Thursday, 26 March 2015


But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:9-10

We are surrounded by images of perfection. Beautiful people, fit bodies, lovely homes, successful careers, fulfilling relationships, happy families. Such images are used to sell us every kind of product, and those who present ideas and ideologies, parties and movements, had better come up to standard. 

Christianity is shockingly counter-cultural at this point. We worship a despised, rejected, crucified God who called a motley bunch of men to be his first spokespeople. They in turn struggled and suffered, both with persecution and illness. None appears to have had a comfortable, ideal life. Their relationships with one another were not without incident - rows and misunderstandings occurred, partnerships broke up, and they saw many colleagues fail and drop out. But through them the church took root across Europe and further afield. 

Christianity holds before us the greatest ideals of all. It presents us with the eternal hope of perfection. But on the way there, its followers and its preachers suffer persecution, they are subject to tiredness and illness, they are attacked by the devil and many temptations, and they are not, in this life, ever free of sin. (I realise that the last clause is not in sync with SA Doctrine 10 as read in accordance with the Founders' intentions. As one retired DC said to me, that doctrine is unbiblical. It is the main obstacle to my involvement as a soldier.) 

We create intolerable tensions and pressures in the church when we import the world's model of "perfection" - young, fit, shiny, beautiful - into our expectations and ministry. In the SA it may be the greater expectations of those with an impeccable Army pedigree and who look good in uniform. In the reformed scene of my background it was, to quote a former boss, "a perfectionist view of sanctification with a worthless worm view of salvation". Whether the drivers are sub-cultural or theological, we place ourselves under a terrible burden. 

We are not helped by the tradition of Christian biography which glosses over the weaknesses or even moral failings of great leaders of the past. Sometimes we are not even allowed to see them as people of their time. It took a long time before I could come to terms with Martin Luther as an anti-Semite, John Wesley as having a terrible marriage, George Whitfield as a slave-holder, William Wilberforce as a racist and so on. And it isn't just the more moral or ethical weaknesses that are missed; we may be familiar with William Cowper as suicidally depressed, but we may be less conscious of mental frailty when we think about John Bunyan, Lord Shaftesbury, Amy Carmichael, CS Lewis or Martyn Lloyd-Jones. And yet we know in experience that Christians we have known who we have admired greatly have been real people - sometimes clearly proud, or tetchy, or down, or selfish or whatever, and subject to the prejudices and blind spots of the prevailing general and church culture.

I am not trying to tone down the shock and disastrous impact of my own serious sin by saying that in some way we are all the same. Not at all. But I do think that the expectation of perfection makes it so much harder to talk openly about weakness and temptation - and the brittleness and precariousness that such lack of mutual support produces makes a truly disastrous fall that much more likely. If one is scared to talk about any weakness in marriage, any struggles with personal prayer or devotion, any tendency to anxiety or depression - if there is a fear that admission of ANY problem could be career-threatening - then the stage is set for a very lonely walk deeper and deeper into the ravine of danger. 

God has seen fit to use the weak things of this world. He uses the flawed, the hurt, the fragile. Illness, depression, insecurities, struggles, temptations and persecutions are the norm, not disqualifications. He reaches the broken through the broken - broken people who speak of the Crucified through the Spirit and so become strong for the task in hand. But supermen they are not. Mutual care which acknowledges that will help us stand; mutual care that pretends we are above failure will contribute to our destruction.
It is an amazingly alleviating thing to let go of the need to appear strong and perfect. It is such a relief to get the mask off after years of worries when it occasionally slipped. It is wonderful to rediscover the honesty of grace, and to acknowledge weakness and failure, and still to press on, trying to live for Jesus and point people to Jesus.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

On this day... construction commenced on the Bethesda orphanage

On this day in 1740, work began on George Whitfield's orphanage project in the state of Georgia.

Another good example of the great tradition of social concern going hand in hand with word-based evangelism.

For further information, read here.

Friday, 20 March 2015

The Prosperity Gospel Light

Photo: Sarah King
 Anyone who lives in South London can see them. I mean the churches which offer transformation of life style. "Dream bigger!" say the posters outside the House of Praise in Camberwell. They show beautiful people dreaming of larger homes and better jobs - my dad's first reaction to them was that "dream bigger" referred to "thinking bigger and longer term than worldly goods". The true explanation rather shocked him.  

