On Joy

What image comes to mind when you think of joy?

I can’t think about joy without picturing a couple sitting around a kitchen table in an anonymous Communist-style tower block apartment back in Ceaucescu’s Romania. They had lost jobs, been in prison, were regularly hounded by the Securitate, had poor health and little or no access to decent medical care.

They were (and are) two of the most joyful people I have ever met.

Joy is a hard thing to define. You know it when you see it – and know when it is missing. As I suggested in the last post, I’m suspicious of the idea that joy can be so deep down that it never surfaces in visible, tangible ways. Joy, I think, can’t really exist without a delight in life and in other people. It’s a sense of happiness and gladness that can’t be contained. It is not superficial cheeriness, but neither is it possible without smiles, humour and laughter.

There is a lot of joy in the New Testament – in Jesus, John, Paul and others. I did a little study of joy (chara) and grouped some examples into different categories (this is not exhaustive and not researched – just a quick sketch).

  1. Joy at the promise of the Messiah

Luke 1:14 And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth

Luke 2:10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.

  1. Joy at the word / gospel / kingdom of God

Mat 13:20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy

Mat 13:44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

Luke 8:13 And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy.

1Pe 1:8 Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory

  1. Experiencing the joy of God

Mat 25:23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’

  1. (Mega) Joy at the resurrection

Mat 28:8 So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.

Luke 24:41 And while they still disbelieved for joy and were marvelling he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?”

Luke 24:52 And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy

  1. Joy in Mission

Luke 10:17 The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, “Lord even the demons are subject to us in your name!”

Luke 15:7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

Acts 8:8 So there was much joy in that city.

Acts 15:3 So being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers.

  1. Joy in and through Jesus

John 15:11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.

John 16:20 Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy.

John 16:22 So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.

John 16:24 Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive that your joy may be full.

John 17:13 But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves.

  1. Joy in the actions and goodness of God

Acts 12:14 Recognizing Peter’s voice in her joy she did not open the gate but ran in and reported that Peter was standing at the gate.

  1. Joy in the Spirit

Acts 13:52 And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.

Rom 14:17 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.

Rom 15:13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.

Gal 5:22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience kindness, goodness, faithfulness,

1Th 1:6 And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction with the joy of the Holy Spirit,

  1. Joy in Relationships within the family of God

Rom 15:32 so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company.

2Cor 7:13 Therefore we are comforted. And besides our own comfort, we rejoiced still more at the joy of Titus, because his spirit has been refreshed by you all.

2Cor 8:2 for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.

Philippians 1:3-4 I thank God in my remembrance of you always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy

Philippians 2:29 So receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honour such men

2Ti 1:4 As I remember your tears I long to see you, that I may be filled with joy.

Heb 13:17 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.

2Jo 12 Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face so that our joy may be complete.

  1. Joy in Spiritual Maturity and Progress of others

2Cor 1:24 Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith.

2Cor 7:4 I am acting with great boldness toward you; I have great pride in you; I am filled with comfort. In all our affliction, I am overflowing with joy.

Philippians 1:25 Convinced of this I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith,

Philippians 2:2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.

Philippians 4:1 Therefore, my brothers whom I love and long for my joy and crown stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved.

Col 1:11 May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy,

1Th 2:19-20 For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy.

Heb 12:11 For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant [joyful], but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

1John 1:4 And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

3John 4 I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.

  1. Joy in the midst of suffering and persecution

Heb 10:34 For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.

Jam 1:2 Count it all joy, my brothers when you meet trials of various kinds

  1. The Joy of Jesus

Heb 12:2 looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

Perhaps there are things that strike you afresh as you read that list. Here are some that occurred to me in no particular order:

i. Christian joy is, well .. Christian. It is centered on the good news of Jesus – as promised Messiah, the faithful saviour, the risen Lord who ‘for the joy set before him endured the cross.’

ii. Joy has to come from somewhere. It is a virtue that needs sustaining, And in a Christian framework it is tied to the Spirit who gives new life. Joy is a sign of the Spirit at work. Joylessness is a sign that the Spirit has vacated the building. This is why it is almost impossible to separate joy from other fruit of the Spirit.

iii. Christian joy flows from rejoicing in the spiritual progress of others and seeing fruit in mission. It is other focused. Many instances of joy are relational, radiating from deep friendships and a common identity as followers of Jesus.

A personal aside here. This week at IBI we have been celebrating with students the end of the academic year. Many have shared stories of what they have learnt and experienced at College – and it has been humbling and deeply encouraging to hear again and again students say that they have been transformed, challenged, envisaged, and impassioned. And the other consistent theme is joy in deep friendships made – along with a lot of affectionate mockery, craic, fun and lack of proper respect for their teachers may I say …

iv. Ultimately Christian joy depends on the good news of the resurrection and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. In other words, Christians can be and should be joyful in the world of tears because this world does not and will not have the last word.

