George Floyd, God and Race Relations

The US is in the middle of a destructive culture war, with both sides trying to claim Biblical justification for their positions. But there are some things it’s impossible to justify Biblically – like tear-gassing a group of clergy doing a peaceful protest in church grounds so that someone can pose for a photo opportunity outside the church, or a police officer murdering an unarmed black man by kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

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For some of us, this is something distant – events happening 4,000 miles away in a very different culture and another opportunity to despair at the state of America. For others of us, it’s very real and personal. I love the fact that St Jude’s is a pretty good reflection of the racial balance of our local area; heaven is a gathering of people from every tribe and language and people and nation and the church should be beginning to reflect that in the present. And while I love having BAME folks as part of the church, I hate the prejudice they tell me they sometimes experience, and the conversations they often need to have with their children that I don’t need to have with mine.

It’s important to remember that because the Church is a body, “when one part suffers, every part suffers with it” (1 Cor 12:26). That means that when our fellow church members suffer discrimination because of the colour of their skin, we suffer too. Our brothers and sisters are being treated badly because of what they look like, and too often we don’t care or don’t act!

What does the Bible have to say on the matter? There are important verses like Galatians 3:28, which affirms we are all one in Christ Jesus – in the gospel there is no black or white. It’s worth noting that Jesus was discriminated against in Jerusalem because his accent marked him and his followers out as Galileans (and a big part of the tension in Holy Week is between the Galileans who welcomed him on Palm Sunday and the Judeans who called for him to be crucified). There are also passages like Numbers 12, where Moses’s sister Miriam starts to complain against Moses because his wife was black (Cushite = Ethiopian = common term for black-skinned people). God’s response to Miriam is to give her a disfiguring skin disease, and only takes it away when Moses prays for her. It’s also worth remembering that God included black Africans in the Kingdom long before white Europeans. (Acts 8 is still before Europeans hear the good news, but Ebed-Melek in Jer 38 is clearly a black African worshiper of the true God 600 years earlier), and that a far higher proportion of black Americans attend church regularly than white Americans.

But there is also a consistent theme throughout the Old and New Testaments that God’s people should be standing for and supporting those who are oppressed. In the Old Testament, that’s often “the immigrant, the fatherless and the widow”. For example, in Isaiah 1, God tells the people that he won’t listen to their prayers or take note of their worship because of the evil way they were living. In particular, they need to:

Wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds out of my sight;
stop doing wrong.
Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow. (Isaiah 1:16-17)

How can we be standing up for and supporting the oppressed at the moment?

One key part of it is listening to their experience, of letting ourselves suffer with those who suffer and weep with those who weep, mourn with those who mourn (Rom 12:15). But beyond that, rather than come up with my own ideas, I’d far rather listen to those who experience the discrimination first-hand to see what we can do. Here, for example, are some thoughts from Agu Irukwu, the (black) head of Churches Together in England. Here also are some comments from a non-ordained black British Christian who says that she’s encountered more racial prejudice in churches than anywhere else.

Culturally, I may be seen as different from you. However, I would appreciate it if you would embrace my differences in the same way that you would embrace a white person of a different culture. Do not treat me as special and do not treat me as any less than you. Do not make any assumptions about me, what I listen to, what I eat… speak to me and be interested in who I am as an individual. See me as me. Do not tiptoe around me, but engage with me.

See my giftings and utilise them. Encourage me…. and give praise where praise is due, but be genuine and don’t emphasise any thing I do as especially good because I’m black. e.g. “You speak very well (for a black person)”

Of the Anglican churches in Nottingham, we’re not the most diverse, but we’re pretty good at reflecting the racial demographics of the local area. But there’s still a long way to go; I’ve been very challenged over the last few days in thinking about how we can better welcome our black brothers and sisters, and especially encourage them to use their gifts for the kingdom of God, and how we can help everyone, whatever the colour of their skin, feel as welcome as God makes them in his kingdom.

