Five loaves and two fish

A mosiac of Jesus feeding the 5000 in the Basilica of Sant' Appolinare Nuovo in Ravenna

A mosaic of Jesus feeding the 5000 in the Basilica of Sant’ Appolinare Nuovo in Ravenna

John tells an interesting story about a boy who gave his lunch to Jesus (John 6:1-14).  The synoptic gospels all record the story, but leave this lad out, which is a shame because he’s not got a big part in John, despite providing dinner for over 5,000 people.

The story is familiar to many of us, and is often told in Sunday School.  The people are hungry and there are no convenience stores nearby.  Jesus says to the disciples “You give them something to eat” (Luke 9:13) but they realise they haven’t got enough money and the boy’s lunch, (which we hope he gave freely), is all they’ve got.  So Jesus takes all they have, and multiplies it.

There are several lessons which mission workers can learn from this.

What we have is enough. So often it seems that there is never enough, be it money, people, resources,  or equipment.  Whatever we’ve got, we always feel we need more.  We ask for it and pray for it.  Yet in this situation what was clearly not enough in the disciples’ hands was enough for God.  If we are experiencing shortages, let’s not try to solve the problem themselves – let’s take the problem to Jesus.  Which leads us onto point 2:

We can solve the problem – if we change our thinking.  Jesus told the disciples to feed the people.  So they could have done… if they’d had the imagination and the faith.  What are the big challenges in our ministry?  How can we see them from God’s perspective?  How can we increase our faith so that we can believe for God’s miraculous provision for us?

We come to God just as we are.  We know nothing about this boy – his age, his intelligence, his social status.  It is not relevant to the story.  The point is that what he had, he gave to Jesus.  We can often fall into the trap of thinking we need more skills, knowledge or qualifications before God can use us.  This boy came to Jesus just as he was and gave him everything.  That was enough.

Being willing gets us used by God.  This boy could have sneaked off by himself and eaten his supper.  But he got involved and offered Jesus a solution.  We don’t know what happened to him, but I expect he kept on telling that story for the rest of his life.  Perhaps he became a disciple and taught others about being available for God.  Having seen Jesus at work in his life, surely he couldn’t just walk away!  His faith would have increased as a result of what he’d seen.

Jesus cares.  He didn’t just shrug his shoulders and say that they should have planned ahead.  He was concerned about their hunger.  Which is why we can come to him with confidence when we tell him what we need.  He’s not going to give us a stone or a snake, but bread and fish (Matthew 7:7-11).

It makes a great story when we get home.  Can you imagine that boy telling his mother that he didn’t eat all his lunch but shared it with thousands of others?  Telling the big stories of God’s provision for us is an opportunity to be a witness to those who don’t yet know him.

So this week let’s not bother about what we haven’t got, or what we think we need.  Let’s come to Jesus in the confidence that in his hands, what we already have is adequate, and what he will do with it is more than enough.

Paul’s missionary strategy

Paul’s ministry in Europe certainly got off to a turbulent start.  In Philippi only an earthquake got him and his friends out of prison after being beaten, and then in Thessalonica the nascent church rushed them hurriedly out of the city to avoid more disturbance.   Yet in the brief time they were in those two cities they established churches that would thrive and be instrumental in partnering with them in the further spread of the gospel.  Many mission workers would love to see such a response, even if they’d rather avoid the challenges it brought with it!

So how did they do it?  What are the secrets of such a dynamic ministry?  Paul (together with his ministry partners Silvanus and Timothy) explained his approach only a few months later in his first letter back to the church in Thessalonica, in a missiological treatise we often overlook.  Let’s examine what he writes in 1 Thessalonians 2.

They were bold (v2) – they had already been mistreated in Philippi and were facing opposition from the synagogue but they spoke out anyway.  How often do we take that opportunity, or are our agencies teaching us to be risk-averse, looking for longevity of service and preserving their good name in the country.  Speaking out too loudly can shut down a whole field for many agencies – but what would Paul have done in those circumstances?

They were straightforward (vv4-5) – they didn’t come to flatter but spoke plainly.  Often straight-talking can offend, particularly in more polite cultures than ours where circumlocution is advisable.  But sometimes people need to be challenged over their lifestyles and guilt.

They were selfless (vv5, 9) – they weren’t greedy.  They worked for their keep so as not to be a burden and didn’t seek glory for themselves.  They remembered that they, like Jesus, had come to serve, not be served (Matthew 20:28).

They were parental (vv7, 11) – Paul invokes the imagery both of a mother and a father to demonstrate his love and concern for the church.  Sacrificial yet authoritive, challenging and committed, mission is never merely transactional.  It has to be primarily relational.

They were hardworking (V9) – In a world where many itinerant preachers were only there to make money, they made a point of embodying the gospel as they earned their living, and earned respect in the process.

They were unimpeachable (10) – their impeccable behaviour spoke for itself.  They could not, as other churches later on did, accuse Paul of not caring, or misusing authority.  They had first hand experience of the highest standards of service.

The outcome of Paul’s compassion and integrity was that the Thessalonians accepted their message as the word of God, not merely human wisdom.  Although there were subsequent theological and ethical issues in the church, it did not produce for Paul challenges on the scale of, say, the church in Corinth.  We do not know how long he was there because the speed of Luke’s narrative masks the timescale, but it was possible only a few weeks – at most months – in which he laid such a solid foundation.  So his strategy was clearly sound.  What do these characteristics listed above look like in the culture we are working in?  How do we apply and contextualise them in the world we live in?  Is it really possible that by following Paul’s example we too can see dramatic results?

We want to see Jesus

024Most ancient church buildings have a number of plaques of different sorts on their walls – tombstones of the gentry, memorials to famous parishioners, tributes to the war dead or past incumbents – but at Penhurst in Sussex there is one that in my experience is utterly unique: a private message addressed to just one person.

It is not in a prominent position; in fact it is not visible from most parts of the church, yet it is clear and conspicuous to the person about to mount the steps to the pulpit, and it is addressed only to the preacher.  It reads:

Sir, we would see Jesus.

It is a quote from John 12:21, and it is a reminder to preachers of their responsibility to reveal Jesus to their listeners.  Yet this duty (and joy!) is not the preacher’s alone; it falls to all believers – as Jesus told us to go into all the world and make disciples (Matthew 28:20).

Some of us will indeed be called to go to the other side of the world, while others are called to go to the other side of the street.  It is not the ‘where’ that matters, it is the ‘going’ that counts.  In our schools, offices and retirement homes we can all look to ‘show and tell’ to our colleagues.  In our homes we can explain and exhibit Jesus to our families and neighbours.  In gyms and golf clubs we can incarnate the risen Lord to our team-mates and competitors.  There is no-where and no-when that we cannot – and should not – take the opportunity in some way to bring Christ into a sharper perspective, whether for the first time or the umpteenth, to the people around us.

