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Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Cross-Shaped Christianity

I was once listening to a preacher walk through Paul's letter to the Colossians (crawl is a better analogy). We had arrived at the section which includes "For though I am absent from you in body, I am present with you in spirit...." (2:5). This unusual and perhaps 'spooky' verse was left untouched, almost as if the preacher hadn't noticed it or had no theological apparatus to interpret it.

The fact of the matter  is that we all wear filters and one of the reasons we must listen hard to what the Spirit says to the churches is because we cannot, or worse do not want to, hear the voice of God.

The no-suffering filter is universal, but it's a larger one in the West where it is so easy to believe in Christ. We read verses about carrying the cross and suffering for him and our glazed eyes slide over them as though they weren't there. "For it has been granted (a charisma word no less) to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him but also to suffer for him..." (Philippians 1:29).

Paul and the Cross
For many of us, the cross of Jesus Christ is a 'way back then' event. A great event - the greatest event - a life-giving, a life-saving event. Nothing less, but here's the rub: nothing more.

How different for the Apostle Paul. Paul viewed the cross as a shadow that fell across his whole life and ministry, a mould into which he would pour himself, a paradigm against which to test the authenticity of his discipleship.

Far from being a "way back then' event, it was a present living daily reality.

Take for example his expectation of how a premier theologian, church planter and missionary should be treated. What would you say? Red carpets, OBEs, CBEs, honours? Paul would ask himself, How was Jesus Christ treated? Ah, he was despised and rejected by men - and so that is what he expected: beatings, lashings, prison, nakedness, hunger..... (2 Corinthians 11).

Take for example how Paul would preach to clever types. It's not that he didn't enter their world, but he asked the question, "How can my message be cross-shaped ?" "The cross is weak, the cross is foolish, how can my message reflect the cross?"  And so he determined to preach Christ and him crucified.

The only route to Resurrection power
The cross of course is not the end of the story. Paul knew another secret; he knew that the only route to glory was through suffering. If Jesus was exalted because he humbled himself, if he got to glory through the cross, there was no other way available to us. There is no success, no holiness, no fruitfulness in ministry, no influence, except through suffering, hard work, sacrifice and every other thing symbolised by the cross.

So Paul's view of suffering was not morbid, it was filled with expectant hope; that if he bore the cross, resurrection would follow as day follows night. Godliness would flow, churches would be planted, lives would be transformed.

But only if the seed first fell into the ground and died.

The Diagnostic Cross
Over my years of ministry I have come across Christians who think they can buck this Divine Trend and pass straight to glory, influence and power without the cross. They want to be big shots before they wait on tables. They want Gospel success without self-dying, hard work and self-sacrifice. But no fruit appears. And this is the diagnostic reason their ministries never bear fruit, never impact lives, never transform communities: they don't want the cross.They wonder as they reflect on their Christian service "why did I achieve so little, impact so few lives, do the world so little good?" And the answer is they served Christ when it was convenient, when it was easy, when it fit in with their schedule and when it cost nothing.

Those who take up their cross and follow him will prove true disciples and those who suffer with him will ultimately reign in glory.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

The Uncontrollable Mystery on the Bestial Floor

Zero Stats
I'll check the stats in a month or so: I expect no-one will read this blog. Not a zippy title, I have to agree.....

......but since the title is not my creation, spend a moment unpacking it. Start at the end "Bestial floor": it's Christmas remember, and what happened in a shed-for-beasts two thousand years ago? Move a little further to the left: "mystery": the child in a manger was God and Man; not a little bit God and a little bit Man, but fully God and fully Man. Who can understand that? Uncontrollable? I'd guess the author meant something like unfathomable or ineffable or sublime.

The title came from the very first edition of what was meant to be a popular theological magazine that, as a young theologian, I had subscribed to. Fancy opening the first page and being confronted with such a fog of incomprehensibility!

Fog everywhere
But it isn't only theologians who obscure the meaning of the babe in a manger. A Christian said to me this week "we've castrated the message of Christmas" and after listening to a vicar waffle at my child's nativity play I can see what he means.

We have sanitised and sandpapered the edges off that first Christmas.

The naked (ugly) truth
The naked truth is that the birth of Jesus was something of a scandal and embarrassment. Jesus was born, viewed by the world, out of a questionable relationship (she was not yet married) to an unknown woman betrothed to a poor unknown man in a backwater town in pitiable and no doubt smelly conditions. No kings or politicians announced his arrival, and the only ones who knew he was born were a pretty dismal lot. Shepherds? Low life. Astrologers? Dirty pagans. Simeon and Anna? Doddery old folk. And that's about it. Let's not smarten up the story or whitewash it in any way. Let's leave it pitiable, pathetic and foolish....

