Wednesday, 25 February 2015

A rich relative come to stay...

Colossians 3:16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly...

The church in Colossae was being perturbed. Upset. Thrown about a bit. We have to deduce exactly how by reading between the lines of Paul's letter - we have no other data to go on. It seems that teaching had crept in which had a legalistic streak, taking some Old Testament requirements and imposing them on Christians, perhaps not as a basis of salvation but certainly as a basis of spiritual one-upmanship, of graduation into the premier league of those who enjoyed "fullness". The language was impressive, and, as these things so often do, invited ordinary believers into an apparently higher experience, while in the process being rather dismissive of the "basics" of the Christian life. Deeper knowledge, perhaps contact with angels, a more erudite view of Jesus - who wouldn't be tempted?! Not least when the mystical, even magical, elements to these views seemed more in tune with many of the currents in wider society. The promise of a Higher Life while simultaneously being less counter-cultural will always appeal! 

Paul's answer to all of this is, as ever, to see more of Jesus. To appreciate his greatness, his grace, his glory, his sufficiency, his excellence. He knows that there is nothing these believers need more than a fuller appreciation of what they already have in Christ.  And that solution is always the answer whenever exclusive, gnostic, esoteric, ascetic or other promises of "something special" infect the church and rob it of its fundamental joy in the gospel. When the church loses its gospel joy it ALWAYS becomes less effective in serving the world by getting the message out. 

In our readings this morning we came to the verse above. In a sense it is just a part of the overall solution that Paul is putting to the Colossians. But it is a very interesting part, and I love the way he puts it. 

It is parallel with a very similar passage in the letter to the Ephesians which stresses being filled with the Spirit, and therefore teaching one another scripture through our singing. The Ephesians faced some similar but distinctive challenges, and I don't doubt that the wording is carefully nuanced in each case.  

The Colossians needed to recalibrate their attitude to the Bible. By "the word of Christ" Paul means the gospel, certainly, the message of scripture, not simple the Bible as a book. But as the following words make clear, that message cannot be divorced from scripture itself, if (at the least) the inclusion of the Psalms is anything to go by. Paul is against a wrong, unChristly use of scripture. The false teachers were using the Book as the source for their various Jewish emphases; the believers were inclined  to judge one another over fasts and feast days. They were not reading the scriptures and finding the supreme and sufficient Christ in them. Over against such wrong use Paul wanted to encourage right use. The Bible is read right when we find "the Word of Christ" in it.  

Not for the last time in church history, someone was pushing these Christians towards an attitude which took Christ out of the scriptures. For the Colossians, the OT was a source book for the imposed rules of new prophets who Really Knew God. At other times a critical attitude has denied the essential unity of scripture as Word of Christ - it becomes a book of ancient curiosities. When scripture is at best a blast from the past,  the Now Experience or the New Scholarship is so much more attractive! Such an influence rarely damns the Bible as such - it just sidelines it. And so the Christ of scripture gets sidelined too. 

Against that backdrop, Paul wants the church to revel in talking - and singing - scripture, and to do so in the understanding that the word of scripture is Christ's. It comes from the great Christ he has been talking about, and it speaks of the great Christ he has been talking about. 

He uses the phrase "dwell richly". He says, "Let the Word, the message of the Scriptures, the Book of Jesus, be to you like having a rich relative come to stay. Think of the special treats, the outings, the great restaurant meals, the generally better lifestyle when Uncle Bartholomew stays over - let the Bible be like that among you! Don't look for your fullness elsewhere - let the scripture, let the gospel raise your standard of living!"

In our day too, we are offered attractive versions of the Christian life which claim to be holy and to reach greater heights of love and intimacy with God, while simultaneously downplaying scripture and cosying up to the prevailing culture. The Word of the Bible is not viewed as a rich and generous relative. It is viewed as a rather fusty, musty, picky and embarrassing old person. We wouldn't want to enter into dialogue with postmoderns while we've got her in tow! She's all very well in her place, but we've moved on!

If we've moved on from scripture, we've moved on from Jesus. The language used around us may still press lots of nice buttons - there is much talk of love, of God, of openness, of transformation - but unless it is focussed on the Christ of the Bible in his once-and-for-all work for us, we have come adrift. 

Initiatives like the "Boundless... Whole world reading" programme are good, but there is a way to go before the trend towards a contemporary Colossian heresy is driven back in the SA by the pressure of Christ's rich Word. Let's welcome the rich relative back, big time! 

(The rich relative illustration, possibly implied in the text itself, has come to me from somewhere, and I don't now know where. If anyone can help with a possible source...? Richard Chester? John Stott?)

