Falling over themselves to explain Easter

Sacrifice, justification, redemption, penal substitution, ransom, healing, victory, example, reconciliation …..

The writers of the New Testament are falling over themselves to explain the saving work of God on the cross. All of these pictures or metaphors are ways to explain what happened at the cross.

And all of them would be meaningless if it were not for the resurrection (1 Cor 15). The resurrection is the seal, the vindication, the visible triumph of God in Christ through the Spirit over sin and death and evil. We celebrate today Resurrection Day.

They are not, however, random pictures. They are creatively and imaginatively chosen in the midst of ‘flesh and blood’ letters and gospels  consistently to interpret the cross of Jesus through the lens of the biblical story. In a very real sense, the entire New Testament is a theological reflection on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in terms of fulfilment of God’s promises to Israel. And these fulfilled promises now extend wider than Israel. The astonishing good news of Easter and Pentecost to come, is that this is a victory won by no localised Jewish Messiah, but a saviour for the world.

We can’t understand the depth and wonder of the cross without that OT framework. And even then, we will only scratch the surface. Such is the magnificence of saving work of God, there is no one picture that can possibly capture its scale and beauty.

To change the metaphor to a golfing one (from Scot McKnight in A Community Called Atonement – an excellent book ) we need to play with all the clubs in the bag if we are to play well. Each club is designed to do a particular job. If we play with one club all the time, our game will become one-dimensional and much less effective. And there are a lot of clubs in the Bible’s bag …

All of these pictures of the atonement are different ways of explaining HOW the gospel of Jesus the Messiah is good news (forgiveness, peace with God, right relationship with God, adopted as children into the promise, victory over sin and death etc).

God’s work of salvation is comprehensive and complete; it cannot be bettered.

They point to the COST of salvation. Jesus died for a purpose. The cross is necessary.

They show us WHY we need salvation. Enslaved, under judgement, captives who need releasing, facing death …

They point to the immeasurable LOVE of the triune God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit  (1 John 4:9-10)

This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.

With best wishes to you for a joyful Resurrection Day

The call of the cross

A Good Friday Reflection

Without the croMonasterboice High Crossss, Christians have nothing whatsoever distinctive to say.

The cross is at the heart of all truly Christian theology. The Christian life is a life lived under the shadow of the cross.

The gospels can be described as passion narratives with extended introductions. While you might be uneasy with this (does it not relegate Jesus’ birth, life and preaching of the kingdom to secondary importance?) the fact is that the birth, life and teaching of Jesus are all cross-directed. They lose all sense and coherence without the cross.

Matthew captures the developing conflict with the authorities which leads to his climatic abandonment and death. All happening to fulfil the words of the prophets.

Mark consistently talks of discipleship in terms of suffering and the way of the cross  (8:34-8). Jesus’ own clear self-understanding of his mission is famously summed up in 10:45 where he comes not to be served but to give his life a ‘ransom for many’ – a reference to the servant of Isaiah in 52:13-53:12.

Matthew also links to Isaiah 53, a profoundly important framework for the mission of the Messiah (Matt. 8:17; 12:17-21).

Luke describes Jesus setting his face to Jerusalem, the place of his death and the focus of mission (9:51).

John opens with Jesus ‘the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (1:29). His whole gospel is focused on the death (and glorification) of the Christ. His link to Passover is echoed by Paul who calls Jesus ‘our Passover lamb’ (1 Cor 5:7). Here is the cross as sacrifice for sin, a theme expanded on at length in the book of Hebrews.

Paul wants to know nothing but know nothing but “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 1:1-2). He talks of Christ crucified being the power and wisdom of God. While Jews look for miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, ‘we preach Christ crucified’ (1 Cor 1:18-25).

The foundational act of fellowship within the early Christian communities is a meal to remember and proclaim Christ’s death (1 Cor 11:26). In terms of the gospel, it is of first importance that Christ ‘died for our sins’ (1 Cor. 15:1-5). To be a Christian at all means to be ‘baptised into his death’ (Roms. 6:3). If Paul is to boast in anything, he will only boast in the cross of Christ (Gal. 6:14).

Take Colossians 2: 13-15. It is at the cross that sin is atoned for and forgiveness achieved. It is at the cross that condemnation and judgement are dealt with through Christ our substitute taking the penalty for sin. It is at the cross that a decisive victory is won over the powers and authorities opposed to the reconciling work of God.