Anyone who has lived in sub-Saharan Africa or Latin America has seen the same thing on a far larger scale. Massive churches promise health and prosperity to the faithful - the faithful being those who give sacrificially into church funds. Some churches operate on a franchise basis: the planter/pastor will get rich, so why shouldn't he pay for the right to use the organisation's branding and support? Money coming into a local church pays the pastor, but a significant proportion goes to the area bishop, and so on up a chain. At the top of the tree of these pyramidal churches the fat cat pastors swan it in their palaces, often living outside the countries where their money is collected. Those who pay for their luxury are the poorest of the poor, sold a dream of miraculous wealth, and fleeced of the little they have in the process.  

In order to keep people and money coming in, there have to be believable testimonies about sudden cash windfalls and the like. Money must appear in a bank account; a new car has to be left outside a member's home; a medical bill is mysteriously paid. Some such "miracles" are needed, and the testimonies will be duly milked in the church's meetings and on its TV shows. (In Brazil the country's second largest national TV network is wholly owned by its largest prosperity church.)

Engineering miracles (let alone producing TV shows!) represents a drain on resources, of course, but then, once a church has parted company with integrity in smaller matters, why not go the whole way? In countries full of corruption and organised crime, what better way is there of money laundering than the offering box of a church? Handling drug money and even running guns become less talked-about aspects of "ministry" that keep the whole ship afloat. 

"Solomon's Temple"
The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God in São Paulo, Brazil
In many countries such "prosperity" churches are inextricably linked with corrupt politics and organised crime. That mixing and interconnectedness is one of the greatest evils in the world today. It used to be an embarrassment to see the great gilt edifices of the Roman church towering over the slums of Latin America; nowadays the image of Latin Catholicism is often of the hard working priest or lay worker identifying with the poor, while the disgrace is all "evangelical".
The history of the prosperity gospel is not totally straightforward to trace. From the Christian side, the man-centredness of post-Finney and post-Sunday Arminianism have been mixed into a cocktail with the hyper-realised eschatology of some kinds of Pentecostalism. But there are also elements which come from outside any kind of Christian tradition - African animism in Africa and Brazil, or folk Buddhism in SE Asia. 

Most people in mainstream church traditions in the UK would distance themselves from the worst manifestations of such teaching. In the Salvation Army, a tradition of hands-on concern for the poor makes the abuse of the marginalised especially distressing. (Although I understand that in parts of Africa, the SA is not totally free of Prosperity teaching.) 

But some of the roots of the problem may be with us nonetheless. We are a church where rescue and transformation of life has always been at the heart of our ministry and of our joy. The Salvation Army has aimed to reach people mired in the worst economic, social and moral difficulties with the gospel of eternal life, and has rejoiced to see believers receive not only hope of life for eternity but also significant social and economic transformation as the outworking of a new life in Jesus. 

That kind of transformation has been celebrated in our tradition of meetings through opportunity for testimony. We encourage believers to say what God has done for them, and in the process hear not only of forgiveness of sin and eternal hope, but of liberation from all kinds of slavery and misery.

God's gospel changes people. Turning from sin to Christ has repercussions on so many levels. The drinker suddenly has more resources and better health. The wife beater regains a marriage and begins to see his children respect him. The addict is able to hold down her job. Iliterate people learn and are helped to read - firstly for the book of God, but then find themselves more employable as a result. How many thousands of people in the history of Salvationism have walked such a road? It is the glory of the movement!

But there is a peril in that, and especially given our tradition of testimonies. There is a distinction between the gospel itself and the results of the gospel which can all too easily be lost. The testimony "I came to Jesus and my life got so much better" seems only inches away from a proclamation, "Come to Jesus and your life will get so much better." 

Many churches around the world would recoil from a message which is in effect, "give us your money and you will get rich". But in these same churches, the message "come to Jesus and your life will get better" is actually the standard gospel. It is not preached as crassly, it is not linked to the lifestyle of fat cat pastors, it isn't tied in with political corruption, but in its own way it is a prosperity gospel. I call it the Prosperity Gospel Light. We can say a number of things about it:

·         It is not biblical. The apostolic preaching never invites people to meet Jesus. The book of Acts has repeated examples of sermons where, in effect, the hearers are told that they will meet Jesus. The challenge is to respond now in a way which demonstrates seriousness about that future meeting. In that response - repentance and faith - transformations begin, and they go on as the new believer begins to work out their new life in the Spirit. 

