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How does the cross trouble you?

17/04/2014

The CrossThis Good Friday Christians remember, reflect upon and celebrate the death of Jesus, the Messiah.

Christianity is nothing without the cross. (And the cross is nothing without the resurrection – but that’s for another day).

Paul would only boast in the cross (Gal.6:14). Christians are baptised into the death of Christ. The share the Lord’s Supper to remember and proclaim Christ’s death. The gospel begins with ‘Christ died for our sins’.

But to boast about or celebrate the cross would have been utterly bizarre for a first century person, especially a Jew. It should strike us as pretty weird too but we are inoculated by over-familiarity.

A positive assessment of a barbaric pagan execution method? Impossible. A crucified Messiah? Grotesque.

If Good Friday reminds us of anything, it is of the shocking ‘otherness’ of God. His ways are not predictable or nice or neat.

The life and mission of Jesus began and ended in violence and bloodshed. His ministry was shaped by increasing conflict that climaxed in a solitary,  brutal and unjust death at the hands of Empire.

And yet the united witness of the NT writers is that this was no accidental or insignificant event,  but God’s dramatic confrontation of sin and death and evil in his Son made flesh.

No-one imagined that this would be the identity and calling of the Messiah until Jesus burst on the scene, healing people, announcing the coming kingdom and uttering dark predictions about his voluntary, sacrificial and substitutionary death (Mk 10:45).

The cross announces to all that our lives and this world are so broken and distorted by sin that absolutely nothing else can begin to set things right except the death of the Son. For if there was any other way to effect forgiveness and avert the wrathful judgement of God, then the cross would indeed become a symbol of an unjust and unloving Father who allows his Son to suffer unnecessarily.

This death is the decisive event in God’s saving purposes for individuals and for all of creation. It is a place where something so deep and mysterious happened that the Bible talks about it in multiple ways. For centuries Christians have wrestled with what happened at the cross – how atonement ‘works’ – and it’s remarkable how no one explanation can ‘capture’ the atonement, it is simply too big and rich and breathtaking to tie down in one image or idea.

But, however understood, it calls each and every person to worship of the self-giving God who in himself and out of love atones for sin, enacts just judgement, defeats sin and death and overcomes evil.

Too often, Christians can think of the cross as only a ‘past event’.

But the cross is never an end in itself – it is only the beginning of a whole new life within the bigger picture of salvation. Consider Titus 2:11-14

11 For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. 12 It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, 13 while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.

The self-giving Messiah dies to redeem his people from something to something else: from a life lived for the self in this age, to a life shaped by the age to come.

All of the Christian life is to be lived under the shadow of the cross – the Christian life is nothing if not cruciform. To follow Jesus in living life for the good of others; in putting to death the old and putting on the new; in being willing to face suffering.

As I think about Good Friday I am troubled by how comfortable and untroubled I am by this God.

This cross confronts my self-sufficiency – it announces to you and me that there is no human way of salvation for if righteousness could be gained in any other way then ‘Christ died for nothing’.

The cross confronts my theology of God himself. I fear that in studying the big picture unfolding narrative of the Bible and being able to see something of how it fits together, God can be all too easily boxed away; his present and future actions fitting safely within the boundaries of an already written story that we, as NT Christians, now have a much fuller understanding of than in the OT.

But at the cross, God exploded his people’s understanding of who he was and what he could and would do. I wonder how and where he might do the same for his people today?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

 

 

 

crazy little thing called love

04/04/2014

The church is a unique sort of community. All those in Christ are brothers and sisters (adelphoi) within the family of God. Blood ties are relativised. The issue of Paul’s day was that being Jewish is no longer of any spiritual significance within the covenant. Membership of the family is by faith in Jesus and the gift of the Spirit.

But the thing about a family is that you don’t get to choose who else is a member. Family life ain’t always easy and often it can be damned difficult.

Same with the church – you have no control over who else is in the household! There are differences of age, culture, language, personality, opinion, doctrine, maturity, gender, taste and well … you add your own to the list …..

As we’ve talked about in a couple of recent posts, conflict is an inevitable part of family life – whether at home, the church or a Christian organisation.

The crucial ingredient to maintain strong healthy family life, without which any family will eventually fall apart, is that crazy little thing called love.