The unsmiling dour Lurgan Spade Christian who has a deep deep joy is I’m afraid ultimately life-denying and gospel denying. Unattractive gloom does not speak of hope, love, joy and transformation. It speaks more of a fatalism and hope-lessness, a gospel of bad news rather than good.

There is not one instance I could see where joy resulted from a material thing or experience.  This is not to go down a grim ascetic route, God created the world and it was very good. It is just to note that the focus in the NT is joy revolving around the serious things we discussed in the last post. The material (fallen) world as a source of joy is relatively unimportant.

I wonder here how much my life – and the church in the West – finds sources of joy largely within the world on its own terms. Things like good food, friends, holidays, creation, slick technology, a home etc. And so, bit by bit, we find it harder and harder to imagine joy that does not depend on these things?

v. Christians are to be joyful because they belong to that new world, right in the midst of this old one. Not in an escapist sense – exactly the opposite. They are to be serious people of hope, and justice, and mission and courage because God is and will redeem this gloomy serious world into a new world of joy.

Joy, theologically framed, is therefore a foretaste of the world to come. We love and laugh and rejoice now because of the joy set before us.

9780567669964Back to the conversations between Brian Brock and Stanley Hauerwas one last time. The book finishes on an entirely appropriate note – that of joy. I love what SH says here (not sure how he knows he has only 5 or so years to live)..

Joy isn’t something you try to have. It’s an overwhelming that you suddenly find yourself taken up in an activity that just offers satisfaction that you could not have imagined as possible. Yesterday when I came in and you and I looked at each other it was joy, wasn’t it? I find it when I’m at worship, over and over, the joy of having been made part of this wonderful world that otherwise could not be imagined. I find it in the joy of the work we have been given as theologians. Funny as it is! How silly to think you could know how to talk about God? But that’s what we’ve been given to do. I just find it a constant surprise. To speak in another key, I wonder what it means that I’ll be 76 in July. I don’t have more than five— or a little more— years to live. I thought I would be afraid of death, and I may be, but I haven’t experienced it that way yet. Probably because I still don’t know I’m going to die. I think, one, I have had such a wonderful life and, two, whatever Heaven may be, it will be joy. I don’t know what it means to be part of that, but I am sure it is there, because I think that all that is is surrounded by joy. [286]

Brock later quotes from Hauerwas’ commentary on Matthew,

The world is not what it appears to be, because sin has scarred the world’s appearance. The world has been redeemed— but to see the world’s redemption, to see Jesus, requires that we be caught up in the joy that comes from serving him.

And Hauerwas responds that in effect being caught up in joy means “the great adventure” of refusing “to let the old world overwhelm the world that we have been given in Christ”.

The Christian life as the great adventure of joy – I like that.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Barth, Schweitzer and the weirdness of Christianity

At particular times in the history of the church, ‘disturbers’ have emerged, protesting against the cultural captivity of the church. They have rightly seen that authentic Christianity should never be domesticated and made ‘safe’.

Maybe you can think of some ‘disturbers’. A couple that come to mind are:

SchweitzerAlbert Schweitzer’s apocalyptic Jesus brushed aside the anaemic Jesus that had resulted from 19th century liberal theology’s quest for the ‘historical Jesus’. Schweitzer was magnificently right in his rejection of the un-Jewish and un-troubling Christ of the First Quest. His portrait of Jesus of the Gospels was far closer to the truth – even if Schweitzer finally drew the wrong conclusions about Jesus as a failed apocalyptic revolutionary.

The 20th century Jesus Seminar was in many ways a replay of the First Quest – a de-historized Jesus, shorn of miracles and the eschatological urgency of the kingdom of God. One of N T Wright’s many achievements has been his compelling rejection of the methodology and conclusions of the Jesus Seminar in his Jesus and the Victory of God. What shines through Wright’s work on Jesus is how he brings the Gospels, and their main subject, to vibrant disturbing life.

Another ‘disturber’ was the Swiss pipe-smoker Karl Barth. His protest was against a culturally captive form of Christianity, unable even to identify the threat Hitler posed.  His great ‘NO’ to any form of natural theology denied that God could be reached ‘from the bottom up’. Barth’s genius was to insist on absolute otherness of God; God could only be revealed from the ‘top down’ by the triune God himself.

Karl BarthThus, God, for Barth is both the Revealer and the Revelation. It is God alone who can choose to reveal himself, and he does so in Jesus Christ. It is God’s Spirit alone who can effect God’s revelation in Christ. It is a mixture of hubris, pride and naivety that leads people to believe that they can put God in a nice neat box. Barth blew up the box.