Paul sets us an excellent example.  He writes to the Corinthians “Woe is me if I don’t preach the gospel!” (1 Corinthians 9:16).  He felt compelled to share the good news.  But as we will see next week when we look at his missions strategy in Europe, he made it clear to the Thessalonians that this was not only standing in the synagogue trying to persuade people that Jesus was the Messiah who was destined to die and rise again (Acts 17:2-3); it also meant publicly demonstrating Christ in his impeccable behaviour (1 Thessalonians 2:10) and privately imploring individuals to believe (1 Thessalonians 2:11).

To help me remind myself of my role in this great sermon which we live and speak every day, I like to start the day with an ancient prayer.  Perhaps you would like to join me in it:

O Lord, grant that my part in the world’s life today may not be to obscure the splendour of thy presence, but rather to make it more plainly visible to the eyes of my fellow humans.

What God can do in 10 years

Source: www.freeimages. com

Source: www.freeimages. com

I recently came across the above title as a headline in a well-known Christian magazine.  I prepared to be impressed.  I thought that if God can speak the entire cosmos into being in just six days, give the Deity a decade and something pretty spectacular should result.

Sadly, I was underwhelmed.  A church had grown, bought and renovated a building, and started meeting there instead of in a school.  Just an average decade for many churches.  Which set me thinking, why does God do things so slowly?  The answer is that God works with the celestial equivalent of one hand tied behind his back: he partners with humans.

Alone, God can speak revival into being, self-reveal to millions, heal the sick and raise the dead.  But God doesn’t like doing things alone.  God prefers to be in partnership with family, working in community.  Which is why God is so keen that we humans get involved.  In working with God, we learn about God, get to know God, and start the long process of becoming like God.  It’s a bit like letting your kids help you with weeding the flowerbed.  You know some weeds are going to survive and some flowers are going to get pulled up, but doing stuff together builds family.

The problem, of course, is that humans work slowly, and often get in the way.  We don’t do what we’re told to, either because we’re not listening or we’re not willing.  We don’t go where we should or give what we ought.  We don’t step out in faith, speak out boldly, or believe God will do amazing things in us and through us.  So what looks like God’s inactivity is really our inactivity.

18 months ago we introduced you to the Syzygy theology of symbiosis (if you haven’t read this blog, click here!).  It stressed the fact that our partnership with God is so total and complete that it is like we are in a mutual relationship, modelled on the one Jesus had with the Father.

Do we have the courage even to aspire to this sort of relationship?  Do we look at the risks, the challenges, the ‘sacrifices’ involved, or do we embrace the huge privilege of being able to work alongside the Creator, allowing the ‘power that raised Christ Jesus from the dead’ (Ephesians 1:19) to work in and through us?

May God shrink our fears and enlarge our faith, and then maybe we really will see what God can do in 10 years!

I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you may know what is the hope of his calling, what are the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints, and what is the surpassing greatness of his power towards us who believe.

(Ephesians 1:18-19)

Job – the last word on suffering

William Blake: Job's vision of God

William Blake: Job’s vision of God

As we bring to an end this series looking at suffering which has taken slightly longer than was originally anticipated, it is appropriate to leave the final word with Job.  This ancient story is celebrated for its exploration of the theme of suffering, and for challenging the idea that bad things only happen to bad people, which is a persistent theology that has its current manifestation in the prosperity doctrine: if you are dedicated to God, God will bless you.

Job endures unparalleled loss, and his friends insist that it must be because he has done something to deserve it, while Job proclaims his innocence.  Clearly traumatised by the sudden loss of his family, health and possessions, he wishes he had never been born (3:3).

What we must note from this event is not the lengthy discussion (which frankly few of us ever read in full) but something that we often miss – Job did not have the opportunity of reading chapter 1.  He had no idea what what was going on, or how God was using him to demonstrate faithfulness under pressure.  All he knew was that he had done nothing wrong, yet he was suffering.  That is a condition common to most of humanity – we generally have no idea what God’s purpose is, we can only endure.

We must also remember that even in the midst of his pain, Job comes up with one of the greatest statements of faith in God found in the whole Bible:

I know that my redeemer lives, and at the last day he will stand on the earth; though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh will I see God.

Neither did Job get any answer.  There’s no indication that he ever found out what was behind his suffering.  But he did receive a revelation that put it into perspective.  For four chapters (38-41) God speaks to Job revealing God’s power and wisdom through the whole of creation, which puts Job firmly in his place.  He retracts his complaint, recognises the awesomeness of his creator.  May our suffering lead us into similar revelation of the majesty of God!

God meant it for good?

Tardieu: Joseph recognised by his brothers (1788)

Tardieu: Joseph recognised by his brothers (1788)

Last week we introduced the theology of suffering with the general idea that the Bible, far from promising us the unlimited blessing of success and prosperity that some have found in isolated verses, has a dominant theme of preparing us to expect suffering.

While this emerges most strongly in the New Testament, with its context of a minority church resisting attempts by both Jewish and Roman authorities to make them submit to anything other than the kingdom of Jesus, the Old Testament has plenty of suffering too.  While much of this is interpreted by the Bible writers as God’s just punishment for Israel’s failure to follow God faithfully, much of the suffering is undergone by the faithful through no fault of their own.  We only have to think of Abel, Joseph, David, Job, Jeremiah and many of the prophets to realise how many were persecuted for their faith.

Let’s examine the case of Joseph.  He seems to have been an arrogant youth, bragging about his dreams, so it’s no surprise that he earned the hostility of his brothers.  But he didn’t deserve to be sold into slavery or to be falsely accused of attempted rape by a rejected woman.  Yet the outcome of his misfortune was the survival of the Egyptians through an unprecedented famine, the rescuing of his own family from starvation, and character growth in himself and his eldest brother Reuben, who took responsibility for the youngest son of Jacob, when he had not been able to save Joseph some decades previously (Genesis 42:37, cf 37:22).  And after the brothers had been reconciled, Joseph comments:

You meant it for harm, but God meant it for good.

(Genesis 50:20)

Does that mean God caused all that suffering?  We in the West hate such an idea, because it implies that we are merely pawns in God’s game, to be moved or sacrificed as God sees fit.  It affronts our sense of democracy, individualism and personal sovereignty.  If however, we came from a number of other cultures across the world, we wouldn’t even be asking this question.  It wouldn’t even occur to us.  We would simply assume that God has the right to do anything God chooses with God’s creation.  We would have a far less inflated impression of our own importance.

But since we’re not from such a culture, we have to deal with that question.  We don’t believe that God is an unfeeling, distant despot, but rather a loving Father who wants the very best for us.  This is certainly what Jesus teaches us in his parables (Matthew 7:9-11, Luke 15:11-32).  But we also believe in the forces of evil, whether at work in selfish or malevolent humans or personified in Satan.  We believe in God’s law of cause and effect at work in this world, and the freedom for all of us to choose to do harm or good.  This creates a world when it becomes very easy for bad things to happen to people, whether accident, abuse or sickness.  Does that mean God causes these things?  No!  But it does mean that God didn’t stop them either.