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

The quiet bloke at the back

He came most weeks for about a year. About 2 out of 3, anyway. Mornings only. Used to arrive pretty tight for time, sometimes during the first hymn, and would slip away pretty quickly afterwards. Smiled and seemed friendly enough, but made no effort to involve himself in church life. Seemed to know the songs though, or most of them, and how to find his place in the Bible. But no one asked him about himself; I guess they sensed that it wasn't wanted. Then, quite suddenly, he stopped coming, and has never been back. 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

I went to Longmeadow Evangelical Church most Sunday mornings for about a year. I was spending weekends with a lady in the area; it was she who made me go back to church in the first place - "You won't be sorted until you get the God thing sorted" - and took me to the CofE in her village. It wasn't really my scene, but we went together for a while. Then, one Sunday, she had to work, and I was late for the Anglicans, so I went to Longmeadow. I knew that this was what I needed, but sadly for her it was a bridge too far. She never went once, but still pushed me to go. 

I was at home because the Bible was central. Most of the songs were equally familiar at the CofE, and the liturgical stuff there went deep, but the preaching did not. Suddenly I was back listening to scripture being expounded. I sat through a lot of Genesis with David Power. Ministry that was faithful, relevant and challenging. 

When I was in pastoral ministry, I remember the phenomenon of the quiet bloke at the back. The people (mainly men) who came regularly but not constantly, who shot off quickly after the service, who didn't seem to want to talk much, and, to be honest, to whom I never knew quite what to say. 

I discovered I had become one of those blokes. I was an anonymous, uninvolved, uncommitted but attentive churchgoer. I had a backstory, but nobody ever asked, and I didn't really want to talk about it. There was even one guy there who I thought I recognised from university CU, but I avoided him especially and I'm not sure he was who I thought he was anyway. Sometimes I was shocked or disappointed that people didn't speak to me more, but then I remembered those other quiet blokes at the back, and remembered the aura of "ask me nothing" and I understood. 

Gradually the drip drip drip of the Word and the Spirit started to erode the stony cladding my sin had put up around what was in reality a heart of flesh. I was a backslider, a prodigal who had travelled miles away, and God would not and did not let me be. He used my year as a quiet bloke at the back to bring me home. I finished seeing the lady, and Longmeadow has not seen me since. 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

The reason I write is that in your meetings you too may have a quiet bloke at the back. He won't have the same backstory as I did, but he is there for a reason. Not least, he is there because he wants to be. Be friendly, but don't push him too hard. Pray for him and let the Word do the work. 

You never know what God is doing. 

Monday, 16 February 2015

A brief thought from the Founder...

“We believe in the old-fashioned salvation. We have not developed and improved into Universalism, Unitarianism, or Nothingarianism, or any other form of infidelity, and we don’t expect to. Ours is just the same salvation taught in the Bible, proclaimed by prophets and apostles, preached by Luther and Wesley and Whitfield, sealed by the blood of martyrs – the very same salvation which was purchased by the sufferings and agony and Blood of the Son of God.”

William Booth, The Founder Speaks Again: A Selection of the Writings of William Booth ed. Cyril J. Barnes (London: Salvationist Publishing and Supplies, 1960), 45 – 6.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

A hymn for Dawkins, for Isis and for us.

A favourite hymn 

Ye servants of God,
your Master proclaim,
and publish abroad
his wonderful Name;
the Name all-victorious
of Jesus extol:
his kingdom is glorious;
he rules over all.

2 God ruleth on high,
almighty to save;
and still he is nigh:
his presence we have.
The great congregation
his triumph shall sing,
ascribing salvation
to Jesus our King.

3 Salvation to God
who sits on the throne!
Let all cry aloud,
and honour the Son.
The praises of Jesus
the angels proclaim,
fall down on their faces,
and worship the Lamb.

4 Then let us adore,
and give him his right:
All glory and power,
all wisdom and might,
all honor and blessing,
with angels above,
and thanks never ceasing
and infinite love.

This hymn, by Charles Wesley, has long been a favourite. I love its deceptive simplicity - it is a hymn of praise to Jesus which sneaks a lot of doctrine in by the back door! Or to be fair, it is a hymn of praise from a poet with a light touch but a deep grounding in essential Christian doctrine. I love its internal logic: the way verses 1 and 2 and 3 interconnect to make massive statements about the deity of Christ. I have put those connections down to Charles Wesley's genius. 

But I may have been wrong. As I started to write about the hymn, and researching its original text, I had some surprises. The version with which we are familiar is shorter than the original, and leaves out two (or thirteen - see below) verses. The first of my much-loved  Christological connections just doesn't happen the same way when the current verses 1 and 2 are distanced by two others. 