Schweitzer and Barth, in very different ways, saw clearly that when we downplay the ‘weirdness’ or ‘Otherness’ of Christianity, God and the gospel become quickly domesticated, diluted, insipid; unable to stand against evil; to give prophetic witness; to form radical and counter-cultural communities of faith; to speak of an alternative kingdom of God that has broken into this world.

It’s no coincidence that both Barth and Schweitzer spent much time considering Jesus. The Jesus of the Gospels just isn’t dull, predictable, undemanding, easily accommodated into our lives and having little to say about the broken world in which we live.

Once we lose touch with the weirdness of Christian faith, it is inevitable that we end up with a form of Christianity that is virtually indistinguishable from the wider culture.

So what are some signs that we have lost touch with the strange Otherness of Christianity?

Here are some suggestions in no particular order – feel welcome to add your own:

1. When the content of much Christianity tends to be primarily therapeutic.

God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. The church is a community where you will be loved and accepted unconditionally. The gospel will give your life new significance and meaning. God will help you navigate through the storms of life. The pastor is there to remind and encourage you that you are loved.

This is Christianity lite – a form of spiritual consumerism that promises all and demands little. God is there for you because you are worth it.

No place here for the NT’s embrace of suffering, injustice and persecution as ‘light and momentary troubles’.

No place here for the notion that being a Christian means death: death to the self; death to sin; death to an old order of existence.

2. When faith is assumed.

This is perhaps the most damaging legacy of Christendom. Everybody is ‘in’; everybody has been baptised; Christianity is natural, universal, and all-embracing. The focus of preaching and teaching is on equipping and exhorting and encouraging members to be more committed to helping the church maintain its structures and existence. Mission is marginalised and almost irrelevant.

Little place in an assumed faith for the deep mystery of the atonement: that somehow in one man’s death and shed blood, something happened of universal spiritual significance that forgiveness and freedom from sin needs to be appropriated through repentance and faith.

3. When Jesus is marginalised.

God IncarnateYou know – things like his apparently crazy teaching on non-violence. His teaching on money and possessions. His utterly uncompromising demands of his followers. His passion for justice. His words of coming judgment. His unrelenting eschatological focus on the kingdom of God and his urgent summons to enter now.

And, to top all of this, is the NT’s exalted Christological claim that this local Rabbi was God in the flesh. A completely unexpected development; foolish nonsense to Greeks, revolting heresy to Jews, unbelievable religious jargon to contemporary atheists, a threatening universal truth claim to modern pluralists.

This is why I love this picture of Jesus by Oliver Crisp – it brilliantly captures the otherness of Jesus who resists all easy categorisation.

4. When the Spirit is paid only lip-service.

Pentecostals and charismatics rightly protest against a sort of virtually ‘binitarian’ Christianity, where the vital, central and life-giving role of the Spirit is replaced with a form of rationalism. Where there is little expectation of the empowering presence of God himself to change lives, heal, and work visibly in the church and the world.

5. When ‘God is on our side’.

I mean by this a form of religious nationalism where Christianity is co-opted to bless and sanctify our politics; our identity; our nation. ‘God bless America’. God on the side of the British Empire. God on the side of Catholic Ireland’s fight for freedom against that Empire. God on the side of [Protestant] Ulster not to be subsumed within Catholic Ireland.

God sure does switch sides a lot doesn’t he?

Once God is safely for us, then our enemies are unrighteous. Since error and heresy have no right, all sorts of horror follows. For examples, read some Irish history.

6. When we buy into the sacred / secular divide.

A nice image here is of an orange and a peach. A Christian view of life is not orange – nicely segmented into distinct categories, with spiritual being one sitting alongside work, family, leisure etc. Rather life is like a peach – one whole fruit where everything is spiritual with Jesus as the centre stone.

The sacred / secular divide attempts to neuter the universal Lordship of Christ over all of life. It reduces Christianity to some sort of Kantian subjective experience. Truth becomes individualised and privatized. The gospel is reduced and personalised. The church has little to say to the world.

7. When we lose touch with the eschatological heartbeat of the Bible.

The OT and NT look forward to a new creation; a remaking of all things within a different order of existence where death is banished. No hospitals, doctors, medicines or morgues there. A future where evil and sin will have no place and justice will be done for ever.

But this is not just away in the future sometime – the future is already here in the present. The ‘proof’ is the presence of the promised Spirit, a foretaste of God’s rule to come. The resurrection of Jesus is the forerunner of the resurrection to come for all who belong to him.

Now that just doesn’t sound ‘normal’ and rational and scientific does it? Such a vision invites scorn and ridicule (as well as joy and hope). Well, let the scorn and ridicule come for Christianity is nothing without eschatology. Whenever the church loses focus on future hope it becomes fat, lazy, complacent and inward looking.

 

So, any attempt to make Christianity acceptable and reasonable to modern culture by removing the ‘unbelievable’ bits is doomed to failure. Even with the best of intentions, what remains will bear little resemblance to historic orthodox Christian faith.