The plain fact is that God allows suffering to continue in this world.  Why?  While we cannot determine what is going on in each individual case, we can find in the Bible some reasons why suffering might have a purpose.

  • For some, suffering might drive us towards God, perhaps for the first time, and we know of people who have found God because a believing community reached out to support them (2 Corinthians 1:9).
  • For others who observe suffering, it is an opportunity for them to show compassion and develop their own character
  • It may be an opportunity for the victim to develop character and grow more like Jesus (James 1:2-4).
  • For some it is their chance to demonstrate to a watching community the grace of God at work in their lives as they suffer (2 Corinthians 4:10-11).
  • We can encourage others who suffer, turning our experience of hardship into a resource (2 Corinthians 1:4).

Many of us who have suffered and come out the other side will say that it was worth it for what we learned of God and ourselves in the process.  That doesn’t mean we deny the pain of it, or even understand why God allowed it.  We simply recognise that the benefits outweigh the cost.  As Jesus himself did (Hebrews 12:2).  In this life we will probably never know the reasons why God allowed our particular suffering.  What we can know however, is that one day every injustice will be righted, and we will be comforted:

And He shall wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there shall no longer be and death, there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying or pain – these things have passed away.

(Revelation 21:4)

A very British heresy

Pelagius - hero or heretic?

Pelagius – did he have a point or was he completely misguided?

Pelagius was the first British theologian that we know about, and although he is little known today he has provided the British church with one of its favourite heresies.

In the late 4th century Pelagius went to Rome and was dismayed at the prevailing view, taught by people like Augustine, that the fall of Adam and Eve affected the whole of humanity to the extent that we are all terminally corrupted by it and unable without the grace of God to turn from evil and accept God.

Pelagius thought that the sin of our forebears affected only them, and that God’s grace had given us the Bible, freewill, and intellect, so that we are perfectly capable of living righteous lives should we so wish.  After all, why would Jesus tell us to be perfect (Matthew 5:48) if it is not possible?  In essence, his message to humanity was “Must try harder”.  Surely he has a point?

Though the views of Pelagius were quickly denounced and eventually condemned as heresy by the followers of Augustine, they persisted, particularly in Britain and Gaul, because they seem so natural.  In fact they have even been referred to as the natural religion of natural man.  But the basic idea is humanity trying to make itself acceptable to God.

Pelagius of course missed the whole point.  It is completely impossible for humanity to make itself acceptable to God.  Though we should aim to live out our salvation through a transformed life that is pleasing to God, we achieve this through the grace of God at work in our lives, not by gritting our teeth and trying harder.  If we’re doing that, we haven’t learned from the mistake of the Pharisees.   Living right is not a prerequisite for salvation, it is a response to it.

Yet the attraction of Pelagianism persists.  Over a millennium later it re-emerged in the Arminians, in the teaching of John Wesley, and was embraced by some significant Pentecostal and non-conformist movements.  It still affects many of us today, particularly as many of us refute Augustine’s idea of original sin.  How many Christians believe that human beings are basically good, if somewhat marred?  That’s Pelagianism, or at least semi-Pelagianism.  How many of us believe that humans have a choice in their salvation?  That there is a little kernel of good deep inside of us that can make right choices?  That is Pelagianism.  Because even that ability to make a decision is making a contribution to our own salvation, and denying our total dependence on God’s grace.  Yet this heresy remains popular because we find it so hard to cope with the idea of a free gift of grace that we have done nothing to deserve.

Of course, Pelagius completely ignores some key Bible verses on the sinfulness of humanity such as Psalm 51, Romans 3:10, 3:23, and 5:12.  Yet the opposite error to Pelagianism is to fall into licentiousness, arguing that we cannot help sinning because we are totally depraved.  The correct way is to find a middle path, recognising both our sinfulness and the work of the Holy Spirit transforming our lives into the image of Jesus.

What do you think?  Did Pelagius have a point?  Or all we all completely affected by original sin?  How do you feel about this?  How do your answers affect a) your relationship with God and b) how you live?

R C Sproul wrote a very helpful article on this – read it at http://www.bible-researcher.com/sproul1.html.

Coffee – a fragrant aroma

Photo courtesy of ace barista Simon C Bright

Photo courtesy of ace barista Simon C Bright

Fruit is a well-known biblical metaphor.  Jesus tells us that bearing fruit glorifies the Father (John 15:8), and Paul says we are joined to Christ so that we can bear fruit for God (Romans 7:4).  Jesus makes it clear that the fruit is the evidence that we are disciples (John 15:8) – or not (Matthew 7:20).  Whether we understand the fruit to be a metaphor for our activity (Colossians 1:10) or our character development (Galatians 5:22-23), it is clear that if we’re genuine disciples of Jesus, fruit is the outcome.

When we think of fruit, we probably have in our minds fruits like peaches, grapes, apples, apricots or strawberries, which we can just pick and pop in our mouths.  They are the ready-meals of the fruit world.  But other fruit requires a bit of work to it.  While we can eat grapes just as they are, they can also be made into wine.  Apples can be made into pie.  Corn, a slightly different type of fruit, can be made into bread, a much more pleasant form of carbohydrate.  But to achieve this, the fruit needs to be crushed, chopped or ground.  A totally different experience.

Another type of fruit is coffee.  Most of us never even seen the coffee fruit on the plant, but we enjoy the end product.  But to get to us, the coffee fruit has a terrible experience.  First, the fruit is stripped off the bean and discarded.  It has no value to us.  The bean is then fermented, and rinsed in large quantities of water.  Then the bean is roasted and, finally, ground up and brewed using hot water.

Suddenly being fruitful doesn’t sound quite so attractive.  And many of us are no stranger to processes like those the coffee bean undergoes – we often feel like we’re in deep water, walking through fire or being ground to bits.  When things like this happen, we can often wonder if we’ve got it all wrong, and begin to doubt our faith.  We discussed the theology of this last week, but suffering is an ever-present reality in the lives of most Christians, and is clearly the biblical norm.  All the writers of the New Testament letters expected their correspondents to be undergoing varying degrees of difficulty, if not active persecution.  One even tells them to ‘count it pure joy’! (James 1:2)  This is because even though the process is unpleasant, the outcome is good.  James tells us that as a result we will be ‘perfect and complete’ (James 1:4).

The careful processing, roasting and brewing of a fine coffee results in something remarkable.  A simple berry has been turned into a refreshing drink which invigorates and stimulates.  Taken in moderate quantities it is beneficial to concentration, alertness and general health, and may even contribute to longevity.  Even its aroma is attractive.  The next time we undergo some sort of trial, let us remember what the coffee goes through to bring some joy into the life of its drinker, and remember that our suffering is part of the process of bringing joy to the Lord, as in the flood or the furnace we are made more like Jesus.