Web 1.0, Web 2.0 and Online Church

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Last week, the UK government banned churches from meeting in person in response to the Covid-19 crisis. The response (certainly in our case) was a lot of hastily-put-together online services, mostly trying to replicate some elements of what usually happens on a Sunday. Ian Paul has done a good overview of what happened.

The whole experience of trying to do online church got me reflecting on it. One really interesting lens to look at it through is the distinction between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0.

Web 1.0

Web 1.0 was how the WWW started out, and it was all about information. In the late 1990s, I ran a website for an organisation that ran Christian holiday camps. Each page simply gave information about the camp, and the communication was completely one-way. There was no room for comments or reviews; we gave the information, there was a button at the bottom of the page that you could press to send an e-mail to the office, and that was it.

Web 2.0

Web 2.0 is what a lot of websites are today – the most obvious examples are things like Facebook, Twitter and Trip Advisor. The key idea is user-creation of content. Think about Facebook – Facebook themselves hardly create any content; it’s all about setting up a platform for other people to do that. Most big websites incorporate that to some level these days – whether it’s with reviews or comments or FAQs.

Church and Web 1.0

One of the frustrations of being a minister (pre-lockdown) is that church could sometimes almost become me doing a performance for everyone else. And sometimes we used to criticise megachurches for doing almost exactly that. Before I was ordained, I left one megachurch precisely because there wasn’t much I could do there in the way of service.

So isn’t it fascinating that when it comes to doing online services, our default reaction is to go even more that way – literally having one person perform the service to an empty church, while others watch in the comfort of their own homes? It’s a very Web 1.0 way of working, even though we often use Web 2.0 tools to do it. It’s also a return to the idea of clerical professionalism, even sacerdotalism. In normal language, that means it’s treating the paid clergy as the people who do the work, even seeing them as necessary to the functioning of the church.

Church and Web 2.0

The challenge of Web 2.0, and why I think many classic evangelicals tend to be wary of it, is that all voices seem equal. The lunatic fringe seems to have the same weight as the voice of establishment and experience. Worse are the trolls, who exist only to cause disruption and offence, often from the relative safety of their parents’ basement. Theology degrees and decades of holy living seem to count for nothing compared to presentation skills; substance is trounced by story (or, more accurately, one person’s often-faulty understanding of their own story).

And yet, and yet it does seem to embody and enable some of the one-anothering that is completely absent from the Web 1.0 model of church, and yet is so prominent in the New Testament.

Moving Forwards

Is there a way forwards which gets a better Biblical balance? Yes, though I’m not quite sure what it looks like yet! But a great place to go for wisdom (as so often with questions about ministry and church) is Ephesians 4.

11So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

14Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

The role of the pastors and teachers (and those with other word gifts) is to equip God’s people for works of service (the same word as “ministry”), so that we all grow together into one body. In fact, the body is built up as every part does its work – the pastor’s role in that is secondary and supportive.

What does that mean for online services? Normally at church, we might have three or four people speak from the front. A livestreamed service under current rules has only one, unless it’s done by several people who live together. But Web 2.0 makes it much easier to get many people involved in leading the service. People no longer have the barrier of getting up to the front of church. They can record and re-record their contribution until they are happy with it. I think it means that we have a wonderful opportunity to get more and more people involved, and visibly involved, in leading and being seen to be part of the life of the church.

One of my hopes and prayers for this pandemic is that the church emerges from it far healthier than it went in – it’s a wonderful opportunity to break old bad habits and start new ones.

Responding to Plagues (and Climate Change!)

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Like much of the Church of England, until last week we were doing a series on Green Lent. In our last service meeting together in person, one of the passages I focused on was 2 Chronicles 7:13-14 – and as the Coronavirus crisis deepened, I found myself more and more drawn into that passage. It’s God’s words to Solomon, after the Temple has been dedicated.

When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.

2 Chronicles 7:13-14 (NIV)

It particularly struck me that v13 identifies three types of calamity – two of which (climate change and plagues) are very much with us at the moment.

He also outlines how God’s people should respond to them. (Yes, it’s Old Testament, and God’s people were one specific ethnic group in one specific place, so things are a bit different for us now, but there’s still a lot to learn.)