I’ve nothing against good apologetics (defending the historic reliability of the Bible, the historicity of the resurrection etc) but increasingly I see a Christian’s primary task as simply announcing and telling and discussing the good news as it stands – without apology, or qualification or embarrassment. (And without aggression, arrogance or coercion either).

The irony is that it’s when we take it upon ourselves to change the story and try to make it more popular and relevant, that we do the greatest damage.

In other words, let the weirdness and Otherness of the Christian gospel stand on its own two feet. This is the apostolic story that we have been given – let’s keep to the script and trust in God to do the rest.

Flesh versus Spirit 2

Returning to the ‘two natures’ discussion a couple of posts back and zoning in on Galatians:

A problem here has been the translation of sarx (flesh) as ‘sinful nature’ (e.g., in the NIV, although more nuanced in more recent editions). This is a loaded translation which distorts the text.

Flesh versus Spirit needs to be understood eschatologically rather than individually as some sort of internal war between two natures.

Paul has some very negative things to say about the ‘world’. Take Galatians 1:4 and his description of how Jesus’ death for our sins rescues us from ‘this present evil age’.

Things associated with pre-Christian identity are being a slave under the ‘basic principles of the world’. The whole world is a prisoner of sin (3:22). The Law (Torah) cannot release people from this slavery. The theme of curse in Galatians is significant: those who rely on the law are under a curse for the law could never justify (3:10-11).

George Grey Barnard, ”The struggle of two natures in man” (1892)

Those in Christ, who have been justified by faith, belong to a new age; they are ‘new creations’ who belong to God’s redemptive purposes for this fallen world. They are set free (5:1) in Christ.

This new creation has invaded the present evil age (Gal 6:14-16). Since the coming of Christ and the Spirit, believers are living in the overlap of the ages. The world in its present form is ‘passing away’ (1 Cor 7:31)

Those in Christ are dead to the old age (flesh); it is crucified. The Christian life is therefore all about a community of faith who are drawn by God’s grace, into his redemptive purposes for the world.

The problem in Galatians was their utter foolishness to go back to something that enslaves and cannot give life. The flesh equals the old age that has decisively been defeated at the cross and resurrection. Its days are numbered. To go there is to go back under the curse.

Paul, their concerned father, has strong words for those who would lead the Galatians astray (1:8-9 – under God’s curse and wishes for a bit of painful self-mutilation with a knife in 5:12).

In contrast, Christians now belong to the new age of the Spirit. The Spirit brings life, grace, justification, freedom, transformation and hope. This is part of the promised blessing to Abraham (Gal 3:14) – for both Jew and for Gentile.

Those who walk by the Spirit will demonstrate practically and ethically what God’s good purposes for humanity looks like. They will live lives that are attractive and loving – full of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control.

Individual Christian lives and communities are to be visible, beautiful and joyful witnesses to the new age of the Spirit; a foretaste in the present age of the ultimate age to come. “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Gal 5:6)

It is only the power of the Spirit who can change lives; who can bring someone new life; who can overcome the powerful ‘passions’ or ‘desires’ of the (age of) the flesh.

So, rather than end up with a sort of schizophrenic Christian identity of two internal warring ‘natures’ in each individual Christian, the flesh versus Spirit conflict is much bigger than the sphere of the individual.

The real challenge of Galatians is a calling to live by the grace and new identity that has already been given to believers through faith in Christ and the vivifying gift of the Spirit.

For Paul’s warning to the Galatians is not just theoretical – they were in danger of going back under the flesh and turning their back on the gospel. And, at the same time, were denying the radical boundary-breaking implications of justification by faith alone for anyone – Jew or Gentile / male or female / slave or free (3:28).

Do you think that many Christians see themselves as living their lives within a larger cosmic conflict of flesh versus Spirit? If not, why not? Has the church lost touch with Paul’s thoroughly eschatological perspective on the Christian life?

If the Christian life is all about life in the Spirit from beginning to end: walking by the Spirit; sowing to the Spirit; keeping in step with the Spirit; what does this actually look like in practice? In your experience and understanding, how does it work? How do you sow to the Spirit and not to the flesh? Where does the community of the Spirit (the church) come in?

The Christian Consumer: eschatology

In this final chapter of The Christian Consumer Laura Hartman turns her attention to how God’s ultimate purpose for the created world can shape consumption in the here and now.

Two Christian practices embody eschatological hope Sabbath keeping and Eucharist.

Sabbath

In the discussion she brings in Marva Dawn (who we had the privilege of hosting during an IBI Summer Institute some years ago – a wonderful theologian and godly woman of faith). She talks about the Sabbath as a ‘weekly eschatological party’ that anticipates ‘the future, eternal consummation of Joy.’ Sabbath keeping can lead to new habits of consumption.

– humility to put human agendas and frantic economic activity in their proper place. Rest from the gods of commerce.