Come and worship!

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

This week, Christians will celebrate the momentous event in human history when God stepped into his own creation to live and die as one of us.  It matters not one bit that it may not have happened in December (or January if that is your tradition), or whether the inn was really a guest room, or whether there were kings present, or donkeys, or snowmen.  The important thing is that it happened.

It happened because God was so concerned about the plight of selfish, ungodly humanity that he did what only he could to bring us back into relationship with him.  Or as St Paul puts it “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19).  The whole point was to restore the broken relationship so that humanity could live at peace with God.  Jesus came to make that possible.  That is why we celebrate him as “The Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).

For this reason he is the ultimate role model for mission workers.  We may follow the examples and tenets of the founding father of our agencies or movements, or other heroes of mission, but only because they point the way to the one who has gone before all of us.  He left his home, learned the language, and adopted the culture and customs of his mission field.  He laid down his life in obedience to his calling, and he raised up followers to continue the spread of the message.

At the end of his letter to the Romans Paul writes “the gospel and preaching of Jesus Christ… has been made known to all the nations” (Romans 16:25-26).  The world has grown bigger than the Roman Empire of Paul’s day and many more tribes and peoples have been located who have not yet heard the good news.  The missionary imperative to tell the great glad tidings still rings out to us.  Many of the carols and readings that we use in our worship at this time of year encourage us, like the magi (Matthew 2:2), to come and worship Jesus.  What better way to do that than to bring others with us to discover the Saviour for themselves?

Slaves of righteousness?

"You have been set free from sin"

“You have been set free from sin”

In Romans chapter 6, Paul uses strong visual imagery to ram home a theological point – slavery*.  This would have made a lot of sense in his day when slavery was a significant part of the Roman economic structure and everybody would have been fully aware of the issues.  Many of the early Christians would have been slaves; a few were slave owners and most of the rest would have aspired to own slaves.  At the time Paul was writing, possibly a third of the population of Rome were slaves.

Everyone knew that slaves had no freedom to choose.  They were quite literally the property of their owners and were not legally recognised as people.  They were assets which could be bought or sold.  They had to do exactly what they were told, or they were punished.

Imagine then a slave, let’s call him Maximus, who has recently been sold by his former owner, Brutus.  One day his new owner sends him out to do some shopping, but on his way to the market he meets Brutus, who tells him to go off on an errand for him.  What is he to do?  He knows he shouldn’t, but he’s afraid of Brutus who is a violent man, so he goes.  Of course, when he gets home late, he’s in trouble and his new owner wants to know where he’s been.  What can Maximus say to defend himself?  He’s a pawn in a power struggle who has ended up satisfying nobody.

Paul uses an argument just like this to put us in the place of Maximus.  Why are we still obeying sin when we have a new master?  Sin used to control us (Romans 6:17) but then we were bought (the Greek word exagorizo, which is usually translated ‘redeemed’, literally means “bought from the market”).  So we no longer have to obey our old master.  In fact, when he turns up, demanding obedience, we can tell him where to go, because we have a new master.  And Paul encourages us to obey him, so that we wholeheartedly belong to him (6:19).

All of us struggle to break the habits of our former lifestyles.  We learned sinful thoughts, attitudes, words and behaviour from our old master, and even though he now has no power over us, we’re in the habit of living in a way that would please him.  The new master has different standards, and we should make a strenuous effort to live in a way that shows we are now living according to his standards.  So the next time the devil comes knocking, remind him it’s a done deal and he’s not in charge any more.

Therefore, do not let sin reign in your mortal body that you should obey its lusts, for sin shall not be master over you.  Though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.

 (Romans 6:12-18, edited)

 

 

*Health warning – it never does to take biblical imagery to extremes.  Certain aspects of the slavery motif can be problematic (e.g. did God do a deal with the devil to ‘buy’ humans out of satan’s control?  Are we slaves or free people?).  The Bible writers used imagery like this to convey a general example, not an exact parallel.

The Parable of the Oppressors?

1354359_fifty_pounds_2The western church has traditionally interpreted the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30, Luke 19:11-27) as an encouragement to use wisely the gifts that God has given us, though we usually play down the bit about the wrath of God poured out on the servant who doesn’t.  As we observed two weeks ago, this fits in neatly with our protestant work ethic – our performance demonstrates our salvation, and God is looking for a return on his investment in us.  But are there other ways of interpreting this parable when seen through the eyes of other cultures?

When workers’ groups in Latin America looked at this parable they came up with a very different interpretation, because their perspective is different.  In Europe, theology has traditionally been done by wealthy, white, educated men.  But the worker’s groups were the opposite: poor, uneducated, marginalised people who recognised in this story a situation only too relevant to their own situation.  They pointed out that in an agrarian economy anybody who was returning 1000% profit (Luke 19:16) was clearly exploiting someone, and was therefore a bad guy.  Only an evil and corrupt king would commend him.  By their reckoning, the only person who comes out of this story with any credit is the one who buried his talents – because he didn’t oppress anybody.

No pressure then...

No pressure then…

Most Europeans find this interpretation hard to accept, but possibly this is only because we are so accustomed to our traditional interpretation – that God has given us certain talents and expects us to make the most of them… or else.  Which, when you think about it, doesn’t really square with our idea of the totally unmerited grace of God.

The marginalised South Americans who developed their own understanding of this parable would be far closer to the culture of Jesus’ audience than we are.  And while there may be flaws in their interpretation (is Jesus really telling us it’s good just to bury our treasure and do nothing with it?) there are also flaws in ours – is God really an exacting man, reaping where he did not sow, and punishing those who don’t perform well enough?

We also face the challenge that the word ‘talent’ has a double meaning in English.  We understand it to mean a gift or ability, which is stretching the original text too far, as a talent was in Bible times an enormous sum of money.  Luke uses the equivalent word ‘mina’ (an ancient middle-eastern currency unit), which emphasises that there is a financial context to this parable.  A mina was worth about 9 months wages for an agricultural worker – a phenomenal amount of spending money for the sort of people Jesus was talking to.  A talent was the Greco-Roman equivalent.

Jesus is in fact basing this parable on a real life incident involving the king of Galilee, Herod Antipas.  When his father Herod the Great died shortly after Jesus was born, his will had to be confirmed by the Emperor, so all his sons scurried off to Rome to persuade Augustus to grant their claims.  The Jewish people also sent a delegation asking the Emperor to get rid of Herod’s dynasty altogether!

Which raises a relevant question:

Would Jesus really use Herod as a metaphor for God?