  • Humble ourselves – get down off our high horses, stop thinking that we’re better than others or that we know best, recognise we’re at least partly to blame, and follow the advice of scientists and doctors.
  • Pray – do we ask for God’s help in confronting the climate emergency or the coronavirus emergency? Because they are both too big for us to deal with on our own.
  • Seek God’s face – what’s the priority in this crisis? It should be wanting to see God more; wanting more intimacy with him. He is far more important than anything else, and far more valuable than anything we could lose in either crisis. It’s the same in Jeremiah 29:13ff.
  • Turn from our wicked ways. Not just platitudes or moral posturing, not just grief at the way things are, but actual change. Isn’t it obvious that these things are connected? A disease that started in a market trading in endangered species and spread around the world by too much unnecessary air travel. If we are actually sorry, we need to change.

We need to stop treating this world like we are just free to travel anywhere, especially by air, without consequences. Flying long distances creates far more CO2 emissions than just about anything else we do.

We need to stop eating meat from animals treated like industrial products rather than like sharers in this amazing breath of life.

We need to take the gift of time to learn to seek God’s face, as individuals, as families and as churches.

I don’t think in today’s context that this is God promising to stop the pandemic if a few of us ask him to, but in the present crisis, this has to be something of a template for what it looks like to respond.

Because God’s plan is always for hope and restoration beyond the disaster. Once the worst has happened to Israel and they have been driven out of their land, these are God’s words to them:

“For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord.” (Jer 29:11-14).

So in this environmental crisis, and this pandemic, let’s seek God’s face, let’s trust in him and grow our relationship with him, because that is what matters most.

Did Jesus Grow in Wisdom?

We don’t have much information about Jesus as a child. To be specific, we have one short story between the death of Herod the Great (Jesus aged 2-ish) and Jesus’ baptism at age 30-ish – the account of Jesus in the Temple as a 12-year old boy.

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It is bracketed by two tantalising phrases:

 And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him.
Luke 2:40 (NIV)

And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.
Luke 2:52 (NIV)

And this raises some interesting questions. How much did Jesus know about his mission? We know that Jesus wasn’t quite omniscient as a man (Matt 24:36) but certainly knew far more than other people. How much did he know as a child? And what does it mean for him to be God and human, when God is omniscient and humans aren’t?

We get some important insight into this in Philippians 2.

[Jesus], being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death –
even death on a cross!

Philippians 2:6-8 (NIV)

Jesus was in very nature God, but he emptied himself. The theological term for this is kenosis, which just means “emptying”. He emptied himself of all his power and wisdom and omnipresence and other divine attributes when he took the nature of a servant. When he does miracles, for example, he does them by the power of the Spirit working in him and following what he sees his Father doing (e.g. John 5:19).

So, back to Luke 2, and verse 40 is clearer in the original than in translation. Here it is with the verb tenses.

The child grew (imperfect active) and became strong (imperfect passive), being filled (present passive participle) with wisdom.

In other words, Jesus grows in size and strength, but is continually filled with wisdom (presumably by the Spirit) as his capacity increases.

Jesus is never less than full of wisdom because of the Holy Spirit, but a 2-year-old who is filled with wisdom is very different from a 30-year-old who is filled with wisdom because they have different capacities.

Therefore, when Jesus empties himself to become human, he empties himself all the way to the capacity of a baby. As he grows, the Holy Spirit keeps filling him with wisdom, presumably largely through the teaching of his parents and reading and hearing the Scriptures.

What is going on in Matthew 1:22-23?

It’s so easy to get through Christmas hearing the familiar story over again but not really being able to pause and give time to think about it in any detail. So that’s what I’d like to do this morning.

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So often when we’re reading the Bible, we find rabbit holes – little distractions and nagging questions that it’s easy to just ignore. And sometimes when we try to explore them they don’t really go anywhere. And sometimes, like in Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland or the original Matrix film, we get to something amazing. And sometimes, like Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland or the sequels to the Matrix, we start getting somewhere but in the end we still don’t seem to get any coherent answers. Hint for preachers – don’t bother preaching those ones!