– trusting in God’s provision and resisting the idolatry inherent in our consumption. For Dawn this works out as a simple daily lifestyle of lessened consumption, with a sense of celebration on the Sabbath. A rejoicing in community.

– For other Christians, Sabbath keeping is tied to justice as we imagine a better world. Jesus and doing good on the Sabbath comes to mind here. Hartman quotes Catholic, Lutheran and others in Sabbath keeping as far more than personal rest and renewal, but as a template or vision of social justice.

Eucharist

Eucharist for many Christians is associated with fasting and simplicity – the ‘meal’ itself is minimal, full of spiritual significance rather than an abundance of food. Yet it is also a feast, associated with the agape meals of the first Christians. Joy, hope and meaning come through participation in minimal physical consumption. A ‘savoured consumption’ or ‘sensuous asceticism’.

This is a sacrament God’s grace by which believers are united in Christ. It is backward looking to Christ’s death, but it also looks forward to Christ’s return and ‘a glimpse of a redeemed world’.

It offers a present experience of a future reality – a healed world of equality and peace in the presence of Christ. Hartman suggests, rightly I think, that this most fundamental Christian activity has profound implications for the way we consume:

– sharing food together

– a community equality, recipients of God’s bounteous grace

– deeper spiritual truth and hope beyond the mere material here and now

– Christ-like lives of self-denial and self-sacrifice in the service of others

– consumption that enriches and blesses rather than consumption which enslaves and destroys

Hartman has looked at four lenses of consumption from a Christian perspective

1. Avoiding Sin

2. To Embrace Creation

3. Love of neighbour

4. To Envision the Future

She concludes the book that at the heart of consumerism is a distorted view of human nature that sells the lie that we are what we own [192]. A Christian view of consumption offers a different anthropology.

– we are prone to sin but are called to renounce it

– we can delight in creation

– we are neighbours who are called to love others

– we are citizens of the new creation who are called to align our lives with the kingdom of God.

This is a right and constructive theological response. Hartman is reminding us that (as in all things of course!) we need to think theologically about the world around us. There are no simple solutions to hyper-consumerism, but Christians are called to a way of wisdom and discernment framed by the richness and depth of Christian revelation and tradition.

As she says, we do not face this challenge empty-handed.

We can consume both Christianly and well. [193]

Lasting Work

work mattersThis is the last of a few posts giving a flavour of R Paul Stevens’ book pithy and thought-provoking little book Work Matters: lessons from Scripture

Towards the end he has a reflection on work and the future, when for many work is something to be endured and lacks any telos.

What then is work that carries spiritual significance – even into the new age to come?

He rejects a sacred / secular divide that sees explicitly ‘Christian’ work as that which really matters – stuff like preaching, evangelism, Bible study etc. Behind such a split is a dualism between the ‘spiritual’ (good)  and the ‘material’ (bad).

Jesus’ resurrection from the dead and the outpouring of the eschatological Spirit are both powerful indicators of how the future is already here in the present.  Stevens sees continuity (not annhilation) between this world and the new creation.

Stevens goes to three key Pauline texts on work. The eternal significance of our work lies in relationship with the living resurrected Lord.

1 Cor 3:12-15 ‘if anyone builds on this foundation[Christ] their work will be shown for what it is ..’

1 Cor 13:13 ‘The greatest of these remain: faith, hope and love’

1 Cor 15:58 ‘Always give yourself fully to the work of the Lord for you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain’

There is, Stevens argues, then hope of redemption of not only our lives or of creation but also our work.  The damage done by negative work – the environmental, social, cultural and political scars left by destructive work – may yet be transfigured in the new creation.

How’s this for a positive vision of daily work in light of future hope to think about next Monday morning?

Clearly, through our daily work we leave our mark on the cosmos and our environment, on government, culture, neighborhoods, families, and even on the principalities and powers. The Bible hints that in some way beyond our imagination our marks are permanent. The theological truth that undergirds this fascinating and challenging line of exploration is the statement that Christ is the firstborn of all creation (Col 1:15) and firstborn from the grave (1:18). If Christ is truly the firstborn of all creation and the firstborn from the grave, then all work has eternal consequences, whether homemaking or being a stockbroker. This brings new meaning to those whose toil is located in so-called secular work – in the arts, education, business, politics, the environment, and the home. Not only are ordinary Christians priests of creation past and present; they, along with missionaries, pastors, and Christian educators, are shaping the future of creation in some significant way. This means that we are invited in Christ to leave beautiful marks on creation, on the environment, family, city, workplace, and nation. (158-9)

What is the ultimate purpose of being a Christian?

What is the ultimate purpose of being a Christian?

What things come to mind?

As the Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it, “To glorify God and to enjoy him for ever”?

To win others for Christ?

To live a life of love?

To live a holy life?