We naturally assume that the authority figure in any given parable – a king, a judge, a landowner – stands for God.  But that’s not necessarily so.  There can be the very odd occasion when the authority figure is an anti-type of God – see for example Luke 18:2-8 where the judge is clearly contrasted with God.  This parable is designed to contrast the oppressive behaviour of the king with that of God.  The king commends his stewards who exploited the poor by saying “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

It is interesting to note that immediately after this parable Matthew places the judgement of the sheep and the goats, which also features a reward for performance.  But in that story, the slaves are not expected to make a huge profit out of the people, but to be generous to them.  They were expected to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked and visit the sick and imprisoned.  Is it possible that Matthew has set up a deliberate contrast between two ways of behaving – a worldly way embodied by an evil human king, and the heavenly way following the righteous God-King?

This understanding frees us from the pernicious pressure to perform in order to earn our salvation (or at least our reward) and allows us to love generously and freely, in a way that brings hope to the marginalised.  Over history, faced with the choice of being the oppressor or siding with the oppressed, the church has at different times done both.  Institutional church has often been the oppressor, while many courageous, counter-cultural individuals like Francis of Assisi and Mother Theresa have met Christ in the poor and downtrodden as they served them.

Which course will you take?

Luis Suárez

SuarezThere can be little doubt that Luis Suárez is an excellent footballer.  With a career tally of 40 international goals for Uruguay he is their all-time top scorer,  and he has 220 more in club football.  He has scored six hat-tricks for Liverpool, holding the Premier League record.  In April 2014 he won the PFA players’ player of the year award.  He spectacularly scored both Uruguay’s goals against England in the 2014 world cup, virtually eliminating them.

So it is  disappointing that his skills did not feature at all in Uruguay’s first match of the knockout stage, which they lost 2-0 and exited the competition.  He was already suspended for biting Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini, the third time he has been punished for biting an opponent.  All of which goes to demonstrate that character is more important than ability.  You can’t score for your country while you’re in the sin bin.

In the Bible, we don’t find the 11 disciples selecting candidates to replace Judas Iscariot on the basis of their leadership ability, organisational gifiting or mentoring skills.  They looked for men who had been with Jesus (Acts 1:21).  When Paul tells Timothy what the qualities necessary in church officials are, not one of them is a gifting.  They are all character qualifications (1 Timothy 3:1-10).  If Jesus had picked his disciples on merit, he probably would not have accepted any of the twelve, except perhaps Judas Iscariot, who appears to have had some potential.

Which causes us to consider how we select our mission partners.  Are we often so dazzled by the ability of applicants that we are blinded to their character flaws?  Do we focus on the skills we need in the field rather than the character of the person wielding them?  And in the process, are we sending the wrong people, or putting them in the wrong team, and inadvertently damaging the work of the kingdom and causing mission partners to return prematurely because of the excessive stress caused by having the wrong players on the team?  And are latent character flaws in each of us threatening to bring the whole thing crashing down about us as we are accustomed to seeing when a prominent televangelist or famous church leader falls into sin and loses their ministry in the fallout?  As Gerald Coates once said:

What a man builds with his gifting, he can destroy with his character.

Singing in the rain?

Gene Kelly in "Singin' in the Rain"

Gene Kelly in “Singin’ in the Rain”

England has a reputation abroad for being an unnecessarily moist country.  Yet in some countries moisture is welcomed.  I have been in Africa when the rains break, and seen people stop their cars and get out and dance in the puddles because they’re so glad it’s raining.  That wouldn’t happen in Manchester.  Where people are still in touch with their farming communities, they recognise the need for rain.  No rain, no food.  So they are grateful for the rain.

It’s the same in the Bible.  Rain is generally used as a sign of God’s blessing (except of course, in the Flood).  It’s part of the covenant with Israel that if the people obey God, the rain will come (Leviticus 26:3-4).  When they don’t, it doesn’t.  And if you’ve ever been to Israel, you’ll know the value of rain.  It’s a dry land where every drop is cherished and irrigation systems are carefully designed to use no more water than is absolutely necessary.  Likewise the withholding of rain is a sign of God’s judgement (e.g. 1 Kings 16:29-18:1), and clouds without rain are the ultimate picture of disappointment (Proverbs 25:14).

The English don’t like the rain.  Where we live, it’s usually cold, insipid and persistent, and it interferes with the cricket.  Unlike tropical countries, where there’s a regular cloudburst which clears up quickly, here it can go on dribbling for days with barely a centimetre falling.  Sometimes it’s even hard to know whether rain is falling or whether the air is just full of damp.  The moisture nags its way through our clothing and into our bones.  The only thing we enjoy about it is that it gives us something to moan about.

This year the English have had a lot to moan about.  Having just endured the wettest spring since records began, the whingeing Poms have had a lot of practice.  We’ve moaned about the weather so much that we’re now even moaning about people who moan about the weather.  How does this square with St Paul’s injunction to the Thessalonians to “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18)?

Surely we should be cultivating an attitude of thankfulness even when we’re cold and clammy and our barbecue has just been cancelled.  Can we here in England be thankful that we live in a country where the grass is green and we can turn on a tap without wondering whether water is going to come out of it?

We who are mission workers have many opportunities to moan.  We struggle with intermittent electricity and water supplies, the challenges of bureaucracy, the dangers of travelling, setbacks in our ministries and so much more.  A closer inspection of what Paul wrote reminds us that we’re not giving thanks for the circumstances, but we’re remaining thankful despite them.  The early church did not give thanks because they were persecuted, but because they had “been considered worthy” of suffering for Jesus.  James is no masochist when he tells us to count it ‘pure joy’ when we have trials – he’s encouraging us to look beyond the trials to the perfection that lies beyond (James 1:2-4).

Let us lift our eyes above our immediate troubles and give thanks to God for all that he has done in our lives.

Send in the workers!

The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.  So ask the Lord of the harvest to send out more workers.

This verse, recorded both by Matthew (9:37-8) and Luke (10:2) will be familiar to most of us involved in cross-cultural mission.  We are only too aware that there is a great need for more people to help with our work and yet so few people come forward.  We frequently use this verse in our prayers and in our appeals.  Yet our familiarity with it may blind us to one obvious point:

Why would the farmer not want to send out more workers?

The verse gives us a glimpse of life in an agrarian economy still relevant to many parts of the world but less so to the west.  In a society dependent on growing its own food a good harvest is of paramount importance, and getting it in quickly before it perishes or gets stolen is a top priority.  So here we’re given a picture of a farmer with a bumper crop in his fields, and not enough workers to reap it… and he doesn’t go out and hire more workers?

This farmer (who represents God in this instance) is not interested in mere hired hands.  He’s not a capitalist who sees labour as an expendable commodity.  He’s looking for partners who will not only work with him but share the rewards.  John’s version of this verse (4:34-38) says “he who is reaping is receiving wages, and is gathering fruit for eternal life.”  In other words, this farmer not only pays wages, he runs a profit-sharing scheme as well!  The result is that everyone is happy.

So it’s not merely a case of spending more money to attract new workers.  It’s about winning hearts and minds so that new workers will join a cause.  The best way to do that is to pray, because in prayer our hearts become aligned to the heart of God.