Let’s look at two quick rabbit holes from this familiar passage, which hopefully help us to see the Christmas story in far more technicolour.

First, what’s going on with this prophecy from Isaiah. “All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: The Virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel, which means God with us.”?

When there’s an Old Testament reference like that, it’s always good to look it up. And in this case you get to the other passage we had read, from Isaiah 7. And quite quickly looking at the passage, you realise there’s something odd going on. It’s the time of the slightly obscure Syrio-Ephraimite coalition of 735BC. Two neighbouring countries were ganging up on God’s people, their king was unfaithful to God and they were really scared. So Isaiah says this prophecy, but it looks very much as if he’s talking about how they will know that God’s people will be safe in 735BC. We’re told that before he grows up, both those countries will be destroyed. And if you do some reading around, you find that the word for virgin means “young woman of marriagable age”, and might well be talking about Isaiah’s fiance, who he married and then has a son with pretty soon afterwards. So it doesn’t look like it’s talking about Jesus at all.

Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice would say. And if you’re a sceptical Bible scholar you stop there and conclude that Matthew didn’t really know what he was going. But if you want to dig a bit deeper, it gets more interesting still. Because that’s in Isaiah 7, and in Isaiah 8 he does indeed have a son, but then he describes his family as signs and symbols and in Isaiah 9 he predicts the coming of a more glorious child who won’t just be a sign of the destruction of two enemies, but who will himself be king of kings forever. You know “Unto us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” and so on. So what is fulfilled partly in Isaiah’s new wife becoming pregnant and them having a son is fulfilled far more gloriously in the future with a child born of a real virgin who will reign forever.

And then if you start to chase the other times Matthew quotes or alludes to the Old Testament, you see there’s something similar going on. For example, in Matthew 2:14, the prophecy he quotes from the Old Testament doesn’t look like a prophecy at all – it’s a quote saying something that God had done in the past when he brought Israel out of Egypt.

This is what’s going on. Some of the prophecies of Jesus in the Old Testament are clear, like Isaiah 9. But a lot of them are much more like what we see in other great stories of similar length. What do you want in the ending to an epic story? Star Wars 9, say (no spoilers please) or Avengers Endgame. Avengers Endgame, the highest grossing film of all time, was the 22nd film in the series. Some of the events in the film were directly predicted by things that people said in previous films. But most of them were foreshadowed by them, Endgame picks up loose ends that had been left lying around and brings them together to a satisfying conclusion and a comparatively happy ending. Watching it you realise that many of the earlier films must have had this ending in mind. In that sense, it fulfilled them. That’s what Matthew shows Jesus as doing with the whole Old Testament, except of course that folk had to wait 700 years after Isaiah was written for the climax! So what do we see from this rabbithole? Jesus is the climax of the story – he is the fulfilment of the Old Testament in far more ways than we expect, and when we read the OT rightly, we do so looking for echoes of what God will do in Jesus.

Second rabbit hole – why is Jesus born of a virgin? The Hebrew in Isaiah might be ambiguous. Why would it need to be ambiguous if it was just talking about Isaiah’s son? But the Greek of Matthew and Luke isn’t, and it picks up and fulfils the whole theme of women who can’t have children becoming mothers of significant figures in the Bible. But more than that, it shows that Jesus is a man but he isn’t just a man. He’s not, like the Buddha or Mohammed, a normal-ish bloke who attains some special state maybe at his baptism or whenever. Right from the start, he is both human and divine. Nor is he a cross between God and people – he is both fully human and fully divine, right from the start. The same God who created the universe became a powerless human fetus. The God who spoke stars into being became a wordless baby. The one who knows the secrets of every heart had to be taught to burp and sleep and feed.

No other religion contains anything as outrageous as this. Some religions, like animism or Star Wars have a conception of a life-force filling the universe and so it makes sense that there might be people or objects where that force is particularly concentrated. But it’s only ever a force, not a personal god. Some religions have lesser gods, who are very much part of creation, like Thor from the Avengers films or the Roman and Greek gods, and they can become human but they aren’t all-powerful and sovereign. Other religions, like Islam and Judaism, have all-powerful sovereign personal gods, but it is almost blasphemous even to imagine the possibility that those gods might become incarnate, might become vulnerable.