To serve the Lord, using whatever gifts you have been given in service of others?

To work hard at transforming this broken world?

Paul, I think, would affirm most of the above. But I also think that he would subsume them under his primary concern for the believers under his pastoral care – that ‘Christ is formed’ in his ‘dear children’ (Gal.4:19).

In this sense, the goal of the Christian life is spiritual transformation – to be conformed to the image of the Son (Rom.8:29; 2 Cor.3:18).

And this transformation happens in the context of relationship with God and others – in the power of the Spirit. It is the Spirit whom God sends into believers’ hearts and who enables them to call God abba (Gal.4:7).

On this theme, I came across this quote by Bruce Marshall (in a MA diss being written by one of our students at IBI – tks M)

This conforming of human beings to the crucified and risen Christ is a unitary action of the whole Trinity, and indeed seems to realize the most interior and primal purposes of the triune God. The Father has eternally and effectively willed – predestined – our conformity to his Son (cf. Rom. 8:29; Eph. 1:5), who, by accepting incarnation and the death from which the Father raises him, constitutes that original form of which we are the intended images. The Spirit is the agent who, poured out from the Father by the risen Son and dwelling in us, immediately joins us to Christ and makes us his icons (see Rom. 8:9-11, 14). The New Testament of course talks about the outcome of Jesus’ resurrection in many other ways, but the notion of “bearing the image of the man of heaven” seems to express both the final aim and the original intention not only of the resurrection, but of the totality of divine acts involving creatures. While for now we are icons of the risen Christ in fragmentary and partial ways, in the end the Spirit will enable us to see him as he is, and so be as much like God as it is possible for creatures to be (see Jn. 3:2). With the perfection of this work of the Spirit will coincide the liberation of all creation; no further divine aim for creation will remain to be realized (see Rom. 8:22-3).  B. Marshall, 2000. Trinity and Truth. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.

Wonderful – the astonishing agenda of the triune God is personal and cosmic redemption.

And radical – Marshall says God’s goal is that believers are “as much like God as it is possible for creatures to be.” Possibly  – though I’d put it differently. I think the goal is better put that they will be as fully human as it is possible to be.

Humanity without death, sin, selfishness, violence and hate.

Humanity with love, wholeness, relationship, service, joy, self-giving and creativity.

Humanity, in other words, as embodied by the living man Jesus Christ.

Humanity which has been remade in the image of God as it is conformed to the image of the Son.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

 

 

 

Pneumatology and eschatology

T David Beck’s thesis in his book, The Holy Spirit and the Renewal of all Things: pneumatology in Paul and Jurgen Moltmann, is that much Western theology has failed to do justice to the comprehensive and central place of pneumatology in the New Testament.

I tend to agree.

If one response has been the ‘institutional tendency’ (e.g. Barth) driven by Christology and ecclesiology and an ‘experiential tendency’ in response (e.g. Wesley), Beck argues both don’t adequately capture the NT’s framework itself.

NT pneumatology is not driven, he contends, primarily by Christology, ecclesiology or experience, but by eschatology. All NT reflection on the Spirit operates within an eschatological framework.

But what does this mean?

He goes for an inaugurated eschatology of the ‘already’ and ‘not yet’ most identified with G. E. Ladd.

He doesn’t critique Ladd (and there is room for critique), but the main problem he wants to highlight is how within much systematic theology, eschatology is often reduced to study of the future: topics like the parousia, resurrection, judgement, heaven and hell etc. All things that are yet to happen.

But this, Beck says, fails to grapple with the overlap of the ages so predominant in Paul and elsewhere in the NT.

Yes there will be future consummation of God’s kingdom rule, but this rule has already begun. If the present age is the eschatological age ‘broken into the present’, then eschatology is ‘here and now’ and not just future events yet to unfold.

Systematic theology’s tendency to kick eschatology down the line has, for Beck, several unfortunate consequences:

1. A distance and alienation from the strong sense of climatic fulfillment within the NT. A Christian faith lacking a strong sense of how God’s promises have been fulfilled in Jesus, is one detached from the joyful tone of most of the NT.

2. The NT’s strong continuity between promise, fulfillment and consummation disappears.  For example, while Christians may hope for resurrection to come, it tends not to be seen as a natural extension of the blessing of new life already given in the here and now.

3. Eschatology is often relegated to a sort of appendix of the Christian faith. It gets relegated to obscure debates about times and dates of Christ’s return etc

4. When eschatology is marginalised, an anemic pneumatology tends to follow. This is seen in Western theology’s subordinationistic view of the Spirit. ‘This age’ is seen as the waiting time between the two appearances of Christ (what Beck calls ‘the rickety bridge between two strong towers’), rather than an age of the promised Spirit who has been poured out for many.