·         It limits the audience for the gospel. A message which constantly focuses on "your life is tough - come to Jesus and your problems will be solved" can never reach anyone who actually has an enjoyable or easy life at the present. Sure, all of us have difficulties from time to time, but dare we risk limiting our message to the troubled? Paul in Acts 14 effectively preaches to the happy: "You have sun and rain and harvest and food and joy and family and fun - but are you giving thanks for all that good stuff where thanks are due?" That is a point of entry to people's hearts which seems natural to the apostle - but is not often heard in our evangelism today. 

·         It promises what it can't deliver. The New Testament never promised freedom from problems for believers. For sure, some problems that arise from specific sins will go. If you drink a bottle of spirits a day and then stop, lots of stuff will certainly improve. But other problems may not be related to such bad habits or sins at all. Illness, accident, injustice, persecution, unemployment - Christians suffer these things too. We dare not promise what the gospel cannot and does not set out to deliver. I am convinced that the enormous numbers of people who have left the churches on the basis that "Christianity doesn't work" have done so principally because the "christianity" that they have been exposed to was never going to work as its promises and premise were false. 

·         It detracts from Jesus. When "coming to Jesus" has become all about the various material and present-era benefits that flow from knowing him, it does cast doubt on the nature of knowing him at all. That would be true even of other human relationships: since I married Sarah my life has been transformed in so many ways - amazing cooking for one! This was quite predictable - and yet if I had said to myself before marriage, "I should marry Sarah because my life will be changed by her amazing cooking" then I would have had a problem. I married her for her, herself, and other benefits are a byproduct. That has to be the same for Jesus, or Christianity has ceased to be about a relationship with him and has become a self-help exercise with his name attached. 

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The Salvation Army, more than any other church I have known, has a glorious history of reaching people who are on the fringe, on the margins, in the mire, and helping them put their feet on the Rock. This is its glory, but also its Achilles heel IF that tradition draws the church away from preaching the Bible's Jesus and towards any kind of prosperity gospel. As ever, survival, growth and revival have to start with rediscovery of our roots - in this case roots in the apostolic preaching itself. 

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Who's afraid...

If my last post expressed disquiet at the state of belief and preaching amongst us;  this one is to say that we needn't be afraid or depressed. Local churches and movements (the Salvation Army included) may come and go, but Christ's church will be built and nothing can stop him! 

Be relieved. Be confident. Be bold. 

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

The Awkwardness of God in a Postmodern Generation

We read Ex 4:18-26 this morning. I was very struck by the sheer awkwardness of the passage.
God hardens Pharaoh’s heart. This begins a whole sequence of active-passive-active statements about Pharaoh’s heart: God hardened it, it was hardened, Pharaoh hardened his heart. But this is where the sequence begins: I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go.

God tries to kill Moses. Having delivered him from threat of death as a baby, having preserved him through youth in Pharaoh’s court and middle age as a shepherd, having called him to be the Deliverer and argued him through two chapters into readiness to serve, the Lord now tries to kill him.

This passage confronts us with a very untame God. In an age where the church is desperately concerned to show that it is cool and in tune with all that is contemporary, Exodus 4 is a bombshell. Or an embarrassment. 

Of course, there have been plenty of discussions over the years about the various elements in the passage, the relationships between the verbal forms describing the hardening of Pharaoh's heart, the reason why the Lord tried to kill Moses - there are explanations, there are theologisings. But it is so good to just drop all of that for a moment and feel the shock of the text itself and be confronted by the inexplicable and awkward God of the Bible.

Exodus 4 is not alone, of course. It just happens to be what we read together today. But chapter after chapter of the Bible reveals a God who cannot be accommodated easily into our postmodern non-framework. Postmodernism appears to be very accommodating, very free-flowing and laid back. In fact, it is very quick to spit out anything definite, and the God of the Biblical text leaves it gagging. It is hardly surprising that in such a time, the church is desperate to re-position itself away from proclamation of this awkward book, so as to find some position of comfort.