By encouraging people to pray rather than to go, we are helping them to enlarge their hearts for the lost.  As they buy into God’s mission to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10) they will be equipping themselves to be the answer to their own prayer – and go.

There is a huge multitude of people worldwide who are ready to hear the good news of Jesus Christ.  Of course God wants more workers to spread this news, but God wants them to join in of their own free will and not because they’ve been boxed into a spiritual corner and find themselves forced to go against their own better judgement.

All great moves of God start with prayer – let us redouble our efforts to rekindle another one by being obedient to this commandment.  Join with us in praying at 10:02 every day that the Lord will send more workers!

When Jesus doesn’t fulfil our expectations

Triumphant entry by He Qi

(He Qi)

The problem with the Palm Sunday story is that we think we know it.  We find it hard to pay attention, because we’re familiar with it.  We’ve heard it at least once a year throughout our Christian lives.  We’ve still got last year’s palm cross on the dressing table.  But what is really going on here?

The pilgrims who have come up to Jerusalem from Galilee are at fever pitch, full of enthusiasm.  Unlike the residents of Jerusalem, who are asking “Who is this?” (Matthew 21:10), they’ve seen Jesus in action in Galilee and along the road through Jericho.  He’s been demonstrating his credentials and their expectations are high.  Is this the time when Jesus is going to confront the Romans and liberate Israel like a Messiah is expected to do?

Jesus initially indulges their enthusiasm.  He arranges a donkey to ride on.  Why?  Jesus usually walks everywhere (sometimes even on water!) but on this occasion he’s deliberately stoking their anticipation.  They all know Zechariah’s prophecy which Matthew quotes:

Say to the daughter of Zion ‘Behold, your King is coming, gentle, and mounted on a donkey.’ (Matthew 21:5)

Jesus is making a visual demonstration of his identity.  He is answering the question they had asked him on his last visit – “If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly” (John 20:24).  They recognise his answer as such, and treat him accordingly, throwing their coats on the ground in front of him and forming a cheering honour guard as if he were a homecoming king.  Luke even reports that they changed the wording of the traditional greeting ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’ to ‘Blessed is the King…’ (Luke 19:38).  Mark points out that they expect the kingdom of David to be restored (Mark 11:10).  No wonder the Pharisees told him to shut them up – they knew that the Romans would not tolerate sentiments such as that (John 11:48).

So this ‘King’ rides triumphantly up into Jerusalem at the head of a rejoicing multitude… and then confounds them.  He goes through the gate and turns left.  He doesn’t head straight for the Roman fortress to force a confrontation with the occupying army.  He goes to the temple.  His priorities are different.  He’s already answering the question that Pilate will ask him a few days later: “My Kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).  And in doing so, he disappoints thousands of followers, one of whom was Judas, who was probably hoping for great things from Jesus, but felt he had been let down.  Those thousands were not there to support him when he was on trial for his life.  As far as they were concerned, he was already just another failed pretender.

With 2000 years of perspective, we can see that Jesus was right.  He stuck to his mission and did not let the crowds divert him.  But it would have been hard for those in his enthusiastic following to have appreciated that.  Even his own disciples do not appear to have understood what was going on even though he had spoken to them plainly about his imminent death (Matthew 16:21).

What do we do when Jesus appears to let us down?  Those of us involved in world mission know only too well how wrong things can go.  We find our visas revoked with only 48 hours to leave the country.  A colleague is killed in a car crash.  A loved one is kidnapped.  A pastor swindles money from the church.  Our children lose their faith.  We are constantly ill, or stressed with overwork.  The ministry ends in defeat.  Did Jesus fail us?  It can feel like that at times, and we can be very tempted to respond like the crowds in Jerusalem.  All deserted him.  One betrayed him.  Another denied knowing him.  Others fled for their lives.

Yet, a few days later, Jesus returns (John 20).  Not to the religious leaders, nor to his own family.  Not to his best friend, or to the men who would lead the Jerusalem church.  He comes to a grieving and confused woman.  A woman who remained faithful, even though he had not turned out to be the Messiah she expected him to be.

Jesus doesn’t mind our confusion and grief.  He isn’t upset by our lack of understanding.  He seeks our faithfulness.  Even when all appears to have gone very badly wrong, he is still there for those who trust him.  In the midst of our pain, sorrow, trauma and confusion, let us hold on tightly to the one person who is constant, Jesus Christ – the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8).

Jonah – successful mission worker?

jonahWe all know the story of Jonah.  It’s taught in churches and religious schools, partly because it’s a graphic and exciting story that appeals particularly to children.  Well, at least the bit with the storm and the big fish is exciting.  We don’t always tell the second part.  While theologians may argue over whether it is a true story, a parable or an allegory, this exquisitely crafted play in four acts has much relevance for the 21st century church, and we’re going to consider four contemporary applications of its lessons.

Jonah was a reluctant mission worker.  This is the bit of the story we’re most familiar with, how Jonah ran away from what he knew God wanted him to do, and was boxed in more and more till he got on and did it.  Most of us who have been Christians for a while will know this sense of how hard it is to run away from God, though we’re not usually boxed in as dramatically as Jonah was!  Yet our own experience of God tells us that God knows best how to run our lives.  To what extent are we still trying to run away from what God wants us to do?

Jonah was a frightened mission worker.  He knew that the Ninevites were a cruel and dangerous people.  What were they going to do to him when he told them to change the way they lived?  These were the people who invented crucifixion, and an earlier form of execution, impaling on a sharpened stake.  Faced with those two alternatives, we might have been buying a ticket to Tarshish too!  But to what extent are we afraid of telling people the good news today?  What’s the worst they can do to us?  Granted, we have to be careful not to lose our visa, endanger local believers, or damage the reputation of our agency, but let’s be bold!  Let’s risk the ridicule, criticism and bullying that might result.  Are we prepared to take the good news to people even at personal risk to ourselves?

Jonah was a judgmental mission worker.  He didn’t think these people were worthy of being forgiven.  They were foreign, cruel, evil.  Only nice people deserve to be forgiven.  He was blinkered by his racial supremacy of being one of God’s chosen people.  The other people obviously weren’t chosen.  But God had bigger plans.  We might laugh at such narrow-minded bigotry these days, but who are the people we don’t think are worthy of forgiveness?  Benefit cheats?  Illegal immigrants? Arms dealers?  Drug pushers?  Rapists?  Paedophiles?  But in God’s eyes, we are no better, but Christ died for us when we didn’t deserve it (Romans 5:8).  Are we prepared to take the good news to people we don’t think are worthy?

Jonah was a successful mission worker.  We often admire the philosophy of Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill, or the harvest of Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost.  Yet 120,000 people responded to Jonah’s message!  When Jonah was faithful to his calling, God delivered the results.  It’s not rocket science.  God does not want anyone to die, but wants people everywhere to turn to him (2 Peter 3:9).  So why would we not want to tell people?  The US illusionist and comedian Penn Jillette, who is a vociferous atheist, commented in a blog about how much he respected a Christian who gave him a Bible:

How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?