“When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”

Or back to Corinthians: It is at the cross that the rulers of this age are ‘outsmarted’ – they did not comprehend the wisdom of God seen in the mystery of the cross, “the hidden wisdom which God predestined before the ages to our glory; the wisdom which none of the rulers of this age has understood; for if they had understood it they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor 2:7-8?)

Take Romans 5:1-11: It is the cross which supremely reveals the depth of the love of God “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” It is the cross which speaks of the immeasurable grace of God since we are powerless to save ourselves. It is the cross which leads to justification (being declared righteous) and reconciliation (peace with God). It is the death of Christ which saves us from God’s wrath.

Yes, yes, the cross must never be separated from the resurrection – otherwise it remains a brutal form of execution; a place of death and despair. Yes, the cross lead to Pentecost where the victory won at Golgotha leads to the outpouring of the promised Spirit.

But the Scriptures are insistent that something unique happened at the cross. The texts are packed full of images and stories and metaphors of what went on there – and quite rightly we should unpack and explore each one. But the very diversity of images should tell us something. No-one image or picture or theme can neatly capture the cross. We need so many of them because what happened at the cross is something that is profoundly mysterious and beyond easy explanation.

So let’s never get so wrapped up in debates about how the cross works, or what it achieves, that we miss what the cross of Christ calls us to.

It calls us to worship, to adoration, to thanksgiving, to humility, to self-giving lives lived to honour God. It calls us to die to ourselves and live for him. It calls us to be willing to suffer for our faith. It calls us to give up power and control and manipulation as routes to ‘success in ministry’. It certainly calls us to reject violence as followers of a crucified Messiah. It calls us to daily repentance and fresh seeking of the generous grace of God. It calls to wholehearted love of the one who first loved us.

Tenebrae, lament and tears

tenebraeThis evening our wee church will be having what has become an annual Tenebrae Service (‘Service of Shadows’)

I’ve found it a very moving and powerful way of reflecting on the passion of Christ and am grateful to those who got us started some years ago. It’s structured around a liturgy of music, Scripture, silence and a gradual extinguishing of lighted candles after each reading. It ends in darkness when the lit Christ candle is carried out of the room and people leave in silence.

The scripture readings focus on the betrayal, arrest, suffering and death of Jesus, and on the cross as the climatic fulfilment of God’s redemptive purposes.

There are few places within low-church Protestant and evangelical spirituality for silent reflection together on the suffering love of the Messiah. Perhaps this is one reason why Tenebrae makes such an impact each year.

There are perhaps even fewer places for lament, and perhaps even tears, in the songs we sing, in the busy Sunday services we have, and in the activist lives we lead.

What place does lament, and perhaps tears, have for you at Easter?

Tears perhaps of gratitude & wonder at the self-giving character of God?

Or perhaps tears of repentance?

Or perhaps tears for the sacrificial suffering of the innocent One?  “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” (2 Cor 8:9)

Or perhaps tears at the brutal apparent finality of the enemy that is death?

Or tears at the brokenness, violence and systemic injustice of the world we live in?

But when that Christ candle leaves the room in darkness, it is not extinguished ….

EAI, same-sex marriage and Irish secularism?

Another timely related post to the EAI statement on same-sex marriage is by Roger Olson who has a gift for clarity and not being dull.

In this post he’s discussing the difference between ‘secularism’ and ‘secularity’ (after theologian Harvey Cox).

On the one hand, there is a version of secularism as being anti-religious.

The EAI statement has a negative view of this type of aggressive and exclusive secularism and sees it as increasingly influential in Ireland. A Government operating on the basis of secularism is seeking to exclude religious voices from public discourse through laws and a culture of ‘opprobrium’. In this model, religious views are not to be welcomed, tolerated or given space since they ‘threaten’ equality, tolerance and diversity.There is an active resistance to hearing religious voices or giving them space to be heard.

This sort of secularism, is manifestly blind to its own prejudices, agendas and ethical value judgements. The conceit is that the secularist society alone is somehow neutral and objective and free from such primitive judgementalism.

As Olson asks, why should secularist beliefs be privileged in the forming of laws? Aren’t many liberal views based on and rooted in religious beliefs? (equality, civil rights and so on). Hasn’t postmodernity taught us that there is no such thing as a purely ‘neutral’ and ‘objective’ source of human reason?

