Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Power, Authority and Historical Perspective–Ascension

In the last post we began to look at how Jesus, before his ascension, prepared the disciples for the task of taking the gospel “to the end of the earth.” He offered them, many convincing proofs that he was alive.” (Acts 1:3); He opened their minds to understand Scripture, giving them a biblical theology; He promised to send the Holy Spirit, giving them a spiritual dimension. To continue:

    4. He sent them out with power and authority. Paul Preaching

Jesus gave them authority to speak about all they had seen and heard him do. Here we have apostolic authority and an evangelistic programme. Our remit is to faithfully pass on the account of what the apostles saw and testified to. These are the people who can declare down through history,

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life...that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you.” (1 John 1:1-3)

These men are described in Acts 4 when they are brought before the Jewish authorities to account for having healed a beggar and preached Christ. “By what power or in what name did you do this?” they are asked. Peter replied, “It is in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed.”

The Bible then says, “When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realised that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.” (4:13)

Wesley PreachingWe are not free to make the message in the image of our own impressions no matter how much cleverer, better educated we think we are, or how well developed our theology. There is no “that was then, this is now” dynamic in this story. What they saw and heard, what they testified to, we are charged to faithfully pass on. The writer of Hebrews wrote:

We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. For if the message spoken by angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?

This salvation which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will. (Heb.2:1-4)

    5. They had been with Jesus and he had shown them his glory.

Having prepared them, taught them, empowered and commissioned them, Jesus showed them his glory. He was taken up from them and, we are told, a cloud took him out of their sight. But this was no ordinary cloud, no cumulus from the weather map, but a cloud of glory. The important thing about the ascension story is not the question of whether heaven is somehow “up there,” but about the fact that Jesus returned to his former glory, God left the scene in physical form and was to come to believers in spiritual form. Finally, we are told:Ascension - Rembrandt

They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. 'Men of Galilee,; they said, 'why do you stand there looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:10-11)

It is possible to be too earthly minded to be any heavenly good, but we can also be too heavenly minded to be any earthly good.  While there is nothing wrong with the prayer, “Come, Lord Jesus!” nevertheless we must be about the business before us. Some ask why it is we don’t have continuous mountain top experiences. It is because the work is in the valley and, like the disciples, we must return from the mountain top of whatever special experience God has been pleased to give us and get on with things, find a gospel focus. We can find that focus if we get these things into historical context:

  1. Jesus returned to heaven (Ascension)

  2. The Holy Spirit came (Pentecost)

  3. The Church goes out to witness (Mission)

  4. Jesus will come back (Parousia)

We are in the mission phase of God’s great plan for the redemption of creation and mission and discipleship is our focus until king Jesus comes to sum up the whole cosmos in himself. When the disciples returned from the Mount of Olives we are told, “They all joined together constantly in prayer...” We do not worship the book, nor do we adhere to the dead accounts of past events, but we treasure the account preserved for us and faithfully transmitted to our time. It is our task to prayerfully and faithfully pass it on until he comes.

Previously: To the End of the Earth – Ascension

Jesus Prepares his Disciples – Ascension

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Jesus Prepares His Disciples–Ascension

In the last post we saw Jesus give his disciples a task that would see the known civilised world hear about Jesus by the end of the century and Christianity become the official religion of empire within 300 years. How did Jesus prepare them for such a work?Caravaggio_emmaus

  1. He showed himself to them. Jesus' post-resurrection appearances were not simply magic tricks but were vital in presenting evidence of the reality of the resurrection. Luke describes these appearances as , “many convincing proofs that he was alive.” (Acts 1:3)

Paul tells us “he appeared to [Peter] then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time...Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared to me also.” (1 Cor:15:5-8)

During these times, we’re told, “He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom.” (Acts 1:3) These were his parting instructions and what the disciples passed on to others, to us, are the words of Jesus.

Have you ever wondered why Jesus ascended the way he did? He had been appearing and disappearing miraculously for forty days. Why didn't he just go and not come back? I suggest it is because he wanted their focus to change. They were not to wait around for his next resurrection appearance but were to wait for the Holy Spirit.