That’s a harsh statement, which strips away the cosy multicultural fudge that we are used to.  We might like to think we don’t tell people about Jesus out of respect for their faith choices, or because it’s a private matter, but surely love overrides those and demands that we tell people the good news.

Becoming less human?

trigger

Trigger the philosopher

In an episode of the classic BBC comedy “Only Fools and Horses” Trigger, a roadsweeper, claims to have used the same broom for 20 years, though he adds that in that time it has had 17 new heads and 14 new handles.  His friends clearly doubt that it therefore qualifies to be considered the same broom.  This is a modern variant of the ancient paradox called the Ship of Theseus, a philosophical debate over whether the identity of the original object can be said to be continuous over time when all its original parts have been replaced.  A bit like the Sugababes after the three original members had all left.

A similar question can be raised about being human.  It has been estimated by several authoritative microbiologists[1] that bacteria and fungi living in and on the human body outnumber the human cells by an incredible 10 to 1, with over 500 different species living in the gut and 500 more living on the skin.  Less than 10% of the cells in your body are human!  While these fellow-travelling cells are blatantly parasitic and can cause disease, they can also significantly help our existence, helping us digest food and absorb energy, stimulating our immune systems, breaking down waste and acting as a protective barrier on the skin.  Some of them even defend us, attacking invading bacteria of the wrong sort.  One microbiologist has said of this prolific microbial infestation: “they truly represent another arm of the immune system.”[2]

All of this has a huge impact on our understanding of what it means to be human.  Babies are born free of microbes, and we acquire more throughout our lives with every drink, touch, or kiss.  So as we move from 0% to over 90% microbe throughout our lives, life itself is a journey into becoming less human!

Or is it?  To be human is to be in community.  Way back in the days of the Garden of Eden, God concluded that ‘It is not good for the human to be alone’ (Genesis 2:18).  The human needed community of its own kind, and ducks, fish and elephants weren’t quite up to the job – fortunately!  This need for community reflects the community inherent in a Trinitarian understanding of God: three persons in perfect harmony, love and unity within the One being.  Historically, human life has thrived in community.  The aggressively assertive individualism of 20th century Europe is a historical anomaly, which is already showing signs of being redressed as postmodern youth are more aware of their connection to the global village and of their need for community, even if it’s expressed mostly through their technology!

In the same way as we enjoy a symbiotic relationship with other life forms at a microscopic level, we also enjoy one at a macroscopic level – with God!  Jesus teaches a lot about this in John’s gospel but we are not accustomed to thinking about our interaction with God in this way, largely because our thinking has become so individualistic.  But consider the impact of the following verses, all from John when viewed from the standpoint of a committed, interacting, mutual relationship with God:

I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you (14:20).  Is Jesus really in us in the same way that he is in the Father?  Linking these statements in this way makes it appear he believes so.  Does it really mean that being ‘in Christ’ effectively invites us through him to participate in the nature and essence of the Trinity?

Abide in me, and I will abide in you… apart from me, you can do nothing (15:4-5).  Jesus’ teaching on the vine makes it clear that unless the branch stays connected to the vine, it can’t hope to survive, let alone bear good fruit.  Branches don’t dip in and out as they choose.  They are intimately and permanently interconnected, allowing the sap to flow continuously, not just when they feel the need for it.

Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him (6:56).  Eating and drinking is a reference using physical sustenance as a metaphor for spiritual life.  It parallels the sap from the vine.  It’s not about the need to take communion regularly so much as the constant communion of looking to Jesus as the source of our being (Acts 17:28).  Compare the English idiom ‘that’s meat and drink to me.’[3]

Whoever believes in me, from his belly shall flow rivers of living water (7:38).  This verse has echoes of the river seen in Ezekiel’s vision (Ezekiel 47:7-12) and foreshadows the one in the new Jerusalem (Revelation 22:1-2).  It is not a pathetic trickle or an intermittently dripping tap, it is a powerful, life-giving and permanent watercourse which symbolises the interconnectedness of our life with the Holy Spirit.

As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you (20:21).  In this, John’s version of the Great Commission, Jesus links his sending to the Father’s.  As the Father sent, Jesus sends; as Jesus went, so do we.  We are united in ministry with the Trinity.

This gives us a new view of the intimacy and togetherness of our relationship with God.  What does it mean for each of us as we go into meetings, hold conversations, shop and eat?  It means that God is with us in everything that we think, say and do, not just in the times of prayer and ministry.  We face those difficult situations together with God.  When we walk into a room, God walks in with us.  Into every situation we take with us the love of the Father, the grace of Jesus, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 13:14).  Let us reflect on how that knowledge may change our sense of isolation and disempowerment in difficult situations.

To become more human means to become less human!

 


[1] references are available on request as they are too numerous to quote!

[2] Gary Huffnagle, University of Michigan Ann Arbor

[3] Oxford Dictionary: be a source of great pleasure to; be a customary matter for – “but the high balls to the front two were meat and drink to the big Partick defenders, and Thistle soon hit back to deadly effect.” (The Sun, 2002)

Start the year with prayer

SpurgeonPrayer pulls the rope below, and the bell rings above in the ears of God.  Some scarcely stir the bell for they pray so languidly.  Others give an occasional pluck at the rope, but he who wins with heaven is the man who grabs the rope boldly and pulls continuously with all his might. (C H Spurgeon)

As we start out on a new year, what better way than to begin with prayer?  It is only through prayer that we discern God’s direction and purposes, and while the secular world may preoccupy itself with new year resolutions for a week or two, each of us engaged in a mission for God needs to follow God’s instructions for the important steps we have to take.

Prayer is at the heart of all our activity.  We know that Jesus spent time alone in prayer at importance stages in his ministry, and yet so few of us follow his example.  My church, like many others, is starting January with a week of prayer, and I intend to take the opportunity to set time aside to listen to God for the future of Syzygy, and I invite you to join me to do the same for your ministries.

How often do we make a significant amount of time for prayer?  Most of us spend a few minutes at a time, or some emergency prayers for help when we find ourselves in difficulty, but how often are we, like Mary, to be found at the feet of Jesus listening to his words – even to the distraction of some of our colleagues who think we do not do enough work!  We are far more likely to be like Martha, toiling away diligently for him, which in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as it doesn’t actually take us away from Jesus.