JI Packer puts it like this:

God became man; the divine Son became a Jew; the Almighty appeared on earth as a helpless baby, unable to do more than lie and stare and wriggle and make noises, needing to be fed and changed and taught to talk like any other child… The babyhood of the Son of God was a reality. The more you think about it, the more staggering it gets. Nothing in fiction is as fantastic as is this truth of the Incarnation.

And that needs the virgin birth. If he was not born of a woman, just “found” like Superman, he would not be truly human. But if he was conceived in the usual way, then he would just be part of creation like everyone else. Jesus is utterly unique. Why did he do it? So that he could be “God with us” – fully God so that even though God is all-powerful, sovereign and amazingly far beyond us, we can really know what he is like, fully human so that he is really with us, so that the barrier between humanity and God has been forever broken down, so he’s not just a distant God on a cloud who watched us from afar, but who enters into human experience, who knows what it’s like to suffer and to mourn, who knows what family breakdown is like and the joy of celebrating milestones. So that he is not just a God who knows the secrets of our hearts and everything we do but has walked for 30 years in our shoes, who knows what it is like to be us and who loves us and has compassion on us. Jesus who took on human nature and came to be like us so that he could one day take us to be with him and to become like him in his eternity and perfection and joy.

Now there’s sometimes an objection to the virgin birth from people who just think it sounds implausible, as if Matthew and Luke didn’t understand where babies come from. Yes, they knew, of course they knew; the human race was doing just fine at reproducing for thousands of years before modern medical science. They knew that virgins don’t have babies. But that’s the point. They make this claim because it’s utterly remarkable that this one did. And if their story is correct – that the eternal God who created the universe decided to become fully human, then of course he could arrange for this virgin to become pregnant and creating whatever DNA was needed for that to happen.

So what does all of this mean for us today?

There will be some folk here, there usually are, who wouldn’t say they follow Jesus as God. And what I’d say to you is “welcome”. You’re always welcome here. Keep on coming. But don’t you think this is worth checking out? This story, written by dozens of people over a thousand years that hangs together so perfectly, where a man can come and completely fulfil a story and prophecies from 700 years before, this man who made claims like no-one else and then lived them out, who offers us joy beyond our imaginings and hope beyond our fears, who into our darkness and death offers to bring his unquencheable light and invincible life.

So what I want to ask this Christmas is this. Isn’t it worth checking out his claims? Isn’t it worth seeing if Jesus isn’t just the original inspiration for the festive season but the very meaning of life? So go along to an Alpha course near you, or come along to a Bible-teaching church and find out more about what God has done.

And for those of us who do follow Jesus, do we know the comfort of God with us this Christmas? Do we know that whatever painful memories and disappointment the season brings, God is with us and in Jesus brings his light that can never be overcome by the darkness? That however deep our experience, he has entered into it, and will bring us fully into the presence of God with great joy.

Do we know the excitement of going deeper in God’s word, of finding how every story whispers Jesus’ name and helps us see his glory more and more brightly?

Do we know the wonder and amazement of Christmastime – that it truly is the greatest story ever told; the beginning of the greatest victory ever won? Will we sing the old words of the great carols with a little more zest and excitement and joy and let Christmas lift our eyes a little higher to the wonder and joy and amazement when, just as Mary saw Jesus that first Christmas, we will see Jesus face to face?

[this is from a sermon preached on 22nd December 2019]

Stoles, Scarves and Symbolism

Symbols change their meaning with time.

When I was growing up, one symbol that had a very clear meaning for me was whether ministers wore scarf or stole. (Scarves are black; stoles have the colour of the liturgical season – green, white, red or purple). If a vicar wore a black scarf, it showed that they understood that their role was primarily as a preacher of God’s Word. If they wore a stole, it meant that they saw their ministry as being priests, re-sacrificing Jesus on the altar.