Rather, Beck rightly argues, pneumatology and eschatology are inseparable: the ministry of the Spirit is evidence of fulfilled OT  promises in the experience and writings of NT believers and as tangible anticipation of the future work of the Spirit in the consummation of God’s kingdom.

To earth this a bit, some questions:

If you are a Christian, how much do you understand yourself already to belong to God’s new age; as already having new life through the Spirit?

How does this give you joy, assurance and hope, even in the midst of struggles with doubt, disappointment, mundane work, tiredness and weakness?

 

Musings on the strange and wonderful thing called life

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.

Descendit ad inferna (2) ‘Heaven may be hell for Hitler’

THE END OF HELL?

In the promo video for Love Wins, Rob Bell asked a very old question – what about those who die outside of faith in Jesus? Are they all damned to hell – even people like Ghandi?

Over 40 years ago Wolfhart Pannenberg also asked

‘What is to happen to the multitude who lived before Jesus’ ministry? And what will become of the many who never came into contact with the Christian message? What. Finally, is to happen to the people who have certainly heard the message of Christ but who …. have never come face to face with its truth? Are all these people delivered over to damnation? (The Apostle’s Creed in the Light of Today’s Questions (London: SCM, 1972) 94. Quoted in Laufer 201.

What Pannenberg did, and Rob Bell did not, was to turn to the descensus clause in the Apostles’ Creed to begin to answer his questions.

Laufer raises this because Pannenberg gives answers similar to those she is arguing for in Hell’s Destruction (clue in the title here).

Laufer (following Pannenberg) suggests that the conquest of death in Jesus points to the universal scope of salvation. It is universalism that ‘answers our demands for justice’ yet at the same time affronts our desire for right punishment for evil. (201)

What way is there around this impasse?

Laufer argues that Jesus’ death, descent and resurrection ‘proclaim that Christ has gone through death and hell for each and every soul ever created, and has been raised from thence.’ To believe that any are left behind seems to her to be ‘a denial of the efficacy of Christ’s death, descent and resurrection’

She does not deny the reality of hell. But hell here is reinterpreted to mean an experience of our own creation. Everyone will end up in the presence of God but “if one has lived one’s life in hate, in cruelty, in total opposition to love, then to be in the presence of perfect Love may be to experience hell. Truly ‘heaven may be hell for Hitler’ and his ilk.” 201.

This has echoes of, but is different from, C S Lewis’ image of the doors of hell being locked on the inside. Both have hell as self-chosen separation from God that leads to just (self) punishment.

N T Wright cautiously suggests something similar in Surprised by Hope: those who choose darkness eventually become so consumed by that choice that they lose their humanity of being made in the image of God. God’s just judgement collides with self-destructive choice.

It is, Laufer argues, what Eastern Orthodoxy has always said: God does not condemn the wicked to hell, but the wicked perceive the presence of God as hell while the righteous experience his presence as light, warmth and love.

She links to Moltmann’s universalist ideas that ‘through his sufferings Christ has destroyed hell’. Human will will not have the last word for no-one will be exempt from God’s redeeming grace.

I guess you could say that this is another way of saying love wins.

‘May we say that, as Christ descended to Hades and was raised from there, releasing the captives, so he will continue to be present in Hades until all are released, for he loves all?’ (206)

I’ve read these pages several times and it seems to me there is an unresolved tension in what Laufer is proposing. On the one hand, hell as an experienced reality exists (eternally in heaven?) for the impenitent. On the other hand, there’s a full-blown universalism that God’s love and grace conquer all and hell is empty. (The latter emphasis being much the stronger).

Comments, as ever, welcome

Descendit ad inferna (1)

What do you make of the creedal statement that Jesus ‘descended to the dead’? A bit weird and rather irrelevant; something to be safely ignored as a bit of a diversion from other more important doctrines? Ever heard a sermon on this ‘descensus’ clause?

The idea that Jesus, after his death, ‘descended to the dead’ is found in two Western Creeds, both written in Latin: the Apostle’s Creed (probably mid 4th C) and the Athanasian Creed (probably mid 5th C).

The Latin inferna meant the underworld, the realm of the dead or Hades (equivalent to Sheol in Hebrew). Later translations said that Jesus ‘descended to hell’, but the more accurate way of putting it is that he ‘descended to the dead’.

Catherine Ella Laufer’s very good book on this is Hell’s Destruction: an exploration of Christ’s Descent to the Dead

The NT texts from which the idea is derived are fascinating and often contentious. She surveys the evidence:

1 Peter 3:18b-20a: He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. 19 After being made alive,he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits— 20 to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.

Clement of Alexandria (late 2nd Cent) was the first to link this passage with Hades. There has been little consensus on it ever since and especially whether it is talking about Christ descending to the dead at all. While there is long tradition linking it with descent, the sway of modern scholarship is that it may actually be referring to his ascent the ‘lower heavens’, the place of imprisonment for fallen angels. The cosmology here being a series of ‘heavens’ from the lower to the higher.