It is the missing material which locates the hymn specifically in its historical context. It was 1744, a year of considerable turmoil and fear of a French invasion, and the Methodist societies were being, rather oddly to us, accused of being disguised Roman Catholics, or at least of being Jacobites - supporters of the exiled pretender to the throne, James Edward Stuart. In fact, the Wesleys' older brother Samuel had indeed shown some support for the Stuarts, but Charles and John were vocal supporters of King George and the Hanoverian line. If anything, Charles was even more painstaking than John in distancing himself from any semblance of rebellion; on Tuesday, 6 March, he wrote to his brother urging him not even to use the name Methodist, but strictly to emphasise that the movement was faithful to the Church of England. 

Throughout this period there were public demonstrations against the Methodists, with a serious level of violence to contend with on an almost daily basis; stones thrown in the street and drunken trouble-makers frequently entering meetings to hurt and disrupt. In addition, there were dangers inherent in the movement itself; at Leeds on 14th March the floor of the upper room in which Charles was preaching gave way under the mass of hearers. Although everyone escaped with their lives, there were some serious injuries. 

Something of the flavour of the times can be seen in, for example, John Wesley's journal entry for 23 and 30 January:

"On Monday, January 23, a great mob gathered together at Darlaston, a mile from Wednesbury. They fell upon a few people who were going to Wednesbury, and among the rest, on Joshua Constable's wife, of Darlaston. Some of them threw her down, and five or six held her down, that another might force her. But she continued to resist, till they changed their purpose, beat her much, and went away. 
Mon. 30.—The mob gathered again, broke into Joshua Constable's house, pulled part of it down, broke some of his goods in pieces, and carried the rest away; particularly all his shop goods, to a considerable value. But not satisfied with this, they sought for him and his wife, swearing they would knock their brains out. Their little children meantime, as well as themselves, wandered up and down, no one daring to relieve or take them in, lest they should hazard their own lives. 

Against the backdrop of such tension and violence, the Wesleys issued a pamphlet of hymns under the title, Hymns for Times of Trouble and Persecution. Several hymns were prayers for the king, a purposeful demonstration of loyalty. Just to take one example:

1 SOVEREIGN of all! whose will ordains
The powers on earth that be,
By whom our rightful Monarch reigns,
Subject to none but thee:

2 Stir up thy power, appear, appear,
And for thy servant fight;
Support thy great vicegerent here,
And vindicate his right.

The first edition of the pamphlet was published on 1st March, when the French had made a first unsuccessful invasion attempt, thwarted by storm force winds in the channel. Ye servants of God was issued in the second version of the pamphlet, which came out around a month later. It was the first hymn in a new section entitled Hymns to be sung in a tumult, and it is likely that Charles Wesley had both the recent weather and the political and spiritual turmoil of the country in mind. 

It is interesting to look at the original text, which has three sections. 

Part 1 

1 Ye servants of God, 
your Master proclaim,
And publish abroad 
his wonderful name,
The name all-victorious 
of Jesus extoll;
His kingdom is glorious, 
and rules over all.

2 The waves of the sea 
have lift up their voice,
Sore troubled that we 
in Jesus rejoice;
The floods they are roaring, 
but Jesus is here,
While we are adoring, 
he always is near.

3 Men, devils engage, 
the billows arise,
And horribly rage, 
and threaten the skies:
Their fury shall never 
our stedfastness shock,
The weakest believer 
is built on a Rock.

4 God ruleth on high, 
almighty to save,
And still he is nigh, 
his presence we have;
The great congregation 
his triumph shall sing,
Ascribing salvation 
to Jesus our King.

5 Salvation to God 
who sits on the throne!
Let all cry aloud, 
and honour the Son!
Our Jesus’s praises 
the angels proclaim,
Fall down on their faces, 
and worship the Lamb.

6 Then let us adore, 
and give him his right,
All glory, and power, 
and wisdom, and might,
All honour, and blessing, 
with angels above,
And thanks never ceasing, 
and infinite love.

This section contains all of the hymn we know, but the two additional verses shift the emphasis solidly to the rule of God and of his Christ over a world of human and demonic persecution. There is a sub-theme of Christ's presence "in the praises of his people".  

Part 2

1 Omnipotent King, 
who reignest on high,
Thy mercy we sing, 
thy haters defy,
We give thee thy glory, 
tho’ Satan oppose,
And gladly adore thee, 
in sight of thy foes.

2 The reprobates dare 
their master proclaim,
And loudly declare 
their sin and their shame;
Presumptuous in evil, 
their god they avow,
Their father the devil; 
and worship him now.

