Sunday, 16 April 2017

He is Risen!

I believe he rose the third day. 

The physical, historical resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the essential, non-negotiable heart of our faith. Without it, the cross is just a cross. A death. A defeat. The resurrection is the proof that the cross was a victory. 

It is an integral part of the great chain of events that begins (in terms of human history) with the incarnation and leads through to the ascension. The physicality is critical throughout; without ceasing to be what he eternally was, the Son became what he eternally was not. Who is he in yonder stall? 'Tis the Lord! Our God contracted to a span, the Creator come as one of us, in our flesh. 

We are not spirits trapped in bodies, souls needing release from an intrinsically evil material world. We are human beings, physical entities, part of God's good material creation. Our rebellion has brought injustice, pain, chaos and death into the world, and the whole natural order is affected. Our gracious God has entered this world,  united himself to our suffering condition, experienced our pain, faced our injustice and undergone our death. 

The resurrection is the pledge of future transformation of the whole creation, which is groaning, longing for the big day ahead. The resurrection reveals the man who will judge us all and lead redeemed humanity into the eternal, physical, glorious future. The risen Christ, ascended, has taken the throne and intercedes for us; the dust of the earth is sat down at the right hand of the Majesty; a real man who knows my pain and frailty and temptation speaks on my behalf in the control room of the universe.

Jesus is our man at God's right hand. Jesus is the Firstborn of the new creation, the physical pledge that the present creation's groanings will be heard and heeded and resolved. His physical resurrection was the first roar of judgement day, when this man himself will put a shocking stop to the violence and injustice and abuse and slavery that so often characterise our treatment of each other.

Abandon the physical resurrection and faith becomes super-spiritualised. Ironically, sometimes it is the very people who claim that the early church and even the New Testament itself were influenced by Greek thought, who actually capitulate to Greek thought here. Lose the robust, flesh and blood, realistic, human vision of physical resurrection, and you are left with insipid moralising or anchorless mysticism.  

The glimpse of the future creation that we have in the resurrected body of Jesus is, of course, different in some ways from our present reality. The risen Man can apparently enter a locked room, or appear at will in distant locations. But it is not less than physical, and there is a continuity with what had gone before. He ate, he drank, he was holdable and touchable. There were marks where the nails and the spear went. And he is now really physically absent from our experience. But will be back!

Despite its rather narrow doctrinal basis, the Salvation Army is oddly open and vulnerable at this point. We make no direct affirmation of the resurrection of Jesus, and that line about "the immortality of the soul" sounds vaguely Greek until rescued by "the resurrection of the body" which follows it. It ought to be impossible for anyone honest to be a soldier without believing in physical resurrection and the future re-creation, but it could have been made even harder!

The Christian message is good news. Like the News at 10 it deals with stuff that has happened. It isn't simply a philosophy, though it has huge philosophical repercussions. It isn't just a moral code or way of life, though it has huge implications for how we live. It is news, it tells of God's inbreaking into history, it proclaims the true man, our true King, to us, it offers hope of his new world and warns of the disaster of continuing in rebellion against him.  That moral challenge is so rooted in the historical event that it would be an entirely different thing without it. 

Jesus Christ is risen! We tremble at that fact. And we are filled with joy by it. And we must live by it, must speak of it, must stand firm for it, must hope in all it promises. That may turn out to be awkward at times. But so be it; united to the crucified and risen one, we will face the future boldly. 


Thursday, 6 April 2017

Jesus won the victory so we could talk to each other in church

The work of Jesus Christ is one event and a sequence of events. At its heart is the cross, with its cries of abandonment ("My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?!") and of victory ("It is finished!"). There at the Cross, the true Man committed himself decisively and finally to the path of 'obedience unto death', and in so doing overturned the act of disobedience of the other Man in whom we all died. 

But the cross, while central, is not the totality. Evangelical theologians have sometimes had less to say about the resurrection or ascension, but these are vital scenes too, as the victory is confirmed and published and rewarded. Sin and death and hell will not have the final say; Satan will not have the victory. The resurrection is the first roar of Judgement Day, God's mighty 'No!' against human injustice and all that raises itself up against him. That 'No' declares the end of sin; that 'No' announces the Judge. 