1 Peter 4:6: For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to human standards in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit.

Another text that has spawned a myriad of interpretations. She comes down on Dalton’s view that is refers to the normal preaching of the gospel to those who have since died – fitting in with Peter’s context of a suffering marginal and persecuted church.

Ephesians 4:9: What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions (or depths of the earth)

A descent is in view here, but from where and when? Is the descent the incarnation, or a descent into Hades after death or something else like the descent of Christ’s Spirit at Pentecost? Tertullian and Irenaeus and others go for Hades, as do Reformation voices. Other patristic and later voices go for incarnation – Theodore of Mopsuestia (5th Cent) and many modern interpreters. I’d go for incarnation but as Laufer says, the jury is still out.

Acts 2:24-27:But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. 25 David said about him:“‘I saw the Lord always before me.
Because he is at my right hand,
I will not be shaken.
26 Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;
my body also will rest in hope,
27 because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead [Hades],
you will not let your holy one see decay.

Peter applies Ps 16:10 to Christ – through the resurrection he is not abandoned to Hades and thus fulfils the prophecy of David. Jesus is shown to be God’s anointed Messiah. This implies that Jesus had been in Hades [Sheol] and God had raised him up. Or could it suggest Jesus is freed from death and the fate of going to Hades? (Laufer does not include this possibility).

Matthew 12:40:For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

What is the sign of Jonah to which Jesus refers? Is it an allusion simply to the grave? Is it a reference to a limited time in Sheol before resurrection? It seems to be likely to be the latter – Jonah’s own experience is of going to Sheol (2:1, 6). This verse is so far the best evidence for Jesus’ descent to the dead.

Romans 10:6-7: But the righteousness that is by faith says: “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the deep?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).

Paul is quoting Deut 30:11-14 which talks about the nearness of the word of God which is not ‘beyond the sea’ nor ‘up in heaven’. The depths of the sea was a place of chaos and death, synonymous with Sheol [Hades]. Does this suggest Paul believed that Jesus descended to Hades? The evidence is thin here – Paul’s stress is on the nearness of the word for all who believe that the resurrected Jesus is Lord. He likely isn’t making any point about the descent of Jesus to the dead.

So there is some limited NT evidence that Jesus ‘descended to the dead’ but you wouldn’t be wanting to wager your house on it.

It is a strong theme in Patristic writings, the ‘harrowing of hell’, the idea that at his resurrection and ascension, Jesus rescued and took with him the saints of the old covenant who had been in Hades. This is a major theme in Eastern Orthodox theology.

Laufer traces the history and meaning of the doctrine through this period into Medieval theology, the Reformation and up to contemporary debates. Along the way, all sorts of fascinating stories and characters emerge, as well as significant theological issues such as hell, conditional immortality, universalism, theodicy and so on, discussed in reference to people like Calvin, Barth, Balthasar and Moltmann.

She argues that

‘the descensus clause is essential to Christology, specifically to the doctrine of the incarnation. If we are to affirm that in Christ God became truly human, then we must affirm not only that Jesus was born and died but also that he descended into Hades, that is, he shared in the state of being dead that is the ultimate consequence of being human. He was incarnate to death. In the words of Gregory of Nazianzus: ‘that which He has not assumed He has not healed’.  (2-3)

While there is limited biblical support for Christ’s descent, it is not absent. And more, she proposes that without the descent of Jesus to the realm of the dead we are left with an incomplete incarnation and the possibility of a pseudo-resurrection. Jesus is not really ‘one of us’ in other words, the Apollinarian heresy rewritten.

I’m not altogether convinced by the necessity argument: the NT emphasis is on the fact that Jesus, a real man, really died ‘for our sins’ and was really raised from the dead. It doesn’t seem essential theologically to his full humanity, real mortality and real resurrection that Jesus had to descend to the realm of the dead. But I can’t see huge objections to the descent clause either – as long as it is understood as the realm of the dead [Hades] rather than ‘hell’.

Laufer summarises it this way: it is in Hades that Jesus suffers separation from the Father. It is through the Spirit that the Father raises Jesus from the dead and exalts him to his right hand. At the resurrection “the souls of the faithful departed share in Christ’s resurrection life in the communion of the saints but await the fullness of the resurrection of the body at the parousia.” (190).

In other words, the victory of God in Christ witnessed at the resurrection, affects the faithful dead who are brought into the presence of Christ as he ascends from the realm of the dead. This gives hope for all who die in Christ – they join this communion with Christ prior to the future resurrection.

So her closing words on the implications of this neglected doctrine,

We can truly sing the words of the eucharistic affirmation, ‘dying you destroyed our death, rising you restored our life’, for our hope is in the atoning work of Christ our Saviour who, for us and our salvation, not only died and rose, but also descended to the dead. (213)