The Way it's Supposed to Be
.....because that is the way it is supposed to be. The Son of God came into this world in obscurity, shame and poverty for a very good reason. It was the way it was supposed to be. Because in this way, there is not one man nor woman living on the planet who can say "God doesn't understand me". The very lowest, the dirtiest, the saddest, the most ashamed and the poorest, can know that he understands our human life from the inside. One of Jesus' most wonderful titles is "Immanuel" which means God with us. Not God Above us, not God Judging us, but the God who has walked in our shoes and understood our plight, and who, amazing though it may seem, welcomes us, by his incredible grace, to dine with him in his Royal Court, as his Sons and Daughters, for free!

Monday, 6 December 2010

Christian Slaves

Christian Slaves?
A report on some new atrocity against the church? No, a question that arises out of Paul's letter to the Galatians.

Christians are free? Christians are slaves? Christians are free? Christians are slaves? Which is it? Remarkably, according to Paul, it's both!

Christians are free!
Believers are radically free. We can do anything we want (except sin). In particular we are free from the Jewish law - which even the Jews found impossible to bear. The Old Testament law was like a vine whose tentacles found their way into every nook and cranny of life. You could scarcely move without either obeying or disobeying some law. Imagine the burden of tithing, which the Pharisees extended to their herb gardens. Give ten percent to the temple. Well, one year 34 stalks of Basil come up, that's 3.4 stalks for the temple. Should you round down to 3 or round up to 4? If you round down, will your conscience trouble you for having broken the tithe law? What a burden, what slavery, what a heavy, heavy load.

But for people without the Spirit to control them, law is essential; without it you have anarchy and extinction. But imagine the burden of the law. So much time spent on making sure you obeyed it and so much time worrying if you hadn't and so much more time sacrificing for breaking it. What a time-consuming, energy-sapping joy-busting drag...

Jesus has set us free from all of that! And it is for freedom that he has set us we are free. We must never allow ourselves to come under law again (Galatians 5:1); not Jewish law, not church law, not tradition law......

Christians are slaves
But how then should we use all our vast time and resources and energy? How should we use our new freedom? We have a choice, well sort of choice. Either we will use it to gratify the sinful nature -  go with the flow of our fallen natures, but that is not much of a choice, for if our facebook accounts mirror the acts of the sinful nature (Galatians 5:19), we will not inherit the kingdom of God.

Or else we will use our new found freedom to become a new kind of slave. A slave of others, now driven not by fear or necessity or law, but driven by love. Instead of spending all our time in exhausting devotion to the law of Moses, we will spend our time in the joyful service of others.

Not slaves to law, but slaves to others out of love.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Creation and Judgement: why our doctrine of creation really matters

Many reasons for the First Article of Faith
There are many reasons to hold firm to the fundamental, first doctrine of the Christian faith, expressed in the Apostles' Creed like so: "I believe in God the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth.." One is this: the Scriptures continually refer to God as Creator and hence to deny this role for God is to disbelieve Scripture's witness. Other reasons include the dependent nature of all reality: only God is self-existent, "the fount of his own existence."

The connection between Creation and Judgement: 
Creation as witness to God
But a Gospel reason to hold firm to God as Creator is found in Romans 1, where Paul says that on the day of judgement, creation will be called upon as witness to his existence to those who say "there is no God." Here is the text:

"Since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities - his eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse." (1:20)

In other words God has wired us like this: as the human mind (any human mind) looks out at the beauty and design of the universe repeated at every level of existence from small to large, from living to inanimate, it is wired with a processing system which says "this is the work of  Someone, this reveals the handiwork of Someone with greater power than a human and with a different nature than a human, Someone truly, truly great."

It is actually the same reasoning process that works in every area of life: we infer the presence of intelligent beings from design or purpose, whether in archaeology, crime or the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI).  This natural process will be called upon on the last day as witness to God's existence: "You knew I existed because you saw design that could not be attributed to natural forces." Creation + mind wired for inference from complex to God = basis of Judgement on the last day.

The Theological and Gospel Peril of theistic-evolution
Those then who promote theistic evolution (TE), and mean by it that beauty, planets, galaxies and all life arose naturally and spontaneously without the help of a Creator (who was only in the background, capital B), strike at the very heart of God's witness in the world, and undermine the force of God's powerful witness to himself. Where God says "look at this intricacy, it points to me, and one day if you reject me, you'll stand guilty", TE says "look at this intricacy, it all came about by itself, no God anywhere." OK, they may add that a clever God wired the constants of the universe so that it self-evolved, but by then they have undermined the power of God's universal witness to his being and character.

We tamper with the first article of faith at our peril, and perhaps worse, we tamper with it at the peril of the lost.