Love is hard to define and pin down. You tend to know it when you see it or experience it from someone. Often it is easier to spot unloving behaviour. Paul does a bit of the latter in 1 Corinthians 13 when he says what love isn’t:

It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil

But he also says what love is

Love is patient, love is kind … love rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails

Paul has a ton to say about love. Scholars have long recognised that it lies at the core of his ethics. Most of his letters are written to address some sort  of community problem of one sort of another. He knew about the importance of love.

If love was absent, he could write letters til the papyrus ran out and they wouldn’t make a whit of difference. Paul is no romantic idealist when it comes to love.

One of his more remarkable statements is this one from Galatians 5:6

‘the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love’

Faith (and not the Torah / circumcision) has been the big theme of the letter. This is a radical thing for a Jewish man to say. But Paul knows how easy it is to be ‘correct’ theologically and yet miss the point. For faith in Christ to be authentic it must express itself through love.

Elsewhere in Galatians:

- love is the primary characteristic of the fruit of the Spirit (5:22).

- The entire purpose of the law is summed up by ‘Love your neighbour’ (5:14).

- The goal of freedom in Christ is to ‘serve one another in love’ (5:13).

And that’s just Galatians.

Elsewhere, Paul talks lots about how God loves his people, most supremely in the self-giving death of his Son. Christians are to love one another (repeated theme). God has poured out his love into their hearts by the Spirit (Rom 5:5).

Christians are simply to do everything in love (1 Cor 16:14).

Now this sort of love to those outside the immediate family would have been considered bizarre in the Greco-Roman world. Love for others, across boundaries of race, gender, social status, hierarchy, culture and religion was alien and unparalleled.

Such love is as counter-cultural and counter-intuitive today as it was then.

I’ll say it again – Christianity should appear to be crazy when compared to the norms of wider culture.

And if all this is true, what are some implications?

Why is love so easily sidelined, and often little talked about, in  a lot of Christian ministry? What takes its place?

Can or should churches and Christian organisations (and individuals for that matter) do some sort of ‘love audit’? A check on relational health? Have you heard of this sort of thing?

One thing is sure I think: the longer a Christian, a church, a ministry continues rolling along, busy in activity yet without love, eventually the wheels will fall off.

And there is nothing more powerful, missional, transformative and attractive than love being put into practice. For love makes visible the presence of God’s Spirit.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Cheesman on conflict

02/04/2014

ConflictGraham Cheesman is a friend and colleague and blogs once a month or so at Teaching Theology.

His posts are always worth waiting for; seasoned with grace and wisdom. This one is especially good and offers a practical and challenging framework for facing conflict. Graham’s context is a theological college. but much applies to any Christian organisation or church.

Recall that the report on conflict within churches in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland concluded that ALL the cases reviewed were to do with relational breakdown, not one was about  differences of doctrine.

Put differently: in Christian ministry, having a common set of beliefs, a common task, being efficient and productive, reaching goals and targets, being successful in fundraising, growing the church or organisation – none of this, to paraphrase Paul in 1 Cor 13, is worth much more than a Ryan Air trumpeted celebration for landing on time if there are not loving relationships at the core of all the activity.

Those relationships are not secondary to the work, they are the authentication of the work for they show the presence of the Spirit whose fruit they are.

This is why conflict is fundamentally a spiritual issue – for it revolves around issues like forgiveness, repentance, humility, showing grace, considering others better than ourselves, having the maturity to know ourselves with sober judgement, kindness, doing to others as you would have them do to you.

Over to Graham:

Dealing with differences

I doubt if it will come as a shock to anyone reading this that those working in our colleges do not always agree with each other and that tension sometimes occurs between staff.

People are complicated and every situation is different, but are there some basic rules that we can all follow to help us in such situations? Here are a few suggestions – OK, more than a few but life is more complicated than four simple rules:-