“On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: ‘Do not leave Jerusalem but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptised with water, but in a few days you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit.’” (Acts 1:4-5)

God had been with them for three years in the person of Jesus but now it is by the Holy Spirit that God was to dwell in his people. It is interesting to step back and take a panoramic view of Luke’s account. Luke began with the temple in his gospel, with the story of Zechariah, and now he ends his gospel story with the promise of a new, living temple. A temple indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Paul writes,

Don't you know that you yourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit lives in you?(1 Cor.3:16)

The Spirit would to come to make the church, the people of God, a living temple. Luke brings the church onto the scene with a clear picture of what church is; a blood-bought, Spirit-filled, kingdom-motivated new humanity. There are huge things of eternal consequence happening here. It is these great truths to which the disciples are witnesses to the ends of the earth. John wrote,

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life...that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you.” (1 John 1:1-3)

I wonder if we value as we should these first eye-witness accounts? Every time we read them they witness to us again.

2. He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, explaining that all that had happened was a fulfilment of what had been prophesied in the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms.  We see him do this with the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:45-46)

Pocket Bible ElectronicHere we see Jesus cutting across their confusion over recent events and developing a biblical theology; it is written. Jesus peppered his teaching with “it is written” How can we be sure this message is true? Because God promised it of old, Jesus fulfilled it when the time was right, the disciples witnessed it and we are commissioned to tell the good news of it in the same power of the Holy Spirit and with the same biblical and apostolic authority; it is written.

His commissioning words to the disciples, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” apply to us and the message we are sent to proclaim is what is written by them, the message of Scripture. Every truth claim is brought to the plumb-line of God's written word. Every proclamation of God's word should be firmly rooted in Scripture and every promise on which we stand is found in the Bible and fulfilled in the wonderful events the Bible describes.

3. He sent his Holy Spirit, giving us a spiritual dynamic. What we have to share with the world isn't simply dry words, speculative philosophy, ink on paper, but the preaching of the Word is accompanied by the work of the Holy Spirit that convicts sinners, changes hearts, forms new minds, makes a people new in Christ.Holy Spirit

When someone comes under the preaching of the word and finds themselves convicted by what they hear it is not the persuasive power of the preacher but the work of the Spirit that has brought conviction. When someone acts on that conviction and is moved to turn to Jesus the preaching informs them but it is the Spirit that moves them. When they confess their need of a Saviour and are born again it is the work of the Spirit not of the preacher.

When people challenge, “Where is this Saviour who is supposed to come again? Where is your God?” we can reply that God already dwells in his people by the power of the Holy Spirit. He has not left us orphans; we don't operate in his absence. The Bible speaks of the Spirit's power in Christians to witness effectively, for victory over sin, over Satan, and power to work miracles.

We will look again at power and authority and discover where we fit in this great scheme to redeem all creation and bring all things under one head, king Jesus.

Previously: To the End of the Earth – Ascension

Monday, 21 May 2012

To the End of the Earth–Ascension

AscensionThe pivotal point of history is the resurrection of Jesus. Everything that went before led up to this one defining event and all that comes after is viewed in light of it. The hope of the ages is realised in the sacrificial death and triumphant resurrection of Jesus. For every person looking for identity, purpose and hope the Cross and the empty tomb offer the answer. The apostle Paul wrote to Christians in Corinth:

I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures … (1 Cor. 15:3-5)

He goes on in this same passage to declare that, “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” (1 Cor.15:14) We may quibble over some points of doctrine and there will be secondary issues but if this isn't true, if Christ is not risen and only in this life we have hope, we are, Paul writes, “of all men to be pitied.” (1 Cor.15:19)

And to the Ephesian believers Paul sums up God's great plan in this way:

In the king, and through his blood, we have deliverance – that is, our sins have been forgiven – through the wealth of his grace which he lavishes on us. Yes, with all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the secret of his purpose, just as he wanted it to be and set it forward in him as a blueprint for when the time was ripe. His plan was to sum up the whole cosmos in the king, - yes, everything in heaven and on earth in him. (Eph.1:7-10 Tom Wright, New Testament for Everyone)

So – What Next?