That understanding informed what I wore for my ordination. Lots of evangelical ordinands share that view and want to be given a black scarf at their ordination rather than a white stole, because it symbolises being given authority to preach rather than authority to re-enact the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. The official rules of course say that it makes no doctrinal difference which you wear, but that just prompted a friend of mine to find out what the doctrinal difference was. He wore a scarf.

Years later, I found myself in a different part of the country, in a church where no-one would even dream of thinking that the minister re-enacted Jesus sacrifice of himself at communion, and everyone was clear that a big part of the vicar’s role was preaching. When I asked them how they understood the difference between scarves and stoles, the only difference they could find was that stoles were colourful and showed that the minsters valued colour and symbols but that scarves showed the vicar was a bit old-fashioned.

Of course, if people understand the symbolism that way, then I’m not going to be so insistent on wearing a scarf rather than a stole… Symbols are flexible and can mean different things in different contexts. There is nothing inherent about a black scarf that means it’s about preaching or about a coloured stole that means it carries a certain understanding of communion – those are labels that some people choose to attach to those items of clothing.

Now it seems that scarves are dying out altogether. Some bishops ban them at ordinations. I don’t think that’s usually because of theology; I suspect it’s because it looks neater if everyone is wearing the same thing. But more evangelicals avoid robes as often as they possibly can, which again comes down to symbolism.

For some people, robes symbolise the church they of their parents stopped going to – the idea of a minister who is boring, old-fashioned and out of touch. (That’s not always a bad thing; I wear robes every week for a service where it’s a positively good thing.) For others, robes symbolise that the people wearing them are different from everyone else. Ironically, that’s how robes came about, but in not the way that you’d expect.

In the 400s AD, some clergy had started dressing in a way that was designed to look impressive. Pope Celestine I objected strongly and wrote this:

We bishops must be distinguished from the people and others by our learning, not our dress, by our life not by our robes, by purity of heart not by elegance.
Quoted in Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy, p.401

Shortly afterwards, to stop the clergy wearing fancy clothes that set them apart, the church introduced some rules about what clergy should wear. Ironically, it was those very rules that then stayed the same for centuries and resulted in clergy wearing different clothes from everyone else as fashion changed!

In the late Roman Empire, people who held an office (magistrates, etc) would wear a special scarf to identify themselves and to show the authority that had been given them to do their role. It’s that scarf that is the ancestor of both the scarf and the stole.

People who think that robes make an important statement, and that clergy are more about preaching than presiding at communion are also likely to think that robes themselves communicate the wrong message to people, and so are more likely to avoid wearing them, except on special occasions.

The Good Samaritan

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A couple of weeks ago, I preached on the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). I discussed some ideas I had about the parable with some clergy friends beforehand, and it turns out that the parable is very widely misunderstood.

I’d like to suggest that we can (and should) read it on three different levels.

On the first level, it’s a story about how we should help other people. It’s striking that the first two people to walk by, the priest and the Levite, had just about every excuse that we still trot out today not to help. Too busy, want to see family, certainly dangerous to help, might even be illegal, they’d already done enough to serve God, not doing any harm.

The Samaritan even had another excuse, didn’t he? This guy he saw lying on the floor was his natural enemy. (Samaria was a country neighbouring Galilee and Judea, and there was 600 years of bad blood between them and Israel.) But God says we should help anyone, anyone who is in need, when we have the opportunity.

I don’t mean helping scam artists pretending to be homeless in the city centre; and I don’t mean giving money when actually practical support or food is a lot more use. But Jesus says love your neighbour as yourself, and that means anyone.

But have you ever noticed that the parable isn’t the way round we’d expect? We’d expect it to be the story of the nice Jewish chap, helping even the nasty Samaritan. But it wasn’t. The real hero in the story is the person the hearers would have hated. They thought the only good Samaritan was a dead Samaritan.

This story is great at cutting through prejudice. Because it isn’t just about who you would help. The characters we’re meant to identify with either need help or do nothing. It’s the character we’re meant to hate who helps. So this says to the Ku Klux Klan in America – “Imagine you are dying by the side of the road and a black guy helps you. How do you respond?” It asks folk in our society – imagine that a Muslim immigrant or a Trump supporter or a member of those people you just don’t speak to saves your life. How do you respond? Live like that.