Yesterday I happened to reread Matthew Parris' 2003 article on gay bishops, via David Robertson's blog. For me the wonder of the piece is not particularly the content on that specific issue, but the grasp Parris has of the nature of revealed religion. He writes: 

““Inclusive”, “moderate” or “sensible” Christianity is inching its way up a philosophical cul-de-sac. The Church stands for revealed truth and divine inspiration or it stands for nothing. Belief grounded in everyday experience alone is not belief. The attempt, sustained since the Reformation, to establish the truth of Christianity on the rock of human observation of our own natures and of the world around us runs right against what the Bible teaches from the moment Moses beheld a burning bush in the Egyptian desert to the point when Jesus rises from the dead in His sepulchre. Stripped of the supernatural, the Church is on a losing wicket.”

This atheist understands better than many in the church what Christianity really is. And that applies as much in the SA as it does in any other church.

In all manifestations of the Church in the West, we are under pressure. The awkwardness of revealed religion, the sheer, confrontational nature of God, of his standards, of his historical work in Christ, and of his Future - all of this is in total collision with our present culture. We feel the pressure, and we squirm. We are embarrassed by God, so we reinvent him in our postmodern image. In the process we part company with the tradition of our church, with the great stream of Christian faith, and, most frighteningly, with the Real God himself.

We want to be user-friendly, we want to be winsome, we want to speak in a way that post-moderns understand. But in the process we pressure ourselves NOT to talk about God in the way Exodus 4 does. If we are forced to, we go swiftly into apologetic mode - and not in the classic sense of argument for the truth, but in the sense of apologising for what God is like. More often than not, we simply avoid passages that make us feel this way. And in the long term we end up avoiding real interaction with the Bible altogether. This process is visible in our conversation, our postings on social media, and especially in our meetings.

We want our meetings to be happy, upbeat and winsome. We are frightened of disturbing people, and probably don’t like being disturbed very much ourselves. Church, we think, should be about comfort, not disturbance.

We so need meetings, we need scripture readings, we need preaching, that confront us with the authentic, disturbing God of scripture. Our tendency to domesticate God by watering down, explaining away, smoothing rough edges with our theologising, our avoidance of difficulties - our tendency to tame the God of the Bible needs to be blown away by the power of Word and Spirit.  We need to hear a Word which leaves us solemn and shaken to the core.

Listening recently to some old recordings of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, I was struck by the manner in which he said the word ‘God’. Some of his language is dated, his manner is noticeably 1940s/50s, but the intense seriousness overall and sense of almost explosive power in that particular word is still arresting. Here is preaching that makes you sit up and take notice, that startles, that alarms, that confronts, that perturbs. Here is preaching that makes you feel uncomfortable before it makes you glad. Here is preaching that DOES deal with objections and counter arguments, but not by putting God in the dock, on trial for his awkwardnesses and worse, but by genuinely bringing us to the bar of eternal realities.

When did you last hear a sermon that shook you with the immediate presence and power of God in his word? When were you last confronted with the bigness, holiness, awkwardness, frighteningness of the Living God? When did a sermon last deal with moral issues in a way which boldly confronted the prevailing mind-set? When did preaching last convict you of sin and of your need? When was Jesus Christ crucified last put before your eyes as the only hope any of us have?
‘He who marries the spirit of this age will be a widower in the next.’ We can go further: as the Salvation Army parts company with the Bible and embraces the spirit of the age, so the church itself will die.

And as we return to prayer and preaching that sets forth a big view of our awesome, holy, powerful, gracious and loving God, so the church will live and grow.

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If I can quote from William Booth's greatest contemporary, it is worth reading and pondering this excerpt from what is known as Charles Spurgeon's “Own Funeral Sermon”. He actually preached it a few years before his death, but Mrs Spurgeon herself felt that it was a most suitable eulogy. He had preached on “For David, after he had served his own generation by the will of God, fell on sleep.”—Acts 13:36. Amongst other things he said:

People talk nowadays about Zeitgeist, a German expression which need frighten nobody; and one of the papers says, “Spurgeon does not know whether there is such a thing.”

Well, whether he knows anything about Zeitgeist or not, he is not to serve this generation by yielding to any of its notions or ideas which are contrary to the Word of the Lord.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is not only for one generation, it is for all generations. It is the faith which needed to be only “once for all delivered to the saints”; it was given stereotyped as it always is to be. It cannot change because it has been given of God, and is therefore perfect; to change it would be to make it imperfect. It cannot change because it has been given to answer for ever the same purpose, namely, to save sinners from going down to the pit, and to fit them for going to heaven.