What do you think? Are we in Ireland at the level of secularism suggested in the EAI statement on same-sex marriage?  Do you see evidence for an  “entirely secularist” agenda “currently being proposed by those who affirm the social philosophy which seeks, illiberally, to eradicate the religious voice from the public square.”? 

On the other hand, there is a version of ‘secularity’ that refers to the separation between church and state.

A Government operating on the basis of secularity allows space for diverse views without privileging the church. At its best, this produces a civil public square, where all can be heard and all enter on an equal basis. And of course many (right-thinking 😉 ) Christians endorse this anabaptist model as being good for the church and for society in general.

Comments, as ever, welcome

EAI, Same-Sex Marriage and Ireland

A timely recent post related to the EAI statement on Same Sex Marriage.

Ben Witherington talks about what marriage is and isn’t. Like EAI, he supports civil unions but opposes the redefinition of marriage.

The EAI statement focused primarily on the threats posed by an illiberal secularism to human rights and a civil society. While important, this emphasis meant that while same-sex marriage was talked about as being a ‘retrograde step’ for the common good, a weakness in the argument was it didn’t really give reasons why.

Witherington gets into the ‘why’ a bit more.  He refers to an article from CNN written by three lawyers. This is Witherington’s summary of the lawyers’ argument.

First, the redefinition of marriage will undermine the marriage itself and will inevitably lead to more and more forms of ‘marriage’.

If marriage is just the emotional bond “that matters most” to you — in the revealing words of the circuit judge who struck down California Proposition 8 — then personal tastes or a couple’s subjective preferences aside, there is no reason of principle for marriage to be pledged to permanence. Or sexually exclusive rather than “open.” Or limited to two spouses. Or oriented to family life and shaped by its demands.

In that case, every argument for recognizing two men’s bond as marital –equality, destigmatization, extending economic benefits — would also apply to recognizing romantic triads (“throuples,” as they are now known). Refusing such recognition would be unfair — a violation of equality — if commitment based on emotional companionship is what makes a marriage.”

Second, marriage is NOT just a ‘bond of affection’.  “The attractive civil rights rhetoric of “marriage equality” masks a profound error about what marriage is.”

“All human beings are equal in dignity and should be equal before the law. But equality only forbids arbitrary distinctions. And there is nothing arbitrary about maximizing the chances that children will know the love of their biological parents in a committed and exclusive bond. A strong marriage culture serves children, families and society by encouraging the ideal of giving kids both a mom and a dad.

Witherington adds other more theological reasons of his own that have general implications for marriage in general beyond the church.  If both male and female are made in the image of God and it is together that they are complete, then gender difference matters in the marriage relationship. A father and a mother give children something that two men or  two women can’t. There is a purposeful duality to human nature.

Within the church for believers, for both Jesus and Paul, “heterosexual monogamy and celibacy in singleness were the only legitimate options for Jesus’ disciples.” Witherington argues that no Christian minister should be “advocating or solemnizing non-marriages as if they were God-blessed marriages.”

See here for Steve Chalke’s very different view on this in his own words.  He has blessed monogamous gay-unions and says

I leave it to others to debate whether a Civil Partnership plus a dedication and blessing should equal a marriage or not. But I do believe that the Church has a God given responsibility to include those who have for so long found themselves excluded.

A few musings and, as ever, feel welcome to add your own:

Witherington does stress that far more than just a man and woman together is needed for a marriage to be a good one – marriage needs love for one another and for children if it is to work (and is not just all about children). Neither is he saying homosexual couples don’t love one another etc. He is saying, like EAI, that civil unions provide the context for same-sex relationships to be recognised by the state with various legal implications. But marriage by definition is a relationship between a man and woman.

I think the argument made by EAI and Witherington needs to be articulated by Christians (with grace and charity). They have as much democratic right as anyone else to make their case. They don’t of course have any automatic right for their views to be privileged.

Especially given Ireland’s recent past, getting a hearing for that case is hard work and likely to fall on stony ground. Religious views are increasingly seen as threats to tolerance, equality and diversity in an increasingly secularist society. The ‘civil right’ narrative around marriage is hugely persuasive, popular and politically potent.