I wonder how the parable of the Good Samaritan makes you feel. If I’ve got it right, it’s probably meant to make you feel a bit guilty.

Maybe you’ve realised what it means – that we should love others the way we’d want to be loved in their situations, even if it means helping folk we don’t like, even if it’s inconvenient. Maybe you’re starting to realise that nothing you can do will ever be enough to fulfil Jesus’ command to love your neighbour as yourself.

I think that’s right, and that’s the point. Because the lawyer Jesus told the story to was someone who was looking to prove that he was in the right. He asked “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He thought he could be good enough. He wanted to justify himself.

And Jesus tells him a story that shows that he never can be. Of course we should try. Of course we can seek to love others. But we can never get to be good enough for God that way. When it comes to our abilities to get to God, we’re all like that guy bleeding out by the side of the road. We need someone to come along and rescue us. Someone who is despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering and familiar with pain, who can pick us up, bandage our wounds, and bring us safely home.

And that is exactly what we have in Jesus. We were naturally his enemies because of the way that we think and talk and act. He made the effort to come our way, he came down to earth as a man. He saw us in need, he paid the price to rescue us, and to care for us, and he offers to bring us safely home.

Jesus says “love one another as I have loved you.”

(Image above was from Free Bible Images.)

Gospel DNA – Richard Coekin

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Richard Coekin is an old friend; he was a real help to me when I was a young Christian and he’s one of the key people in the story of me getting ordained. He now runs a network of churches and church plants in London.

This is a series of 22 essays, probably based on talks or seminars, about what priorities the Church should have, based on Paul’s farewell to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:17-38. Some of them are very clearly rooted in the text, others are using the text as a springboard for looking at other Biblical themes (e.g. the hope of the New Creation).

I found it really devotionally helpful, and good for thinking through and evaluating what I’m doing as a church leader, and for giving me some helpful corrections where I’d drifted a bit. There are certainly chapters I’d use myself in various contexts. I’d certainly recommend the book to other church leaders to read themselves.

That’s not to say I agree with everything in it; it’s very rare that I find a book where I do, but where I didn’t agree 100%, I usually found it a helpful dialogue partner, and often found that it helped me refine my thinking. I think I found one factual error (Ephesus was the capital of the Roman province of Asia, not Galatia), and there were a few places where I’d actually like him to have expanded on his view. For example, he takes a variant of the standard conservative evangelical position on male leadership in the church (p.25). I don’t agree with his conclusions, and I know that his views would make this book difficult to recommend to some within the C of E, which is a shame. But I’d love to hear how he gets families needing male headship from 1 Timothy 2 (a chapter which I’ve never heard a fully convincing explanation of), what that means for families where that isn’t a possibility, and what that means for the wider church where there simply aren’t enough willing men to lead it.

The only other place where I found myself dramatically disagreeing was over our attitude to Roman Catholics (p.131-6), where I’d want to distinguish more strongly between the official teaching of the Roman Catholic church and the actual views of most of the Roman Catholics I’ve met. Indeed, I could point to distinctly objectionable things in the official doctrine of many denominations, including Presbyterianism and Anglicanism.

There are some areas where he’s much better than many conservative evangelical writers – for example on the importance of “remembering the poor”.

I also love the fact that he doesn’t abuse the DNA metaphor. Most church leaders who use it abuse it horribly, usually by suggesting it’s something that we can decide or control when part of the point of DNA is that we can’t.

All in all, I really enjoyed and benefited from this book. I’d recommend it to other church leaders, provided they were willing to learn from a conservative evangelical who has been greatly used by God. [And if they aren’t willing to learn from him, they should be!]

 

 

Where is the Garden of Eden?