There is a plan and it is founded on that great work done on the cross of Calvary and the power demonstrated by an empty tomb. It is summed up in God's purpose to renew everything in King Jesus. So what happens next?

When it comes to the ascension we can treat it as a high point in what is otherwise a sort of hiatus, the time we are marking between the miracle of the resurrection and the drama of Pentecost. Nothing more than a signal in the story that Jesus has now gone back to glory, a waiting time. Indeed Jesus did say “Wait in Jerusalem until the promised Holy Spirit comes.”

But so much more happened in the days leading up to Pentecost, indeed a full ten days before Pentecost the church already had been given an assurance of power to act, an authority to speak, a mandate to go, and a clear Bible message to share; clear teaching about “what next.”

I wonder how big is your vision of God's plan?

After all they had seen and heard the disciples' vision was still too small. As they stood with him on the Mount of Olives they asked Jesus “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” They were still thinking of a military and political restoration such as had happened before, when invaders had been repelled, when God's people brought back from exile once again inhabited the land free and unmolested. Jesus' answer tells us two things:

  1. It is not for you to know times and seasons.” How often have these simple but clear words been overlooked in some complicated scheme that plots days and weeks, months and years, and arrives at a date for the end of the world, only for the day to pass unremarked except for more embarrassing headlines about failed prophecy and wacky preachers? It is not for us to know but it is for us to turn to the business in hand. So what are we to do until that great day comes when he returns?

  2. You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my the end of the earth.” The vision is much bigger than physical Israel.It was not about a plot of land in the Middle East, a discrete people group.  This was a greater vision than they could possibly have imagined. It encompasses the restoration of the whole of creation – to the end of the earth.

After the events of the Mount on Olives, the ascension, the disciples returned to Jerusalem we are told. And in an upper room just 120 of them met together, talked about recent events and prayed.

Today there are between 2.2billion and 2.6billion people in the world who self-identify as Christians. If you are fortunate to live in a free country you may be aware of many different churches in your town or city. Your own church, you know, is just one of countless churches around the world.

Put yourself in that upper room. Imagine a disparate group of people with no money, no influence, indeed considered outcasts after their leader had suffered an ignoble execution on a Roman cross. The fact of the resurrection would surely have given you incredible confidence, the promise of the Holy Spirit instilled great hope. But – to the end of the earth?

Are you ready for that, people most of whom had never left Israel? So unfamiliar with the end of the earth that they thought the Lake of Galilee was a sea? Are you ready?  Next time we'll look at how Jesus prepared the disciples for a task that would see the known world hear about Jesus by the end of the century and the whole Roman world accept Christianity as the state religion within 300 years.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Not Ashamed of the Cross

Yesterday I wrote about the Tyranny of Data Protection, today its about the Tyranny of secular Europe. Are you aware of the freedoms that are being stolen from under our noses? David Cameron, who hitched his wagon to the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible, declaring, "We are a Christian country and should not be ashamed to say so," wrote to the European Court of Human Rights insisting, "In niether case is there is there any suggestion that the wearing of the cross or crucifix was a generally recognised form of practising the Christian faith..." No doubt, in his fractured world, both statements represent "the right thing to do." In the real world it is bizarre and very wrong to claim to uphold Christian freedoms but then move to deny those freedoms.

Monday, 14 May 2012

The Tyranny of Data Protection

My neighbour, at the weekend, became concerned about the whereabouts of his ex-wife. Although they have a history that doesn’t exactly endear him to her, or her him for that matter, nevertheless for the sake of their son he keeps in touch. She failed to call her son as she usually does and he rang the local hospital to see if she was there. There are reasons for his assuming the worse that we needn’t go into but the hospital informed him that she had been brought in after a fall but had since been discharged.

Since she hadn’t turned up and was nowhere to be found he looked into it further to discover she had not been discharged but moved to another hospital some fifty miles away. It was when he rang the second hospital that his problems really began. Explaining who he was he asked if she was still at the hospital and enquired about her condition. They refused to tell him. Of course, you don’t want to go giving out someone’s private medical details to a voice on the phone but they even refused to confirm that she was there.