  1. If you are in leadership, do everything you can to lead within an open and trusting relationship with staff.
  2. If you are staff, recognise the complexity of the task of leading and recognise the authority of those who lead.
  3. Remember that the best decisions, especially in a time of conflict, are those taken together with as many people involved as possible, who then own the decision.
  4. Exhibit gentleness as a fundamental Christian virtue – both a beatitude and a fruit of the spirit – it must govern the way we speak to others and of others at all times.
  5. Acknowledge weakness and sin in all. We are not, any of us, wonderful people with perfect hearts who nonetheless occasionally make mistakes. We are all selfish, sinful, weak human beings and we therefore need to be humble with ourselves and forgiving of others.
  6. Say sorry when necessary. It is a sign of maturity and strength, not weakness. Everyone knows you are not perfect, so why pretend to be?
  7. Strive for consensus, but if that is not possible, look for compromise, except on those things that damage the fundamental mission of the college.   Even God compromised with his people in the Old Testament.
  8. Be there. Spend time in each other’s offices; of those we agree with, but especially of those we disagree with. Leadership especially needs to be constantly talking with all staff on their own territory.
  9. Always thank God that you are working together for him in such an influential job as theological education, training the future leaders of his church.
  10. Model for the students the attitudes and processes of good, loving, co-operative Christian service in a team. If you can’t do that, better stop teaching them scripture.
  11. Respect must always be offered and be seen to be offered to all by all. In some situations, trust breaks down, but basic respect must survive – to those above you, below you and alongside you, at all times.
  12. Attend to the issue of communication, especially from the decision makers to all affected; from one department to the other; to all, about everything possible, in every way.
  13. Consider whether the structure of the college and in particular its leadership and decision making structure, needs to be changed.
  14. If you are in leadership, never simply tell staff off for their attitudes but deal with the issues.
  15. Remember that your unity is based on a common experience of Christ. You are in the same family together whatever arguments may take place within that family.

There is nothing more difficult than leading in a time of conflict, or being authentically Christian in a time of conflict.   However, when those in an organisation come back to a position of serving together with joy after a difficult period, this is a wonderful gift of God.

an antediluvan review

02/04/2014

NoahDavid Instone-Brewer of Tyndale House has a surprisingly positive (to me anyway, given it’s Hollywood) pre-release review of Noah. I might even go to see it ..

For once it is no hype to say this film has a canvas of Biblical proportions.

Though in today’s language you might compare it more accurately with Lord of the Rings. Look out for images akin to Isengard, fighting as impressive as Aragorn’s and creatures suspiciously similar to the Ents.

If you are wondering where all this fits into Genesis, be prepared to let your imagination soar. Storylines from the Book of Enoch, other Jewish myths and the director’s imagination supplement the Bible text. Together they create a compelling story and a surprise ending.

Charlton Heston famously defined an epic as a film that he starred in. He was wonderful at portraying strength with a smouldering anger. Russell Crowe is starting to fill his shoes, and is very suitable as Noah, because he can show the same strength though with an underlying sadness. In this film he also adds a convincing hint of madness, but I mustn’t give too much away.

It is unfair to ask “Is it accurate?” If it were, there would be only ten minutes of story plus lots more special effects. Actually, “special effects” is an understatement. Throughout the film everything is so real that I was glad it wasn’t in 3D.

The really 3D aspect of this film is in the characterisation. Noah and his sons are totally believable and the tensions with Ham flesh out the Biblical narrative convincingly. But the female roles carry the dramatic turning points, conveyed with Oscar-quality acting. They also get the best lines and appear to speak the director’s message.

Although the film takes liberties with the story of Noah, the essential message of Genesis is conveyed clearly and accurately. The story of Eden, the snake, temptation, the murder of Abel and subsequent decline of humanity is referred to frequently. The bigger picture of God’s plan to undo this damage is hinted at, but it would not be true to Genesis to state this clearly.

“How do we know God’s will?” is the unspoken question addressed by various characters throughout the film. How can Noah know what to do, and does he really understand God’s plan accurately? His dream informs him but also misleads him. His wife (who, as in the Bible, is nameless), says the goodness in our character comes from God so we should listen to it. Tubal-Cain, the violent self-appointed king, says God has left us to do whatever we want.

This film shouldn’t be seen as an accurate portrayal of the Bible, but can be treated as a thought-provoking way to explore the message of Genesis.

Struggling with conflict? Let the church help

25/03/2014

Conflict

OK, the title of this post is tongue-in-cheek. I’m not being cynical, but am pointing to the deep irony and failure of a Christian community called to reconciliation by the grace of God at the same time being a place of division, conflict, unforgiveness and hardness of heart.

A friend of mine, Joe Campbell, last year researched and delivered a report to the General Board of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland related to conflict. It’s a public document which can be found here if you dig a bit (p.37 on).  In it Joe talks of the need for honesty and transparency around conflict, so it seems appropriate to talk about it here.