That man serves his generation best who is not caught by every new current of opinion, but stands firmly by the truth of God, which is a solid, immovable rock.

But to serve our own generation in the sense of being a slave to it, its vassal, and its valet—let those who care to do so go into such bondage and slavery if they will.

Do you know what such a course involves? If any young man here shall begin to preach the doctrine and the thought of the age, within the next ten years, perhaps within the next ten months, he will have to eat his own words, and begin his work all over again. When he has got into the new style, and is beginning to serve the present world, he will within a short time have to contradict himself again, for this age, like every other, is “ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

But if you begin with God’s Word, and pray God the Holy Ghost to reveal it to you till you really know it, then, if you are spared to teach for the next fifty years, your testimony at the close will not contradict your testimony at the beginning. You will ripen in experience; you will expand in your apprehension of the truth; you will become more clear in your utterance; but it will be the same truth all along.*

Is it not a grand thing to build up, from the beginning of life to the end of it, the same gospel? But to set up opinions to knock them down again, as though they were ninepins, is a poor business for any servant of Christ.

David did not, in that way serve his own generation; he was the master of his age, and not its slave. I would urge every Christian man to rise to his true dignity, and be a blessing to those amongst whom he lives, as David was. Christ “hath made us kings and priests unto God his Father”; it is not meet that we should cringe before the spirit of the age, or lick the dust whereon “advanced thinkers” have chosen to tread.

Beloved, see to this; and learn the distinction between serving your own generation and being a slave to it.

 * It is salutary to compare this with the currently popular saying, widely though doubtfully attributed to Thomas Merton, “If the you of five years ago doesn’t consider the you of today a heretic, you are not growing spiritually.”    

The full text of the Spurgeon sermon can be found at

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

On this day... Thomas Chalmers

Few people in British history have so combined intellectual, organisational and rhetorical talents as Thomas Chalmers, born on St Patrick’s Day in 1780. Mathematician, political economist and theologian, it was his passionate commitment to the freedom of the church and of the believer under the Lordship of Christ that led him to oppose the effective control that the state, and rich patrons, had over local churches in Scotland. He observed that where local churches cannot have any say in the choosing of their ministers, and where the choice belongs to the moneyed and the powerful, the effect on the gospel will always be a watering down and the question will always be bigger than a matter of local, ecclesiastical organisation.
The struggle over this issue in the Church of Scotland came to be known as the Disruption; it resulted in 470 ministers seceding from the established church and forming the Free Church, a body whose ministers were funded purely through the contributions of its members, and whose appointments could be vetoed by the local congregation. Ultimately, these principles were incorporated into the Church of Scotland itself, although to this day the C of S faces great challenges in terms of its relationship to the court of public opinion, if no longer the state per se.
What drove Chalmers through a very turbulent battle was his passion for the gospel and for gospel-driven transformation of society. He saw the urban poor of Glasgow as being desperately neglected by a church run in effect by distant politicians, and he worked for their social and educational well-being as well as for spiritual transformation through evangelism and the planting of new congregations. More widely, he was a key figure in the Bible Society and the great missionary movement of the time, and passionate about Christian unity, as a founder of the Evangelical Alliance (though that title was not his choice!). The quote I have chosen could be read in isolation as part of a gospel of do-goodery; nothing could be further from the truth. The man who could write of practical religion in such a way was the man who could also say, "Not till we come to a simple reliance on the blood and mediation of the Saviour, shall we know what it is either to have trust in God, or know what it is to walk before Him without fear, in righteousness and true holiness." This is Christ-driven, evangelical piety.
I am not a Scot, and poorly qualified to write on Chalmers, but feel that he is a figure who has much to teach us today, North or South of the border. What I have written I have gleaned from my memory of the story, bolstered by sites which are readily available. Much more is available on Chalmers as a mathematician and professor, as a pastor and theologian, and as a preacher. I found this article particularly helpful. He is arguably, in terms of gospel passion and importance, the greatest evangelical Scotsman after Patrick.  
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He who pays the piper, calls the tune. Wherever a church gains a proportion of its income from the state, or from the contributions of members of the public who are not necessarily committed to the rule of Christ or to the message of the gospel, the pressure will be on to soft-pedal those elements of the message and of discipleship which grate on the sensibilities of any given age. Thomas Chalmers has much to say to the Salvation Army today.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Outside the camp

Hebrews 13:13 Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. 

