Philip. 2:9-11) Just like a mustard seed that seems so small and insignificant, the kingdom will grow to great size unobserved except by those working for the good of the kingdom.

Similarly, just as the growth of a seed to a great tree is elemental, something with which man has nothing to do, so the kingdom grows by the power of God and we will look at that. Some Christians have only a vague idea of the purposes of God beyond our being saved by grace and looking forward to a heavenly home prepared for us by Jesus. But our place in God’s plan is so much more and next time I will look at Jesus and the new humanity.

Previously:

1. On being Disciples: Jesus and Me?

Friday, 23 May 2014

On Being Disciples: Jesus and Me?

The New Penguin Dictionary (an excellent dictionary I heartily recommend) defines disciple as, ‘a person who learns from, and is much in the company of, a teacher or instructor…’ It goes on to say, ‘any of the followers of Christ during his lifetime…’

The key for our purpose is, ‘much in the company of.’ A disciple is defined as much by the company he keeps as the ideas he embraces. Furthermore, disciples don’t just agree with a set of ideas from their favourite teacher, they emulate that teacher, putting into practice all they see of that teacher’s life. Clearly, learning, for a disciple, includes practice as well as theory.

This is illustrated by the example of the pupils in the music school of the Temple in the Old Testament, “The number of them along with their brothers, who were trained in singing to the LORD, all who were skilful, was 288. And they cast lots for their duties, small and great, teacher and pupil alike.” (1 Chron.25:7-8, ESV)

Another notable Old Testament example is that of Isaiah who, recognising that his message had been rejected by his people, determined to entrust it to a band of followers:

“Bind up the testimony and seal up the law among my disciples. I will wait for the LORD, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob. I will put my trust in him.” (Is.8:16-17)

The parallel between Isaiah’s disciples and the disciples of Jesus is striking. Disciples are entrusted with the prophetic truth of God and are responsible for its preservation, proclamation and application.

Some other notable biblical disciples are, Joshua who was discipled by Moses; Elisha who learned his craft from Elijah; Timothy who learned from Paul. Then, of course, there were the disciples of John the Baptist.

Disciples are not confined to the Bible. Discipleship was commonplace in the ancient world, for example,  Socrates, Plato and Aristotle had their followers. Disciples chose who they would follow so if you were drawn to a materialist philosophy you might follow an Epicurean teacher. If you were searching for a philosophy that taught clear judgement and inner calm you might seek out a Stoic teacher.

Jesus and Me?

In this respect what made Jesus stand out was his statement:

You did not chose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit...” (Jn.15:16)

What we make of this statement, typically, is that he chose me, personally, as though it is all about me. We use phrases like, my personal Saviour. We sing songs with words like, My Jesus, my Saviour. There is an unhealthy preoccupation with personal pronouns as we imagine Jesus somehow ‘coming through for me.’ There is a ‘Jesus and me’ tone pervading much of Christian thinking today.

We are familiar with the thought expressed as“God has a plan for your life.” We sometimes hear people quote Jeremiah, “’I know the plans I have for you,’declares the LORD, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” (Jer.29:11)

Well, here goes a sacred cow to slaughter. God doesn't have a plan for your life. Too many Christians hang on to this misunderstood promise in the way children wait for Santa on Christmas eve. Too many name-it-and-claim-it frauds build up false and worldly hopes in naive people on the basis of such thinking. But God doesn’t have a plan for your life. Rather, God has a plan and your life fits into it for his purposes.

Sometimes God’s  plan will require something very specific for you, concerning your career, your calling, your life-partner, even where you live. Missionaries of all kinds are called to spread the gospel further afield over many years of sacrifice and service; church leaders are called to work locally, giving up worldly ambitions to serve the church in key roles; volunteers are called to serve in various ways in the church and community.

However, God doesn't always have a specific plan but simply wants you to be obedient. If you marry you should marry well, meaning marrying a Christian, you should work hard, raise a family, and do all things to the glory of God and, by the way, sometimes he uses you in a particular way. Otherwise simply live for him wisely and faithfully. In other words, since Jesus chose us for his purposes it is not about me and my bespoke life plan, but about Jesus and my faithfulness and obedience to his plan.

Next time I will look at what is God’s plan and how we fit into it.