It’s a hard-hitting self-appraisal. Christians need to admit that conflict is endemic within church life and that it is nearly always handled poorly. Too many people I know have been hurt by the fall-out of conflict in church life to ignore the reality.

Some points that stand out to me:

1.Causes of conflict

60 cases of conflict were reviewed that had been referred to a formal conciliation process. (Far more conflict situations are handled locally and others end up in the formal judicial courts of the church). There were a variety of factors that had caused conflict in the 60 cases:

-   35 cases reflected tensions between a minister and some elders. All of these cases had been going on for a long time

- some involved conflict over church property decisions

- some involved mental health issues

- some involved individuals or families within a church congregation

NOT ONE involved points of theology. ALL of them revolved around breakdown in vital relationships

 2. Insights gained from Mediators

Joe talked with those involved in conciliation. Some points highlighted included:

Conflict seems to bring out the worst in the best of people. There is an enormous human cost to badly handled conflicts within Congregations. Spouses and children feel and see the effects’

“Mediators uncovered an attitude within our Church of confrontation, an unforgiving spirit and at times a deep desire among disputants to have their case heard by Commission of Presbytery or Judicial Commission. It seems we are a people more comfortable with rules than relationships.

3. Insights gained from interviewees

He also talked with people in churches. Again some comments that stand out to me:

- Treating conflict in a formal way early on was a typical response via rules and regulations

- None of those interviewed reported on any healthy supportive pastoral support for Ministers or Elders during tense times.

- The church’s systems for handling conflict “seem hidden to most members, overly bureaucratic, involving carefully written submissions even at an early stage of a process, and takes a long time. Several who have experienced commissions spoke of how they are just not user friendly, law based not relational.”

And the strongest finding I think was this one:

 “It seems clear from everyone I spoke to that conflict is viewed as  wrong, even sinful. It is kept hidden, sometimes ignored, spoken of in hushed tones, and too often leaves people feeling helpless, sometimes angry. Some try to spiritualise conflict seeing it as an attack from the forces of evil. A situation where victory must be experienced at all costs since God is on “my” side. We need somehow to see conflict as normal, since God in His great wisdom has made us all different. How we handle it will make it a bad and negative experience or a good and positive one. The establishment of a good and functioning service to help us handle conflict well, should be seen as a sign of health in our Church, rather than the dominant view as sickness. There were no positive experiences spoken, of conflict being handled well, producing change, new growth, more real relationships, and a greater awareness of God’s love and grace.

No positive experiences of conflict – at all – in a national denomination that exists to follow Jesus who happens to have rather a lot to say about love, giving up of rights and forgiveness.

Joe concludes with what is probably an understatement:

It seems clear that we as a Church need to recapture the attitude and skills obvious in several Biblical models of talking, listening, searching for solutions, praying together, and above all loving, and the giving and receiving of forgiveness.

The report then makes many practical and wise recommendations in light of its serious findings which I hope are ‘owned’ and acted upon with intent.

Some personal comments and questions for discussion if you would like to join in:

- The report is in a context of a historic denomination that has accumulated lots of rules and bureaucracy over centuries. The comments about rules before relationships is fascinating and makes me wonder about the impact of Protestantism’s dominant judicial and abstract understanding of the atonement – but  better leave that for another day.

- Its findings are not surprising – but that in itself is scant comfort. They are shocking – or should be. Christians above all, should be best equipped to handle conflict in a transformative way – yet the complete opposite often appears to be the case. (But it should be said here that untold numbers of acts of grace and forgiveness that lead to healing are by definition ‘invisible’ – we only see the visible damage caused by relational breakdown).

- What do you think lies behind this evident failure to match faith with practice?: to fail to apply and live out the gospel of reconciliation in our relationships?

What are your reflections on church conflict and how it is dealt with?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Musings on the strange and wonderful thing called life

20/03/2014

I had a ‘significant’ birthday recently. Of course, one day is like another and so such milestones are artificial. But milestones have a very useful function – or at least they did when we measured distance in miles and when people went on long journeys by foot or horse and actually took note of the numbers on a stone by the side of the road. Those numbers told you where you were on the journey; how far you’d come, how far yet to go.

A birthday milestone tells you how far you’ve come, but nothing of course about how far you have to go …!