The idea of "the camp" is rooted in the Exodus experience of the OT people of God. Like American pioneers circling the wagons, the area within became home, the safe zone, the playground of children, the meeting place of mums and dads. Outside was the forbidden zone, the "you're not old enough" area, the place where you didn't go. Some sacrifices could be eaten - others were burned "out there". 

And that is where Jesus suffered and died - out there - outside the busy huddle of the city, outside of the familiar comforts of an ancient religion, outside of human society. 

Those who first read Hebrews had wanted in some way to get back inside, to cosy up to the Old Faith after the Promised one had come. The uniqueness and perfection and sufficiency of Jesus were to be traded in for a seat back at the purely Jewish table. 

In writing to them, the author sounds a warning to every generation of the church. Through time there will always be some social norm, some grouping, some movement, some cultural expression which attracts, to which the church wants to cosy up. For us it absolutely is not OT Judaism. That option has not really existed in its fullest expression since the generation after Jesus. 

No, for us, as for other generations, being outside the camp means letting our following of Jesus take us to the lonely place, the dangerous place, the not acceptable place, the despised place, the politically incorrect place, the countercultural place. 

Our culture is experiencing for the first time in many centuries the leadership of a generation which was born to parents who were themselves a generation removed from any personal experience of Christianity. The gap between our society and its own Christian roots has become a chasm. The present leadership in politics, culture, media and sport do not even really know what they are rejecting, but their rejection is now explicit, aggressive and sneering, and they are taking many people with  them. Christian has become a real insult. The greatest temptation for the church is to cosy up to that social lead. We want to agree as much as possible with a society that doesn't agree with Jesus. We may kid ourselves that we are being countercultural in some areas, of course - a Facebook post here, a demo there - but actually we are children of our society. 

Jesus calls us to go outside the camp. To endure his reproach. To be ready to feel uncomfortable again. To put him before our desire to fit in, to feel at home. That isn't easy, especially when the softer option has such prominent exemplars around us. 

In my last post I quoted George Scott Railton and his well-known "I intend carefully to instruct my children" speech. GSR was a bit of a nutter. But he got it. If the cloth of our theology and practice is being cut to suit current trends, we don't get it any more. 

Going outside the camp means being called a nutter. It is awkward and scary and dangerous. 

But it's where Jesus is. 

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

On this day... George Scott Railton

On 10th March 1880, George Scott Railton arrived in the USA, "invading" New York in a work that launched the Salvation Army in North America.
Most of his quotes are too long to fit on a portrait, though I do like the one shown. However, my favourite is...
I intend carefully to instruct my children that if at any time they see The Salvation Army a wealthy, respectable concern, the majority of whose “soldiers” simply go where they please to attend its’ “ministrations,” leaving the godless undisturbed to perish; and if they see another set of people, however they may be clothed or despised, who really give up all to go and save the lost, then they must not for a moment hesitate to leave the concern their poor old dad helped to make, and go out amongst those who most faithfully carry out what the founder of the Army laid down in his writings and acts, may God preserve them from such a day by keeping the Army free from the love of money and ease.
George Scott Railton, An Autobiography, Full Salvation, Jan. 1, 1894.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Three stories... One story

Yesterday at Nunhead Salvation Army Corps, we looked at Mark 15:33-39. This is the passage which deals most closely with the actual death of Jesus. At the start of it, he is already on the cross; by the end, he is dead. 
33 At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 34 And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).
35 When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.” 36 Someone ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said.
37 With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.
38 The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. 39 And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” 

I have often been struck by the fact that the passage records three things which to most people in Jerusalem at the time would have appeared to be unrelated. The darkness. The
death of Jesus. The tearing of the temple curtain. If there had been a newspaper available the next day, I have no doubt that the three stories would each have had a separate headline.

But for Mark, they belong together. They are one story. He doesn't explain how or why they fit together, but by placing them together in one narrative, he allows them to speak to and interpret one another. In fact, that is his theological method: he doesn't usually explain or expound - he places narratives together, connecting them so that the reader can think and see the Truth in the story for themselves.