In the face of such mindless intransigence he rang the police, explained the position and, genuinely not knowing for sure where she was, reported her as a missing person. Problem solved you might think but no! The police rang the hospital, explained the situation and asked if the “missing person” was, in fact at the hospital. Hospital staff refused to tell them. “How do we know that you’re the police?” They were invited to ring the police station and ask to speak to the person calling them, thus establishing that they were the police. They refused.

Meanwhile, this poor woman lay in a coma, covered in bruises and with a drain in her head because of a head injury suffered after a serious fall. Her son is worried sick, his dad is tearing his hair out in frustration and a mindless adherence to data protection is preventing anyone resolving the issue. So much for the caring profession.

“If you want to establish whether she is here,” police were told, “you must come to the hospital.” For my neighbour this is a one hundred mile round trip with no guarantee that it won’t be wasted, along with time wasted when he might be visiting her in a possibly different hospital. The police had to go to the hospital and only then would the hospital staff confirm the woman’s presence. My neighbour finally visited, along  with his son, and is now able to ring the hospital any time he wants to get updates and discuss further visits.

Such is the tyranny of the data protection mania and litigation paranoia that infects our society today. I looked up the Data Protection Act and it doesn’t in any way prevent hospital staff making a reasonable judgement and deciding to confirm whether someone is in hospital. It actually says:

“Data must not be disclosed to other parties without the consent of the individual whom it is about, unless there is legislation or other overriding legitimate reason to share the information (for example, the prevention or detection of crime). It is an offence for Other Parties to obtain this personal data without authorisation.”

I am so glad that a law is in place to prevent some third party having access to my personal details (though don’t hold your breath, tonight’s Despatches on Channel Four has a different and hair-raising story to tell) but if I was lying comatose in a hospital bed and unable to give my consent I would hope someone would have the common sense to decide there was a legitimate reason for at least telling my family I was there. What if my neighbour wasn’t who he said he was? Who else would he be? A body snatcher? Surely the correct course is to give minimal information – “Yes, she is here in ward X” – then be prepared to deal with whatever comes of that.

This is what happens when Tony Blair and every minister and Prime Minister after him, reaches for the law to solve social issues. We’ve got to stop this madness and stop looking suspiciously at each other, because there are enough real villains out there without making villains out of family friends and neighbours, and we’ve got to start learning to trust each other and trust the sense we are meant to have been born with. We can’t go on allowing the State to tie us up in legislative knots, making us fearful at every turn.

Tories Reduce Surplus Population, Save Economy

Over the weekend we got the hardly remarkable news that in these austere times “Patients are being left stranded on trolleys for hours and forced to have treatment in corridors due in part to the loss of hospital beds.” We are also told that local health care is at breaking point. That is according to a report from the Royal College of Nursing. It took just two years it seems for this Tory-led government to get back to 1997.

When the ConDem coalition came into government in 2010 the media were falling over themselves to get a sound-bite about Tory plans to slash welfare. Someone finally collared some Tory culprit or another (Chris Grayling? Irritable Duncan Smith?) who insisted “I wish we didn’t have to make some of these decisions. I wish we had come into power in 1997. The Treasury was awash with money then.” Whoever it was I have wondered why more wasn’t made of that cynical sound bite.

Hands up all those who remember the social conditions in 1997. That’s right, schools were crumbling, public services were failing, old folk were dying of hypothermia in the winter, the sick were dying on ever-lengthening waiting lists and, yes, patients were spending hours on trolleys in hospital corridors – and dying there.

But “the treasury was awash with money.” That’s taxpayer’s money. That’s the money the Tory government insists the Labour government squandered after 1997 on schools, hospitals, public services and care for families, the elderly, the sick and vulnerable. But worry not, the way things are going it won’t be long before the treasury is awash with money again. They already have patients on hospital trolleys and the suicide rate among the disabled is rising significantly.

Soon their scheme will have worked its way out and the poor, weak and needy will have died, reducing the surplus population. Now where have I heard that before?