Spurgeon’s great quote above reminds us of the need for determination, persistence and energy in prayer.  How can we achieve this when our church, work and home lives are all demanding time and attention of us?  Surely, not all of us have the luxury of setting aside great chunks of our lives for prayer?  I think few of us would think that Jesus did not have pressures and demands on his time and attention, yet he seemed to make time for it.  Perhaps it’s because we’ve lost the understanding that prayer is crucial to the effectiveness of our ministries and the fruitfulness of our lives.  Here are some of Syzygy’s top tips for developing a prayerful life:

  • Start and end each day focussing on God.
  • Pray before you start your work, and invite God into your busyness.  Focus your attention on God and remind yourself that He’s the reason you’re in this ministry.
  • Two or three times a day (more if you can manage it) pause in your work to remember God, ask for his help, and thank him for equipping you to do your work.
  • If you have colleagues, meet together regularly for a short time of prayer.
  • Create at least an hour a week for a time of unhurried prayer.
  • Set aside a significant time each week, month and year to get away and be alone with God.  Arrange for others to cover your responsibilities so you can get away.
  • Don’t be slow to communicate prayer requests to others.

Prayer is the boiler room in which we stoke the great fires which power our ministry.  The more we shovel, the more energy we generate!

Syzygy has a number of intercessors committed to prayer for mission.  If you would like them to pray for a particular issue, or if you are willing to join this band of heavenly bellringers, please email prayer@syzygy.org.uk.

I am a leaf on the wind… watch how I soar!

Photo by Jamie Harris from FreeImages

At this time of year in the northern hemisphere, the colours of leaves turn to red, gold and brown, creating a magnificent kaleidoscope across the woodlands.  For many of us it is our favourite time of year, as we admire the glorious views and kick our way through piles of dry fallen leaves.  On a clear day, with a light breeze, it is possible to see a leaf wafting through the air and be amazed at its lightness and agility.

Although the title of this week’s blog, borrowed from Joss Whedon’s epic sci-fi film Serenity, sounds more Zen than Christian, it mirrors Jesus’ inscrutable saying in John 3:8 – The wind blows where it wills: you hear the sound of  it, but you don’t know where it’s coming from or where it’s going.  It’s like that with those who are born of the Spirit.

Those of us who are born of the Spirit are like leaves on the wind.  Others don’t understand our attitudes and motivations, or our hope for the future.  Often we may feel like we don’t know where we’re going but think we are being driven along by the tide of circumstances, though in fact we are being borne along in the arms of the Spirit.  As we whirl through life’s ups and downs we may feel more confused than guided.  Yet the Spirit knows where he is taking us.

Autumn, however, always comes to an ignominious end, with those gloriously wafted leaves lying decomposing in a sodden, driven heap underneath a hedge somewhere.  How can we avoid that happening in our lives?

We need to be light.  Gravity pulls the leaves to the ground, but the lighter they are, the longer they seem to float.  Three things make a leaf heavy: its own nutrients, rain, and dirt.

A leaf that is weighed down by the moisture and sugars that it has been producing all summer is unnecessarily heavy.  If it has been untimely ripped from its tree by strong winds it will not have had the chance to return all that goodness to the tree, and become a light hollow shell.  John the Baptist said ‘He must increase, but I must decrease’ (John 3:30) and a little later Jesus said ‘Only the Spirit gives life; human strength can achieve nothing ’ (John 6:63).  We must make less and less of our passions and desires, so that Christ can become more in us.

Rain symbolises life’s circumstances.  Heavy rain can drive leaves from the trees.  Soggy leaves don’t soar.  Life’s hardships can make us cynical, and cause us to focus on the challenges we face rather than the glorious creator God who is with us in the midst of them.  When this happens, we need to remind ourselves that nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39).

The dirt of being part of this fallen world rubs off onto us on a daily basis as we go through life.  What we see and hear around us affects us, can lure us into compromise.  We can become attuned to ungodly attitudes and values around us.  At times like these we need to come back to Jesus to be made clean, and remember that we are called to be holy, just as God is holy (1 Peter 1:14-16).

In addition to making sure we are as light as possible, we need to become attuned to the Holy Spirit in our lives, to be able to listen to the still, small voice, and understand where we are being taken so that we don’t fight it, but let go of ourselves and trust in God’s tender mercy.  Only then will we be truly able to soar in the Spirit.

Jesus rescues us from God?

rob-bellOne of the attention-grabbing statements in Rob Bell’s book Love Wins, published a couple of years ago, was the statement that ‘Jesus rescues us from God’.  Bell loves these potentially controversial yet thought-provoking sayings, and while this may on the surface sound ridiculous, put into the context of the surrounding paragraph, it might superficially seem to make sense:

Many have heard the gospel framed in terms of rescue.  God has to punish sinners, because God is holy, but Jesus has paid the price for our sin, and so we can have eternal life.  However true or untrue that is technically or theologically, what it can do is subtly teach us that Jesus rescues us from God.

But in doing so, Bell has revealed his lack of Trinitarian thinking.  Steve Chalke did the same a few years ago, when an evangelical storm in a teacup blew up around his suggestion that God might have been guilty of cosmic child abuse by beating up his own son on the cross.  Neither of them intended to communicate that they really believed what they said, but they both inadvertently ignited some controversy.

What these two, and countless other Christians in recent years have started to do, is think of the Father (aka God), Jesus and the Holy Spirit as separate people.  This is understandable given that we classically formulate the Trinity as ‘God in three persons’.  But a person today is an individual, whereas 1700 years ago when the word ‘person’ was first used in this context, identity was far more rooted in community, family and relationship than individuality.

That means that the Christian Fathers who thrashed out the orthodox definition of Trinity were thinking more of three ‘persons’ in relationship, in community, together, rather than three individuals.  But in our individualistic culture the imagery of the Trinity is stretched almost to breaking point, as we find it hard to conceive of three ‘persons’ in one being, unless it is evidence of a personality disorder.  The postmodern church has become functionally tritheistic, simply because it is, on the surface, easier to reconcile.

But Bell is wrong: Jesus does not rescue us from God because Jesus is God.  Chalke is wrong: God did not beat up Jesus; God took the beating personally on the cross.

Trinitarian believers need to learn to see God in Jesus as much as we see Jesus in us.  Jesus had a very high Christology: He who has seen me has seen the Father (John 14:9).  I am in the Father and the Father is in me. (John 14:11).  I am the Father are one (John 10:30).  In this latter verse the Greek implies one thing or one substance, rather than the more metaphorical being of one heart and mind.

Not only did Jesus self-identify with the Father, he co-acted with the Father  – The Son can do nothing by himself… Whatever the Father does, the Son also does the same (John 5:20) and he co-spoke with the Father – I do not speak on my own initiative… I speak what the Father told me (John 12:49-50).

Even more radically, he then goes on to include to include us in this relationship of being and acting – I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you (John 14:20).  Remain in me, and I will remain in you (John 15:4).

And his missional mandate includes us too: God seeking the lost in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:9) becomes Jesus seeking and saving the lost (Luke 19:10) becomes our mandate in the Father and the Son: As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you (John 20:21), empowered by the Holy Spirit, who abides with you, and will be in you (John 15:17).

When we see ourselves as part of this Trinitarian missio dei – God’s outreach to the world – we will find ourselves truly commissioned, sent, indwelt and inspired by the living God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.