3 And shall we not sing 
our Master and Lord,
Our Maker and King, 
by angels ador’d,
Our merciful Saviour, 
who brought us to God,
And purchas’d us favour 
by shedding his blood.

4 Yes, Lord we adore, 
tho’ all men deny,
And tell of thy power, 
triumphantly nigh:
O Jesu, we bless thee, 
our Jesus proclaim,
And gladly confess thee, 
for ever the same.

5 In tumult and noise, 
we sing of thy grace,
More mighty our joys, 
more hearty our praise,
Our triumphs are higher, 
and warmer our zeal,
And thee ever nigher 
than Satan we feel.

6 The sinners we see, 
who Satan obey,
Much happier we, 
much wiser than they,
Our Master is greater, 
he makes us his heirs,
And O! How much better 
our wages than theirs!

7 Our Jesus is near, 
whenever we sing,
Among us we hear 
the shout of a King;
Our voices are stronger 
than theirs who blaspheme,
And surely we longer 
shall triumph than them.

This section takes up more directly the nature of the opposition. It is satanic, and it is doomed. This should encourage believers to boldness in praise and boldness in proclamation. Once again the fact of Christ's presence with those who sing his praises us affirmed. 

Part 3

1 All conquering Lord, 
whom sinners adore,
Remember thy word, 
and stir up thy power,
Drive Satan before thee, 
his advocates chase:
Or let them adore thee, 
or yield to thy grace.

2 O pity, and spare, 
and save them from death,
Pluck’d out of his snare, 
snatch’d out of his teeth;
Almighty Redeemer, 
to whom all things bow,
Cast down the blasphemer, 
and rescue them now.

3 O why should he take 
thy purchase away?
Thy fury awake, 
and fly on the prey;
Thy purchase recover, 
that Satan may feel,
Thy kingdom is over 
earth, heaven, and hell.

4 O answer the prayer 
of prevalent faith,
In mercy forbear 
these children of wrath,
And give them repentance, 
let mercy take place,
Reverse the sad sentence, 
and save them by grace.

If the middle section appears in any way to be simply gloating in the certainty of ultimate triumph, the last section gives the hymn it's real goal. As many rise in hate against the gospel and gospel people, Wesley is not simply certain of their downfall at the end of time: he is praying for their much swifter capitulation to the power of the gospel. His argument at the heart of the section is based in his understanding of Christ's atonement: Jesus died for these people, how can that redemptive price be wasted? The aggression in the language is fantastic - calling on Christ to "fly on the prey" is not language for the faint-hearted!


If you start to look into something, be prepared to go where your research takes you, and be ready to let go of your initial ideas! In my case, a fascination with the Christological affirmations in the hymn as we know it has led to a totally different view of it as seen in its original form. 

Having said which... the editorial genius behind the version we know cannot be overestimated. I am now trying to check this, but I think, given the earliness of the edit, that it was probably John Wesley himself who, not for the last time, had a happy ability to abbreviate one of his brother's hymns  and thus create a text of universal appeal and usefulness. The logic links I have loved ARE there, and someone spotted them. They are still worth laying hold of as you sing the hymn. Jesus is God! God's reign is Jesus' reign! The salvation Jesus achieved is God's salvation! 

But the unedited version is worth discovering. As we ourselves head into a time of uncertainty and rising persecution, as we hear terrible news of violence against Christians and churches, the certainty and hope of this hymn should encourage us. It is a song to strengthen the faint-hearted. It is a song to put backbone into the spineless. We may not need to sing all 17 verses, but we need their spirit. 

That is especially so of the final section. The Wesleys ministered at a time not simply of persecution, but of persecution because the Evangelical Societies were seen as dangerous to the country. The established church had, by and large, slipped into Deism - a religion that stressed the otherness and distance of God to the point that any call for repentance or action based on His presence and power was seen as rather threatening and even "unEnglish". It is not hard to imagine how the early Methodists' radical call might be heard as "contrary to British values" today. Nor is it hard to see the present slide into post-modern vagueness within the church as an echo of the Middle-of-the-roadness of  Deism. The crying need of the church in general and of the Salvation Army in particular today is not to embrace ever more fully the "spirit of the age" as the 18th century Anglicans did, but to regain the fire and fervour of our Methodist forebears. 

The sheer evangelical aggressiveness of the final section of the original hymn is breathtaking. This is surely how we should be praying for Dawkins, for the government, for Isis, for our pagan neighbours. This is not the church on the back foot, cowering in the corner. This is fighting talk, and it is based in the certainty of Christ's victory.