Therefore, one of the greatest contemporary challenges for Christians (in Ireland / the West) is to be thinking through how to relate to a culture that is detaching itself from its Christendom past. In terms of mission, ethics, witness, citizenship and so on.

Another is how to relate with love, grace, respect and Christ-likeness to a gay community which has all too often not experienced any of those attitudes when it comes to church?

And in terms of critical self-reflection – why do Christians all but idolise marriage, the middle-class nuclear home, 2.2 kids and all that jazz? Why is it held up as the ultimate expression of the ‘good life’ ? (and I speak as someone only missing the .2 children from that description, still looking).

Evangelical Alliance Ireland on same-sex marriage

The Steering Group of Evangelical Alliance Ireland have released a statement on marriage submitted to the Constitutional Convention. The Convention had invited statements on same-sex marriage by March 19.

Some previous blog posts on the Civil Partnership Bill are here, here and here.

Feel welcome to share your thoughts:

Full statement from the Evangelical Alliance Ireland Steering Group

1. Evangelical Alliance Ireland, contrary to general trends in the international and interdenominational evangelical movement, supported the Government’s declared intention to bring about a fair legislative response to the reality in Irish society of same-sex relationships, a process that resulted in the introduction of the Civil Partnerships Bill.

2. In this focused support of civil rights for homosexual people EAI demonstrated its commitment to affirming the civil rights of those with whom, on certain grounds, they otherwise disagreed. This support was based on a belief that evangelical Christians should have a concern not only for their own wellbeing but also for the wellbeing of society as a whole. It was also based on the recognition that the governments of modern societies must take account of the multiple worldviews and value systems of their diverse populations. Irish society comprises both secularist and religious approaches to society, and this diversity is expressed in what is more appropriately termed civil society.  The ‘polis’ is neither entirely religious, nor entirely secularist, as currently being proposed by those who affirm the social philosophy which seeks, illiberally, to eradicate the religious voice from the public square.

3. EAI supports the development of a truly civil society. Therefore it is concerned that in the current (and democratically limited) process of contributing to the proposed further and aeon-changing step of redefining marriage in the Constitution the process itself is being ideologically driven, in no small part, by a philosophically secularist and not by a truly inclusive vision of a civil society, and will raise the possibility of further unforeseen and unintended violations of civil rights.

4. Evangelical Alliance Ireland does not regard the redefinition of marriage as either a progressive or a beneficial development in Irish society. Since heterosexual marriage has been the basic building block of virtually every society, change should only be considered where there is clear evidence that a new definition of marriage will bring social benefit to society as a whole. It is the responsibility of those proposing this radical change to produce such evidence.

5. We are concerned at what appears to be an inexorable move from a religious to a secularist society, rather than to a truly civil and democratic one. We believe this will lead to an increased social opprobrium for those for whom their religious convictions on marriage inform their conscience and practice and the instruction given to their children. The imposition by force of Constitutional law of an alternative point of social reference will probably expose individuals and organisations from a variety of religious traditions to censure, the removal of historic freedoms of conscience, and to other legal restrictions. This is already the case in the United Kingdom, and the language of the Irish political discourse in this process is notably devoid of specific and clear support for the religious freedoms guaranteed in Article 18 of the United Nations Convention on Human Rights. This opprobrium is made evident in the language of many of the submissions to this Convention and in some of the higher-profile political statements.

6. The imposition upon Irish society by law of the moral norms of one religious group only is as illiberal as the opposing intention to impose on a diverse society a social and legal obligation to affirm same-sex marriage as normative and morally neutral.

7. EAI regards proposals to amend the constitution in respect of marriage as a retrograde step for Irish family life and for Irish society as a whole, working against rather than for the common good.

8. Furthermore EAI urges due regard for the rights of the faith traditions in Ireland that have contributed so notably to the wellbeing of our society.

9. Rather than the inappropriate move to redefine marriage other provisions of the Civil Partnerships Bill should be considered.

10. Evangelical Alliance Ireland is available to engage further with the Convention on this matter.

Patrick, Paul and God’s unlikely choices

A devotional thought on Patrick and Paul on this St Patrick’s Day 2013

Having drawn some parallels between Patrick and Paul, this post is on one major difference.