In this case, it seems to me that the only words we hear from the cross, in Mark, explain the darkness, and the darkness gives depth to the words. Or the darkness is the demonstration of the truth in the words. 
In the Old Testament, God's presence and blessing were often associated with light, while darkness is associated with chaos, sin and judgement. For an excellent brief treatment of this Biblical Theological theme, see here. The Aaronic blessing in Numbers 6 makes this connection, and was familiar to every member of God's community:

24 The Lord bless you
    and keep you;
25 the Lord make his face shine on you
    and be gracious to you;
26 the Lord turn his face toward you
    and give you peace.

 As the darkness falls and we hear the appalling words from Psalm 22, Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?, what we are witnessing is the inversion of that blessing.
The Lord is not blessing him
and is not keeping him;
the Lord is turning the light of his face away from him
and is cursing him;
the Lord is turning his face away from him
and taking every last drop of peace away.

We are seeing the Man on the cross being abandoned by God. Every last blessing that was bestowed through the covenant, every last encouragement that came through the priests - all, all is now withdrawn. And beyond that, the eternal fellowship of Trinity - God the Father and God the Son and God the Holy Spirit in eternal "face to face" fellowship - that fellowship is broken. A great tremor is felt in the universe, because a great awfulness is felt outside of an over and above the universe. Something is happening which breaks a bond which is at the heart of all existence. Abandonment.

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And then he dies. And Mark pulls right up against that verse the fact of the tearing of the temple curtain. He doesn't explain, but the juxtaposition is Theology. It speaks.
From Genesis 3 onwards, the Old Testament is a book of barriers. There is a sword to stop Adam and Eve returning to the garden. The people come to Sinai and Moses is told to make a very clear boundary so that nobody touches the mountain of God's presence. The tabernacle is set up, and the boundaries have become three - the outer palisade, the curtain leading into the Holy Place, and then the curtain sealing off the Holy of Holies itself. As the book progresses into the era of Solomon's temple and beyond, the number of "layers" increases - courts of gentiles, of women, one after another like an onion. The central concept is that the closer you get to the very presence of God, the fewer people there are allowed to go there, and then only with blood sacrifice. The Holy of Holies only sees the High Priest, and only once a year.
There is some discussion over the temple curtain - which is it - that which seals the Holy Place off from the court of the priests - this one would have been more visible to male Jewish worshippers who happened to be in the temple at the time - or the great final curtain which separated Holy Place from Holy of Holies? The latter would only have been visible to any priests actually serving in he Holy Place at the time.

Either way, the point is this: the barrier has gone. It has been torn. It has become irrelevant. And the apparently insignificant detail torn from top to bottom tells us that this was not the result of some kind of priestly tug of war, trying to rip a curtain - the only "hands" to reach the top were God's. He has done the ripping. 
The Man on the cross is abandoned by his Father. This is not because the Father is cruel or unkind. It is because this is how the enemies of Father and Son will be welcomed home. The cross is an act of love. there is an abandonment there, but it is ultimately the abandonment of giving; the Father gives his Son, the Son gives himself. They do this, together, so that you and I may go in. The veil is torn. The barrier is gone. A new and living way is open. So let's go in!
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Most people who are there at Golgotha are clueless as to what is going on. Even when Jesus shouts "Eloi!" there are people who claim to "know their Bibles" who think the whole thing has to do with the promised "second coming" of Elijah. Frankly, they are so in mockery mode that the solemn supernatural darkness and heaviness of the scene is not weighing on them. Or perhaps they are trying to shrug it off. 
But for one man, there is revelation. The centurion, probably the soldier in charge of the execution, Jesus' own killer, sees something. We can't be totally sure how much he understood by Surely this man was the Son of God!  but he got something. While others saw nothing because they were intent on seeing nothing, Jesus' official killer saw that this man was special, he was unique, and that God had been at work in him. And he sees that specifically through witnessing the actually manner and moment of Jesus' death.
Do you want to know God? Do you want to know what he is like? Then look at the Man on the cross. Here God gives himself. Here God saves us. Here God opens a way and welcomes us home. Here God reveals himself.

Be amazed. Be glad. Be thankful. Enter in! 
And then be a giver in his likeness!