But then, the King ascends. He has the victory, he takes the spoils, and he sits down at the heart of the majestic glory. As High Priest he enters the heavenly Holiest Place on our behalf and intercedes for his people. And as Prophet, he speaks. 

Those facets of his ministry are all visible in the final once-and-for-all act of his earthly work – the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost. The one who has won the victory over sin has the right to redeem sinners from their captivity, to bring them into his victorious army, and to empower and enable them to serve. He intercedes with the Father and the Spirit is poured out. The initial chosen few begin to speak, and the last battle begins. The church makes war by the Word; the church understands, believes and speaks because the Spirit has come; the Spirit has come because Jesus Christ has won the victory. 

That is the reason for the crucial but often overlooked or skipped-over section in Eph 4:7-10. 

Paul wants to give the Ephesian believers every reason not to drift back to their former life as pagan occultists. As it is for every Christian, the most common temptation is to slide back to what they were before they met Jesus. Backsliding is generally exactly what it says – sliding back. In the Ephesians’ case, it happens to have been a life of magic, Spiritism and esoteric religion.

Every part of the letter is geared to stopping them slip back to that – to show that what they enjoy in Christ is infinitely bigger, better and more thrilling than anything they had before in their occult groups. Nowhere might that be more of an acute challenge than in the Christian meeting itself. Compared to drunken sacrifices of bulls, and to nakedness and orgies as a means of experiencing spiritual awakening, groups of people meeting to eat, pray, and to talk and discuss the Jewish scriptures must have seemed rather tame.  

It isn’t tame, says Paul. Any communication of the gospel, any pre-echo of the voice of Jesus that will be heard on the last day, any Spirit-driven word... all is the result of Jesus’ decisive victory. That applies to the once-and-for-all laying down of the definitive revelation of the gospel, through the apostles and prophets. It applies to the ongoing work of proclaiming and applying that gospel, by the evangelists and shepherds-and-teachers. And it applies to the work of every believer as all of us, in conversation and fellowship, encourage and help one another to grow in our faith.  

When Christian people meet and speak the truth – the real truth, the actual gospel – to each other, we are seeing the spoils of Jesus’ war. What we are seeing is the product of a divine invasion, an incursion. A powerful One came from outside and supernaturally intervened in a dark empire. Citizens who had been comfortable in this world were turned into rebels against this world – for they are now citizens of a new and as yet not-fully-seen kingdom. Jesus turned sinners into saints. He made the ignorant into the knowing and blasphemers into preachers. The gathering of these rebel forces is called “church”. 

The way in which this rebel movement grows is called evangelism – speaking the truth about Jesus so that other people are convinced and join up. And the way the passion and purity and power of the lives of the rebels is built up is by… talking to each other. Hearing pastors and teachers explain and apply the apostles’ and prophets’ teaching, discussing that and applying that to one another, that is the battlefield diet of an advancing and powerful army. In re-telling the gospel and its implications is nutrition and life and energy and transforming power. Mutually teaching each other the Bible is the essential basis for spiritual warfare – the battle for holiness.

Don’t be taken in by the suggestion that words are peripheral – whether to evangelism or to the life of the church. If Francis of Assisi really said “Preach Jesus – if necessary, use words!” he was no saint – but then, he never said that! Don’t be taken in by the idea that images or actions are central to our meetings. Words are. In the Salvation Army we rejected the two officially sanctioned faith-feeding visual actions early in our history; ironically the resultant vacuum has made us so hungry for the visual and physical and so inventive of secondary symbols and sacraments that the word has been at a disadvantage among us ever since. I don’t know if we will ever be able to reinstate baptism and the supper as catalysing co-workers of the word; I don’t doubt that the dethroning of the word is one of the things that is killing us. As a church we are dying of starvation. The Salvation Army is rejecting the gifts that its Saviour paid for!

The Authorised Version used the word “conversation” to describe something much broader than “talking” – it was the whole lifestyle of believers. And yet the word made a profound link between word and life: a church in its living will never rise above the quality of its talking. You have to walk the talk, but you can’t not talk. Jesus died and rose and ascended so that we could talk in church. Never underestimate the wonder of that. The Christian meeting is the counter-cultural, subversive, perturbing sign in this present world of his victory won – and of his coming return. 