Here’s an interesting point in Genesis 2…

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters. The name of the first is the Pishon; it winds through the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold. (The gold of that land is good; aromatic resin and onyx are also there.) The name of the second river is the Gihon; it winds through the entire land of Cush. The name of the third river is the Tigris; it runs along the east side of Ashur. And the fourth river is the Euphrates. (Genesis 2:10–14)

As far as I know, there isn’t a clear identification for Havilah.

But Cush is an ancient kingdom in Southern Egypt / Northern Sudan / Northern Ethiopia (i.e. a long way south of Israel), and the Tigris and Euphrates are in modern Iraq (and to travel there you go north from Israel, through Lebanon / Western Syria, rather than going east through the desert).

The main geographic clues in the text itself point in opposite directions, and to different continents!

That rather raises the question of whether the garden was ever intended to be understood as a literal place. Maybe it was, and the whole region was massively reconfigured by the Flood. Or maybe it was only ever meant to be symbolic. In either case, it’s rather tricky to find.

And yes, there’s lots I could then say about Eden symbolism in the Temple as pointing to the fact that humanity’s exclusion from Eden wasn’t permanent, and to the way that the Most Holy Place points a way beyond Eden, but that can wait for another time…

What is Calvinism?

The Protestant Reformation was a movement in the 1500s where churches across Europe rejected the authority of the Pope and went back to Scripture. It wasn’t actually a single movement – there were lots of movements and groups across Europe doing different things in response to different local circumstances.

John Calvin was one of the key figures in the Reformation. He was a second-generation Reformer – Martin Luther published the 95 Theses in 1517, but Calvin started his ministry in the 1530s, and died in 1564. He started out as a lawyer in Paris, but was exiled from France, and ended up settling in Geneva – a French-speaking city just over the Swiss border.

Calvin was first and foremost a Bible teacher and theologian. He wasn’t the leader of a movement, but his preaching and teaching were enormously influential, especially because of his book Institutes of the Christian Religion, which is one of the most important theology books of all time.

His influence on the English-speaking world was particularly strong because during the reign of “Bloody” Mary Tudor (1553-1558), many British church leaders took refuge in Geneva. One example would be John Knox, the Scottish founder of Presbyterianism.

Calvinism as it’s now understood doesn’t actually come from Calvin and isn’t a fair summary of his teaching. For example, in the Institutes, Calvin doesn’t mention predestination until about halfway through, whereas Calvinist Louis Berkhof puts it right at the start of his Systematic Theology. Calvinisim really comes from the Synod of Dort, which took place in 1618/9 (50 years after Calvin’s death), where people who liked Calvin’s teaching met to discuss how to respond to a movement called Arminianism. They came up with a five point summary of Calvinism, which is still well known.

A major problem with the five points is that they describe the reaction against Arminianism. They were never meant to be the basis of a systematic theology in their own right. Another problem is that they aren’t especially clear – because the summaries are so well known and each of them can be understood in several different ways. In general, Calvin himself was closer to the “soft” end of the understanding, but people who don’t like Calvinism tend to react to the “hard” version. Of course, it’s fairly easy to find people who believe any combination of these!

The five points, complete with hard and soft versions are as follows (they have the acronym TULIP).

1. Total Depravity

Hard version: Everything we do is only evil all the time.
Soft version: Everything we do is tainted by sin, so that nothing we do is ever completely pure.

2. Unconditional Election

Soft version: God doesn’t choose us because we do good things; he chooses us because he loves us.
Hard version: We don’t need to worry too much about evangelism because some people are just called and others aren’t.

3. Limited Atonement

Soft version: Jesus’ death doesn’t lead to forgiveness for everyone, but only for some people.
Hard version: There are some people who are not called – reprobates. They don’t really matter much, and Jesus’ death certainly didn’t do them any good.

4. Irresistible Grace

Soft version: When God calls us, he does so in such a way that we choose to go along with him.
Hard version: We don’t have free will in this at all.

5. Perseverance of the Saints

Soft version: If we really trust in Jesus, God will give us grace so that we will keep trusting him to the end.
Hard version: If you’re really a Christian, you don’t need to worry about what you do because you’re safe.

And yes, the cartoon character from Calvin & Hobbes was named after John Calvin.