Saturday, 7 March 2015

On this day... Richer and Chartier arrived in Brazil

On the 7th of March, 1557, Pierre Richer and Guillaume Chartier arrived in Brazil, the first Protestant missionaries in the New World. They arrived in order to provide spiritual care to the French colony ("French Antarctica") in what is now Rio de Janeiro, begun less than two years earlier. But they were also sent explicitly to contact and share the gospel with the indigenous people of the country. Others soon joined them. These men were French Huguenots, sent by the church in Geneva, where John Calvin was the leading Pastor.

The picture here is of the statue in Rio, commemorating the first Protestant celebration of the Supper in the Americas. This was just a few days after Richer and Chartier's arrival.

Sadly, the mission was not a success. The leader of the French expedition, after initially welcoming the preachers, appears to have turned (or been turned) away from the Protestant faith and ended up killing those missionaries who did not manage to escape back to France. You can read more on the details of the story here.

When I was in Brazil, I always found the account of the Richer and Chartier and their colleagues interesting and immensely moving. And also useful. So often, Brazilian students of more Arminian background would tell me, in authoritative tones, that Calvinism has no interest in missions or evangelism. As I was myself a missionary of Calvinistic hue, this seemed to make not a lot of sense, but even more so in a country whose first protestant preachers were sent by John Calvin himself. 
Far from being opposed to mission, Calvin was deeply and personally involved in the training and sending of missionaries - principally to France which was deeply dangerous territory at the time, as the oncoming Bartholomew's Day massacre would demonstrate.

Here is a range of quotes from his sermons:
On Ezekiel 18:23:
God certainly desires nothing more than for those who are perishing and rushing toward death to return to the way of safety. This is why the gospel is today proclaimed throughout the world, for God wished to testify to all the ages that he is greatly inclined to pity.
On 1 Tim 2:3-5:
Thus we may see what St. Paul’s meaning is when he says, God will have His grace made known to all the world, and His gospel preached to all creatures. Therefore, we must endeavour, as much as possible, to persuade those who are strangers to the faith, and seem to be utterly deprived of the goodness of God, to accept of salvation. Jesus Christ is not only a Saviour of few, but He offers Himself to all. As often as the gospel is preached to us, we ought to consider that God calls us to Him: and if we attend to this call, it shall not be in vain, neither shall it be lost labour. Therefore, we may be so much the more assured that God takes and sees us as His children, if we endeavour to bring those to Him who are far off. Let us comfort ourselves, and take courage in this our calling: although there be at this day a great forlornness, though we seem to be miserable creatures, utterly cast away and condemned, yet we must labour as much as possible to draw those to salvation who seem to be afar off. And above all things, let us pray to God for them, waiting patiently till it please Him to show His good will toward them, as He has shown it to us.
On Acts 1:7:
Now we know that God prizes nothing above his honour, which lies mainly in men’s knowing him and poor souls’ being brought to salvation. So let us not be surprised if our Lord wants his gospel to be proclaimed with such diligence that nothing can hinder its course. For the only way men can come to salvation is through instruction in what the Bible teaches. Now since this is God’s will, let us follow it.

The story of the Geneva mission to Brazil is a story of failure, but it is an important one, and always moves me because I love the country. And obliquely, the simple fact of Calvin sending those pastors still speaks today.

In the Salvation Army I can't but feel that some of the Founders' theological discussions and even the framing of Doctrine 6 betray a nervousness that Calvinism would inevitably stunt evangelism and, specifically, destroy the possibility of a free offer of Christ to the "whosoever". That may be understandable given the number of non-evangelistic Hypercalvinists around in the 19th century, but with Spurgeon seeing such blessing just south of the river, and Whitfield's ministry not long out of memory, the Booths were not without evidence that Tulip people can be passionate evangelists.

Tragically, it is now in the historic Arminian churches of the UK that it is has become harder to hear the message of Christ offering himself to all. It would be good to make this prayer of Calvin's our own:

“Seeing that God has given us such a treasure and so inestimable a thing as His Word, we must employ ourselves as much as we can, that it may be kept safe and sound and not perish. And let every man be sure to lock it up securely in his own heart. But it is not enough to have an eye to his own salvation, but the knowledge of God must shine generally throughout the whole world.”

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My sources on Calvin and missions were principally: and