See you on Sunday! 

Thursday, 30 March 2017

I am an idolater

So, Theresa has signed the blasted letter. And I’d better write something too. I have been practically inactive on here since the US presidential election, and I need to have a stern word. With myself, mainly. 

The last years have seen a resurgence of nationalism across the world – or across the “West” – that has been pretty disturbing in its manifestations and consequences. From the rise of more or less overtly racist parties across Europe, to the outpouring of frustration at a complacent Westminster in the Brexit vote and its accompanying hate incidents, and on to "America first! America first!" and the petty, self-obsessed tweets from the Trump, we have seen a descent towards tribalism and barbarism that comes as a shock. 

What has been a particular source of grief, though sadly not of surprise, is the degree to which members of the Church have attached themselves to this movement. Christians I know personally and respect highly became vocal supporters of the Orange One, explicitly in the hope that he would “Make America great again.” Such thoughts are not the exclusive preserve of Unitedstatesian Christians. That slogan is merely the American outcropping of the same stratum seen in Brexit, Le Pen, AfD, the Dutch Freedom Party and the rest. Here too Christians are on board with the nationalism; in the U.K. “taking our sovereignty back” was espoused not merely as a necessary political re-balancing, but as a theologically-driven crusade. 

Now, it may possibly be faintly discernible in what I have written that I did not vote in favour of Brexit, that I find the Washington Tweetmeister utterly detestable, and all support for him perverse. If you have picked that up, you are with me so far. Which is good, because this piece is not actually a rant against Hilary-hating, Obama-bashing, Breitbart-swallowing “Christian” America, nor against Brexiteer-believers in the U.K.  

No. It’s a rant against me and my kind. Not for being “sore losers”, because actually, in a democracy, you are allowed to go on arguing for what you believe even after a decisive vote – as an 11 year old Farage started doing in 1975. No, this rant is an attempt to deal with the utter, appalled misery into which 23 June and 8 November plunged me. It is wrung out of me as a confession that our misery and fear are merely the other side of the Trump and Brexit coin. They are manifestations of the same unbelief and idolatry.

For this wave of nationalism is a wave of idolatry. I say that as a patriotic Briton, an Englishman. I love my country, and do not have any special desire that it slide into oblivion. However, the UK will pass – and much of its glory has already gone. Nebuchadnezzar's dream of a statue is as relevant today as it was in the days of the Babylonian empire. Babylon – passed away. Persia – came and went. Greece – faded. Rome – disintegrated. And the British Empire is now just the skeleton of a shadow. I would recommend to North Americans, especially to Christians, that every time they look themselves in the eye in the shaving mirror, they tell themselves, “My country will disappear”. Before the recent election, a Trump supporter stateside urged me not to look at the candidate, but to read the GOP platform. I duly did so – but the first line of the preamble was enough for me. “We believe in American exceptionalism”: that’s idolatry, right there. Whether or not any country was great, is great or will be great, all nations are merely the dust on the scales of the One who really rules, and all will be utterly eclipsed by his coming kingdom. America is no exception: it will go – is going – the way of all the others. 

And that is where those of us who oppose Brexit may fall into exactly the same sin as those with whom we disagree. For Europe too will pass. Absolutising the need to get out of it and absolutising the need to stay in it are BOTH idolatrous. The greatest issues that we face as human beings CANNOT be dealt with by either being in OR out of the EU, they cannot be solved by either a Donald or a Hilary. And to the degree to which our anguish at Brexit or our dismay at the current POTUS is the mirror image of the triumphalism and hope of those who rejoice at last year's results, we are guilty. We are not to put our trust in princes, and nor are we to fear them – rather we are to fear the One who has power over body and soul for eternity. 