Anyway, at a serious risk of cliché, life indeed is like a journey.  I was going to use the analogy of a train that keeps going and you can’t get off. But that sounded too much like a prison and who wants to spend their life trapped by Irish Rail?

A pilgrimage is the classic way Christians have viewed this strange and wonderful affair we call life. For a pilgrimage is a journey with a destination at the end. There is a discipline and focus to a pilgrimage. It has a clear goal. And that goal is to shape how life is lived in the here and now.

C. S Lewis said that it was Christians who were the most heavenly minded that were of the most earthly use – I think he’s dead right.

If the purpose of the Christian life is future-orientated and relational – one day no longer ‘seeing through a glass darkly’ but seeing God ‘face to face’ – then how we live now, what we do with our lives, how we spend our days, time and money, will all be shaped by preparing for that future. It is lived with a very conscious awareness that ‘life now’ is NOT an end in itself. Yes, it will come to an end, but much more significant is what lies beyond the end. This is why Paul could talk of persecution and possible violent death in terms of ‘our light and momentary troubles’ (see 2 Cor 4 as a whole).

This is of course completely nuts within a western consumer culture that has its goal pleasure, wealth, comfort, convenience and limitless choice.

The author of Hebrews and Paul both use the image of a race for the Christian life for good reason. To run a race you need training, discipline, perseverance and focus. I’m trying to prepare for a 10K run in May and it is hard going for I have not enough of any of those things!

Acts 20:24 I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.

1 Cor. 9:24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.

Gal. 5:7 You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth?

2 Tim. 4:7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.

Hebrews 12:1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us

Since these are musings, I wonder if Christianity in the West is in such bad shape because it is terminally distracted from running the race? Or  even forgetting that we are even in a race? Has the idea of pilgrimage / race been eclipsed in modern church life? Are we more like tourists rather than athletes or pilgrims?: wandering around, taking in the sights, enjoying all the experiences life has to offer but not really getting anywhere?

In other words, I wonder if we have lost the New Testament’s overwhelming eschatological focus?

But on a more positive note: God’s grace is deep, he picks us up when tired and weary and lost. He forgives us our idolatry and pursuit of created temporary things. He gives us his Spirit to guide and empower along the way.

And we don’t run alone. By far the most enjoyable thing about my birthday was that it was spent celebrating with others. We need company along the road – to encourage and be encouraged to keep pressing on til the end.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

A delightful Jewish parable

19/03/2014

In Deuteronomy  24:19 it says

When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.

Someone kindly pointed me to a Jewish parable, probably from around the time of Jesus, about this verse. Here it is:

A certain pious man [hasid] forgot a sheaf in the middle of his field. He said to his son, “Go and offer two bullocks on my behalf, for a burnt offering and a peace offering.” His son said to him, “Father, why are you more joyful at fulfilling this one commandment than all the other commandments in Torah?” He said to him, “The Lord gave us all the commands in Torah to obey intentionally, but he only gave us this one to obey accidentally.”

For if we obeyed this deliberately before the Lord, we would not be fulfilling the command. He said to him: It says, “When you reap the harvest of your field, and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back and get it; it shall be for the stranger, the fatherless and the widow” [Deut.24.19]. Scripture thereby sets out a blessing.

What is interesting about this delightful story is how it sheds light on the motive for Jewish keeping of the law.

Often Christians have caricatured Judaism as being a legalistic form of works-righteousness, coupled with a rather grim sense of desperately trying to do enough good works to appease a forbidding, harsh and rather impersonal God who is busy weighing the scales of good works versus bad.

This parable tells a different story.

This was the only law that could only be fulfilled accidently. It could not be planned for; action could only follow forgetfulness! See how this Jewish man is therefore overjoyed that his bad memory has given him an unexpected opportunity to fulfil this law.

And, like many of Jesus’ parables, there is an outrageous result. His offering of two bullocks was ‘way over the top’ in terms of cost. This sense of wild exaggeration is making a serious point to the listeners; Yes the law is to be obeyed in every area of life, but it is a joy and delight to obey the law.

The parable does not talk about fear as a motive for obedience. Rather, the motive for obedience is joy – the sheer joy of pleasing God and doing his will. This is obedience out of love and relationship. The parable is celebrating an unplanned and unexpected opportunity to obey another law.

How does this fit with your view of the Judaism of Jesus’ day?

Comments, as ever, welcome.  

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