Paul, on the one hand, was highly educated, a Hebrew of the Hebrews, in regard to the law, a Pharisee and, in terms of righteousness based on the law, faultless. (Phil 3:4-6). In Acts 22:3 Paul tells his listeners that “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. I studied under Gamaliel and was thoroughly trained in the law of our ancestors.”

Saul/Paul is an insider: well-connected; a Roman citizen; intelligent; educated; of the right blood; zealous; passionate for the glory of God. A stellar ‘career’ lay ahead for this exceptional man: orator, philosopher, expert in language and law, passionate Jew, zealous for Israel, highly respected and feared by his enemies.

Patrick, on the other hand, uses very different language to describe himself. His Confession opens with this line;

My name is Patrick. I am a sinner, a simple country person, and the least of all believers. I am looked down upon by many.

Later he says

Although I am imperfect in many ways, I want my brothers and relations to know what I’m really like, so that they can see what it is that inspires my life.

He knows all too well the gaps in his education, learning and writing. Taken captive early he says

That is why, today, I blush and am afraid to expose my lack of experience, because I can’t express myself with the brief words I would like in my heart and soul.

His identity is that “I am first of all a simple country person, a refugee, and unlearned.”  This is one reason that others thought his mission to Ireland a waste of time.

There were many who forbade this mission. They even told stories among themselves behind my back, and the said: “Why does he put himself in danger among hostile people who do not know God?” It was not that they were malicious – they just did not understand, as I myself can testify, since I was just an unlearned country person.

Patrick is an outsider: a ‘nobody’, an unlikely candidate to do anything remarkable; he lacks the right qualifications and experience. You get the sense he’d be the scrawny guy with poor coordination, the last to be chosen when picking teams at school sports ….

Yet it seems that God tends often to choose unlikely outsiders to accomplish his purposes. David the runt of the litter wasn’t even considered worthy of an invitation to meet Samuel. Esther was one woman in a powerful man’s world. The disciples wouldn’t have made a ‘Leadership’ ‘C’ Team let alone an ‘A’ Team. The nation of Israel herself is a trivial inconvenience to mighty empires like Assyria, Babylon, and  Rome.

Is it possible that a reason God does things this way is that he works with faith, trust, dependence, prayer, humility, repentance, and worship? 

‘Outsiders’, less full of themselves, their own achievements and status, are more open than ‘insiders’ who tend to be ‘self-made’, self-righteous, self-important and self-sufficient and don’t tend to see the need for those sorts of ‘powerless’ qualities?

Patrick didn’t have a high opinion of himself and is more immediately wide-open to the astonishing grace of God.

But this I know for certain, that before I was brought low, I was like a stone lying deep in the mud. Then he who is powerful came and in his mercy pulled me out, and lifted me up and placed me on the very top of the wall. That is why I must shout aloud in return to the Lord for such great good deeds of his, here and now and forever, which the human mind cannot measure.

And is this why Paul’s pride had to be confronted in dramatic terms? He is overcome, blinded and made powerless on the Damascus Road by the risen and living Christ. His certainty in his own rightness, a conviction that could justify bloodshed, is shattered. It is only then it becomes possible for him to hear, serve and begin to love God. It is only then that deep humility, thankfulness, grace, and compassion take root and grow in Paul’s life and subsequent ministry.

Patrick has some fascinating words to the ‘insiders’ to consider the unlikely ways God works:

You well-educated people in authority, listen and examine this carefully. Who was it who called one as foolish as I am from the middle of those who are seen to be wise and experienced in law and powerful in speech and in everything? If I am most looked down upon, yet he inspired me, before others, so that I would faithfully serve the nations with awe and reverence and without blame: the nations to whom the love of Christ brought me. His gift was that I would spend my life, if I were worthy of it, to serving them in truth and with humility to the end.

Some things Patrick’s words say to me. Feel welcome to add your own responses.

– In theological training, ‘assessing’ someone’s spirituality and readiness for ministry involves far far more than mere marks on an academic paper. Character, character, character …..

– Is this one reason, I wonder, why the church in the West is in decline – we are simply too self-sufficient, too secure, too comfortable in our consumer culture and with ourselves? And conversely, why the church in Asia, Latin America and Africa is exploding?

– The cross remains deeply offensive to human pride. Being a Christian involves death to the self.

– That God is consistently surprising in his unlikely choices should remind his people that he is at the centre not us.