When we buy into the extreme, all-eclipsing passion which has characterised the Brexit and presidential debates, we not only run the risk of seriously damaging our unity as Christians (and much damage has been done that way), but we also reveal the degree to which we have ceased to really believe the gospel. I mean, really believe it, in a way that relativises every political issue, every ideological difference, every contemporary cultural chasm. And you may say, “Ah, but the gospel has political, ideological and cultural ramifications!” And of course it does. But not in such a way that I can bemoan our exit from the EU as if the EU were in and of itself the Kingdom of God, or rejoice in Trump's election as if he were the Messiah. 

That may appear to leave a loophole. “Oh, but we didn't mourn/rejoice like THAT!” Well, you could have fooled me! I have had to preach at myself for months in order to write this, so I know how deep the rot has gone. The drip feed of this-worldly thought has taken its toll, as has the desire, in the age of aggressive “toleration”, to avoid sticking our heads above the parapet with the actual gospel. That fear is certainly killing the Salvation Army in the U.K., and I don’t think we are alone in that. Christians in other churches, even in more consistently evangelical ones, are falling into the same trap.

We have become simply more passionate, more committed, more brave, more evangelistic about our particular political hopes and fears than we are about Jesus. Christians who love the EU and Christians who hate the EU are together being diverted from the real mission. Trump-lovers and Trump-haters are together losing the plot. And, dare I say it, theological liberals and theological conservatives are identical in practice if they are not actually talking about God’s work in Christ. You may believe in the authority of scripture as a unified, God-breathed book, you may cling to the centrality of the atonement achieved at the cross, you may sign up to the awful, eternal, populated nature of hell, but you might as well be Rob Bell if you only ever talk about Brexit, and share recipes or pictures of kittens.

For all the heat and aggression generated by recent events, feeling and speaking passionately about politics is simply less scary than talking about God’s message. In a ‘church’ where believing the gospel makes you the target for derision, it is hard enough making the basic affirmations of your faith INSIDE your community, let alone outside. But for myself I know I have to do this. I have to move on from recent events, move up to the higher issues that face us all, move back to what the gospel has always really been about. We have to lay aside idolatry and fear, and live as citizens of the eternal kingdom.

So here’s my head above the parapet. Here’s my creed. Here’s what I really have to stand for:

I believe in God the Father, Creator of the heavens and of the earth. I believe that the nations are the dust in the Almighty's scales and will all pass away. I believe that the leaders of nations are set in place and pulled down by his authority. I believe that talk which absolutises the greatness or destiny of any earthly country or union of nations is intrinsically idolatrous. 

I believe in Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son, conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered and died under the authorities of earthly kingdoms, was buried, and the third day rose from the dead. He ascended to heaven and is seated on the eternal throne at the right hand of God the Father almighty. From there he will come to judge the kingdoms and peoples of the earth, those who have lived and died in every era. Jesus Christ will give the verdict and pass the eternal sentence on every one of us. 

I believe in the Holy Spirit, whose transforming power in the lives of sinners is the only hope for this broken, fragmented and rebellious world.

I believe in the holy catholic church, which is the present manifestation of the eternal kingdom, the only community on earth whose continuity is assured for ever.

I believe in the forgiveness of sins, which is the best possible news, given that sin and guilt and judgement to come are the most pressing issues facing any human being. 

I believe in the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting, these eternal realities so relativising all earthly goals and political concerns that my anxiety to talk about them should all but drown out any comment I may make regarding laws, treaties, unions and presidents. 


I so need God’s help!

Friday, 24 February 2017

Four ways to run a denominationally structured church

1 Decisions taken at grassroots level. The people own what is happening. Can be wonderful, but can be very fraught when there is disagreement. 

2 Decisions imposed from above. Effective in stopping local divisions, but can leave people disenfranchised and, as a result, less involved and committed. 

3 A hybrid of the above, where localised decision-making and even the development of distinct decision-making structures is encouraged, but where big decisions come from above. This can be seriously horrid, especially when there is much made of local/individual consultation which then appears to be ignored/ridden over in subsequent HQ decisions. 

4 The hybrid as mentioned, but with leaks and gossiping from people who, through working at the HQ, are aware in advance of top-down decisions. The gossipers/leakers are typically far less personally affected by the decisions than are those who are kept in the dark, who then hear (sometimes unwelcome) news in the least pastorally sensitive and nuanced way possible.


If you want a serious and miserable stink, I recommend 4.